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Directing McPherson

by ensemble members Amy Morton and Randall Arney

Ensemble member Randall Arney directs Steppenwolf’s production of The Seafarer by Conor McPherson. McPherson’s play Dublin Carol runs concurrently in the Upstairs Theatre and is directed by ensemble member Amy Morton. They spoke with Associate Artistic Director David New and shared their experiences directing Conor McPherson’s work.
David New: Both of you have previously directed productions of The Weir by Conor McPherson: Amy here at Steppenwolf and Randy at Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, where you are the Artistic Director. Do you want to talk a bit about your experiences with The Weir? Randall Arney: OK! Do you want to go first, Amy? Amy Morton: No, you go first! [laughter] RA: Ohhh, well I’ll start by saying that I’m really excited to be working on another Conor McPherson play. Specifically I’m really happy because I got to do The Weir with John (Mahoney) and Fran (Guinan), and it’s going to be great to do another McPherson play with those guys, you know? It’s going to be so much fun to work with John, Fran, Al (Wilder) and Tom (Irwin). This cast has thirty to thirty-five years of history with each other, which matches the depth of the history these characters have with each other. What I have found so—what? not fun—so…reassuring as a director of Conor’s plays—and Amy can probably agree with this as well—is that he’s such a great storyteller. He has the patience to set the hook and then let the ensuing ride take us where we go. It’s really nice as a director with a group of actors to trust that you’re in the hands of such a good storyteller and that the ride is going to be multi-faceted. It’s going to be funny, it’s going to be harrowing, it’s going to be scary, it’s going to be dark, it’s going to be light. And if one is true to the moment-to-moment, then the cumulative momentum takes care of itself, because Conor is such a good creator of the story. AM: Exactly what he said! [laughter] Exactly what he said! DN: It’s interesting the way the storytelling develops over the course of the three plays, right? Because The Weir proceeds largely in monologue, and gradually through Dublin Carol and The Seafarer you see a shift towards more dialogue. AM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s still really interesting, though, that he keeps enough of the monologues in both of the plays to make it still very much the mark of McPherson. And I also love the fact that these two plays are so similar in many ways. They take place on the same night; they deal, as so much of McPherson’s work does, with tragic and ill figures. There’s so much alcoholism in his plays. And for me particularly, Dublin Carol is the perfect antidote to A Christmas Carol. I think it’s a direct response. You’ve got the ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Future both visiting this man, John. And his best friend, a Marley figure, is in the hospital dying, and I just…I love that. It’s just the saddest response to A Christmas Carol you could possibly imagine. RA: The Seafarer is an odd little Christmas Carol as well, I think. AM: And the fact that they’re going to be simultaneously playing, I think, is sort of brilliant. RA: It’s really brilliant. AM: “Welcome to Steppenwolf!” [laughter] RA: “Have a Merry Christmas!” [laughter] DN: A terribly sad alcohol-soaked Christmas Eve. [laughter] RA: One of the things I love about Conor and the Irish sensibility is his ability to comfortably allow very real people to coexist with the dead and the supernatural. AM: Oh, it’s great. He’s absolutely comfortable with the supernatural. There’s always some sort of ghost. It’s perfect. RA: As a result of that, I find him to be a really good ghost story writer. What happened at the end of The Weir, and will happen at the end of these plays, is similar to sitting around the campfire telling a ghost story. You get scared to death, and then look at each other kind of gleefully when the story is over…you’re reminded of your own humanity. DN: It’s great work for actors, right? I read a quote from McPherson recently. He said, “People have always said that the heart of drama is conflict. I find that there's enough conflict in one person to make a whole play — all those swings, the oscillation in the mind, the self-doubt, the uncertainty, the stupid courage, the terrible feelings of inadequacy — that's more than enough.” AM: Absolutely! The way he allows a character’s interior to be revealed in subtle and poignant ways, without fireworks, to me is sort of miraculous. RA: Yeah, that’s so true. The way we learn all the many facets of these people. They seem so different from us when we first meet them, perhaps, and yet as you said, Amy, it’s never forced, it’s always through very real means. AM: And through conversation. It’s never really through action. Two characters are talking to each other and something is revealed, whether on purpose or not, by one of the characters. RA: Exactly. It evolves naturally, and it’s always character-driven. AM: There’s also something about the fact that much of his work operates in real time, which I find wonderful to work on—to see somebody revealed completely in real time. RA: By the wee hours of the morning, when it’s six hours into drinking, the lubrication allows for an opening to the truth. For example at the end of The Weir, Jack tells a story about his life that he probably wouldn’t have shared with his buddies if he was sober. All of a sudden, Conor opens up a portal in him to the truth, and part of that is alcohol-related. DN: Amy, in Dublin Carol the drinking doesn’t occur at home. It occurs at work in a funeral parlor. Can you talk a little about the setting of the play? AM: Well, it’s an odd room. It is not the public area of the funeral area, it’s the private area, it’s the employees-only area. So it’s almost the green room of the funeral parlor. [laughter] It’s where they store shit, where there’s a couch, where there’s a little electric teakettle. And it’s very real. And sad. [laughter] There’s something just really worn and sad about the whole thing. RA: “The section of the funeral home that is employees-only” is really sad-sounding. [laughter] DN: In spite of Christmas decorations, or an attempt at them. AM: Exactly. Both plays have really sad-ass Christmas decorations. [laughter] RA: Yeah, we’re going to be competing for the saddest Christmas tree in Chicago. AM: The winner of that challenge is going to be mine, Randy! [laughter]