When January Feels Like Summer
a co-production with
Ensemble Studio Theatre
by Cori Thomas
directed by Daniella Topol
“An ENGAGING, buoyantly acted romantic COMEDY! Under the superbly judged direction of Daniella Topol, the actors embody them with both liveliness and sensitivity.”
- The New York Times Critics’ Pick (Read the full review)
“The entire cast of this ultimately very FUNNY and MOVING play, directed by Daniella Topol, is topnotch!” – The New Yorker
“A grown-up NYC-set fairy tale laden with symbolism that rarely goes where you expect – which keeps it ENGAGING!” – Time Out New York
“A cast that makes the dialogue sing!” – New York Post
Presided over by the Hindu god Ganesh, a pair of teenagers become unexpected avengers, an immigrant accountant finds his inner Indira, and two stifled romantics begin to stumble toward each other during one strangely warm winter in Central Harlem where change (climate and otherwise) hangs in the air.
(Director) For Women’s Project Theater: Jessica dickey’s Row After Row, Catherine Trieschmann’s How the World Began (in association with South Coast Rep), Sheila Callaghan’s Lascivious Something (with Cherry Lane), Trista Baldwin’s Sand. Off-Broadway: Jessica Dickey’s Charles Ives Take Me Home (Rattlestick Productions), Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India (MaYi Theatre & Magic Theatre, SF), Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End (Epic Theatre), Sheila Callaghan’s Dead City (New Georges). Regional world premiere credits include: Rajiv Joseph’s Monster at the Door (Alley Theatre), Stefanie Zadravec’s Electric Baby (Quantum Theatre, PA). Ari Roth’s Andy and the Shadows (Theatre J), Caridad Svich’s Instructions For Breathing (Passage Theatre), Niko Tsakalakos and Janet Allard’s Pool Boy (Barrington Stage). A graduate of Carnegie Mellon, Daniella has been the Artistic Program Director of the Lark Play Development Center and the New Works Program Director of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. She is an NYTW Usual Suspect, an EST Member, a member of the Lark’s Board of Directors and a WP Lab alum.
Carter Redwood Carter (Jeron) is thrilled to be joining EST for When January Feels Like Summer after having done the World Premiere at City Theatre in Pittsburgh 4 years ago! A Pittsburgh native, Carter is a Princess Grace Theater Honorarium and a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University where he was the recipient of the prestigious John Arthur Kennedy Acting Award. He has also trained at the Drama Centre London. Off-Broadway: Gertrude Stein Saints (FringeNYC, La Mama, Abrons Arts Center) Film: Underdogs, Blood First, Not Cool. Check out his web-series “Redwood Time” on YouTube! Many thanks to his team of superheroes!www.carterredwood.
Debargo Sanyal (Ishan/Indira) Stage: NYC- Invasion! (The Play Company), Bunty Berman Presents (The New Group), Queens Boulevard (Signature Theatre Company), Bird in the Hand (Fulcrum Theater), Your Boyfriend May Be Imaginary (The Management), After (Partial Comfort Productions), Telethon (Clubbed Thumb), Women of Trachis (Target Margin), Port Authority Throw Down (Working Theater), Bumbug-The Musical (Laughistan), Looking for the Pony (Vital Theater), I_NY (Ma-Yi), Commedia Dell Smartass (New Georges), Barriers (Desipina), Millicent Scowlworthy (SPF), Indian Ink (Alter Ego Productions). Chicago- Disconnect (Victory Gardens). Pittsburgh- When January Feels Like Summer (City Theatre). Minneapolis- Brahmani (Mixed Blood). Feature film: The Magic of Belle Isle (opposite Morgan Freeman, director: Rob Reiner), Everybody’s Fine (opposite Robert De Niro), The Normals, Today’s Special, Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship, Made for Each Other, Drawing with Chalk, Red Hook, Fort Tilden, Sita Sings the Blues. Television: Guest appearances on “Law & Order”, “Blue Bloods”, “Damages”, “NYC 22”, “L&O: Special Victims Unit”, “The Sopranos”, “Running Wilde”, “All My Children”, “L&O: Criminal Intent”, “The Unusuals”, national commercials.
Maurice Williams (Devaun). I am beyond excited to be making my hometown debut in Cori’s beautiful love letter to New York City. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the love & training I received at Temple University (BA) & UCSD (MFA). I have to thank my amazing reps (everyone at Innovative Artists & Matthew Lesher at Insight), my friends who believe in me more than I believe in myself & my family who are simultaneously my support system & my motivation. For every dream ever dreamed in a small apartment in Queens. J.MP.R – 1.Zr.iV – MyN.r – .X. .Doable.
Ensemble Studio Theatre
The Ensemble Studio Theatre – William Carden, Artistic Director, Paul Slee, Executive Director – was founded in the belief that extraordinary support yields extraordinary work. We are a dynamic and expanding company of artists committed to the discovery and nurturing of new voices and the continued support and growth of artists throughout their creative lives. Through our unique collaborative process we develop and produce original, provocative, and authentic new plays that engage and challenge our audience and audiences across the country. When January Feels Like Summer is the First production this season on the Ensemble Studio Theatre mainstage. www.estnyc.org
WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER TRAILER
Carter Redwood and Maurice Williams in WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER.
Dion Graham in WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER.
Debargo Sanyal in WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER.
Maurice Williams, Mahira Kakkar, and Carter Redwood in WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER.
Carter Redwood, Maurice Williams, and Debargo Sanyal in WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER.
Mahira Kakkar and Dion Graham in WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER.
Mahira Kakkar and Debargo Sanyal in WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER.
(foreground L to R)Dion Graham and Mahira Kakkar; (background L to R) Maurice Williams and Debargo Sanyal in WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER.
In Her Own Words: Kristine Haruna Lee (Gumbo from GREAT LAKES)
GREAT LAKES seems like one big Brooklyn College party. Can you talk about how you initially got involved with the project?
Kate and I were at Brooklyn College together, and she actually brought this play in, maybe, second year. We all read it as a class; I believe I played Gumbo at that reading, too. I forget which character Jess [Jessica Almasy] read, but we had done the play as a table read before— me, Jess and Kate. So when Kate came to us about this opportunity, that she was going to be able to do the play [with New Georges], we were so excited because Jess and I knew the play ahead of time. It has been really cool seeing it unfold from there, from that very first draft, all the way to this production at City Center.
Had you worked with Lee [Sunday Evans] before?
No, this is my first time [working with her.] I was familiar with her; she had directed something a friend of mine, Anna Greenfield, wrote and that was really great, so I knew of her but I had never worked with her before.
You just officially founded your own theatre company, harunalee, this year. Tell us about your journey with the company, artistic goals, and upcoming projects.
harunalee is a group of six people, including myself, who have been working together for four years now. Before we even named it harunalee, we had been creating work together, so this formalizing of the company was just putting a name on it. We all share many disciplines, some people are designers, photographers, actors, writers; we are all pretty versed in all kinds of disciplines and we come together and create shows together, experimental theatre, that I have written. So my text is the unifying element of the company.
We are putting up a show called Drunkfish Oceanrant, about a drunk Japanese fisherman in kind of a post-tsunami environment. He tells these stories in the style of Japanese rakugo, which is a really old style of one man comedy. Intersecting that are these wonderful, original J-Pop/J-punk songs that Katie Hathaway, who we work with a lot, has written. We are really excited to see that unfold.
What is the experience of performing in GREAT LAKES, taking a break and coming back to it for a production months later?
With this piece, it is amazing how easy it all came back. I think for everyone, it really felt like returning home to something. I think that is because the piece is so physically precise, and the text is really precise, too. Once we all jogged our memory and remembered those very specific gestures, where our bodies live in the play, where the text lives in our voice, it was like a machine that just got dusted off and started running all over again. I think something that has been exciting for me is seeing Lee shift the most minute things about the play: Notes, character, adjusting character, making things work even better, and her specificity in doing that is so exciting.
You often wear multiple hats in your own projects. In terms of GREAT LAKES, can you talk about the experience of just acting in a play with a more traditionally structured production team, and the difference and rewards of both?
Self-producing is chaos, it’s an amazing, beautiful, chaotic experience and, like you said, wearing so many different hats. With GREAT LAKES, it has been so wonderful to be able to focus on that one thing, to clear my mind and have the play be the only thing I focus on— instead of producing it, getting people involved, writing, and directing. It has been lovely.
What is a piece of non-theatrical art/media you are really into/inspired by recently and why?
The one that pops into my head is this exhibit I went to see, Robert Gober at MOMA. It was this amazing installation; whole rooms were transformed by him, so it wasn’t just these small objects in space but an entire room would be decorated and created in his vision or style. All of these separate objects in a room together were in conversation with each other to create a story or narrative. I really loved that; he had all of these severed limbs jutting out from different places, and then wallpaper that he had designed spanning up the entire walls of MOMA. These gigantic, really haunting wallpaper images of a white man sleeping and a black man being lynched. It was exciting to see something as simple as wallpaper, something that we put in our homes that is supposed to soothe us, that we live with in our daily lives, be so disturbing.
What is your current subway playlist?
I have been listening to this group called Metronomy; I’ve been really digging their tunes. I’m trying to think of their song titles, but I really just listen to their whole entire album.
Interview by Lilla Goettler.
Meet Lisa McNulty, Producing Artistic Director
Lisa McNulty is the Producing Artistic Director of Women’s Project Theater. She has a long history with WP, originally hired by the company’s founder, Julia Miles, as the literary manager from 1997-2000, where she dramaturged work by María Irene Fornés, Julie Hébert and Karen Hartman, and others. Full bio here.
What is most theatrically exciting to you right now?
Well, first and foremost, I’d say I’m interested in producing work that takes chances. Work that combines disciplines, work that plays with form, language, and alternate modes of storytelling. I feel like our current production, A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes by Kate Benson, really colors outside the lines in a thousand amazing ways. Kate’s wildly inventive script tells what is actually a very traditional story – the story of a family holiday dinner- but takes it apart in a way that allows you to see the mechanics of family dynamics in every bit of its weirdo dysfunction. Also, Lee Sunday Evans’ production is just so vivid and contemporary, and as beautifully human and oddball as the play.
You have a long history of working with Women’s Project over the years. What is your favorite memory or funny story from the past?
I used to be the only person who knew how the air conditioning system worked at the Julia Miles Theater. The system was really arcane and weird, because the building was so old. You had to crawl inside what I’m sure was an asbestos-filled cinder block wall to get to the AC unit, and wiggle a specific button in a very, very specific way. One especially hot summer, we were renting to Naked Boys Singing! and the Stage Manager would call whenever the AC went out, and I would have to go to the theater, often in the middle of a performance, and would find myself squeezing backstage past so many naked men. I would be pressed up against the back wall of the theater, as all of them squished their entirely naked bodies past me. It was the middle of the summer, the air conditioning was broken, and they were all very sweaty. I don’t know that that is my favorite memory, but it is definitely a vivid one.
How have you seen the role of a “women’s theater” change over time? What is different now?
You know, I have to say that I’m as interested in the way that the role hasn’t changed as I am in the way that it has changed. There is certainly a larger conversation about women’s place at the theatrical table that is happening, which is exciting. I, like everyone, was a huge supporter of the Kilroys’ List, and love the way that Kilroys conversation has been taken up by the field, and The Lilly Awards, and the way that they have opened up the conversation about how and who we reward. There have also been some thoughtful pieces in the press recently acknowledging that the scarcity of women’s voices onstage is actually pretty shameful. All these things are great. That said, when WP was founded, approximately 6% of the work being produced was by female artists, and in 30 years since, that ratio hasn’t grown or changed all that much. Everyone understands that it’s a problem, but the actual programming behavior of the industry at large hasn’t changed. And that’s insane. It’s exciting to see this recent groundswell of conversation in the field, but I think there is an outstanding question as to how producers will actually turn that talk into action when they start to put together their season? I gotta say, I don’t entirely know, but I’m really looking forward to starting to sort it through with folks.
One of WP’s most defining features is its Lab for Playwrights, Directors and Producers. What are your hopes for the lab now, and how is the function or purpose of the Lab different from when you first ran the Playwright’s Lab?
When I first came to WP, I ran the development group for Playwrights and Suzanne Bennett ran the arm for Directors. At that time, we didn’t meet together as often, it was a much more straightforward writing workshop for the writers and a developmental workshop for the directors, which was a terrific breeding ground for artists, and a place where I formed the beginnings of some of the most important creative relationships in my career.
That said, it has been exciting for me to come into this new version of the Lab that’s now composed of five directors, five playwrights, and five producers. I think we are currently the only developmental group which puts all three of those disciplines together for development and collaboration. This format provides such rich fodder for collaboration and conversation—I’m thrilled by the relationships that are beginning to take root.
My goals for the two-year program of this cohort is to have them develop projects in their collaborative teams that have a life beyond the Lab, and for each of them to walk away with a community of fifteen artists that they can rely on throughout their careers.
What was your first theatrical role, ever?
In our Kindergarten spring pageant the boys dressed as bees and the girls dressed as flowers. The entire play consisted of the boys pretending to fly over to the girls and sit on our heads to pollinate us. I’m sure it was as disturbing then as it sounds now. I decided to be a tulip, because my friend Carol was a tulip, so I wanted to be a tulip, too. There are some really unfortunate pictures of me being pollinated by Cullen Buckland, while attempting a very, very unsuccessful curtsy.
What is on your current subway playlist?
The Serial podcast was my most recent subway jam. And I’m not quite sure I’m proud to say that I started a Serial podcast page on Facebook. I suspect that my next podcast rabbit hole may be to be RuPaul and Michelle Visage’s What’s the Tee? where it appears they just get drunk and gab about eyeliner and the nature of reality.
Last question. The New York Times has described the Women’s Project as “enduringly vital.” What does ‘vital’ mean to you?
To me, it means that we are creating work that people are interested in. What does ‘vitality’ mean? I suppose it means that, at 37, WP has reached middle-age and we are still in the game, we are still effecting change and making amazing things happen.
Interview by Lilla Goettler.
In Her Words: Mahira Kakkar talks Nirmala, her character in WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER.
The intricate nature of When January Feels Like Summer creates a complex reality with multifaceted characters to match. Mahira Kakkar plays one of these parts, Nirmala, a struggling wife and business owner trying to keep tradition of her native India alive while satisfying her own needs.
