Mo Perry Q&A

August 24, 2020
Mo Perry is an uncommonly gifted actresses and writer.

“Some of my biggest, most unpleasant stage fright episodes have been during auditions, particularly auditions that involve singing, which is not my strong suit. All the lights are on and you’re standing there directly in front of a table full of people with pens literally poised to write down their judgements of you while you take a stab at an a capella show tune or whatever. And there are actual stakes — your employment, health insurance, and mortgage payment are all on the line. Not fun! By the time I’m performing in a production, I’ve rehearsed so many times that I can trust my muscle memory and let my brain kind of relax and come along for the ride.”

You recently asked your fellow actors and actresses on FB how they’re managing during the pandemic. Is this the longest you’ve been without being on stage? Is it painful?

Yes, this is likely to be my longest stretch without any kind of acting, understudying, or live performance work. It’s definitely the longest I’ve gone without seeing live theater. Who knows how long it will last? Who knows how many theater artists will still be around when the industry starts revving up again? I think a lot of folks are looking into other career paths now, out of necessity, and it’s unclear how many are going to be walking away for good. There’s an element of pain and sadness there, but I think there’s also a lot of soul-searching going on among theater artists who are trying to take advantage of this pause to examine and reimagine some of the problematic structural elements of the industry that make it unsustainable and inequitable for so many artists, even in the best of times.

You have delivered so many incredible stage performances through the years. This may be an impossible question but what’s more important to you: the cast or the script?

That is an impossible question! I guess I try to consider the sum of all the parts: the cast, script, director, venue, etc. A great cast and director can make even the squishiest script a lot of fun to work on. And a strong enough script can do a lot of heavy lifting even with an inexperienced cast or director. But yeah, at the end of the day, the people you’re in the room with day after day have a lot to do with how enjoyable a production and rehearsal process ends up being.

You not only are an acclaimed actress but a prolific writer, with bylines in all the biggies, and your own copywriting practice and agency. How do the creative satisfactions compare between performing and writing? 

My one big complaint about writing is there’s not enough freaking applause! I’m joking, mostly, but there are a few things performing gives you that writing can’t: immediate feedback on whether a creative choice is working; visceral, embodied, collaborative creation; a sense of being energetically connected with an audience in a shared time and space. On the other hand, there are itches that only writing can scratch: total autonomy over the final product; a sense of permanence; giving a creation a life beyond yourself as it leaves your fingers and makes its way into the world. Theater is like building a sand castle with a dozen other people while the tide is rolling in, and writing is like carving a stone sculpture all by yourself. They’ve both got their perks and challenges. And I love having both in my life.

Did you ever need to manage stage fright? If so, how did you overcome it? 

Some of my biggest, most unpleasant stage fright episodes have been during auditions, particularly auditions that involve singing, which is not my strong suit. All the lights are on and you’re standing there directly in front of a table full of people with pens literally poised to write down their judgements of you while you take a stab at a show tune or whatever. And there are actual stakes — your employment, health insurance, and mortgage payment are all on the line. Not fun! By the time I’m performing in a production, I’ve rehearsed so many times that I can trust my muscle memory and let my brain kind of relax and come along for the ride. And the audience is usually more or less invisible, out there in the dark, and they’ve had wine and dinner and are hopefully inclined to enjoy themselves. They’re not there to decide whether you’re employable. Which is nice.

I imagine the answer to this is yes but have you written plays? 

I wrote one very bad one-act play in my early 20s and then never tried again. Long story short, I don’t have the fiction gene. As a writer, I only do variations on nonfiction. I do really like certain examples of documentary theater, like Anna Deveare Smith’s work, and have done some of that. I traveled around Europe in 2002 interviewing people on their perspectives on the U.S. War on Terror, and made a one-woman show out of it that I performed in Lawrence, KS and here at the Bryant Lake Bowl. I’d love to do more work like that someday.

Cliché question alert: dream cast—any time in history?

Oh gosh. OK. Mark Rylance, Cate Blanchett, Taylor Mac, Viola Davis … directed by Lyndsey Turner, who directed me in An Enemy of the People in 2018 at the Guthrie. All those people have such different aesthetics and styles, I have no idea what the project would be that would unite us all, but whatever it is, sign me up.

When did you first get the theater bug? Was it pretty early?

So early. I think I was signing up for multiple time slots in the school talent show by the time I was in 2nd grade. I was like, first I’ll sing a song, then I’ll do a dance, then maybe a little skit… I was that kid. Gross.

Is performing on the Guthrie’s thrust stage as glorious and bucket list as it seems?

Yes! No ifs, ands, or buts. It’s a total effing thrill.

You and your husband are both such accomplished and celebrated artists. Do you workshop material with each other or keep early work separate until you’re ready to share? I view you two as Gerwig/Baumbach.

That is quite the compliment! We definitely workshop material with each other — we both lay eyes on everything the other writes, at some point in the process. I tend to be less patient than he is. He’ll write whole book chapters before sharing them with me, whereas I’m more like, I just finished a paragraph, want to give it a look? I guess that’s the actor in me, looking for immediate feedback and applause.

Once we get out of this pandemic, what’s the first play you would like to see or act in?

Ugh, I’m so hungry for a transcendent theater experience. I want something that hits a lot of notes: soaring and intimate and universal and precise. Something deeply human, with beautiful language and big, pregnant silences shared by hundreds of people breathing quietly together in a single space. Something wry and playful, provocative and profound. I was supposed to spend a good chunk of this summer making my assistant directing debut at the Guthrie, working on Lynn Nottage’s Sweat. God willing and the virus don’t rise, they’ll be producing it in March of 2021 instead. So let’s go with that. That’s the next thing I want to see. Fingers crossed!

— To stay up to speed on Mo’s writing and artistic pursuits just go here.