2018-2019 Season

Interview with Megalyn Echikunwoke


Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with actor Megalyn Echikunwoke about her work on Apologia.

Megalyn Echikunwoke. Photo by Stephanie Diani

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When and why did you decide you wanted to become an actor? Did you have any teachers who had a profound impact on you?
Megalyn Echikunwoke: I was born in Spokane, Washington. I left there when I was very young and was raised on the Navajo Native American reservation in northeastern Arizona, where I attended public high school until I was 14. Then I moved to Los Angeles. I got my first acting job when I was still young and continued schooling at Santa Monica High School. The Navajo reservation didn’t provide for many arts education opportunities at the time, but I did all I could. In primary school, I was in choir with Mr. Aguirre, and he took an interest in my talent by giving me the lead parts to sing. He insisted that I learn piano so that I could accompany myself, but my mom couldn't afford the lessons. I was in band, and I played the alto saxophone and went around the region competing. I also I did a lot of athletics, excelling in track and cross country. I think I did athletics because I was good at it, and I enjoyed it, and there wasn’t a whole lot else to do. Somehow, I always knew I was meant to entertain and perform, and I had a whole fantasy world built around it. Obviously, I was driven by music and I always took any opportunity to perform. I won my elementary school talent show singing a Mariah Carey song a capella. I had an English teacher in 6th grade who understood the need for arts education and particularly my passions, and she encouraged me and my friends to get together on weekends to produce radio shows. I think we tried to put on a play once, but there were a lot of challenges and not much support. It wasn’t until junior high school in band class that I found a poster on a wall advertising a fine arts academy’s summer programs. I applied for a scholarship and got it, and through that program I really got introduced to the type of arts education that I so craved. I participated in a three-week theatre arts program, and I was one of a few students selected to be featured doing a monologue as part of the cumulative performance. I performed a piece from the Tennessee Williams play Summer and Smoke. After that performance, I was approached by a man who would become my manager for the next 13 years and who helped me launch my career.

TS: Why did you choose to play the role of Claire in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia? How is this character relevant to you? What do you think the play is about?
ME: When I read Apologia, I was taken with the way Alexi was exploring the different sides of feminism and the eternal existential struggle for women between work and home, passion and duty. I was also struck by how Alexi was able to comment on the charged ideological, political, and cultural issues surrounding the topic and somehow manage to make it so darkly hysterical and relatable. That is a sign of great talent, I think. This is the type of writing that gets me excited as an actor. Claire is relevant to me because I am obviously an actress as is she, and I have had to endure the type of criticism she gets from Kristin. I’ve also had to make tough decisions regarding the economics of being an artist. Alexi poses the question of how an artist can make a living and keep their integrity, and still remain competitive and relevant in a brutally unfair business. Claire’s story and point of view are very important parts of the whole story of being an artist, as well as being a very funny commentary on the absurdity of it all. Claire is a very dynamic character in this story about complex people in a complex world. And what I love most about the writing is that it doesn't shy away from saying that two things can be true at once, and things aren’t so black and white in life. It also seems to be saying that choosing to follow your passion can be a terribly dark and isolated place.

TS: This play tackles the idea that some women are vilified if they prioritize their career over being a mother. It also suggests that Claire has a very tenuous and competitive relationship with Kristin, the central character in the play, portrayed by Stockard Channing. Any preliminary thoughts on or insights into either subject as you are about to begin rehearsals?
ME: Apologia is a play that is taking on many iterations of feminism. I am particularly interested in exploring why the fundamentally competitive spirit that women have towards each other never really seems to fall away in even the most righteous and enlightened women. “Sisterhood” always seems to have its caveats. Alexi has masterfully dissected these ideas, and I am hoping it will be very comical to watch.