What has been the most rewarding part about this production?
I don’t know if I can focus on any one single thing. I have worked with Daniella Topol (the director) before, and getting to work with her again was a gift. I got to work with a dear friend of mine – Debargo Sanyal – and got exposed to three other super smart actors. I love that audiences responded to the character Debargo played with empathy. I am thrilled that so many people come to see the show. What really moved me was when some people who weren’t regular theatre goers came, young people whose story was basically being represented on stage, and they loved it.
What has been the most challenging part of playing Nirmala?
I think finding her steel and vulnerability was challenging. She’s a stronger, smarter woman than I am, and so I had to think of her in those terms and find her. Playing opposite Debargo, who is basically a comic genius, is also hard, because I often want to laugh at the things he does, and Nirmala might not find them as amusing.
Nirmala gathers a lot of strength in order to manage a business by herself, support her brother, and care for her husband. Where do you think this strength comes from?
Nirmala’s pretty businesslike and strong, yes. I think she feels she has to be – she has a lot of things to take care of. Duty and loyalty I think are important to her – more so than personal happiness perhaps. Put another way, it’s a kind of love that she might have grown up with – love as action, as doing, as being there when the chips are down – though I’m pretty sure this is my way of thinking. I know women like Nirmala who would roll their eyes if I were to use language like this in front of them.
How has your own personal background influenced your work in When January Feels Like Summer, since you and Nirmala both grew up in India?
I have had the good fortune to meet and interact with women like Nirmala, for whom family, duty and tradition are paramount. Smart, very capable women who choose every day to fulfill what they think are their responsibilities. I think mostly the accent work comes easily to me, because of my background. I think women like Nirmala exist everywhere in the world, in different cultures.
You’ve worked on some incredible projects in the past, both on stage and film. Do you have any advice for young artists looking to break into the theatrical scene?
Don’t give up, have faith in yourself, take the long line, try and be kind to everyone including yourself, write your hate lists in pencil (the late Ms. Joan Rivers said that last one), work harder than you think you can, give over to this thing you love. Also, know that everything will work out and that you will be just fine. That’s my truth.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from theatre, either from When January Feels Like Summer or even beyond?
I’m part of a great tradition – what I do contributes a little bit to the tapestry – so I have to do my work well, but also know that without other people around me, supporting the story, it wouldn’t happen. I think I’m talking about respect for the artist/craftsperson in myself and in other people. It’s also really fun and joyous, and it should be. I think that that’s right, it is ok, warranted and necessary to feel joy in this often brutal world. Oh, and also to drink lots of water.
For more information about the production, visit When January Feels Like Summer’s page.
Director Daniella Topol’s take on WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER
Daniella Topol, the director of When January Feels Like Summer, has given this play a world to exist in, creating a lively and colorful place true to Cori Thomas’ words. Daniella discusses the creative process of the production.
What has been the most rewarding part about this production?
Daniella: Watching so many different audience members, of different ages and backgrounds, relate to this show. Don’t get me wrong – we had an amazing rehearsal process with fearless and talented actors and designers – but sharing the play with audiences has truly been the most unique aspect of making this play.
After the success of When January Feels Like Summer, how does it feel to have the play come back for another New York run?
Daniella: The audience reaction to When January Feels Like Summer the first go-round was so energizing, and there was a strong sense then that we were not done sharing it with audiences. But often you want a show to have a continued life and it just isn’t possible between wrangling actors’ schedules, theater availability, funding, etc. It is truly amazing that all of the key components have lined up to make this remount possible and that so many more audiences will now be able to experience this play.
What was your vision for this piece?
Daniella: When January Feels Like Summer is about change. About new beginnings. About shedding your old life, be it your boyhood, your manhood, your past marriage, your loneliness, your loss, your wrong choices. It’s about the ways in which the world around us can surprise us – be it the weather or the person that you are standing beside on the subway or a family member that you thought you knew well. It is about daring to transform. It is about finding meaning behind what we discard – the way in which we can recycle our life to find meaning once more.
Our production is fluid, surprising, honest, courageous. Cori has done such an amazing job depicting five unique, vibrant individuals with foibles and longings and artfully found ways for their worlds to collide. We think that this collision might be dangerous. But surprisingly, she finds a way for their collision to be transformative.
The play is about what it means to be discarded and then reborn. About intersecting lines and lives. About the complexities of how we love.
Where did you draw the inspiration for your vision?
Daniella: My biggest inspiration is living in NYC for 15 years. The ways in which our lives intersect with strangers in intimate and estranged ways.
What were some of the challenges of directing this piece?
Daniella: The play asks for a lot production-wise – there are many different scenes and locales, and we are working in an intimate space, so creating a production that moves swiftly from one world to the next with specificity and innovation has been our biggest challenge. Fortunately, the entire design team found innovative ways to address this challenge.
How involved have you been with the developmental process of When January Feels Like Summer?
Daniella: I have been working with Cori [Thomas] to develop the play since January, 2014. The play had an extensive development life prior to our work together (she can fill you in on this), but our work together has shaped and deepened the characters’ trajectories and the overall arc of the play.
What has been your favorite moment directing this play?
Daniella: I love the climax of the play – the ways that each of the characters and their storylines build to a dramatic catharsis. (I don’t want to spoil the end of the play for folks!)
This is your fifth production with WP Theater, along with being an alumnae of WP’s Lab. Can you share with us what you enjoy about working with our company?
Daniella: Working with WP means working with an amazing community of artists who support the work and ask challenging questions. I am so grateful to have this deep and ongoing relationship with a company who embraces visionary playwrights like Cori and who finds the resources to realize their work so fully.
For more information about the production, visit When January Feels Like Summer’s page.
WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER: Debargo Sanyal, on playing the beautifully complex Indira
For seven years, Debargo Sanyal has seen the development and evolution of the beautifully complex character, Indira, in When January Feels Like Summer. His career as an actor is extensive (acting opposite of Robert De Niro is no small feat), and Debargo has given full life to this character. Debargo has graciously described his journey with this marvelous play.
After the success of When January Feels Like Summer, how does it feel to have the play come back for another New York run?
Debargo: I am quite happy that When January Feels Like Summer has returned this fall. We had such a terrific time doing those initial twenty-six performances during the final weeks of spring. The response to our run was so overwhelmingly warm and loving and heartfelt that we all started to hope that the journey with this production could somehow continue beyond that time. So, it feels really great that, after getting to recharge our batteries over the summer, we will be bringing it back to the stage this fall.
What has been the most rewarding part about this production?
Debargo: There are a number of rewarding things about being in this particular production. One is that I love my cast mates– they are all such wonderful scene partners to play with every night on stage. Another is that I have been associated with this play/role for quite a while now, so it is very gratifying that this New York premiere full production is finally actually happening at all–especially considering that this play is very much a NYC play, set in the heart of Harlem. Another major reward is the beautiful energy we get from audiences who are loving the experience of receiving the show as much as we are loving the experience of presenting it to them.
You’ve been playing Ishan/Indira off and on for seven years, both in New York and in Pittsburgh. How have you seen the character develop, both through rewrites and even for yourself as an actor?
Debargo: I first played this role in the very first public reading presentation on September 28, 2007, right here on this very stage at EST, as part of their ‘Going to the River’ Festival…and then again, nine months later, on June 15, 2008, in the second-ever public reading presentation, which was at City Theatre in Pittsburgh, as part of their ‘Momentum’ Festival…and then, twenty months after that, in Feb-April 2010, for the world premiere full production back at City Theatre in Pittsburgh…and then, six months after that, on October 17, 2010, in a reading at the New Black Fest in Brooklyn… and then, three-and-a-half years after that, we commenced rehearsals for this current NY premiere full production at EST. Every step of the way, there have, of course, been helpful edits and rewrites that have affected the development of all five characters in the script. Cori Thomas is a smart playwright, and she has been able to find great ways to clarify and streamline things in the story without sacrificing the unique core of what she had built in to her script from day one. As for me, personally, I know that I have certainly changed/grown/evolved as an artist (and, well, as a human being) over the past seven years–and I would like to believe that it has somehow resulted in a more interesting portrayal of ‘Indira’, a character that I have grown incredibly fond of.
What has been the most challenging thing about playing a character like Ishan/Indira?
Debargo: Hair removal.
How has the experience in Pittsburgh to NYC been different? Either audience reaction, overall success, general sentiments… etc.
Debargo: The experiences in Pittsburgh and NYC have felt quite different. Four full years elapsed in between our world premiere full production in Pittsburgh and this New York premiere full production at EST. In Pittsburgh, my four wonderful castmates were Gita Reddy & John Marshall Jones & Joshua Elijah Reese & Carter Redwood, and our director was the wonderful Chuck Patterson; here in NYC, my four awesome castmates are Mahira Kakkar & Dion Graham & Maurice Williams & J Mallory McCree (and now again Carter Redwood) and our fantastic director is Daniella Topol. While it has been a rather unique and unfamiliar experience to perform the same play/role with a completely new set of collaborators and with such a large time gap in-between regional and NYC productions, it has also, ultimately, been a valuable learning experience that has taught me a lot. With each new collaborator comes a new energy and a new way of looking at the characters and story, and that has turned out to be quite informative over the years. And, of course, the main unifying entity throughout it all has been this beautiful script (and its talented playwright, who I am very glad invited me along on this seven-year journey).
Ishan/Indira is a rather fiesty character with some great lines. Do you have a favorite?
Debargo: I don’t really have a single favorite line, per se. I guess my favorite thing about almost everything that comes out of Indira’s mouth is that it is usually coming from a very brave place of eagerly embracing huge (and necessary) life changes at all costs. She knows exactly what she (and, sometimes others, like her sister) must do in order to find love and happiness, and she makes a very conscious choice to not be afraid to doggedly pursue this, no matter what anyone else may think… sometimes this lands her in humorous situations, and sometimes it lands her in rather serious ones… but, regardless, she always has the guts to really go for it. I genuinely admire that about Indira.
You’ve worked on some incredible projects in the past, both on stage and film. Do you have any advice for young artists looking to break into the theatrical scene?
Debargo: Be unique. Be informed. Be personable. And have a thick skin (…that you, like, moisturize as well.)
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from theatre, either from When January Feels Like Summer or even beyond?
Debargo: Life, like theatre, is a team sport. You could try to do it alone, but that’s just not nearly as much fun…playing well with others is much more interesting and enlightening and gratifying… and it does require more work sometimes… but it is usually so worth it (or, at the very least, it can make for a good story later).
For more information about the production, visit When January Feels Like Summer’s page.
Meet the Playwright: WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER’s Cori Thomas
“This play, of all my plays, is the one I wanted to see in New York.”
Edited and Interviewed by Blair Nodelman
Cori Thomas is the playwright of New York Times Critics’ pick and smash hit When January Feels Like Summer. Cori joined me to discuss the success of her play and the world within New York that often goes unseen.
In When January Feels Like Summer, we see a whole world within New York City that is largely unknown to the typical audience member. How did go you about creating/representing this diverse environment?
Cori: I don’t think I ever actively consciously think about what I’m going to write. What I do is an organic representation of what I know and what I see and the world that I live in. Because I live in New York and I come from a family that’s very multicultural, I think it’s just the way that I see the world. Someone pointed it out to me that my plays always have these mixes of people that you don’t usually see one, on stage, or two, together.
The play covers a wide range of topics, from sexuality to race and even religion that are weaved brilliantly together. How did you organize the many layers of this play?
Cori: I wish I was a person that sat down and mapped out a play and knew what it was about before I sat down to write it. I never do. I have some idea or character or a line or something just pops into my head and I try to follow it as blindly as possible. The more I stay out of the way the better it usually ends up being. It feels almost like channeling when I’m writing. I listen to characters and voices, and I write what they say without judgment. In the beginning, it comes from some internal place. I can see the root of it.
What was the inspiration or impetus for When January Feels Like Summer?
Cori: The background of this particular play is that I was on a train and I was sitting across from two young African-American men and they were speaking really disrespectfully about a woman who had very bad teeth. They offended and scared me a little bit because they were using really harsh words and bad language to describe her as a woman. I went to turn my iPod on so I could just block them out. Instead, I listened to them, and all of the sudden, I started to be able to translate what they were saying. The language that they spoke, they weren’t saying anything bad about her, they actually were trying to express that they were worried about her and her future, how was she going to get by in the world, how is she ever going to meet someone. It was so unusual to just sit there and have an experience of taking time to listen to what people are saying instead of judging how they’re saying it; to try and understand what they’re saying and to sort of see into them. It was just a little moment but it just affected me very deeply and I started then judging myself and realizing that I sat there and made a judgment about them without knowing them or giving them a chance. Especially, I think, African-Americans and especially young male African-Americans, have this reputation in the world and are seen in this certain way in society, in literature, in drama. I think I’m trying in my own way to just see if there’s any way we can see past that
But it wasn’t a conscious inspiration. I think in a way, it made me question myself, made me question the environment I live in. I started thinking about everyone. You know, how you ride on the subway you don’t know who these people are and what they’re going through in their lives.
Which character was the hardest/easiest to write for?
Cori: I think the hardest character was Joe, the sanitation worker. He’s the least, in a certain way, complicated. I think the other characters were clearer. The two young men were the easiest. They’re the ones who spoke to me first. I just love them. There are some people who have been offended by them. They don’t understand that I’m trying to let you go through what I went through which is to be offended by them and then if you just stay with them you will grow to love them and see the inside of them hopefully and respect them actually. I really care very much about them, but also all of the characters in this play. Each and every one of them showed me their heart. It was always my wish that the audience would see that and care about them also.
How has the play developed into what it is today? Has it stayed mostly the same or has it seen many different evolutions?
Cori: The very original reading of the play was at EST seven years ago. It was at a “Going to the River Festival”, which is a festival of African-American female playwrights. After that, fairly quickly, it got accepted into Sundance. It was also in Pittsburgh. They have a reading series called “Momentum.” Then it got produced in Pittsburgh, at Pittsburgh City Theatre. By the time it came here it had already had a production. It had a really great developmental process. There were changes between Sundance and the production. And then there were changes between the first production in Pittsburgh and here. Here it is also now four years later and we’re in New York. It’s very intimate space here. There are things that could be very broad that worked in Pittsburgh that had to be honed down a little bit to make sure that it worked here. Different actors have different strengths as well. I try really hard to pay attention to actors because they’re the ones who are going to be saying my words and I want them to be comfortable and enjoy doing it. I was an actor for so many years, and I still think that way. I feel like they’re the ones who have to be up there. I respect that so much.
