MdJ: Mostly actors accept that their relationship with a playwright is one-way: the playwright provides text and the actor interprets. It's been so empowering to work on a character who is in progress. It's been a very long conversation, both literally, sitting on a picnic bench in the woods with Cassie talking about Johanna, as well as figuratively, in rehearsals as I push Johanna on the page and the text pushes back in the form of your shifting a line here or modifying the flow of a scene there. It's awesomely weird and scary. I cannot recommend highly enough that every actor work with a playwright this way. It's a way to discover yourself as a performer but even more to discover how a text works: you get to see the strings that bind a play together and watch the work a playwright does to allow you to pull on those strings when you're performing it.
WW: There is a lot of mystery surrounding Johanna, without giving too much away, how has it been in rehearsal working on a character who has an agenda?
MdJ: It's fabulous. Johanna is my favorite kind of character in that she is both hero and villain, depending on how you look at the story. Even she has moments of seeing herself as both. Of course, actors always work not just lines and actions but whatever is going on subtextually. Christopher has done a spectacular job in rehearsals of keeping track with us of all of our various complicated threads throughout the play, and giving us the space and guidance to explore and expose the audience to our characters' agendas. Johanna's subtext is wild (additional thoughts redacted to avoid spoilers) and it makes playing her challenging in all the right ways. And eventually, when I get it right, it's fun as hell.
WW: Do you relate to Johanna in any way?
MdJ: Of course! You always want to find some part of yourself as an entry point to understand a character. In some ways I feel like I could have been Johanna in another life, given different circumstances. I love that she advocates for herself and her choices, and the script lets her fail or succeed in her own way. Beyond that, she's funny, she's tough, she calls people on their shit, and she has great taste in food. What's not to love? Maybe she's all wrong and she fucks everything up sometimes, but I even think that's great. It's no fun being right all the time. She goes for what she wants and I respect that. Don't get me wrong, it's absolutely a relief some days to leave rehearsal and go home to being me, but she's a fascinating character to step into for a few hours at a time.
WW: Johanna clearly has a mission with her art, do you, Melissa, have a mission or greater goal with your work in publishing or in acting?
MdJ: I love this question because I absolutely do have a sense of purpose in my work: that is, improving representations of women and people of color. Lots of horrible things happen in the world, and for me, part of the solution lies in the fundamentally empathetic nature of storytelling.
Whether on stage or in a book, fiction helps us to experience a world outside of ourselves, to see the world through eyes other than our own. Rote, stereotype-laden representations damage our ability to empathize. But fresh, complex representations can help us transcend divisive assumptions, like those tied to race or gender. The best stories let us see ourselves and each other more clearly. Sharing and supporting those stories is the fire that keeps me going.