Few writers have created works as diverse as Pennsylvania playwright Michael Hollinger. For Hollinger, it seems any subject matter is fair game. Just compare his play Incorruptible, in which 13th-century monks try to make a living off fraudulent saints’ relics, to Tooth and Claw, about a feud between scientists and fisherman in the Galapagos Islands, and you’ll get a feel for his wide range of subject matter.
Stepping away from formulas, Hollinger surprises with vastly different content in each new play. Last seen (and heard) in LA was a production of Tooth and Claw, which was recorded for radio just last month by LA Theatre Works. Following on that production’s heels is Hollinger’s Ghost-Writer, opening Friday at International City Theatre (ICT). Â The play examines the claims of fictional novelist James Woolsey’s secretary following his death””claims that she is still receiving his dictations from beyond the grave.
When asked how he comes up with such varying ideas for his plays, Hollinger laughs. “God knows,” he says. “I’m curious. I’m a good student. I like diving into worlds that allow me to be curious.” Other than satisfying his curiosity, he says looking in new places for ideas allows for more creativity. “Different subject areas, geographies, and time periods get to become characters in plays,” he says. “You could write a story about a writer and his secretary that takes place today, but if it’s set in the period Ghost-Writer is set in, you have to ask what it’s like to be in a place where people are transitioning from carriages to motorcars.” Hollinger explains that when a play is set in a different time, the answers to questions like, “How do these people talk?” and “If they need to use the bathroom, what do they say?” create such distinctive atmospheres that they become just as important as characters.
Tooth and Claw, recently produced at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater for its LA Theatre Works radio recording, is a perfect example of how far Hollinger is willing to go to answer these questions. His curiosity got the better of him after he heard a piece on the radio about a feud between fishermen and scientists in the Galapagos, regarding the over-fishing of foods essential to the survival of local tortoises. In protest, tortoises were subsequently slaughtered. The play follows a biologist’s embroilment in the matter. To write the play, Hollinger says he knew he would have to go the extra mile””or in this case, miles. After having done some “pre-internet” research in libraries with microfilm, he says, “I soon realized the world of the play was so complex I would never be able to do it justice unless I went there.”
His opportunity came when he was granted a fellowship from the Independence Foundation to visit and tour the Galapagos Islands. He interviewed fisherman involved in the ’90s scandal, scientists, and even people in the tourism industry. “I hung out at the Charles Darwin Research Station, where a lot of events in the play take place, and I met the director and scientists working there,” he explains. He also traveled to Florida for a lengthy interview with the Darwin station’s former director, on whom he based his main character. It’s the most amount of research he has ever done for a play. “I have a huge plastic tub for every play I write, and that one has two,” he says.
Ghost-Writer, too, was born out of research. Hollinger was intrigued by an unattributed factoid that alleged Henry James’ secretary, Theodora Bosanquet, claimed to have received dictations from James after his death. “I read Theodora Bosanquet’s memoir, Henry James at Work, but I couldn’t find references to it anywhere,” Hollinger said of his subsequent research. Apparently, the topic was not even footnoted. “It seemed like it was a very random little factoid that never went anywhere. For that reason, and the fact that Henry James was unmarried and there seems to be no relationship between him and Theodora other than a professional one, I pretty quickly left Henry James behind,” Hollinger says.
But then his fact-finding mission took him in another direction, leading him to create a fictional set of characters: James Woolsey, his secretary Myra, and his wife Vivian. Upon Woolsey’s death, Myra and Vivian are forced to cope with Myra’s supposed telepathy and the lingering traces of a love triangle. “I realized that this love triangle that’s in the play would be much more powerful than anything connected to the real-life story,” he says.
Although Hollinger may have left Henry James behind in terms of plot, James and his peers still held a good deal of sway in Ghost-Writer’s creation. In preparation for writing the play, Hollinger read literature from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including works by James and Charles Dickens. “I wanted to find the cadence of this turn-of-the-century language,” he says of the research. In particular, he focused on “the longer, elegant sentences and paragraphs,” which he says he is unaccustomed to, as someone who primarily writes dialogue.
To clarify, Hollinger notes that despite any influence of language, Woolsey and James are not interchangeable. “Woolsey’s voice is not James’ voice,” he says, “but I needed to hang out in that era in order to find my own.” Â All the hard work he puts into his writing hasn’t gone unnoticed.Â He has won a string of awards, including the Barrymore Award for outstanding new play (2000 and 2006), the Frederick Loewe Award for Musical Theatre (2005), as well as various fellowships.
