Q&A with Author Sharr White

Interview by Jenni Swan, Drama EditorSharr-White-Head-Shot-1-200x300

In ‘The Other Place,’ the story centers on a woman who could be classified as an unreliable narrator/central character. What particular challenges did you face to make her credible in the telling of her story? Did it also give you freedom to explore/experiment in ways you may not have expected?

The most important thing about building an unreliable narrator format is first and foremost establishing, in the audiences eyes, the narrator’s reliability. Or at least in this story it was very important. We have to believe that the main character, Juliana, is the smartest woman on earth, and therefore everything she’s telling us is true, so that when her world begins falling apart, we experience it right alongside her. That’s what became so important about the science in the play; it establishes her intellect. I wouldn’t say the format gave me freedom more than it gave me a challenge I hadn’t dealt with before, which was building a story that stuck relentlessly to one person’s point of view…at least in the beginning.

You’ve mentioned in the past that you like to utilize different formats for each of your plays, and to explore a variety of circumstances and themes in your work. When you’re at the genesis stage of a new piece, do you already have a particular structure in mind that you’d like to try? Do you let the story unfold on its own, then tailor the format as it progresses? What is that process like for you?

I really don’t have a structure in mind first; it’s the story that really drives the format. One of the benefits—or problems—of living in the era in which we are is that you’re always faced with the big Why. With my new play, for instance, which is set in 1917, I had considered giving it a very modern, edgy structure. But the question was, Why. What would I be saying had I done that? What would I be broadcasting to the audience? What expectations would combining a modern structure with a classic era raise with an audience in terms of the resolution they would hope to see? To do a mash-up of styles is something that can really work, but to call attention to structure that way is to also state that you’re engaged in commentary, which hasn’t so far been my goal. So for me I really think the story drives all my decisions.

I just saw that your play ‘The Snow Geese’ will be done as a co-production by MCC Theater and Manhattan Theatre Club next fall – congratulations! What can you share with us about the play, and how it came to be?

Thank you, it’s really exciting. For a long time I had the idea that I wanted to do a pastoral American play, and a friend of mine suggested I look at the English film The Shooting Party, which was an interesting place for me to start. There’s nothing really in the play that resembles the film except for a nod to it—the play is set during a wealthy New York family’s annual shooting party on the eve of America’s entry into World War I—but I really wanted to explore issues of American class, and the rise and fall of wealth, and inheritance, and privilege, and I was especially interested in the way that the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ can exist within a single family. So The Snow Geese is about a once-wealthy family, the Gaeslings, the father/husband of which has just died and left them mired in debt. The mother is in mourning, the elder son, who has always been a golden child, has left Princeton for the army, and the younger son, who for financial reasons was not able to go to good schools, is left to make really hard decisions about the family’s finances. The action takes pace over the course of a day and a night at the family’s hunting lodge on the Finger Lakes during their annual hunt. And really it’s the last day they will ever spend there. It’s a play about the end of the Gilded Age; something I wanted to explore because I think we’ve just seen the end of a modern Gilded Age, and I wanted to mark this moment for myself somehow.