The Story of Making a Play: Q & A Between the Critic and the Playwright

Josephine Hall, Jonathan Hoskins and Lane Morris in the first workshop of Confidence (and The Speech).

While working on the first workshop production of my new play, Confidence (and The Speech) with Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, I got an email from performing arts writer, Perry Tannenbaum with questions about the play for an upcoming story in Creative Loafing Charlotte.

I was lucky. In Charlotte, NC there is the Charlotte Observer and Creative Loafing Charlotte and great writers who cover local entertainment news. And my sister, Anne Lambert, who was directing and producing through her company, Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, has established herself in Charlotte theater. Thank goodness for these outlets and writers and journalists like Tannenbaum and Lynn Trenning who care about local news and the art in their communities. It’s hard out there for writers and journalists these days. Outlets are consolidating, pay is shrinking. So support your local writer!

But I digress. The point was, I got an email from Tannenbaum and he asked some questions about my new play, Confidence (and The Speech).

And they were deep questions!

It’s sometimes a challenge for writers to explain their work, to answer questions that may come their way. I think a lot of writers (yes, that would be me) would prefer the work just be judged by itself. And yet, I know that discussing your play and allowing others to question your play and your approach is exactly how the process works.

With a new work, it’s important to know what you intend. This is where theatre journalism helps a playwright. Some of these were hard questions to answer. Some of them bugged me. What I’ve learned over the years is to pay attention to that irritated feeling. Sometimes it means the question is important. Sometimes it means your answer is important.

Either way, playwrights have to figure out answers to the questions their work brings up. Whether they like it or not. Whether I like it or not. So these were important questions for me to answer.

The story Tannenbaum wrote based on these questions and an interview with our lead actress, Josephine Hall, appeared in Creative Loafing Charlotte. Check it out HERE.

Here’s is the Q & A between Perry Tannenbaum and myself.

Hi, Susan —

I’m doing a preview of Confidence (and The Speech) for the September 5 edition of Creative Loafing, and I’m hoping that you can answer a few questions via email about yourself and the ideas behind this show. You can either fill in the white spaces below or answer with an attachment, whichever is more convenient for you. My deadline is next Friday, so it would be great to have these turned around by Wednesday afternoon. Thanks!

What made you want to do a play about Jimmy Carter and “The Speech”?

I’ve been fascinated by Jimmy Carter’s Presidency since I was a child growing up in Decatur, Georgia. And I think he’s had a most exceptional post-Presidency.

I went to see his Sunday School teaching in Plains, GA in 2014. Which led me to reading more about his Presidency. There was a short paragraph in one of the books I read that sparked my interest. It said, Carter cancelled an important energy speech on July 4th, 1979 and disappeared to Camp David for ten days. When he emerged, he gave the Crisis of Confidence speech. I was curious about those ten days. I was curious about the speech — which I vaguely remembered was considered a failure.

I read more and discovered that the initial reaction to that speech was intensely positive. It was the best public reaction to a speech the White House had ever seen — there were phone calls and letters praising the speech. Later, the speech was used against him and became known as the “malaise” speech (though he never said malaise).

I get interested when history gets twisted and important bits get forgotten. That’s a flag that says to me there is something worth examining further. What did we miss? What are we still missing?

I find Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter inscrutable, adorable and fascinating. I found that speech oddly profound. And I had something to say about the speech, about who gets to speak up in a room and about a nation in crisis (and it was 2015, so my idea of crisis was… a bit naïve when I started).

And really, I was inspired by all the great political stories I loved — Hamilton, of course. All The Way, Frost/Nixon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Roe, Camp David, Ann, The West Wing. I wanted to honor those shows. So I have little references to all the stories that inspired me in the play, if you care to find them.

The more I researched — and there is a lot written about this speech — the more I felt I needed a female perspective. So I took my 70s West Wing play and added a near-future bookend with two fictional characters: An older female Professor who has a story to tell. And a young man who wants to hear her story.

I had this revelation that the best way to tell her story of the speech, was to have my professor play President Carter. And the young man who asks for her story — well, he had to play her as a young female intern. As soon as I had that thought — which felt very risky and exciting — the play really came together in my head.

Ya know, that play where President Carter is played by a woman.

Presumably, this idea germinated at a time when, rightly or wrongly, Republicans and Democrats widely regarded Carter’s presidency as a failure. Did you sense that it was time for a reappraisal, and did your conviction strengthen when The Donald won the Electoral College in 2016?

