Playwright Katie Forgette Talks GBSC's Production of 'Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday March 3, 2022

Playwright Katie Forgette Talks GBSC's Production of 'Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help'

Seattle-based playwright Katie Forgette had been a longtime actor when, in addition to being on the stage, she began writing work for the stage. Her output as a playwright has been prolific, but also eclectic, ranging from family comedies like "The O'Conner Girls" an witty genre farce like "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily" to "A Facility for Living," a satirical take on a dystopian future where Dick Cheney is president of the United States, and "The Body Snatcher," an adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson about a brilliant surgeon hoping to pioneer organ transplantation, with the help of a "resurrectionist"... that is, a thief who steals corpses to supply illicit medical research.

Among Forgette's comedies is the nostalgic romp "Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help," in which 19-year-old Linda O'Shea introduces us to her extended family — mom, dad, little sister, grandmother, and an aunt who's separated from her husband — all living under one roof and dealing with life in 1973. There are economic troubles, adolescent romantic entanglements, and the too-close-for-comfort scrutiny of the church's clerics (such as the overbearing Father Lovell), not to mention the scandal-seeking gossips and scolds of the parish (such as the ever-inquisitive Betty Heckenbach).

The play offers a hint of LGBTQ+ representation, as well as revisiting the venerable theatrical tradition of a male actor playing a female part (and doing so in a perfectly straight manner, with no camp involved). Mostly, though, "Incident" is an old-school (and, ahem, parochial school) comedy in which a clutch of deeply interrelated lives tremble on the verge of unraveling. Only by having each other's backs can the cast of characters pull through and win the day.

EDGE chatted with Katie Fogette about memory, changing times, and the ups and downs of belonging, be it to a church or to a family.

EDGE: You started out as an actor. What prompted your shift to writing plays?

Katie Forgette: As you probably know, women have a much shorter shelf life than men do in theater. Somewhere around 40 or so, the parts start to dry up a little bit. Also, unless you're hugely successful, theater can be a sort of like a bad boyfriend — he only calls you when he feels like it. After a while I just thought "Well, I always had a day job anyway" — because I didn't work regularly enough not to have a day job — "maybe I'll just start writing plays, instead."

The nice thing about writing plays is that you don't have to ask anyone's permission. As an actor, you have to get permission to get into the rehearsal room, but as writer you can create things on your own and do it without getting anyone's okay.

EDGE: How does that writing process work for you?

Katie Forgette: I write a good chunk of in my head before I even actually sit down to a keyboard, so that I know I have enough to go on. And then there are voices in your head that tell you, "This idea you've got really doesn't have much merit." I just keep writing the story in my head until I get enough ,and I think, "You know what, I think I can finish this. I don't think it is horrible." And then, as Emerson said, you've got to go for it and see what happens.

EDGE: Is "Incident" actually a memory play in the sense of being drawn from autobiographical details?

Katie Forgette: Some of the incidentals of the story are the same, but the main plot is fictional. I was raised Catholic, My dad was a was a cab driver, and my mom did many jobs at the home as well as take care of the nine children. And we did have a grandmother who lived with us for many years after she suffered a stroke. But there wasn't a pregnancy scare.

EDGE: You seem to have some fun playing with the findings that researchers have made that when we access memories we change them — and if we access them repeatedly, we change them a lot.

Katie Forgette: That is something I've always been intrigued by. Because there are so many people in my family, you'll often hear someone tell a story and you'll think, "Wait a second! That's my story." And it will be so far afield from what you remember. And in some cases, people will insert themselves into story, and I'll say, "You weren't even there for that!" But they've heard the stories, and somehow they've become present in the story. Memory is fascinating.

Amy Barker and Autumn Blazon-Brown in GBSC's production of 'Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help'
Amy Barker and Autumn Blazon-Brown in GBSC's production of 'Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help'  (Source: Nile Scott Studios)

EDGE: The way you've titled the play suggests that the action will be set at a church. But the action takes place at the family home of the O'Sheas ... what are you saying with this?

Katie Forgette: It's the name of the parish, and they're in that parish. That's what you're known as, or by. We certainly were, growing up in St. Anne's Parish. It was [the case that] you were St. Anne's, and St. Anne's was you, and everybody knew your business. And at any moment, there could be a knock at the door, and it would be Father checking in.

EDGE: It might be hard for people to remember now how much influence Catholic priests wielded over families and family life.

Katie Forgette: Oh my gosh, it was crazy. It was a very powerful position, and then [there were] the nuns, too. There was a pecking order, and we were the little people at the bottom, so it was a little scary.

EDGE: We didn't have a priest knocking on the door to check up on us, but we were forbidden to watch "Soap" on TV because our priest said it was evil or something. All my classmates got to watch it, but they weren't Catholic.

Katie Forgette: Yeah. My dad didn't want us to watch "That Girl" when I was, like, six years old, because those two weren't getting married fast enough for him. He didn't approve of that.

