BWW Interview: Playwright Grace McLeod's National New Play Network journey with HERLAND
Playwright Grace McLeod's first professionally produced play HERLAND will have its last third of its three-part Rolling World Premiere at the Greenway Court (beginning yesterday May 30, 2019). We had the chance to ask Grace about the incredible year-long ride she's taken with HERLAND to arrive at the Los Angeles culmination.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Grace!
So, tell us how you first found out HERLAND was chosen as a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere?
I first found out that Redtwist Theatre in Chicago wanted to produce the play, which was huge for me. HERLAND is my first professionally produced play, so I was thrilled to be receiving one production, let alone three. Shortly after that, I got a call from MOXIE Theatre in San Diego, and then a couple months after that, Greenway Court Theatre came on board. When I heard back from Greenway Court and got the news that the play was now going to be a Rolling World Premiere, I freaked out. Three productions in one year?! I remember shrieking in the living room of my apartment while on the phone with my girlfriend. It was totally surreal.
What is the process in being in the running for a Rolling World Premiere?
A Rolling World Premiere comes together in bits and pieces, as each theater comes on board to produce the same new play. If three theaters within the National New Play Network all want to program the same play in their seasons, and the productions will all fall within one year of each other, the network provides support to the theaters and facilitates a "rolling" premiere. It's really an amazing way to develop a new play over the course of multiple productions. The theater world places so much emphasis on world premieres, that it's often very difficult to get second or third productions for new plays. So I love the idea behind this program and feel so grateful to have benefited from it.
Any audience reactions at the San Diego's MOXIE Theatre or Chicago's Redtwist Theatre take you by surprise?
I wasn't surprised by anything in particular, but it was amazing to watch older and younger audiences see the show together. The play is rooted in this friendship between three women in their mid-70s and an 18-year-old girl. Watching people, and especially women, at or close to those ages experience the play together, really affirmed why I wrote it in the first place. I didn't expect them to be so invested in the storylines of the characters not of their generation, and I was particularly moved by older queer women I spoke to who were thrilled to see both a coming-out story for a teenage girl and for a woman their own age.
Have you tweaked any of HERLAND since either your RWP in San Diego or Chicago for this production at Greenway Court?
Oh, yes. I've been making lots of changes to the script throughout the process. Nothing all that major changed over the course of the first two productions, but after the show closed in Chicago, I did some significant rewrites. This final version of the play, premiering at Greenway Court, has a brand-new ending. I'm excited to see how audiences react to it!
What would your two-or-three-line pitch of HERLAND be?
HERLAND follows Natalie, a recent high school graduate, as she gets a summer internship working for Jean, her elderly neighbor, on a special project: designing a feminist utopian retirement community. Natalie helps Jean and her two lifelong friends transform the garage, where Jean's ex-husband and his Bruce Springsteen-cover band used to practice, into the headquarters for their movement. HERLAND is a queer coming-of-age comedy about a group of unlikely rockstars who seize their chance to take the mic.
Did you have a hand in the casting of these three productions of HERLAND?
I was involved in the casting process for all three productions, and got to sit in on auditions, either in person or via Skype, and chat with the directors about my vision for the characters. So many people told me that it would be very hard to cast this show, particularly at non-equity theaters, because the play features three women in their mid-70s. I'm thrilled to report that they could not have been more wrong. There are so many incredibly talented older actresses out there, and not nearly enough roles for them!
This is your second time at Greenway Court. You were here last year for a workshop production of HERLAND. What did you learn from that experience?
I had a blast working with director Tiffany Moon, dramaturg Scott Horstein, and the workshop cast, and the play made leaps and bounds during that week. I went all-in on Bruce Springsteen dramaturgy and dug deep into his songbook, which was lots of fun. I also focused on more clearly centering the play on Natalie's journey, which was a great step forward.
How would you compare Chicago theatre audiences with the other cities you've played in?
There is nothing quite like watching a play in a 37-seat Chicago storefront theater where you're inches from the actors. I first fell in love with theater by going to see storefront plays in Chicago. There is an electricity within those small spaces that I haven't found anywhere else. The Chicago theater community invests deeply in new voices, new work, and the diversity of its theater spaces. They also show up for each other and support each other. It was great to have so many of my friends and collaborators in the house each night. I feel very lucky that I got my start in that city. Now that I'm based in New York, I'm always looking for excuses to go back.
You started writing HERLAND in 2017 during your playwright-in-residence at Greenhouse Theater Center in Chicago. What sparked the genesis of HERLAND's story?
I was working on a totally different play for the Greenhouse residency when a good friend of mine sent me an article about single women in their 70s who started their own retirement community in the UK. I immediately switched tracks and started writing HERLAND. I was so inspired by these women taking matters into their own hands, and refusing to let other people or institutions dictate the rest of their lives for them. I was going through a big transition myself at that time - graduating from college and entering "the real world" - and I was struck by what these transitional life moments had in common. Uncertainty about the future and what it holds is universal. I knew from the start that I wanted this play to be an intergenerational story.
What was your reaction to being awarded the First Place recipient of the University of Chicago's 2018 Olga and Paul Menn Foundation Prize for Original Playwriting?
I was thrilled! It's always great to be recognized for my work. It was also particularly meaningful to me because the award goes to a graduating senior. So it was a rewarding capstone to my undergraduate career.
Any other plans for HERLAND in the near future?
No plans just yet!
Any plans for Grace McLeod you can share with us?
My new play SCARE ME, a queer comedy set in a Halloween pop-up store, will be featured in The New Colony's Uncharted Festival of New Plays in Chicago this July. And I have some other new plays in the works as well... Stay tuned!
What emotions would you like the Greenway Court audiences to leave with after HERLAND's curtain call?
I hope audiences come away from this play thinking about aging differently. I think we are all "coming of age" all the time; it's not just something that happens when we're teenagers or something that starts and then ends. Growing into ourselves and figuring out who we are is a complicated, ongoing process. I hope that the play leaves people feeling optimistic about what can be possible when we are all empowered to be our full selves.
Thank you again, Grace! I'm anxious to see your coming of age and out creation.
For ticket availability and show schedule through June 23, 2019; log onto www.GreenwayCourtTheatre.org