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Distorting the Narrative

An Interview with Power of Sail Playwright Paul Grellong

By Amy Levinson, Geffen Playhouse Associate Artistic Director

Amy Levinson: Let’s start with talking about your inspiration for the play and what inspired you to place it in 2019.

Paul Grellong: I first wrote a draft of this play many years ago and then shelved it for a while. It was probably in 2002 when I started working on this, and at the time, the play was focused on Holocaust denial and that particular movement on the far right. But other elements about it were the same—the central character, the structure. But as I said, I put it away for a long time. Then, in 2017, I was speaking to Mike Sablone, who is the Artistic Director of the Warehouse in Greenville, and an old friend and collaborator of mine. I was talking to him about another play that I was starting to work on, and he asked a question that I wasn’t expecting, which was, do you ever think about taking Power of Sail out of the drawer and revising it for today? And this was right after Charlottesville, so I thought it was an interesting question. If I’m being honest, I had been focused on this other play and hadn’t really considered it. So that weekend, Mike and I read it again. I took out this old script and just tore it to shreds. He and I got on the phone a couple of days later, and I came at him with all of these plans—I want to change this, and I want to change that, and these characters have to go. I was excited and so was he, so I spent that fall working on it. It was also a way for me to process some of the rage and frustration about what was happening in this country at the time. So I rewrote the play and changed essentially everything about it except the central character and the structure.

AL: So the setting of the play remained the same as well?

PG: Yes. At the start it wasn’t Harvard, but it’s been like that from a very early draft. And it was always a New England setting. We ended up doing the play at the Warehouse in the 2018/19 season, so it was set at that time, March of 2019. As to the second question of why I have kept it in 2019, I have two reasons. One is specifically COVID-related. Artists in various fields have differing feelings about depicting life in or after coronavirus. Some are all for it and others are adamantly opposed. Personally, and I’m only speaking for myself, I didn’t want to have this play live in this time. I wasn’t writing a script dealing with that. I’ve enjoyed plenty of work that is set in the present and deals with COVID. It just didn’t seem like the right choice for this play. The second reason is a more important one, actually, which has to do with the characters’ psychology. The way they approach the events of this play involves a mindset that is different from those who would have seen the murder of George Floyd, seen the public’s response, seen the long overdue yet still decidedly unfinished racial reckoning it gave rise to—not only in this country, but around the world. I think that these characters would bring a different perspective, and a different set of behaviors in the wake of that, so it was important to me to set it at the doorstep of these two seismic events.

AL: Let’s talk a little bit about the structure of the play. I love your description of it, talking about it as a roundtrip journey.

PG: That was one of the first things that I hit upon as I went from filling up notebooks with ideas to actually sitting down to write a cohesive play. I stumbled across this particular phrase in nautical law—that a vessel under power of motor has to grant right of way to a vessel under power of sail, so the powerful granting passage to the less powerful—and it rang true as a way to explore power dynamics while writing about people who distort history, historical narratives, and their own personal narratives. They dole out information in ways precisely designed to accomplish their goals. This was true specifically of the characters in the play, and also of the Holocaust denial movement more generally. So I thought, what better way to depict that dramatically than to show one timeline from two different perspectives? I knew that if we could withhold information in a judicious way in the front half of the play, that the second half would come alive with moments of revelation and dawning understanding. If we were doing our jobs, it would end up being true to the subject matter and the genre I was working in. This play is a thriller and deploys certain tricks of that trade in telling the story, one of which is toying around with timeline. Not to fill viewers with a sense of having been manipulated, but rather providing them with an experience that delivers consistent surprise, especially in the second half. Because the play exists in an academic setting, some of the things that are talked about are intellectual in nature, but the goal has always been something with a pulse—to make the stakes high, and to make the temperature in the room heat up as we move along. I felt the structure could be our friend in that pursuit, that it could tell this story in a non-traditional way. So, here’s hoping that our audiences agree.

AL: These characters are all very well-drawn, and I’m curious if any of them are people you’ve known in your life or if they’re amalgamations of people you’ve known.

PG: The events of the play have nothing to do with any lived experience on my part. But some of the conversations in the play are versions of conversations I’ve had over the years with friends, colleagues, and family members about what free speech means. I was often unresolved after some of those discussions, especially when we’d hit a genuine impasse. So, part of writing this was an effort to finish the conversation and play out some of these disagreements in a dramatic way, almost as an experiment. What would happen if we follow this line of argument all the way to its conclusion? This was especially true of the conversations about free speech and white supremacy that were happening between 2015 and 2018. There were many false equivalencies that were drawn, explanations that were either insufficient or absurd, even as you could sense that the danger that had been creeping over the horizon was no longer approaching—it was here. It had arrived. So, writing the play was an attempt to make sense of one small facet of that. It was never designed to present an all-encompassing overview, but rather specific people in one set of given circumstances. What happens when they bring these theoretical arguments down to the ground level? And really, really live it.

Power of Sail

FEB 8 – MAR 13, 2022
Written by Paul Grellong
Directed by Weyni Mengesha
Produced with Daryl Roth
Featuring Hugo Armstrong, Amy Brenneman, Bryan Cranston, Donna Simone Johnson, Tedra Millan, Seth Numrich & Brandon Scott

Distinguished Harvard professor Charles Nichols (Emmy & Tony Award winner Bryan Cranston) finds himself in hot water after inviting an incendiary white nationalist to speak at his annual symposium. His colleagues are concerned, his students are in revolt, but Charles is undeterred in his plot to expose and academically thrash his invited guest. This profoundly relevant new play by Paul Grellong (The Boys, Manuscript) examines the insidiousness of hate disguised as free speech and the question of who ultimately pays the price.