EDGE: Not to spoil anything, but I'm sure our readers will be glad to know that there's a little LGBTQ+ representation in the play.

Katie Forgette: Well, I would think about it because I'm in theater, I guess. And, you know, I have lots of [LGBTQ+] friends. It's tough because there's parts of the church... I think the church has a long way to go. In in accepting everybody. I mean, one of my first stumbling blocks with the church was when I was very young and decided I wanted to be a priest, but I was told that I couldn't be a priest because I was female. When you're that young, that's a pretty devastating thing to be told, based on something that you can't change; [being told] that you can never aspire to what you wanted to do. I think they're going to have to make some changes, or they're just going to get whittled down to almost nothing.

EDGE: It's not like the church pews are packed these days.

Katie Forgette: No, they're not. You've got to bring everybody in. And representation is everything. Now, see, I already feel guilty — like, I'm going to go to Hell for saying that!

[Laughter]

EDGE: At least we don't hear from the church that if you're not Catholic, you're doomed to the flames, which used to be the case.

Katie Forgette: Yes. And I think there is a little more being tolerant of things [from the church]. But, you know, no matter what group you're part of, no one wants to be just tolerated. I want to be wholly accepted — every single part of me.

Barlow Adamson and Maureen Keiller in GBSC's production of 'Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help'
Barlow Adamson and Maureen Keiller in GBSC's production of 'Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help'  (Source: Nile Scott Studios)

EDGE: Both family life and religion are very different now than they were fifty years ago. Do you think this is a good thing overall?

Katie Forgette: Some of those rules were sort of changed even back then, depending on the situation. I mean, the whole idea of a birth control, for instance; if you were a woman in the Catholic Church who had serious problems in giving birth, and it was determined that you shouldn't really have any more children... well, there would be priests who would tell you, "Okay, you know, you need to do what you need to do."

I think a lot of things were sort of bendy back then, but no one really talked about it. [There's] what's written on the page, and then what actually happens in life. It's so crazy that you have these two worlds; like, "These are the rules, but we don't really follow them."

EDGE: That suggests an interesting question: As a playwright who has also been an actor, when you're watching your play being produced and you seeing actors take on your characters, do you feel like you wish they would do more of what you specified? Or are you happy to see the surprises that they might come up with?

Katie Forgette: I think it's both. Sometimes, someone does something with [the material] you never even saw, and you're like, "Oh, my God, that is brilliant." And then other times, you'll think, "Why aren't they getting it? It's written in all caps with two exclamation points, and they're whispering. "

But it's fascinating. If a play is well cast and you've got a good director, even if it's not exactly what I would call your Mind's Eye production, which is the production that I [imagine] as I'm writing a play... it's never even close to that, but it can be really wonderful.

EDGE: It's funny, and even a little bit of a pun, for your script to specify that the same actor who plays the family's father, Mike O'Shea, also plays the priest, Father Lovett. But what's behind having that same actor also take on a third role, that of the parish busybody, Betty Heckenbach?

Katie Forgette: It's sort of multifaceted. Linda describes part of it [when she says] that her father was such a presence in her in her life, such a strong figure, that he would sometimes impersonate other people in her memory or in her dreams. And I think that, although she doesn't, she could say the same thing about Father Lovett. People sort of wear different hats in your in your memory, and there's that whole idea about people showing up that weren't even there.

Part of that was also creating a triple role for an actor that would be fun to do. I didn't want the cast to be huge, but I've been in shows before where playwrights will [write a script in which] you'll be playing multiple parts, but there won't be very much to go on, or [the characters] will be very similar, and it's left up to the actor to somehow differentiate those characters because it's not in the writing. I wanted to make sure that it would be three discrete, fun roles for an actor.

The cast of GBSC's production of 'Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help'
The cast of GBSC's production of 'Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help'  (Source: Nile Scott Studios)

EDGE: What do you hear back from audiences... especially Catholics?

Katie Forgette: I've only been reading the comments on Facebook, but I haven't had any comments from Catholics saying, "This play is an abomination." I think there were a couple of comments early on where people had said something like, "I hope this doesn't make fun of my faith," but I don't think I am making fun of Catholicism. I wouldn't do that, just out of respect for my parents. But so far, from what I've read, and from what I've heard from the cast who have been in contact with me, it sounds like people are having a good time.

EDGE: What else might you be working on?

Katie Forgette: I'm writing a play called "Linda Loman is Leaving." It's about opening night [of a production of] of "Death of a Salesman." The actress who is playing Linda Loman has a crisis in the dressing room.

[Laughter]

EDGE: You certainly have a wide range of interests when it comes to writing plays.

Katie Forgette: Yeah, I like to mix it up. I think I was working on adaptation of "The Body Snatcher" when I decided to do "Incident," as sort of a palate cleanser, coming out of [writing about] 19th century medicine and people stealing bodies. And then I thought, "Well, let's write a comedy."


"Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help" plays at the Greater Boston Stage Company March 3 - 20. For tickets and more information, follow this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.