Category Archives: Celebrity Interviews
I had seen Romy Nordlinger in her solo show PLACES! at 59E59th’s East of Edinburgh Festival and thought she was marvelous. Evolving her presentation before and after the pandemic, once again she is stepping out to bring to life the amazing Nazimova who lived and made her mark during the early twentieth century. With additional performances under the direction of Lorca Peress, Romy’s achieved new heights exploring the maverick woman who was a force in her time. Ahead of her 7:30 pm show on Thursday, October 21st at The Cutting Room on 44 E 32nd St. (arrive at 6:00 pm for the live jazz cocktail hour) I had the opportunity to interview Romy about this production which she has also written.
Who is Alla Nazimova, the person you are bringing to life in your show?
Perhaps the greatest star you’ve never heard of, one of the brightest lights on America’s stage and cinema screen was actor, director, writer and producer Alla Nazimova. Few women, or men, rose to such great heights – but now she languishes largely forgotten. A student of Stanislavski, she fled from Tsarist Russia and an abusive father, to the Lower East Side, where she founded a Yiddish theatre – her play The Chosen People put her on the map.
From humble beginnings to a meteoric rise to stardom, she became Broadway’s biggest star, and in 1910-1911 made the Shuberts $4 million dollars in sold out runs (that’s 400 million dollars today). Described by Dorothy Parker as “the greatest Hedda Gabler” she helped to bring acclaim to playwrights such as Eugene O’ Neill, Chekhov, Ibsen, and Strindberg. She even inspired Tennessee Williams to become a playwright. The Shuberts then named the Broadway theatre after her, The Nazimova Theatre on 119 W. 39th St. Growing weary of the increasing pressure to perform in second rate commercial plays, she left the Shuberts and The Nazimova Theatre was renamed the 39th Street Theatre. It was finally torn down in 1926.
Nazimova went on to become the highest paid silent movie star in Tinseltown commanding a five year $13,000 a week salary in 1916. The first female director and producer in Hollywood and pioneer of the first art film, her stunningly avant-garde Salome was too “Wilde” for 1926. Unapologetic about her bisexual decadence, she defied the moral and artistic codes of her time that eventually forced her into obscurity.
Her legendary Garden of Allah mansion in Hollywood was a haven of intellectual and sexual freedom with regulars such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Garbo, Dietrich, Valentino, Chaplin, Rachmaninov – basically anybody who was anybody. There, she declared her all women’s “sewing circle” in open defiance, proclaiming her strength when women were relegated to silence. In financial and critical ruin after Salome, the press and the studios destroyed her. Finally, she rented a small bungalow in the grounds of the mansion she had built on Sunset Boulevard.
Her bold, trailblazing artistic legacy is unprecedented, unrepeated and under the radar. Her iconoclastic story of freedom and nonconformity was silenced under the smoldering rubble of forgotten history.
How did you “hear” about Nazimova?
The brilliant theatre historian, author and founder of The Society for The Preservation of Theatrical History, Mari Lyn Henry was putting on a production of ‘Stage Struck’ about famous actresses from history. She asked me to pick an actress to research and write about and she suggested some wonderful actresses, but none really struck my fancy. They all were very blonde and talented, but I felt no relation to them – and then Mari Lyn said, “I’ve got it! Alla Nazimova!” I thought, “Who in the heck is that?”
I started reading about Nazimova. She is also Jewish and Belarusian as I am, and I felt an immediate kinship. I read her biography by Gavin Lambert which quotes from writings from her own journals. I was mesmerized by her humor, her story, and most of all, her zest for life! She was a survivor. This was a woman who lost everything, overcame the most horrible circumstances, became a star more meteoric than even Madonna and ended up a guest inside the mansion she used to own. She was a maverick ahead of her time, investing her money for the love of art/film and experimenting with new forms. Despite her losses, she kept her joie de vivre, having no regrets or bitterness. She remained full of wonder with the beauty of life.
