“It’s the closest thing I have to a heart.”
We continue Season 12 at Forum with World Builders: a love story by Johnna Adams. As this season's Directing Intern, I was fortunate enough to assist director Amber McGinnis Jackson on this production. I took part in the incredible journey of bringing this play about people who feel everything and nothing at once to Woolly Mammoth’s Melton Rehearsal Hall, where it is playing through November 21. Daniel Corey and Laura Harris star as Max and Whitney.
The core question that the team asked as we began table work was how to synthesize the fascinating and thorough research that our dramaturg, Maegan Clearwood, had collected about Schizoid Personality Disorder (SPD) with the reality of Max and Whitney as Adams wrote them on the page. As Whitney recites early on in the play, individuals with SPD are “obsessively introspective, addicted to building an elaborate fantasy life, and indifferent to social norms.” These traits certainly check out with the Max and Whitney that we experience in Act I, the Max and Whitney who have freshly arrived to a drug trial designed to kill their worlds. They are awkward, abrasive, and unsure of how to connect with each other. The only reason Whitney seeks a connection with Max, the catalyst for our story, is for personal benefit—if her world dies, at least Max will be able to carry on the memory of it.
In the rehearsal room, the actors created posters with lists of traits from textbooks, online sources, and beyond. Jackson encouraged them to use the traits as a base line for character development, but to also be ready to explore far beyond. It was important to keep in mind that these traits were defined by doctors and psychiatrists, not actual human beings who are identified as SPD. A Tumblr page that Clearwood dug up, “Actually Schizoid,” did feature the stories of individuals with SPD from all around the world. What we discovered was that their stories were intensely specific. Many stories contradicted the doctors’ general opinions of SPD, which was no surprise to anyone. How could anyone define something so ephemeral?
The aspect left completely to the imagination of the actors was the visual interpretation of the worlds inside the characters’ heads. Their worlds are drastically different, which serves to highlight the individual nature of SPD. Both worlds are visually arresting and completely unique. Jackson encouraged Harris and Corey to find images that were reminiscent of their individual worlds. We hung these on the wall alongside the research posters, creating an enveloping environment that blends the known and the unknown.
The traits that Harris and Corey created for Whitney and Max were constantly evolving. What started as a childlike, hand on neck twisting gesture from Corey transformed over the rehearsal process into a tendency to pick at his hair. Harris discovered the power of Whitney’s voice to intimidate and convince Max of her needs. In the end, deftly guided by Jackson, they created two vastly different humans with one thing in common: rich, complex fantasy worlds. If you encountered Max on the street, and then Whitney five minutes later, you’d never guess that they would be diagnosed with the same thing—what doctors generically term “Schizoid Personality Disorder.”
Whitney at one point says, “[My world is] the closest thing she has to a heart. I don’t know who I’ll be if the pills work. Someone without a heart.” This line, to me, is the basis of character creation for these two. They know that they are different. They don’t desire to be like everyone else—like anyone else. These are people who are not only comfortable with but also proud of their uniqueness. The overarching question of the play, of course, is whether outsiders should be allowed to decide what kind of happiness a person should have. Because, by the end of our story, Max and Whitney can have a different kind of happiness, a typical kind of happiness. Harris and Corey slowly deteriorate their physical traits over the course of the story, resulting in two people who you would never guess have anything “wrong” with them if you passed them on the street—let alone that they are on medication for the same reason.
Rebecca Wahls, Directing Intern
Rebecca Wahls is a DC-based director and actor with a BFA in Performance for the Stage and Screen from George Mason University ('15). She is a proud Artistic Associate, Teaching Artist, and Touring Company Member with Acting for Young People in Fairfax, Virginia. At Mason, she directed Dido, Queen of Carthage (sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research), Woyzeck, and many ten minute plays. Locally, she has assistant directed for Constellation Theatre Company and GALA Hispanic Theatre. She has also appeared in several plays at Mason and in the Capital Fringe Festival. www.rebeccawahls.com