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An Interview with Scena Theatre’s ‘Handbag’ Director Robert McNamara and Cast Members Anne Nottage, Amanda Forstrom, and Haely Jardas

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I had the honor of interviewing Director Robert McNamara and cast members Anne Nottage, Amanda Forstrom, and Haely Jardas from Scena Theatre’s Handbagwhich begins performances tonight.

Left: Anne Nottage, Amanda Forstrom, Robert McNamara, and Haely Jardas. Photo by <ichael Poandl.

Left to Right: Anne Nottage, Amanda Forstrom, Robert McNamara, and Haely Jardas. Photo by Michael Poandl.

Michael: Thanks so much for sitting down with me today. Could you all introduce yourselves and tell us where in the past year we may have seen your work around local stages?

Amanda: I am currently finishing up assistant directing Julius Caesar at Folger and I just finished up She Kills Monsters at Rorschach Theatre.

Oh I loved She Kills Monsters! Who did you play?

Amanda: I was the counselor and one is the succubi.

Yes, yes!

Haely: My name is Haely Jardas I’m playing Lorraine, and for the past year I’ve been on the first national tour of Five Little Monkeys.

Anne: My name’s Anne Nottage, the last thing you would’ve seen me in is King John, where I played Constance. I have been out of theater for a year though, I had back surgery, and since then I’ve been dealing with rehab and all that.

Welcome back.

Anne: Thank you.

So, tell me a little bit about Handbag.

Haely: Well, we’ve got two worlds in the play: the Victorian world, and the modern world, and we each play a character in both of the two worlds. In the Victorian world, the characters are from The Importance of Being Earnest.

Amanda: The 1990s era is the flipside of the coin in the play. It’s about two gay couples who have been together for a while, and they want to raise a baby, and so they do artificial insemination, and they have a child, but, as Robert was telling us, it’s less about the baby than it is about them using the baby to fix their relationship, themselves, boosting their social status and what have you…. Using the baby as a tool.

Robert: Handbag, of course refers to a great classic trope in The Importance of Being Earnest, which we are happy to have staged twice, and Anne was Jack in our gender-bending production in 2011.

Anne: 2010 and 2011.

Robert: That’s right. The men’s roles were reversed and played by women, and the female characters were played by men. This show is kind of like the followup stop to that whole process, which was a lot of fun. But Handbag is Mark Ravenhill. You know him mainly from his debut work Shopping and Fucking, which Scena Theatre  was proud to present in 2002, and now we’re presenting his second play. In many ways, Handbag follows up with his obsessions about capitalism, the commodification of human beings, sexism, the mercantilist process, a throwaway generation; this is another look at the same kind of characters from his first play, a little higher up in the social scale.

So, I know that Mark Ravenhill is often described in the class of playwrights as “in-your-face” playwrights like Sarah Kane and Anthony Nielsen; are there aspects of this play that you see as confrontational, shocking, graphic?

Amanda: Definitely, the abuse of a newborn child is one thing –

Wow!

Amanda: Along with the sex on stage, all of the language in it, somebody going on a heroin high onstage.

Anne: I guess the ear does become accustomed to the vulgar language; it sinks in pretty quickly.

Robert: It has its own vernacular.

Amanda: It has its own poetry.

Robert: There’s a certain immediacy [in Handbag] that we don’t get here in America unless it’s a play by David Mamet, sometimes Sam Shepard. But this play has a lot of things going for it, there’s a lot of humor in it, but it’s also a look at the British class system, and that’s why he’s set part of it in the 1890s and part of it in 1998, so it’s Oscar Wilde plus 100 years.

So, in Oscar Wilde’s plays, everyone puts on airs and they pretend to be someone they’re not, and it seems like in the contemporary portion of this play there’s a lot of raw human emotion in all its ugliness. Is it difficult to transition between your two characters, and these two time periods?

Amanda: Well, the two time periods involve different mannerisms and different styles, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it difficult. It’s the same real people, just under a different veneer. And the way the characters use children in the Oscar Wilde setting parallels the way they use them in 1990s London. The questions are: what does it mean to be a woman who bears a child in the 30 years prior to The Importance of Being Ernest, in the mid-19th century, and what does it mean to want to look after children in the modern age, and what does the child represent? It’s not necessarily about the child, but what it means to the parent or caretaker.

