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Publications and Writings

“Isosceles” was published in Off the Rocks , Vol. 20, NewTown Writers Press, Chicago, IL, 2017

Program cover, New Repertory Theatre, 2014

Program cover, New Repertory Theatre, 2014

Program Notes for "Tongue of a Bird" by Ellen McLaughlin

“It was a hard play to write,” said Ellen McLaughlin.  “It took eight years,” and was begun before she wore her wings in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. Having originated the part of the Angel (appearing in every U.S. production through its Broadway run), she said “I love to fly.  But I'm also suspicious of my addiction to it."

Flight is rampant in Tongue of A Bird, literally and figuratively, from Maxine’s airplane to Amelia Earhart’s evocation, from the real to the metaphoric birds, and the beauty of flying contrasted with the need to escape the earthly bounds on a woman’s spirit.  As a playwright, McLaughlin first looks for an evocative image that she can’t understand, one where the only way to make sense of it is to write a play.  For Tongue of a Bird, two powerful dreams were the incitements:  the first, a repetitive dream of a child lost in the snow, looking desperately – for herself; and the second, an image of a woman standing in the air wearing the garb of Amelia Earhart, ridiculous as well as disturbing.

Much of McLaughlin’s work re-imagines classical Greek myths from a woman's perspective, including Elektra, Iphigenia, Penelope and Helen.  Along those lines, Tongue of A Bird is a version of Demeter’s search for Persephone, examining McLaughlin’s personal myth of the daughter (Charlotte) lost in the snow, her mother (Dessa) the only one who can hear the final truth.  Maxine, the pilot, has been searching most of her life for the answers to her mother Evie’s death, whose ghost appears when there are truths that only she can reveal.  Zofia, Evie’s mother and Maxine’s grandmother, is the oracle, a truth teller in this stark landscape of winter in the natural world, and in the souls of these five women.

The actual story of Tongue of A Bird is the skeleton on which McLaughlin fleshes out her emotional autobiography.  She uses repetition of settings, conversations, words, and images to convey a world of the terrors that rack minds and hearts: whiteness and blackness, birds, animals, blood, a window.  There are the practicalities of flight, in a plane or by a bird – contrasted with chilling metaphors, like the tongues of women stained black by the rubber bars used in electroshock treatments.

Plays develop as they are written, often in ways that surprise the playwright.  McLaughlin gave Evie the qualities of the spectral Earhart.  It wasn’t until much later that the playwright discovered the connection between flight and Maxine’s relationship with her mother, informing the entire construction of the play.  In a similar way, several male characters existed in earlier versions, but dropped away as the connecting threads and myths of mothers and daughters became central.

After our interview, McLaughlin shared several quotes that helped her think dramaturgically about the play:

  • “Is the cherished dream to reach the stars not also a part of the desire to abandon the earth?” - Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  •  “When do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it?” -Marilyn Robinson
  • “The woman I needed to call my mother was silenced before I was born.” - Adrienne Rich
  • “Running north and south.  Must be on you but cannot see you.” -Amelia Earhart’s last radio transmission

 This is not a play that takes you by the hand and says, let me show you this story.  It is a play that, like much of its material, says, we’re going on a trip, several flights in fact, and you will encounter many layers upon layers.  There are surprises, there are confusions, and there are things that seem ordinary but are crucial to deeper purposes.  With her bold, dramatic, and compelling language, McLaughlin creates a multiplicity of worlds, only one of which is the spinning globe in the opening scene.

Scenes From a Diverse World

This is a 2013 publication of the International Centre for Women Playwrights (ICWP), a 600-page compendium of scenes for teachers and student actors to use, typically with 2-3 characters.  ICWP has collected an eclectic group of scenes from the work of contemporary playwrights around the world.  The goal is to offer drama teachers and their students material that reflects the true diversity of the world we all inhabit.  You will find distinct voices with diverse ethnicities, minority gender identities and socio-economic viewpoints that are often marginalized in both the theatre and public views.

An early scene from At The Line, "Moving On," can be found beginning on page 387.  The book is available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com.