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Theater Tue Jan 07 2014

Luna Gale: An Interview With Mary Beth Fisher

Thumbnail image for LUNA GALE PUBLICITY PHOTO.jpg

For child welfare social workers, at any given point, a workday can range anywhere from typical to mundane to completely unpredictable; and with politics, laws, courts, family members and other factors added to the mix, things can even get complex.

In Luna Gale, Mary Beth Fisher is "Caroline," a veteran social worker who is assigned to a case involving an infant who is the daughter of a young, drug-addicted couple. Here, Fisher talks about her role, general thoughts on child custody, and what she hopes audiences will take away from the play.

What attracted you to Luna Gale?

What drew me in was Rebecca Gilman. I've worked with her before and she's a playwright I admire so much and I just really love her work.

When did you first work with her?

I premiered two of her previous shows at The Goodman Theatre in 1999 and then in 2000, but we hadn't gotten a chance to work together since then. She writes incredibly complicated and interesting women, and that's obviously really appealing. The thing I love about Rebecca's work is that she's not afraid to tackle really big issues and explore them and allow them to be murky, messy, or complicated--she doesn't wrap up complicated issues in a little bow or a pretty package.

Tell us about your character in Luna Gale.

I'm playing a social worker who has to place an infant in foster care and the infant was born to two teenage drug addicts. One of the drug addicts' mother wants to step forward and take control of the baby and in the process of interviewing the grandmother, more complicated issues in the family arise.

Besides the obvious bureaucracy and politics of social work, as you got more into the character, did anything else about the profession stand out for you?

Actually I think it's easy to forget, but people who are in professions like that are dealing with human beings and they are really often dealing with very painful situations. But the social worker is also a human being who is in a caring and helping profession. I think most social workers go into the profession because they do want to help--they have that "helping gene."

The social work profession has also been known to be very mentally and/or emotionally draining--what are your thoughts?

I think when you go through a day where you're dealing with dozens and dozens of cases of children and adolescents who really need help, that you have to develop an ability to distance yourself emotionally enough so that you can actually do your job and do the best for them that you can possibly do, without completely getting emotionally wiped out yourself.

How did you prepare for the role? Did you shadow a real life social worker?

I may be right when I say that I don't think you can legally tag along, but I did speak off the record with someone I know who is a social worker. We talked about what his day was like and I was able to ask him some specific questions about some of the technical language within the play and get his take on the particular situation that my character was in. Of course, he immediately said that everything that Rebecca had written and researched in detail was quite accurate.

Did you get any other kind of input or assistance with your preparation?

I also had a visit from a different social worker who came to the rehearsal room who worked specifically with children and adolescents and who also had a lot of very particular experience with the issues that were brought up in this play. She spoke to us as a group about her experience dealing with sexual abuse and drug and alcohol abuse. It was really great to talk to somebody who spent years working with children and it was fascinating just to watch her behavior while she talked about it. That was very useful. And of course, we have an incredible dramaturgy department at the Goodman who put together an enormous notebook of research for all of us. We had a lot of support and help.

Have you ever been directly or indirectly involved with "the system" in any way?

I don't have personal experience with a social service organization but I have personal family issues that I can certainly relate to as far as alcohol and drug abuse that I absolutely can relate to. I'm sure most people have confronted those issues in their life. But that's the extent of my personal experience.

Rebecca Gilman has said she has always wanted to write a play about the life of a social worker. How does it feel to be the one who is bringing that to fruition?

To have an opportunity to premiere a new play is just the best. The process of creating a new work is really cool and exciting and fun and challenging. To be the first person to say the words--to be the first person to create the role--is so very special. I think everybody in the cast is feeling enormous excitement about being the first people who get to create a new Rebecca Gilman play. It is really an awesome thing.

Last fall, in a Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ investigative report, "Faces of Failure," the plight of Illinois children under DCFS's charge was explored; according to the article, "More kids [are] dying under Illinois DCFS watch." How do you think your character, Caroline, would respond to this report?

I guess what I love about Caroline is that despite the fact that she's been doing this for 25 years, she still cares very deeply about helping making the world a better place. One of the things that is clear in Rebecca's work and specifically, in this play, is that she clearly understands that there's a good story within the specific issues but that the issues are really just the tip of the iceberg--there is a much larger problem that is very difficult to address. The problem is that the larger issues involved are poverty, economic problems, education and opportunity. I think that's another great thing about Rebecca's play and hopefully, people will come away thinking that it's not okay to point your finger at a social worker or a state agency as being the focus of the problem--it's all of our problem.

What is it like working with the director Robert Falls?

One of my first shows at the Goodman was in 1994--I did The Night of the Iguana for Bob and I did the Chicago premiere The Guys. I also did his recent incredible production of The Seagull. When I think about the theater-going experiences I've had in Chicago in the last several years, so many of the productions that I remember clearly and have impacted me the most have been directed by Bob. His work is so artistically inspired and inspiring. I just feel like the luckiest actor alive that I'm able to do the world premiere of a Rebecca Gilman play that is directed by Bob Falls.

Have your feelings or thoughts about the child welfare system or its laws changed any as a result of this role?

I'm so not an expert on child welfare laws that is for sure, but I would say that working on this play has made me much more alert to the news and more watchful of a part of our world that maybe if you're not working directly in it, you're not paying that much attention to. I don't think about these things on a daily basis, but we all let things slide by that we're not immediately involved in. And maybe we should be more thoughtful or politically engaged about it. I think the great blessing for me in this role is that it is waking me up to a part of the world around me that I haven't paid enough attention to as a voting citizen or even as a member of the city of Chicago. And I think that's pretty great.

What do you want the audience to take away from Luna Gale?

I hope what the audience goes away with is the desire to talk about difficult ethical dilemmas. I suspect people will have a lot of opinions about the different positions that people in this play take. I think the best thing about this play is that Rebecca tells this story that makes you realize that a problem for one person is actually everybody's problem because we are all inter-connected: If poverty or abuse is impacting one child, it's actually going to have a trickle down effect. If this play can get people thinking in more of a community or global way, then she's accomplished a lot.


Luna Gale runs Jan. 18-Feb. 23 in the Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn; show days and times vary. Tickets are $25-$81 and are available online, at the box office, or by phone, 312-443-3800.

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