The short answer is yes. I think Carter’s Presidency is due a reappraisal. His presidency had many successes and he spoke the truth about many things. He had failures, but I think history will prove him to be a slightly better than average President.

After the 2016 election — I didn’t know what to do. I had to put the play down for a bit. I couldn’t work on it. I didn’t know how the play would make any sense any more. I worked on other projects.

Then January, 2017 was the Woman’s March and I was re-inspired. I knew I had to finish it. So many women were stepping up. So many LGBTQ activists. So many black women and men. So many voices were rising. I wrote a new ending — a cathartic ending to me. An ending that I think will excite some, and confuse others. It is purposefully somewhat ambiguous… and not.

Longer answer:

— There’s a recent book by Stuart Eizenstat (who served in Carter’s White House) “President Carter: The White House Years” that does a more thorough re-examination of his Presidency.

Some of Carter’s successes:

Peace between Egypt and Israel. The Panama Canal Treaty. Establishing a Department of Energy. He tried — desperately tried — to move this country forward on energy in order to get us out of the Middle East all together. He appointed more women justices and more minority justices than all previous administrations — put together. His administration never dropped a bomb. Never started a war. Eight (8) American soldiers were killed on his watch.

Many will acknowledge Carter’s Post-Presidency as a model of accomplishment and dignity. But some people have a surprising vitriol for his Presidency and I’ve never understood that. It seemed an overly emotional response to me. Certainly compared to other modern presidents, many who have been far worse in actions and deeds.

Your play also considers the exclusion of women from places of power in America. How did the defeat of Hillary Clinton — and how she fared among various voter demographics — affect the trajectory of that aspect of your play? How much of newly aroused feminist animus have you been able to channel into your play through its historical retrospective framework?

The short answer is… That is entirely what this play is trying to address. What does it feel like, what does it look like to imagine a female president?

If Hillary Clinton were president now, this play would mean something different. It would be a lot more fun. But then, so would our lives.

Longer answer:

I was pretty far into writing the play when the November 2016 election happened. Like so many others, I felt “a disturbance in the force.” Something shifted in this country. This felt intensely wrong. Millions of people in this country voted and their voice was not heard.

My feminist animus has pretty much always been aroused. Confidence (and The Speech) is not a feminist rage play. But it is told from a woman’s perspective. There are moments in this play that are written just for women. I suspect men will enjoy those moments, too. But they may not find deeper meaning in the way I hope those moments will resonate with women.

This play is now a call to action — just like the speech. To women. To men. To all of us. Because everything is political now. And we need more diverse voices in the room.

I haven’t read anything you’ve written besides your recent Confidence blog posts, so I have to wonder: Aren’t you temperamentally too upbeat to empathize with President Carter’s famous calls for austerity — and to summon up a righteous feminist rage against women’s ongoing exclusion from decisions in the Oval Office?

Wow, that’s an interesting question! Let me see if I can unpack it.

- I guess you’ll have to see the play to see because it’s not my place to say if I’m successful. That’s on critics and the audience.

- This is a feminist play, but it’s also for anyone who thinks there is value in looking back at history with fresh eyes in order to move forward with new insight. With this play, I am definitely trying to challenge the idea that there is only one way to talk about history and to write about it.

Are you asking if I’m too personally upbeat to write about serious political subjects? I don’t know, Lin-Manuel Miranda seems pretty damn happy. Do you read his twitter feed?

I worked hard to make Confidence (and The Speech) an unusually enjoyable history play about a political speech. I write what I find interesting, so I was very focused on making this play entertaining and compelling. I think that’s way more fun than just endless screaming (although I do follow infinite scream on twitter).

As a kid, Carter’s call for austerity rang true to me. I was raised Southern Catholic by a single mom with two kids, so denial was very much a part of my life. I was very much in the process of becoming a feminist and an environmentalist and activist as a teen.

I hope people don’t mistake my joy, enthusiasm and generally pleasant demeanor as a lack of intelligence, anger and incredible commitment to doing great work. That would be disappointing. I do think we often underestimate the power of deliberate joy and the strength it takes to be filled with willful goodness.

Who knows? Maybe my next play will be about a coven of witches chanting “Hillary Clinton” and throwing babies into the audience.

— Here is post I did about the election. It not really about the play, but you might find it interesting in the context of your questions.

Is your take on Carter therefore somewhat critical, and is your overall viewpoint infused with a certain amount of satire or mockery?

Not really, no.