After the success of When January Feels Like Summer, how does it feel to have the play come back for another New York run?
Cori: I can’t even begin to tell you how exciting that is. There a lot of people who I know who said, “I really wanted to see it, and I didn’t get to see it.” I’m very proud of our work on it. I enjoyed the process immensely. I’m so embarrassed, almost. I can’t tell you how many times I came to see my own play. I enjoy it. I’m watching, because I like it. I enjoy watching these people there.
What has been the most rewarding part about this production?
Cori: This play, of all my plays, is the one I wanted to see in New York. I’ve had plays done outside of New York and three regional productions. It’s weird, because I’ve almost gone backwards. You start in New York, and then you go out. I’ve been regional, and now I’m finally getting to come to New York. In a way, I’m still very unknown. It’s very exciting to have a play that means a lot to me that I love and a production that I love so much being done in my hometown where my friends and family and people I know and respect can come see it.
What have you enjoyed about working with Women’s Project Theater?
Cori: It is an organization I have long admired. As a woman, the concept of an organization that supports and promotes the work of women is very exciting. Especially because in the “real” world we don’t always get the same consideration. And the quality of the work is high!!! It’s a great company and I have been thrilled to have my work join their great oeuvre.
For more information about the production, visit When January Feels Like Summer’s page.
Artist Vignettes with SMUDGE director Pam MacKinnon
Pam MacKinnon having dinner with Edward Albee.
We sat down with director and WP Lab alum, Pam MacKinnon, and asked her to share a few of her favorite things with you…
What’s your favorite NYC pastime?
Exploring different neighborhoods on foot or by bike.
Best neighborhood restaurant?
Picnic on Broadway and 102nd. Get the steak frites.
Cocktail hot spot?
54 Below or The Harrison
Theater that’s inspired you lately?
BLOOD PLAY by the Debate Society at the Bushwickstar and HIM by Daisy Foote at Primary Stages.
Who’s on your fantasy dinner party guest list?
Elizabeth Warren, Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, and a group of my closest friends.
What’s on your playlist for walking around NYC?
Beethoven quartets recorded by the Emerson Quartet
Dream holiday destination?
A quote you love?
“I am the earth mother, and you’re all flops” – from WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, playing at the Booth.
Pam MacKinnon’s won a Tony for the Broadway production of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?. She directed Rachel Axler’s SMUDGE for Women’s Project Theater in 2010 and is a WP Lab alumna. Pam is a frequent interpreter of the plays of Edward Albee. She also recently directed Bruce Norris’s Tony-winning CLYBOURNE PARK (Broadway, Tony and Lortel nominations for direction, Obie Award; Taper; Playwrights Horizons).
In Their Words: Meet the cast of THE MOST DESERVING.
How do the themes in The Most Deserving resonate for you?
Veanne Cox: Well, for me personally, my whole life is driven by keeping the theater alive. And my character Jolene really wants to make art survive. Life as we know it must have art to survive. It must be a part of our society, or we will perish.
Adam LeFevre: I love this play because it manages to do at least two things. It lampoons the way we relate, as a culture, to art, and that somehow art elevates us in a social way. At the same time it shows the real, emotional component to those who are driven to make art. Writers write, artists paint, singers sing, and those that have to do it for whatever reasons that are maybe inexplicable but have nothing to do with recompense of any kind, financial or public glorification… That’s an artist, you know.
Daniel Pearce: It’s about second chances. There’s something about the age I am now, where I am in my life, and this character and these people in this play resonate. Ted has a line, where she (Jolene Atkinson) says, “Oh you know, you always wanted to be a rock journalist,” and he’s like, “Yeah… You know, imagine sitting down with Jerry Garcia, just a real heart-to-heart. I could still do that. It’s not too late”, and that’s what the play is about for me. “I could still do that; it’s not too late.”
Ray Anthony Thomas: The inanity of what the characters strive for, what’s important to them, versus the reality of the situation. It’s sort of an absurdist, maybe farcical take on it. I think Catherine has tried to write something that’s a little on the farcical side, not necessarily slapstick, a comedy of manners, I would say.
What do you think audiences will enjoy most about this play?
Kristin Griffith: It’s very warm and hysterically funny. It’s a truthful, joyous look at the kind of messed up way that we try to judge art, which you can’t do. You can’t put objective criteria on a very subjective thing. It’s hard to measure immeasurable stuff, but I think that’s a very human instinct, that we want to know why.
Adam LeFevre: They’re going to laugh, laugh, laugh, but it is one of those fine comedies that finds its laughter in very fundamental truths about people. To quote that famous esthetician, Homer Simpson, “It’s funny, because it’s true.” She’s [playwright Catherine Trieschmann] got this group of people together, each of whom wants something very badly and will stop at nothing to get it, and that’s great fun to watch people go about their schemes to achieving their ends, particularly in the kind of microcosm of this small town. There’s great opportunity to make commentary about people and about art, how art functions and, sometimes, saves people. And, in other cases, it makes people mean and venal.
Jennifer Lim: Catherine’s written these incredible characters that are funny but also incredibly complex. They are all people who have very strong beliefs and are prepared to do anything to make sure the right thing is done, and I think that is something that’s very relatable.
How does your character fit into the comedy of The Most Deserving?
Veanne Cox: Jolene is a can-do person, but the obstacles that each person surrounding her gives her is something that anybody who’s ever run anything will be able to identify with, she desperately wants to succeed in something where you cannot measure success.
Kristin Griffith: You have a woman of a certain age on a journey of self-discovery on being able to do anything she wants without her husband. Although she loved her husband very much, but I don’t think she knew how tightly held she was until he died, until these things started loosening up for her!
Adam Lefevre: I love this guy! Dwayne is guileless, and particularly in the realm of art and talking about art that he has truly become impassioned. Irony escapes him; he is very literal in terms of the way he thinks, but he’s not stupid. There’s something very innocent about him, which is wonderful.
Jennifer Lim: Liz is a fighter, and she’s not scared to be a little scrappy about it. She’s relatable. She’s a fish out of water, but she doesn’t let that stop her. She loves what she does, and she’s passionate about it, and she’s prepared to fight for what she believes in.
Daniel Pearce: Ted’s British, so that’s just funny! I love anything eccentric, and Brits tend to be more eccentric than Americans. Brits have all these nooks and crannies, like an English muffin, that I love so much. He’s a little slow on his feet and burnt out. He’s constantly getting befuddled, and that’s funny.
Anthony Ray Thomas: Everett’s eccentricity, his quirkiness, the way he deals with people…he’s an outsider artist, who doesn’t see things normally. He’s got a big heart. Things inspire him, and he doesn’t know why.
This is your second play with Women’s Project Theater. What do you enjoy about working with us?
Kristin Griffith: I love the women! I love the freedom, and I think Women’s Project Theater takes a lot of chances in the plays they produce, they are willing to push a bit into the audience, to challenge the audience.
Adam LeFevre: The work that gets done here is fantastic, and as an actor looking for good roles, it’s a great place to come. The people who work here are so committed to doing good work and are so personable. That part of it is great fun, the senses of humor and empathy that any artist would die to have as part of…coming into that kind of an embrace.
Meet the creative duo: Q&A with THE MOST DESERVING playwright Catherine Trieschmann & director Shelley Butler
Where did the idea for The Most Deserving spring from?
Catherine: All my plays come from two places: a desire to explore a certain emotional terrain and a desire to try a new form. I wanted to write an out-and-out comedy, in the style of a wonderful artist like Alan Arkin. I’ve lived in Kansas for seven years, and I’ve always been tickled by people getting excited or angry about minor issues like library renovation. I thought it would be fun to take the sort of comedy and dynamics of small town politics and marry that to aesthetic questions that are faced by an arts council, who are tasked with the job of giving a living wage grant of the remarkable, vast sum of $20,000 to a local artist.
As the director, what’s your vision for the play?
Shelley: I wanted to create a really voyeuristic experience that takes you right inside the council, inside the private lives and bedrooms of the members. It’s a comedy that comes out of truth, and we’ve created a set and clothes and sound that is grounded and authentic, and the humor just bubbles forth from that situation.
What are the questions or themes The Most Deserving asks the audience to consider?
Catherine: The central question of the play is, “Who is qualified to determine what artists are most deserving of funding?” It’s a very tricky question. It’s not only a question of taste, like, “What makes great art?” This play focuses on who gets to determine what artists are funded. What makes an artist more deserving than another one when it comes to these decisions?
Shelley: In addition to all the shenanigans that the characters get up to, pursuing what they want or vying for their candidate, there are also real human exchanges in this. It’s about intimacy; connection, passion, the arts, all of those things we connect to. Vying for what you believe in and vying for the arts is very important. There’s something about having a passion for what you believe in that audiences will connect with in a real way.
What do you think excites audiences the most about this show?
Catherine: Well, first of all it’s fun, and it’s surprising. I think what I always long for the most when I go the theater is to be surprised. And with this play, there’s a surprise in every single scene. The humor is rooted in true human psychology. The characters are striving after things that we all can relate to, so humor grounded in truth.
Shelley: My favorite kind of comedy comes from defying expectations, and this play does that again and again. It’s chock full of surprises. Audiences are going to love watching how far these characters will go to get what they want. It all comes down to a vote and, like any great democracy, there are conflicting opinions, conflicting desires, and none of these characters are afraid to vy for what they want.
We’ve seen it with congress; people are willing to charm and coerce and sling mud and seduce to get what they want, and our characters are willing to do the same things. This world, which irises in on a small town, but is not unlike congress or Richard III, or House of Cards, where the characters are willing to really go after what they want with everything that they have. The play is full of quirky, unique, surprising characters.
The Most Deserving sheds light on the politics of arts funding and the role of minorities and race. Do you think it’s easier to discuss these issues through humor?
Catherine: Humor is the great neutralizer, right? So it’s the ultimate coping mechanism; it’s what we have when faced with the dark and terrible things that happen to us. So certainly, it’s much easier to talk about race through humor, to talk about the politics of arts funding through humor… It opens up a space for audiences to see the more difficult, intricate issues.
What do you enjoy most about working with Women’s Project Theater?
Catherine: This is my third play with WP and my favorite thing about working at Women’s Project Theater is that the staff, across the board, is completely dedicated to creating the best theater possible. They’re attracted to risky projects; that are provocative, that aren’t safe.
Shelley: As a WP Lab alum, I know WP is committed to nurturing dynamic artists and supporting artists to deliver really important and delightful work. WP is making work that I want to go see, so to be able to be a part of that and make work for the WP is thrilling.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF BECOMING: A Discussion with the Artists
By Aktina Stathaki, Producer
The Architecture of Becoming is a journey of discovery and exploration into the lives of artists and travelers who call New York home, and whose lives have crossed paths with the iconic New York City Center. The Women’s Project Lab Artists, made up of five producers, five directors, and five writers, have been collaboratively creating the piece for the last eighteen months, and now that we are up and running, I thought it would be fun to sit down with a few of my fellow “Labbies” and ask them about their sources of inspiration, and how it feels to move across different eras and characters.
I first spoke to Lauren Yee, playwright of The Shriner. The Shriner is inspired by the Shriners, a group of Freemasons that inhabited New York City Center in the 1920’s, naming it the “Mecca Temple of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.”
Lauren Y: My piece, directed by Lydia Fort, uses storytelling and devised theater techniques to transport us back to the 1920’s and 1930’s. Two stories unfold simultaneously before the audience’s eyes: a girl from Ohio who moves to New York in the 1920s and falls in love with a mysterious stranger, and the young Kapowski a decade later making the same journey to New York curious to discover his past, which he believes to be hidden in the secrets of the Mecca Temple.
Next I went to Lauren Keating, director of The Art of Gaman by Dipika Guha which focuses on a Japanese woman who comes to live with her new husband in New York and aspires to be an actress. Set in the 1940’s, the piece moves from the realistic to the grotesque, and borrows elements from silent movies.
Lauren K: The Art of Gaman deals in two worlds. A literal, linear reality and the impressionistic, fantastical world of Tomomi’s inner life. I approached the piece like an archeologist. I had theories about how it functioned and how to bring it to life, but ultimately the play was going to teach me as we dug into the piece with the actors. At the end, the literal and the fantastical worlds come together as Tomomi learns how to manifest and own the power of her dreams in the real world. I take a lot of inspiration from Tomomi, and from Dipika [the playwright], to honor the power of my voice and my vision in a world that can be inhospitable to dreamers.
Kara Lee Corthron wrote The Poetics, which is set during the heat wave and Bronx Fires of 1976. It’s a story of three outsiders who meet by chance one summer evening outside of New York City Center.
Kara: I was interested in exploring early hip hop because there was so much to discover before it became a white phenomenon. There was this whole “no wave” movement, between punk and new wave, and I wondered how I could bring that into my piece. I had an idea for a black kid from the projects uptown, and a girl coming from the new wave school from the Village, which used to be a poor neighborhood. They would meet in the middle and have this sort of connection. There is another character who comes from a different influence, she’s more disco. We had a lot of fun playing with those external elements and then we grew the characters and the relationships from there.
It has been thrilling to watch cast members play such a wide range of characters over the course of the play. I asked Christopher Livingston, the actor playing Marco, Jerry, and the Dude, to tell me about his experience embodying so many different roles.
Christopher: I love it! I live for stuff like this. I was talking to [fellow actor] Jon Norman Schneider about it and we were saying how fortunate we are to do a play like this. It’s not often that you get to be in so many different worlds and play so many different characters. You get the opportunity to do that in college but once you get out of school it just doesn’t happen. It’s not necessarily easy, but then it wouldn’t be fun if it was right? I think my favorite character is Grande Dame just because she is so….grand! And some of the language Sarah Gancher (playwright of Grande Dame) has written is amazing. My favorite relationship is between Loco Loca and Siempre (Go Away, by Virginia Grise). I love the relationship between these two characters, I find it very real and also very heartbreaking.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF BECOMING runs through Sunday, March 23 at City Center Stage II. More info at wptheater.org – we hope you’ll come check it out!
In Their Words: The cast of ROW AFTER ROW discuss their characters and the show.
How would you describe ROW AFTER ROW?
