Mona Mansour interview

My mother's world

An interview with the playwright Mona Mansour of The Way West

by Gabriela Schneider

In Mona Mansour’s work, the experiences of individuals, families, and society are all entangled. She grew up in Southern California in a mixed Lebanese-American family, and in her writing she often draws on aspects of her own heritage and experiences. Three of her plays—The Hour of Feeling, Urge for Going, and the recently completed The Vagrant—form a trilogy that tells the story of a Palestinian academic and essentially three different versions of his life.

The Way West represents a departure from Mansour’s previous work in terms of setting, but her California roots have also shaped her perspective. As we examine the financial crisis and the flawed culture of American exceptionalism through the lives of Mom and her daughters, we are guided by the same kind of insight that unites all of Mansour’s plays. Political questions are human questions, and she illustrates the personal ramifications of issues that affect the nation and the world.

The Way West won Marin Theatre’s 2014 Sky Cooper New American Play Prize and the play premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago last year. The playwright joined the cast and director for a workshop in January of this year where the script and songs were further developed. Between workshop rehearsals, literary intern Gabriela Schneider sat down with Mona Mansour to discuss her work.

GS: How did you become a playwright? What was your introduction to theatre?

MM: I did plays in elementary school, and I was not the star, but I ended up playing character roles, even in, like, fourth grade. I’m not going to lie, I kind of “stole the show,” as they say. I started taking acting classes and got really serious early on. I ended up doing my undergrad in theatre. Then I got turned on to improv and became part of the Sunday Company at the Groundlings in LA and I learned how to write there, just write on my feet. Because comedy is a bit brutal, I really learned how to write and fail. Playwriting just kind of organically happened—I wrote a solo play, Me and the SLA, about Patricia Hearst; then I wrote a two-woman play with another woman. We ended up doing that piece with other actresses and that was that. I was like, “Oh, yeah, I don’t need to act again.” The next play I wrote, called Urge for Going, I wrote from the beginning with the idea that there was nothing performative for me. The Public Theater did it a few years ago, and it got me into the Emerging Writers Group there, so that was like my version of getting into grad school, because that really changed everything.

You mentioned Urge for Going. How does The Way West compare to your other work?

Both Urge for Going and The Way West come out of my own experiences with family. They’re just two different views, you know? I grew up in a bicultural house, mostly in Southern California, but I never felt like we were totally American. My father is from Lebanon, and that was a huge influence on my childhood. I often say the Middle East plays are drawn from my father’s world to some degree. The Way West is definitely my mother’s world. My mom, the western mythology is still very significant to her. But all my plays are about place, I think, and how place influences us.

And also, I think particularly in the Middle East plays it’s very important to me to never have it claim to be “what all Arabs think.” That’s a really important piece, so I would say there is a difference, sometimes, in my approach, because when I’m writing characters that are Middle Eastern, there are different things that I’m thinking about. To tell someone that you have a play about Californians is very different than saying, “I have a play about a Palestinian character.” That has a certain currency, and it’s problematic for some people. I would say across the board, though, I’m not that interested in quote-unquote “noble” characters or people. I always try to be equal opportunity about how messed up the characters are.

Were there any challenges specific to writing this play?

When I first started to write it, I was a writing fellow at The Lark, and I would bring this stuff in every other week. It was definitely not a case of, “I know where it’s all going.” In fact some of the feedback that I got early on was things like, “We could spend seven hours with these people.” And I thought, “Well, if I were a more established playwright, maybe I could make it a seven-hour play,” something like The Kentucky Cycle by Robert Schenkkan. But there are so many constraints when you send your script in, and things that people freak out about—I don’t need to be sending out a seven-hour script. It really became about shaping it, after generating a lot of the material. So the shaping of it was a lengthy process.

The challenge you always have as a playwright is that you write from your unconscious and invariably someone’s like, “I don’t get what’s happening,” and then you have to try to explain it. In the case of this play, the central character, who is based on my mother, she has this logic that’s sometimes hard to define—there’s, like, Mom Logic. But because of who she is, she defies certain rules of writing. Also, what is both fun and challenging is asking, “What are the different worlds that the play lives in?” There are scenes that are pretty realistic or naturalistic, and then you have these other moments, these theatrical moments.

The Way West is somewhat unusual stylistically, in that there are these original songs that are part of the script but it’s not a musical in the traditional sense.

I felt really early on that I wanted to have songs. All of my plays have theatrical moments that sort of pop out, and in this particular play, it’s songs and Mom’s stories, which are sort of “out there” as well. [Composer] Megan Smith said something really great in rehearsal the other day about how the songs are the language that just this family speaks. It personalizes it in a really great way. And that is true, right? I mean, every family has its language.

The Way West also has a mostly female cast, and focuses on the relationships between these specific women. Any thoughts on the significance of that?

It was fun to do this play and really have it be female-centered. They’re very flawed. These are not all “noble” women. They are noble in their way, but I don’t have a huge interest in writing “the strong female character,” whatever that even means. It's really fun to give women fun stuff to do. I think it just depends on what you’re writing about, because I’m also now working on a play about Iraq in the 70s that’s all men, but maybe there’ll be one or two women in it. I think we should be writing everybody we want to write, but yes, as a woman, as a former actor, I am interested in populating the stage with really good roles for actresses.