TS: Can you talk about the relationship between Claire and Simon, Kristin’s son? Do you see Claire as Simon’s surrogate mother? What thoughts are you willing to share at this point in your process about Claire and Simon?
ME: Rehearsal hasn’t started yet, but I can say that I do think a dynamic exists in this case where both of Kristin’s sons, Simon and Peter, are in state of arrested development and probably searching for a mother in their partners. I don’t think it is an uncommon theme in relationships particularly of a certain generation. And it goes the other way as well when some women are looking for fathers. I’m excited to explore both sides.

Megalyn Echikunwoke. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

TS: How will you collaborate with Alexi Kaye Campbell on his play, which is new to NYC audiences? What type of questions do you suspect you’ll ask him about Claire?
ME: I think each time you work on a new project the collaboration is specific to that. I’m hoping that Alexi will be able to give me insight into his inspiration for the character of Claire and fill in any blanks that I may have missed in the preparation process. That information will be vitally important to the performance.

TS: What do you look for from a director when collaborating on a play?
ME: I am always grateful when a director challenges and encourages me to stretch. One who can understand where I am strong and can encourage me to go further—one who intuitively knows where I am weak and need support and guidance. I want to know where my blind spots are, so that I can address them and grow as an artist. It’s always nice when a supportive, objective voice can help you understand your own talent better.

TS: Are there any roles other than Claire that you are eager to play on stage?
ME: Oh gosh, yes, too many to name. I do have a dream to do an original musical about the life of Josephine Baker. I also always thought a musical about Cleopatra would be fun. I’d love to play Maria in West Side Story and Roxie Hart in Chicago. I’d be interested in a modern adaptation of My Fair Lady in which I’d play Eliza. I could go on and on! I love formidable female characters who do a lot of dancing and singing to get their points across.

TS: What keeps you inspired as an artist?
ME: Music, travel, dance, literature. I never stop moving and reading and subjecting myself to scrutiny and being uncomfortable and ultimately keeping myself in a perpetual state of being a student. I have never been bored in my life!

TS: Many students will read this interview and will want to know what it takes to be a successful actress—what advice can you give young people who want to act?
ME: First, don’t let people project their ignorance about your abilities onto you. If you are going to do it, make absolutely sure that it is something you cannot live without and that it is authentic to who you are and not about personal vanity. And then knife fight your way through the bullshit and never give up.

Apologia is playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through December 16, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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2018-2019 Season, Apologia

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Statements from Designers of “Apologia”


Megalyn Echikunwoke, John Tillinger, Talene Monahon, Hugh Dancy, and Stockard Channing. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Dane Laffrey, Set Design
The process of designing Apologia began with and continues to be driven by a lot of research. I did a series of digital models which Daniel, Alexi, and Stockard responded to until we honed in on the right space for the show. All along the way, new research continued to inform the space we were making. Apologia is a play in which the set – Kristin’s house – is inextricably tied to character. It’s her domicile, one that she created and curated. Our research was focused on trying to see her character reflected in a wide variety of homes. In some cases, it was about architecture and in others just about the way a painting was hung on a wall, or the kind of bowls in a kitchen. Ultimately, the set was distilled from hundreds of images into something that hopefully feels very specifically hers. One of the big challenges in design and fabrication has been to effectively present the age of the house. We want it to feel like a structure that was built in the 19th century. As structures age, they shift and settle and their appearance becomes softer. Right-angled corners and walls and ceilings aren’t so straight and plumb anymore. We’re very focused on getting a freshly constructed set to feel visibly antique, which adds an interesting level of complication to the process.