Rosie Benton (Leah): This play is very funny. Jess, our playwright, is hilarious. It deals with very heavy issues, but on a certain level, it’s just about three Civil War re-enactors who meet in a bar. The ideas that come out of re-enacting and discussing the civil war help the characters recognize things about themselves that forever change all three of them.
Erik Lochtefeld (Tom): The emotions of the show will surprise the audience, like a ghost would. They’ll come to see a comedy, and it is funny, but the real emotions and the real power and the emotional scars of the Civil War are still underneath.
PJ Sosko (Cal/General Longstreet): It’s sad and powerful and a little bit mysterious. I think it’s going to take you on a really wild trip.
Can you introduce your character and tell us a little bit about what happens to them?
Rosie Benton (Leah): I play Leah, a New Yorker who has recently moved to Gettysburg, PA. She’s struggling with her career and her relationships, and she gets drunk one night, closes her eyes, and puts her finger on a map, and it lands on Gettysburg, PA.
Erik Lochtefeld (Tom): I play Tom. He’s an American history teacher, he’s grown up in Gettysburg. He’s been friends with Cal for 20 years and has really identified himself as Cal’s best friend, and as a Civil War re-enactor. We meet Tom as he is beginning to question all those parts of his identity; his job, his family, and his friendship with Cal.
PJ Sosko (Cal/General Longstreet): I play Cal and also General Longstreet. He is a take-no-prisoners type of character. He makes no apologies for who he is. He’s sort of like a bull in a china shop.
What appeals to you about your character?
Rosie Benton (Leah): I enjoy the wild energy she has in her life. She acts and then thinks, and I’m sort of the opposite in my life. So I enjoy the wild energy she has, and her ability to grasp things, to take situations and make them hers very quickly.
Erik Lochtefeld (Tom): I’m at a similar point in my life to Tom. I’m a father now, and you reach a point in your life where your identity becomes more than just you. Tom is saying “Can I actually do this?”, and that’s where I connect most with him.
PJ Sosko (Cal/General Longstreet): I just love that Cal says what he thinks. He doesn’t shy away from his opinions. He’s a guy’s guy. I think someone calls him a “meathead douchebag,” but there’s a lot more to him than that. That’s his defense mechanism. And the events of this play really broaden his scope.
So you went to Gettysburg with the cast on a field trip – how did that influence you?
Rosie Benton (Leah): I got to stand at the exact spot where the union defended the stone wall and Pickett’s Charge came over, and you could feel it in the earth, in the vista around you. It’s such a beautiful place. As we discuss those things in the play and recall them, it’s so nice to have that visceral memory, having your feet in the exact streams they’re talking about.
Erik Lochtefeld (Tom): It was essential. Seeing that battlefield, seeing how vast it was. We also took a trip to the local regimental quartermaster, and we essentially met Tom and Cal, or very similar people, and that was unbelievably helpful. You don’t get that opportunity very much, unless you’re playing a real person, you don’t get the opportunity to meet those people, and we randomly happened upon it and it was really exciting.
PJ Sosko (Cal/General Longstreet): Standing in the actual footsteps where so many people died to protect what they believed in…there was a feeling there. It enhances your imagination. There’s a great line in a Kings of Leon song that’s “I walked a mile in your shoes, but now I’m a mile away and I have your shoes”. It gave us something to hold on, and it has stayed with us. Having the opportunity to do that is rare.
If you took part in a re-enactment, what part would you play?
Rosie Benton (Leah): I’d really love to be a nurse. I’d love to wear a hoop skirt. I think I became an actor so I could wear corsets and hoop skirts. I’m a little bit more of a homemaker, so I think I’d like to cook. Leah would be very disappointed in me for saying that, but it’s true.
Erik Lochtefeld (Tom): There’s a lot of statues of the flag bearers at Gettysburg, who I believe are not armed, who are just holding the flag, saying “this is my side” and stepping into combat. When they go down, someone else has to pick up the flag. I find that incredibly brave and moving.
PJ Sosko (Cal/General Longstreet): I would want to be on the front lines and leading the charge if possible. I would want to be there so I could experience that first hand. What that walk was like, what it was like to have the guns firing right at me, and to keep going. That’s where I would be.
In the spirit of the play, what’s your signature drink when meeting a stranger in a bar?
Rosie Benton (Leah): The fact that it’s meeting a stranger in a bar is a very specific drink. I’d have a dirty martini. There’s something very stranger-y about that. It’s a classic drink, and it’s delicious.
Erik Lochtefeld (Tom): Back in the day, I would have ordered a vodka gimlet, if it were summer, or a Makers Mark on the rocks to seem tough and cool. In retrospect, I would change that and make it a Dark and Stormy. I think maybe I want to be dark and stormy secretly, on the inside.
PJ Sosko (Cal/General Longstreet): I like fruity drinks. And I make no apologies for that. So I will walk up and order something like a pear vodka with a seven up, and ask you to put a little blow up animal in it, or frozen is even better. That makes me really happy.
From the Director’s chair: ROW AFTER ROW’s Daniella Topol on what it means to be an American and how we carry the past with us
What drew you to want to direct ROW AFTER ROW?
I love how the play surprises you; how in one breath it’s comedic and fun and light and easy, and then all of a sudden the bottom drops out and we realize it’s about so much more. As somebody who is in in her late thirties, I can relate to the struggles the characters are dealing with – what kind of fight are we fighting? Who are we fighting for? Why are we fighting? In a certain way, Row After Row is about our individual fights, but in a larger way it’s about what are we as a country fighting for. What have we fought for? Are we a union? How do we learn from the past and what are the seeds we’re planting for the future?
What’s your vision for the play, and how has the design process helped to illuminate your vision?
In looking at the play, we know that it has to be set inside a bar. But it also needs to expand and surprise us when we move into 1863. [Set & costume designer] Clint’s design creates the bar very realistically and keeps the action contained. But the perimeter of the design is made up of the logs and woodchips that help give a sense of the world, of the depth of the history and the resonance of 1863. Therefore when I staged the scenes that take place in 1863 I used the whole expanse of the stage AND the log and woodchip area, so we get a sense of the fullness of terrain. We’ve been really trying to figure out how to create a vocabulary that’s full of surprises as we shift from world to world, from tone to tone, from character to character.
What do you think audiences will enjoy most about the experience of coming to see the show?
Jessica is asking questions about our country, and what we stand for, and what the ground is that we stand on in ways that I haven’t seen in the theater. What does it mean to be American and how we’re carrying our past with us, and what the resonances of the Civil War are in our culture today. The freedoms we have or don’t have, or the unions we have or don’t have as a country. I think there’s a deep resonance.
What has your collaboration with [playwright] Jessica Dickey been like?
I first met Jessica as an actor, then I got to know her a playwright. We went into production last spring at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on her play Charles Ives Take Me Home. I love Jessica’s vision for creating work, and how muscular and clear and innovative and visionary she is, and yet really warmhearted and generous and easy. Our friendship and our collaboration is very much one of mutual respect and appreciation.
So you’re a member of WP Lab and this is your fourth show with WP, how has your relationship evolved with this company over the years?
It’s amazing! I was thinking about that, about how lucky I feel to have such a deep collaboration with Women’s Project Theater. To have such trust and deep familiarity. I’m just honored to be continuing my work with WP. I feel like together we are building a body of work. There is this incredible amount of trust between me and Julie and the company. It makes me feel very safe, that we can be innovative because we trust each other so much, and there’s an ease. I would say I also feel very lucky to have the design team that I have because I worked with each of these designers before and they have all worked with each other, so collectively there’s a real trust and commitment and loyalty that enables us to do our best work.
In the spirit of the play, what’s your signature drink when meeting a stranger in a bar?
WHISKEY! So everyone knows not to mess with you unless they really want to…
Meet Jessica Dickey: A Q&A with the Playwright of ROW AFTER ROW
Can you tell us a little bit about Row After Row?
It’s a comedy about Civil War Re-enactors. I grew up in Civil War territory. I’m from right next to Gettysburg, a little town called Waynesborough, PA. I kind of grew up in those fields and creeks. I’m interested in the Civil War and how it kind of lives or vibrates in us as contemporary beings. That’s where the play comes from.
What do you think people will enjoy most about the show?
I think they’ll enjoy the performances. These actors are really kicking ass. They’re funny and brave and fierce and earnest and are really putting their hearts on the line and fully embodying these three people and what they’re really trying to do. The questions and problems and joys of these characters hearts are really being honored onstage. People will really relate to them, and they’ll enjoy laughing with and at these characters, but I also think in the end they’ll see themselves. It’s a great way to spend some time with the themes and ideas that are evoked by the Civil War. I hope that that helps us shed an interesting and new light on that narrative that we’re carrying from 150 years ago.
What excites you about Civil War re-enactments?
Before writing this play, really nothing! I now think of it as kind of this secret subculture. Once I started encountering that subculture, I felt an immediate affinity to it because it reminded me so much of theater and being an actor. By re-enacting or participating in something false, you encounter something true. There’s also some really juicy fun terrain. I found re-enactors to be warm-hearted, generous and passionate about their subject but also private and defensive about it in a particular way. Again, it reminded me so much of the theater. And then I had the opportunity to do a re-enactment. This was the 150th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge. Through a series of coincidences and lucky encounters, I was able to meet two re-enactors from the South Carolina Second Rifles. They had an extra uniform and they invited me to join them, and literally snuck me in, so I got to do Pickett’s Charge as a Confederate.
What is “Farbing”?
It’s when something in your gear – it can literally be your eye wear, your earrings, your thread count – is inaccurate to the historical context. Even something about the way that term was presented to me – the comedy just kind of wrote itself, vis-à-vis the terrain of the re-enactors.
So you’ve now written about Gettysburg and Amish communities. Is there something that draws you to American subcultures?
The answer must be yes. I’m from rural Pennsylvania, and it’s sort of deeply embedded in my DNA and my vernacular as an artist, so when I write, it’s coming from that vocab, mixed and remixed. It’s interesting always taking a look at something very specific as a means of understanding something universal. Amish culture, the Amish Project, re-enacting, the Battle of Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge are these specific slices, but are a means of contacting and questioning and being in dialogue with something vast.
How have you found your whole experience working with WP?
Women’s Project Theater has been so great. I was thinking about the level of support, in preparing the script for production, has been so luxurious, and yet without any trappings of pressure, oddly. And I think that’s just because of the candor and generosity and natural charm of the staff and Julie. It’s been this kind of dreamy experience of having endless opportunity to get into the script, to work with actors and team, and really articulating the specifics of the piece, and being in dialogue with others about how to usher it through, how to really sculpt the architecture of the evening of the play. But all in this warmth and creative synergy. It’s really kind of amazing, and I’ve probably taken it for granted, how at ease I feel coming here to work on the play. I feel trusted and I feel championed and adored. It’s been pretty great.
In the spirit of a scene in the play, what is your signature drink when you meet a stranger in a bar?
I’m not really in the phase of life where I meet strangers in a bar. Truthfully…a Coke with lemon. Now I’m not cool, but its really true. God, I just love me a soda.
Trista Baldwin shares with WP’s audience the inspiration and deeply personal nature of SAND.
SAND explores the emotional impact of the Middle East conflict on a US soldier and two of his company members. Did the war provide the inspiration for the characters emotional journey or was the war a fitting backdrop for the emotional journey you wished the characters to undertake?
The war catapulted me into the play. It was absolutely the inspiration. Not the politics of the war, but the people on the line, the people we Americans sent to war. SAND was triggered by seeing the first of our casualties printed in the newspapers. I saw these photos of young, incredibly young, beautiful, handsome faces full of potential, full of a future that would never be. I lost my brother when he was seventeen years old. I think the photos of these dead soldiers hit that nerve, the nerve of my own grief, and sparked this play. It’s a very personal play in a lot of ways, but it is absolutely about the war.
When did you start to write SAND and did the changing theatre of this war alter the creative process?
I started the play as the war started. The changing theatre of war made me focus and refocus on the gut truths of the play, which are not about the politics or strategy of the Iraq war but about how we went to war. What drove our country into this blind, naïve place where we thought this war was a good idea? Where we thought it would be easy?
As the war has gone on I’ve asked myself how SAND fits in to the larger social, political dialogue. (What does SAND say about this war? How is it saying something different than other plays?) Every time, the core of the play answers, the core that’s been there from the start.
SAND is not about whether the war itself is right or wrong or whether our strategies are right or wrong, it is about the soul of our country, told through three souls trapped in a confusing, boring, sometimes terrifying occupation.
SAND explores what I think of as an American crisis of spirit. There seems to be a hole in us, something vital is missing, or damaged, and I’m asking questions about that in this play.
Did you meet with returned US soldiers as part of the development process?
I read correspondence from one soldier in particular that was influential to the development of the characters and I’ve met with soldiers at both ends of the war – the leaving and the returning from war.
You have an established work history with your director. Why do you enjoy working with Daniella Topol?
Daniella is wonderful to work with for so many reasons. She’s a great dramaturge and an insightful and soulful person who really listens to the writer. She seeks the writers vision as she forms her own vision for the play and she really investigates, really gets in there and pulls the play out.
Daniella is wonderfully warm and open, even as she’s a force to be reckoned with.
As a playwright, what interests you about Women’s Project?
I’ve admired the Women’s Project for a long time. As a young writer searching for role models I turned to the Women’s Project publications, which inspired and affirmed. I’ve admired the diverse and vital writers the Women’s Project has supported. And I very much admire the mission of Women’s Project. I think it’s interesting that even as more female playwrights are being produced and applauded, there still seems to be significant hesitation to produce inherently feminine work on a large scale. So, there’s more thinking to be done, more work to be done towards theatre reflecting our society.
I’m thrilled to be produced by a company that I’ve admired for so long.
Playwrights often have many lives. Would you like to expand on your career history?
Grocery bagger, bagel baker, bartender, clerk for a methadone clinic, literary manager, night shift clerk for a laboratory of pathology, Executive Assistant for a NY hedge fund and an Austrian transformer company, dramaturge, tenure-track professor in playwriting.
Care to share something utterly unique about yourself with WP’s audience? And it doesn’t have to be about your life as a playwright...