We’ve got a lot of female perspective behind the scenes too, and there was a moment during one of the workshop rehearsals when we said, “Oh, none of the men are here today; what does that mean for this conversation?”

Oh, yeah, because we were talking about finances, and money. “How would this be different if there were men in the room?” I have no idea. But I think that money and men has been a different conversation than money and women. [Marin Theatre Company dramaturg] Margot [Melcon] mentioned that she had spoken to a woman who was an expert on debt and financing and all this stuff who said that women almost take it personally, their debt issues, whereas a man isn’t as plagued by it, on an emotional level. And that’s really interesting to me. But these are huge generalizations—I would say I’ve met a fair number of men who are pretty plagued by that stuff, and they have different pressures as well.

Has it been different to work on The Way West in California, compared with other workshops you've done, or the production in Chicago?

The first day of rehearsal, we asked, “Who here is from California, and who’s second generation?” [Actor] Kat Zdan basically said, almost very casually, that her great-great-great-grandfather was Clark of Lewis and Clark, which is astounding to me. And then Megan Smith’s great-great-great-grandfather was the lieutenant on that same expedition. That’s really fascinating to me, partly because that isn’t me. I grew up here, but I’m actually first-generation on my father’s side, and then my mother’s father came from Norway when he was a little kid. So it is actually different to work on it here.

There’s also something about being surrounded here by this land. I think some of that has seeped into the play, and I think it needed to, actually. Mom has these crazy stories and some of them don’t make sense, and they’re kind of outrageous at times, but something that has come about during this workshop is these moments of reverie that she slips into about the land. I think Mom’s religion is the land, and I think it’s a direct takeaway from being here, actually, and having the conversations here.

Why is Mom so obsessed with pioneers?

Well, why shouldn’t she be? If America is a religion, then who are the stars? I think, in crude terms, they give her strength the way that saints give people strength. When Mom thinks about somebody who keeps walking even though her leg doesn’t work, or someone who can survive for days on end with oxen meat, that gives her strength. It’s the feeling that “I can live through anything.” America’s such a new country, and pioneers were seeing the newest of the new; they were seeing things that most of them had never dreamed of seeing. I don’t know if those experiences happen for people anymore. Now you can see pictures of anywhere you’re going to go ahead of time, so you get there and your eyes have already been a little bit trained to see what you’re about to see.

In America’s mythology, pioneers are the main characters. If you think about the people who made the country what it is, you think of that pioneering spirit. One question I ask in the play is, what happens when you take that spirit and you apply it to today’s problems? How does that spirit clash with, or not clash with, the realities of what we’re living with right now?

Did anything surprise you in the process of writing and developing the play?

I always want to be surprised by my own writing, always. I started out as an improviser, and so I tried to learn then to relax with the not knowing of what was going to come next. And I had some degree of success at that; it’s a scary thing to not know what’s coming next, but I try to do that with my writing. Sometimes you really know where something’s going to end. It surprises me all the time.

You know what’s surprising me right now, after this workshop, is that we found these places where Mom has those moments of reverie, and those kind of have surprised me. It’s actually deeper and truer than I even thought. I think it’s a stronger play because of those.

I always try to let myself find something surprising about the work. I think theatre should be surprising. I’m not a fan of a play that sets up what it’s going to be, but then is exactly that, and everybody leaves really comfortable. I’m not trying to create painful experiences for people per se, but I do want people to be a bit upended.

That is the kind of work that we want to do here at MTC—theatre that’s not necessarily too neat or easy.

I do think when you’re dealing with human beings, you can take turns that other art forms can’t take, because for example, in the span of a few seconds, there’s so many things that can happen in someone’s face. I feel like live theatre allows for that, and I definitely like to have moments like that, where it goes from one feeling to another, with or without words.

Anything you’d like to tell us about what you’ll be working on next?

I have a commission, a Sloan Commission for the Ensemble Studio Theatre [in New York], about a physicist who goes to Iraq in the 70s, based on a true story. I’m finishing that up. And I just finished the third play in a trio of plays about the Middle East, about a scholar who leaves Palestine and goes to London. It started with Urge for Going, and then The Hour of Feeling, and then the newest one’s called A Vagrant.

What has it been like to work here at MTC?

Oh, it’s been great. It’s really been great. Everyone here has really been phenomenal, and this cast kind of blew me away, and Megan Smith and Sam Misner, the musicians and composers—I mean, it’s just been—the room has been really great. Margot Melcon and I met when we did a workshop of the play a couple years ago in Minneapolis at the Playwrights’ Center. People should know, those workshops are so important, because in this country we don’t go right to production. [Director] Hayley [Finn], Margot, and I have all been noodling around with this script for a couple of years.

Working on a new play requires a certain kind of energy, and openness, and adventurousness, and I definitely feel that here. It’s easy to be afraid all the time. When all of us are creating things, fear is a really easy thing to start feeling. You have to tell yourself, “Hey, we’re doing this really exciting thing, let’s embrace it.”