Directing often means being able to speak the language of several different groups of people at once. You must know how to talk to actors, how to talk to writers, and how to talk to designers. This of course doesn’t include talking to theaters about why you’re the best person for a given job. However, it seems that directors are rarely given the chance to be in conversation with one another, particularly given the nature of the job (traveling, tech, preview rehearsals, and performances) and the number of jobs that one must take in a year just to make something close to a living wage. For this reason, I’m so happy to have had the chance to sit down and talk with Patricia McGregor.
Patricia is an incredible director whose credits include Hurt Village, The Mountaintop, Ugly Lies the Bones, and Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole among many others. Her recent work on Nathan Alan Davis’ Refuge Plays gave me a lot to chew on concerning the craft of directing. Every transition felt clear and well thought out. The blocking and what it revealed about the characters made me sit up and pay attention. It feels rare to feel completely immersed inside of a production, but the three hours of the Refuge Plays flew by and by the end I found myself wondering where the time had gone.
Often when people engage with directors the questions are about thoughts on plays they’ve directed. It’s very rare that they ever go deeper into questions about how they directed them. My conversation with McGregor moves from questions about Refuge Plays to her thoughts on directing as a craft as well as what she hopes to leave behind for those coming up after her.
DOMINIQUE RIDER: First, how are you doing? Congratulations on opening such a massive play.
PATRICIA MCGREGOR: Thank you. Thank you. I'm good. I'm excited— it was exciting to get it over the finish line and to see audiences receiving it and it’s great to be back wearing one hat instead of two.
RIDER: My first question after seeing Refuge Plays, the thing that I thought about the most was an onion, with the way the play has so many different layers. And the way it seems to, at every turn, just peel itself back more and more, until we arrive at the end, which is also the beginning. And so I'm curious about what the process of working through each layer was like, and what was it like to eventually bring the entire thing together?
MCGREGOR: I was first asked to do this piece when Nathan was a student at Julliard. And when I was asked to do it, I was sent the trilogy [Editor’s Note: The Refuge Plays used to be three separate plays]. So I always had a sense of it as a whole. One of the things I love about the pieces is the idea that you couldn’t understand the human being without the context of all of their layers has always been very true to me, like I meet somebody and I want to know who your people are, I want to know who your family is, I want to see a picture of you at age seven, I want to know what you want on your gravestone. I'm curious about both the vertical and the horizontal of this person who I'm meeting at this particular point in time. I think one of the great things about the plays - one of the challenging things, but one of the really beautiful things - is that it shows people over time, and it gives context to who they are in a moment because you've learned about who they've been in other periods of time. It's like long-term relationships. Both the challenges and the beauty of who a human is reveal itself over time in a very different way than it does immediately.
RIDER: There was a sense of rediscovery with each play. It was like meeting someone I know, but seeing a different part of them. I was really curious about how you helped the actors locate those differences, moving from one play to the next.
MCGREGOR: I haven't thought about this, but I'll share a visual for you. I am myself right now. And this is me with my family, that's myself. I also remind myself at times of who I've been in the past, this was like a picture of me in fourth grade and it was a really intense time. And I feel like oh, and she is me. And she is a very different person. And this is me when I used to bartend in the East Village and we dressed up like nurses, and we were wild. And that is me. It's a very different me. We have a core of ourselves. And we also, either by choice or by opportunity, get to try different parts of ourselves on at different times, and sometimes need to. We did a lot of exercises. I often ask people to do playlists and visuals of their public self, their private self, and their aspirational self. So we'll ask them to give visuals, and then play music, and we play it for each other. If you're in different plays, you've got to do that exercise for each play that you're in. So you give me a snapshot of what your public, private, and aspirational selves are like. None of them repeated the pictures. I didn't tell them they couldn't. But none of them did. Which to me was a revelation that there's something fundamentally different about your public, private, and aspirational self in each play. Those were some of the strategies we used to help unlock and inspire that for the actors.
RIDER: It makes a lot of sense. And that exercise feels so fruitful. I think, at least for me, it was so clear. I could feel that these are very different people, which is so exciting and I think difficult to actively portray.
MCGREGOR: One of the big explorations in the piece is the way in which responsibility in time can calcify you. We meet Gail, and she's the matriarch. She has what I call calcification at the top, that Walking Man is trying to help her release and be free of, but her mission is trying to hold tight. And then we get to see her humor and wit. But we meet her at the end of the second play where she doesn't have those responsibilities. And in many ways, she is freeing herself from her familial responsibilities and bonds, and the identity defined by that. I love to see all of them where they get free, where they calcify, and where these roles and opportunities we take on influence the core of who we are.
RIDER: The play has me thinking a lot about legacy but in the sort of opposite direction. After I left Refuge Plays I was thinking a lot about what has been left behind for me and what I'm inheriting. I was curious about what you inherited as a director. What did you get from other artists that came before you?
