Margot Bordelon DRA ’13, Mary Laws DRA ’14 and Alex Ripp DRA ’13 created ‘This.’, a Cabaret show based on interviews with New Haven residents. The question they asked was simple: “can you tell me about a moment in your life when everything changed?” WEEKEND was able to catch up with two of the three creators — Bordelon and Laws — to discuss this (or ‘This.’)
Q. How did it feel interviewing people about such personal themes, and how did you get them to open up?
ML. We started with basic questions, but sometimes these warm-up questions would open up things that were very personal to people. We found that people were excited to share stories even though they knew they were going to be on stage. Part of that was because we kept all the interviews anonymous. An audience member who had a story in the show said it was exciting to see something articulated on stage that they maybe weren’t free to share themselves.
MB. It was really amazing for us. We talked to 40 people for an hour each, and you can learn a lot about a person in an hour. We asked warm-up questions like — where are you from and what were you like as a kid — because we wanted them to trust us and know we weren’t trying to exploit them.
Q. And how did you go about the process of finding people to interview?
MB. We sent out emails to all the graduate schools, and the Cabaret sent out emails to its subscribers. We set up a [public] anonymous email account so people could email us [their details to set up an interview], and we posted flyers in the city with both email addresses.
ML. There was never a night with less than two or three audience members who had stories in the show. That made it feel very live in the room because the person sitting next to you could be the person that was “on stage”.
Q. You had a lot of material to work with. How did you go about transforming that into a play?
ML. A lot of coffee and very little sleep. I was sent away with [the transcribed interviews] for two weeks to sift through everything. At the end, the draft had different kinds of stories — some life-changing and some smaller. We wanted to say that because you’ve held on to these memories, no matter large or small, we think they’re important because they’re a part of how you define yourself.
MB. Logistically, we made lists of all the connecting themes – stories about people who lost their cats, jewelry, loved ones.
ML. It was amazing how much crossover there was and how much you have in common with another person without even realizing it.
Q. What has it felt like living and studying in New Haven?
MB. It has been challenging, and I miss living in the big city of Chicago. But I’m sure I’ll look back on this time and romanticize it as a quiet oasis. I wish I had more time to really understand New Haven rather than it feeling like a transitory place, and that was part of how this project grew.
Q. How did the project start?
MB. Even after spending two years at the School of Drama, I felt intensely isolated, like I didn’t know people as well I’d like to and people didn’t know me. You can work with people on a show every day for two months and think you know them. And then you realize you don’t know some basic things about them, like what their parents do, stories from their childhood or events in their life that have shaped them. For me, it really started from that and getting to know people beyond conversations about theatre and who they are as artists. We talked about how film and TV are so fantastic to reach a broader audience, but the power of theatre is that you can create a show in dialogue with audience. That was a lot of the work I was doing in Chicago and in part, what made me fall in love with the city. So I guess this was also an attempt to fall in love with New Haven more.
ML. Definitely. Once you know someone’s story, it’s easy to fall in love with them. And when you know a lot of people’s stories, it’s easy to fall in love with the place.
Q. Looking back to the beginning, what drew you to the Yale School of Drama in the first place?
ML. Professor Paula Vogel — she’s a genius. I love the way she teaches playwriting, but they only accept three playwrights a year, so I had to apply to Yale three times in a row until they were so annoyed that they had to let me in. I also love the way students collaborate here. Margot’s a student director, and I’m a student playwright, and we were able to work together and foster a relationship. When we leave, hopefully Margot and I will do every project together!
MB. I’m going to hold you to that! I wanted to come here and work with Paula Vogel, which I’m doing now! It’s the one drama school in the country that has students in all disciplines, including designers, who are working really hard here, like they’re going through designer boot camp.
ML. They’re badasses! Can you say that in the Yale Daily News?
Q. Because you were dealing with the stories of real people, were you ever scared of being insensitive?
MB. We tried to be really sensitive. Over 90 percent of the script is verbatim. It was important to us that we never change the intention of the stories. [The interviewees] gave us a gift, and we wanted to give them a gift back, not saying something that would make them regret giving us their stories.
Q. Christopher Arnott, a reviewer from the New Haven Theatre Jerk, wrote “[‘This.’] is not a show for egos, for folks who feel they have deeper problems than others.” What are your thoughts on that?
MB. I think that quote is apt, in so far as there was no interviewee that was the star of the show. The reviewer [who was also interviewed for ‘This.’] had some great stories, which were whittled down to a few words. That’s the heartbreak of a piece like this — you end up getting so many good stories and you think, I could make five shows out of this. It’s hard to not be precious about that stuff, but you have the logistics.
Q. What about the presentational style?
MB. I’d call it a collage piece, if I had to put a label on it.
ML. We wanted to create a sense of a universe of people instead of one or two primary characters that you follow all the way. We had a group of beautiful, talented actors in the ensemble that transformed into dozens of characters each.
Q. How did you prevent the show from becoming too dark given your themes of loss, fracture and regret?
ML. I tried to select some stories that were humorous. I think the joy was in the shared experience and in understanding that the things you lost were a part of your life for a reason. You can celebrate that as opposed to mourning it.
MB. Also, the way Mary structured the play was that some stories had their first parts in the first half and their conclusions in the second. So in the first half, we got to see people’s relationships with [what they loved], like a wonderful stuffed elephant they made in kindergarten and the happiness and joy of loving them. And that is where the humorous tone comes from.
Q. Did either of you include your own experiences in the play?
ML. At the very end of the play, we had a wall of projections to try and include as many people as possible in the play. And I included one of my stories in the projections.
MB. Should we claim the Fifth Amendment? We’ll never tell!