Big Feathery Hats and Moral Purity: An Interview with Megan Monaghan Rivas

In which I pretend to know things about 17th Century France and awkwardly smile through loud sound effects.

            “One second, we’ll wait for the explosion to pass.” The crashing sound of bombs rings through the theater at full volume and everyone makes vaguely pained expressions, like “ugh, why do they always choose to test the sound cues when I’m trying to talk about the Tony’s?” I’m sitting across from Megan Monaghan Rivas, the person who wrote that this explosion would happen, perhaps not envisioning, when she did, that she would someday be stuck in a crowded theater trying to listen to the poorly-worded questions of an amateur blogger over its speaker-blowing kaboom. For her part, though, Megan is characteristically composed. Thoughtful, even. She raises a “one moment, please” finger, sits through the explosion without blinking, and then articulates as only a dramaturg can, “Now, as I was saying…”

Megan strikes me as exactly the type of person you loosely imagine that your future college professors will be like when you’re young and still don’t know anything about college. She’s bright eyed, well-postured, and effortlessly rolls off polysyllabic, vaguely scientific sounding words the way somebody else might say “big” or “branch” or “water.” And she’s kind. Actively kind. These are all the sorts of things that one immediately notices about Megan, but they become increasingly pronounced throughout our conversation, as she discusses her new play, Three Musketeers 1941 and tries to ignore the sounds of actors rehearsing a full-blown melee (“AGH!” “OW!” “YOU BASTARD!”) approximately five feet away from us.

C: In reading the bits and pieces of your biography that are available online, it seems you’ve been all over the map, from Austin to Atlanta to Minneapolis. Most recently, you’ve landed in Pittsburgh! What are some of the places that have most inspired you?

M: What a lovely question! I think that each place I’ve lived is so distinct that surely they all show up in the music of my writing. The trajectory was such that I started in Austin, went to graduate school there, and started my career there with two very different theatre companies. One was focused on contemporary American playwriting, and the other focused exclusively on work in the public domain. I was doing Shakespeare on one hand and Edwin Sanchez on the other! Then I pushed out from there. Austin to Minneapolis to Atlanta to LA to New York to St. Louis to Indiana to Iowa to Pittsburgh.

C: Sure you got them all?

M: [laughs] I think so; those are all the places I’ve received mail. 

C: The show you’re currently working on, Three Musketeers 1941, has been in development for some time. Can you talk to me about the process that has led to this iteration of play?

M: I’ve been with The Three Musketeers for a while, now. The first stage was at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, where I teach and where Andrew Smith (one of the co-directors of Project Y) also teaches. In the Fall of 2015, the school tapped Andrew to direct a play. He wanted to do a version of The Three Musketeers, and asked me to help find him a play. I went and found a bunch of existing dramatic adaptations of the story (some good and some not so good), but none of them could accommodate the cast of exactly eight men and six women that Andrew was directing. Then I read the novel and realized that there are only three-and-a-half female characters in the book. No wonder none of the adaptations were hospitable to that specific cast size!

            So, I went back to Andrew and said “Or I could write you one, if you’re willing to look at transforming characters’ gender from the ground up.” He thought that sounded like fun, and so I wrote a more traditional adaptation of the novel than this one. For that production, we agreed that at least two of the musketeers needed to be women. About six months after the show closed, Andrew came to me and said, “Want to do another one? And what if they’re allwomen?” 

C: The world that you’ve created in Three Musketeers 1941 is very connected with the greater historical context surrounding the show. How do you feel that your experience as an award-winning dramaturg is manifest in your playwriting? What inspired you to choose the setting that you did?

M: Dramaturgy, specifically my research about the French Resistance, absolutely informed (and, I hope, strengthened) my writing on this play. The entire second act, actually, is based on a real thing that a resistance cell did. I’ve changed some of the details, but I hope to honor the real people who did this work. 

As far as the setting goes, I didn’t land on France in 1941 immediately. When Project Y commissioned this piece, I first had to think about what makes it The Three Musketeers, the essential, non-negotiable things that you must have if it’s going to carry that name. The first things we think of are those familiar details from 17thcentury France (lovely muslin sleeves and lots of swordplay and big, feathery hats) but none of that is actually non-negotiable. What isnon-negotiable is that this is a group of people who fight, physically, together, for a morally good cause. 

Given that this is a group of women and girls who engage in that kind of behavior, I began to think about the situations in history where that would be able to happen. Of course, we’d all just seen Wonder Woman, so that was off the table [laughs]. The next thing that occurred to me was the Israeli military, which engages women as soldiers on the same combat level as men, but I’m not Jewish and didn’t feel qualified to write a piece like that. Finally, I began to consider the French Resistance, which, I found, involved many more women and girls than I had previously realized. They also, conveniently enough, made use of codenames, which allowed me to make use of those classic Musketeer names that the audience hopes to hear. More than anything, their act of fighting back against a bigoted, racist, oppressive culture that had conquered their people and occupied their land felt both morally pure and culturally relevant. There’s something very satisfying about doing a play about that type of resistance right now, in the United States.  

C: That’s something I wanted to dig a little deeper at, this sense of what you call “moral purity” in the play and how that relates to our current political climate. These days, the prevailing tone in theatre (and the arts in general) seems to have become more ironic and pessimistic. In contrast,Three Musketeers 1941 feels refreshingly optimistic, youthful, and earnest. Was your intention always to write something with that kind of tone? What gives you hope?

M: I’m not sure I was so much aiming for a tone as trying to be as honest as I could. These characters certainly aren’t bubbly-headed and happy about their situation, but, when you get right down to it, they believe in what they’re doing, they believe in one another, and they come to believe in themselves as part of a larger whole (spoiler alert!). The honesty with which I tried to approach the story meant that I had to let the world see what an earnest nerd I am, too. You can’t hide that, if you’re going to be truthful in your art-making. 

            As far as what gives me hope, I’d like to answer that by first explaining what makes me feel like I truly understand The Three Musketeers. A couple of years ago, when I first spent time reading the book, I began to realize that I get The Three Musketeers because I have siblings. No matter where we are, no matter what’s going on, if something happens we reach for each other and we know that we can do something about it together. That’s the closest I can come to recognizing both what gives me hope and what feeds this play. 

C: Is it okay if I ask you just one horrible, clickbaity, buzzfeed-esque question? So that we can generate some ad revenue on the site?

M: Ask away.

C: Are you an Athos, Porthos, Aramis, or D’Artagnan?

M: Probably a combination of Aramis and Treville.

Interview by Cole Merrell. The Three Musketeers 1941 will continue to run with some regularity through Saturday, June 29th.