Molly Carden is in her dressing room packing up her bag and taking the pins out of her hair while people chat loudly in the lobby nearby. She’s just finished the closing performance of Frank Basloe’s play, Please Continue, at Ensemble Studio Theatre’s West 52nd Street performance space. It’s a play she’s been involved with since its workshop in early February 2014. There is a noticeable ease about Molly onstage and backstage. It points to the one thing that makes her journey different than that of most other working actors in New York: Both of Molly’s parents are directors.
“She grew up in a house where theatre was talked about all the time,” says William Carden, Molly’s father approaching his eighth year as artistic director of Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST). Though they’ve done workshops together, Please Continue marks the first time the father-daughter pair have collaborated on a full production, with William at the helm and Molly in the cast.
The play is part of the EST Sloan Project which commissions, develops and produces plays that deal with science and technology. Set at Yale in 1960, the drama follows students James Sanders (David Edward Jackson) and Saul Dashoff (Jonathan Randell Silver) as they conduct the precursor studies to Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments. The studies aimed to examine the power of authority as subjects of the experiment were told by the experimenter to administer electric shocks to the “respondent” (who was really an actor) when they answered questions incorrectly. The idea was to observe authority and obedience when someone is asked to defy their own morals and “please continue” administering harmful shocks, despite the fact their own obedience caused the subjects great emotional distress.
In addition to dealing with the significance of these pilot studies, the play addresses a sexual assault scandal involving a group of young men at Yale’s Calhoun College the year before by including discussions between involved student Francis Dunleavy (Jared McGuire) and Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. (Tommy Schrider). The two stories intersect to condemn abandoning conscience for the sake of obedience and explore whether or not a person is still who they once were after they’ve crossed that line. Molly plays Margaret Hobson, Dunleavy’s fiancée, caught in the crossfire when she discovers Dunleavy’s involvement in the scandal.
“It was an incredibly collaborative process from a directorial standpoint,” the actress says. “No one brought a sense of false pride or ego into the room with them—including my father, including all the other actors…. I feel like it’s allowed everyone to inhabit what they’re doing as opposed to judging it and performing from that [judgmental] place,” says Molly. Still, the actress took time to consider what it would mean to work with her father before taking on the role. “I said ‘I’ll give a week [before deciding],’ and it ended up being about two days because a voice just kept saying ‘Yes,’ and that was because I thought, ‘I want to do this beautiful play directed by this amazing director.’” She adds that timing was an important factor. “I’ve been out of school and working professionally long enough that this felt like the right time to do this project for me,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I was being rescued by my father. I’ve been an actor for long enough now that this felt like a project I wanted to work on for my own creative reasons. And that was very important to me and to my father in going into this.”
William also deliberated before offering his daughter the part, but, ultimately, she was the actor he wanted. “Molly had done the workshop of the play two years ago,” he says. “She did a really good job with that, and I really wanted to use her in this production, but I was also aware that it was a very risky thing to do, both for her and because it can look like a nepotistic choice, but I felt.... it’s a part that she would actually not normally be cast in, but she brought a truth and a grittiness to it that gave it another dimension.”
The “risky” part of it for his daughter, he elaborates, is the potential for their relationship to change her dynamic with the rest of the actors in the show. “When you’re related to the director, it puts you in a different position in terms of the rest of the cast,” he says. “I was an actor for 25 years before I became a director, and my wife is a director. She directed me before we were married…. It was never a big problem, but it was something I usually had to overcome, so I knew, to some degree ,that would be true with Molly.”
Being the daughter of the director has affected her, she says, but she utilizes it to get into character. She describes her character as an “outsider” in a world of young men at Yale. “[It] mirrors my own experience in small ways in terms of being the only woman in the cast and the boss’s daughter. I guess there’s a sense of loneliness that both of those things create. Not because of anyone treating me a certain way and not because of anyone playing power games. But, yes. Both of those things help put me in the position of an outsider.”
“During the process, I think we both maintained our working relationship, not our familial relationship,” says the director of his experience working with his daughter. “I have to think it would be different if she weren’t 28 years old and were a teenager living at home. She lives on her own. She has her own life. That allowed us to leave everything at the rehearsal room door.”
“It’s a juggling act that I think in some ways we’re pretty used to because, although in some ways this is my first time being in a production that my father has directed, he’s been a mentor for a long time,” she says, “so our working relationship isn’t something that I feel is completely unfamiliar.”
“I will say one of the harder points in rehearsal for me was shortly before we went into performance,” she adds. “That was the time that I would usually be calling my dad at night and mindlessly venting about life [and the production], but in this case, he was my director, so I couldn’t do that.”
“We’ve always been in the unique position of doing and loving the same thing,” the actress says of her family. “It’s hard to imagine my life not being that way. It sounds strange from the outside,” she says. “It’s not as strange as you think it is.”