Haely: It would be harder if the two characters were closer to one another, in terms of what they want, but my characters, Lorraine and Miss Prism, are almost foils of each other. Miss Prism couldn’t care less about the child, she cares about her novel. Lorainne, on the other hand, has found her connection with this child and doesn’t want to give that up. Also, Ms. Prism is very proper and Lorraine is, you know, scum on the bottom of her employers’ shoes. Because it’s such a flip between the two characters it takes energy but it’s not necessarily difficult. My brain doesn’t necessarily go, “Oh, okay, how is this person stand, how does this person walk?”

Amanda: My characters are almost complete opposites, which in a sense is really nice because if you go to the farthest north you can figure something out about that character that can inform the opposite of your other character, so in that way it’s really nice. Constance is the one having little Oscar Wilde, she’s very maternal, she’s very “women should be seen and not heard” and then on the flipside Suzanne is very much “the man” in the relationship, if you want to put a stereotype on it, and that’s another thing I really like about the play, it really flips stereotypes on their heads

So the phrase that kept jumping into my mind while I was watching the scene was “helicopter parenting,” which I think has become sort of a catchphrase in pop psychology.  What I wanted to ask was –  first of all, are any of you parents, or plan to be parents, and how has the play  influenced how you view the parent-child relationship, or parenting, in general?

Amanda: No children.

I saw looks of shock when I asked the question.

Amanda: Well I hope they were actually mine if I had children. The disconnect the parents have from their children, or the child just being a status symbol, or something that has to be acquired at a certain age, or “all my friends are doing it.”

An accessory.

Amanda: Exactly. Yeah, that will never be me. There’s a great line that Constance has when she first picks up the baby and she says “I’m one with this child” and whatnot, and my character says, “I feel nothing.” And it’s this really powerful expression of what society says you’re supposed to feel as a mother and what you may really feel. Society says you should have children and you should get married, but at the end of the day if that’s not the kind of person you are than it’s not going to make you happy, and you will feel nothing. And no, I don’t have kids, but my sister just had a baby and I’ve been helping her take care of him. She’s at that place in her life and I’d like to get there someday but I’m definitely not there now.

It seems like in the modern world women have to fit children into their lives. Is there anything justified about putting your kids down a couple notches on the priority list, so that you can live a life independent of your child? Or is that just bad parenting?

Haely: I think that’s an interesting question for a bunch of actors, because as an actor your career is so integrated into your life.

Amanda: And, let’s be honest, how you look.

Haely: Right.

Amanda: You’ll give up a year of your life. The way that you look, and even feel is completely different. You have to work to get your body back, you have no idea what your hormones are going to do – You will be someone completely different.

Haely: It’s one of those things where you ask yourself, “Hw does that happen?” but then you see actors who have children and have families, and you’re like, “Okay, they can do it so there must be some way.” These characters are having their baby because they’re like, “Oh, well, other people are doing it” so they want to do it too, and I’m not sure how much actual thought they put into it.

Amanda: I think if having a child is something that you really want to do, you will find a way. It will become the first priority because you really want it, but if you only kind of want it, and you’re hemming and hawing, then other things will take priority.

This is a question for Haley: Have you ever worked as a domestic worker?

Haely: Well, waiting tables was my first job.

Have you ever been a nanny?

Haely: I’ve babysat a lot and actually a lot of my work experience is with kids. I worked for a while as an after school private school teacher. But we were basically glorified babysitters.

Did you ever have a strained relationship with any of the parents?

Haely: I had coworkers who did. I never stepped on anyone’s toes or took it to a weird place but we had a lot of families whose parents were older and they had fraternal twins which is something we get a lot around here because of artificial insemination.

We have the second highest rate of twins in the country actually. First is New York, but we’re second because there’s so much artificial insemination.

Amanda: And older parents are more likely to have twins.

Exactly.

Haely: Yeah we had a lot of twins and it was very interesting for someone like me who grew up in the public school system in Podunk South Florida to be around these parents who were like, “Oh we’re going to our second house in Germany this weekend.”

Is there a “Britishness” to Handbag?

Robert: Of course. It’s all about the British class system and 100 years of post-Oscar Wilde identity. So much has not changed. I mean Oscar Wilde was a closeted homosexual, and he probably wouldn’t have wanted to be bogged down by any one label. He was a multifaceted personality: astonishing artist, a great writer, an Irishman internationalist, a real humanitarian, and a real humanist. He loved people. He loved literature and philosophy, and was had first-rate intellect..and there’s many many other things. So it’s astonishing to me to make someone so big so small. He also had a double-take: he was married and he was a father to children.