Anita Yavich, Costume Design
Apologia is a very intimate play about extremes. Tension is high at a family reunion where everyone questions the notion of success and failure, and in between all the doubts and arguments, out pour years of resentment and long-suppressed emotions. Throughout the play, the audience will witness their sympathy sway in unpredictable directions. When I design costumes for a play, it is important to collaborate with the actors and create the look of their character together. Especially with a play like Apologia, where expectations are constantly being turned around, we need to make sure the designs are subtle, that the characters’ looks can facilitate the suspension of disbelief. In other words, we need to come up with something that looks familiar and specific, but also has a mystery to it at the same time. After all, the play is about discovering or rediscovering all these people in your life and hopefully be able to find the answers to the truth behind past behaviors and decide what really matters in these relationships. On a practical note, we also have to solve a heightened moment in the play when wine is spilled all over an expensive light-colored dress! How can we make this happen eight times a week and still make sure the dress looks fantastic? It would be easier if this liquid were not edible, because we would be able to have more options for the solution. However, since it is wine, it will need to be edible and come out in the wash out every night. We might need to consult people at NASA about this!

Stockard Channing. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Bradley King, Lighting Design
Few things would seem to instill as much fear in a lighting designer as walking into a theatre and seeing that the set has a ceiling. Everyone wonders how on earth are you supposed to light a sealed-off box?!? But, on the contrary, I find ceilings an indispensable design element when attempting to design a highly naturalistic environment such as the one in Apologia. Think about it: How many rooms have you been in where the ceiling is a black void that disappears into eternity? A ceiling cements the idea of a real room, a real place, and contrary to conventional wisdom, provides infinite opportunities for a creative lighting designer. Windows become extra important. Blasts of sunlight or moonlight can be the principal motivating source of light for a scene. Lamps, chandeliers, and bulbs (what we refer to as "practicals") also become critical, lending a source of light for both day and night that can be reinforced with traditional equipment. Ceilings also bounce light around the stage, adding softness to shadows and a glow to surfaces and reflections. So despite what conventional wisdom might lead you to believe, any lighting designer who relishes a challenge loves nothing more than to see that ceiling in the model. Bring it on!

Ryan Rumery, Sound Design and Original Music
My process is different for each project that I score. Each play that I work on, including Apologia, I try to approach it as though I were an audience member, seeing and hearing the play for the first time, and I try to really focus on what makes sense to someone who is only seeing the play once. I do believe in certain nuances that might not be perceived by the audience, but that doesn’t always work for every show. As a starting place, the script is informative, but it's only when I hear the actors read the play that I know where there might be scoring or outdoor noises, whether the sound and the score are realistic or abstract. Do we hear the cars arriving at the house, and what do they sound like? What's the tonality for the mobile phone text and ringtones? I'm always asking a lot of questions to myself, and I try not to worry about finding all the solutions until we get into the space. Another aspect that is important to my process is finding time to sit in silence in the theatre because each theatre is different, and I want to hear how I might add to the aural world of the existing space. By the time you're reading this, I'm sure I will have come up with something different from where I started by just being in rehearsals and responding to how the actors and director interpret the play!

Apologia is playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through December 16, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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2018-2019 Season, Apologia

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Puritans to Pussy Hats: Changing Sexual Norms in American Popular Culture


“I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores.” French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting the United States in the 1830s.

The Puritans punishing and humiliating someone. Credit: F.T. Merrill.

The Puritans
Though the Puritans arrived almost 400 years ago, aspects of their culture, including the desire to repress public displays of sexuality, continue to inform American society. Puritan villagers belonged to a single church and resisted the intrusion of outsiders. Relying on mutual surveillance, they sought communal unity and frequently took each other to court on charges of moral violations in order to suppress deviance.They controlled individual behavior through fierce gossip and public punishments, like whipping, use of the stockade, and the infamous scarlet letter for adulterers.

Voices of Change

Ideas about female sexuality have changed dramatically over the last two centuries, when, frustrated at being thought of as property, women began to demand legal and personal rights.

In 1792, British author Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, in which she argued that women should be formally educated and that men should be held to the same sexual standards as women.

Sigmund Freud lived from 1856-1923, and his theories and research methods were as controversial during his life as they remain today. He theorized that neuroses are the result of sexual desires from early childhood that have been repressed from conscious awareness but continue to impact personality. Freud believed a woman’s life was dominated by her reproductive functions and that “hysteria” was the result of women repressing their sexual desires.