I come from a pretty eclectic blue-collar place. I spent my formative years in the country, on a couple of acres in Western Washington, near enough to a military base to get some odd characters hanging out in the woods. My dad worked as a truckdriver, my mom taught preschool and there was always classical music blaring in the house. I had a pet chicken, was raised an atheist and earned to shoot rifles with my dad, who keeps a gun in the nightstand and votes Democrat all the way. We went through a nudist period when I was seven. We ate a lot of lentils.
The first writing contest I won was in second grade. I won with a horror story. It was the story of two girls trying to escape a horrible orphanage, with victims of the orphanage hanging in the trees all around as the girls ran towards freedom.
My first paper in elementary school was on the Khmer Rouge. On the cover of my paper I carefully rubber glued photographs of skulls stacked one on top of the other.
I’m an optimist who believes in evil.
I love to cook.
I hate cleaning the house.
Saviana Stanescu reveals to WP’s audience her inspirations for ALIENS WITH EXTRAORDINARY SKILLS.
As a foreigner living in the US, how has your own experience influenced Aliens?
Well, I am myself an “alien with extraordinary abilities in the arts” as my O1 visa states, so I know very well what means to be considered an “alien”. For me this is a huge irony, because I actually studied here, at NYU (MA in Performance Studies and MFA in Dramatic Writing – John Golden Award for Excellence in Playwriting), I teach part-time at NYU in the Drama Department, I won the 2007 New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Play, I’ve had some significant achievements here, in the NYC theatre world and I feel that I am a part of it. It’s true, I won the Best Play of the Year in 2000 in my native country, Romania, and I was an established writer over there. I was even a host for a one-hour live cultural talk-show! So I had to start from the scratch over here, in my 30s: I had to live in small dorms with a shared bathroom placed far away on the other side of the floor at International House, I had to work hard on my English language, as words are a writer’s tools and you can’t really do your work until you feel the core and subtleties of a language. It took me a few years to “move” into the English language, to grow to “own” it, to play with it, to truly love it. But it is extremely important for me to tell my dramatic stories in American-English, to reach larger audiences, to make my voice really heard by the world. The sacrifices I’ve made are justified, I think.
I came to New York as a Fulbright fellow in 2001, a week before 9/11. Somehow I feel that I belong here, I don’t really feel like an alien, I felt accepted by NYC and I fell in love with NYC, so it’s a bit hard to see that it’s so difficult to be officially accepted. There are “little” things reminding you daily of your status. I can’t get to clubs on weekend nights because I don’t have an American ID with my birth date on it and I am afraid to carry my passport with me when I go out – what if I lose my purse with my passport&visa in it? I’m always worried when I have to travel abroad to see one of my plays performed in Europe and beyond – what if I can’t get back? So I had to refuse many trips and my career in Europe slowed down as a consequence. Today I got an email to be invited to a festival in Alexandria, Egypt, where a play of mine is to be translated/presented in Arabic. I am honestly afraid to go. What if I’m not gonna be allowed to come back to my New York? Stuff like that. And I don’t even want to mention financial issues…
I long for a bit of normality in my life and while I am officially an “alien”, that’s impossible. Despite my “extraordinary skills” in resilience, hope, ambition, friendship, love, and survival.
Would you like to share with WP’s audience the real immigrant story that inspired Aliens?
In Orlando, Florida, an Ukrainean and a Romanian got arrested for smuggling aliens under fake “aliens with extraordinary skills in the circus” visas. They created a bogus circus. When those guys got caught, the illegal immigrants received deportation letters. That is the starting point of my play.
All four main characters have been emotionally scarred by life. How important was this to the development of the relationships?
I really wanted to write about people who have been alienated by life, circumstances, status, personal choices etc. It is important for me to dig deep inside people’s souls – yes, I know that “soul” sounds a bit old-fashioned in the present day ultra-rational cyber-clever media-obsessed pragmatic society – and see if they can meet on a profound level, beyond their differences in birth and upbringing. I wanted to write about people finding each other in a world that encourages selfishness and loneliness. A world in which you are surrounded by people but you feel so often alone.
My characters are two illegal Eastern European immigrants, a legal immigrant from the Dominican Republic, and a divorced American washed-up musician – all of them with their own traumas and resources for resilience. Paraphrasing Beckett, my characters’ refrain is: “I can’t go on. I can’t go on. I go on.” And of course I added a little love and friendship to spice up and help their journeys.
All characters have suffered in life journey. Do you think the suffering has led to the compassion they show each other?
Yes, definitely. They understand each other on that subconscious level of people who suffered. There is solidarity between people with traumas, there is support, and sometimes there is even humor. And I like to show those funny and sweet aspects of life, as well as the bitter ones. The tragicomedy of existence.
I don’t like the stereotypical portrayal of immigrants as having exclusively gritty, asexual, humorless lives: work-work-work, make money, send it to families back home, have poor or no English. There is room for subtlety and complexity of immigrant characters.
Love seems to triumph in Aliens. Do you believe this is always the case in life?
No, there’s very rarely the case in real life. All my other plays have actually dark endings, they are all funny yet grim “fairy-tales” addressing contemporary issues of displacement and alienation. But in this play I wanted Love to triumph. Maybe as a way to provoke it to triumph in life too :)
Plus, my main character, Nadia, is a clown, she makes balloon-animals and enacts little stories she tells to the kids at Birthday Parties. In her world, a happy-ending makes lots of sense … Immigrant life might be for Nadia a big imaginary tragicomic circus show
On a personal note, are you a romantic? And what’s your idea of a happy ending?
Well, I grew up during Ceausescu’s dictatorship in Romania. I had to daily escape from reality using stories and imagination. I had to somehow believe in romance and a happy-ending, as a way to survive. And then, at some point, Reality stepped in and censored my romantic ideals. So I don’t know if I am a romantic anymore in my personal life. But nothing can stop some of my characters from being romantic. It’s me who decides what’s what. Finally empowered :)
As WP’s writer in residence, how have you found your involvement with WP beneficial to your craft?
YES, Women’s Project and particularly Julie Crosby have been very supportive and friendly to me. The environment provided by the Lab and by the WP community has been stimulating and deeply inspiring. I got lots of work done here, I wrote what I consider my best plays to the date: “Aliens with extraordinary skills” and “For a Barbarian Woman”. I owe Julie a lot and I will never forget this chance that Women’s Project gives me to have my work seen by the NYC Off-Broadway audiences.
Catherine Trieschmann reveals her thoughts on the emotional journey of the characters in CROOKED for WP’s audience.
The themes of power, love and loss seem entwined throughout crooked. The power we wield, the love and loss we feel. Do you think they are always linked?
In life, no. In plays, yes.
The Mother/Daughter dynamic depicted in Crooked is real and realistic. What’s the significance of this relationship to the fabric of the play? No matter the mother, they all have one thing in common: the desire to control their daughters. This is a very easy dramatic conflict to tap into, because the tactics mothers use to “guide” their daughters are well-meaning but endless (although Tennessee Williams may have covered most of them). Elise, the mother in the play, is everything you’d want in a mom on the surface: she’s smart, fun, progressive, cool, but even she has certain expectations for who she wants her daughter to be, and fundamentalist Christianity does not belong there.
(I should note one exception, however, to the above: although all mothers try to control their daughters, my mother does not try to control me, as long as you don’t count the areas of home decoration, wardrobe, and hair color.)
All three main characters seem cloaked in an isolated loneliness. How does this emotion help each character develop?
I think that desperation can breed intimacy, especially in high school. The two teenagers in the play are so aching to be heard and touched that they jump right on into bed together, so to speak. Much of the play’s humor is rooted in the fact that while we can recognize the only thing they have in common is their loneliness, they cannot. I supposed the heartbreak occurs when they begin to realize this, too.
Playwrights often have interesting twists and turns to their careers. We would love for you to share some of yours with us.
The most surprising and lovely twist was the premiere of crooked last year at the Bush Theatre in London. Due to the play’s Southern setting and themes, I envisioned it premiering in Atlanta or Louisville; London never even crossed my mind. It gave me such a silly pleasure to tell the woman behind the customs counter why I needed to enter the U.K.
Perhaps the biggest irony of my career is that it started to take off when I left the East coast and set up shop in rural, western Kansas. You would think that would spell certain career suicide for an “emerging” playwright, but instead it’s given me something unusual to talk about at meetings: “You live in western Kansas, really?” And then the inevitable, “why?”
What relevance does Women’s Project have to you as a female playwright in the USA today?
Many years ago, a good friend of mine was starting a fledging theatre company in NYC, as post-college twenty something are wont to do, and I remember one of the first things she did was set up a meeting with Julia Miles for advice. Julia didn’t know my friend but she met with her anyway. She talked her through founding a company and keeping it afloat, but the one thing she told her that really stuck with me was: “producing theatre is really hard, and producing feminist theatre is even harder.” Not the gem of inspiration I was expecting, but perhaps the most truthful thing one can say about a woman’s life in theatre. The Women’s Project makes it a little easier for all of us. Thank you.
And finally, a personal question, would you like to share with WP’s audience your favorite song?
Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is probably my all-time favorite, but I spend a lot of time dancing my infant daughter around the house to Alison Krauss singing “Baby Mine” at the moment.
HOW THE WORLD BEGAN Interview with playwright Catherine Trieschmann
The characters in HOW THE WORLD BEGAN have strong views and experience difficulty finding middle ground. Why do you think people find it hard to embrace ideals of tolerance and acceptance of beliefs that differ from their own? And what attracts you to writing about the differences that exist between us?
Righteousness is a powerful thing. Without righteousness we wouldn’t have had the abolition movement, the feminist movement, or the civil rights moment. And righteousness depends upon an element of intolerance. The civil rights movement said: your ignorance and prejudice will be tolerated no longer. The tricky business, however, is checking ourselves so that righteousness doesn’t turn into self-righteousness, which is boastful and not conducive to changing people’s minds about anything. It is a very delicate line, whatever one’s cause, whether it be environmentalism, feminism, the abolition of sexual slavery or the advancement of Christendom. To disagree with your “enemy” and yet see the humanity in them, to allow them to be absolutely wrong and yet still view them as your equal is a Herculean task. I suppose, it wouldn’t be too far fetched to say that this task is central to who I am as a writer. I love creating characters with extreme positions and terrific flaws and then finding the humanity within. Frankly, it is much easier to do with imaginary people than real ones. At the end of the day, I’m not sure I’m capable of seeing the humanity in sex traffickers.
Having lived in the South, the Midwest and New York City, have your life experiences in these different places influenced HOW THE WORLD BEGAN?
Certainly I wouldn’t have written this play if I hadn’t moved to Western Kansas. While I was peripherally aware of the creationist/evolution debate, it was not front and central until I moved to Hays, where the first year here, I must have attended three different forums on the issue. What struck me about these forums was not the arguments, such as they are, but the characters, on both sides, who so passionately argued their positions. I became fascinated by what’s at stake for fundamentalist Christians in denying evolution, when there are plenty of Christian traditions that have no problem reconciling faith and evolution. I was also struck by the inability of the pro-science representatives to really hear and respond to the concerns of the other side in a productive way. I think it’s central to productive debate for people to feel heard and respected, and if that doesn’t happen, then minds will not change. How the World Began isn’t a play of ideas, in the tradition of Inherit the Wind; more than anything it’s about human psychology and what drives us to extreme ideological positions in times of duress.
As a practicing Episcopalian living the heartland, was it challenging to write a play that explores the more conservative views of other Christian traditions?
Not particularly. I am very close friends with both atheists and Christians; conservatives and liberals. I’m a Democrat, but my husband is a Republican. I may be a progressive Episcopalian but living in the South and Western Kansas, I break bread with far more conservative Christians on a regular basis. I can’t post anything remotely political on Facebook without fights breaking out immediately. In some ways, having a foot in both worlds as I do, allows me to see both sides a little more objectively, which hopefully informs my work in interesting ways.
HOW THE WORLD BEGAN is your second play with WP, following CROOKED in 2008. What do you enjoy most about working with this theater company?
WP doesn’t just support “the play”; they support the whole artist. They have stood beside me through good reviews and bad; half-baked plays and finished ones. If I need to hear a play, they organize a reading. If I need honest and constructive criticism, they provide it. If I need to be picked up off floor of discouragement and dusted off, they do that too. Every playwright should be so lucky to have this kind of relationship with a producing theatre.
How relevant is WP for early career women artists in the US and internationally?
It is essential. The WP Labs are so unique, because they foster playwrights, directors and producers. They develop work, but they also produce work, and there is nothing that grows a writer like seeing her work produced on a stage in front of live bodies.
And finally, as you have lived in both New York and Kansas, what’s one of your favorite day-to-day experiences in both places?
In NY, I love heading up to Fort Tryon park with friends, drinking these out-of-the-world mojitos they make at the little restaurant, and chilling out in the Cloisters for a couple of hours with a nice buzz and lots of medieval art.
In Kansas, I love taking my kids for a walk around a horse farm near us, where we spend the time naming things: gelding, goose, Elm tree, Mulberry bush, Cottonwood. It’s divine in its simplicity.
Interview with Gitta Honegger by Alexis Clements October 16, 2012
The writing of Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek is notoriously tricky to translate. Jelinek’s writing uses word play and idioms that reference not only Austrian German dialect, but also the even more specific vernacular of Vienna—Austria’s capital and cultural center. Gitta Honegger has been translating Jelinek’s work into English for a number of years now, in addition to translating the work of numerous other prominent Austrian writers. But it’s not just Honegger’s experience as a translator that makes her a particularly apt person to tackle Jelinek’s complex writing style, they also share similar upbringings and a love of the theater.
Both women were born in the wake of World War II, into an Austria that, for them, appeared to be in a state of denial about its role in the war. During the late 1930s the Nazi party in Austria took over the government and very soon after that Hitler unified Austria with Germany. This led to one of the darker periods in Austrian history, during which some Austrians participated in Nazi-led campaigns, including the deaths of thousands of Jewish Austrians. Both women were also born into families that placed a high value on the arts, and a culture that demanded that they conform to very strict assumptions about how young women should behave in society.
From a young age Jelinek was pressured by her mother to study classical piano and Honegger choose at the age of 14 to pursue acting at the country’s national theater. Since then their lives have diverged, but both have maintained an ardent connection to the theater. Jelinek remains in Austria, and continues to write new works on a regular basis, despite suffering from severe acute anxiety syndrome, which keeps her homebound. Honegger moved to the US early on, where her varied career has encompassed everything from acting to journalism to directing to writing books and translating.