So Handbag is sort of a resend of what Oscar Wilde might have done before his marvelous characters appear in Earnest, which is called Bunbury in Germany. However, it’s an astonishing look at 100 years of British class system, and how little change there’s really been.

So the play is a witty and wise distillation of the portables of being British. And it’s a really astonishing thing because the characters have everything going for them  – except the center, of course, that they’re really looking for. There’s a line where the older guy says, ” We’re all looking for something.” The two women in the relationship – Lorraine and Susan – they decided about 5 to 7 years in a relationship to have a baby and they feel that the baby will fix everything –  it will be a panacea.

And then Tom and David come along and then Phil is the outsider. He’s closest to the character that Jarvis is playing – Lorraine – and these are for the outsiders to this comfortable Kelsey lifestyle. But would Ravenhill is really doing is examining the ‘Who’s Who in British Society.” But it’s real interesting because here in this country we don’t have a strong class system; we only have one thing, and it’s that filthy five letter word: money. So it’s very important when we’re talking about how people talk. The accent is really the reason why they can treat Lorraine the way they do. You know – it’s a master and slave dynamic, and we don’t have slavery anymore – we have wage slavery. It keeps people in their place, unfortunately, but that’s all gonna change someday, with the collapse of the capitalist system.

Remember the play is also about capitalism, it’s about marketing, about sales and buying and being sold – it’s almost like Orwell’s mantra from 1984, “I sold you when you sold me underneath the spreading chestnut tree.”

Another British playwright name David Edgar – you know him from The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Well I knew him when he was still on his way up. He wrote a really good play, a marvelous play we thought about doing, and that was a play called Destiny and the play was about the destiny of the British Empire, the destiny of being British. It’s a phenomenal play. It begins on the day of the breakup of the British Empire. No one does this play- it’s a gigantic unknown unused canvas – and it’s very disturbing –  because he composed in 1978 in London when the National Front… Do you know what the National Front is?

I don’t.

Robert: The National Front is The British Neo-Nazi party who commit ‘Paki Bashing’ and spread Anti-Semitism. There’s a line in the play that’s really chilling-just to give you a contrast to Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, and Howard Brenton. And the line is by a gentleman who says (in a high British accent), “Well we all know why were here – don’t we?  We’re all here to celebrate our friend’s birthday. “

And it’s April 20th, and they’re in England, and they’re on the street, and they’re all in raincoats and hats and they all start shutting their gears. And they’re all wearing swastikas on their arm bands. The panel at the top is unpeeled to reveal a portrait of Adolf Hitler. They all start singing one of the Nazi anthems.

So there’s a deep kind of rift in the society, and Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill take a different tact. And they’re really intelligent about the society, as was Oscar Wilde. The only reason they punished Oscar Wilde was because he was not one of them. That means the British establishment was involved in homosexuality, and they did not treat this as the ‘be-all and end-all .’ It was not a crime that should have been prosecuted in 1895. In those days of someone was caught they would go off to France for a year. That’s how they used to handle it

So Oscar Wilde was persecuted because he was gay. But the protagonists in the 1990’s portion of this play are gay and presumably, at least in some respects, the oppressors. Is there a shift from sexuality to class in terms of oppression?

Robert: Remember, Oscar Wilde was punished because he made fun of the upper classes in his plays. He gave the game away. He mocked Queensberry (who was ferociously concerned about Wilde and his younger boy Bosey) because his older boy was a homosexual. And he blew his brains out. He was having an affair with one of the ministers of England. They knew about that, and he couldn’t bear it.

Fair enough. Well, I suppose that’s the last word then..

Robert: Well I’m just telling you because these guys are from working-class Jewish origins in The East End of London. Edgar often peaks his mind about the Queen’s Royal Family and you know what Harold Pinter thinks about it. He writes these wonderful poetic plays about the New World order – and we’ve done that at our theater. And you know in his Nobel speech he said, “When it comes to democracy America’s got the only game going. ” And I think we’re happy to be doing a British author who is contemporary, one who touches on so many wonderful issues. This will be wonderful food for thought for audiences as they travel Across the river to Eastern Washington DC.

I’m not aware of any class differences in Washington DC.

Robert: Well maybe I’m wrong there. We only have huge class differences in Washington, DC, but I do think that what we’re doing really be appreciated because it’s sort of an ocular to Street poetry.It’s not a dated theater piece in my opinion at all. This play is outside our American comfort zone of realism This is a play not really about the baby.

