‘Tovah Feldshuh in Conversation With Linda Winer’ (a LPTW, NYPL for the Performing Arts Oral History Event)
Monday evening, 6 May the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the League of Professional Theatre Women presented Tovah Feldshuh in Conversation With Linda Winer. The event produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser with Sophia Romma was held at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center.
Linda Winer was chief theater critic and arts columnist of Newsday (1987-2017). She has taught critical writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts since 1992 and hosted the “Women in Theatre” series on CUNY-TV from 2002-2007. Recently (2018) she was given a special award from the League of Professional Theatre Women for her contributions to women and theater.
Tovah Feldshuh’s illustrious career spans decades. She is a six-time Emmy and Tony nominee. She has been awarded three honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters. Her prodigious career in theater has garnered her four Drama Desks, four Outer Critics Circle awards, three Dramalogues, the Obie, the Theatre World and the Helen Hayes and Lucille Lortel Awards for Best Actress. Noted Broadway performances include Yentl, Cyrano, Rodgers & Hart, Dreyfus in Rehearsal, Saraval, Lend Me a Tenor, Golda’s Balcony, Irena’s Vow and Pippin (the show stopping trapeze artist, Berthe).
Here are a few excerpts from the conversation Linda Winer held with Tovah Feldshuh who entertained the audience throughout the conversation by performing the role of her grandmother and her mother and others with heavy Bronx or European accents, while discussing her life and career. The piece has been generally edited to remove infelicities in grammar.
Linda Winer: So you’re a serious actress, with a life-time career, a cabaret star, wife, mother of two. You climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, you hung from a trapeze without a net in Pippin. You appeared in a lot of my favorite Law and Order Episodes. You’ve appeared in Walking Dead and in lots of TV and movies. You’ve said your career reflects your personality. Which one? (audience laughter)
The greatest advantage about growing older is the wisdom and perspective it gives you about life. And it’s taken me into my 60s to recognize and deal with the general existential fear of death…or dwelling on the idea that one day I won’t be here. The most important word in a successful career is the word “yes.” So when people ask me if I can do it? If it interests me, I say, “yes.”
I’m much pickier than I used to be because time has shortened. My mother lived until over 103. I’m in the last third of my life. But nonetheless, I’m clearer about what I want to do. I see it and I grab it when it comes my way. And if it doesn’t come my way, I’ve learned from my betters to create it. Dustin Hoffman didn’t just get Tootsie, he produced Tootsie. Jane Fonda didn’t just do her workouts she couldn’t get hired because she was considered a traitor by the U.S. congress and she created the workout program because she was physically fit. I did the pregnancy workout and was most grateful that I worked out up to the day that I delivered.
That is the explanation for a lot of the work you do?
I write and collaborate with various individuals. (An example of this would be her one-woman show Tovah is LEONA!) I went into one-woman show business for a reason, not only to fulfill my dreams. One of my children didn’t learn to read and I was so involved with my career, I didn’t catch it. My beloved sister-in-law said, “This child is not reading.” My sister-in-law is a reading therapist. I said, “What are you talking about, of course this child is reading.” “No!
she said. “This child is memorizing the sounds. He’s not coding right.”
Don’t worry. The child went to Harvard. So when I didn’t catch it, I stopped doing Broadway for 13 years. When one child went to Switzerland, and the other was accepted to the college of his choice, then I went back. There’s no free lunch here. People came up to me and would say, “How are you? Where’ve you been?” There’s no understudy for a parent. Here we’re supposed to be talking about theater. But when you bring human life onto the planet, it’s your responsibility to nurture those lives.
You like great titles. I have these scribbled down and they all have your name. You were smart about branding before it became the thing.
Well people had to know what they were coming to see.
A Touch of Tovah, Tovah Out of her Mind. Tovah Crossovah! Aging is Optional.
The roles I choose, particularly the one-woman shows I construct, I love playing multiple characters. And even when I don’t write the piece, for example, William Gibson wrote Golda’s Balcony, there was still the decision to work on it. The playwright gave us permission to put in all the verbs in the present tense, so we could retain the reportage which it was and turn it into an experience which it is. And that’s why the piece has persevered. The version of the piece that we do is not published.
I’m doing The Prompter now by Wade Dooley directed by Scott Schwartz (May 28–June 16 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor). When I was in my 50s I was cast as Golda who was 80. I’m in my 60s now, I am playing Irene Young in The Prompter who is 90. So if I keep going when I’m 80 or 85 I’ll probably play Methuselah.
How about your grandmother? Was she in shows.
