In Part IV of our “Meet the BIG WORK Cast” blog series, we check-in with the play’s writers and directors Melissa Bergstrom and Kate Marple. Both writers play a version of themselves in the show as they re-create behind-the-scenes moments from their interviews with the characters. Melissa also plays Helen, Remy, and Paul.
Q: Why did you want to write BIG WORK?
MELISSA: As an actor and writer (with many day jobs mixed in), the answer to the classic, “What do you do?” question has always been complicated. I used to tell people “waitress” or “administrative assistant” or whatever I was doing to pay my bills at the time, but none of those things felt authentic. One day I said, “I’m an actor and I write too,” and I felt like a fraud. I always feared that the person would (and sometimes did) ask if I made money doing those things, or demand proof that I was telling the truth, and what was I going to say? It occurred to me that perhaps other people felt this way too, and the more I looked for people wanting to talk about this thing we call “work”, the bigger the conversation felt. It took a long time, but I’ve gradually gotten comfortable defining myself as an artist. A huge part of that journey for me was creating this play.
KATE: I was sick for most of my childhood and the first part of my 20s, and one of the main effects this had on me was that I became someone who was really focused on work – as a way of contributing to the world and as a way of distracting myself. When I got healthy, I really started to struggle with the questions that the play struggles with – about where work was supposed to fit in my life and what it was supposed to mean, about how much of it is who I am versus what I do, and about how people see me because of the work I do. And the more people I talked to in my own life about it, the more it felt like I wasn’t alone in wrestling these questions. I wanted to try and wrap my arms around what I was feeling, and the only way I know how to answer anything is by asking a lot of questions of a lot of people, and then trying to write my way to an answer.
Q: What's your philosophy about the role work should play in your life?
MELISSA: I have different definitions now for “job” versus “work,” or a “vocation.” My “jobs” may change over the years, and are what help me pay my rent, my grocery bill, and my student loans. And yes, they help finance my creative endeavors. My “work” in this world is as an artist and creative – it’s a constant throughout the different seasons of my life. At various times in my life, these two definitions have overlapped and crossed paths, but I’ve come to understand they are two completely different things for me. And that realization has made all the difference.
KATE: It’s changing. I’ve lived through moments where I wanted to work all the time, and where I thought my biggest contributions to the world would be left through my job. I still want my job to be an outlet for my curiosity and something that I bring value to. And I’ll never be someone who says work isn’t a big and important part of my life – I want it to be – but now I am figuring out what else I want, how it all fits together, and when it’s okay to stop, say no, and take a breath. And the older I get, the more I’m convinced that in work, like all things, it’s less important what I’m doing, than why I’m doing it and who I’m doing it with.
Q: What attracts you about working in theatre?
MELISSA: The theatre invites all of us to a space in which to experience, talk about, and process our “big feelings” – joy, heartbreak, love, fear, anger, and hope. Stories are much more powerful than most of us can imagine, and there is no limit to what kind of understanding and compassion can be fostered when we share our story with others, and in doing so, give them permission to do the same. I believe that this kind of vulnerability is the key to connecting with other human beings, and it allows us to work towards peace in the face of violence, fear, and mistrust. To take part in the theatre, as an actor, playwright, or audience member, is to agree to take all the less than perfect parts of our own experience, and forge something meaningful from them that everyone can benefit from.
KATE: There are so many things I love about the theatre, but what I love about writing for the theatre is that the audience has an impact on the story as it unfolds. Who shows up and how they react to the play influences what the story becomes on any given night. And as a writer, there is almost no other environment where you get to witness the relationship of the audience to the story in real time. It makes writing – which is often an incredibly solitary act – a community experience, and to me, that’s the best possible outcome. I’ve always written as a means of connection, and that feels enhanced in the theatre.
Q: You're hosting a dinner party. Which three people – alive or dead – do you invite? And what do you serve?
MELISSA: Louisa May Alcott, Charlie Chaplin, and Elizabeth Gilbert. I’d skip dinner and go straight to pies – pumpkin, strawberry rhubarb, and chocolate coconut cream.
KATE: I’d invite storytellers I love from whom I want to hear more stories – journalist and author Slavenka Drakulić, folk Cellist Ben Sollee, and author Maya Angelou. Although, writers (myself included) tend to be introverts, and it does give me pause. But as long as we skip the small talk, we should be fine. The season determines the dish. As it’s currently winter, I’ve got to go with a stew.
Q: If you were going on the one-way mission to Mars, what three things would you bring with you?
MELISSA: Can I count my husband and our cat as a 2-for-1 package, since he’d hold our certainly spooked cat the whole ride there? If so, the other two items would be an iPod full of my favorite music, and a never-ending pumpkin pie.
KATE: Enough meds to knock me out for the trip. I get sick on merry-go-rounds, and I’m afraid of heights…not sure I’m Mars material. Lots of paper and pencils. Writing on computers is a poor substitute to holding a real writing instrument, and I’d miss the smell of paper. Audio recordings of my favorite books read by my friends and family members – two birds, one stone.
ICYMI: Check out the previous cast Q&As with Teddy Crecelius who plays Marvin, Jack, and Tricia; Sumit Sharma who plays Dana, Sam, Omari, and Adewale; and Christa Brown who plays Rachelle, Kevin, and Megan. And stay tuned -- we've got one more conversation with cast member Emily Duggan coming next week!
Last week, we were invited to talk about our upcoming play on “The American Dream” with the Storycode Boston community. It was amazing to be in a room of people who are so creative in how they think about storytelling, and so generous in offering ideas and feedback. We are so grateful for their warm welcome. And we were really excited to learn about “Good Luck Soup,” a participatory documentary on the lives of Japanese Americans & Japanese Canadians after they left the World War II Internment Camps. Check it out.
At StoryCode, we not only got to do the first live reading of excerpts from our interviews, but we also had a chance to share the journey of how we found the people we interviewed. The final piece is based on 40 interviews with people from across the country who work very different jobs and have very different lives. During these interviews, we asked everyone the same 13 questions aimed at getting to the heart of what they do, how they are perceived because of it, and what they want from their lives.
Here are the questions:
We saw so many moments of connection, where people with little in common on the surface spoke of similar experiences. Like when a Pakistani-born, female aerospace engineer from the northeast and a white man who works in IT down South shared their passion for work, but also the line they drew for themselves about what they weren’t willing to give up to pursue it. Or like when a 26 year-old African-American woman who works at a housing development and a 56 year-old white female accountant shared their journeys to stop defining success on someone else’s terms. And sometimes, people’s answers were direct contradictions of each other. When we asked people about the advice they’d give high school students, we could almost hear the interviewees arguing with one another even though they weren’t sitting in the same room.
We’ve loved hearing their answers to these questions, and we hope that when you come see the show this fall, you’ll answer them too. (Through displays in the lobby, not audience participation. Don’t be frightened!) What question do you think provided the most surprising answers? Leave your guesses in the comments.
The Visitors launched their Indiegogo Campaign last week to raise $1500 to help stage this show in October 2015, and are already nearly 50% funded. Find out more and help us spread the word.