Go back to the time when mini-skirts and bell bottoms were all the rage in the Alliance Theatre’s world premiere production of Pearl Cleage’s What I Learned in Paris. Set in 1973 Atlanta, this romantic comedy presents a tale of passion and politics. In this Feature Q & A, Pearl Cleage discusses the process of writing the play, working with the Alliance Theatre, and a recent play she saw in New York that moved her.
When you wrote this play, did you have a plot in mind or did the idea arise from a character’s voice in your head?
I had always wanted to write about this moment in Atlanta’s history. I was working in the 1973 campaign and it was such an exciting time. We were all very young, but we knew we were making history. The challenge was to find a story that would allow me to look at this period with fresh eyes. I think ultimately I wanted to explore the idea that even when people are making history, they still have to deal with their very messy, complicated human lives. That’s why I decided it should be a romantic comedy. People are pretty funny when they fall in love!
What is the play about?
The play is about the necessity to tell the truth, in love or politics, if you want to succeed and give it your best shot. The main character, Eve Madison, is the character that had the moment of revelation when she went to Paris that allowed her to change her life. She realized that she was already the woman she was longing to be. All she had to do was reach out and grab her own life and start living it!
What is the significance of the year 1973?
The play opens on the night Maynard Jackson was elected the city’s first African-American mayor. It was a turning point in the city’s racial and political history. 1973 was also the year that Charis Books, our fabulous feminist bookstore, opened, so that there was lots of discussion of gender going on, too. I tried to weave all these strands together to show how multi-layered the characters lives are.
What do you like about writing romantic comedies?
I love writing romantic comedies. It allows you to show the characters at their most vulnerable since they are in love, which is always fun. Also in a romantic comedy, the worst thing that happens is that there are temporary misunderstandings. By the time the play is over, everybody should have ended up where they need to be and all’s right with the world.
Do you have a favorite moment in the play?
I love to watch Eve Madison tell the truth to a group of people who are sometimes startled by her willingness to do so. At the heart of the play is my belief that if you are going to succeed in love or politics, you have to make a commitment to tell and live the truth. This is the lesson Eve shares with the others.
You have had several plays premiere at the Alliance Theatre. What do you like best about working with the Alliance Theatre?
I love working with Susan Booth, who is directing the play. We first worked together on “The Nacirema Society…” in 2010 and it was a great collaboration. Our styles and ways of looking at the world are very complimentary so we both had a great time. I also love working with the other artists at the Alliance. They are wonderful at what they do and are always willing to go the extra mile to achieve the playwright’s vision. It is a pleasure to go to rehearsal…even during tech week!
Is the process of premiering a play stressful or nerve-wrecking?
The process of putting up a new play is alternately exhilarating and stressful. You want to get it right and every day is a process of listening, watching, fine tuning and trusting your idea while being open to the ideas of your collaborators. Working so closely with other artists is always a joy and when the group pulls together and shares a vision, even the stressful days are productive. I’m excited to see how the audience receives this show that we’ve been working on so hard. I can’t wait!
You have been working with the Alliance Theatre’s Collision Project. What has been the most rewarding thing about your experiences with the program?
My work with the Collision Project has renewed my faith in young people. These twenty young people from all over metro Atlanta come together for three weeks and put something amazing together. Their curiosity, their trust in us and in each other and their enthusiasm for the world they’re moving into is inspiring. I look forward to working with the project again this summer and as long as they have me!
What novelists or playwrights do you admire?
I admire so many writers that it is hard to pick a few. The writers I most admire are the ones who are exploring the complexities of the human heart. I saw a wonderful play in New York recently called Storefront Church. The writer, John Patrick Shanley, was able to translate complex issues into such a wonderful story with such rich characters. I think any writer who decides to write for the stage or the page deserves credit for the discipline it takes to make it happen. I think my two favorite writers are Alice Walker, who inspires me to struggle toward the truth, and Langston Hughes, who reminds me how much I love humans, in all our mad complexity.
What production have you seen recently that has really moved you?
Storefront Church stays on my mind. It was so beautifully written and the characters so sharply drawn and the acting (by a superb company of actors) and directing (by the author) were amazing. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and talking about it after. Susan Booth went with me, and we had a great time walking back to our hotel through the New York night talking about the play. A perfect theater moment…a great play and somebody to talk about it with while winding our way through the streets of Chelsea!
What I Learned in Paris plays at the Alliance Theatre September 5 through September 30, 2012. For tickets and more information, please visit the theater’s website.