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"I distinctly remember one of our first phone calls was supposed to be about another of his plays and I had just pages and pages of notes and questions about Mrs President."

Lily Wolff
Mrs. President President
C ARTS | C venues | C aquila - temple

2 - 27 August 2023 - (Not Mondays) 14:30 (1hr00)
July 3, 2023
Mrs President - main image.jpg

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 Lily, 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?

It’s surreal. As I write this, there’s just a weekend between me and the start of our rehearsal process. Emails are flying all around my inbox with people saying “it’s getting so real!” and I keep writing back, “Yes! Isn’t it?” but I’m really thinking, “WHAT IS HAPPENING?!” It’s a unique moment when the play-making moves from the planning phase into the practice phase. I feel it so acutely. But, with every play there are so many variables – the material, the people in the room, the venue – it’s all new every time. The only thing that stays the same is that’s it’s always mysterious, always unchartered. I think that’s why it feels completely surreal until it’s happening.

Coming to Edinburgh is a dream. I feel so lucky to be collaborating with the Mrs President team, who are all exceptional artists and exceptionally kind and generous human beings.


As a director do nerves ever set in ahead of a show’s opening or are you able to enjoy the process?

I’m a total mess. My husband won’t sit next to me at openings, because he says he actually wants to be able to enjoy it.

It’s the same before first rehearsals. I get so nervous to meet everyone and get the process off on the right foot. I feel such responsibility for making a space in which everyone can make their best work in a supportive and safe environment. It’s very hard to risk and to fail if you don’t make that kind of space – and the work suffers.

I love everything else between first rehearsal and opening!


Will this be the first time you’ve brought a show to the Fringe?

Yes. I’m terrified. It’s White Hot Fear up in here.


Can you tell me a little bit about how Mrs President came about, what was it about John Ransom Phillips’s play that interested you as a director?

I started working with John Ransom Phillips as a kind of theatre consultant or dramaturgical advisor last year. Basically, we’d get on the phone and talk for three hours about this play or that play or the echoes across all his plays. One of the plays he sent me was Mrs President. I distinctly remember one of our first phone calls was supposed to be about another of his plays and I had just pages and pages of notes and questions about Mrs President. I remember thinking that I would have to be disciplined, focus on the other play, and push those questions to the side. But, there’s something about talking with John that just always takes me somewhere new or unexpected, and often we end up getting to the heart of the matter very quickly. There’s no beating around the bush. John is a true conversationalist – it’s not small talk, it’s real engagement, real listening. He saw right through me and we ended up spending the whole time talking about Mrs President.

I had, also, recently (and unexpectedly) become a mother during a global pandemic, so Mary’s experience as mother in challenging times really spoke to me. I could not understand why the world saw her (or failed to see her) as a figure to be hated. She was the First Lady during the American Civil War when mothers were losing their sons all across the country. Isn’t it a tragedy that these shared experiences so often drive us apart when they should bring us together?

I was fascinated by the way John’s point of view on the story as a visual artist (which has been his primary career) is so different from my own as a theatre maker. We find our way inside the piece and experience the story very differently, although not incompatibly. I actually think our differing perspectives is what makes our collaboration so rich and will make Mrs President a compelling theatrical experience. In John’s plays, anything can happen. It’s a fun sandbox for a director to play in and I’m eager to explode that sensation for the audience.

"Very few of them wind up manifesting in the final production, but that process of getting to them is essential for me."

Did you know much about Mary Lincoln before you started working with John on this production?

Very little. It was a real learning edge for me. And will continue to be.

I think because I wasn’t familiar with her story, I also hadn’t osmosed her as a hate figure. Which is probably helpful, because it allowed me to feel so shocked that the world could be so cruel, so dismissive, so unfeeling and dehumanising of her life experience. And then I thought, oh never mind, that sounds about right. I don’t know why I keep experiencing that sensation of surprise…Anyway, it pisses me off, so I’m thrilled to get to make a play about it!


How essential is the creative collaboration between you, John and your cast when working on a historical play like Mrs President?

It’s everything. On any play. It’s the whole thing. In fact, that’s the first thing we make together. The production is the second.


What are the first steps you take as a director when you start going into production on a new play?

I read the play on my own. Lots and lots of times. And allow the responses to float into my mind freely and unjudged. I take a lot of notes at that time. Very few of them wind up manifesting in the final production, but that process of getting to them is essential for me.

Then I have a lot of conversations with my collaborators in which my job is to talk as little as possible. You can never un-say something, never dig a seed out of someone’s brain once you’ve planted it there. I want to know what their gut impulses are before I come in and alter them by adding my own into the mix. I chose to work with them for a reason. I want us all to be storytellers, so I start by making space for that, before all the different impulses combine and we’re working so seamlessly that we can’t remember who thought of what or whose idea was whose.


If you could describe Mrs President in THREE words what would they be?

Tell. Your. Story.


Do you like to have some form of flexibility with a show once it is running or are you someone who prefers to keep to has been rehearsed and written?

I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a production that has not continued to evolve after I leave it. If not, is the piece really alive? Are we really delivering on our promise of “live performance”? Have the actors been given enough agency to be artists? Personally, I’d never want a piece of live performance to freeze like a film. That’s why I direct plays.

Of course, in a very human (and unhelpful) way, it’s a challenge to your sense of control and really kicks the FOMO into high gear. But, that’s part of the skin you put in the game as a director. You have to trust the process and the people. And you have to build a room where the whole team can bring their full selves to the art making from the beginning.

Have you always had a passion for theatre?

Yes, since I was very young. Three, maybe? I’ve always felt big feelings (and now I watch my almost three-year-old son do the same). For a while I shared my heart with dance and music, too. It felt like they all made space for my big feelings. My big feelings could play uninhibited and actually make something. Now it all lives in the theatre and my passion for dance and music serves the way I approach telling stories on stage.


Has your style and approach to your work changed a lot since you started out?

Yes. Thank goodness. But, I’ve always been a “human first” kind of maker. As in, “we are all humans first, and theatre makers second.” I don’t think I’ve ever known how else to work. And, now, I don’t want to work any other way.


Do you have any advice, tips or suggestions you would offer anyone thinking about getting into theatre?

Well, first of all: everyone should get into theatre! Go see and play. And if you don’t like it, go see a different play at a different theatre. Give permission and time to develop your taste, as you do with anything in life. If the cost is prohibitive, call the box office. Tell them you want to see the play, ask what discounts they offer. Any if you can’t afford the discount price, tell the person on the phone just that, write an email, help bring their attention to the fact that their work is not accessible. It’s a big way we can help make theatre available to everyone – and that’s how the theatre thrives.

If you’re thinking about a career in the theatre, my advice is the same. See plays. Read plays. Form your opinions and hone your taste. Talk to as many people as you can. It’s a small world and theatre has a “helping-hand” kind of culture. When you meet someone who is making their living in the theatre, ask them for a coffee date. Pick their brain. Get in the room with them. And know that the worst thing that can happen is they say “no.” And that’s not, actually, the worst thing.


And finally, what do you want your fringe audiences to take away from Mrs President?

I want them question the pervasive and harmful narratives against women in our culture. I want them ask themselves if they contribute to those narratives. I want them to feel more human. I want them to treat the people around them more humanely. I want them to feel empowered to tell their own stories and make space for other people to do the same.

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