Today, Sarah Whelan and I sat down to talk about her play, White Rabbit, which will be read on Sunday at 4 PM! Here is a transcript from that conversation
Me: How did this play start?
S: So I was, well I’ve always been fascinated with how people react to tragedies or war and how life continues, and in what cases that’s a tactic of survival versus ignoring it in order to distance yourself and not feel responsible in any way. I also love the music of the 60s and 70s, and it’s always been what I’ve listened to on a daily basis. So I was listening to White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane and thinking about heroin, because the song is about drug use. I had a person in my life who I lost to a heroin overdose. So I was like, I’m gonna try to write a play about the Vietnam War, heroin addiction and love in the face of that backdrop.
Me: And you did that!
Me: Let’s talk about music. Because we worked on Great God Pan together, I know that music very important to you. How do you like to use it dramatically?
Sarah: I’m still figuring out how I want to use it. I know that if you look at the history of things I’ve directed, including Great God Pan and things I’ve written, I’ve tended to use it in transitions. But in this play I was trying to use it in scenes too. I think there’s something about music and dance specifically, and dance is something I want to bring in more into the play as I continue refining it, but it’s just a different level of communication. There’s just so much mood and subtext underneath music that I think is sometimes more interesting to look at than person to person dialogue. There’s something about music that has a layer of pretense stripped off of it. You can literally hear the emotion in it. Specifically to the music of the play, the music of the 60s and 70s are so evocative of what was going on. There are so many songs about the war or about drug use or just the culture.
Me: Where does your relationship to that music come from?
Sarah: It’s kind of from my parents. My brother and my parents both have a record player and a record collection, and when I graduate I want to get a record player and start my own record collection. But they always listened to, not necessarily stuff from the 60s and 70s, but like, Bruce Springstein and U2. I don’t really remember–ok I do remember! My brother got a Simon and Garfunkel album and I was like this is cool, and then I went from there to Cat Stevens to Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. I remember there was a day when I was like, I hate all of my music, it’s all terrible, and I don’t know any of the music from all these bands that everybody says is great, and everyone has t-shirts and posters and things. So I just spent a day going through all this music, and I went down this wormhole of really incredible music. I remember I got sick of it one time, and I thought, Oh, I’ll just go back to the pop stuff, and I hated it! When I went back, the construction of this song compared to the construction of the songs I’ve been listening to is like night and day. There’s so much more complexity and meaning and subtext and all that stuff in that older music than what we have now, which is sad.
Me: Do you think Etta and Brian’s relationship to the rebel culture and music of the time helps them engage with and combat their political realities or escape from it?
Sarah: It’s hard to say because they aren’t using each other to escape from the tragedies of their world. Because it’s not realistic to ask people to throw away everything about their life to address this tragedy just because it’s never gonna happen that way. But I definitely think Etta and Brian use each other to forget about what’s going on, and they use sex and witty banter and the way they fight each other to escape what’s going on. Then when it comes into their life when Brian is drafted, then its sort of this inescapable thing that they’re somehow responsible for, in a way. There’s also something I was thinking about in relation to our time, because there’s a scene when they come home from a protest and they’re hanging up the signs. I was hoping for it to reflect our current moment, where people tend to go to protests for the appearance of being against things, and snap chatting it or sharing it on Facebook to include themselves in a movement rather than fight what’s actually happening.