THIS, I thought, THIS is a person who inspires me to risk, to dare to dream out loud and bring to life my dream. Most importantly, she inspired me to be myself in a material culture that is constantly trying to commoditize and sell, a society that values only your worth in money. This was a woman who valued herself and loved life to the fullest.
Tell us about previous performances of the show.
I have performed the show in another incarnation under the title PLACES! at Edinburgh Fringe, HERE Theater, Dixon Place, The Players Club and the studio center at The Kennedy Center. This is the production where, although we’ve always been received very well, we really tell her story to the best of all we have. It’s a multimedia show that is like a live silent movie with absolutely beautiful and evocative video design by Adam Burns, a brilliant musical score by Nick T. Moore and directed by the very talented Lorca Peress.
How has your performance and understanding of Nazimova evolved?
As life is wont to do, the more you experience the joys, the sorrows, all life’s disparities, the more you “understand” the heights and depths of the characters you play. After undergoing many upheavals in my own life, ups and downs in careers, triumphs and flops, deaths and loss, and then of course the pandemic, I feel an even stronger kinship to Nazimova’s survival instinct. I understand and am inspired by her amazing capacity for feeling – pain, joy, love, anything and everything but boredom. I channel her and she makes me feel able to cope. She helps make me a better person. This production is a great labor of love and a lot of work. It takes everything I have to get up on stage and perform a solo show – and to “bring” Nazimova there. It’s all worth it, every moment, for both the audience, and myself. It is a cathartic experience, and now more than ever, it’s a valentine to theatre.
What would you like the audience to understand about Nazimova that your performance enhances?
I’d like the audience to realize that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. That the LGBTQ movement started long ago with brave people like Nazimova who stood up and demanded she be herself, but alone and without a Twitter account, and that we can all dare to dream – and fail – and rise again – and fail again. It’s all the same. It’s the journey that’s important. To anyone whose felt like the underdog, I want them to feel less alone, and to feel that they, too, can use their voice (whether out loud or in writing or however they express themselves) to be an instrument, an extension of themselves. Their life matters. Their differences are beautiful.
Romy Nordlinger will be channeling Alla Nazimova in her exceptional show at The Cutting Room 7:30 pm, Thursday, Oct 21. Arrive at 6:00 pm for the live jazz cocktail hour. The Cutting Room address is 44 E 32nd St., NY, NY.
The interview has been gently edited.
This is a continuation of the conversation that took place at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center as presented in collaboration by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the League of Professional Theatre Women. The event was produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser and Sophia Romma. For Part I Click this LINK.
Elisabeth Vincentelli: Could you talk about Mlima’s Tale. It was another different approach you took.
Lynn Nottage: It was commissioned by film director Katherine Bigelow (award winning director of Hurt Locker). And we were developing it together. She has incredible passion about elephants. Mlima’s Tale is told from the point of view of an elephant that’s been poached. And the play tracks the elephant’s tusks from the hands of the people who poach him to the hands of the people in China who buy his tusks. It’s a very stylized piece. Jo Bonny came in. And we decided that we wanted to make the piece very differently. It was based on my working with designers that was very collaborative. We decided that we wanted to work with designers from beginning to end which almost never happens. Usually what happens is that designers speak to the director during the first draft of the script and then they come back into the process during tech week. We thought we don’t want to make it that way. We want designers to be there very single day which is why I think the piece is more holistic and integrated on all levels. We were talking to each other and making creative decisions in the moment which was very exciting.
It was very imaginative with the lighting, music and movement.
We worked with a composer who had never done theater before. The equipment was all set up. During the first preview, a musician felt very deeply and he didn’t know he couldn’t just spontaneously sing. We had to say “Wait, you can’t do that.” (laughter)
What are the new musicals you are working on?
The first one is The Secret Life of Bees which is an adaptation of the book by Sue Monk with composer Duncan Sheik who did the music for Spring Awakening and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead who did Jelly’s Last Jam. Sam Gold is directing it and it will be at the Atlantic Theater Company in the Spring. And we’ve been working on it for a couple of years and it’s very beautiful.
Then you’re working on another musical of Intimate Apparel.
