Between The Lines: An American Daughter

Pictured (L to R): Richard Poe, Stephen Kunken, Diane Davis, Jason Danieley. Photograph by Daniel Rader.

BETWEEN THE LINES – AN AMERICAN DAUGHTER: A weekly look at the creative process through a literary lens. 

An American Daughter premiered on Broadway nearly 20 years ago. WTF playwright-in-residence Harrison David Rivers sat down with Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield and director Evan Cabnet to talk about the legacy of Wendy Wasserstein and her play.

What is it about Wendy and her work that speaks to you and inspires you?

[MANDY GREENFIELD] When I was in college I read what turned out to be a pretty famous anecdote that Wendy told about her time at Yale School of Drama. At the first reading of her play Uncommon Women and Others, a male classmate complained, “I just can’t get into this.” There she was — the lone woman among a dozen men studying playwriting and their male teachers — and she was immediately faced with this instant dismissal of the concerns of her work. In an environment where you would expect receptivity and a space that was safe for exploration, she found the opposite. There was something paralyzing about reading that story as a young woman in the `90s. I was coming of age at a time when, owing to the bravery of women who came before me, I wasn’t aware of any obstacles in the way for women in the theater, women writers, women’s voices. But reading Wendy’s anecdote woke me up – arguably the most successful, living female playwright at the time felt her work wasn’t heard, wasn’t seen with the same importance or significance of her male colleagues’ work. Cut to a couple of years later: being in a Broadway theatre experiencing An American Daughter right after graduating from college and moving to New York. Experiencing the play’s cry, its pain, its humor, and its almost singular interest in the interior experience of successful women in this country. I realized Wendy still did not feel fully heard. In 2016, that’s what I want to do: give Wendy’s fearless excavation of her characters’ experiences the attention it is due –  especially this year.

[HDR] There’s something especially meaningful about doing this play in 2016.

[MG] It’s a very beautiful conflation of the world and art when you arrive at a moment like this. This play has something to say about the complexity of being a woman in power, and we are producing it in the year of a presidential election with a female presidential nominee. Ultimately, I actually think the play is less interested in the politics than it is in trying to lay bare the heroic, complicated, and profound grace, intelligence, and dignity it takes a woman to seek and achieve a position of power.

DanielRader_AnAmericanDaughter_Rehearsal_07.27.16_003 (gs)Pictured (L to R): Stephen Kunken and Diane Davis. Photograph by Daniel Rader.

[EVAN CABNET] As a director, when you’re considering doing a revival, you always think: what does this play say to a contemporary audience? Why are we doing this play now? Sometimes you have to really think about it, but every word of this play speaks to the moment in a way that is undeniable. I couldn’t believe that what Wendy was talking about in 1997 is almost exactly the conversation that we’re having in 2016. Thinking about how far we have come and how far we have not – I find it really exciting and curious and, quite frankly, shocking.

[MG] Part of our charge is to see how older texts speak to audiences today. The challenge of creating a revival production is to see how texts can be cracked open anew and speak to contemporary audiences. But to rise to that challenge, and to do it well, you first have to ask, “do we have the instruments that we need?” In Evan, we have a director who has the intellectual heft and the theatrical sophistication to wrestle with Wendy’s text; he has the sensitivity and humor to work with the actors to fuse a real humanity and heart to the work.

[HDR] Evan, you were here last summer directing William Inge’s Off the Main Road. This is the second time in two years that you and Mandy have tackled a play that belongs to one of our great playwrights, but isn’t necessarily their best known work.

[EC] Mandy and I have similar tastes in terms of our desire to maybe look more closely at works that are less canonical. It would be easier from a curatorial standpoint to program plays that audiences have seen many times before – but Mandy and I both share an interest in looking a bit deeper. Williamstown has always been a home for that kind of thinking, which is incredibly important for the American theatre. As a director, it’s as meaningful a task as you can get.

[MG] My background is in new work, and yet there is something exhilarating about looking at new work in the context of the work that came before it and that work’s legacy. Boo Killebrew’s Romance Novels For Dummies will happen on the main stage right before Wendy Wasserstein’s An American Daughter. How many great comedic, dramatic female voices has our country produced? A lot. But how many are really known? Wendy is known and, I humbly submit, Boo will be known.

[EC] Williamstown is a creative hotbed that is unlike anything else we have in this country. Just look at the programming: Tennessee Williams, Boo Killebrew, and Wendy Wasserstein all on the same stage? It’s an interlacing of work that just doesn’t exist elsewhere. It’s very inspiring.