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Left to right: Director Mike Donahue with playwright Matthew Lopez and choreographer Paul McGill. Photo by Brian Dunning.

Finding a Family

An Interview with Director Mike Donahue


There are few things more crucial to the development of a new play than a trusting, generous relationship between artistic collaborators.Playwright Matthew Lopez and director Mike Donahue have certainly found that — after the world premiere of The Legend of Georgia McBride in Denver in 2014 and the New York premiere in 2015, this production is their third time working on the play together. In the weeks before rehearsals began at the Geffen, I caught up with Mike to ask about how he and Matthew first met, their plans for developing the play further and what makes Georgia McBride so special.

How did you initially get connected to the piece?

Mike Donahue: When I first moved to New York, my agent gave me a stack of plays to read to see who might be an exciting playwright for me to meet, and one of the plays in that pile was Matthew Lopez’s Reverberation. I immediately fell in love with it and with Matthew’s voice, and I emailed my agent back to say, “I want to meet this guy.” But his play The Whipping Manhad just opened and he had gotten some big screenplay deals and he was all over the place, so I wasn’t actually introduced to him then. Flash forward a couple years to when I was directing Lauren Feldman’s Grace, or the Art of Climbing at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and they announced their New Play Summit schedule for the next season. I noticed that they had included a play by Matthew Lopez [The Legend of Georgia McBride], so I immediately called my agents about it. After a couple weeks of figuring things out with Denver Center, Matthew and I got introduced, but we actually met for the first time on the morning of the first day of the workshop, and then we spent a week together in Denver working on the play. Now I’ve been working on this play for about four years and he’s one of my closest friends.

What drew you to this particular play when you first read it?

MD: Because Matthew has such an incredible heart himself, his heart is so present in his plays — and particularly in this play. One of the things that I love about this play is that it is almost like a fairytale and it is unabashedly celebratory and fun and raucous. But it also has a real story. It’s about these people who are dealing with some pretty desperate economic circumstances; they’re living in a world in which there isn’t necessarily a lot of opportunity for social or economic mobility. And they’re people who, in different ways, don’t have family at the beginning of the play. As we follow Casey, a kid who really hasn’t grown up yet or learned how to take responsibility but does have an incredibly buoyant optimism and ability to dream of a better life, this magic happens where the characters find a family and are able to start moving their lives forward. I think the play has an ability to disarm even the most cynical people, because it is infectiously joyous.

After working together on two productions of Georgia McBride, what are you and Matthew most excited to tackle in these rehearsals?

MD: A lot of the work at Denver Center was about just figuring out how to do the piece. On the page, with the quick changes in and out of drag, it’s kind of baffling how that can happen in a coherent way. Then a lot of the MCC production was about figuring out how to deepen the stakes of it and ground it ever more in the real world. Now we’re interested in fine-tuning and calibrating. The play works when it’s aerodynamic, so much of the work will be continuing to shape the “aerodynamic-ness” of it.

What do you think makes your working relationship with Matthew so successful?

MD: Because of the nature of the drag elements, this play requires even more collaboration than a typical new play because so much of the storytelling comes down to how you craft the personas of the drag queens and how you carve out the evolution of their progression over the performances. Matthew creates the framework and puts the story in place, but there’s an entire scene that requires a choreographer and a costume designer and a sound designer and actors inhabiting these drag queens to help finish creating with us. The scene is eight and a half minutes long in performance and, in the script, it’s a page of stage directions about what happens. Matthew and I work together really well, and that’s also true of our choreographer Paul and our designers — we are all coming at this with very little ego and are unafraid to step on one another’s toes, because we all have to invade one another’s territory to be able to integrate the work to the degree that it needs.

I hear Andrew Burnap (Casey) is doing a drag bootcamp to prepare for the show. Why was that important to you and Matthew?

MD: Andrew has never really done drag before, and it’s more than just learning the choreography of the numbers. It’s learning a different way to move in your body, how to walk in heels, even how you articulate with your fingers. Since lipsynching is critical in drag, it’s learning the technique of how to listen for little irregularities in the recording like where you can hear the singer taking a breath or you can hear the spin on a vowel sound — and learning how to not only amplify that but also put a point of view on it. The technique and physical work are so integral to Andrew being able to craft that character.

Would you talk a bit about how you’ve approached solving some of the play’s more unique design challenges?

MD: I think the biggest, or most obvious, one is how to deal with the quick changes of the show. Sometimes we’re going from a dude in jeans and a t-shirt to full drag, so it’s about putting on all of the pads that shape the body underneath the clothes and it’s also about doing drag makeup. For most queens, ninety minutes to two hours would be the bare minimum to put on a full face, but that’s the running time of the play. So, in part, it’s about having to reduce and simplify, but it’s really about theatrically embracing the sense of transformation and the ability to imagine and play that is so much a part of drag. We don’t hide a lot of the “strings” — if we have to get somebody into drag in thirty seconds, you watch all of that happen as the actors are playing a scene. There are moments where one of the actors is like a racecar and the crew descends on that person like a pit crew, and it’s all highly choreographed to be part of the magic of the evening.

Are there any thoughts you’d like to share about how you think the play relates to the moment in which we’re living?

MD: One of the things that I’ve heard Matthew say is that, for him, this is not a play about straight people learning to accept gay people or straight people learning how to participate in gay culture. For him, this is a play about community and family. When we did the play in New York, it was not long after gay marriage was fully legalized and it felt like icing on the cake that we got to do this play in that moment. We’re obviously living in a much different world now than we were a year ago. But I have to say, I think the need for hope right now is pretty strong and this play is so unapologetically, infectiously joyous. The idea of a group of people who come from pretty disparate backgrounds, who have no experience with people like one another at the beginning of the play, and the ability of all of those people to find a family with one another — I think that is a really powerful message right now.

By Rachel Wiegardt-Egel

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