Works by Women

Supporting creative work by women

Interview: Penny Jackson & Kathy Gail MacGowan

pennyjackson_kathygailmacgowanThe Battles of Richmond Hills, a new comedy from Penny Jackson (I Know What Boys Want at the Lion Theatre; A Different Place in the 2017 FRIGID Festival) and directed by Kathy Gail MacGowan (Kentucky Cantata at HERE; In the Summer Pavilion at 59E59) begins performances at HERE on April 26th. The Battles of Richmond Hill follows Sheila O’Connor as her grandson attempts to relocate her from her beloved Richmond Hill, Queens to an assisted living community in New Jersey.

Works by Women spoke with Jackson and MacGowan about their collaboration, their individual processes and what excites them in theater and culture at large.

WORKS BY WOMEN:  What inspired you to write The Battles of Richmond Hill?

PENNY JACKSON: In 2010, I was at The Dublin House on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a typical Irish bar complete with Guinness and waitresses from Ireland. There, I saw an elderly woman at the bar sitting with a man and nursing her glass of vodka. A motley group of her friends joined them, and all appeared to be very happy and very drunk. I wondered what would happen if this elderly woman became a danger to herself and had to move into a nursing home. Would she survive without her friendly bartender and caring barflies?

About the same time, I l met an actor who had grown up in Richmond Hill, a remote neighborhood in Queens. During the American Revolution, Richmond Hill had a substantial Irish population and even today, it has a strong Irish-American influence. I loved the stories my friend told of the close-knit community there, and I could imagine the old woman from The Dublin House having lived a place like Richmond Hill.

When I became a playwright at NY Madness theater company, I was fortunate enough to meet one of their directors, Kathy Gail MacGowan. Both of us are ardent fans of Irish plays, and I knew she was the right woman to develop the play with me. As well as an excellent director, Kathy is one of the best dramaturges I know. Together, we added two more characters, explored the themes of emotional and physical battles, and the play sprang to life.

WBW: Kathy, what drew you to The Battles of Richmond Hill?

KATHY GAIL MACGOWAN: Penny sent me several short plays to read and to consider developing with her.  I was most excited by The Battles of Richmond Hill because I am drawn to Irish characters, and the dilemma of the older widow Sheila struggling against the next stage of her life, which may involve a move to an assisted living facility–a strange new place without family, I felt was an important phase of life to examine with audiences.

WBW: Tell me about collaborating with playwrights on new work in general and with Penny specifically.

KGM: I was a literature major, so I love text and analyzing it. You get to do this intimately when you sit down with a new work and the playwright! I also have an acting background as well as a MFA in directing, and so I also love subtext. In working on the text, I like to find the symbolism, metaphor, allegory in the play…things that can connect to both the inner life of the play and to the larger world we live in. The great challenge to the director is to translate those images and meanings to the psychology of the staging. Working with the playwright on a new work, is both fantastic and challenging. You have to learn how they like to approach the collaboration, and how they see the world the of play, and you have to be adaptable to different personalities and ways of working. The most important elements are open communication and trust.

With Penny the collaboration has been a dream!  We started working on the play over a year ago and the conversation has never ended. We both want to make the play the best it can be, and there is an excitement, energy, and commitment from both of us to doing so. Penny never tired of trying out new ideas, changing the arc of a character, editing a line. That’s why the play is in such beautiful shape! I do hope you come see it.

WBW:  Penny, what is your writing process like?  

PJ: I write every day and am a member of The Writers Room–a writing loft near Astor Place where writers can focus on their work without distraction. As for the process itself, I am a big believer of revision. When I begin with a play, I write just dialogue without stage directions and sometimes I’m not even sure where the story is going. I’m a very character-driven writer so I focus mainly on the people and not the plot. Since I began as a fiction writer, sometimes I will write a short story and adapt it into a play. I really like collaborating with a director and find that sitting down and reading the play out loud with a director can be a very helpful process.

WBW:  As you mentioned, you write in many different forms–books, plays, screenplays, poetry. How do you decide which form to tell each story in?

