Monday, April 9, 2018

On Mystery, Currents of Change, and DOUBT: A Conversation with C. Michael Wright

by Jarrod Langwinski

Jarrod Langwinski: Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s mission is to bring great stories to life. What is it about DOUBT, for you, that makes it a great story? 

C. Michael Wright: I love that it’s an issue play. I love that we meet people with two dramatically different viewpoints. Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn are sort of dramatic opposites in their beliefs, especially in how to raise children, how to guide the parish—specifically, those that are more vulnerable than they. Father Flynn wants to embrace the community, wants to lead with his heart; she’s much more strict and ‘by the rules’ and works more through her head. They both have very valid viewpoints, but I think it’s a very great question to pose to our patrons: how do you treat others and how do you make other people accountable for how they treat others? Because that’s the big issue: Sister Aloysius suspecting Father Flynn of some sort of improper behavior. She’s not certain, but she questions even his attitude toward the young people he works with. She feels like it’s dangerous that he is too soft, too open, too warm, that he’s inviting problems. I also think that Shanley, the writer, placing this in 1964 gives us a sort of a microcosm of how the world is changing. The Catholic Church is changing at this time, but it’s also an example of how the pendulum’s swinging from a post-war era to free love. 

DOUBT director C. Michael Wright
It’s a wonderful picture of two disparate viewpoints and people trying to make other people accountable… but what’s really important too, for today, is that we are all judging each other’s permissiveness in sexual situations. It’s the era of the “Me Too” movement, and there’s that great reflection on how do you know, when you suspect something’s going on? How do you make that jump of knowing rather than just suspecting, and how do you make people accountable for their behaviors? Especially authority figures. So I think DOUBT has great resonance for today, even though it’s a play about 1964 and about the church. It’s also about the way we live our lives and how we judge each other. It’s always great to be aware and be alert and be just and fair to each other.   

JL: You were talking about the environment of the 1960s a bit, really during a time of great change socially, politically, etc. What can audiences today learn about the sociopolitical environment of the play and its ties with religion? 

CMW:  Well, because it’s the Catholic Church, it’s the time of the Second Ecumenical Council where things get dramatically changed in the church. So it’s very specific, and that’s why Shanley is so great in creating this very specific environment where a definite change was happening. Father Flynn represents this next generation of beliefs and behavior, but he’s also got this backing of the whole Catholic Church; whereas Sister Aloysius is holding on to old rules, which makes her almost defunct and allows Father Flynn more leeway in how he can push forward with his own… I don’t want to say political agenda; we don’t know what his behavior is. But we know he wants to embrace this new era of the church. I think what Shanley’s doing is having us look at how the nation was changing at the same time too. Father Flynn is an example of the changing times of our nation. He starts the play talking about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, so we immediately know where we are in time. The nation was hurting and vulnerable, so almost anything’s possible. I think that’s what Shanley is trying to say, that when we are vulnerable, we are at our most open and accessible but also at our most dangerous. 

JLThis production concludes your current season, titled “The Mysteries of Life.” I was curious what the inspiration was for that statement and how that helped you decide on choosing DOUBT.  

CMW:  Well, to me, DOUBT is a mystery. There is this mystery of “Does this priest have a secret?,” and if he does, “What is that secret?” And Sister Aloysius almost becomes a detective trying to solve that mystery. I also like that the Catholic Church is full of mystery; or at least it used to be, less so now. I grew up Catholic, and I was an altar boy, so all of that in the play I remember. I remember the mystery of the priests, the sacraments, and even the architecture: the sacristy, the little room where they hide the wine, the communion wafers, the vestments. And I think people preferred when it was mysterious because you didn’t have to explain everything. Once you start opening stuff up then doubt just keeps growing.  

JL: You don’t immediately just have answers. 

CMW: Right. Because in some ways keeping it mysterious makes it easier to believe. But once you really start looking at everyone’s place in the church and in the world even, the mysteries go away, dissolve. That’s what I’m fascinated by in terms of choosing “The Mysteries of Life” as the season—different ways to look at what is mysterious in their [the characters’] world.   

JL: I feel like even the origins of theatre are partly about explaining the mysterious or attempting to at least bring light to the mysterious, to talk about it. So much of Greek and Roman theatre is about exploring mythology. So this is a very contemporary look at what is mysterious and what are the questions we have. 

CMW: Right. And theatre itself is mysterious, you know? Sometimes it’s fun to explain and let people in on the magical process of creating theatre, but sometimes it’s nice to keep the mystery, keep the distancebecause it’s easier to weave a tale, to seduce—which is a lot of the play, too. It’s very easy for Father Flynn to seduce because he has that power, that father authority figure, and he’s part of that mysterious world of the church. 

JL:  When did you first read the script or see the play? And has your opinion of the play changed as time has gone on?   

