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BWW Interview: Mark McGoldrick of COUNTERCOUP at The Marsh Shares His Own Unlikely Journey from Juvenile Delinquent to Public Defender

The 4-part series runs the first weekend of every month from May 1st to August 8th

BWW Interview: Mark McGoldrick of COUNTERCOUP at The Marsh Shares His Own Unlikely Journey from Juvenile Delinquent to Public Defender
Mark McGoldrick, writer & performer of
Countercoup at The Marsh
(photo by Jay Smith)

Actor-writer-lawyer Mark McGoldrick is someone with an unusually compelling life story. A self-described former "fuckup" whose youth was largely spent in a haze of drug use and delinquency, McGoldrick was involved in a horrifying accident that could have cost him his life and did leave him paralyzed. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, McGoldrick used this tragedy as an opportunity to reset his life. He went to Harvard Law School and became a public defender for Alameda County, representing people, mostly of color, charged with the same offenses of his earlier days. A number of years ago, he felt the compulsion to start putting his riveting stories onstage by writing and performing solo shows.

McGoldrick is now chronicling his story over four monthly episodes in Countercoup, The Marsh's first broadcast series. Countercoup will be presented the first weekend of each month, May 1 - August 8, 2021 with a new installment performed each weekend at 7:30pm (PDT), Saturdays and 5:00pm (PDT), Sundays. The series kicks off with "Riding for a Fall" (May 1-2), in which audiences meet him as a barely-in-control teenager determined to push away loved ones and do what he wants, regardless of the consequences. His reckless decisions catch up to him in "Close to the Edge" (June 5-6), fighting for his life after a near-fatal accident that left him with a fractured skull and broken neck. McGoldrick describes his intensive inpatient rehabilitation in "Now, The Hard Part" (July 3-4), as he struggles to regain independence and learns to navigate the world using a wheelchair. The series concludes with "The Journey with Jim" (August 7-8), as McGoldrick bonds with a rehab buddy, and sees how each man follows a drastically different path. After each performance, McGoldrick will be joined by The Marsh Founder/Artistic Director Stephanie Weisman for a Q&A. For more information, please visit www.themarsh.org/marshstream.

I recently spoke with McGoldrick while he was on a break from his day job as a public defender in downtown Oakland. We discussed how he was able to recover from personal tragedy and to harness his innate mouthiness to use it for the greater good, how his stage work can affect his loved ones, ongoing issues with our justice system, and some unanticipated benefits from the Covid pandemic for folks with disabilities. As expected, he was fascinating to talk to - keenly intelligent and brutally honest with a sly sense of humor, but also deeply thoughtful, considerate and ultimately quite hopeful. He has a propensity to speak in long, complex sentences that manifest his experience as a public defender. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You certainly have quite a compelling life story, but how did you decide to turn it into a 4-part theater piece?

It kind of evolved. I intentionally didn't deal with it early on when I was doing some writing and performing, because frankly it seemed like too obvious of a story to tell, how I broke my neck and why I use a wheelchair. And at the time my life as a public defender was so overwhelming and compelling, and I wasn't seeing in the popular media much stuff about public defense and the life of people in custody. It's really changed a lot now.

I would find myself going to these felony courts with a big stack of cases. The clients I would have and their life stories, I just felt like I was in a river with lives and stories flying by me and they were incredibly compelling. So I started first presenting some of those stories, and then that morphed into my first full-length show, The Golden Hammer. That dealt with a confluence of my own personal background and the world of public defense. Once that was done and I wanted a next writing project, I was much more comfortable and compelled to write about my own story.

What was the most challenging part of the process of creating Countercoup?

Well, it was first staged way back in 2007. Probably what was most hard emotionally to punch through was presenting material that my parents would see, and my friend who was driving the car when I crashed, and some of my family members. It's one of those things when you write stuff that is largely autobiographical. Of course, you take artistic license with this and that, but one is very aware of how the ripple effects will affect other people. It was a very serious consideration for me to not only have put my loved ones through the wringer for so many years with my lifestyle, but then to kind of see if they wanted to revisit it all. That was a big deal. But then I also approached it like "don't run from the truth" and there's a certain catharsis, perhaps, for some of the people I love.

And there's this other really interesting thing that happened, which was for a bunch of years some of these stories were kind of out of bounds because the jury wasn't out yet on, you know, how big of a fuckup I was gonna continue to be. So - a funny thing that I feel is, as the years go by and I haven't brought them you know repeated problems and trauma, and instead seemingly have my act together, then it was much safer to revisit because it was past and not present. So a certain passage of time [helped]. With my dear friend who was the driver, I remain very sensitive about him and how he receives these stories.

As an audience member I don't tend to think about that aspect of autobiographical shows - that by telling your own story you're also telling parts of other people's stories.