Sexual Behavior of the Human Female. Credit: Fine Editions Ltd.

At Indiana University in the 1940s, Alfred Kinsey and his research team set out to understand the actual sexual behavior of Americans. He conducted interviews with thousands of people and wrote detailed “sexual histories” of each. He introduced Americans to the “Kinsey Scale,” the idea that people do not fit into exclusive heterosexual or homosexual categories and sexuality exists on a continuum.

In 1960, the Federal Drug Administration approved the birth control pill. Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique argued against the notion that it was a woman’s destiny to marry and bear children. 1967 brought about the “Summer of Love,” a “Human Be-In” that ushered the hippie way of life to the forefront of American media. In 1968, New York Radical Women protested the Miss America pageant because of its stereotypical notions of female sexuality, throwing bras, high heels and other trappings of femininity into the “freedom trash cans”.

Dan Savage’s sex-advice column, Savage Love, has been going strong since the early 1990s. Savage, a self described “deviant of the highest order,” encourages sex-positivity and sexual interactions where consenting parties strive to be “GGG”: good in bed, giving of equal time and pleasure to your partner, and game for anything within reason. In 2010, he founded the It Gets Better Project, an internet-based effort committed to creating a world “where all LGBTQ+ are free to live equally and know their worthiness and power as individuals”.

Sexuality in the 1990s

The 1990s, when the characters of Usual Girls are coming of age, can be seen as a decade celebrating female sexuality. Pamela Anderson posing in Playboy was marketed as a sign of female empowerment. Britney Spears came on the scene in her Catholic schoolgirl skirt and tied up white shirt. Lil' Kim released Hard Core, and a week later Foxy Brown dropped Ill Na Na, both brazenly celebrating their sexuality through uncensored rhymes.

But in the 1990s many women who were seen as too angry, too ambitious, or too sexual, were also maligned in the media. Feminist Allison Yarrow coined the term “bitchification” to explain this process of reducing women “to their sexual function in order to thwart their progress.” White House intern Monica Lewinsky, after participating in sexual activity with a man in a position of power over her and 27 years her senior, was reduced to a punchline.

Third wave feminism, a phrase introduced in 1992 by Rebecca Walker partly in response to the silencing of Anita Hill, took hold in popular culture. This period in feminism also embraced sex-positivity and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s concept of intersectional feminism—the idea that multiple identifiers are essential in understanding an individual’s experience of the world. The Riot Grrrl movement combined these feminist ideas with punk music and culture to start a “girl riot” against a society that offered no validation of women’s experiences and held a narrow view of beauty and sexuality. In 1993, thanks to student activists at Ohio’s Antioch College, the country’s first “yes means yes” policy was enacted, making verbal affirmative consent necessary at every step of a sexual interaction.

Pussyhats. Credit: Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh.

Pussyhats and the Present

During a 2016 presidential debate, the Republican candidate called his opponent a “nasty woman”—just a few weeks after The Washington Post released tapes from 2005 in which he boasted that he can get away with grabbing women “by the pussy”. In response, over a million craftivists donned pink “Pussyhats”™ and marched on Washington in January 2017.

Public discussions of pubic hair and the political implications of how a woman grooms herself can be found everywhere from “Keeping up With the Kardashians” to magazines at the checkout stand. TV commercials advertise lingerie, vaginal lubricants, condoms, and adult toys. Nevertheless, puritanical norms still abound. Abstinence-only education programs, though proven ineffective, prevail. Purity rings and chastity club ceremonies publicly celebrate waiting until marriage to have sexual intercourse. While the media titillate consumers with sexual imagery, so often the message young women receive is that female sexuality is bad or dirty—that a woman should appeal to sex partners, but not actually engage in sex and certainly not enjoy it. Four hundred years after the Puritans’ ships docked in these shoals, Puritanical values linger in America’s soul.

Usual Girls is playing at the Black Box Theatre through December 23, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2018-2019 Season, Usual Girls

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