Alexis Clements, an alumna of the Women’s Project Playwright’s Lab and co-editor of the anthology of plays titled Out of Time & Place, sat down to talk with Honegger. They discussed her theater career, the ins and outs of translating Jelinek’s work, and why Jackie, a recent work by Jelinek that is receiving its North American premiere at Women’s Project this season, is a particularly interesting play.
Alexis Clements: I’d love to start by talking a bit about your own biography and how you came to do translation work. You started your acting career at the Vienna Burgtheater, which is Austria’s national theater. But eventually, you decided to move to the US. What led you to move here?
Gitta Honegger: I came here to research my dissertation about Eugene O’Neill. That was the time of the Living Theatre and the Open Theater, and I came from a very structured, classical background. So, to me, America was just great. I didn’t want to go back. I liked the freedom, also, of the ensemble work—instead of the hierarchy of European classical theater. And Off-Broadway was wonderfully experimental at that time.
AC: And then, as I understand it, not long after receiving your doctorate from the University of Vienna, you began working as an arts journalist in the New York City for a handful of German-language publications. Why were you interested in taking the job as a journalist covering theater in the US?
GH: American theatres, and the opportunity to observe the rehearsals and productions of innovative companies became my university. I got to interview, for instance, the Negro Ensemble Company, and then I went up to New Haven to the Yale Repertory Theatre, where [Robert] Brustein [founder of the American Repertory Theater] first did his work. I could learn about American theater from inside.
AC: So, very quickly you were able to immerse yourself in the theater?
GH: Yes. And I was also lucky, because at that time the Jewish émigrés from Germany and Austria were at the height of their careers—Rudolf Bing, for instance, was artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera. I interviewed him, as well as the editor of TIME Magazine Henry Grunwald, for an article about Austrian refugees in New York.
AC: That community of Austrians and Germans in New York must have been important for you. From reading about your life, I gather that part of your desire to leave Austria in the first place related to your disenchantment with Austrian politics and your rejection of the fact that no one in Austria was discussing what happened during the war. Which is an experience you shared with Elfriede Jelinek. She obviously stayed in the country, but why was it important for you to leave?
GH: Well, you know, America, at that time, meant openness to us, not this little country surrounded by Alps and nobody talking about what had happened quite recently. I hate to use the word freedom, because it’s so abused right now, but it offered a more personal freedom.
AC: It was a symbol, then?
GH: It was the idea of America that was so attractive.
AC: At what point did translation become something interesting for you to be involved in?
GH: I don’t know if you are familiar with the plays by Thomas Bernhard. He was a controverial novelist and also a poet, one of the most important writers of 20th century German language literature. He’s more known here because of his novels. When I was directing, which coincides with my time in New York, I looked for material to direct and I was completely mesmerized by his plays because they made it possible for me to deal with Austria as a home through language. The way he approached language was in some way similar to Elfriede. He shows you the fragments of the culture after the war—it’s not whole and beautiful. He shows the rupture in people’s minds through his syntax. I talked with a very active cultural representative from the Austrian Institute (now the Austrian Cultural Forum), Gertrude Kothanek, who thought that Bernhard’s plays should be staged in New York, but first they needed a translator. She said to me, why don’t you do it. So, then I got started.
AC: And that led to the book that you did on Bernhard’s work, just as you’re now working on a book about Jelinek?
GH: Yes. They are pretty related in a way—Elfriede and Bernhard—in terms of their attitude towards Austria. She always differentiates, though, that Bernhard, as a man, could make these authoritative statements and journalists, along with the world, accepted it. But as a woman she could not do the same thing. It took her a much longer time to be acknowledged on a large scale, though she was always acknowledged by certain people.
AC: When were you first introduced to Jelinek’s work?
GH: I first met her in the 1970s. I met her once. One of her directors introduced me to her. She was kind of…awesome, just awesome.
AC: What do you mean by that?
GH: Well, since she’s shy, which you can’t read so well when you first meet her, she was so centered. The first time I met her, she wore this flowing gown, which made her look like a regal apparition out of fin-de-siecle Vienna. Later, she dressed in leather and had spiked hair. It made her look real tough, “awesome” in today’s lingo.
AC: So she presented herself as someone who ran counter to the image of what an Austrian woman should be?
GH: Yes, totally.
AC: And when did you start working seriously with her writing?
GH: That was after I was, more or less, finished with Bernhard—not the book yet, but I had translated many of his plays. I saw Jelinek’s play in Vienna about Hannah Arendt and [Martin] Heidegger [Totenauberg (Death/Valley/Mountain)]. I was very intrigued. I loved it. I said, oh wow, I would love to translate this. But then I thought, oh, no, I don’t want to get into that again, because I was directing at the time. But then my husband said—he’s Austrian too—you’re the only one who can do this kind of language, and actually it’s true. So, I did it. And that was my first, very intensive contact with [Elfriede].
AC: How much does Jelinek participate in the crafting of the English translations of her work? Everything that anyone says about her writing focuses on the incredible specificity of the idioms and word plays that she uses. Essentially, the consensus seems to be that her writing is completely different if you experience it as a native Austrian.
GH: Totally. I was talking about this yesterday. Some translators have German advisors and the advisors can’t even understand some of the idioms she’s using. You have to really understand the Viennese subtexts.
AC: So it’s that specific—not just Austrian German, but the vernacular of Vienna?
AC: You have clearly developed a working relationship with Jelinek over a long period of time, having translated a number of pieces of her writing. What’s interesting for you about working with Jelinek?
GH: Two things. First, for biographical reasons—because she really helped me come to terms with my culture; because she gave me a language that is speakable, or thinkable, after the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, because it’s artificial, it’s distilled from Austrian vernacular as well as from the German literary canon and media speak. And the other thing is that I’m not a translator who translates anything. You have to live inside the world of a writer and really learn that language. I found that the more I translated, the more I saw the similarities between translation and performance. Because you have to go inside that voice. And since both writers [Bernhard and Jelinek] are very dramatic—I mean, dramatic not like drama, but their language is performative—so you can really go from an actor’s approach.
And actually Gayatri Spivak, the literary scholar and theorist—she is also a translator—she talks about a translator having to go through the text like an actor or a director, which to me was very interesting. She speaks of the language as consisting of syntax, rhetoric, and silence, and the least interesting is the syntax, and the most important is the rhetoric, and how it relates to the silence. And when I read that, I said, oh yeah. When I think of translating, I think much more in terms of post-colonial ideas, and what the English language means in the world, from a colonial perspective, from a corporate, global economy perspective. And that is so exciting with Jelinek because she critiques culture through language, and so the drama is really inside that language—it doesn’t talk about it, but the language expresses it.
AC: Thinking about Jackie and popular culture, the character in the play is so reflective of the conflict between an idealized or mediated person and the real person trapped inside of those false representations. Do you think there are differences between the way that an Austrian writer like Jelinek would understand Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, versus the way an American writer might?
GH: I think that the difficulty in Jackie is obviously Jackie [Kennedy] did not speak like [the character in the play]. So, how do you then make an artificial language acceptable for an audience in a culture that isn’t used it? Do I take away [Jelinek’s] style and make it accessible and elegant in English, or do I really show what she’s doing? Through Spivak and post-colonialism, especially since feminism and post-colonialism are so related, I’m more of the opinion that you have to leave in the foreignness. What Elfriede is trying to do with the language of the canon, which is basically male, is already a foreign language in her own culture because she’s a woman.
AC: I like the way you put that—the idea of a woman’s voice representing a kind of foreign language within her own culture. I think that’s a great moment to reflect on the Tim Parks essay in The New York Review of Books from 2007, which discussed a handful of her novels and none of her theater works. The essay is one of the few major English-language reviews of her work, but Parks’ writing about Jelinek’s work is totally indicative of that sense that her writing just seems utterly foreign to him in a way that he’s unwilling to engage with. It’s as if he simply rejects her language outright and makes no attempt whatsoever to see that it’s being written from a perspective that is unfamiliar to him.
GH: Yes, completely, and that often happens.
AC: Ultimately it’s as if because Parks doesn’t think that he would ever think or behave the way that her characters think and behave, which evokes that sense of foreignness. But it’s also very patronizing and bizarre, because his critique seems to be that her characters aren’t human, but she’s not trying to represent a strict realism in her work.
GH: Yes, that’s on purpose.
AC: This all gets to another point that I wanted to discuss. As we’ve touched on, some of her work can be very challenging, particularly in the novel form. You have to make a commitment as a reader of her work to put forth a bit of effort. But theater allows the work to be seen in different lights, to be interpreted by other artists. Do you think seeing her work in the theater helps people who otherwise might find it difficult to engage with her writing on the page?
GH: Well, you know,her writing is also quite funny. But either you accept her directors’ often experimental approaches or you don’t. She encourages directors to translate her work into their very own visual language and she doesn’t interfere with that. So, you have to go along with their vision. And not all audiences go for it. What she does get is a lot of young people. I’m amazed at the youth of the audience, when I see productions of her plays, I often see her shows more than once, and young people totally relate to her in Germany and in Austria. And then, of course, you have the women of our generation.
AC: Let’s talk more about her play Jackie specifically. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is something of a specter in American culture. Certainly, at the very least, every first lady since John Kennedy’s presidency has had to reconcile their relationship to her legacy. And she’s obviously also a big part of the ongoing cultural obsession with John Kennedy, as well as the increasing connection between celebrity and politics in this country. To your mind, why look again at this woman who has been so discussed and dissected over the decades, through the lens of Jelinek’s writing?
GH: Well, it’s part of Elfriede’s cycle of Princess Plays. She describes them as a satirical counterpoint to Shakespeare’s histories, which in German are called “Kings Plays.” She has Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and Princess Di—it’s actually one big play. And you couldn’t leave out Jackie Kennedy—for the 20th Century she is the essential princess. Also, [Jackie Kennedy] was so closely identified in Europe as the first one to bring culture to the White House. I mean that wasn’t her motivation, but that’s the image of her in Europe.
AC: Picking up on of some of what we talked about before, in terms of the idealized version of America, do you think there’s something interesting about having Jelinek’s perspective on an American icon as an outsider to the country?
GH: Well, you know, I’m not sure that it’s that different, because it’s all mediated reality. In America we are so used to looking at America through the media, and I think the average American, most probably, doesn’t know their royalty either, except through the media. Elfriede’s not trying to go into any biography or psychology, she’s really constructing and de-constructing a mediated image. I think that’s the hardest, ultimately, to get across.
AC: That touches on one of the things that I think is so interesting about this play and other works by Jelinek. There’s a tension in many of her characters between the expectations from outside and the desire of the individual on the inside, specifically the places where the expectations and desires clash. In the case of Jackie, it’s the larger culture, politics, and media imposing upon a real human being who remains subsumed beneath all those things. But in other works, The Piano Teacher, for instance, which for most American audiences is their primary contact with Jelinek, it’s the mother’s expectations of the daughter. In Jackie, as you indicate, Jelinek isn’t attempting to represent the real human being Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, but it so clearly demonstrates everything that was imposed on that person, who was in many ways trapped by those impositions. You have a much wider view of Jelinek’s body of work—do you have a sense of that tension existing in other works of hers?
GH: Well, I think you really got it, and specifically, it does go back to the mother, and that feeling—the expectations. I think that’s at the core—the expectations and the performance you do to meet the expectations. I would say that’s the driving force in Elfriede. When you meet her, and talk to her—we joke, she is so much the good, well bred, convent-educated, lady from Austria. She could never say no to you; she gets very upset if someone asks her something and she can’t say yes. And I think maybe that’s what we share, maybe more intensely because we are out of that same culture.
But she is also someone who can speak intellectually about Heidegger, about a wide range of issues. Although she will always say she’s not an intellectual, but she has an incredible intelligence, I mean, an absolutely unbelievable intelligence. But as the good, well-bred girl, she would also not boast about it too much. She’s very articulate, but she would never say, I’m an intellectual person. She’s actually very modest. But never when she was a public figure. When she was still out there, as a younger rebel, she was not just nice. She would really say what was going on, and she was very articulate. I think it’s more when she meets people one on one, I think that’s more my experience. And since we have similar experiences we can laugh about it—two nice ladies! (She laughs.)
AC: That gets to another thing. Because of her anxiety disorder she’s obviously not available to a lot of people. Do you find that people ask you to be a kind of representative for her, or a kind of middleman, when they are working with texts of hers that you have translated?
GH: Well, she calls me her “riding messenger.” Because her play Rechnitz, is all about messengers, and I went to see the production in Tel Aviv, because it was such a historic event, to have a German-language woman write a play which takes off from the Holocaust but is not about the tragedy of the Holocaust, but about messengers, about how we transmit the memories through generations. It’s a fantastic play—I think it’s her best play.
AC: After all this time working together, would you say that the two of you are friends?
AC: So you’re in regular contact?
GH: I see her every time I go [to Austria], and not just when we’re discussing her writing.
AC: We’ve touched a little bit on it already, but because many people’s only real contact with her writing in the US is the film version of her novel The Piano Teacher, which is quite grim in some ways, I’d like to talk about the humor and satire in her writing, which is very present in Jackie.
GH: Who she really reminds me of—not as much in Jackie as in her later performance texts — who she’s actually very close to in her language strategies is Stephen Colbert. Because when he drives the logic to its most absurd, when he takes the rhetoric of Paul Ryan and people like that, and when he aims at the totally nonsensical punch line, which is also so true, that is pure Jelinek—the sense of nonsense, you know, that nonsense which turns out to be the truth.
AC: I think that will be really helpful for people unfamiliar with her work to hear. Because I think the impression of her work is focused so much on the darkness and complexity. It’s good to present Colbert’s word play and rhetorical absurdism as a way to get at the fact that she’s engaged in a lot of play in her writing.
GH: Yes, and she very much sees herself in the tradition of Jewish humor, Jewish cabaret. She says that at her [childhood] home, word play and games were always part of the conversation. I saw that most vividly when I saw the production of one of her favorite directors—Nicolas Stemman, who staged The Merchant’s Contracts (Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns)—this is her play about the global economic crisis—and he just totally explodes the text. He includes improvisations, even confrontations with the text where the actors, who actually read the script just rip up the sheet of paper when they are done with it. But I think you can do that now because she’s well known in Europe, so it’s understood as a personal confrontation. Here it wouldn’t mean anything, because people don’t know her work.
