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Q&A with Actor/Playwright Patricia Wettig by M.R. Smith

We were fortunate to catch actress/playwright Patricia Wettig, during a quick break from blocking the second act of her upcoming Mainstage production of F2M, at Powerhouse Theatre. Considering the hectic schedule—and our not-so-great timing at requesting an interview—she could not have been more gracious.

Most people who know about you are familiar with your acting career, particularly your award-winning work on “thirtysomething”. But I’d wager few people know that ten years ago you received a MFA in playwriting from Smith College. What spurred this interest, and how long have you been writing plays?

Well, I’ve always written on the side. I was cast in the first production of Crimes of the Heart, before it went to Broadway. It was my very first professional acting job. I got a $300 check; I was so excited. I took the $300 downtown and bought a typewriter! Obviously that’s how closely acting and writing were tied in my mind. I’ve always written. I’ve always had this need, and it’s only grown in me. As opposed to my acting…I don’t quite seem to have as much passion right now for that, as I do for writing. Maybe it’s because it’s a new adventure for me, and there’s so much for me to explore as a writer.

F2M seems based on a decidedly modern premise: a young person deciding to change from female to male, and the effect that has on his family. Was there any particular reason, person or event that made this subject interesting to you?

Well, it was a combination. It certainly wasn’t only one thing. Quite a few years ago, I had a good friend whose daughter I had known since she was little. And she had an affair in college with a trans-gender person. And I found that so fascinating, because I had known this girl when she was really (young); she had been straight, heterosexual. And yet she had this one affair; I just found that intriguing. Did she think of this person as a girl, as a guy? I just had all these questions.

So that was in that background. That was years ago. And then I think (there are) certain issues that I’ve been dealing with myself, on a more personal level, about identity. Like, how does one define one’s identity against the dominant culture? And it occurred to me while I was thinking about this, about the difficulty that I find, and yet I sort-of fit in. You would never know that I was having any identity issues. I fit the status quo; I pass really easily right down the middle. And I thought, “wow”, if I’m having this much trouble, how much more courage would it take for somebody to define themselves as who they actually are, what their authentic being is, when it is so outside the “mainstream?” And that started the thinking behind this play.

Like every human being, you’re either heterosexual or you’re homosexual. Your gender is not (necessarily) what your sexuality is. There’s a very funny scene in the play, where the mother of the girlfriend asks this transgender “wait a minute, I’m trying to get this straight, don’t be mad at me, but what does it mean? Do you like girls? Do you like boys?” She goes through the whole thing, which becomes kind of funny, because it can be very confusing.

It seems like a dramatic setup, but yet there are humorous elements…

That comes about because there’s also this culture clash. The girl-to-boy character—F2M—has celebrity parents. His girlfriend Lucy’s mother owns a hairdressing place in Dayton, Ohio. You’ve got these Hollywood parents visiting on parents’ weekend at the same time as this girlfriend’s mother. So it’s in the combination of that parent group that much of the humor comes from.

We did a reading of this play here last summer, and a lot of the board members were very concerned about the subject matter. Like, “wait a minute, no, no, no, you’re talking about an 18 year-old. This makes me nervous, I don’t want to see this; I won’t like this!” And one of the board members was very adamant about it, and I said, “can you come and listen to (a reading)?” He said “no, I really don’t think so.” And through the course of the talking, he finally said, “OK, I’ll come; I have to pick up my daughter. If she wants to come, I’ll come.” He was afraid, I think, that his point of view wouldn’t be represented in the play. He was worried that this was going to be a propaganda piece only about: “oh sure, everybody do whatever you want.” I hope it comes around to a particular point of view. But we try we give expression to some various points of view in this piece.

Is the issue about being a good guiding parent, or letting your kids do what they want? Is some of it our issue of: how to love them when they are like this. It gets back to our own prejudices.

Most folks don’t realize what a collaborative process playwriting is. It’s not just somebody hunched over a keyboard, bang, it’s done, ready to be staged. Can you walk me through some of the workshop process F2M experienced? And in what ways has it changed since inception?

The play hasn’t changed radically since this first draft. But, I’m not saying it hasn’t been sculpted. I would say you basically get the big hunk of clay and get a basic shape, and you get all the people there, and everything that you want.

I sent it to Johanna at New York Stage and Film, because they’ve been really supportive of my writing for years. She read it, and suggested that we do a reading of it this summer. We hired Maria Mileaf to direct it. Then we cast it and we spent a week last summer around a table questioning through lines for the actors: have we dropped something? Are we not hearing enough about something? One of the big issues was: do we have a climax for this play? Where is the breaking point? What are we setting up, and where does that pay off? It’s all about working the beats of the script, so that the dramatic tension is where you want it to be. Some defining of characters…

There are a lot of women in this play. And my husband (Ken Olin) is the only man! I didn’t really do it intentionally….I have three sisters. Maybe there’s some gestalt there I copied without realizing.

Though I know you went into production mode only days ago at Powerhouse, how have these first days been going there? Any significant changes or revelations?

We’ve been working mostly on the second to last scene. It’s about 25-pages long. I went back the other day and did an entire rewrite. After rewriting, I have the actors read it. Then they give feedback, and the director weighs in. Now I think we have it, so we’re cutting things; it’s too long. Just trying to sculpt it down to what is essential.

We’re blocking scene six, starting today. The actors have most of the first act memorized; we’re now going into the last scene of the first act. Other than cutting and doing little shapes and things, I’m beginning to get toward the end of my time (working on it.) The actors have to be given time to settle in, to own their characters, memorize lines. Technically I’m allowed to keep giving them notes; I hope I won’t have to note them to death.

What happens for F2M after the Powerhouse season? And how does one go about raising awareness about a great new play?

Hopefully we get up a good production (here), that we feel represents the play, and we feel strong about. For people who would invest money or move it into New York, it helps to see it, rather than just read it. Something on the page and something you experience aren’t exactly the same. The hope is we feel good about it, we get people to see it, someone will want to invest in it, and put it up somewhere.

New York City and Broadway are just an hour and a half down the road….

That’s what’s so brilliant about being able to work here. First of all, you’re given such support to really develop the play. You don’t have other concerns; you don’t have these big reviewers up here. The process is truly committed toward the playwright finding the play that she wants to write. It’s extraordinary to have that kind of support.

What else do you have in the works writing-wise at present? And will you continue doing television while being a playwright?

Well, you know, I do have to make money. It’s much easier for me at this point to make money as an actor than as a writer. But I am working on a couple of other things. I don’t see myself writing movies and such; I really do love the theatre. I feel committed to wanting to write….I have another play that I did here a few summers ago in a reading workshop called My Andy, about Andy Warhol’s relationship to his mother. I’ve been working on that a little bit more, wondering what I need to solve about their issues. She lived with him for 25 years, this immigrant who barely spoke English, in a babushka with the little apron!

“My imagination seems to be more alive thinking about the theatre. When I was young and I moved to New York, I was a member of the Circle Repertory as a very serious actor! At that time, I never really thought much about acting for television or film. But that’s what happened in my life. I got cast; you do this and that, and then, you’re just….there. You never know.”

Patricia Wettig’s F2M will be performed on the Powerhouse Mainstage, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, through July 10. Please see for schedule, or call the Box Office at 845.437.5599.

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