EDINBURGH FRINGE 2023 / INTERVIEW
"The more I explored this First Lady, and this period of history, the more I saw and felt pieces of a story that needed to be told. Mrs. President is the result of that curiosity."
John Ransom Phillips
C ARTS | C venues | C aquila - temple
2 - 27 August 2023 - (Not Mondays) 14:30 (1hr00)
July 5, 2023
Mary Lincoln is grieving. She needs a new image to win the hearts of the American people and silence the envious elite accusing her of treason. Who better for the job than the celebrity photographer who helped her husband win the presidency? But all is not as it appears for the First Lady… Subject and artist battle for creative control over their own narratives as they attempt to capture an iconic image of America’s First Widow. A new play about the power of representation by acclaimed artist, playwright, and historian John Ransom Phillips.
Hi John, thank you for talking to The New Current. How does it feel to be bringing Mrs President to Edinburgh Fringe and C Venues this August?
Knowing the tremendous assembly of art and creativity that the Edinburgh Fringe represents, I can only feel thrilled to have Mrs. President be a part of it. C Venues is an ideal space for Mrs. President and I’m looking forward to seeing the play come to life there.
As a playwright do nerves ever set in ahead of a show’s opening or are you able to enjoy the process?
The process of creating art is a part of who I am. When the work comes to life, as Mrs. President will, nerves are certainly a part of it, but that’s invigorating. That energy is why I keep working.
Will this be the first time you’ve brought a show to Edinburgh Fringe?
This will be my first time attending and having work being shown in the Fringe. It’s always been an exciting prospect. I’m really looking forward to being part of this great creative scene.
Can you tell me a little bit about how Mrs President came about, what was it about Mary Lincoln and Mathew Brady that inspired you to write this play?
My creative work led me to explore the photographer, Mathew Brady. His work captured much of the American Civil War era and I wanted to understand his perspective. Besides his battlefield photography, where he and his assistants would clean and pose the war dead, he was also a portrait photographer. Having your photograph taken by Brady could make you a celebrity, as it did for President Abraham Lincoln.
Painting and writing about Brady, I came across his portrait of Mary Lincoln. American history doesn’t treat her kindly. Her portrait made me want to learn more about her, to see if Brady’s lens was showing us Mary Lincoln, or just another posed figure to add to his portfolio. The more I explored this First Lady, and this period of history, the more I saw and felt pieces of a story that needed to be told. Mrs. President is the result of that curiosity.
From reading about your play it does seem that Mary Lincoln suffered from a lot of misrepresentation, untruths and what we would call now ‘fake news’, during your research did you discover any reasons why this was the case?
Mary Lincoln’s chapter in history was written with little care for her lived experience. It was easy to label her as crazy, when the reality was much more complex. If you consider Mary Lincoln’s flawed reputation, framing it with things like her fashion, her devotion to her family, and her husband being murdered right in front of her, doesn’t this sound like another American First Lady? Jackie Kennedy came to mind for me right away. American history loves her. So, it’s easy to see that Mary Lincoln is the victim of an incomplete narrative, or ‘fake news’, which Mrs. President is calling attention to.
What has been the most surprising fact you discovered about Mary Lincoln during your writing process?
I suppose what I’ve discovered is that there is little to no record about how Mary and Abraham were together. Jackie Kennedy is viewed as rounding out her husband, John. Eleanor Roosevelt’s relationship to Franklin is very well understood as collaborative. Mary Lincoln was extremely well educated. We don’t know if Abraham discussed the important issues of the day with Mary. Given her intelligence, you would suppose that would be likely, but there’s not much there. Again, history wrote off Mary Lincoln. Discovering this was inspiring for me, creatively.
"Whether it changes by my hand or by others’ interpretation, it should have a life of its own."
How essential is the creative collaboration between you, your director Lily Wolff and cast when working on a historical play like Mrs President?
Working with Lily Wolff has been so complimentary to telling Mary Lincoln’s story. Writing Mrs. President was a bit of a sparring match between the First Lady and Mathew Brady, for me. With Lily’s direction, Mrs. President has become a more nuanced, fuller evolution of Mary Lincoln, with Mathew Brady as both collaborator and antagonist. It’s compelling work.
And what has the process been like working with Lily Wolff on this production?
It has been a genuine delight working with Lily. She’s met me in the world of ideas and brought Mrs. President out of the ether, onto the stage in a way that feels like the play I intended audiences to see.
If you could describe Mrs President in THREE words what would they be?
Control your narrative.
Are you able to keep some form of flexibility with material once a show is running or are you someone who prefers to keep to the book?
Good art is never finished. It evolves. Whether it changes by my hand or by others’ interpretation, it should have a life of its own. Flexibility is essential, particularly in theatre, because context colors everything. Keeping to the book is only essential for the central idea of the play.
Have you always had a passion for theatre?
I’ve always had a passion for all the arts. Painting and sculpture are constants for me. Dance and theatre are art dynamically come to life. The written word memorialises creative ideas and inspirations across time that continue to nourish me.
Has your style and approach as a playwright changed a lot since your debut?
Each story and play has its own style, for me. If anything, I’ve learned and come to appreciate David Mamet’s concept of theatre being about the hunt. It’s helped me distill my work, allowing more space for the audience to experience the story.
How much does your background as a painter and filmmaker influence and inform the type of theatre you create?
Theatre and painting both start with ideas. This origin is what draws me to write for the stage. Viewing a canvas and a piece of theatre are visceral and immediate. What you view in any moment affects you. I love this experience. My paintings help me clarify the idea or vision. Once rendered, I can put them to the page. Or the other way around. They become mutually reinforcing. It is a whole process for me. The idea and the medium choose me.
Do you have any advice, tips or suggestions you would offer anyone thinking about getting into theatre?
Recognise that theatre is interdisciplinary. Creativity isn’t something that occurs in isolation. The more inclusive you are of styles, disciplines, and ideas you can be, the greater your art will become.
And finally, what do you want your fringe audiences to take away from Mrs President?
A new understanding of a woman who has been tragically unable to tell her own story.