Hollinger became involved in ICT’s current production of Ghost-Writer when he was in town for the LA Theatre Works production of Tooth and Claw. He met with ICT’s artistic director, caryn desai, who is directing the production. “We had a chance to talk about the play and we’ve had some email exchanges since then,” Hollinger says. While he has not been involved in casting or design, he has continued to speak with desai. Of his role in this production, Hollinger says, “Really it was about illuminating some things in the script.”
As Hollinger speaks by phone, taking time out from his vacation with family, it becomes clear that family has played a big role in his career as well as his life. His parents were the ones to first get him into theater. They were both involved in community theater in their hometown of York, Pennsylvania, while Hollinger was growing up. “I worked backstage, I performed onstage, and I ran lines with my parents while they memorized their parts,” he recalls of his upbringing in theater.
He also attributes his parents with instilling in him a love of words. “My family is very writerly,” he says, explaining that his father was a technical writer and his mother an unpublished poet. “Writing and consciousness of words was very much in my household,” he says. The combination of working intimately with theater and his “writerly” upbringing gave him a keen understanding for the ins and outs of playwriting. Hollinger explains, “Play format and what its blueprint is, relative to its realization onstage, were very familiar to me.”
Hollinger’s family had a direct impact on the creation of Ghost-Writer, which he says was very much inspired by his mother’s passing. Her death occurred around the same time he read about James’ secretary, and the two seemingly unrelated incidents ended up being the cornerstones to inventing Ghost-Writer. “I spent a lot of time talking to my father about what it was like to lose your other half, and how disorienting that is,” he says. He explains that Myra has been Woolsey’s secretary for some 15 years, during which time they became very close, perhaps even romantically. In thinking about his mother’s death, he started to wonder about what he calls “the presence of absence,” which he explains as a strong awareness of the absence of someone who was once ever-present in a person’s life.
While the play was partially based on James’ relationship with his secretary, along the way it turned into something deeper. He says the layers of meaning in his plays tend to sneak up on him as he writes. “When I start off, it looks like I’m writing a play about some interesting thing way over there,” he says. “What I discover about a quarter of the way in is that’s not nearly so interesting as what has been going on inside my heart, which turns out to be the whole reason I started writing the play, though I didn’t even know it.” What was in his heart when he wrote Ghost-Writer? “The play really is about exploring spirit: the spirit that is inspiration, the spirit that is love, the spirit that is life, and whatever life spirit we take with us or leave behind us,” he says.
Music too, has had an important role in Hollinger’s life and writing. Before obtaining a master’s degree in theater from Villanova University, he received a bachelor’s in viola performance from Oberlin Conservatory. Why the switch? Hollinger says his former instrument was a pain: “It can be physically tiring, and if you’re not in absolutely perfect posture all the time it can be painful. So that was not a great incentive for me.”
Despite forgoing a career as a violist, music has still had a big impact on his career as a writer. He used his experience as a violist to create one of his most decorated plays, Opus. The show portrays a string quartet with a member gone missing struggling to prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity””performing at the White House. The play, which won a Barrymore Award as well as the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics New Play Award, was highly regarded in its long run at the Fountain Theatre in 2010. Originally slated for only six weeks, the production went on to be extended multiple times after receiving rave reviews. The production helped win the Fountain the Ovation Award for Best Season, and garnered LA Drama Critics Circle Awards for writing, ensemble, and sound.
Talking about his writing process leads Hollinger to divulge some information about his current work, a play tentatively titled Flesh and Blood. “The new play is a comedy about kidney transplantation,” he says, and then laughs at his own blunt delivery. “It’s really about family. The conflict is about a father who needs a kidney transplant, and an adult daughter who is not sure she wants to give hers,” he explains. Although the play has nothing to do with music, Hollinger explains how music still plays a role in his writing process. “Language itself is extremely musical and rhythmic. When I write, I will listen to music beforehand sometimes to get in the mood of things. This new play is dark and strange and contemporary, so I have been listening to songwriters who have those qualities,” he explains. The play is still in its early stages.
On the horizon, Hollinger sees writing taking him new places, as it has done in the past. “Where and when I don’t know, exactly,” he says of potential travels. He does know, however, that after Flesh and Blood, the next one is going to be big. “I feel like I’ve worked with smaller canvases for awhile,” he says, referring to the small cast sizes of Ghost-Writer and Flesh and Blood. “There is something about reducing the size of your own canvas, as a writer, that makes me now want the pendulum to swing in the other direction. I want to get back to a subject that’s big and sprawling.” Before he gets to that wide horizon, audiences will have to wait for his next small canvas as Hollinger fleshes out Flesh and Blood.
Ghost-Writer, presented by International City Theatre. Opens Aug. 24. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Sep. 16. Tickets: $37-$44. ICT at Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 562-436-4610. ictlongbeach.org.
***All Ghost-Writer production photos by Suzanne Mapes