Plays are hard and political plays, even harder to sell. Our marketing materials are designed to be fun, irreverent and inspire curiosity. We want people to want to see this play.

The play itself is somewhat risky, to approach history this way. But the gender-bending is not a gimmick. This play is not camp or parody. It’s not supposed to be satire or mockery at all.

There is an element of fun in the idea behind Confidence (and The Speech). It is not your mama’s political play in that it’s not the play you think it is. I hope audiences will be entertained. I hope they will care about the characters and the situation. I hope they will be surprised and excited. The role reversal is really about using the alchemy of gender to get to a deeper meaning within the play.

When you see all-female or all-male Shakespeare, if it’s done well, there is a moment where you forget — you lose yourself in the play and when you come out of that, suddenly the text transforms. It’s exciting! That’s what I’m going for in this play — Moments where the audiences wakes up a bit and gets excited — infused with discovery, enlightenment, empathy.

Berry Newkirk, Greg Paroff, Paul Gibson, Max Greger and Josephine Hall (as President Jimmy Carter)

And we’ve talked a lot about Carter, but I gender-bend two roles in this play. There is a young man in the play, Jonathan Rollins (played by Jonathan Hoskins), who plays Young Cynthia Cooper. He’s an amazing actor. Intuitive and open and just really game for unpacking the effect being a man playing a woman can be. He’s got to play a young woman and we’re threading a needle of finding both his power and vulnerability in that. Jonathan’s role as Young Cynthia is as equally important to the understanding of the play as Josephine Hall’s President Carter and duality of their performances are what we’re trying to use to explored shared — and unshared — experiences of history.

Jonathan Hoskins plays Young Cynthia in Confidence (and The Speech).

I think my take on Carter is balanced — both critical and praising, but my bigger goal was that you care about him as a character in this story and get a sense what he was up against.

Thirty-nine years after “The Speech,” Carter’s beliefs in bipartisanship and the wisdom of the American people seem a bit naïve. Does Confidence in any way go in for rewrites or updates of “The Speech,” or does it simply emphasize its continued — and lamentable — timeliness?

I say in the play, “1979 was a very strange country.” And it was. Much like now.

If the magazine stories are true and failure really does teach us more than success, shouldn’t we be examining our failures more closely? Carter paved the way to something. There is no Obama’s presidency without Carter’s presidency.

I think the themes of the speech are important. The intention of the speech — the story of how the speech came to be — that is what I’m interested in exploring. And in realizing that every moment that feels like a crisis is also an opportunity to step up. We have seen so many people transform their tragedy into action, it gives me hope.

I think Carter was right. There is something broken in this country. He couldn’t fix it because a President can’t fix 350 million people. That’s our job. He warned us. As did many people, including Hillary Clinton. It’s clear we as a country have trouble facing the hard truths. I hope we can do it now.

I believe we can. But we need all of us. We need a multicultural response. Everyone at the table. Together.

Gender bending isn’t the usual method of telling the story of a watershed moment in history. Can you please describe the approach you finally wound up taking, compare it with your initial concept, and take us through the major alterations you made along the way?

Once I had the concept, there wasn’t a lot of back and forth in my head about how I would write it. That part was very clear to me.

In an early reading out in Los Angeles, I got feedback from some audience members who had concerns about a young man playing a young woman. How would it ever be believable? How would that work? And that’s some of what we have been discovering in this workshop. How does the actor switch between roles — how much is the physicality of the actors and how much is costume. It’s a challenge.

We know what we’re trying to do. What we don’t know, and won’t know, until opening night is how audiences will react.

Can they watch a play where two leads are gender-bended and take it seriously? I THINK they can. It’s designed so they can.

But I don’t know of many plays in which a man plays a woman on stage and it’s NOT done for camp or drag or for sexual affect. What I’m trying to do is explore how the cross-gendering can reveal another layer to the play’s themes. That’s where Anne and her direction has been so great. She’s got a clear vision and a lot of experience exploring gender and gender roles. She got this play instantly and her vision for the play is great and brilliant. But don’t tell her I said that cause she’s my older sister and I spent most of my life making sure her head didn’t get too big.

Conspicuously not from around here among your players is Josephine Hall as Professor Cynthia Cooper and President Jimmy Carter. Tell us how you and/or Anne first connected with her, the special demands of this dual role, and why you think Hall is the right choice.

