By Neena Arndt
A few weeks before rehearsals began for Swing State, Resident Dramaturg Neena Arndt sat down with actor Mary Beth Fisher to talk about her previous roles at the Goodman and why she loves performing in plays by Rebecca Gilman.
Neena Arndt: You’ve worked at the Goodman many times, including in three previous Rebecca Gilman plays. Can you describe some of those experiences?
Mary Beth Fisher: My first opportunity to work at the Goodman was in 1993 when I was brought in from out of town to work on Marvin’s Room on the main stage at the old Goodman Theatre with David Petrarca. A year later, Bob Falls brought me back from New York to work on his Night of the Iguana. And then I moved to Chicago in ’97. Soon after, Steve Scott [then the Goodman’s associate producer] sent me Spinning Into Butter, which was going to be casting soon. I had never heard of Rebecca. I sat down and I read the play, and I thought she had such a unique and powerful voice, and the play was uniquely dangerous. Spinning into Butter is about a student who accuses an unknown perpetrator of a racist act, and the whole faculty of this college has to deal with this accusation from a BIPOC student. You watch the white faculty unravel and all of their own latent or hidden or unconscious racist views start to show. I thought it took an enormous courage on Rebecca’s part to put that out there. This was so long before the incredible Black Lives Matter movement and all the social justice movements that are happening now. And the play was in the studio theater at the old Goodman, so it was 100-seat theater—extremely intimate. And the audiences just got so involved.
A year later, the late, much-missed Michael Maggio cast me in Boy Gets Girl, Rebecca’s second play at the Goodman, which explored the objectification of women by depicting a blind date gone very, very wrong. The third collaboration was Luna Gale in 2014, which addressed the social welfare system in this country as well as religious fundamentalism and the question of being a parent or not being a parent.
NA: What is special about Rebecca’s work?
MBF: I’ve worked on a ton of new plays. I’ve worked with very distinguished playwrights: everyone from Lanford Wilson and Terrence McNally to Sarah Ruhl and Joan Didion. And Rebecca is on my list of people who are right up there in terms of her ability to capture a large topic and bring it way down to a micro level—to a handful of characters grappling with this large topic. It’s kind of a microscopic look at a macro problem. Another thing I love about Rebecca’s work is that she doesn’t preach. Even though she has her own very strong political views, she always presents different points of view through the different characters in the play. So even though I might know what Rebecca’s personal point of view is on a subject, she will give the opposite point of view to a character in the play. She helps the audience understand what the larger picture is and also gives the audience an opportunity to empathize and to have compassion for the point of view. In a way, Rebecca creates the kind of civil dialogue that we are all missing in our culture right now.
NA: In Swing State, you’re playing the character Peg, a retired school counselor going through a difficult period of her life. Can you tell us a little bit about Peg?
MBF: Peg’s blessing and curse, as I currently understand her, is that she can see the big picture. She’s a nature lover, and a conservationist. The problem with seeing the big picture is that she’s looking at the state of climate change and she’s seeing the loss of habitats, and she’s keeping a list of all the things that she’s seeing disappear and leave—this bird or that butterfly. The curse of the big picture is that you can get overwhelmed and you can start drowning in that sense of loss. And I think that a lot of people feel that kind of sense of overwhelm where they just think, “what can I possibly do to fix this? And if my elected officials aren’t fixing it, what can I possibly do?” We don’t look at the little things that you do every day that add up. And if everybody does one little thing or a couple of little things, it actually becomes a huge thing. And I think that that’s certainly reflected in this play. It might take Peg a really long time to get there, but I think she does go through a shift in her thinking by the end of the play because of how much she really loves and cares about the natural world and also the people around her.
Neena Arndt is the Resident Dramaturg for Goodman Theatre.