Well, it’s not exactly a musical. It’s an opera which is a co-commission between the Met Opera and Lincoln Center Theatre. It’s been interesting developing something which is kind of a hybrid and having Peter Gelb from the Met giving notes and Andre Bishop from the theater. Both of them have very different needs. (laughter) And Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer, is doing a brilliant job.
The third one which has been announced is?
The Michael Jackson musical. I’m writing the book on the Michael Jackson Musical. Michael Jackson’s written the music. (laughter)
What are the challenges for working on the book of a musical or opera,
The opera which is an adaptation of working on my own play Intimate Apparel? The challenge was in figuring out how to write a libretto from material I was so attached to. I didn’t want to let go of anything. And working with Ricky, the first time I handed him my libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play.’ The second time I handed him the libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play, again.’ And I asked, ‘How do I do this?’ He said, ‘You’re not trusting your collaborator. You have to understand in musical theater and opera, the music does 50% of the work. It is what makes it expansive. Trust that I’m going to allow people to feel and teach people to feel through my music.’ And once I trusted him, I was able to make some of those cuts and get rid of the exposition. I had to let him be the collaborator that he is, and allow him to do some of the heavy lifting. I had to let him do the story telling. He does beautiful story telling which allowed me to step away.
What about with Sue Monk’s Secret Life of Bees? How was it writing book for a work that was not yours?
Well Sue Monk gave us the license to do whatever we wanted. She was like ‘I’ve written the book.’ We made it clear that we made some massive changes and that we were not doing a strict adaptation of the book. We told her that we’re creating a piece that is inspired by the book that honors all her characters without making replicas of those characters.
How do you approach the writing of the book?
From my position of writing the book? I’m the architect of the narrative. It is my job to make sure that all the pieces come together. So I’m kind of like the contractor. I am there to make sure that everything is exactly as we want it.
How did you feel writing book for that musical?
It’s incredible and liberating as a book writer. So if get to a difficult point, I can turn to Susan (lyricist) and say, “You got this right?” (laughter) It’s the lyricist that’s doing a lot of the important story telling. I throw her the ball and she does the “slam dunk.”
You said you learned at Yale what “to do as a playwright and what not to do.” Could you elaborate on that?
Sure. When I arrived at Yale I had just gone from college to graduate school. So my assumptions when I was there was that they had a blueprint about how to be a good playwright. I learned a lot about structure, but I also think I also became imprisoned by a lot of what I learned because I didn’t realize I had the freedom to make my own decisions. I think that is what I meant.
Writing the play into a libretto are you turning it into prose or are you turning it into poetry?
I think it’s both. Some of it is definitely prose and some of it is definitely poetry. It’s a combination.
From the perspective of film how does that approach differ? What is the difference between a word and an image and what is special about each one?
The way in which film and theater function differently is clear. In theater we do a lot of problem solving through language. In film a lot of the problem solving is done through images. I think particularly in film there is the short cut you can take that you don’t have the luxury of doing onstage in the theater. You can quickly convey something by taking a character somewhere else in film, but because of the limitations of the stage, we have to use language sometimes to describe the visuals.
You were raised to appreciate the arts. What are you doing to advocate for young people in the arts?
I’ve been a professor for 17 years. I’m a teacher. And I think that’s the primary way to nurture young artists, because when I was young artist I didn’t feel that there were a lot of people to nurture young African American artists. I feel it’s essential to nurture the next generation and I’ve put in a lot of time and effort into helping directors and playwrights who are up and coming and emerging.
Which characters do you use to get their stories told?
I use the characters that assert themselves. The characters that come back and demand to be represented on the stage are ultimately the ones who win out.
Do you have a specific audience in mind that you are writing for?
I like to think that I’m writing for an audience who are friends. My friends are a very diverse group of people. So those are the friends I write for. But Intimate Apparel was very specific. It was for my mother. I don’t think I’ve written anything else with that kind of intention. I did this adaptation for this film director Lars Von Trier. (laughter) He would talk to me on the phone, but he would never direct any comments or questions to me. He wanted to speak to me through his producer. And this was on the telephone. The three of us would be on the phone and he would say, “Tell Lynn. . .” And I would respond, “I can hear you.” (laughter) The film was Manderlay.
