Deb Margolin is a woman of many, incredible talents: playwright, professor, mother, and solo performer. She was founding member of the feminist Split Britches theatre company and has written numerous plays and solo pieces. Her play Imagining Madoff was produced by Theater J in 2011. She returns to DC to perform her newest piece 8 STOPS at Unexpected Stage, opening Saturday, July 16. —
How would you describe 8 STOPS? What’s your elevator pitch?
That’s so funny; I was asked by a granting organization to summarize the show in eight words, isn’t that so perfect? It is “a comedy concerning the Grief of Endless Compassion.” It’s about motherhood. It’s about love. And it’s about death.
My theory as a playwriting teacher is that all plays are about love and all plays are about death. That’s what we write about. Anything else is subsidiary.
How did you get involved with Chris Goodrich and Unexpected Stage?
Chris was in the original production of Three Seconds in the Key in February 2001. I was an Artist in Residence at NYU, and he came to my workshop prior to the production, which led to him being in the show. We connected all these years later, and we endeavored to work together. So here we are with 8 STOPS.
You mentioned “The Grief of Endless Compassion.” You use the term multiple times in the play and describe it as something shared by both you and your son. What does that mean?
It’s an anthropomorphic feeling for everything: every dog, cat, insect, even things. I talk in the show about how my son would apologize to things for throwing them in the garbage. I wasn’t much help with that. I was the voices for everything my children spoke to. My son would look up at the sky and say, “Cloud?” and I would say, “Yes?” So one time – this is extraordinary – I decided to get a little creative and serve him something for dinner other than the usual child fare: a piece of salmon. And he looked at it and said, “fish?” So the fish (me) said “yes?” And he asked, “is it okay I eat you?” And the fish said, “well, I guess it’s alright.” So he said, “well, fish don’t live very long, but I’m a little boy, and I’ll grow up to be a man. I will. And if I eat you, you can live on through me!”
That’s what I’m talking about. And we don’t kill insects in our house. We evacuate them to the “outer lobby,” so they can go on with their careers as best they can. And it hurts to constantly feel what every creature, insect, animal, object, person feels. There is painfulness to that, and there is a great beauty in that, an ornate beauty.
You also talk a great deal about death in 8 Stops. How does that fit in?
When he was young, my son envisioned death as eternal consciousness in darkness: no sound, no light, no feeling. I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and when I had a stem cell transplant, that’s actually what it was like. It was just a period of nothing. Illness is boring: a kind of boredom that cannot be defined or described. So, his vision of death was actually something I experienced in my life. At the same time that his fear of death was alive and well, I was experiencing it as a living person fighting for my life. And that’s what the play navigates: those two worlds.
Do you think this concept of “Grief of Endless Compassion” is a unique trait or something that is more universal? Or is it maybe innate in all of us, but many ignore it or push it away?
That’s what I think – your last option. I think people block it out. It’s too much information. It’s too much to feel that much all of the time.
Returning to this theme of death. There is a phrase that you often return to that I really love: ambition is an immune response to mortality. How did that play into your experience with cancer?
Thank you for asking me that. I was determined not to fade out. I used certain aspects of my identity to hold on to some sense of who I was. I had turned purple. My hair had fallen out. I had no fingernails or toenails. A stem cell transplant, sounds like “oh, just a few cells,” but it is very high doses of chemotherapy, and if you’re lucky, these stem cells go back in and bail you out. It’s pretty dramatic.
Every morning, the entire medical team – a social worker, the chief stem cell doctor, his residents, students, and so on – this whole team would troop into my room. And I told them on one of these mornings that I had a monologue I wanted to perform for them. So, I had planned to stand up and do this monologue, because that’s a part of my identity: I’m a performer, an actor, a monologist. But I couldn’t stand. I didn’t have the strength. So I knelt in my bed – bald and purple – and performed a monologue for this bewildered group of medical professionals. After the first few minutes, I stopped because they were just staring at me, and I said, “you know, you can laugh. This is funny!” But it was me clinging to my identity. It was ambition being an immune response to mortality in a very literal sense. I never enacted that idea so clearly as when I was closer to death than life.
But as I’ve recovered, I could see this principle in a wider frame. I keep aspiring and aspiring because I’m holding onto this life. I think so many of us block out the brevity of this life by true action, true ambition, to our little efforts in the world – when in fact it’s all so tenderly trivial. Life is terribly brief. And each of us is so tiny. That question has taken on increasing relevance as I age and live my life.
When did you write 8 Stops?
The visionary Jay Wahl, Artistic Programmer at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, invited me to be a part of the Dael Orlandersmith Writing Residency in December of 2013. A bunch of writers were invited to be paid to meet in the morning, meet in the evening, and then write all day. I was paid to just sit in a room and write! And the basic fabric of this play was written during that nine-day period.
The piece was then commissioned by the Kimmel for a full production in May of 2014, and I asked Jay to direct it. Collaborating with him is amazing. He has an intelligence that is extraordinary. It’s visionary, accommodating, and full of heart. That’s how this piece began.
closes July 31, 2016
Details and tickets
I have become increasingly dependent and in love with having a director. A director is a physical dramaturg. As a young person, I would rehearse in front of the cat, and the audience would be my dramaturg and my director. I have gotten very spoiled by the brilliance of the directors I have worked with.
As a playwriting teacher, I know that just because you write something doesn’t mean you understand it. You have to grow into an understanding of what you’re doing as a writer. And then to perform what you’ve written – it doesn’t help that you’ve written it. In fact, that can make it even more challenging. So, to have an intuitive person who is a physical dramaturg, and who can see more than you do, is key. That’s the role I play for my students, and it’s the role a director plays for me. It’s such a luxury. I’ve become very enamored by and dependent on it, really. It saves a lot of time.
You also write plays for numerous actors like Imagining Madoff, but you’ve said, “solo performance is to the stage what the close up is to the film; you just go very deep.” Tell me more. What do you like about solo work?
Solo work enables you to drop in very deeply.
I discovered solo performance when the woman from Dixon Place called and said, “would you like to do a solo show at my theatre,” and I said, “No.” And she said, “well, would you like to do it on the 13th or the 29th?” So, I said, “Okay, fine, the 29th,”and then I had to do it! And I was like, “oh my god, what took me so long?” I was able to drop down way deep and go further than was even reasonable with ideas that were compelling to me exclusively.
I think solo performance is an outcropping of the third wave feminist movement. At that time, women’s voices were not heard in the theatre. (The plays) were written by men. So, women finally broke away and began to tell stories where they could: in attics and basements. It was the ascendance and importance of the individual voice in story. And I rode in on that wave with Split Britches first, and then by discovering my own passion for speech.
I tell my students to ask themselves: what can I not die without having talked about? That’s the place I go, because when I speak of those things, I will always be resonant, and I will always be passionate. I will always be original.
And with that, Deb had to run off to tech rehearsal. Be sure to check out 8 STOPS running July 14 through July 31, 2016, at Unexpected Stage at the Randolph Road Theater in Wheaton, Maryland. It will no doubt be worth the extra effort getting out there!