Absolutely. Since the first iteration of this at The SF Marsh onstage, I've lost both my parents, but what they would say is that perhaps the worst day of their lives was coming to see me in the condition I was in in the ICU right after the event. At the time I was much more oblivious to this, but over the years I've appreciated how my lifestyle changed the trajectory of my siblings' lives. Even when I was "on track and doing well," I kind of took all the oxygen out of the room, the energy and attention of my parents. Over the years I've seen how it's not just my story. I have a big family and it affected a lot of people in very real ways, and it's very humbling to me. So when I tell these stories, I try to be accurate and truthful and willing to push into these hard and dark kind of emotional corners, warts and all. Because I also want to in a way honor them and the experience that it was for them.

I've seen you referred to in the press around the show as a "former angry young man." How were you able to move past that?

Well, a lot of it was maturation, just harnessing my anger. And it's a bit of a simplistic term, "angry young man." It's such a trope, and there is kind of a disjunct between trying to create a piece of art and then having to try to describe it or promote it. There's a certain reductionism and a certain simplicity that I don't really enjoy.

But what I experienced in those years was an anger and rage at issues of authority. If it was parents or teachers or coaches or my early employers, arbitrary exercise of authority I just couldn't abide and so I was insolent and rebellious and all those kinds of things, mostly against these structures that I was perceiving as misusing power against, at the time, me. But what happened over time and maturation was focusing that to this thing that sustained me in public defense, which is the authoritarian misuse of power by really powerful institutions, like the police and the district attorney and the courts. But in a much more controlled and channeled way so that I'm more playing nice within the rules and trying to control my mouth and my temper.

From my elementary to middle school years, my memory is being in a classroom full of people and having a teacher who was being arbitrary with a punishment or a criticism or whatever, and [my] having the sense that the students were feeling the same thing, but no one was doing anything about it. And so then for years my kind of self-appointed role was to raise my hand or stand up or bark out and challenge the teacher, or the coach or whoever, and it led to just years of confrontation. And then one of two things typically happened. Either we just went to war - I got suspended a lot and spent a lot of class time sitting on the sidewalk outside the door - or that teacher and I became the best of buddies. Because we broke through it and learned to respect each other and reached a certain détente.

But that kind of advocacy on behalf of the class, against the domineering teacher or unfortunately at times the overwhelmed substitute or whatever, it was just kind of this self-appointed thing that I was gonna call bullshit where I saw it. And it often didn't lead to good places. But I remember having this English teacher in maybe 8th grade. She was from the South somewhere, she had a heavy accent. I remember I did something and she grabbed me and dug her nails into my arm such that they left marks (this was the 70's and it was Arizona, so that was all good), and she said something to me like "You better become a lawyer because with that mouth, someone's gonna whoop your butt." I loved reading and I loved words, but she was someone who - because I was so mouthy to them - early on suggested focusing that or harnessing that.

I find that fascinating because I was always the quiet kid who dealt with authoritarian figures in a different way. I played the game of "OK, I don't like what's happening here, so I'm going to learn what the rules are and then figure out how to subvert them without anybody knowing."

Right! And that's a much more mature way of doing it, and often as an adult I will do that. I try to win without the other side feeling like they've lost. Like don't do a frontal attack if you can quietly get your way, all kinds of tactics about winning without feeling like you have to have some kind of showdown on main street at high noon, you know? But the child in me, or the adolescent in me, was not able to do that.

The thing that happened when I broke my neck is there was a certain kind of epiphany, which was an overwhelming sense that I had been given, not only a second chance, but you know a tenth chance. Because of all the shenanigans that went on, that I ignored, and then finally this very large personal catastrophe happened and I felt very lucky that I had another chance. So that's actually part of this story in the latter sections, which is the difference between coming out of an injury like this blaming no one and understanding why you got injured in a certain way and having it make perfectly good sense, versus blaming someone else and feeling wronged, in that your life was altered terribly because someone else screwed up or screwed you over or hurt you. I felt, and I still feel, that that can be a significant starting-off point that can lead to very, very different places in the way people lead their lives.

When I hear stories like yours about surviving a personal tragedy, I often wonder how you come out of it without just being totally consumed by blame and self-pity.

For me, it was immediately crystal clear that what happened was a logical outcome of a series of unheeded warnings. I just kept screwing up bigger and bigger and bigger, and every time there was a correction that I should have heeded, I just blew it off. You know, "Fuck you, I don't have to listen to you!" That was just my attitude for a long time, and then this was like life saying to me, "No, fuck you!" You know, the last laugh will always be on you. So it was very logical why what happened to me happened to me, and I didn't blame anyone so there was none of that, and then instead of self-pity or woe-is-me, it was more like "I can't believe I got another shot!"