Did you have any influencers?
I did have influencers. I had my parents who took me to theater. As a professional playwright, I didn’t have mentors who helped me nurture this career.
Now you’ve reached a certain point in your career, is there another medium you would like to work in?
Because of the past year or two that I’ve become so overwhelmed and busy, I don’t feel that I have the time to nurture my self. I haven’t had the time to read books and to ruminate. I have to endeavor, in the next couple of years, just to make time to think and think about what it is I want to do.
Did you have a sense that those two pieces that won your Pulitzers would stand out in some way.
The Pultizer came as a complete and total surprise. Technically, the Pulitzer is supposed to be a play that deals with American culture. And Ruined is set in the Congo. So when I got that phone call it was an absolute surprise. For Sweat I never thought that lightening was going to strike twice. So that was a total surprise as well.
Could you still comment on the lack of production opportunities for women in theater. We’re still below 20% and women of color are really at the bottom.
I think you put it very well. (laughter) It is a fact there is work to be done. And very recently there was another survey about theater and women. I can’t speak to the specifics of this in all the other areas, but for women playwrights they found that for white women throughout the country, there’s been an increase to almost parity. But for women of color and men of color, the numbers are still staggeringly low.
How can we change the dynamics of theater pricing?
I think there is a way to make theater more affordable and more accessible, as we did in Sweat. I teach a course called American Spectacle about how to evolve beyond the proscenium. And I teach it because of my incredible frustration with we as playwrights and directors and artists. We craft our productions very specifically for the stage and proscenium of Off Broadway Theaters that are limited in space and also limited in the audience that they reach. The audience that I want to reach doesn’t necessarily relate to the audience that I look and see is watching my play.
One of the things I realized is that I don’t have to be locked into that problem. We can be incredibly flexible. We can take theater to the people. And that’s what we discovered with the mobile unit. We can break out of the proscenium and bring theater into a gym and if there’s an audience for it, we’ve broken away from that limitation. The very first production that we did in Pennsylvania, people showed up with their kids. They had not been to theater. They didn’t know they were going to sit for two and 1/2 hours and so Stephanie Ybarra, the Artistic Director of the mobile unit, and I ended up holding people’s babies while people watched theater (laughter).
And I thought, ‘This is great. Why can’t we do this in Off Broadway theaters.’ The other establishing fact was we realized that most of those folks had never been to theater before. Not a single cell phone rang. People sat rapt. And I thought ‘…there’s something about that audience that’s different from New York audiences because they want to be there and not because they bought a subscription and have to meet the quota of plays’ (laughter). They are there because they want this entire experience. I think that in some way we have to re-educate the audiences that see theater in New York. I think that there are really bad habits that are being nurtured and we have to change that. (applause)
I’m here from a class at NYU and I want to know if you consider yourself a feminist?
I do consider myself a feminist. My mother was a feminist. And she was very outspoken on women’s rights and so I’ve been a feminist since the time I can remember.
Are you inspired by to write about what is going on in current politics and what is going on at the border and the lies that we’re hearing.
Yes. I’d like to write about it. At the very end of the mobile unit tour, we ended at a Native American reservation and one of the elders stood up and said something incredibly moving. He said, “I don’t understand what this border wall is. There are no borders in America. These fences that they’ve erected where they arrest people if they cross over mean nothing.” He and others understand that these obstructions shouldn’t mean anything because this is land that has no boundaries. That’s how I feel. And there’s part of me that wants to do a Walkabout and walk the length of the border and talk to people and collect their stories but it would probably take a very long time. (applause and cheering)
You can see Lynn Nottage’s play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Irene Diamond Stage. For a schedule of where Lynn’s plays are being produced and to learn more about Lynn, go to her website: CLICK HERE.
For more about The League of Professional Theatre Women or to become a member CLICK HERE.