Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Hand That Guides "Madwoman"

Director Lisa Peterson during the first read through of The Madwoman in the Volvo.
Director Lisa Peterson has worked with The Madwoman in the Volvo since the script’s early days and brought what playwright Sandra Tsing Loh calls a dramaturgical sense to directing—helping the play’s development through readings and workshops, ahead of the world premiere at South Coast Repertory. We caught up with her ahead of rehearsals for a quick conversation.

How did you get involved with The Madwoman in the Volvo?
I was put together with Sandra and this play in 2013 at the Sundance Institute Theatre Program’s Theatre Lab at MASS MoCA [editor’s note: the Sundance program fosters the production of new art through workshops that support playwrights, directors, composers and librettists]. She had submitted to them the idea of turning her book (The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones) into a play.

At that point, she really hadn’t begun the adaptation, so the first few weeks I worked with her to see if the book felt like it wanted to make the transfer to stage and to find what was dramatic in it. Then we just continued working on it, including a workshop at the Ojai Playwrights Conference and a reading at the 92nd Street Y.

What excites you most about the play?
I love how frank, honest and funny it is! It’s rare to find a female midlife crisis story, but she’s so relatable when she talks about what it’s like to fall in love, leave your family and husband and move off in another direction. When Sandra exposes this part of her life to us, she doesn’t mince words and doesn’t try to make herself look good—but she is very, very funny!

There is also a standup element to it—maybe even a rock ‘n’ roll feel—because it’s got a lot of energy.

How has the play developed?
This actually is the first time that Sandra has written a piece where other actors will work with her, like an improvised jam session. While she’s out front, the actors help tell the story and portray men, women, older people and kids. Sandra has audiences in the palm of her hand through her wry, self-effacing wit.  

A key part of this play is Burning Man. She told me that she blew up her life there and that sounded hilarious and wild. The festival is where people take the things they want to get rid of in life and burn them up in “The Man.”

On stage, we have created a visual world that includes Burning Man elements, like metal trusses that reference festival sculptures. Sandra spends a lot of time out front by a stool and microphone telling her story, so it’s a kind of pub-like performance space that meets Burning Man.

What’s it like working with a performer-playwright?
It can be hard to wear both a writer’s hat and a performer’s hat. When you’re writing a book, you use a literary voice; when writing a play, you need things to feel more like an improvisation. We worked to carve out time out for Sandra during rehearsal so that she could be the writer and then time when she could be an actor.

What do you hope the audience will come away with after the show?
There’s a lot of fun and surprise in this play and I hope audiences can enjoy, empathize, commiserate and identify with the story. I think everybody will have a good time and come away with a new perspective on what menopause might be. But this story also is about a midlife crisis because Sandra follows her radical impulses. I hope that people will see what positive things can come out of the fire. 

What three words describe The Madwoman in the Volvo?
Funny. Honest. Frank. Clear-eyed. Okay, that’s more than three.

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