An Interview with Sarah Marshall on “Admissions”
Now is the time to call upon any of your white friends who are too afraid to speak about race and take them with you to see “Admissions” at Studio Theatre. This play, written by Joshua Harmon, a white man, confronts white privilege and liberal hypocrisy in a brutally honest exploration of the taboo. Indeed, centred around the issue of diversifying admissions to institutions, “Admission” works in a double sense—what are the white liberal elite so afraid to admit? The play traces liberal couple Sherri and Bill, who work at Hillcrest, an elite boarding school, as an admissions officer and the headmaster, respectively. Tears of joy are shed and champagne bottles popped as Sherri increases the number of students of color from 6% to 18%. But what happens when their son Charlie’s biracial best friend is accepted at Yale while the son is denied? How do we resolve the conflict of Sherri fighting to dismantle a system of oppression in her job whilst simultaneously benefiting from it by doing everything she can to get her white son into an elite school after he is rejected? If you are white, what are you willing to give up in the face of what you claim you are fighting for? This play makes it impossible to know exactly what to think, what direction to pursue, or which character to side with. Your only option is to continue the essential dialogue on these issues. This is what captivates Professor Sarah Marshall about this work. Marshall has performed at Studio Theatre more than any other actor and currently teaches at Georgetown University. She plays the character of Roberta, a loveable member of staff at Hillcrest in charge of putting together the school catalogue. She leaves the audiences in hysterics as she fails to comprehend Sherri when she uncomfortably explains that she wants more colored students in all the photos. Marshall believes it is essential that people see “Admissions” and engage with this work—but hurry! You only have until Mar. 24. There are so many touching and funny moments throughout the play. What is your favourite part of the performance?
Well...I guess the scenes I am in! At least the second scene. I just love doing that scene because the world of the play is so well established by then and there is an ease to the performance as a result. Plus lots of laughs! What has been the greatest challenge working in this production? Trying to get the timing right. Especially that first scene where we cut each other off, just the rhythm of the scene is so challenging. The stops and starts... but having to really keep it moving swiftly and never letting the audience get ahead of us. How has your experience changed over the time you have been a part of this play?
Now I think I am much more relaxed and confident so I can really gently try new ideas and make a few shifts to the work, or just see what happens using my “don’t know” mind. One of the most striking things about this work is that the audience is left unable to know which character they agree with. Do you personally ‘side’ with any of the characters, or their viewpoints? I guess I have a bit of all of them in me. I love what Charlie is trying to do, and I love what he says in the last scene and have this great hope for our future if he is carrying the torch for us! Dealing with such a time-sensitive issue, the material is full of tension. What do you think is the greatest line of tension in the piece? [I think it’s] the line between Sherri’s desire for her son to have the best and her belief that we must be inclusive and make way for more diversity. This play is definitely an example of art which prompts essential conversations. What do you think is the most important message of the play?
Such a tough question. I really don’t know the answer to this. I think the play raises issues and makes people think and allows them to do so while being entertaining. So many great conversations after this play... maybe conversations as interesting as any play I have ever done. When Charlie says he is going to give up his spot at a top university, Middlebury, to fulfill his parent’s dreams of diversified schools, Sherri exclaims that it is not his responsibility, but the responsibility of the admission officers (which is also her occupation). Whose responsibility is it to ensure diversity in educational spaces? Everyone’s. Roberta is a very loveable character. The way in which she appears to be ‘color blind’ is perhaps something we should strive for (and perhaps makes the hypocritical liberal feel highly uncomfortable). However, she has always existed in a white, elitist environment. Do you believe your character was operating from an admirable place? Was it ignorance or a fundamental openness? I would not say admirable, but very human. And warm. She is innocent in some ways and out of touch. I don’t think she is a racist, but she is a bit clueless. I think she loves the school, knows everyone in it, and is well-loved herself. She is the type who goes to all the games, is totally supportive of the students and their efforts. I think she is blunt and not mincing words and genuinely trying to understand what Sherri wants. Sherri has trouble saying what she wants because she is uncomfortable with the truth of what she wants. As a professor, has this work influenced the way you see or perhaps would want to change Georgetown’s campus?
I am not sure how Georgetown works on diversity. I think it is doing better than most. I am proud that they are trying to make restitution for the sins of the past. I don’t know enough to say what I would change. I am so aware of the diversity of the campus, or lack of diversity. I am also conscious that the administration is quick to respond to any racial/sexual/religious harassment of any kind as far as I can tell. I think this is such a wonderful and difficult question. I don’t think have answered it nearly well enough. Do you agree with Charlie’s decision to reject Middlebury in order to make space for someone non-white and non-male to be a pioneer of the change he wants to see?
I do. I also agree with his parents. But I do see why he does it and I admire him for it and he is really being the son they raised so it must be so confusing for him when they reject his offer. I really love that about him. I know this play has already extended past its original due date! Are you ready for this project to come to an end?
Yes and no. If we could keep performing for the crowds we have and maybe do a few less performances a week, I could go on into April! But as it is, we are tired. Meg [Sherri] is especially tired. So we need to end. Be sure to see “Admissions” at Studio Theatre before Mar. 24! Zeigherman is an Undeclared Freshman. PC: studiotheatre.org.