Ghost-Writer opens on September 28 at Theatre in the Square and actress Elisa Carlson, who plays the title character, has faced some interesting challenges with her role. In the play she portrays Myra Babbage, a secretary to author Franklin Woolsey. She types his dictations even after his death. An accomplished actress and dialogue coach, Elisa gives insight into the play’s ideas, the unique role that an antique typewriter plays in the show and how her history as a secretary has helped her with the part.
What led you to accept a part in the Theatre in the Square’s production of Ghost-Writer?
I hadn’t heard of the play, but loved the sides when I read them before my audition. There was a clip online from the Arden production (in Philadelphia) that was intriguing, and wonderful reviews of the show. I wanted to work with Jessica West, and the timing/role was right for me. I’m very grateful.
How would you describe your character, Myra Babbage?
Myra is a passionate, proper, stubborn, creative, intelligent woman of modest means in an age of repression. She channels her energy into her work as a typist for a famous writer whose books she loves and admires. I love everything about her, especially her sense of humor.
You and several of your family members have experience working as secretaries. How has that helped you play Myra?
I’m named for my great aunt, Madrid Williams, who went to secretarial school at age 16 (college wasn’t an option), and rose up to become Secretary of the State Bar of Georgia (the only non-lawyer to do so). She was named a Georgia Woman of Achievement two years ago. Several other great aunts were secretaries for lawyers in Washington, D.C. during the Depression and beyond. There were old typewriters in their homes, and I was fascinated by them. I learned to type when I was 15 and used that skill in my 20’s as a secretary between acting jobs. I understand how smart secretaries are, how they influence their bosses while learning to work within their rhythms. Myra is similar to my great aunts in that she was smart and ambitious enough to do any job, but her options were limited due to the time period she lived in and her economic circumstances.
How has your experience as a text and dialogue coach helped you play Myra?
The playwright, Michael Hollinger, has crafted the play beautifully on the page: the rhythms are all there for you, once you figure out how he’s using punctuation. Jessica is a real stickler for using the punctuation, and she really gets Hollinger’s style. As a voice/text coach of course I find that wonderful (and refreshing)! Even though I can coach it and understand it theoretically, the challenge of actually doing it is much bigger. It’s always good for a coach to get back in the game.
What role does punctuation play in Ghost-Writer?
Punctuation is another character in the play, in a way, as Myra is very particular about how it’s used and is so good at it that in time Mr. Woolsey lets her punctuate his novels as he dictates. There is an entire (hilarious) scene about the proper use of a semi-colon. As anyone who has been coached or taught by me will tell you, that’s my favorite punctuation mark. Friends who see the show are going to get a big kick out of that scene.
She has an interesting relationship with the typewriter. Would you say that the typewriter is like another character?
We call ours “Miss Royal”: a beautiful black Royal typewriter from 1919. She is definitely another character, center stage for the whole show, and in use in every scene. At first it was hard to get used to how much energy it took to press down the keys (versus the ease we all have at a computer keyboard) and return the carriage after every line, but now it’s a treat to work with her. I understand why some writers still use them: the connection from the keyboard to the page is quite visceral. I learned on an old 1960’s model we had years ago, and the feel and keyboard of it wasn’t much different from this one. Miss Royal is much more elegant than those post WW II models, though, a real beauty. I kind of have a crush on her. Myra calls her “the typing machine” and by moving her fingers on the keyboard is able to reach into Mr. Woolsey’s words and world, and his heart. She’s my partner and my friend throughout the play, Myra’s anchor.
The play is a love story and ghost story. Do you think this aspect adds to its appeal?
Myra’s story is a complex one. Love is certainly a big part of it, not just romantic love but love of collaboration and creation and language. I think her story is haunting. Whether or not she’s actually haunted, is a beautiful question for the audience to wonder on.
Myra truly believes that Franklin Woolsey is dictating to her, but the audience is left to decide for themselves whether or not the ghost is truly the writer. Is it easier or harder to play the role with that in mind?
Myra is a believer, but like most believers she has her doubts. At one point she says: “What is a ghost, but a vivid memory, visiting when one least expects it. And aren’t we all subject to haunting?” Her fervent belief coupled with her struggle to believe, is thrilling to play.
Reviewers in other cities have commented that the play is about creativity and truth. Do you agree?
I think the act of creation, particularly of writing, is a central theme. And truth is important, too. As the audience listens to Myra, they may find themselves asking “Is this true, or is this just what she wishes were true?” Myra might answer with a line from the play: “The writer had required a fiction to reveal the essence of their story. Only by changing the facts was he able to make it truer than what actually happened.”
What is the most challenging part of playing Myra?
The most challenging part of playing Myra may be one of stamina. I’m onstage for the whole hour and a half (with no intermission), narrating and in every scene. I’m typing furiously at times, sometimes typing to a specific rhythm, often typing with eyes shut. I play Myra at different ages, ranging from mid-twenties to early forties. She has a big emotional arc through the piece. And I have to fox-trot in the last scene! It takes enormous concentration, energy, openness and will to take the physical and emotional journey of the play. I’m learning to take it one step at a time in rehearsal, and to trust that I can do it. I’m very fortunate to be working with the wonderful actors Peter Tamm and Ellen McQueen as Mr. and Mrs. Woolsey, and with Jessica as a director.
You have extensive experience in both directing and acting. What has been your favorite production to be involved with?
Oh gosh, there are so many…luckily it’s often the one I’m working on at the moment! Myra will always be a favorite. I loved doing the premiere of Kelly Stuart’s Shadow Language at the Guthrie (in Minneapolis) several years ago. I played a naive woman from rural Tennessee who follows a friend from Turkey back to that country when the U.S. deports him, hoping to find him and help him. The play featured Kurdish shadow puppetry called Kyragoz, and was enlightening for me and audiences about what has happened to the Kurdish people. As a voice/text coach it was thrilling to work on several Tony Kushner premieres at the Guthrie, Tiny Kushner and The Intelligent Homosexual. He’s the most brilliant man of the theater — or any subject — I’ve ever met or worked with. Most recently I directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Gainesville Theatre Alliance, where I am a resident director/actor and professor. It was my first year with the program, and I was impressed by the talent and skill of the students, and the wonderful professional designers I got to work with. I’m very proud of that production. I recommend the GTA program to any college student who wants to stay in Georgia and train.
Have you seen a play or musical recently that particularly moved you?
The Georgia Shakespeare production of King Lear the summer before last is still with me. It was directed by Sabin Epstein, with Tim McDonough as Lear. Although I’m an Associate Artist at GS, I had been living and working in Minneapolis for the eight years prior and had only just moved back to town. Seeing with fresh eyes the mature artistry of my friends and colleagues in that production was overwhelmingly moving. I’ve seen many Lears, and played Regan, but never heard and felt the play in such a profound way. It made me proud to work in the theater and to work in Atlanta.
Written by Michael Hollinger and directed by Jessica Phelps West, Ghost-Writer plays at Theatre in the Square as part of the theater’s 30th Anniversary Season from September 28 to October 30. For tickets and more information, please visit Theatre in the Square’s website.