“Gentle, Incremental Hedonism”: An Interview with Caroline V. McGraw

Caroline V. McGraw headshot

Playwright Caroline V. McGraw

Producing Artistic Director Michael Walkup and Ultimate Beauty Bible playwright Caroline V. McGraw took a break from rehearsals to grab a coffee and a rainbow donut and talk about the latest Page 73 premiere.

Michael Walkup: The first time we sat and talked about this play must have been, what, three years ago?

Caroline McGraw: Almost four!

MW: Really?

CM: It was late 2012, you were interviewing me for the Fellowship and this was the play I told you I wanted to write.

MW: Did you have pages yet?

CM: I had about fifteen pages and I didn’t know where it was going.

MW: Well, for the record, you got the [2013 P73 Playwriting] Fellowship, and got to writing.

CM: And I brought in pages to Interstate 73 meetings.

MW: Our writers group, that’s right, I always wanted to read [the role of] Tiffany. Since even those first pages the friendship among the three women has been so vivid. I may risk over-generalizing here, but it seems we’re in an age when stories of platonic love are being treated with the same importance as romantic love, which was always the domain of traditional comedy. But today I watch a lot where friends invest in their love, can be disappointed by it, cause problems with it, and it’s not juvenile or less-important-than.

CM: I think there are socioeconomic reasons that “platonic lifemate” relationships are making a comeback – people getting married later or not at all, high cost of living, shifts in family structures. But I think historically platonic love has at times been on the same plane as romantic love -your best pal got just as many sonnets as your lover. I think it’s an area that’s rife for drama. The friendships at the center of Ultimate Beauty Bible have all the highs and lows of a love relationship: chemistry, attraction, jealousy, fear of loss. The women think they should be looking for fulfilling romantic relationships, when their friendships are as complex as any romance.

MW: So you finished a draft during your year as the 2013 P73 Playwriting Fellow, and we did a workshop.

CM: With Stephen Brackett, who’s directing the premiere!

MW: We introduced you two and the relationship stuck.

CM: I learned a lot about the play doing that workshop.

MW: The play centers on women working at a fashion magazine, and so it necessarily is talking about a material, capitalist world. It seems to me, though, that you find something spiritual amidst the material, am I reading that right?

CM: I find the way women relate to each other through beauty and fashion deeply spiritual. It’s a communion. Transformation. My grandmother had shelves and shelves of high-end, amazing makeup, perfumes, and clothing, and from when I was very little, we played with them together. Patting lotion on her face or trying on her clothes helped me to see her and be a part of her. I always wanted to do my friends’ makeup because it was a way to draw on them, to hold their face and study who they are. I love emptying out other women’s makeup bags and just seeing what they choose to decorate themselves with. It feels like, even just in the past few years, that women have embraced – and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie just said this last month – that femininity and feminism aren’t mutually exclusive.

MW: I’ve been reading Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and thinking about your play. She’s interested in how women are embracing new roles – in work, sex, family – that they had been denied historically, but that men aren’t proving to be as adaptable to new roles. In Ultimate Beauty Bible, your female characters seem more professionally fulfilled than the men.

CM: I haven’t read that book, but I did just read a statistic that more American workforce-aged men are out of work now than at any time since the Great Depression. It’s complicated by a lot of factors, but women are definitely taking the reins. Something I was interested in exploring in Ultimate Beauty Bible is women in women jobs – not that there aren’t men in fashion and beauty, but that my female characters are successful in a women’s sphere. And they’re ruthlessly productive – they take the “light” matters of fashion and beauty heavily. The idea of the housewife who devotes herself wholly to home and hearth is a wealthy construct – women have been working outside the home forever. It feels like the rise of the woman comes from being able to have visibility in the professional sphere, kicking ass at pleasurable, higher-profile endeavors. I wanted my female characters to be as visible, metaphorically and aesthetically, as possible.

MW: The inciting incident of the play prompts the three friends, who are in their early thirties, to face mortality. We all have heard “live every day like it’s your last,” but on the other hand couldn’t that advice could be seen as careless? No one winds up with a 401(k) if every day is the end. In thinking about your characters’ mortality, do you come down on a side of that?

CM: I think we all want to think of ourselves as people who, given a particular reason, could change who we are. We could start to live more fully, boldly, whatever that might entail. I don’t know if people are able to change that quickly, even if an outside circumstance shakes them. Life is an accumulation – no one is who she is by accident. In the play I try to explore all sides of the argument I have with myself about how I might behave if I got life-altering news: the person who tries to change but can’t seem to, the person who thinks her life is just fine the way it is, and the person who really just dives with abandon into a more hedonistic, live-like-there’s-no-tomorrow style. I can see the merit, and the folly, in all of them. I think I might be on the “gentle, incremental hedonism” tip if such a thing exists.

MW: Sitting with your play for these past few weeks – heck, years – makes me think: how much life IS someone supposed to have lived by their mid-thirties? Asking for a friend.

CM: As someone in her, ahem, early 30s, I feel like you’re supposed to have lived enough that you have a lot of good memories and stories of bad breakups and ill-advised piercings (is that just me?), but not so much that you can’t possibly imagine what else could happen. I’ve had a lot of fun and carpe’d the diem, but I also know there’s a lot more I’m going to do. That feels like a good balance.

 

You can purchase tickets to Ultimate Beauty Bible at page73.org/tickets and learn more about the creative team here.

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