StageNotes - Make Believe

Bess Wohl and Jackson Gay

In Conversation with Assistant Dramaturg Yan Chen

Make Believe director Jackson Gay and playwright Bess Wohl.
Make Believe director Jackson Gay and playwright Bess Wohl.

Yan Chen: What inspired the writing of this play?

Bess Wohl: Every play I write has multiple sources of inspiration. With Make Believe, the first impulse was to write a play that was for child actors, but wasn’t a play for children. There’s a saying, “Never work with children or animals in the theatre,” and any time I hear the word “never,” I always get excited about doing exactly what I’ve been told not to do.

At the same time, I was interested in looking at family trauma from the point of view of children, and in seeing the similarities and differences between the ways we process and interpret traumatic events, as children, and as adults. For children, pretend can be healing. For the adults, I was interested in exploring whether make believe is a way of healing a painful experience, or an escape—something that you have to let go of as you get older and confront reality and truth.

Yan: Hence the “Make Believe” of the title?

Bess: I was interested in the way that those two words operate together: the idea of make believe as pretend, and also the idea of making someone believe something.

Yan: Jackson, you’ve had extensive experience with new work. What has made working on the world premiere of Make Believe unique?

Jackson Gay: Make Believe is a dream play for actors—it’s human beings in a room dealing with each other, with themselves, with their past, and with what they want their futures to be.

It’s a brand-new play, so everyone in the room is discovering it together by trying things out: watching and listening to the kids, rearranging and combining scenes…There’s a lot of experimenting, and we’re kind of “make-believing:” What if it’s this? Let’s try this.

It’s so interesting that there are real child actors and adult actors in the production—it requires you to shift your brain and jump between the two, dealing with them in different ways to find the play together.

Yan: What has it been like to write for children and work with them in
the room?

Bess: I learned a lot from our workshops with child actors. I would watch them and respond to the things they were doing, sometimes stealing things that they had said or done, and putting them in the play. I also went to a school and observed children of this age in classrooms, and I started to get a feel for how they might talk and relate to each other.

It’s also challenging because so much of making a play is threading through cause and effect, action and objective. You want to create a logic. At the same time, kids often don’t follow logic, or do things for reasons that are opaque. It’s been a challenge to allow things to happen spontaneously, figuring out how much we want to link cause and effect, and how much
we want to lean into the lack of logical explanations of childhood. Jackson’s approach with the actors has really stayed away from any cute clichés
of childhood, and looked to the much more strange and unexpected reactions that kids have.

Make Believe child actors in rehearsal. Front (facing away): RJ Vercellone; back (L-R): Alexa Skye Swinton, Sloane Wolfe and Roman Malenda.
Make Believe child actors in rehearsal. Front (facing away): RJ Vercellone; back (L-R): Alexa Skye Swinton, Sloane Wolfe and Roman Malenda.

Yan: Your artistic partnership and personal history go back a long way. As collaborators, how would you describe each other? How does it feel to work together again?

Jackson: When I met Bess at the Yale School of Drama, I was in the directing program, and Bess was in the acting program. I think her acting background really informs how she writes and thinks about plays. I also come from that background, and it’s great having a writer who knows what it’s like to actually stand up there onstage. Bess wrote and directed a play in grad school, Cats Talk Back, that I was an actor in. We did it at the Yale Cabaret with actor Brad Heberlee, who’s also in Make Believe. In 2013, we worked on the world premiere of Bess’ play, Barcelona.

I love the whole process of collaborating, because Bess is very thoughtful and detail-oriented, but in a really easy way. I admire her focus, and I
love her childlike wonder—the questions Bess asks are very helpful in rehearsal. It’s also just great working with somebody you’ve known for
such a long time.

The last thing I’ll say is that I’m a mother, and I love working with somebody who’s trying to be a mother in this business and trying to make it work, and then writing a play that’s also about that in many ways. We’re surrounded by children in this process, onstage and offstage, and I really appreciate sitting behind a table with another working mother.

Bess: Ditto to a lot that Jackson said. It’s really gratifying to be able to work with someone whom I’ve known since grad school. That friendship and working relationship make the work so much richer. Jackson popped out to me as an incredible talent in our very first year because of the way she conceives of space and pictures. She has a very bizarre imagination, and a very poetic take on things. We have an extensive shared vocabulary, and an ease working together, and as much as this play is an actor’s play, I really think that it’s a director’s play. As soon as I wrote it, I thought, this play needs a director who’s really able to collaborate with a level of authorship, and be inventive with how the story is being told, because there are a lot
of open questions.

Yan: How have your observations on family, parenting, or childhood experiences informed your work on this play?

Bess: There are definitely moments in the writing of this play when I try to channel my own children’s way of seeing the world. I’m also trying to connect with the child in myself as I make this play. How can we bring a childlike mentality to the creative process? How can we be open, curious, and interested in the exploration?

Jackson: I find the play very emotional, and the biggest tragedy, I think, is what trauma in the family does to relationships between the kids as they grow up. They go through something together, but after they become adults, they can’t talk to each other. Instead of making them come together, trauma pushes them apart. When there’s nothing to turn against, people end up taking it out on each other. That’s the thing that kills me. It happens with bigger things in the world too, and this is a small example of it. People are so alone, and they’re so lonely. What a tragedy, to feel lonely when you’re surrounded by people.

Jackson Gay in rehearsal.
Jackson Gay in rehearsal.

Yan: The four siblings in the play are children in the 1980s. What does that time setting mean to you?

Bess: I was a child in the 1980s, so I associate that time period with my own childhood. It also was a time when parenting and childhood were very different than they are now. There was a sense of childhood as a separate magical space that adults didn’t enter as much, and it felt like there was more privacy, probably more danger, too, because we were left on our own more, but there’s also a sense of independence that kids had. I was interested in looking at how not just childhood has changed, but how our world has changed.

There are a lot of different points of entry in this play. I enter this play as a parent, and as a child thinking about my own childhood. I can enter it from a social perspective of how the world has changed, or from a familial perspective of how families respond to different traumatic events. On different days, I’m interested in different parts of it, and that’s what’s been fun about having this ongoing exploration, and trying to tie all these different pieces together.