When it comes to sex, what is consent and when can it be given? If you don’t remember giving it, does sex become assault? These are the muddy waters that Anna Ziegler explores in her newest play, Actually. It follows two college freshmen, Amber and Tom, who drink heavily on their first date, then fall into bed with each other—and what happens next is more ambiguous, as consent becomes contested.
In putting dual protagonists centerstage to tell their respective sides of the story, Ziegler takes an incisive look at the topic of sexual assault on campus, while also examining race and gender politics (Amber is Jewish, Tom is black). In a climate in which 23 percent of female college students report being sexually assaulted, Actually is not only socially relevant; it’s also a thought-provoking character study. The play is currently playing at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, May 2-June 11, and will play at Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts this summer, Aug. 9-30, and at Manhattan Theatre Club beginning Oct. 31. The play is a co-world premiere between the Geffen and Williamstown. Over email Ziegler—whose other works include Boy and A Delicate Ship—discussed why she wrote the play, and the possibility of an American revival of Photograph 51, a study of chemist Rosalind Franklin, which was recently staged in London with Nicole Kidman.
Could you tell me a little bit about your background and how you decided to become a playwright?
I wrote a lot growing up, mostly poems, and even through college [at Yale] I felt that was the writing I was most interested in. But I did still take a couple playwriting classes in college, and senior year I was in a class taught by Arthur Kopit, who also happened to teach in the graduate playwriting program at [New York University]. That spring he suggested I apply [for the playwriting MFA program] and I balked—I was certainly not enough of a playwright for that kind of commitment. I went off to England on a yearlong fellowship to write poetry at the University of East Anglia. While I was there I reconsidered. Maybe writing plays would be more fun than writing poems, which, let’s face it, can be a little lonely (especially in the winter in the east of England).
So I applied and got into NYU, and went there for two years, and somewhere in there I must have become a playwright, though I didn’t think of myself that way until much much later. But within a few years of graduating from NYU I no longer had ideas for poems, and maybe that was the point, when the playwriting edged out the poetry, that I became a playwright. Also, writing plays was (and continues to be) difficult enough that it seemed like something one could devote one’s life to.
What inspired you to tell this story?
I’m often drawn to stories that examine the nature of “the truth,” in which multiple perspectives reveal the impossibility of a single definitive version of events. And the sexual misconduct cases that are proliferating on college campuses right now provide a fascinating, and painful, example of this, and of the particular difficulties of ascertaining what really happened between two people.
But more than anything, I was interested in these two characters and in investigating what led each to the moment in question—how society and personality converge to create a combustible mix of self-doubt and the desire to fit in, and how, as a result, good people can end up compromising themselves and others. I was also really intrigued by the idea of trying to determine truth at the dicey, charged intersection of race and gender, where biases abound.
How did you research the piece?
Sadly, it’s almost impossible not to research this topic these days. It feels like there’s another article, another story, another case, presented in the news every other day. But I also watched movies like The Hunting Ground and read Jon Krakauer’s Missoula and Laura Kipnis’s new book Unwanted Advances. My husband—a lawyer whose job at NYU is to handle litigation and student affairs matters, including Title IX-related issues—was also hugely helpful.
In this play Amber and Tom have alternate flashes of vulnerability and confident certainty, keeping the audience guessing about the outcome until the very end. Could you elaborate on your characterization of these two roles?
I felt it was important that we never lose sight of the humanity at the heart of both people. While I expect the audience to vacillate a bit in their sympathies, I would hope that that vacillation comes from suddenly understanding a character more deeply, rather than from writing the other character off in some way. Amber and Tom cycle through clarity and obfuscation not as a way to mess with the audience, but because I think this is how people work, how we think about ourselves: sometimes clearly and sometimes through other, more insidious lenses.
One of the things that struck me about the play is the sparseness of the stage directions. Do you see the staging underscoring the themes of the play?
As far as the staging goes, that is up to the director, and I don’t know yet how directors will decide to stage this play. But in terms of the play’s style and structure—how, largely via direct address to the audience, we go back and forth between narration of the details and progression of the sexual misconduct hearing and the characters’ reflections about what might have gotten them to that point in their lives—I would say that Amber and Tom’s appeals to those physically in the theatre mirror their appeals inside of their hearing, and the lack of response from the audience underscores the impossibility of there being clear answers.
Photograph 51 may soon see a New York revival. What can you tell me about that?
I am hopeful that the play will make its way back to New York before too long. In the meantime, it is being produced a fair bit around the world. This season it was done in Germany and Sweden and Latvia, and I actually just saw Photograph 51 starring Asia Argento at the beautiful Teatro Eliseo in Rome. In 2018 it’s looking like Sarna Lapine will direct it in Tokyo!
Amber and Rosalind Franklin (from Photograph 51) are both layered, multidimensional female leads. Do you find that there are any connections between Amber and Rosalind, and can you share your thoughts on writing well-rounded female characters?
I don’t see many connections between Amber Cohen and Rosalind Franklin except for the fact that they are both Jewish and both trying to figure out (in very different ways) how to be in the world, despite or perhaps because of how they are perceived. But where Rosalind works hard to defy how she is seen, Amber largely gives in to it. And I think Actually investigates those cracks in Amber’s character—those moments when she realizes she is capitulating to a system over which she should exert more control, while Photograph 51 examines those rare moments when Rosalind sees that she might actually enjoy some of the things more traditionally associated with female experience. So in some ways, these two characters are in inverse relation to each other.
In terms of writing well-rounded female characters, I think the goal should be the same as it is with any character: to know for yourself, as the writer, what this person’s deepest secret is and to hide it from the character and from the audience as long as possible, even as it drives the action forward.
Leead Feldman is a writer and educator currently based in Los Angeles. A graduate of University of California, Los Angeles’s English program, she is passionate about covering the arts, entertainment, and education.