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Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Q & A with Actress Linda Gehringer on Creating the New Book Family
By Danielle Girard

In How to Write a New Book for the Bible, playwright Bill Cain recounts his own experiences caring for his ailing, spirited mother, Mary. In the show—both for the first run at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and now in the co-world-premiere at Seattle Rep—nationally renowned actress Linda Gehringer takes on the role of Mary in the show.

We at down with Gehringer to discuss what it’s like to work on a world premiere, originate the role of Cain’s mother, and bring to life the intimate story of a real family.

Q: Since it is such a personal play, can you talk more about how much Bill helped you create Mary Cain? Did he specify particular habits and mannerisms or give more general behavioral notes?
LG: More often Bill would tell us that “this is how she’d handle a situation” or “it wasn’t that dramatic of a moment. It was a simpler moment.” I do feel like Bill very much helped me invent her. It wasn’t about me, I mean I clearly look nothing like her, he wasn’t even expecting that. It’s more from the inside. His mother is constructed very much like my mother. Now if you met the two of them, you wouldn’t think they’re anything alike, but there’s a sense of fierce dignity, a sense of not giving up, a sense of—I want to say cheerful in spite of it all—but not a “oh, everything is going to be fine” kind of person. She’s realistic.

Q: Would you say those traits you just mentioned are what you admire most about Mary’s character?
LG: Yes. It’s funny, we had a couple of talkbacks at Berkeley, and people said, “This is so interesting because this is really about ordinary people. Most plays are about extraordinary people.” And I thought, “I don’t think of her as ordinary. I actually think of her as kind of heroic, and kind of extraordinary." But I understand, she lives in Syracuse, it’s just her little life. But yeah, there is something about her grabbing for life, as she’s dying, and then when she accepts that she is . . . she just lives every moment until it’s gone.

(l to r) Tyler Pierce and Linda Gehringer star in the world premiere of Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.

Q: Can you talk more about the rehearsal process of How to Write a New Book for the Bible?
LG: Every time I’ve touched this play the rehearsals have had an intimacy about them—in the stories Bill tells about his family, the way everybody else shares, the way I talk about my mother and her loss. I mean everybody is kind of naked in a way. I think it’s a group of actors, thankfully, who have no problem doing that. So, from the beginning everyone was quite open. And there were struggles—there were struggles even figuring out how to stage the play. You’re standing on stage and you change forty years or time and place shifts. And that stuff was hard to figure out. So our rehearsals were long, they were intense, they were full of laughter. Those guys are so funny. All five of them are so funny. I’d say it was a very loving environment, but sort of like the family too. It’s not like it wasn’t without its fight. You know, everyone fought for their place within the play. It’s a good thing. You want people to have opinions. And you want people to have fight as much as you want love and cooperation and laughter.

Q: Did the script get rewritten often when you were at Berkeley Rep?
LG: The script has not changed a great deal since the first time I read it. I did a number of readings of this play with different casts. Bill talked to each group very intimately about the people in the play—his brother and his dad, and not just his mom and that experience, but all the other experiences that are discussed in the play. So it’s great having him there. And it’s curious—it’s always curious in a new play—when you’re working with the playwright because you feel like they give you so much information and you think, “Huh, I wonder what that’s going to be like when that person isn’t there.” But it seems like plays find their way no matter what. A great play lives without its playwright in the room.

Q: What do you hope audiences will take away from the production? Why should they come?
LG: I actually feel like it’s a celebration of life, as opposed to a visit to death. I really feel like it’s a tribute to family, it’s a tribute to life—I think that’s why you laugh so much. And I think most people leave thinking about and loving their own families. I’ll never forget the first time I read it at the Ojai Playwrights Festival. At the end of the piece, after we read it, there were all these young directors, playwrights – guys – and they’re all saying (with great emotion), “I’m going to call my mom!” I think that’s what we want people to leave with. But it’s a positive feeling. It’s definitely a positive feeling. It’s not like losing someone is something that any of us can avoid. It will happen. It is part of our lives. And I think he gives great tribute to that in this piece.