Meghan Onserio ‘19 talks about the process of pretending to be a pretender in The Submission, a drama about intersection between marginalized groups.
By Isa Flores-Jones ‘19
The cast of The Submission was three days from opening night, and the four-person ensemble – Meghan Onserio ‘19, Casey Goggin ‘19, Rob Cooper and Ryan Kapur ’20 – had just completed the first dress rehearsal. Director Carla Troconis ‘19, stood barefoot and smiling in front of her set. Everyone – Troconis, cast and crew – was breathing easier. It had been a successful run through. Despite the smiles, however, a palpable tension hung over the set of the Adams Pool Theater.
Onserio rested her head against a chair; Goggin and Kapur shared a couch, while Cooper slumped at the front of the stage. Their exhaustion was a remainder of the play’s tumultuous final act.
The Submission, which runs through Oct. 2 and is charged with racial themes, is not an easy play. Before I left the theater the night of the rehearsal, four people told me how important the production is to them. Each of those people also confided that they are curious about how audiences will respond.
It’s clear: The Submission is very, very personal.
I spoke afterward with Onserio, who plays the only female role in the play, about the power of the personal, the importance of storytelling and the experience of being a woman of color in the theater.
Tell me about your character.
Emilie is an actress living and working in New York and supporting herself as a waitress. To be honest, she’s not actually acting yet. She meets this guy Danny, a screenwriter. And Danny has this gig for her. He’s submitted a play to a theater festival under a black woman’s name and hires her to play the part of the playwright. So Emilie, the character I’m playing, is an actor, acting as a real person. But she emphasizes this the entire play, that she thinks his work, his play is a masterpiece. She thinks that the story he’s telling is really important.
What’s it like for you, Meghan Onserio the actor, to play Emilie the actor? It seems like there are so many layers there.
It’s actually been pretty easy to get into character. In the show, Emilie talks a lot about what it’s like to be a black woman in theater. And she brings up racism, which, as an actress, I’ve had those things said to me. It’s not easy to be a person of color in theater. And unfortunately, we’ve both experienced that. But you know what, I’m not even going to say that, “unfortunately,” because those experiences have made me a stronger person, because you can’t let someone walk all over you. It’s actually something that Emilie and I have in common. Although I’m not as strong-minded as she is. But what’s interesting to me, about Emilie, is that she loves the stories. Which, for me, is the whole reason she does this play. She says it over and over: “This story needs to be told.” And honestly, that’s me too. I believe in stories too.
I know some actors create backstories for their characters. Did you go through this process
We had a few rehearsals where Carla had us build characters. The way I imagined it: Emilie grew up in upstate New York, not terribly diverse. She loves theater and moves to the Big City to pursue it. What she’s realizing, what she realizes throughout this piece, is that race is really important. That’s so real. If you go audition for The Color Purple, of course they want a black woman. But auditioning for, say, Cinderella is a different thing. I grew up in a mostly-white community, and moved to a smaller big city – Boston – where I also experienced a lot of diversity. Getting involved in theater, you really realize there’s not many people of color. And you go to a casting call, and most people there are white unless it says, specifically, we need a person of color.
Do you ever find yourself getting caught in the character’s way of thinking?
Yeah. We only do personal stuff [acting exercises] for the scenes that are more light-hearted. Carla’s very intentional about that, because she doesn’t ever want us to draw from something too emotional. We tried it one time, and it was clear [the exercise] didn’t work for our own mental safety and well-being. You start to channel these intense emotions that don’t belong onstage. There’s a distinction that has to be made between myself – Meghan Onserio – and the character of Emilie. There are definitely similarities. We’re both black women. We both love theater. And it can get strange, delivering those lines, and you just have to remember, at the end of the day, we’re very different people.
How did you try to keep it separate for yourself?
It’s a hard show. Every time I say the disgusting, homophobic stuff, the stuff that Emilie says, and whenever Danny’s character say things about Emilie, I have to take time to process. After I get offstage, I have to really get out of character. I walk right offstage, and it happens every time we run it, but I just sit down and cry. Because it’s a lot. But I take time to decompress, and remember, that at the end of the day, it’s theater. And I’m doing this show because it’s important. And it’s not me saying those words. It’s not my friend, Casey, saying those words. It’s the character. And I can get out of character. You just have to tell yourself, you didn’t say that. It’s your character. I have to affirm myself. And after those scenes, Carla and Casey and I, we’ll just support one another. We’ll say, I love you. I respect you. All of us. We affirm ourselves as individuals, and, I think, that’s the only reason I’m able to run this show.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about the show? Do audience members get to tell one another that they’re loved?
Go to the talkbacks. Don’t miss those. It’s necessary. There’s a lot to talk about.
The Submission runs through Oct. 2 at Adams Pool Theater. For information and tickets, click here.