Interview with Michael Hollinger

Wed, 03/14/2018

Check out this interview with Sing the Body Electric playwright Michael Hollinger!

Why do you think Theatre Exile is a good fit for Sing the Body Electric?
There’s something a little raw and “unvarnished” about this play — qualities I associate with my favorite Exile productions.  My hope is that it feels like we’ve sort of stumbled upon these characters, living their lives, and are entirely unaware of the playwright’s involvement.  Many of my plays have more self-conscious conceits or devices, and often occur in other periods and places (the Middle Ages, the early 1900s, 1941, 1952, 1961, 1983, 1994); this one is very Here and Now.  
 
Where did you get the idea for this story?  How did the idea develop over time?
I began this play right after premiering Under the Skin, in the spring of 2015.  Since that play is structured like a comedy, with major plot points and big reversals, it required a lot of “architectural” thinking as I wrote, and I really wanted the next play to evolve differently, through attending primarily to character, image and atmosphere.  An early image that occurred to me was a young man in a bathroom looking up at a ceiling light as he turned the switch on and off, only to be discovered, to his embarrassment, by a parent — like being caught in the act of doing something vaguely illicit.  I had no idea what this image might be good for until, a few weeks later, I stumbled upon an article about a national support organization for survivors of lightning strikes.  (It had never occurred to me that enough people survived lightning strikes to be supported by such a group!)  I began to imagine a character who had been struck by lightning, and longed for the extremity of that experience to recur.  Could this be my light switch-flicking young man?  (It was only after researching many lightning-strike stories and their aftermaths that I started to realize how physically and psychologically traumatic such experiences can be for many survivors.) 
 
Talk to me about the choices of Philadelphia and Florida.
South Florida was an obvious choice because it’s a hot spot for lightning strikes.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time in South Florida, too, so it’s not alien terrain for me (despite the white pants, shoes and belts).  I needed the character of Jess to be from somewhere else, so Blake is new to her, and realized it would be helpful if she were from far away — maybe someplace more urban — so she’s really a stranger in a strange land, and her energy is different and a little startling to Blake and Lloyd.  (As a Philadelphian now for the past 30+ years, it was fun to write a character who’s from here, though she doesn’t say “youse,” “down the shore,” or talk about Mummers and cheese steaks.)
 
How has Sing the Body Electric changed since the Theatre Exile reading of it in 2016? What has your development process been since that time?
In 2016, the play received three public readings in close succession: at Theatre Exile in April, at Theatre Lab (part of Florida Atlantic University) in Boca Raton in May, and at City Theatre in Pittsburgh in June.  This three-part launch was incredibly helpful for me, as I did major revisions after each event, based on what I learned during the process of rehearsing and hearing it with an audience.  The character of Claire didn’t appear in any of these versions — she was a voiceover only — but I became convinced that we needed to see her, not just hear her, so her role expanded, and her personal narrative is very different from previous incarnations.  She’s now more closely connected to the other four characters in terms of story, and her monologues resonate more powerfully in terms of overall themes.  I’ve also “turned up the temperature” in each draft, finding ways to build pressure and create small explosions on the way to the play’s climax.  And the ending of the play — which I won’t reveal here — is quite different; audiences taught me that I can’t be cavalier with the fates of characters I’ve made them care about.
 
What are you hoping Deb will bring to the table?
Seeing Deborah's wonderful/terrifying production of Smoke two seasons ago made me realize she’s the perfect person to direct Sing the Body Electric.  Smoke was incredibly intimate, and in a single act (like my play) gradually brought two characters from an apparently casual encounter  to a highly charged place that was violent, erotic and surprisingly vulnerable, too.  It was clear that the actors had developed a great mutual trust, and this doesn’t happen by accident.  
 
What is your connection as a parent to this script?
For me, I always think I’m writing about one thing — usually some idea or phenomenon I’m intrigued by intellectually -- and later discover that I’ve actually (or also) been writing about something very personal and often largely unconscious.  In the case of Sing the Body Electric, I think one of the things I was processing unconsciously was observing my then-teenaged son and his first girlfriend get together, and recalling the utter mystery and power of adolescent relationship (or, in my case, simply the desire for one).  Parenting a teenager can also make you feel for the first time that there’s a gigantic chasm of understanding between you and your child — this person who felt like an appendage for so long.  Of course, many parents are entering middle age — a kind of “second adolescence” — just as their kids are becoming teenagers, which can lead to power struggles, blowouts, and even role reversals, all of which make an appearance in the play.  It’s a volatile time!
 
Are there any production elements or performances you are particularly excited about?
Light is a major character in the play, so I’m curious to see how this tracks through; sound, too, particularly when things get stormy…
 
Is the structure of this play different from your other plays? In what way?
Every play I write finds its own proper structure, based on the demands of the storytelling.  My two-act plays all have a major event toward the end of act one, about one half to two thirds of the way through the play.  Because many of Sing the Body Electric’s scenes are intimate encounters between two people, eventually becoming three- and four-person scenes, this play is structured as one long (intermissionless) act, where pressure builds inexorably, like a storm approaching from a long distance until it finally explodes overhead.  Within this larger structure, there are three “acts,” marked by monologues by a fifth character, tangentially related to the other four, which comprise their own narrative as well as amplify the major themes of the play.
 
What has your history been with Theatre Exile? How have you evolved as a playwright since you first started working with us?
I was one of three playwrights (along with Bruce Graham and Arden Kass) to have plays presented in a Theatre Exile production called Hearts and Soles in 2008.  It was a lovely, and low-pressure, experience.  Since then, I’ve had three plays presented in Studio X-hibition series: this one (2016), Under the Skin (then called Flesh - 2013?), and Hope and Gravity (then called Ups and Downs – 2012?), which will run concurrently with Sing the Body Electric at 1812 Productions.
 
Is there anything audiences should know before coming into the production?
No.  If you’re a human in the 21st century, you have sufficient prior information.  
 
Is there anything you hope they will walk away with?
Yes, but this would be hard to articulate.  I want the play to be, first and foremost, a visceral, not an intellectual, experience.  There are ideas in it, of course, but if I could articulate these in a sentence, I wouldn’t have had to write the play.  Really, my greatest hope with all of my plays is that audiences will walk away thinking “Wow.”  (That’s setting a high bar, I know!)