UNDER THE SKIN Gets Under My Skin: Interview with playwright Michael Hollinger

Michael Hollinger is a much-produced Pennsylvania playwright and associate professor of theater at Villanova University, writer of three short films for PBS, and co-author of the feature-length Philadelphia Diary.

He has written eleven full-length dramas, eight of which saw their world premiere at the Arden Theatre. He has also written eleven plays for young audiences. His works have been performed in many different theaters, including five productions in Europe and Asia. He received numerous awards and fellowships all over the United States.

In the 1990s, he worked as a dramaturg at the Wilma Theater, Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays, Arden Theatre Company, 1812 Productions, InterAct Theatre Company, Delaware Theatre Company/Roundhouse Theatre, and Philadelphia Young Playwrights/Philadelphia Theatre Company.

His latest world premiere, UNDER THE SKIN, got under the skin of quite a few audience members, perhaps because of the serious nature of the play—kidney donation within a dysfunctional family. (Read the Phindie review.) Audiences were also concerned when the lead actor (Craig Spidle), who played the father who needed the transplant to survive, fell seriously ill and spent several days in the hospital before the world premiere. The Arden has since hired Douglas Rees as the permanent replacement for his role.

Hollinger & typewriter
Michael Hollinger

Henrik Eger: As a dramaturg in Philadelphia and other cities, you helped in the production of world premieres of well-known and respected authors like Chaim Potok, Joyce Carol Oates, and Bruce Graham. How did those experiences shape your own writing?
Michael Hollinger: Reading hundreds upon hundreds of play submissions, and watching scores upon scores of rehearsals and performances, helped me strengthen my dramatic “muscle” and increase my sensitivity to what works and doesn’t work in the theatre.  In my view, there are no hard-and-fast rules beyond “Don’t bore the audience,” but this period allowed me to absorb and test the basic principles of this art form.

Eger: You participated in a number of script development workshops with directors, actors, and fellow writers. How did they shape your own development as a playwright?
Hollinger: My early workshop experiences taught me to be as bold as possible when a script is in development, to try as many variations as I can in search of the right story, scene or moment.  Once a play reaches production, and audiences are in attendance, the scale of revision has to diminish, so I try to take advantage of the time when I can use the crowbar and saw rather than the sandpaper and varnish.

Julianna Zinkel as Raina Lamott, Douglas Rees as Lou Ziegler, Biko Eisen-Martin as Jarrell Hayes, and Alice M. Gatling as Dr. Badu in Arden Theatre Company's production of Under the Skin. Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce
Julianna Zinkel as Raina Lamott, Douglas Rees as Lou Ziegler, Biko Eisen-Martin as Jarrell Hayes, and Alice M. Gatling as Dr. Badu in Arden Theatre Company’s production of UNDER THE SKIN. Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce

Eger: When you started as a young playwright submitting your scripts, how did you build and develop working relationships with theaters? What worked, and what advice do you have for the next generation of playwrights?
Hollinger: It was extremely advantageous that I was a literary manager, because my colleagues at various theatres around the country had to read the plays I sent them cover to cover, since they knew they might run into me at a conference or festival.  (This didn’t mean they had to like them; my plays still got turned down many more times than they were accepted, like most playwrights.)  But by submitting my plays very broadly early on, I came to distinguish between the theatres where my plays were near-misses from those where they were long shots, and continued to submit where I’d received the encouraging rejection letters, sensing that perhaps these organizations shared my own vision.  Over time I’ve developed a group of theatrical “familiars” around the country, places and people who I know will seriously consider my next play, even if they ultimately opt not to produce it.

Eger: You have won numerous awards all over the US. What impact did they have on you as a playwright and as an individual?
Hollinger: It’s certainly fun to win things, and an artist’s life is so inherently filled with doubt that an award (or several) can momentarily affirm that you’re on the right track.  But they don’t make the next play easier to write. I think most playwrights would say that the most exciting moments are when you think there are no solutions to the play at hand and suddenly one presents itself.

Eger: How do you explain your extraordinary relationship with the Arden Theatre Company where everything seemed to just click from the very beginning, leading to eight world premiere productions?
Hollinger: From his first encounter with my work (An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf in 1994), Terry Nolen seemed to get precisely what I was going for—how I approached language, and character, and the use of space, and the balance of light and dark. His biggest aim, and the Theatre’s mission, is to tell Great Stories, and my main intention, with every play I write, is to take an audience on a really good ride. So our visions are very similar, and as a result, we’re confident that we’re both working towards the same ends.

Eger: What does a typical week as a playwright, associate professor of theater at Villanova University, and family man look like?
Hollinger: It’s very full! Since my wife, Megan Bellwoar, is a professional actor as well as a theatre teacher and director (at Abington Friends School), our shared Google Calendars are pretty packed. For me, this means that doing rewrites or marking up student work sometimes gets pushed to the “bookends” of the day, which can be tiring. But I also find that I’m happy to be with whoever’s in front of me at any given moment, so the sheer variety of activities packed into any given day helps keep me refreshed.

