Please note, this interview contains mature language.
CATF: If your play had a twitter account, would it use the hashtag “#mentoo?”
ELLEN FAIREY: I’m so not a Twitter person. No, that’s not my goal – to make anything into a hashtag. Assigning a hashtag to me feels reductive, and the play is about not reducing a gender to one thing. I’m much more interested in the universal, in humanity.
This is a play about men – men in crisis – written by a woman. How did you become so comfortable writing male voices?
I have wonderful brothers, a wonderful father, and I’ve had lots of wonderful relationships with men. People are so focused on the idea of a woman writing about men. I don’t even think about it that way. These are characters that I was interested in who happen to be a group of men. Plenty of male writers throughout history have written women – Tennessee Williams, for example. Thank God he wrote these fantastic female characters.
A woman writing men seems to really disorient some people. I didn’t know this before I wrote this play. I realized it afterward because the response I got was so often focused on “Why would you want to do that?” “How can you do that?” I can do it because I have an imagination. I listen to people.
The word that seems to best describe the men in this play is the word “tender,” a word not often associated with men. These characters care enough about each other to create a support group that they call their “sacred space of safety. We are brothers . . . we are only here to bear witness . . . It’s Thursday. It’s what we do.”
I love people. I’m so curious about people beyond their gender. There’s also a tenderness in myself. All of those characters are part of myself – every single one.
Part of the focus of your play is ageism – the invisibility that comes with aging for men – and for women . . .
I love writing adolescent characters, and I love writing middle-aged characters. There’s a real similarity in those times of our lives. It’s a time of life where nothing is going to be the same again. You’re in a transitional place, and wherever you’ll end up you’ll know that the past is over and you’re going into a new place.
I love those areas of our timelines and those characters because it’s all so bewildering. But there’s also something kind of magic about it. Aging is bewildering. Adolescence is bewildering. It’s scary because there’s not necessarily a roadmap. It’s not all one thing, “and now we’re done.” It’s how you navigate it, and the guys in this play are navigating it – some better than others. They are trying to figure it out.
This play is set in Chicago. Why?
I moved to Chicago in the ‘80s to attend school at the Art Institute and ended up staying for 23 years. I lived there longer than any other place, and then I moved to Los Angeles 11 years ago where I wrote this play, partly because I was missing Chicago so much.
After moving to Los Angeles, I realized that Chicago is a city that is in conversation. People just talk to one another. It’s full of dialogue, conversation, and conviviality all the time. I find that so warm and lovely. You may not always agree with what you’re hearing or what people are talking about, but you really exist when you’re there. Los Angeles is a little isolating and there’s less engagement because everyone is in their cars or in their homes.
This play is a conversation that invites conversation. People from all generations seem to respond to it. It’s not just for millennials, and it’s not just for middle-aged people. There seems to be something for everyone, and I didn’t know that until I was sharing it with audiences and getting feedback.
A lot of people also don’t like it, and what I find with that is they usually are not interested in seeing the characters in any other way than negative. This play is so warm-hearted and some people may get angry about it because they may feel like men don’t deserve a warm-hearted story.
You were asked once what you hope audiences take away from Support Group for Men and you responded, “The same thing I hope to feel after writing it: less alone.”
That answer goes for anything that I write. How wonderful to make people feel less alone. They’ve seen themselves on stage. They’ve understood something about others that they hadn’t understood before. It makes them more open to things, which in turn makes them or someone else feel less alone.
You’ve also said, “Ordinary people are my people.”
I probably wouldn’t write something about royalty, but maybe I would because that would be a fun challenge. I have a Midwestern soul and like to write about everyday people, the salt-of-the-earth types.
“Questions inform my work. Things I don’t understand inform my work,” you’ve said. What questions informed Support Group for Men?
Questions come up as I’m writing. It’s never like I have a question and I sit down to find the answer. I find it as I go. I started with the character of Rog, the main character of the play, who’s the kind of guy that’s probably not used to sharing his fears in this kind of social setting. He’s clumsy, and it’s humorous, but it’s also moving. Then the play grew into a support group setting.
I’ve been working on this play for eight years or more, right when gender identity conversations began seeping into the culture. I didn’t quite understand it. I thought, “Really? You can be both female and male?” So I wondered how a blue-collar Chicago guy would wrap his head around that new conversation. As a writer, it felt very fruitful to have this character struggle with, “What does that mean?” I gave Rog my question. I’m embarrassed that I don’t understand it, but I want to.
Audience members have thanked me for bringing that question into the story because a lot think, “I thought I was the only one who didn’t get this, so I’ve been terrified to say anything because I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing.” By giving the struggle over that gender identity question to Rog, somehow a lot of audience members felt a release, like it was okay to talk about it and hopefully – understand it a little better.
You often say that human beings are incredibly flawed and fucked up. Does that open the door to redemption or revelation?
I don’t think redemption necessarily. Me saying that we’re all fucked up, is just another way of saying that being human is a messy endeavor. I think reflection more than redemption is definitely the goal of the guys in this play, some more than others. Rog is the most reflective, while Brian, at first, is not really looking at himself.
In general, I believe if one reflects on one’s self, there can be more understanding of one’s self. Not everybody wants to do that.
In my research, I came across a word that I don’t often hear from playwrights: the word “joy”. You’ve said, “I remain interested in the joy of humanity.”
It feels subversive to write this play about men, and I’m not taking them down or putting them in their place. I’m actually looking at them whole-heartedly, I hope, and realistically. They certainly aren’t perfect.
That “joy” thing is the same thing as that “tenderness” thing in me. It’s just who I am as a person.
Did you have a favorite book when you were a kid?
I really loved Family of Man, a book put together by Edward Steichen based on a photographic exhibition at MOMA. It’s amateur and professional photography of the human experience: birth, life, death, work. I was obsessed with this book as a child. Carl Sandberg did the prologue for the book, and he’s a Chicago person. I was probably holding the book at age four, and I was just fascinated, besotted by the experiences of other people in the world.
I think I would have been a social anthropologist if I weren’t a writer. They are kind of the same thing, no? To write characters is an anthropological endeavor.
In Chester Bailey, another play in CATF’s 2019 repertoire, the character Dr. Cotton makes this observation about his patient, Chester Bailey, to his father: “Your son, Mr. Bailey, is the author of his own mercy. He stitched it together out of what was around him. Just like the rest of us.”
How have you been the author of your own mercy?
That’s such a beautiful line. Writing is a healing act for me and, hopefully for others. To express one’s self is a real gift. To be able to do it and then have it received is an even bigger gift. It’s a back and forth with me and the audience, and the audience with the characters. It’s a whole kind of ecosystem, and when it’s working, it’s wonderful. I love it.