Hope and Gravity, an Interview, from Fernando Mendez and Michael Hollinger

Interview with Michael Hollinger, Author of Hope and Gravity
By Fernando Mendez—Philadelphia May 3, 2018

I met Michael Hollinger at 1812 Productions headquarters. After the greetings we spoke briefly about translating.

Michael Hollinger: In Leap of Faith—{One of the segments  in Hope and Gravity}—in the final scene,  there is a mention of Chair—I had a chair like that that took everything personally Chair there is a play on words for chair that I was curious about

Fernando Mendez: I didn’t translate that. I left Chair untouched.

MH: Translations...Possibility is a fairly easy one which is posibilité in French—Translating the concepts. 

FM: Esperanza  becomes  Hope...is a lot shorter in English—Translating to maintain the rhythm is next to impossible

MH: Gravity—You can’t escape gravity—Let’s have whatever conversation you want to have.

FM: Well, tell something about yourself.

MH: I am a professor at Villanova—Got my MA at Villanova in theater in 1987—I also met my wife at Villanova. I am the artistic director of Villanova theater. I have been writing plays since I was a kid. I majored in Viola performance.  I was voracious in terms of writing theater. I wrote a lot, I deferred my admission to graduate school as violist...my path led me into the theater which has served me very well.  My plays have been played all around the country, in NY, Paris, London, Athens, Tokyo, Poland, Slovenia

FM: Have you visited there as they opened?

MH: Never seen one of my plays in another language...they are not always big companies..I wanted to see the Japanese version of my play Opus, in a culture that I don't know—not even a language that has the structure of any language that I know.

FM: You insert a lot of directions, a silence, a pause.

MH: Interruptions...I am a musician, again, and a musician knows that you don’t just play notes. The rests are equivalent of value, that without the rests the notes are meaningless...and so, for me, I often feel when I am writing, as if I were composing something ...as a musician I would not go, “Yo Beethoven, give me some latitude here,  why do I have to play an eight rest, couldn’t it be a quarter rest?” I try not to overuse stage directions, which I find many playwrights do.

FM: Yes, I noticed that in the script...a reaction to the other person’s speech, “pause”, “beat” ...I have always believed that writing comes about from people who enjoy reading. I was a voracious reader, I would read a cereal box.

MH: Yes, like you I was taught to read very early on, and like you I read cereal boxes, I read the back of toothpaste tubes, I mean, we had books too, but any scrap of anything, beginning with street signs, posters...I was fascinated by it...

FM: You develop a love for words...my father and I used to take the vocabulary test from the Reader’s Digest as soon as it arrived.

MH: This is what I do with my daughter all the time , particularly as I come upon roots of words, prefixes, suffixes, that carry meaning, something with -dent in it...What is fun is that she is at an age...she is 13  now, she is studying French, and she is making connections and she will say, “wait, I think I know where that word came from…”

FM: You develop a love for languages that way too. That is what my father did for me also...he loved opera, so he knew some Italian...You said your mother did some acting?

MH: Yes, my dad and mom both acted as amateurs...they did theater when I was a kid, and all different aspects, directing and producing, and backstage work, so I got a real hands-on sense of ...what is this theatrical endeavor, all of these things were pretty much familiar to me when I started writing.

FM: What was the first play you finished, that you said, finally I am a playwright?

MH: That I wrote? Well, I wrote things for school first, I convinced my teachers that instead of writing a research project on the subject, that would they let me write a play on it.

FM: That is known as a con artist.

MH: Yes, exactly, good con artistry and they usually said yes, so that was the first stuff. Later I had a crush on a violinist in the youth symphony I played in. By my Senior year I had written an original musical with my roommate, a full length musical. It really was a big confidence builder, and I could say, ok, that can be done. I don’t know how well we did, but we did it, and we didn’t embarrass ourselves.

FM: Post college, what was your first play, that was produced?

MH: Post college, was when I was cast as an actor in this children touring company,  which is no longer around. I discovered the day I was hired that they commissioned original plays, so I said, “I write plays.” When I filled out my 10-99 and I wrote I am a playwright, I was very proud...so it was a paradigm shift for me, oh, I can make some money.

FM: What was your feeling when you saw on stage what you had written?

MH: Well, in college when I saw that piece that I had written, I was nauseated. I was so horrified...not that it was bad, it’s just that I was so nervous...I couldn’t bear it, I was both the director and the playwright, so that was almost unbearable to me...

FM: Was it well received?