Ultimately it should be a conversation between the director and [the actor playing] Jackie and Elfriede’s writing.
AC: I think that’s a great way of putting it—that it should be a dialogue. I think that maybe allows the audience to let go a little bit of that sense that this is an important writer who has won an important prize and that they should take her very seriously. By presenting it as a conversation, a flexible interaction, it allows people to see that there’s room for them to grapple with and interpret the work as well—it’s not a fixed thing that can only be understood in one way.
ALEXIS CLEMENTS is a playwright and journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently a Fellow at the Cultural Strategies Initiative. Her creative work has been produced and published in both the US and the UK. She is the co-editor of the two-volume anthology of performance texts by women titled, Out of Time & Place, which includes her performance piece, Conversation. Her articles, essays, and interviews have appeared in publications such as Bitch Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Nature, and Aesthetica. She regularly writes about art and performance for both Hyperallergic and The L Magazine. www.alexisclements.com
WP Interviews Anne Bogart about her approach to Virginia Woolf’s one and only play, FRESHWATER.
Virginia Woolf described the first staging of Freshwater at a friend’s studio as an “unbuttoned laughing evening”. Has this influenced your direction of the play?
Oh yes! The question that is always of utmost significance to me is “what were the conditions of the original production and what kind of energy was released at that moment?” The fact that Woolf wrote the play for her family and friends is key.
What are the main challenges of bringing this work to a traditional theatre stage when the play was originally written for a more intimate setting amongst friends – as part of the Bloomsbury parties of the 1920’s?
How can we channel the humor, intelligence, talent and giddiness of the original Bloomsbury group? How can we mine their extraordinary sensibilities and celebrate them in a way that means something to a 2009 audience? The characters in Freshwater – Julia Cameron, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Ellen Terry and the others – had tremendous significance for the Bloomsbury folk. How do we match their fascination for these characters within the context of our own post-postmodern age?
The main characters in the play are based on real people, some very famous. Has this had an effect on your direction of the play?
Yes. The characters in the play were the direct predecessors of the Bloomsbury group for whom the play was performed. They represented the generation that Woolf and her colleagues were rebelling against. The fact that Virginia Woolf cast specific members of her family as specific characters in the play is also of great interest. The combination of irreverence and awe for these characters is something I want to emulate.
What do you consider as the main challenges of directing a comedy?
A comedy must be taken very seriously, much as a tragedy must be approached with great lightness and humor.
What do you consider the main benefits of working with Women’s Project?
The mission of the Women’s Project is inspiring. I’m also a huge fan of Julie Crosby and am so interested in her plans for the future.
WP’s Interview with Playwright Liz Duffy Adams
Freedom is a constant theme in Or,- sexual, spiritual and artistic. Do you feel all three are linked and is it possible to have one without the other two?
And don’t forget political freedom. I think they’re all linked, yes. Where there’s political oppression all other freedoms suffer, and in those wonderful periods and places that cycle through human history, where the power is less abusive, and people can make free choices in whom to love, what to believe, and what art to make—those are utopian moments, however inevitably flawed, and that’s what Or, celebrates.
Or, plays off the echoes between the 1660’s and 1960’s – two periods in history which allowed for enormous freedom after much repression. Do you think our society allows people such freedom?
I think we’re relatively lucky in our current society here. Taking even a casual glance around the world and through human history it’s easy to see how lucky we are, but still, it’s a lot less free for some people than others. I hope we’re heading toward a time of even greater freedom, for many more people. (Of course, even the word “freedom” is subject to interpretation; ensuring all citizens freedom from want and freedom from fear is a part of any civilized society, and we’re not there yet.)
A sense of hope, the promise of change and the need for acceptance seem interlaced throughout Or,. The advent of the Obama Administration has fostered similar feelings in the US. Did this moment in our history inspire the creative process in anyway?
Yes. I wrote Or, before President Obama was elected (during the primaries, actually). But I think I wrote it out of the same hopeful longing that millions were feeling, that helped elect him; hope does echo at this moment in history. I was tired of writing out of the anger, outrage and grief that the last few years brought us. I was dreaming of a new era: rational, enlightened, expansive. I was thinking about the cyclical nature of history, and wondering if the wheel was going to turn again.
Aphra Behn is a fascinating historical figure – how did she influence the writing of Or,?
Or, was inspired by a 10-minute play I wrote when I was in the WP Playwrights Lab (run at the time by Lisa McNulty) in 2001. The theme of that year’s short play festival was money; I had just read an Aphra Behn biography and she was always short of money, sometimes desperate.
It’s called Aphra Does Antwerp, now published and licensed by Playscripts, Inc. It’s set just before the events of Or, when Aphra was stuck in Antwerp on a spying mission that was going badly.
It’s different in tone, form, and style from Or,–it’s completely in rhyming couplets, for one thing–but the idea of writing a full-length about Aphra stuck with me for years. I did research and reading off and on over the years, then wrote the first (and close to the final) draft very quickly in 2 weeks during a New Dramatists Playtime workshop. It had another New Dramatists reading and workshop, then a mini-workshop last spring with New Georges.
The character of Aphra Behn is a smart sexy woman who charts her own destiny regardless of the limitations of her gender. She is the sort of gal who would fit in beautifully at WP! As a working playwright, how important do you feel Women’s Project (WP) is in American Theater?
I think WP serves a great and important need in the American Theater. There’s been a lot of debate lately about the fact that far fewer plays by women playwrights (and directed or designed by women) get produced. The fact that this hasn’t changed since the time of WP’s founding 32 years ago is just bizarre, I have to say, and it makes WP’s mission more critical than ever. It looks like it could be another generation before we achieve parity, and in the meanwhile WP helps redress the imbalance, encourage some discouraged playwrights, and rescue some plays that I for one want to see.
They say most people will have at least three careers in one lifetime – have you always been a playwright?
No, I started out as an actor, or really first as an experimental theater artist, both writing and performing. Later I studied classical acting, Shakespearean as well as Restoration, and played in some little off-off Broadway classical productions, which turned out to be good training for writing, especially in verse! And I was a copywriter for a while, then Editor for two years of the now defunct Stage & Screen Book Club (nee Fireside Theater). I’ve also had a long career in scrambling for a living, starting when I was 17; I’ve had by rough count some 28 kinds of jobs, some more respectable than others. Also pretty good training for a writer. (See photo of the playwright at left–as Elmire in Moliere’s Tartuffe).
On a personal note, would you like to share with WP’s audience a favorite pastime?
Fantasizing about real estate. I think I became a true New Yorker when I stopped daydreaming about love and began dreaming about square footage and terraces.
WP’s Interview with Ellen Lauren about ROOM
Ellen Lauren talks about Virginia Woolf and the creation of ROOM.
When did you first develop an interest in Virginia Woolf and her work?
My first encounter with Virginia Woolf, when I was a young girl in the 7th grade, was less then friendly. I lacked the patience, understanding, maturity, and/or sensitivity to allow her particular alchemy of feeling and words to work upon me. It was through Anne [Bogart] coming to me with the proposition of making Room – almost a year and a half before actually going into rehearsal – that I set about seriously diving into her writing. I was completely overwhelmed as I recall, staring at a stack of books almost waist high. What I did have, however, was the good sense to pick up her published diaries and letters to begin. I found in them such warmth, such dishy hilarious stories and descriptions, heartbreaking passages of courage as she articulated fighting bouts of pain and illness. There was nothing off putting, but rather a voice and mind more expansive, more modern, kind, and open and funny than I anything I hope to find in this life. A life line in some sense.
“It is so difficult to describe any human being.” This idea is repeated throughout ROOM and seems to inform the composition of the play, as you are not describing the character of Virginia Woolf, but rather distilling her process in a way. Is that an accurate assessment?
Yes. And despite her singular voice, her unique intelligence, what we are trying to capture, as she did, are the places that we all share as human beings. That the container of the body and “what one says and does” is in and of itself not the definition of who we each are. It is as if we are watching, as Anne says to me often, a wild mad scientist in the lab mixing and stirring chemicals together in a way that never had been done, in order to capture the universal, the quixotic, what it means to be human from the inside of us all. It is the artistic process, a mind in the act of creation, coupled with that rare sensation of deep reading. We are trying to capture in theatrical form, what it feels like to read, to follow someone else’s mind with one’s own. There are always other channels being played while we read, critical ones, practical ones. Deep reading is a revelation of self to oneself. I hope there are moments, flashes of that for the audience. It’s really about us being together in the room sharing that equally.
Woolf speaking to a room of women about the necessity of writing, reading and being in the world is a political act. Does “performing Woolf” feel like a political act?
Yes. One could say that about making, attending theater nowadays couldn’t one. It’s so hard as a cultural endeavor. But still, I have such hope being a part of it. It’s not so much a feminist statement to me, but a humanist point of view. That she was a woman with one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century is critical, of course. Such energy! Such heroism! But it’s this – she wrote, and I can say at the end of an hour, that “there MUST be freedom, there MUST be peace.” After all the journeys we go through together, the audience and I, at the end I can simply stand there alone and say this out loud. It is such a privilege. We’ve all earned it together by that point. The words are packed with their full meaning, their full weight. To believe in this, to encourage it, she was in the front line fighting for these things.
How did you find the physicality of the role?
Anne and I studied photographs and made a vocabulary of about 26 different physical structures from them. They formed a sort of alphabet. Then we learned the text, did deep study of the text, to speak it perfectly (I still haven’t achieved this…) to understand its loop de loops. Then we aimed our alphabet at the text intuitively, instinctually. The structures began to make a grammar. We also jettisoned more than half, more than two thirds of the specific structures, finding poetry in the minimalism. A strict adherence to recycling a limited language began to give the physical score a resonance and richer meaning.
The action of the play often seems to be the action of a mind unfolding (and a rather phenomenal mind at that). In developing the play, did that action inform your approach in any way?
I can hardly keep up with it, I can’t keep up with it, it gives me such joy, such agony to try. There is not a moment that this balance and contradiction isn’t being played out in me during the performance of this.
Does performing ROOM at a theater dedicated to women artists have a particular resonance for you or inform the work in any new way?
Well, we made the piece years ago and so I have performed it in many different spaces. What is important is that it has particular resonance for members of the audience. Perhaps it will enhance their experience, and that is what is most important. But I don’t look at it or perform it, honestly, through that lens.
I was thinking to myself the other night sitting in the audience at Women’s Project, that it is ironic that this space, in such need of care and funding and repair, is the space that is afforded for ‘women’s projects’. I thought it is the very thing Ms. Woolf was referring to in the opening section of A Room of One’s Own, when she describes the rich lunch and plush soft chairs at the men’s college, and in contrast the thin gravy soup and scraping hard backed chairs at Fernham. But of course that is just the physical environment. But theaters are empathic, they reflect the thinking inside them. The history of theater is the history of the relationship to the body and the performing space. Theaters are a reflection of thought in the three-dimensional.
Now I’m thinking how, if you came to see the SITI offices, you would think we were very careless, very chaotic. And that’s not the case. We’re very invested in being articulate and questioning. So I guess our space doesn’t show our thinking very well either.
WP’s Interview with Anne Bogart about ROOM
Anne Bogart talks about Virginia Woolf and the creation of ROOM.
How important is Virginia Woolf and her work to you as an artist?
Virginia Woolf is one of the key influences upon my own development as an artist and a person in the world. Her writing introduced me to the power of words to lift the experience of living into dimensions that I had never known before. She created different ways of perceiving time and space that I could enter while reading her books. With her guidance I was able to experience layers of perception hitherto hidden to me.
When did you first develop an interest in Virginia Woolf and her work?
To the Lighthouse was the first book of Woolf’s that I read. I was probably fifteen years old. She took me firmly by the collar and dragged me into new territory. I was permanently altered by these experiences.
What were the main challenges of bringing an adaption of the writings of
Virginia Woolf to life on the stage?
The text we chose for Room does not tell a traditional story. And yet the
journey for the audience must be a compelling and gripping one. It is
Ellen Lauren’s brilliant sense of storytelling makes this possible.
You once remarked Ellen Lauren was the only actor who could pull off the
role in Room. What is it about Ellen as an artist that makes this so?
As an actress Ellen is fierce and courageous and yet she also has the
ability to bring an intense lightness of being into the roles she inhabits. I have never experienced any actor who could differentiate one moment from the next with such acuity, intelligence and passion as she. The role in Room demands delicacy and stringency as well as clarity and a rapport with the audience. Ellen can do all of the above.
This is the second collaboration between Women’s Project and SITI
Company. What do you enjoy about working with team WP?
Julie Crosby is full of a contagious enthusiasm for theater, she has a
wicked sense of humor and the courage to walk bravely into any room and
stand up for what is right. She has gathered a formidable team around her
who shares her appetites and makes working at the Women’s Project a
WP Interviews Playwright Lynn Rosen
Playwright Lynn Rosen shares her thoughts about APPLE COVE.
Apple Cove is set in a gated community. Why do you think gated communities have become so popular in the U.S.?
If you had asked me this pre-9/11, I would have said it had to do with the American dream of upward mobility and perhaps elitism. As we know the winner vs. loser mentality has a firm hold here. So this idea of a community where only the lucky few can get in and the rest of us schlubs are left to wonder what luscious riches we’re missing out on, goes hand in hand with that.
But today I totally understand why someone would want to live in a gated community. Post-9-11, we’ve become more afraid of cultures that are “different.” And as the world grows smaller via technology, we are that much closer to people and ideas that are alien, and therefore scary to us. Living in a place where the houses are the same color, the grass the same height, gives order to a chaotic world.
But of course this kind of controlled environment never truly keeps out the danger of the world or, more interesting to me, the danger that may lurk within the inhabitants themselves. (See the recent murders in Celebration, Florida, a planned community originally conceived by Disney.) When my dad owned a pizza restaurant, we’d get delivery orders from the freshly-built gated communities and we’d all say, “Oooh! Fancy!” But often, instead of returning with grand tales of “the other half,” the delivery guys would regale us with stories about the guy who answered the door half-naked with a gun in his hand, or of the filth on the floors. Sometimes these privileged people would refuse to pay. (The old, “I found a rock in my pizza” trick never works, folks.)
Along those lines, though it first appears the characters in Apple Cove move into a gated community to flee nature and terrorism, ultimately, it is heartache, powerlessness, and their baser instincts that they are trying, with little success, to escape from.
