March 4, 2019KR BlogNewsletter

Associate Spotlight: Mollie Greenberg ’19

Mollie GreenbergMollie Greenberg ’19 is a drama and modern languages and literatures double major from Yellow Springs, Ohio. She’s a student employee, an actress, and a longtime KR Associate. She’s held major roles on the Kenyon mainstage, such as Sonya in Uncle Vanya, #8 in The Wolves, and, most recently, Lenny in Crimes of the Heart for her senior thesis. In this interview she discusses self-growth, theater education, and translation.

You focus on acting in your drama major, and you’ve acted for a long time. What is it like learning how to act?
It’s the type of learning, to me, that is the most similar to how we grow up and learn in life. It comes very naturally to me because I have both the physical and intellectual tools to change something. That’s what I like about it. I see everything as a tool, or a language, that you learn how to work with. I feel like, with acting, I have the most growth available because it’s the language I’m the most fluent in. I don’t know if that really answers the question about “learning how to act,” but that’s the thing, you can never complete learning about it. You have to learn every part, every part improves your acting, and improves—or expands is a better word—your full person.

You’ve talked about growing and getting into roles—are there certain methods you have to unlock the personality of a role, or how does that process look generally?
The way that we learn about “how to act” at Kenyon is not very character-development focused. We read this essay [in the course “Introduction to Theater”] by David Mamet called “He’s the Kind of Guy Who,” which talks about how we shouldn’t make character judgments about characters, because it’s not helpful—they are what they say and do on the page, meaning “there is no character.” So you should always be looking at “what does my character do?” or “what does my character say?” and understanding in your own brain why they would do or say that thing. I would say, as far as meeting a new character, it’s all about investigating the moment-to-moment. The decisions that they make, and why they make them—intellectually. Then there’s the part that’s really fun—there’s the added level of figuring out why they’re saying something before you can figure out how they’re saying something. I really like the physical movement work. I like to develop a walk for my characters. I haven’t done that as much here, but especially in high school I would come up with a walk for my characters and try to practice walking like them, right before I went on stage. I’m very fascinated by people’s walks; it’s something that silently differentiates us. I’ve always felt like I don’t have a specific walk, or that my walk is very changeable based on my mood or the day. That’s something I feel about myself in other ways too. One of the reasons I started becoming interested in acting as a kid was that I felt that I was really shy and that I wasn’t “defined” as a person. In getting into a character and finding out what it is they do or say, and how do they move, I could help define myself. That’s not an issue now that I’m an adult, but it still really interests me in the process, in making that person come to life. It’s not creating a new thing. It’s taking the clay of yourself and changing what you already have, and in certain ways not changing things, just bringing other things out, to become a new person.

You recently completed your senior thesis in drama. What was that process like?
We propose a group to work with, typically one to three actors and then a director, and then we propose two plays we want to do and the department picks one of them. That all happens before senior year. In senior year you get a slot when your performance will go up and you have five weeks, plus tech week, of rehearsal. That’s a short rehearsal time. We have no budget, but we can use all the stuff in the shop. We put the play up in the Hill Theater. That’s the literal process. Beyond that, it depends on how big the show is. Our show, we had to cast. That means that some people in the room are doing this as an academic requirement, I and my thesis partners, and some people audition for this show and happen to be in it. I had never been in a relationship like that with a director before—I felt like I had just as much authority since I was doing so much work on my character, I had to turn in journals and stuff. It’s a weird form of collaboration where you feel like sometimes you remember that you are collaborating for art, and sometimes you’re thinking about that academic requirement, and you’re worried about “doing it right.”

You’ve also started directing more. Has that changed how you conceptualize collaborative art, or work in theatrical spaces otherwise?
I realized so much of being successful is learning how to communicate your ideas from inside yourself to outside of yourself. When you’re an actor, it’s important to show. If you can’t articulate—if your director asks you a question for example—if you can’t articulate your understanding in words, usually that’s OK as long as you can show your understanding of the thing. That’s one of the things I like about acting, because we have our voices and our bodies—and our anything else, our hair!—to express our idea. What I’ve been learning is, as a director, you have to be really good at adjusting to communication styles, reading people in the moment, reading does this work, does this not work, am I just wrong? Sometimes you’re just not communicating properly. It’s shown me how integral specific communication is in artistic collaboration, which I really like. I’m interested in teaching and being an artist but also just being a professional person who can work well with others, and I find that the overlaps with directing and teaching and directing and any other job responsibility are very strong. You have to be prepared, and you have to analyze a script well, but I think directing is all about communicating and being a person, and because I got into theater because I didn’t feel very good at being a person, it’s a very fun skill to watch myself develop.

You talked about the overlap between directing and teaching. Would you mind talking a little about how you think theater education is important?
I see this overlap in directing and teaching, and acting and teaching—because in teaching you are taking on a role, you’re acting oftentimes—but part of the reason why I see theater education being important, especially when we’re young, is because there’s a lot more shy kids around that we think. Theater just gives them an avenue to express themselves and do things they never thought they would ever be able to do—even just speaking loudly, or doing something weird with permission—and then they can see themselves doing that thing and their peers cans see them doing that thing. I know for me that was incredibly helpful, even just learning to speak and communicate. There’s the whole empathy component. I remember in middle school they would really drill “people who read are more empathetic!” But there’s also theater. You know, everybody loves TV and movies, and when you can put yourself on the other side of that entertainment in a theatrical sense and start understanding why this work is purposeful and has a point, that is where you start to learn more about the world and other people. You’re literally putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, which is incredibly beneficial to education.