So this I swear is really my last question and I stole this from an NPR host In six words or less (I’m tweaking it a little bit): Why would you tell people to go see Handbag?

Amanda: Oh man, six words or less, that’s tough.

Michael: It doesn’t have to be a complete sentence, Haley.

Haely: Characters finding their identity.

 Great! Two words to spare!

Amanda: Sex, drugs, class warfare.

Perfect!

Robert: Anne, come on!  Michael, give her the question once more. Anne needs a little more coaxing.

In six words or less, Why should anyone go see Handbag?

Anne: Alternative views on parenting.

Robert: That’s boring, Anne….just say sex, sex, sex, sex, sex .

Amanda: And lesbians!

Robert: And language.

Amanda: Naked guys in the bathtub.

Robert: Our show is very equal opportunity-oriented. It’s a perfect vehicle for Washington DC, now that there are gay parents of both genders.

Amanda: And Virginia just allowed same-sex marriage.

Robert: The questions the play raises are right on the front page of the Post, and in the New York Times. Themes about cruelty to children that’s, unfortunately, widely universal. In England, there’s a dead-end generation there that hasn’t had a job in 20, 30 years. There’s this whole thing about how Britain had this great place in the sun, and now it’s been dispossessed. And I also think that the surveillance camera is an issue. That’s a major thing. You know the Metropolitan police in London have video surveillance and so Ravenhill is talking about issues that look benign but they’re not all. It’s all about being observed and what your worth is as a human being  and how much money you’re worth – all these things. Ravenhill is really taking on capitalism in my opinion. He’s also taking on social morays. But he’s taking it all on along with this cheeky, impudent, devilish humor, and outrageousness, as did Oscar Wilde In his time.

It’s an outrageous play, that’s my sixth word. In his time. Oscar Wilde was a real theatrical revolution. He just went right into that system and made fun of it that’s why they got him. If he had been Lord BoringBoring they wouldn’t touched him. He would’ve gone away for year in France and that’s all. If you had the money, sexuality didn’t become an issue.

But anyway let’s accentuate the positive: Why see Handbag? Well, why not? I mean look what’s playing elsewhere around town, make up your mind! I mean see the 20 other plays and then come have a visit with us!

Alright well…

Robert: I mean we wish our colleagues well, don’t get me wrong, but this must be the most exciting rehearsal in Washington DC, and why? Because these actors are in it and now you’re part of it!

This is the most exciting rehearsal I’ve been to in quite a while.

Right: ​Anne Nottage, Amanda Forstrom, and Haely Jardas. Photo by Michael Poandl. Photo: Michael Poandl

Right: ​Anne Nottage, Amanda Forstrom, and Haely Jardas. Photo by Michael Poandl.
Photo by Michael Poandl.

Frankly, to do this play is a miracle because we did Shopping and Fucking in 2002 around Christmas time, when people are doing all kinds of things like A Christmas Carol, and A Christmas Carol and A Christmas Carol: The Musical. We put on Shopping and Fucking. Basically, the Washington Post didn’t want to print the name of the play so I said, can you give me Shopping and F***ing? They said no.  I said, “Can I please have ‘Shopping and F*****g?, and they said, “No. We can’t do that either.”

So I sent them 17 reviews from the London press proving that Mark Ravenhill was a serious artist, and that the play had been done by reputable American companies. And so finally they reviewed the play and printed the headline, “A play by Mark Ravenhill.” You and I know that will really get the masses in: You don’t know what play it is, or whether it’s a good play or a bad play. It was a terribly mediocre review. The critic who wrote it has since gone on to greater things, the Miami Gazette or something like that. The fact of the matter is the play was done, it’s on the record. But it’s a very disturbing play. And the media, when something is very disturbing or rocks the boat, they won’t acknowledge it. But I’m hoping they’ll come see this play considering this one has antecedent roots with Oscar Wilde.

I certainly hope so. Well, thank you everybody for sitting down with me today, and good luck with the rest of your process!

Robert: We hope you’ll see the show.

Michael: I’ll fight for those asterisks.

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Handbag plays from November 6-30, 2014 at Scena Theatre performing at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

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One Response to An Interview with Scena Theatre’s ‘Handbag’ Director Robert McNamara and Cast Members Anne Nottage, Amanda Forstrom, and Haely Jardas

  1. Rosemary November 7, 2014 at 6:24 pm #

    Handbag is a really provocative play. I saw it last night and have thought about it a lot. I wanted to understand it better, so found this excellent interview. It is wonderful to find artists who are willing to take risks.