by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
Anita Maynard-Losh leads Arena's education and outreach programs. She trained and taught at ACT in San Francisco, was on faculty at Webster University in St. Louis, headed the theater department at University of Alaska Southeast and was associate artistic director of Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, where she directed 18 mainstage productions. The Alaska Native-inspired Macbeth she conceived and directed was performed in English and Tlingit at the National Museum of the American Indian as part of the Shakespeare in Washington Festival. She was Molly Smith's associate director on Oklahoma! and The Music Man, and has directed readings of new plays at Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center. She has been dialect coach for numerous productions at Arena Stage, including last season's Camp David, and has coached dialects for the Kennedy Center, the Washington National Opera and on the Broadway revival of Ragtime.
How did Our War come about? Why look back to the Civil War after 150 years and what attracted you to the project?
We’re participating in the National Civil War Project, and part of our contribution is taking an opportunity to investigate what’s resonant or relevant about the Civil War today. What better way to do that than to ask 25 exciting, contemporary playwrights to write a monologue in reaction to the Civil War. These pieces are not necessarily set in the Civil War, in fact the majority are not. Most of them are responses to the Civil War in a contemporary setting. What’s thrilling to me about the project is, as you can imagine, each of these monologues is very, very different. They are wildly varied and unique and in some cases extremely surprising. It’s exciting to get a chance to explore the question, “Who controls historic narrative? Who decides what our image of an historic narrative is?”
History is so messy and complex and vast that we like to reduce and simplify it to an image that we can easily comprehend. Who decides the content of that image? I believe that it is usually decided by the dominant culture, and in cases of war it’s usually the people who won. What’s exciting about this piece is that over half the playwrights are women; a huge majority of the playwrights are people of color. So we get the opportunity to hear points of view that we don’t usually hear. For example we have three pieces that are written by Native American playwrights. There are pieces that have extremely different points of view about Abraham Lincoln. There are pieces that investigate what it means to be a citizen, how we earn our citizenship, and delve into issues of immigration. I have this image of the Civil War as a big rock that’s been dropped into a pond, and we’ve always seen it from a certain side of the pond, from a certain vantage point. Our War is an opportunity for us to look at the ripples that rock has made from the different sides of the pond. I find it very exciting to think about that and to figure out how all the pieces go together.
What were you looking for during casting?
I was looking for actors who were transformational, and who represented America, and represented several different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Many of these monologues are written for a very specific age, specific gender, and in many cases a specific ethnic or racial background. I wanted a cast who could represent that in as honest a way as possible and yet who could transform and not be limited by the requirements of the piece or their own personal stories. I was interested in people who were good ensemble members. All of the actors will be onstage throughout the show, so the ensemble will help create the environment of each individual play. I wanted to find actors who were generous, supportive, playful, and responsive to the group.
How did you and dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke finalize the order of the pieces? I imagine a giant jigsaw puzzle.
It is a giant jigsaw puzzle! There are so many elements to consider. Some monologues are set in historic times, but many are in a contemporary setting. So how do you deal with time? Do you group pieces that have similar themes? Or opposing points of view? In looking at the pieces, what do we want the audience to be left with? In some ways I think that may be the most important consideration. Jocelyn and I first focused on the questions of how to start and how to end. And there is one piece that is written as a monologue, but I am splitting it among all six actors. And ultimately, whom do you want to have the last word?
What was the inspiration behind incorporating DC notables?
The concept came from Artistic Director, Molly Smith. The idea is that these are thinkers and doers in DC — people who have real impact on issues that are reflected in this piece. Some of them are directly related and some of them are indirectly related, but these are people who make things happen. How interesting to hear their interpretation of a monologue! Because they bring their unique experience, sensitivity and knowledge to the role. So how exciting to have Ruth Bader Ginsburg interpreting David Lindsay-Abaire’s piece about a mother waiting for her son to come home from war. Or Chris Matthews doing Ken Ludwig’s piece, or Eleanor Holmes Norton doing Tazewell Thompson’s piece, “This is How We Do.” They’ll bring something to the monologue that will illuminate it in a distinctive way.
What is the design vision for the show?
There are five platforms that look like slabs of marble, like pieces of monuments layered on top of each other. Then there is a background of curved ribbons of material that can be projected upon. If you look at the ribbons in one way, and if they are projected upon in a particular way, they will look like a deconstructed American flag. The projections will give the title and the author of each piece and also visual images that provide some context for the audience to understand the setting. There won’t be a lot of costume changes, because I want the focus to be on the words, and the fluid character transformations that actors can achieve with their voices and bodies. So the design is simple in certain ways, and it’s all to support the words of the playwrights.
What do you hope the audience will discover about the Civil War from the project?
I’d love them to recognize thatsometimes we can confuse our own point of view with absolute truth. What we think of as truth might just be opinion—that believing something is true doesn’t make it irrefutably so, no matter how many people share your belief. Life is so much more complicated than that. I don’t know if it is about the Civil War really, or if the Civil War is actually a method by which to come to a greater understanding of humanity’s crazy complications and thoughts and beliefs. I think the Civil War may be the way in.
It’s a very unique approach to use a series of monologues as opposed to a traditional play structure. How do you think doing it this way will affect an audience and perhaps reach them in a different way?
With a traditional play you have a chance to get to know the characters in it over a period of time, go on an emotional journey, see what these people are struggling for and what’s in the way and what they do to get what they want. And there’s an arc in that structure which helps us take the journey with them. When it’s a large group of monologues like Our War, we’re seeing a scene here, a scene there, exploring questions through short visits with strong characters, getting glimpses into various specific realities. However there is something about the cumulative power of all the different scenes, characters, ideas and realities in Our War that is profoundly moving and makes a significant impact.