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.