What do you feel it does to the psyche to isolate oneself in this way; to live and socialize on an estate with only neighbors?
In my humble opinion, limiting the scale and scope of one’s world only limits the depth and breadth of one’s thinking, which leads to fear and fear-mongering. (See Tea Party.) Again, I do understand the impetus behind wanting to protect oneself from anything alien. I have two young kids and I’m always grappling with the fact that I’m raising them in a city where we wear a target on our backs. But we also live in a city with cultural opportunities around every corner, beautiful parks, and an amazingly diverse population, all of which expands the way my kids and I think about the world and our place in it. The questions: What kind of world do we want for ourselves and our children? Is it best to live within the security and comfort of the planned community? Or should we opt for the wonder, possibility, and also danger that comes with living in the “wild” world? Where will we thrive? These are the questions I think we all, like Edie in Apple Cove, struggle with.
The more the characters in Apple Cove try and assert control over their lives and each other, the more they seem to lose control. Do you find that type of rigid control unravels in real life also?
I know with my kids that the more I order them to do something, the worse the result. I mean, I won’t let my son eat candy for breakfast or shoot his sister in the eye just because he really, really wants to. But I’ve noticed that if I say, “Brush your teeth,” he’ll roll his eyes at me. (Isn’t eye-rolling supposed to come when they’re teenagers? He’s seven!) However, if I say, “Brush your teeth whenever you’re ready,” he’s more likely to brush his teeth. And telling him his teeth will fall out is not a good idea. Fear is never a good motivator. I think it’s our nature to seek independence from authority and to revolt against too much rigidity.
Apple Cove is a comedy. Is it easier to tackle issues by making people laugh?
I always utilize humor—whether in plays or in life—to deal with whatever situation is at hand. It’s the way I communicate and get through the day. I think humor is a powerful and subversive way to tell a story and perhaps reflect a point of view. I’m not a fan of hitting someone over the head to make a statement. I’d prefer the audience laugh their way into the world I’m creating. I’d rather everything sneak up on them. Darker truths secreted in the characters of Apple Cove drive the humor of the play; eventually those truths can’t help but erupt through a glossy veneer of happiness.
How did the experience of being part of WP’s Playwright’s Lab, 2008-2010, help you develop as a playwright?
I met some amazing writers in that Lab! Each artist’s work was singular and compelling in its own way. I learned so much from being exposed to the different voices in the group. Just like barricading yourself within a gated community limits one’s understanding of the world, doing the artistic equivalent limits the scope of one’s writing. Being exposed to different methods of playwrighting and play-development in the WP Lab helped expand my thinking about my own work. Also, they were just cool ladies, you know? Being a part of a community always feels good. (Unless that community is Apple Cove. Or a prison.)
How important do you think Women’s Project is for women theater artists?
Considering that only about 20 percent of plays professionally produced in America each year are by women, Women’s Project is, simply put, necessary. It’s necessary that female artists know there is a place that is not only aware of the parity problem, but is also addressing it, both through productions and via the Lab. It’s necessary that there be a place like WP where the work of female playwrights will be judged on its artistic merits alone. But it’s not only the WP mission that’s so commendable—it’s how they carry out this mission. WP knows what’s relevant and exciting in theatre, and their seasons reflect this. Likewise, the artists they choose for their Lab—producers, playwrights, and directors—all have fascinating and diverse voices and perspectives. Beware! The forces behind WP are creating a battalion of brave new theatre artists in that back room of theirs!
In the spirit of Apple Cove, what’s your favorite flower? And do you enjoy spending time in the garden?
I grew up in Gary, Indiana, and while Gary has a lot going for it, let’s face it, Gary is kind of a depressed place. But growing up I was always entranced by the wild lilacs that grew in our yard and around town. To find unexpected beauty amidst a town in decline was powerful and oddly inspiring.
And no, sadly, I don’t garden. I live in New York City in an apartment the size of a shoebox. A shoebox for a pair of baby shoes. Regardless, I wouldn’t be much of a gardener even if I had a garden. Bugs kind of freak me out. (Sorry, bugs! I know you’re necessary.) Nonetheless, the journey Edie embarks on after discovering an exotic, wild rose in her garden might make anyone want to buy some clogs and start digging in a patch of dirt.
WP Interviews Sheila Callaghan about LASCIVIOUS SOMETHING.
Playwright Sheila Callaghan shares her thoughts about LASCIVIOUS SOMETHING.
The characters of August and Daphne, and to a lesser extent Liza, appear to suppress passionate emotion and make decisions based on what they can live with as opposed to what may make them truly happy. Is it fear of hurt or vulnerability that drives such decisions? Do you think most
people live this way? If so, why?
I am not sure most people live this way, but I do know a good number of people who keep themselves emotionally quarantined to protect themselves. Many of them have been deeply wounded in the past so it’s an understandable behavior. It’s true that humans are amazing adapters, and while I think we can’t change who we are at our core, we can certainly manipulate our reactions to various stimuli in ways that provide the least personal damage. And anyone who has been psychologically marred is no hurry to repeat that kind of ruin. I think every character in this play wears that mark to some degree.
The character of August has cloistered himself in Greece rather than
continue to fight for the ideals he once followed in America. Do you feel people often detach when they feel powerless to make an impact for the better?
Sure, and some people fight harder. I think the ones that don’t stick it out are the ones who are unable to divorce their emotions from their goals. Everyone wants to do good in the world in some way, but it stands that the larger the good, the greater the personal sacrifice. The person who decides it’s worth that cost is bound to have an elevated opinion of him/herself, and a belief that the inevitable pain is worth the ultimate result. This is why politicians and activists are quite often unrelenting narcissists. They have egos that can withstand massive blows, and they can rise above emotion because they see themselves in possession of an almost superhuman gift. I don’t think August sees himself this way. Although he did once. He wavered.
Lascivious Something takes place in 1980 – at the advent of the Reagan
years. What was the thought process behind this decision?
I feel like it’s a time when our country took a hard shift to the right, one that still has us skidding on gravel in the shoulder.
What is the significance of setting Lascivious Something in a vineyard?
I was trying to evoke an epic Greek-tragedy kind of tone, and I wanted the environment of the play to feel lush, decadent, drunken, sensual, Dionysian. A vineyard encompasses all that. Exploding fruit, moist earth, impossible scenery, back-breaking toil and heartbreaking harvests… and of course, wine wine wine.
You have been called a playwright of “risky and visionary scripts” that are “funny”, “sad”, “scary” and “insightful”. Do you view your writing as a means to provoke thought and discussion on social structures in our society?
Absolutely not!! My first goal is always to entertain people, to tell a story in a way that won’t leave them bored to tears. I can’t always accomplish this– it’s an impossible task. Which is why I keep writing. I want to make you feel like you’ve just seen something old and new at the same time– an ancient tale strutting around in a snazzy new blazer. But only half of you will. Sometimes none of you. This drives me crazy. That’s where the “risky” part comes in, I guess. It’s an impossible task, so I have nothing to lose! The “provoke thought” part… if that happens I’m happy, but it’s incidental.
You are also a creative writing teacher – do you feel all writers should take classes to hone their craft?
If that’s what a particular writer needs… classes force folks to work, and some folks need to be forced. Building a habit of writing is a way to hone one’s craft, along with reading and seeing absolutely everything, and finding a community. Classes help to do this, but they’re certainly not the only way.
A curly question – would you like to share with WP’s audience the most liberating thing you have ever done?
Wow. Well it’s all about context, isn’t it? What’s liberating to me now would mean nothing to my 19 year old self… but if we’re talking recently? Buying my MacBook Air. It’s so light!!! I can take it anywhere! I mean it’s not a great machine or anything but HOLY CRAP IS IT LIGHT!!! A close second would be anything involving public nudity and/or the birth of my son.
WP’s Interview with Playwright Rachel Axler
Playwright Rachel Axler shares her thoughts about SMUDGE.
You have mentioned that although Smudge is funny, it is not a comedy. Would you mind expanding on this thought for WP’s audience?
Well, it contains jokes. The dialogue is often funny. If the audience isn’t freed up to laugh, I don’t think the play hits quite as hard — but the topic isn’t comedic, and both structurally and thematically, the intention wasn’t to write a comedy. I think most of my plays are hybrids, with comic dialogue and darker, or more serious, themes.
What sparked the idea for Smudge?
There was this article in The New York Times Magazine many years back. It was about a woman who was severely physically, but not mentally, disabled, who had become an academic, and who was forced to speak on a panel with Peter Singer, a controversial philosopher whose utilitarian theories about “personhood,” if applied to this woman at birth, might have assessed her condition as, basically, not worth living. I read this, was briefly fascinated and appalled, and then it vanished to the recesses of my brain.
A few years later, during my last year of grad school, walking to the campus shuttle, I passed a person who brought the article back to mind. The shuttle stop was right next to the ambulatory area for patients at the UCSD Medical Center. As I approached the bus, a tiny child in an electric wheelchair came toward me. As she came closer, I realized that she wasn’t a child at all, but a grown woman — missing, it seemed, most of her body — the rest, severely deformed. Her face was expressionless, but she looked at me as she passed me, and my first thought was: nobody will ever love her. My immediate second thought was: actually, she probably has a family, friends, maybe a significant other…and that my first thought was the most horrible and unjust snap judgment I’d ever made.
And then I figured — if this was something that inspired the most horrible thought I’d ever had? Probably a good topic for a play.
The husband and wife characters seem to grapple with how to love their child. If this child is indeed worthy of love. Do you feel we are socially conditioned to love someone only if they are perfect?
Wow, no. If that were the case, nobody would ever love anybody. I think it’s more that it’s difficult to understand something that’s completely outside our realm of experience, and difficult to love something that we don’t understand.
That said: luckily, most humans have a capacity to learn.
Fear and a lack of control seem to propel the parents interactions with each other and the baby. How important were both emotions in the creative development of each character and the play?
When I was finishing a draft of the play, the fear of deadlines helped a ton.
Otherwise, creating the characters of Colby & Nick, the parents, was mostly about trying not to censor human responses. Particularly with Colby. Some mothers don’t feel an instant connection to their children — I’ve talked with friends and mothers about this, and they’ve backed me up. And they know they’re supposed to. So looking into a tiny face that you know you’re supposed to adore, and not immediately feeling something that books and movies and wives’ tales tell you you should be feeling — that can be terrifying.
And about lack of control: you always hope that your child will have an even better life than yours. The problem lies, I guess, in trying to define “better.”
Did you always want to be a playwright or did this desire develop while you were working as a TV comedy writer?
Oh, no no no. I finished grad school at UCSD in 2004 — I already had an MFA in playwriting when I got my first job writing for television.
My background is in theatre. But ever since I realized I wanted to be a writer, I’ve known that I want to be a comedy writer, across medium. That desire has never really narrowed. I want to write joke books, too.
…Seriously, I do.
You were the first female staff writer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – why do you think women are in a minority position as writers on TV and in the theater?
Actually, I wasn’t the first female staff writer for the show — it was created by two women, one of whom, Lizz Winstead, was the head writer in the show’s Craig Kilborne days. With Jon Stewart as host, there was one female writer on staff, Allison Silverman, who was there a few years before me. (She then moved to Conan, then to The Colbert Report, where she still works.) I was the only female writer on staff for the 3-plus years that I was there, but not the first.
But to get to the meat of the question, which is still true (women absolutely are in a minority as writers, and particularly notably in comedy) — I have no idea. Hormones?
No, it probably has something to do with history and societal conditioning on the parts of both men and women. There was just a huge scientific research paper published on this, which I’ve read about, and which I probably should read, because it’s fun to read huge scientific research papers. But until I do, I’ll just say this: If we can even out the male/female staff ratio, writers’ rooms will smell a lot nicer.
As a New Yorker, what do you consider to be the must-do NYC experience?
Oh, there are so many choices…. It’s insanely hard to pick just one thing that would exemplify New York City. But I guess if I had to, and since you asked, I’d say going to see a performance of Smudge at Women’s Project, between January 3rd and February 7th, 2010.
Artist Vignettes with COLLAPSE actor Nadia Bowers
We sat down with actor, Nadia Bowers, and asked her to share a few of her favorite things with you…
Favorite NYC pastime:
By myself: trolling my favorite thrift stores for good finds, then eating at Veselka. Not alone: bike rides all around and over bridges with my boyfriend.
Best neighborhood restaurant:
Scalino on 7th Ave. in Park Slope. Great relaxed vibe, terrific food. A standby.
My stoop in Brooklyn.
Theater that’s inspired you lately:
I really loved “Belleville” by Amy Herzog at NYTW. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time which I find rare. They all did such a wonderful job conveying this bubbling dread under the characters’ efforts toward normalcy. And “The Flick” by Annie Baker. She has so much love and respect for her characters no matter how flawed. Her plays are a beautiful, human event.
Artist Vignettes with JACKIE Wig & Wardrobe Supervisor Genavieve White
We caught up with Jackie wig & wardrobe supervisor, Genavieve White, and asked her to share a few of her favorite things with you…
Favorite NYC pastime:
When the weather’s not having a fit, I love biking around the city. It’s cheap, scenic and no sudden service changes.
Best neighborhood restaurant:
Jimmy’s Diner in Williamsburg is a great little hole in the wall that’s staying strong while condos sprout up around it. The wait staff are rad, and with a dish called ‘the hangover helper’ you can’t really go wrong.
I’m a dive bar girl myself, but I really like the Japanese ‘speakeasy’ Angel’s Share on 9th and 3rd. It’s tiny and can be packed, but if you can get a spot at the bar and watch the bartenders do their stuff it’s totally worth it.
Theater that’s inspired you lately:
I don’t know about recently, but I grew up in Atlanta, and the Fox theater was a huge inspiration for me getting into theater. The building itself was just as much a draw as whatever was playing.
Artist Vignettes with BETHANY director Gaye Taylor Upchurch
We sat down with director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch, and asked her to share a few of her favorite things with you…
Favorite NYC pastime:
Walking/biking along the Hudson at Riverside Park, searching for the best burger, reading at my coffee shop/office, a bloody mary brunch with friends.
Best neighborhood restaurant:
Toss up between Fred’s and Good Enough to Eat (Upper West Side)
Theater that’s inspired you lately:
Ann Hamilton at the Armory: the event of a thread; Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes with America (directed by Daniel Aukin); Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (directed by Rachel Chavkin)