In a production still of A Good Little Rain, a new play premiering at NC State this week, the cast of student actors peer through set pieces that represent mirrors. In these mirrors, the characters pose and posture, examine and evaluate their reflections.
The image distills the critical conflict within A Good Little Rain: how does self-image develop as a young person comes of age? And how will that self-image mutate through mental illness and grief?
These questions shape the play, which premieres at The Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre at NC State. Playwright and recent graduate Natalie Sherwood is one of the winners of The 2018 NC State Creative Arts Award, which honors exceptional original work in music, dance, and theatre by NC State students. Sherwood mined previous acting experience to translate their vision of a young person’s interior life to the stage.
Through the story of Michelle, Sherwood explores how identity emerges through grappling with depression, anxiety, and the loss of a parent. The nonlinear memory play dips into Michelle’s past and present, in dialogue punctuated by poetic interludes. The resulting character study is an unflinching portrayal of a young woman’s coming of age.
Sherwood’s commitment to realistic storytelling and emotional honesty stems from passion born of experience. The playwright drew inspiration from their own life in the writing of A Good Little Rain. The title of the play honors Sherwood’s mother, who wanted to write a book of the same name before her passing.
I caught up with Natalie Sherwood on realistically portraying mental illness, Southern narratives in theatre, and the writing of A Good Little Rain.
Tickets and more information on A Good Little Rain at go.ncsu.edu/goodlittlerain. A Good Little Rain runs from March 20th – March 24th, 2019.
In the description of A Good Little Rain, you explain: “Much of traditional theatre founds itself upon escapism and romanticism. I wanted to escape the escapism and deromanticize life’s hardships…”
Why was a realistic approach so important for the telling of this story?
At its core A Good Little Rain is an exploration of mental illness. This story confronts very intimate challenges people face, internal struggles that are growing more universal but remain unspoken. Unfortunately, in lucrative narratives these sorts of struggles with death, depression, anxiety, self-harm, and sexuality are often romanticized plot points. They’re accessories and character quirks instead of dynamic sources of conflict. I chose not to make light of these issues or make them seem uncommon.
There are parts of the play that exist in an unrealistic setting–a void within mirrors–but these sections are distinctly separated from reality only to portray a distorted self-image of the character, to encapsulate the vast emptiness that depressed people may feel. The reality is that anxiety affects 18% of our adult population in the U.S. More than 300 million people of all ages are affected by depression globally. Mental illness deserves our attention. It deserves to be seen as valid and treatable. People deserve to know they’re not alone in their efforts to manage their mental health. Hope is real.
Who are your favorite playwrights? Who would you consider most influential in the writing of A Good Little Rain?
I am certain I have much to absorb when it comes to the expanse of playwrights in existence, but I do have an appreciation for Tom Stoppard and Theresa Rebeck. They are meticulously clever in their word play and unyielding in their truths. Christopher Durang is also a breath of fresh air when it comes to comedy.
A Good Little Rain is inspired thoroughly by Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. I read the play in my Introduction to Theatre class at NC State a few years ago and worked with the text to direct a small vignette from the piece. I found the story structure compelling—it alternates between the past and present, between observing scenes objectively and hearing personal accounts from the protagonist.
You get to see her powerful, articulate voice juxtaposed with her lack of self-agency as her history unfolds. It details a pedophilic relationship between a young woman and her uncle. There is no pretense, no rose colored lens, no pandering; it is raw, ugly, vulnerable, and honest. It is almost funny to say it out loud, but I was galvanized by a playwright so daring as to tell the truth.
A Good Little Rain is a memory play based on your own experiences growing up in the South- and of course the South has a rich tradition of memory plays. How does A Good Little Rain pull from regional experience and Southern narratives? Where does it diverge?
Though it is a memory play, the content is contemporary in nature. There are vignettes, however, that thrust the main character, Michelle, into her childhood often spent tailing after her grandfather doing odd projects. Tender moments of nurturing and conflicting lessons of integrity influence her future mentality.
I, too, spent time over my summers as a girl learning from my grandpa how to measure and saw wood, hammer nails, stain furniture, and add tiles to roofs. Some of my favorite memories involve fishing at his backyard pond and mowing his acres of land on his green John Deere mower. My grandpa taught me toughness, resourcefulness, compassion, and how to pull pranks. Those same lessons he instilled in my mother, who originally wanted to author a book of the name A Good Little Rain. She worked in tobacco fields and picked cotton for handfuls of change growing up. Call it “southern grit” or what-have-you, but my mother had it. The mother in the play is inspired by her.
She and my grandpa also loved God fiercely. They, and I, grew up Christian, as many Southerners do. Throughout the play, Michelle loses her religion as she witnesses the death of her mother, who trusted God so deeply. She struggles terribly with her failed attempts at prayer and by worshiping the wrong people. The play doesn’t embody the entirety of the Southern experience, nor does it attempt to, but rather gives respectful and nostalgic nods to its rich influence on Michelle as a young woman.
You’re an actor in addition to being a playwright. Did you find yourself looking at A Good Little Rain through an actor’s lens as you were writing it? How did being an actor inform your writing process?
Oh, absolutely. I do not think I would be as successful in creating a fully fleshed out piece of theatre without my knowledge of the limitations of a stage. There were moments I instinctively envisioned cinematically, with close frames and seamless cuts, and my actor brain had to work to translate it to the openness of a stage where almost nothing can be completely hidden from view.
The most challenging aspect, I found, was keeping an eye out for the stage directions that implied acting choices. I truly want the text to be interpreted by the actor, informed by their own life experience and psychology. It was difficult to distinguish between an acting choice I made and a direction that singularly supported a character arc.
The phrase “a good little rain” comes from your mother, who wanted to write a book herself with that title.
You describe the phrase as a saying from local farmers your mother encountered growing up in North Carolina: “She recalled hearing local farmers say they needed ““a good little rain,”” a shower that was just enough for their crops to survive the growing season.”
Needing just a little sustenance from an outside source to get by is a powerful idea. How does that concept come into play in A Good Little Rain?
It is interesting you say sustenance, when often people see a cloudy sky and rainy forecast as inconvenient and dreary. Personally, I hold a soft spot for rain and petrichor. Raindrops on a window and rumbling skies inspire pensivity and nostalgia in me. Yet, for some ironic reason, as I related to Michelle’s character, I tended to view her mental illness and darkness as water.
In one poetic interlude, she describes the heaviness she feels as though she is drowning, being swallowed by her sorrows and unwilling to swim. By the end of the play, Michelle realizes that water is not all bad and that sometimes we need life’s obstacles to teach us how to grow.
I think “a good little rain” is the stuff in life that we impulsively brush off as inopportune. Somehow, years later, with compounded experience and introspection, we come to find that the rain we did not want was the rain we really needed.
Headshot courtesy of Natalie Sherwood.