You’re also a modern languages and literature major who focuses in Chinese, and you’ve been studying Chinese for a long time. Does learning a new language change the way you think about the language you speak at home, or language itself?
A lot. I mean, I didn’t study abroad, and I haven’t done a language immersion program, but part of the reason I haven’t yet is because I’m really afraid of being in a place for a long time and not being able to express my emotions. The things you learn for the most part in a Chinese class aren’t about emotion. You’re often talking about things. I would just have to say whatever I could with the words that I knew. I started to realize how much of language, and how much of the human connection—this goes for the written word as well, reading poems and stories—is about the expression of emotion and the sharing of it. Being able to say, “I get that, I feel that way too.” I hadn’t realized before how much language was associated with understanding where is a person is at, and, in turn, I felt that putting my feelings into words is an incredibly important part of understanding my own emotions, and making friends. Seeing how not having the words makes that kind of communication so hard was surprising to me. I think my biggest fear in language learning, but my biggest opportunity, is that there are times in Chinese where one character can contain so much more meaning than one word in English can. There’s this background, why is it written that way, what other characters combine to make that thing. There are certain words that have underlying meanings that we won’t have in English because we don’t have that kind of depth to our words. I want to understand the background to those things.

You’re currently working on your capstone in Chinese, and I know it focuses on translation. What has that process been like?
I’m starting to wonder if you can truly translate a play, because so much of what makes a play meaningful, dialogue meaningful, is the specific ways we choose to express ourselves and what context those words have in the larger societal world. It’s how we understand someone saying “I’m fine” as opposed to “I’m OK, how are you?” I would say that translation is largely a transformation—from one language to another. There’s this Taiwanese-American playwright—his English name is Stan Lai. He wrote this play in Chinese called Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land. It’s a very well known play in both China and Taiwan. He translated it himself into English some years later—he rewrote it into English. There’s more changes than there are in a typical translation, so I’m looking at certain parts to see how he explains cultural historical context to a Western audience, how putting it into another language changes the sounds, the jokes—there’s less jokes in the English version. I think the English version very much feels like a play out of place. I haven’t seen it—but I’ve seen clips and read it—but it feels like a translation. It’s a very Chinese play. It’s about families being separated when China and Taiwan were separated—and that isn’t something that is ever explained because Chinese audiences don’t need explanation. In the English version it’s explained more. Short answer, things are largely transformed. I’m doubting—because language is such a specific process and thing and the creation of dialogue is so careful—I doubt that we can ever have a “good” translation of a play. This is why I continue to take Chinese, because reading that play in its original language gave me a visceral reaction that I couldn’t really understand, seeing the original words.

Is translation important even if it is imperfect?
I think so. We must always understand that imperfection. It’s always important to be in a world that isn’t your own. That’s what this play is doing, that’s what translation can do, but I think we often forget that that world is not our own. It would originally sound very different and look very different.

Why did you become a Kenyon Review Associate?
My first experience with Kenyon was through Young Writers, so I talked to Associates because they were RAs there, and it all sounded very cool. Originally when I came to Kenyon I was an English major with a creative writing emphasis—because I was interested, at the time, in editing and publishing and I really wanted to see what was out there, what are people writing. I’ve continued to do that because I’m still interested in what people are writing now—and sometimes, what are people writing badly—but I think it is good to have that distance when, though I do read whole submissions, I can sometimes tell when something is going to be especially worthwhile. When I’m doing my own writing, it helps me be a little bit harsher with myself because then I can think, “Does this matter? Would anyone care to read this?” There’s this magical thing when you read a good submission, you forget that you are reading a submission. You forget that you are reading because it all falls into place. Watching that process happen in your own brain—you’re aware that this thing that you’re reading is “not finished” in a way because it hasn’t been “put out there”—watching it finish itself because it’s genuine, it’s there for you to work with and not pick through. That’s a very exciting process.

What makes you say yes to a Kenyon Review submission?
As far as fiction goes, I see a lot of writers really trying to define their main character, which is usually unnecessary. The character should come through the story. I think it’s true when I find the pieces where someone describes the habits or the history of their character—those characters usually feel more generic to me than those who exist and participate in their story. I like when it’s like I’m looking in through a window at a small part of someone’s life, not being asked to understand everything. That’s how I feel with prose. Poetry really is the thing where it’s just that I should forget I’m reading a submission by the end of it. With poetry, the ones I like the most are often the ones I don’t understand. Sometimes a poet will advertise what they’re trying to do, so it’s the ones where you get through it and something was delightful and surprising and enjoyable and you look it over a few more times and you’re still unsure how it’s working, but you still like what it’s doing.

What’s something you’ve read recently that you can’t stop thinking about?
I read this piece on Kenyon Review Online [Jan/Feb] by Lia Greenwell called “You Are Here” and I was actually just trying to write my play and I couldn’t come up with any words, so I thought I was just going to read some good writing, whatever I find. “You Are Here” was the first thing that came up, and I thought it was really beautiful. I liked how it allows you to acknowledge the intensity of emotion that we are able to experience after something traumatic happens—even in moments that are not traumatic. I think that when I don’t understand my emotions I turn to art—writing, reading, music, theater—and that was a piece that really laid it all out for me and let me feel that it was OK. I even got some words from it—and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.