Commingled with that, though, was the sense that the way in which I was hurt was kind of total. What I mean by that is not only did I break my neck, I broke my skull and I broke my arm, I injured my legs and broke my jaw. I had myriad, very serious injuries such that for a period of time afterward I was incommunicado, in an enormous amount of pain and just had to ride it out. I was stripped down to the chassis, and if I wanted to live, I was gonna have to you know crawl and then work very hard to put my life back together. That was the journey of my early years, seeing to what extent I could put my life back together. Seeing what of my old life, in terms of activities, I could still attain through modification or adaptation, what I could add through you know wheelchair racing instead of road racing and 10Ks, that kind of thing. So that was the early journey, starting from really nothing, one foot in the grave, you know with my brain swell and shit, and then what can I claw back toward?

Your stage work has always explored the ways our legal system fails us, which is now suddenly such a hot topic. Do you have any hope that we can make it better, that it can be improved in a meaningful way?

I do. My career started at just the time when we were in this big late 80's/early 90's lock-'em-up, prison-building boom. The story of my first 15 years or so as a public defender was with every legislative session new, worse, more draconian laws would come out to hurt my clients more and more and more, and that was just the reality. Now, in the last five years or so, the tide has changed. We realized we're going to break the bank trying to continue to pay for this failed system, so now most sessions we come out with remedial legislation that can kind of correct the ship.

So yes, I think there's meaningful change that we can make, that we are making. At the core of it, I think America has to come to grips with slavery, and the ways in which the modern day American criminal justice system is just an extension of what was once slavery that morphed into Jim Crow which morphed into segregationist living which morphed into the prison-building boom. We really have to do some serious work about race and othering these people, and part of that also is the enormous poverty that lives with us even though we have so many resources.

So, yeah, we can certainly make improvements. Fundamentally, all these things in the modern criminal justice system, I see their antecedents in slavery. I have pretty hard opinions on that, that probably wouldn't be shared across the street - as I look over at the courthouse.

Your day job is Assistant Public Defender for Alameda County. Do you see any commonality between that role and being a stage actor?

Yeah, I do. In public defending, it's oral advocacy. When we're not in a pandemic, it's advocacy in a court room, and so there is a certain performative quality to it. You have to be willing to be performing in front of an audience because there'll be people in the courtroom waiting for their case to be called, or there for your case or whatever. You're there on your feet, waiting in just the same way that a live performer is, reading the audience, reading the decision makers, if it's the judge or a jury, trying to pitch your [performance] - you know, slower, faster, louder, quieter. [inner monolog] "This isn't working, this isn't working - Oh, this is working!" You know?

So there is that. And also - efficiency over time. It's appreciated that people's attention span in the digital age gets shorter. So how to be efficient with your words and your arguments without losing people, and I really like doing that in my stage stories. I like to strip them down to the essence. That's one of the things I'm really challenged by and enjoy in solo performance. In this digital era when people check their smartphones every five minutes and stuff, how to captivate an audience for an hour or whatever. They're sitting there in the dark watching you, and you don't have props, maybe you have light or sounds cues, but it's such a stripped-down medium. It's such a challenge to me to maintain their interest and their engagement such that the time goes by and they're not shifting from one butt cheek to the other and wondering when the guy's gonna shut the fuck up, you know?

Now that you've had success as a solo performer in shows that you've written, do you have any desire to act in other people's work?

I've only done very, very little of that. I wouldn't say "no," but it hasn't really come that way to me. This has always been an avocation, not a job, because I do have my day gig. The initial compulsion is the creative spark of these compelling stories that are in me or pass me by that need to be shared, the lives of my indigent clients that need a voice. That's been more of the compulsion for me, rather than you know let me just get up there and perform someone else's lovely work.

We're at this point with Covid where we are hopefully emerging from the worst of the pandemic, and I think a lot of us are now looking for any helpful lessons we might have learned from this whole, horrendous experience. Has the past year's emphasis on sheltering in place and working from home at all mitigated the accessibility issues you encounter as someone in a wheelchair?

It does. Because if you're talking about a platform like Zoom, that can be a certain leveling device. I think in a lot of ways technology has been a leveler for people with disabilities, you know either to be able to see or make the font bigger, all these devices are kind of workarounds for people with disabilities of this sense or the other sense.

I posted on my Facebook that one of the things I did not miss this past year is all of the minutes which add up to hours that I spend in public restrooms waiting for someone to get out of the one accessible stall, when I'm looking at a bunch of open, inaccessible stalls. Some people like to use the accessible stall because it's roomier or seemingly more private, and I just had a year of not having to lurk around like some lech in public bathrooms, waiting for somebody who doesn't need it to get out of the accessible stall. So I don't miss that!

But yeah, to your larger point, familiarity with Zoom and some of the technological advances, it has definitely helped some people with disabilities interact more. But like everybody, I look forward to being out in the world again, encountering strangers in impromptu ways. I think there's no substitute for face-to-face physical interaction. I think we are all starved for that, starved for physical contact.


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