5 Questions with Playwright Maggie Lee
This month, Macha Theatre Works opened its world-premiere production of Sheathed — a new fantasy/adventure saga from acclaimed Seattle playwright Maggie Lee — which runs through March 24 at Theatre Off Jackson. (Read more about the play, and NWT’s review of it, here.)
NWT talked with Lee to learn more about the process, from ideation to realization, and her inspiration behind this latest work.
Next up, Lee already has two more in the pipeline: The Monkey King: Journey Westbound, a new modern adaptation of the legend of the Monkey King that follows four young Eastside friends on a quest through local Seattle neighborhoods (for Youth Theatre Northwest’s summer show); and a brand new, full length play for Macha Theatre Works Distillery Reading in June, about two sisters caught up in some dreadful Lovecraftian horror.
Interview content is condensed and edited for clarity.
How long has this script been in development, and what inspired it?
I’ve been working on it for about two years. I completed the first draft for Macha’s Distillery Reading Series in April 2017, and then had a second reading there in 2018. The Distillery experience was invaluable to me because I am terrible about finishing anything unless I have a deadline.
As for inspiration, I had become mildly obsessed with Akira Kurosawa films at the time, so I was binging on all the DVDs I could get at the library. I especially loved Sanjuro and Yojimbo, and I fell in love with Toshiro Mifune’s character in these films. He’s this crass, grumpy, sweaty, itchy reluctant hero, and I totally wanted to build a story around a complicated character like that. I also wanted to present a new take on the “strong female character.” I feel like many stories featuring a woman with a sword usually make it seem sexy and powerful that she kills everyone in her path. It’s her masculine aggression that makes her “strong.” I wanted to show a different side to that, that strength can come from restraint, from truly understanding the weight of the responsibility of your violence. So the character of Bala was born, and then everything tumbled from there.
How were the characters in your head versus the ones you saw on stage?
The main reason I am a playwright and not a novelist is that the greatest joy I get from my work is seeing how my stories are interpreted by others. While I am writing, I have these disembodied voices talking in my head and I can maybe see a shimmering mirage of what it might look like on stage. But that is nothing compared to being together in a room with such talented actors and designers, and seeing how the story adapts and molds to fit them, and how they mold and adapt to fit it. I know “magic of theatre” is a cheesy concept, but it truly is magic. You need all the arcane spell components and the right twisty incantations, and then a play springs forth from nothing.
You and director Amy Poisson have a long history of working together. How does that relationship change the production process, and what does that process look like?
Amy and I have a kind of alien mind-meld going on most of the time, but we still manage to surprise each other. In our artistic relationship, I feel like I usually err conservatively on the side of prudent stagecraft, but she is always pushing the limits of imagination. So I’ll be like “No, that’s too messy and difficult to stage” and she’s like “We are gonna make it crazy amazing!” So she is constantly surprising me with the beautiful, innovative stage pictures she makes from my words (and on a fringe budget, too!).
I have been completely spoiled as a playwright working with Amy, because she allows me to be a part of the whole process from beginning to end. It’s truly a collaborative process between us, so it’s wonderful to have a voice in the later stages of creation. It also gives me the opportunity to further craft the play to support the actors and the design concepts, which I feel makes for a stronger production in the end.
In rehearsals, I was able to do line tweaks for clarity and such. But I also added a whole brand new scene pretty late in the process, just a couple weeks before we opened, which usually I never do. I feel like it’s not fair to the actors and the production staff to throw new stuff at them so far along in the process. But it turned out to be one of the play’s most touching and funny scenes, so I was really glad everyone was able to roll with it!
How does this show speak to America at this moment?
The play wasn’t specifically written with that in mind, but it definitely has come to resonate with certain current issues, especially that of a divided country and how we can find a path forward together. There are no clear answers in the play, but I hope it helps folks think about the choices they make in the heat of anger or fear, and how honest relationships between people can help bridge the deep divide of ideals.
What do you hope viewers walk out with?
I know this isn’t a cool thing to say, but I hope our audience has fun. It’s kind of fashionable nowadays for plays to sternly lecture people about a big issue and send them home feeling guilty and awful, and that’s just not my thing. I want the play to stick with them as an amazing experience we all shared together. If they learned something, then that’s great – but honestly, I just want them to have an awesome time.
Whenever I see a good story, I always feel kind of full and satisfied afterward, like after a really good meal. So I hope they walk out feeling like all they need to make the night complete is an after-dinner mint.
Bonus question … Purely aspirationally, are you a Bala or a Ren?
I really want to say that I’m a Bala, but I think I’m totally a Ren. I’m still tripping over the lingering expectations of my youth and figuring out how to get comfortable in my own skin. But [Sheathed director Amy Poisson] is a Bala all the way! I want to be like her when I grow up.
Sheathed runs through 3/24 at Theatre Off Jackson in the International District. Tickets are $25, available here; pay-what-you-can performance on Wed. 3/20. Accessibility notes: restrooms are all gender-neutral, multi-stall; theatre is wheelchair accessible, through an alley entrance — please contact venue ahead of time to ensure smooth access.)
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.