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A Playwright and a Director Walk into McGillicutty's

Edited by Steppenwolf Literary Intern Jenni Page-White. When David Lindsay-Abaire and K. Todd Freeman got on the phone for this interview, it was the first time playwright and director had talked with each other about the play. This excerpt from the conversation is a glimpse into the beginnings of a creative collaboration. David began by talking about the origins of the play. David Lindsay-Abaire: For a long time, I wanted to write about South Boston, which is where I grew up, but frankly I was terrified to write about the neighborhood. I wanted to make sure I could write about the people I grew up with respectfully. So they didn't, you know, come and get pissed off that I didn't tell the truth. And I kept hearing about British writers writing about class, and people kept asking "where are the new American plays about class?" And I thought, if I did write about class, it would probably be one of those horrible, didactic soapbox-y plays that I hate. (laughs) But then I went back to the Southie idea, and I thought if I did write about Southie, inevitably, class would bubble to the surface because that was such a part of the fabric of that neighborhood. K. Todd Freeman: As far as South Boston goes—how much has it retained its Irish self-identity in today’s gentrifying climate? DLA: It's hard to know. There are still some old-timers... There was a strange turn in the neighborhood after Good Will Hunting—Southie went main-stream in a way it wasn't before. That bar where he gets in a fight—that became a tourist attraction. KTF: (laughs) Right, right… DLA: All these “Irish bars” started opening. They weren't the dirty, nasty Irish bars that I grew up with—not that I grew up in bars. (laughs) You used to walk by and see guys stagger out and vomit in the gutter. Now, there are these, like McGillicutty's kind of fake chain Irish bars. So there's this weird sheen that the neighborhood has taken on. I heard they're trying to film all these reality shows set in South Boston, and they're looking for "real Southie people" but they're having an impossible time casting it, because the real Southie folks that remain are like, "Get outa here, we don’t want you filming in our neighborhood. I saw what you did to The Jersey Shore." The thing is, a lot of what people think about the neighborhood comes from 30-year old stereotypes that weren't even accurate 30 years ago. It's easy to focus on the big mouths, and easier to miss the big hearts that live in these people. You can hear it in the play, I hope. The women in particular: they are hilariously funny and so vicious, and yet underneath all that is a deep soulful heart that steers them. KTF: It's very important to me what you said about staying authentic to the people you grew up with, and honoring them and not making them caricatures. Those women, sitting around and talking to each other—staying true to who they are is so meaningful to me. DLA: It can so easily become a cartoon. KTF: Yeah, and you don't want that. The thing about those ladies, although it seems so specific to that neighborhood, those ladies are what I think makes this play so universal. I recognize those women from the neighborhoods I grew up in, the black neighborhood— my sisters, my mother and their friends sitting around and chatting. I immediately identified people I grew up with in those three ladies. That's why I think it’s a really great, universal play. DLA: Thank you, that's…reassuring. (laughs) Because when I wrote this play, I wondered—is it too specific? KTF: Well, people in general present themselves in a way that they want others to see them. And in particular, in this play people want to be seen as "good people." Mike's idea of how he came from the dregs of society in Old Harbor, and with his smarts, he fought and struggled his way up—presenting this story to his wife and the world is very important to him. So maybe he alters the history of that a little. But in Margie's eyes, it's a different story. It's not so dire how Michael grew up. So it varies from person to person—the choices we make to be seen as "good people" in other people’s eyes. DLA: I think that's ultimately why it became the title of the play. The more I wrote, the more the idea of "goodness" kept resurfacing. It started with—"good people" is a very common phrase in the neighborhood. It's a great compliment: "That guy's good people." It means you're "salt of the earth," you're true to yourself, you're trustworthy… But as I started working on the play more, the idea of goodness became a very malleable concept, and what it meant to be a "good person" kept changing. KTF: It brings up some really lovely questions when you try to put yourself in their situation. It's really fantastic the questions and conversation the play brings out in people. DLA: I didn't know it until it was in front of an audience—but it makes the play fun to watch. To sit there and feel the audience's allegiances shifting back and forth. KTF: It is fun. I say that it's deceptively simple. It's genius. Everything comes together in a little step here, and a little step there, and it just layers beautifully. DLA: Well that's nice, thank you. (pause) You’ll see how un-simple it is in rehearsal! KTF: (laughs) Well, that's why I say "deceptively." For me, I have to keep in mind what I should not know yet in the play. Because we know, we've read it, we know the end. But I have to remember my first experience in reading it—because you don't want to give anything away. DLA: I think the hardest thing about the play is letting what is ambiguous stay ambiguous without making it confusing. I think about Margaret in particular—allowing her to be unlikeable. We want the audience to empathize with her. But for me, it's okay if we don't like her for every second of the play. KTF: That's what I love about that character. She's not your usual protagonist. She's ugly—well, she's not ugly. She's complex and human and real. It's not black and white. I think we all are products of our past, our history. You bring baggage with you no matter where you go, no matter how you evolve. That's what your home is, it's what your parents are, it's what your genes are. You can't escape it. I think that's kind of what's great about life—even if it's the bad stuff. Sometimes we bring the bad stuff with us. DLA: Usually we bring the bad stuff with us. KTF: (laughs) Usually we do. And we keep trying to say that we're evolved, that we've grown out of that. But usually we haven't. DLA: I think that idea comes up in many of my plays. This play in particular is about not being able to escape who you are and where you come from. For Margaret, that's a very real thing because she literally can't escape the neighborhood. For Mike, he's left the neighborhood, and yet, his past defines who he is in the present. His past comes back in a very real way when Margaret walks back into his life. KTF: (laughs) That’s always when it does—at the worst possible time.