Q&A: Playwright Bess Wohl reflects on Grand Horizons

Date posted: 01 Mar 2022 Author: STC Production:  Grand Horizons 


After its success in 2021, Grand Horizons is back for a limited return season.

Playwright Bess Wohl, took some time to share insights into her creative process and why she loves Jessica Arthur’s sensational production of this witty and heartwarming family comedy.

How did Grand Horizons start for you? Why did you want to tell this story?

All my plays have a few different sources of inspiration. Grand Horizons came from three different places. One was that my very closest friend in the world was going through a situation in which his parents were getting divorced at about age 80. And he was somebody who was a very well adjusted, confident, grown human. Suddenly, it regressed him to a state of adolescence. He was very thrown by the fact that his family of origin was breaking apart. So I was really interested in this idea of how we never really get over our childhood selves. I was interested in portraying this idea of adult children, not just for the sons in the play, but also for the parents. Everyone sort of behaves like a child at different moments in the play and that, obviously, is a huge source of comedy, and also a little bit tragic, too. 

When I first started the play I was on the verge of getting married, and then, the play took a few years to write. So by the time I wrote the second act, I was pregnant with one of my children. I was thinking a lot about commitment and about love and about whether love can endure over time and how that works.

Finally, I was thinking a lot about theatricality in general and what makes a classic play. I asked myself: is there a way that I could (because I've written some very experimental plays), work within this language of a more traditional play but work in experimental or slightly rebellious ideas? Not to include spoilers, but I felt trapped by the confines of the play in the same way that Nancy feels trapped by the confines of her marriage and both of us needed to break some walls down in order to breathe.

During the first run of Grand Horizons at STC, audience members, actors and creatives commented on how real the characters felt. How do you go about building characters?

The first piece of it, for me, is totally intuitive. I can just feel the character, hear the character, they just start talking. I don't plan it out in any way, at the beginning anyway. For example, the fact that Nancy is surrounded by three men in her family became very important to me as I worked on the play but, at the beginning, it was totally intuitive.

So, I do a first draft and just let the characters talk and I don't really know where they're going or where the play's going. Then I go back and I try to locate certain themes or images and make pieces align or butt up against each other in different ways. If there's one thing about a character that's very clear, I try to embed the opposite trait or affect, somewhere in the play. I try to feel a little bit of friction and try to allow them to, at some point in the play, do or say the exact opposite of what they just said five minutes ago.

Where do you think Grand Horizons sits in relation to your other plays?

There is this loneliness, I think, in a lot of my plays, and a sense that connection is really fleeting and difficult and maybe impossible. I think that, in a way, relates directly to Grand Horizons because the play starts with this whole scene where Bill and Nancy are not talking to each other at all. That first scene of total silence is mirrored in the play’s final scene but in that scene, Nancy and Bill talk to each other. And I think if there's a hopeful ending in the play, which I believe there is, it's simply that they're talking to each other. We've waited the entire play for an authentic conversation. And I think that's something I'm really interested in: how often are people able to say what they mean, how rare is that? And how difficult human communication is.

In Jessica Arthur’s Director's Note, she commented on the restrained use of stage directions in the script. As a playwright, how do you conceive of your relationship with the director that eventually goes on to interpret your work and how does that influence your writing?

I think (Jessica Arthur) did such a beautiful job of interpreting the play and I've never even had a conversation with her, but I watched archival documentation of the first run, and it was just gorgeous.

Sometimes you just get really lucky. The director really understands the play in ways that I could have tried forever to communicate in the text. But Jess found ways to interpret the play that were completely surprising to me and yet totally supported what I was going for.

I wrote one of my early plays called Small Mouth Sounds, that's all stage directions. So, maybe I burned out on stage directions. But I also tried to offer a lot of freedom in Grand Horizons. I also think the point is to let people discover the play on their own. The best feeling as a playwright, which I felt when I watched the video of this production, is to be surprised by an interpretation that you never would have thought of but that somehow gets to the essence of what you were trying to achieve.

You mentioned that you dialled in to see the STC production. What stood out to you in that production that was different from previous ones you've seen?

I really thought it was so skilfully done from the moment of the curtain going up very, very, very slowly, and encountering Nancy's feet as she's going around and spraying her plants. That whole sort of slow reveal was brilliant in terms of introducing us to the world in a way that shows us that we should be looking carefully at the behaviour of these people. I'm really interested in human behaviour and I think that the production really beautifully articulates the behaviour of these particular characters. I thought the actors were brilliant. I thought their ability to mine both the comedy and the tragedy of the play and sort of walk that razor’s edge was so skillful. For me, the play really exists in a world that looks naturalistic but isn’t quite – and this also comes across in the STC set. It's a very hard tone to strike. It's a little bit strange, but not so absurd that you don't recognise yourself in these people. You also don't want to feel like it's just pure naturalism. There's something slightly heightened or maybe even hyperreal about it. I thought the director and the actors really understood that tone beautifully and expressed it so well. It was such a delight to watch the video and to see that without even talking, halfway across the world, my play had been understood so brilliantly.

Grand Horizons