MCGREGOR: Some of the things I inherited were the deep desire to listen to instruments that might not always be front and center in the orchestra. I always say where's the oboe and don't try to make the oboe a trumpet and have we heard any tambourine? August Wilson said, “The content of my mother's cabinet medicine cabinet is worthy of great art”. I'm often interested in the architecture of humor and poetry. George C Wolfe is one of those folks who has both the architecture of comedy, poetry, and something visceral. As I look up right now, I see the first two pieces that I worked on in my early 20s, when they went to Broadway. One was Fela! I feel like I inherited the joy of the musicality in the musical theater form served by Bill T. Jones and that tremendous group of collaborators. Right next to it is a poster of Medea. I worked on it as a stage manager in my early 20s. Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw worked on it together. That was a really amazing experience that exposed me to how to have a “classic piece” live on in a really visceral way. When I look up at these two pieces, they remind me of the great inheritance that I've received from a range of incredible artists whom I admire.
RIDER: What incredible people to inherit from! That's truly a beautiful moment of reflection. You talked a little bit just now about architecture. Directing is so much about making a 2D thing and making it 3D. It’s also about world-building. I’m curious about how you decided on what kind of world to build. And I'd also love to know a little about your aesthetic interest in the play.
MCGREGOR: So I'd say the play itself gives us some clues or obligations. The first piece is interior, the second piece is just outside the house, and the third piece is before the house was built. I first thought of the surroundings of the woods. The woods can be a place that's both beautiful and terrifying. How do we use both the vertical and the horizontal space in a slightly abstract way to represent woods? The goal was to say, in this one space when she says, “I'm going to build it right here” you get to see a physical manifestation of the thing that she willed into being. There are times when I'd love to be more abstract or centralized. But I actually think there's radical politics to us having an actual home, like a physically stable home, in a country that's tried to destabilize so much.
RIDER: I know that you have experience with directing Shakespeare. I'm wondering, do you find connectivity when you're doing these sorts of epic plays to the work you’ve done on Shakespeare?
MCGREGOR: Yeah, I would say there's a muscularity to the approach. I feel they're both in their own ways, what I call machine plays, like, there is a mess that you have to attend to. I often say I rehearse as a cone. In the beginning, everything is possible. It's a playthrough, do whatever you want. Then we get to a place where we're in agreement that this is the range, and then by the end, I’m very, very precise. And here's the place where there's some jazz, but here's the precise thing that we have to do that is the consolidation of all of that exploration. Those steps have to happen pretty quickly. As challenging as that is, it's also a roadmap, you know what the tasks are.
RIDER: When I'm thinking about directing, I am often thinking about what it means to build a body of work. Directors are not writers, we will not have our work published, and it will not live on in the same way. I watched an interview you did for the Theatre Corner in 2019, where you talked about your first time directing at SMU where you did My Children! My Africa! From then to now what do you think is the most consistent thing about your work?
MCGREGOR: Great question. I would say what I hope has stayed the same is that the process and the production is centered in both rigor and love. That the event is intentionally built to be a place of meditation, provocation, and healing. I'm not interested in the pedestrian, I'm interested in either the intimate or the epic.
RIDER: What do you feel has changed the most from then to now?
MCGREGOR: The thing that's changed the most is that I'm much more able to hold scale. I don't know if I would have if I got the script of Refuge Plays as a first-time director, I might be like, nah, nah, nah. I started with a two-hander or three-hander that I really felt very moved by. The North Star is that there's something that hits me in the gut that propels me to stay up late at night and do all the things I need to do to make the thing happen.
RIDER: What has been the most surprising part of growing as a director for you?
MCGREGOR: The most surprising part of growing actually, is noticing that the instincts I had in the beginning were really good. It matches the tools that I've been given and the ability to manage a processI think sometimes people mistake tools for a voice. And I am very glad to have gotten all of the tools that I have. I also want to empower young people or people emerging to also trust your voice, and build whatever tools that you need to help you get to whatever the next step is.
But that your voice is always going to be your voice and to trust that.
RIDER: Finally, what are the things that you are hoping to leave behind?
MCGREGOR: Yeah, I think a robust value of the uniqueness of your voice, trust in the uniqueness of your voice, and the ability to manage the process. I want people to know that they deserve to be the captain. I want to give them any tools that might be useful in how they navigate that, and I want to help empower more success, to know how to get to the shore and know that you can and know that you should. I've had very great success, and I've had great opposition and challenges as well. I also want to help give confidence to folks. People will say things and I'll be like, well, whatever, August Wilson said I was special. It's like a shield! I want to help empower people to help tool share and to be a shield, and even if that shield is just in your mind, there are people who have my back and that you can walk through the world with more confidence knowing that there are folks who believe in you.