Eger: You described yourself as “this irreverent theater guy who’s been brought into the fold of a Catholic institution, and whose function may well be to poke it in the side every now and then and generate laughter.” Give some examples where you tested the limits at the respected Villanova University.
Hollinger: Villanova has traditionally given its Theatre a long leash, which has allowed my department to produce a wide array of work over the past half century, including some rather controversial plays. My own plays Incorruptible and Red Herring were produced there in recent years, and both goose the Church in different ways. But then, all big, well-heeled institutions—religious, political, and commercial—need to be goosed now and then.

Julianna Zinkel as Raina Lamott and Biko Eisen-Martin as Jarell Hayes. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Julianna Zinkel as Raina Lamott and Biko Eisen-Martin as Jarell Hayes. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Eger: Tell us about people you knew who were organ donors or recipients and how some of their experiences might have influenced UNDER THE SKIN.
Hollinger: Most of the donor/recipient stories I collected were between family members, and, unlike my play, were marked by a deep underlying generosity from the start. Perhaps my most striking encounter, however, was with Marie Manley, Transplant Assistant at Lankenau Hospital, who spoke about her journey as an organ donor. Some years ago, she had just moved to a new parish and saw a notice in her church bulletin that another parishioner needed a kidney. Marie decided on the spot that she wanted to donate to this unknown fellow human being. This example of blind, extravagant altruism helped develop the “counterweight” in my play to the main character’s resistance to donating to her own father.

Eger: Who do you consider “kidney-worthy”? If your wife, children, or Arden’s director Terry Nolen needed a kidney and you were a match, what would you do?
Hollinger: I don’t think I’ve evolved to the point where I’m ready to go on a donor website and pick out a stranger to receive my kidney, but I’d happily share one with any of these people, and others in my life, too.

Eger: In 2014, you described the stages of development of Incorruptible, as “requir[ing] many drafts, many readings, and two major workshops of the play in order to find its final form.” As a result, it became a popular play. What was different in the development and composition process for UNDER THE SKIN?
Hollinger: If only many drafts, readings and workshops always resulted in a popular play! (Unfortunately, one can work just as arduously on an unpopular play.) The development of Incorruptible took place at a variety of different institutions in many different cities, and I was a much greener playwright trying to crack the hardest dramatic form—a screwball or farcical comedy. You might say that writing and revising Incorruptible was my graduate degree in playwriting, as it gave me the opportunity (i.e., forced me) to solve the most fundamental problems of the form: How to compress time, space and personnel to allow the dramatic action to generate as much pressure as possible? How to create character as something dynamic (changing over time) rather than static? How to move characters in and out of scenes so as to continually refresh the audience’s eyes and ears, and keep the rhythms and dynamics of the play varied? And, of course, using a trial-and-error process to land as many laughs as possible.

UNDER THE SKIN was a much shorter process, and more focused, beginning with a first-draft reading at Theatre Exile in Philadelphia and continuing through four or five more readings at the Arden (some closed, some with an audience). Happily, the first draft of the play was closer to its finished form than Incorruptible was, either because I had 20 more years of experience behind me, or because the play is smaller in scale and not as complex. (Incorruptible includes many large scenes, with up to seven characters, while Under the Skin never goes above four, and smaller scenes have fewer character trajectories to manage.)

Michael Hollinger
Michael Hollinger

Eger: Could you describe the collaboration between you and director Nolen?
Hollinger: Terry and I have always seen my plays very similarly, and this latest process was particularly smooth in terms of our collaboration. He also knows that I am not at all precious about my work, and am eager to incorporate useful ideas from any source, whether that be from him, an assistant stage manager, or an audience comment at a public reading. I learn a great deal from hearing good actors read a new draft aloud, so we designed a development process that allowed me to hear my latest rewrite every few months, make a few changes on the fly, hear it again, then leave to work on the next draft armed with information and helpful questions from him, dramaturg Sally Ollove, and the cast.

Eger: UNDER THE SKIN shows an average family that could be considered dysfunctional. You open closets with quite a few hidden secrets that most people don’t dare to talk about. What experiences, whether personal or from literature, shaped your writing of Raina, the deeply troubled and angry daughter who bases her contempt for her father on false or incomplete information?
Hollinger: Both my own family and my wife’s have had significant estrangements between parents and children, and these experiences have been enhanced by observing the families of many of my friends over the years as well. (My uncle actually “divorced” his entire family with a formal letter to his father, mother, and sister, and remained out of contact for 25 years, including through the death of both parents. Finally, late in life, my mom began sending him a Valentine every February; after seven years, he replied, and they were in a relationship again for perhaps a decade until their deaths within two months of each other.) As I see it, Raina has displaced her grief for her mother into rage against her father, and she cannot reconcile the latter until she gets to the bottom of the former.