MH: It was very well received, yes. It went over big... It was exciting.  I found when I am happiest is when I am deeply immersed.  Suddenly it feels very much about ego. You are the author here, and I often feel more awkward about that than any other part of the process.

FM: About Hope and Gravity...it has an odd structure...

MH: I began with this sort of mercenary notion, that I might recycle some of my short plays. I wanted us at the end of the evening to feel the scenes  are actually adding up to a large narrative, that feels fulfilling, and has a big impact. Why the chronology is out of order, I honestly can’t entirely remember. I do know that early on, the notion of an elevator crash linking these stories, was an important part of it.  You know, we would get a sampler of characters we meet later on, and then late in the play we arrive in the elevator that is going to crash.

FM: Do you feel you have reached that in this play?

MH: I do feel like it. What is interesting about it, for me, is that in the classic tradition of play writing, the characters are moving forward through time, encountering obstacles and overcoming them. And it raises questions in the audiences heads—Will Hamlet avenge his father’s death? Those questions are about outcome and they are important to us. Hope and Gravity subverts that, because there are smaller questions where you say...I wonder if these people are going to get married, or I wonder if this affair will be discovered. There is no classic climax in the play, no place where all questions are answered in a big battle, which is what Aristotle would say is necessary.If anything, it defuses the dramatic...this notion of forward moving action is replaced by action that sometimes moves forward and sometimes moves backward. We know these people don’t realize what reality is, they don’t realize things that I know about them. They don’t know that this elevator is going to crash in the next ten minutes. And it was a revelation to discover that that is how the play worked.

FM: Some writers avoid reading authors who might influence them close to the time they are writing. Have you seen other plays, what influences you feel?

MH: I do read and see other plays. I read a lot, I try to see a lot— I am a teacher. There are writers who influence my work. Hope and Gravity owes more to film makers like Robert Altman, or more recent films like Crash or Magnolia. So structurally that would be an influence. A playwright I admire, Annie Baker, writes a very naturalistic world, that feels as ordinary as this table,  something that is way deeper, mystical or archetypal, beneath the surface.  I was certainly influenced by that in the writing of that play. 

FM: Do you go back to your play after you see it performed and change something, because you have a better idea?

MH: Many, many times. My plays aren’t fixed in any form, sometimes until after five to ten productions, and when they are finally published I say enough is enough. Usually after every production of a play I change things, and sometimes in a very significant way.

FM: How do you write. What is your discipline?

MH: Well, I write longhand always, because I like being able to be messy, and then type it up and then make it tidy, and then dribble on the typed pages and again make it messy and tidy.

FM: Do you take notes?

MH: Yes. I keep journals, notebooks and I try to just keep everything together so that these thoughts are like compost together. And then, after I have a certain amount of raw material, then I try to listen to characters voices.  I always want the structure of a piece to be beautiful. In Hope and Gravity the structure seems chaotic, because the scenes appear out of order ...the frequency with which particular actors appear, how they appear.

FM: How long did it take youth write this piece?

MH: I began it probably around seven years ago. And it took several years of revisions and public readings, where I would have stage readings at, probably a dozen theaters. Every time I tried a different combination of scenes. I used different versions of it. I have probably 25 or more drafts of this in a box.

FM: So, how did you feel when you wrote End of the Play?

MH: {Laughter} I wrote it so many times. The process of ..just before a play is published and I get the galleys, and I am able to make my last, last changes, it’s a little confronting, because I realize this is it.  So, I pay a lot of attention to that, and then I try to let it go...and say, I know I left some errors in there, but there are more plays to write.

FM: Are you writing anything new now?

MH: Yes. I just drafted a new play for a theater North Play Theater in Chicago. Dickensian.

FM: Did you write something like “a little more sir?”

MH: {Laughter} Yes. One of the reasons I wanted to ingest so much Dickens is that I wanted to be able to absorb his tropes.

FM: We all have a little bit of each.

MH: Nobody is one hundred percent good, or one hundred percent bad, so that is one of the things I struggle with as a reader of Dickens.

FM: Well, Michael, thank you very much. Any last comments? A question I forgot to ask?

MH: No. It was a wonderful conversation.

FM: Thank you very much. it feels more like a chat than a formal interview.

MH: And thank you for all the labor you put into this.

FM: That was my pleasure

 Captioning sign at the Spanish-translated performance of  Hope and Gravity , May 9, 2018.

Captioning sign at the Spanish-translated performance of Hope and Gravity, May 9, 2018.