PJ: Form depends on the story. If I am writing a story that takes place in Madrid and Manhattan, as with my novel Becoming The Butlers, I will write a novel since it gives me so much room to explore. I also love writing description, which really doesn’t belong in a play. Screenplay writing is particularly challenging for me because I still struggle with allowing visual images to describe the story instead of dialogue. I am also not comfortable yet with the screenplay rules and format and am grateful to have worked with a seasoned screenplay writer Melissa Skirboll (who was also the director) for our short film My Dinner With Schwartzey. Poetry is also very challenging because every word in a poem is so important and significant. If you write a novel and have a bad sentence you can almost get away with it! Right now I really love writing plays. I enjoy the collaborative process with the director, actors and the designers. Dialogue is easier for me to write than a long narrative of three hundred pages that a novel requires. But who knows – I do have an idea for a novel and may return to writing that narrative form again.

WBW:  What is your favorite part of working in theater?

PJ: I really love writing and that’s why I’m a playwright and not an actor. My favorite parts are creating the first draft of the play and then writing the final draft of the play. I love that first workshop read with the actors and director. I actually love revision (some writers hate it), and look forward to notes. And, of course, seeing the first performance of your play is always absolutely thrilling if not a bit terrifying too!

KGM: I live for the collaborative process. I love being in the rehearsal room. To guide and witness the creation of the world of the play is a joy. Everyone’s input, passion, and ideas come together to birth this new story that will never be told the same way again!

Penny Jackson and Kathy Gail MacGowan.jpg

Penny Jackson and Kathy Gail MacGowan

WBW: What theatrical production changed your life and/or inspired you?

KGM: I attended the Dublin Theater Festival two years ago on behalf of the Sheen Center, as a curator of new work. I was astounded by the range of innovative and provocative productions that seemed to have more daring and ingenuity then many new plays I have seen in festivals here.

One piece, a one-woman show by Doireann Coady I’m Not Here, explored the aftermath of a suicide, committed by her brother; she used only a few elements: cassette tapes which played his younger voice talking to their father, and a taped show of him as a DJ, a chair, and a rope. The way she put the pieces of the work together, interspersing the tapes, her own exploration of what his thoughts were on the day the event happened, her harrowing anguish and struggle to live without him, the guilt she felt at not being able to prevent this, and ultimately her conjuring of his spirit into the room so she could dance with him to his DJ tape; were some of the most daring, primal, and moving theater I have ever seen. To this day, just thinking of the piece alters my state of mind.  

PJ: I have one theater poster in my bedroom and that is Mark Rylance in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. Rylance’s performance was like watching a miracle performed right in front of your eyes. You literally could not take your eyes off him and at the end of the play I felt as if I could barely breathe or move. Acting in a different stratosphere. I also adored the play because Butterworth used the mythology of England to explore the reality of his country today.

All of my own theatrical productions inspire me. I am so grateful to the directors and actors for bringing what began as a few lines of dialogue I wrote probably still in my pajamas at 8am in the morning to a fully-realized play production. To watch my work in a theater always astounds and inspires me.

WBW: What’s a podcast, show, or book that you are recommending right now? Why?

PJ: I am obsessed right now with Anne Boleyn so am re-reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as well as watching the televised version of the novel with Mark Rylance. I want to write about Anne Boleyn, who is one of the most complex and infamous women in English history. As for theater, I am recommending the musical Hadestown to everyone. I saw it at New York Theatre Workshop, and the music, story and acting are all just superb! I am fascinated by social media so I am a big fan of You on Netflix. I don’t want to give anything away about this thriller but you may not want to be on Instagram or Twitter ever again!

KGM: I had a lot of fun seeing Network, I loved the way that the cameras were used and the fact the actors could basically sit with their faces to the upstage wall, and we could be intimately involved in their conversation because their images were projected in the theater. I saw it with my 95-year-old dad, and it was interesting to see how he responded to the historical footage and how engaged he was because the cameras afforded him the ability to see and hear things really well! I found it to be an interesting use of the theater, to invite the live media feed inside. Not something you see typically in a Broadway production, and Bryan Cranston was captivating.  Of course I also adored The Ferryman but I think everyone has already seen it!  Recently I really enjoyed reading A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and re-visiting Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.

The Battles of Richmond Hill runs April 26th through May 11th at HERE. For tickets and additional information, visit http://www.here.org

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