News & Articles

The Things We Carry

by Anna D. Shapiro and Terry Kinney

Two Steppenwolf directors discuss what we inherit, what we pass on, and the ghosts that come along for the ride Ensemble members Anna D. Shapiro and Terry Kinney often commiserate with one another about the plays they are working on but they both hate talking on the phone. The only thing they hate more than the phone is a staged interview. So we asked them to do what they would usually do if they want to communicate with one another about anything: put it in an email. The following is a series of emails that, like most of their correspondence, covers a bit more than their intended topic and heads off into unexpected directions. Anna D. Shapiro: So, I’m sitting here at the East of Eden reading for the staff (the script sounds great!) and I’m struck by the line, “Don’t use your ancestry as an excuse.” I mean, I think I do that all the time. I guess I feel like it’s a legitimate defense for some of my considerable shortcomings. Do you do that? Terry Kinney: Yeah, of course I do. I attribute my reactions, behavior, moods, to my Irishness or my Catholic upbringing, or my parents’ closed-mindedness, or their fears blah blah blah. It’s a handy way not
to change ourselves. Not that DNA doesn’t play on us. My favorite thinker, James Hillman, talks about the “blueprint” that puts us into our destinies, on or off of our “paths.” Breaking imprinted and inherited traits is hard work, but it’s sure worth doing. We have a choice, yeah, but our instincts don’t always want us to, you know? AS: That makes me think of the heart of the play. In the story, two of the young characters—brothers—are deeply affected by the relationship that their own father had with his brother even though they weren’t even born yet—they never saw it and in this production neither do we— and yet it’s the engine that drives them and much of what we do see. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just inevitable that we get recruited into the wars of our parents but then other times I think it’s not that mysterious and that there’s actual messaging throughout our lives that tells us who we are supposed to be or side with, essentially if we want to survive. Do you think it passes down magically? TK: Well, the father Adam carries the brutal memories of that relationship, and never really releases himself from the guilt he felt being loved by the father that never loved his brother. So he also believes he deserved the hatred and violence his brother hurled at him. What the father carries, his sons absorb. It’s in their blood and in the air. They sponge his grief, and sadly the very thing Adam resented most in his own father—being the sole recipient of his love, is also passed along to his own sons, one of whom he can’t bring himself to love. Is this karmic, in some way, connected to a collective unconscious that messages our fates? Or are we born with this story imprinted in our bloodline? Our wars get passed along no matter the dark places we try to hide them, yeah. AS: Another huge thing the play is dealing with is the idea of good and evil, or, more accurately, good vs. evil. I must admit, this has been an obsession of mine for most of my life: not only do I constantly ask myself if I’m being “good,” I think I take comfort in the idea that life is that manageable, that it can be reduced to a simple binary equation. Is that idea present for you in your own life? TK: The mythos of good and, evil of course, follows all of us, and the pressures we carry from nature and nurture and whatever both guide and restrict our lives, I think. I like the Jungian idea of the white knight, the black knight and the red knight. The white knight has a very clear if narrow view of his path, based on the need to be purely “good”. He’s the knight running around saving everyone. The black knight is, well, Darth Vader comes to mind. He is all shadow and no light. The red knight is simply the white knight after swallowing his own shadow. That, to me, is human. Struggling, flawed, but conscious. I mostly struggle to be my real self, and carry that forward for better and for worse. AS: I also wonder, bearing that all in mind, if you as a founder of the theater find it more complicated to return here to work. I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of legacy as it relates to the play and quite frankly how it relates to us as company. I mean, we throw around the word “family” a lot—weirdly, I think people somehow think of it as a catch-all for all complicated relationships between people that to the outside world may seem untenable. I don’t feel like that about being a part of this company—maybe because I choose to be here so I feel like anything not-so-great that happens to me here is pretty much my responsibility. I’m less likely to be that mature when it comes to Sunday brunch at my mom’s. Do you feel freer here? More encumbered? Are there ghosts? TK: Oh. Ha ha there are ghosts for sure. Letting go of being an arbiter of the immediate destiny of this place left me looking for places to have that kind of input and influence. I sort of shifted myself. I never wanted to police the changes, the sizable changes at the core of the company. And I was never cut out in our company to simply follow. We started it to form it, develop it, grow it. I still have those strong impulses, so there was a letting go. It’s a child of mine, however grown up. But I think time has allowed me to look at it for what it is—what it has become, which is an entirely different place, one that I truly admire, am in awe of now. So that allows me to feel free in the rehearsal room as a trusted artist and a fellow traveler. I don’t know if I answered the question... AS: No, you did! And can I say how glad I am that you’re back? Ghosts and all.