Eger: You described UNDER THE SKIN as a play where “the clock was ticking—if it’s not solved, a guy dies”—a potentially tragic situation. Yet, your play contains quite a few black comedy situations, making the audience laugh. For example, when the patient’s daughter was a little girl, he bid her goodnight with Brecht’s“Mack the Knife.” What did you do to keep this tragic-comedic play balanced and not make it a soap opera?
Hollinger: It’s one of life’s remarkable qualities that nothing retains the same tone or mood for very long. Any good news I receive was probably preceded (and will be succeeded) by something bad. Terrible things happen at weddings, and hysterical things happen at funerals. Since art is based on life, I believe this variety of tone is therefore essential—that a little levity helps balance out, and, indeed, accentuate the gravity and vice versa. Finding the proper balance of what I call “ha-ha-ouch” can be tricky, but rewarding once found.

Eger: A number of people consider UNDER THE SKIN a comedy. However, I saw it more as a comedy with strong tragic undertones. How does this dichotomy in Under the Skin relate to some of your other plays? Do you see a pattern evolving in your work?
Hollinger: All of my outright comedies have moments of real pain in them, and the dramas have moments where the audience is encouraged to laugh. Again, I think these contrasts refresh our nervous system, like the alternations in hot/cold, savory/sweet, crunch/smooth that one might find in the various courses of an elaborate meal. I always saw the structure and major plot twists in UNDER THE SKIN as comedic, though the deeper I got into the play, the more I felt obliged to plumb the depths of its characters’ suffering as well.

Eger: You present two main characters: the father, a problematic man (originated and played movingly by Craig Spidle), and Raina, a predominately unforgiving young woman who rides a roller-coaster of emotions, filled with disappointment, hate, and a few moments of conditional forgiveness (played with feverish energy by Juliana Zinkel). The surprise revelations near the end of the play give everyone the opportunity to reflect. Yet, Toby Zinman of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote of the ending, “For a play that seems to want to say something about the importance of family ties, all it can manage is a soapbox speech, directly addressed to the audience, arriving at the pronouncement that ‘blood is thicker than water’.” How did you come up with Raina’s unexpected speech to the audience at the end of the play, which appears abrupt and as a sudden about-face of her character?
Hollinger: I have not read the review you mention—I’ll read all of them with my graduate playwriting class in April, to allow my students to assess whether and where there may be consensus among critics, and where they contradict each other (a useful pedagogical tool for young artists)—though the quote above is mistakenly cited. Raina’s “thicker than water” reference takes place not to the audience but in the previous scene, to justify her decision to her father. The fact that she adopts a cliché as part of her justification is a clue that, despite her apparent certitude, she’s actually deeply mistaken about the facts of the situation, which will shortly be revealed.

The direct-address speech at the very end of the play is something quite different. Here Raina, who’s been so stuck in her head that she made a two-column plus/minus list to decide whether to give her father a kidney, moves below the neck and is able at last to act (and speak) with the heart. Human beings make “rational” decisions methodically, by accruing and weighing bits of information, pros and cons; but Raina’s ultimate decision is not “rational,” because she doesn’t make it with her brain—no more than Marie Manley rationally decided to give her kidney to a perfect stranger. One might say that the heart opens unreasonably.

Eger: Henrik Ibsen would have turned UNDER THE SKIN into a tragedy with Raina as a lovable, misunderstood, young woman. Brecht did the opposite. He tried many times to roughen up Mother Courage’s character to make her as unsympathetic as possible. What did you intend when creating Raina’s character?
Hollinger: I love both Ibsen and Brecht, and Raina, too. Both playwrights were fascinated by their characters’ flaws, by their blind spots and brokenness, though they treated them with different degrees of judgment and compassion. In UNDER THE SKIN, Raina says that her yoga teacher has described her as “a Young Soul,” and I find this touching. She knows that she’s short-sighted and emotionally messy, but also aspires to be a better person than she is at the moment. She’s on the same journey we’re all on, at all different stages.

Eger: UNDER THE SKIN was inspired by a letter written by a brother and sister to columnist Randy Cohen, asking for advice on who could donate a kidney to their father. Did you ever contact them about your play, and if so, what were their responses?
Hollinger: No, I was not interested in the particulars of their story, only the interesting nexus of forces at work. (The original title idea, Rock Paper Scissors—a phrase which came up in that article—suggested something to me of the timeless game of dominance and submission among three equal forces.)

Eger: Some of your plays made it into non-English speaking countries like France, Greece, Poland, Slovenia, and Japan. Were they performed in English or in foreign languages? What were the reactions of the directors, actors, audiences, and the press to your plays overseas?
Hollinger: These foreign productions have all been produced in translation, not in English. Alas, I haven’t been able to see any of them (yet), so I don’t know how they were received.

Eger: Thanks, Michael. Give my best to all the characters, especially Raina.

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