Mara Wilson and Max Reuben sat in the Saint's Alp Teahouse on Third Avenue, just a couple blocks away from the rehearsal studios where they used to spend hours rolling around the floor, African dancing, and talking about their feelings (and art). That was how they first met, at the Playwrights Horizons Theater School (PHTS), a division of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. [Full disclosure: This reporter also went to PHTS, but attended classes with neither Reuben nor Wilson.]
Eight years later, they're still making theater together, though they rarely act or African-dance with each other anymore. Wilson, who previously contributed to TheaterMania about her childhood role in the 1996 film Matilda, is the author of Sheeple, which is receiving its first full production at the Kraine Theater as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.
Set in the summer of 2005, Sheeple is the story of Nick, a precocious high schooler and his circle of friends. That includes Nick's best friend, Alberto, his girlfriend, Soo-Min, and his Satanist brother, Seth. They sit on Nick's porch, smoke pot, spout conspiracy theories, and discuss their expectations for the future. Over the course of the afternoon, those expectations crash and burn as events and strained relationships alter their worldviews irrevocably. Reuben directs.
"Max is very laid back. I'm not...at all," admitted Wilson as she knocked back a steaming cup of tea, despite the summer heat.
"A lot of our relationship is me telling her not to worry," Reuben added. Apropos of his cool demeanor, he opted for a chilled gingerbread bubble tea.
TheaterMania spoke to both of them about Sheeple, their relationship, and their own adjusted expectations as they enter their late 20s.
TheaterMania: What motivated you to write Sheeple?
Mara Wilson: When I was twenty years old I went to Union Square and saw some 9/11 conspiracy theorists protesting.
Max Reuben: Those are the worst.
MW: I decided that I was twenty and I knew everything, so I was going to go up and challenge them. I just started asking a lot of questions. People were getting really angry at me and calling me a government shill. This one guy got in my face — he was an ex-marine — and he said, "I can't believe I had to fight for the rights of you, punk." It rattled me so much that I became visibly upset. This other guy came up to me very calmly and gave me these pamphlets and started chatting with me. I completely disagreed with him, but he was really nice. He calmed me down. His name was Nick.
TM: Just like in the play.
MW: Exactly. I went home and started writing this play. I started out with a character, Nick, who was very convinced of things. It has changed a lot since then. I was so convinced I was right at that age. The more I've worked on it — and I guess my journey echoes Nick's — I've realized that I really don't know a lot and that doesn't actually matter very much.
TM: How long have you been working on the play?
MW: I started writing this in 2007.
MR: Mara and I were in a playwriting class together when she wrote the first draft. My relationship to the play is kind of like an uncle. I've seen it from birth, but on the side.
MW: Max seemed like an obvious choice to direct. A professor we had used to say we were like the salt and pepper shaker of PHTS. We had almost every class together.
TM: Do you remember the first time you met?
MW: Oh God...
MR: I do. We were in acting class, and we had to get into pairs and tell each other our life stories. Mara was my partner. I remember being really excited to get all the juicy Hollywood gossip…and she didn't talk about any of that. It was all very mundane stuff.
MW: I think I talked about my mother.
MR: But she didn't talk about being in movies at all.
MW: It was something I was really in denial about for a really long time. And nobody knew quite how to approach it with me.
MR: For almost the whole first semester, no one mentioned it. We just didn't know how she would react. Finally, at the end of the first semester, Barrie McLain [a fellow student] made a joke about it that released the pressure. We had to compose these directing projects in which we had to tell a story in five tableaus. Mara didn't know what to do her project on and Barrie said, "You should do it about a little girl who can move things with her eyes." And you laughed.
TM: Those early college years are a lot about preciously held beliefs, articulated loudly. The characters in Sheeple have these deep convictions that are broken over the course of the play. When was a deeply held belief of yours shattered?
MW: When I was fifteen, I read the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. It's a retelling of Paradise Lost with the premise that the God that we know is not actually God. I was OCD and I worried a lot about what God thought. These books put forward a pretty good case that maybe there was no God. I remember breaking down and crying when I read it because it altered the way I saw the world. Eventually, I saw Julia Sweeney's monologue Letting Go of God. That changed everything. I walked out of the theater and said, "You know what, I don't believe there is a God, and I'm OK with that." That book shattered me in a way. It opened my mind. That play helped me to heal. That's a theme in my life.
MR: That's really what Sheeple does over the course of one afternoon. Instead of a shattering, I think of it as a continual expanding of horizons. As I go through life, I keep learning that the world is more and more complex.
TM: It has been eight years since you both were the age Nick is in this play. How are your lives different now than what you would have imagined then?
MR: When I was in high school, I definitely wanted to be an actor. Now I'll act, but only in things my friends are doing. I'm not interested in convincing strangers that they should cast me in things. I never go on auditions. I'm a director and a playwright these days…and a teacher. I teach at PHTS and a high school, and I love it. Acting is no longer a thing I need to do to be happy. Going to theater school was an eye-opener. You go from being "the actor" at your high school to realizing that you're not the most talented actor out there.
MW: I didn't know a life without acting. I couldn't imagine one. I had kind of an up-and-down childhood as it was. My mother died when I was young and I was filming all the time. I was all over the place. Acting was the one constant. I remember feeling very sad because I thought I'd have to be a character actress, but there weren't many young character actresses. It was something I thought I would be compelled to do. I eventually realized I don't have to do it. I could be a writer full-time.
MR: I feel lucky to be doing a job that I love and that allows me to do these projects that I care about, but don't necessarily make me any money. For the first time since I've graduated I feel like I've walked into something that feels sustainable and gets me out of bed in the morning. I'm not sitting at home eating cereal and feeling sad.
TM: It gets better. Where do you want this play to go?
MW: I would love for this to be picked up by colleges and universities, maybe one or two progressive high schools. That's my dream.