CMW: I saw the play on Broadway. I saw the original production and I loved it but felt that there was a coldness to it. And it wasn’t until recently, the past couple years, that I’ve gone back and re-read it because I remembered really liking it. Now I love it because I don’t think of it as a cold play at all; there’s a lot of heat there and some of that has to do with how our times have changed. Now that we’re in this era of confusion and lots of accusations—everybody’s a target for everybody else—it makes me realize how much like animals we are. And we almost have to be like an animal and always be ready to be attacked or ready to attack as you’re trying to protect yourself and others. We talk a lot in rehearsal about the animal in these people. You have to really be careful in our world. It’s a dangerous world. I don’t believe in evil people, but I believe that there’s evil in the world and that we have to watch out and take care of each other. So I’m realizing how much heat there is in the piece and I’m enjoying exploring that. Because I think really exciting theatre has sparks, has heat, has fire.  

JL:  And I know you’re still in the midst of rehearsal (at the time of this interview), but even so, what can you tell us about the process or some of the discoveries you’ve made as a group?  Getting to dive into this play together? 

CMW: I have a great cast, and a great design team. I mean truly, everyone is at the top of their game right now. One thing it started with was scenic. We tried to create a beautiful world, rather than a cold environment. Just like we talked about with magic, I want to seduce the audience with this beautiful world. We have this great stained glass window that’s going to be gorgeous and we’re also playing with not having moving pieces. When I saw it on Broadway, it was all on wagons and you would go from one environment to the next and then it would disappear. We have it all visible at all times. You see four different locations simultaneously. We decided to do the opening with Father Flynn at the pulpit and Sister Aloysius at her desk at the same time: he’s in focus, but she’s sort of replaying his sermon in her head as she’s at her desk. So immediately we’re introduced to these two figures, but he’s looming above her and we see the power he has over her world. That was really fun in terms of design to explore. 

Also, because they’re all in uniform, they’re all in black, we tried to get enough color in the environment so it’s not just a black, black, black world. And the actors, they’re just so great. We’re trying to find just the humanity in it. They’re all great at listening to each other and exploring, they understand the framework, but every one of them is open to discovery every day. We do lots of talking about it, but we also do lots of playing within it. The big thing we’re all learning is that the play is beautifully structured; there aren’t many pauses, there are very few ellipses or dashes, it’very spare and compact and economical. So we’re trying to really honor that, really make sure we’re not indulging what’s not on the page. I do think Shanley is a wonderful playwright, and this is definitely his best work.   

JL:  So, I was wondering, how have your own beliefs about faith shaped the way you view a show like DOUBT? With your Catholic background, did that have an effect on how you viewed it, or was it more of a separate entity? 

CMW: Probably separate. I left the Church in my teens, and I think I view the play less through a Catholic lens... I don’t really feel the play is about the Catholic Church so much as that that’s just the environment Shanley creates to tell this story. I think it’s about how we protect each other and stay on the alert but also don’t lose our humanity. To me, that’s the most important thing I think, in life, is to not lose that sense. Basically we are all good, but there is evil out there, and we are capable of evil and that we have to somehow stay on top of all of that—watch each other, not judge each other too harshly. But we do have to judge each other... Who do you want to hang with? Who do you want to follow? Especially when you’ve got authority figures who are telling you extremely different things. Think about how our political parties right now are so disparate. These two individuals [in DOUBT] represent two different communities of people, and you have to decide: can you listen to parts of both? Or do you need to make a strong choice and follow it? Because I think we all are looking for leaders: who to listen to, who to believe in, who to trust.  

JL: That’s a very important distinction to make, such an interesting context. Religion does still affect a large portion of people’s lives, but at the same time it’s a lot more subjective now than it was before. People are less afraid to feel one way or another or more likely to have their doubts.  

CMW: Less limitation. 

JL: Yes, it’s less of a “this is what my parents thought and I’m following that.” 

CMW: We can pick and choose how much of each person’s theories we believe in, with free will. 

JL: So for my final question, with DOUBT rounding off the MCT’s 2017-2018 season of “The Mysteries of Life,” has there been anything that has shaped your perspective going into next season, 2018-2019’s “A Time for Risk”?    

CMW: I usually think each season has almost its own play. Its own series of five plays becomes its own offering, and then you take a break and go into a whole new world. I feel like we’re completing one whole chapter and about to go into another one.  

What I tend to do is collect lots of plays on my shelf and then decide how I might build a season around maybe three of them that have similar themes. Sometimes the theme just evolves on its own. “The Mysteries of Life” was more about embracing theatre as… theatre magic. You know, very little to do with contemporary angst. “A Time for Risk” is more about how we’re all at this brink and need to make strong choices right now. Some of next season’s plays are love stories, with people just kind of opening their hearts to each other, but all are about people who are brave and courageous enough to push forward, take a chance. 

JL: It’s almost as if “The Mysteries of Life” was about questioning humanity and questioning ourselves, then “A Time for Risk” is now about, after self-discovering, making those choices and not looking back. 

CMWI’ll accept that! 

DOUBT runs Thursday, April 12 to Sunday, April 29 in the Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets can be purchased in-person at the box office, via phone at 414.291.7800, or online. Visit to learn more!