We originally cast a different actress, Marla Brown, to play Professor Cooper/President Carter. Marla read the role in the Page to Stage reading and was fabulous. Due to scheduling conflicts, she couldn’t do the project and we had to recast. It had to be someone great to play the President of the United States. My sister, Anne remembered Josephine Hall from seeing her in Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s Vayna, Sasha, Masha and Spike. And I realized Jo had worked with two people I knew, when she did the national tour of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. So she came highly recommended to us.

We did a three-way Facetime audition with Jo (the first time I’ve done that!). Anne in Charlotte, NC, Jo in Greensboro, NC and myself in Los Angeles. It should have been awkward, but it just felt like a beautiful fit. This is a great role for an actress. It’s written to be so. And Josephine Hall is simply terrific.

It’s been a master class for me to watch her dial in her performance, both as the Professor and as President. Her insight on the script has been invaluable. The fact that she is an actual college Professor as well, that’s sort of another beautiful thing — it makes me very happy.

Marla continues to be a huge supporter of this project and gave me great feedback coming out of that reading. I’ve incorporated many of her great dramaturgical notes into the latest version. She may also be making an appearance in a very unique way in one of the performances! My feeling is, if you’re ever in the Confidence family, you’re ALWAYS in the Confidence family. It’s that kind of project.

You had your play read earlier this year as part of a Charlotte’s Off-Broadway reading series and finished third in audience voting behind two plays, one a top-tier Steinberg Award nominee and the other by America’s most-produced playwright — and both with histories of full professional productions (a damn good showing, don’t know what you’ve been whining about). Now you’re categorizing the upcoming Charlotte’s Off-Broadway production as a “workshop” production, intimating that your script is still in development. What do you expect to learn about your play in its coming weeks at Duke Energy Theater in Spirit Square, and what’s the next step?

Thank you. I felt really excited to be in the company of those writers. So I’ll try not to complain. But we’re a country that loves “winning,” right?

I’ve already learned so much about the play. This cast has brought life to these roles. I’ve changed things in rehearsal based on their ideas and feedback, which is scary and exciting. You definitely learn some technical stuff about the show — where you need more time for a costume change, etc.

Development is how plays get made, it gives you an opportunity to fine-tune the recipes before your cookbook gets published. You tweak them — add more spices here, let it breathe a little there, etc. — until you get the experience just right. This work has been honed in four readings. Putting it on its feet will be the next step.

Sometimes it’s super exciting. Sometimes it’s killing your darlings. But our entire cast has been so much fun and so game.

It’s ambitious to take a play of this size and scope and try to develop it independently. But that’s the fun part as well. We hope the audiences will come along with us on this ride. And we welcome their constructive feedback.

It takes a village to put a new play out into the world. And this particular play is incredibly timely now — because of circumstance and dangerous times. But I want to figure out if I can make Confidence (and The Speech) a relevant play for 10 years from now, 40 years from now. I don’t know if that’s possible. Maybe it’s good enough for it to be vital theatre now. Because we need vital theatre right now.

What specifically do you feel are the messages from Jimmy Carter that apply most urgently to this moment — and how optimistic are you that the grassroots women’s reaction in the wake of The Donald’s election will steer us all in the direction we need to go?

What I think Carter was trying to say is that it’s important to face the mistakes our nation as made and do the hard stuff to get on the right path. Failure is not a reason to give up. And that it’s never too late to step up and let your voice be heard. It’s certainly what I took from it.

We should speak up. We should let our voices be heard.

We are in a dark time. I believe our democracy is in danger. We are in a constitutional crisis and the danger could last my lifetime. However, we are seeing unprecedented activism in this country. Millions are marching. Millions are voting.

Every voice matters in this next step for our country. It will take all of us who want to move forward to make it work. Everyone needs a seat at the table, particularly women, black people, Native Americans, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, people living with disabilities, immigrants — all who have been so long denied a voice.

Our diversity is our strength. And our outrage can be channeled in to action — marching, calling, writing, running for office, helping people run for office.

“This is not a message of happiness or reassurance. But it is the truth and it is a warning.”

So that’s the Q & A that led to this story. The workshop happened despite a hurricane (more about that later). Now we’re working on the next step of bringing this new play to life. Up next? We’re going for a production in Los Angeles. Then Washington D.C. Atlanta. NYC. Then published. Simple, right? Follow along and let’s see how it goes.

We are at a turning point in our history.”
  • ~Susan Lambert Hatem, September 2018

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Read more: Follow Susan and the Confidence (and The Speech) journey —