Michael John Garcés is no stranger to Washington, DC. Washington audiences will remember the 2013 production of The Convert, and before that, Oedipus El Rey. He directed both for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where he returns this season to bring us the world premiere of Chad Beckim’s Lights Rise on Grace, which opens March 30.
Garcés describes his 10+ year relationship with the company as “a very different relationship than I would have with other theatres. When you work with Woolly Mammoth, you’re involved in a deeper dialogue about why you’re doing the play. Usually I have a personal reason for working on any play I commit to, but it’s satisfying to be involved in a bigger, theatre-wide conversation about why we’re doing it. Why it’s important in the world right now, who we’re speaking to. And being involved with Howard and others about what our whole season is investigating. As an artist and company member, that’s exiting.”
The personal reason he cites for becoming involved in this piece? “The story being told in Lights Rise on Grace is deceptively simple,” he says. “It’s a love story. But it’s also about identity, and sexuality, and how a person builds themself and how they build family. It’s at the core of a massive dialogue happening all across America right now. The notion of family, and its legitimacy, is a very political thing.”
Though the upcoming production is the play’s world premiere, Lights Rise on Grace was named Outstanding Play for its workshop at the New York Fringe Festival in 2007, when it had already established a relationship with Woolly Mammoth.
The play traces the story of a daughter of Chinese immigrants who falls for the son of a combative African-American family in an inner-city high school—and in so doing, seeks to illuminate variations of normalcy that are too often cast in the shadows. “We tend to have a straightforward, clearly-defined norm in the public sphere of this country,” Garcés says. “And that’s just not reflective of human behavior.”
The otherness, isolation, and complex relationships presented in Lights Rise on Grace take a variety of shapes, but, notes Garcés, one of the most important aspects of the play is its willingness to explore seldom-seen connections. “The interpersonal relationships in this play aren’t conventionally seen onstage,” says Garcés, “at least not in America. Here, they’re explored in ways that are surprising.” He is referring to several relationships in Lights Rise, but most notably an African-American character who is married to a woman he loves and who is also drawn to men. “The way Chad deals with race is very interesting. He breaks down preconceived notions and challenges us to think about race and relationships in thought-provoking new ways.”
Playwright Chad Beckim has been integral to the process. Garcés reports they’ve had two workshops of the play over the past year – one in New York, and one here in Washington. Beckim has attended nearly every rehearsal, and quite a bit of the script has evolved since Garcés first read it. “We’re getting a better and better understanding of the specific character development,” he says, “and how to make their dramatic journey clearer and more extreme.”
The three cast members are all New York-based, and quickly took to the Woolly Mammoth style of doing things. “We have a cast who are all very open and willing and interested in taking risks, which is at the essence of Woolly’s aesthetic. That risk includes sometimes taking chances, risking failure, all of that—and this cast have been extremely game. Woolly does a good job of having people understand implicitly that taking risks is valuable and important, and this cast has been fantastic to work with in that way.”
In the rehearsal room, that creative risk-taking proved rewarding. “Before rehearsals begin, I try to understand the play as best I can. And then I bring as little preconception into the rehearsal room as I can manage,” says Garcés. “I want to understand the context, but still come into the room and be very open. That’s the only way to truly explore. And there have been a lot of small surprises as we’ve worked on this play.”
Garcés, who is the Artistic Director of the Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theatre Company and is sought-after by theatres across the country, says he feels lucky to direct for such diverse companies. “It’s a real privilege to work in so many contexts,” he says. “You start to see connections between theatre companies, and between specific plays as well.” He noted that a recent project at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia had some similarities to Lights Rise on Grace, like the breaking of the fourth wall, though they are used for different purposes in each work. “To be able to have so many opportunities to look back on is a real privilege. It’s that sense of constantly seeing, creating, exploring. It encourages you to push yourself, and to learn and grow. It’s that sense of constant challenge that helps keep you honest. . . both as an artist and a person.”