Grandma Ada. She’s the jewel in my crown. Ada is actually a compendium of my family. It was my father who said, “Reach for the stars, you may land onto the roof. If you reach for the roof, you’ll never get off the ground.” My grandmother wanted to be an actress and she had this career in the Music Hall in London. So when she tried out, they said “Ada, show us your ankles.” She showed them her ankles. They asked, “Ada show us your knees.” She said, “Nobody sees my knees except Grandpa, and then not so often. (Tovah Feldshuh lays on a thick accent as she says these lines.)
So it’s a compilation of all my beloved forebears. They came across the waters from England in 1902. They came from England, Russia Germany Austria. I’m a real American mutt. Relating to Austria and Germany, if you say Feldshuh, it’s as familiar as Smith. When you were in Napoleonic times before we had last names, you were “Samuel, son of David.” But they needed last names for taxes. If you paid, you were Montifiore, “Mountain of Roses.” If you didn’t pay, you were named Feldshuh, “field boots.” That’s my proud name.
You were Terri Sue.
So I fell in love with a boy who was not of my tribe, not of my religion. He encouraged me to change my name. And he said what kind of a name is “Terri Sue?” You’re from the North. What else were you called? I said I was called Tovah in “Sunday School.” Actually, it was Hebrew School. I used to say “Sunday School” to fit in. I was embarrassed to say Hebrew School. By the way in Hebrew School, they give you a prayer book, it’s exhaustive, like Suzuki Judaism. In this prayer book, you can pray wherever you are in the world.
I was called Tovah in “Sunday School.” This was the 1950s. Jews were assimilating. There were no Mercedes in Scarsdale. To assimilate Jewish men men were going to Brooks Brothers to get their blazers and beige pants. These were the boys that made it, the GIs that came home from the war. They were Jewish. To get back to how I changed the assimilation name to Tovah, it was because of Michael Fairchild. May he go down for the ages. He became a photographer for National Geographic. On his encouragement, I changed my name from Terri Sue to Tovah. And I didn’t know the entire state of Israel would fall on my head. I had no sense of what would happen.
So what was the consequence?
It changed the whole landscape of my life. Juliet says what’s in a name. A rose by any other name is as sweet. Not necessarily so. A name characterizes. “Tovah” characterized me. Bobby De Niro is immediately characterized as Italian. Dustin Hoffman is something else. So a Tovah Feldshuh is a Danish name. So in Minneapolis when I worked at the Guthrie, they thought I was Danish (she imitates a Danish/Swedish accent). That was the one place in Europe that saved the Jewish community. So when I got to New York, my name, Austrian Jew, from Vienna? They said to me, “It’s a ridiculous name! You must change your name! (heavy accent). And 18 months later my name Tovah Feldshuh was on the marquee (applause).
Your parents in Scarsdale sent you to Sarah Lawrence. You were a philosophy major. You studied languages…and were/are a pianist. Did your parents think that changing your name to Tovah and becoming an actress was a mistake?
They thought being an actress was a mistake. When I told my mother I wanted to go to Julliard, my mother said, “You’re not going to a trade school.” (laughter) My older brother who is an MD, Ph.D. Dr. Dr. David Feldshuh, my mother called him Doc. My older brother went into the theater first. He went to Dartmouth and was a Reynolds scholar and was a McKnight Fellow at the Guthrie. He was the one who said, “Don’t go to law school. Why don’t you apply for a McKnight Fellowship in Acting?”
So I applied to law school, got on the wait list, got the McKnight Fellowship and went to study at Guthrie. And again, this changed my life. Sarah Lawrence was fabulous. My mother came to see Renard the Fox by Stravinsky. I think I had green hair and purple feet. She took one look at me and said, “Why didn’t you go to Vassar?” (Tovah Feldshuh imitates her mother with an accent) I applied and got in to Vassar but was encouraged to go to Sarah Lawrence by my mother. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Taconic Parkway had the highest mortality rate for car accidents. The road to Poughkeepsie was a long, dangerous road and she was preserving and protecting her young. I guess she wanted me near home. Then they sent me abroad. When I went abroad, I finally did my own laundry, otherwise I brought my laundry home to Scarsdale.
I was sent to Paris. At 13, I was sent to the Cote d’Azur. My father’s client was in Lyon. All their children spoke French and they had a summer home in the South of France. My brother and I were sent to the South of France for the summer. My mother said, “She’s not going.” My father said, “She’s getting on the plane, Lillian.” I had one parent who spoke like he was always in a courtroom. He dressed with the winged tipped shoes and the whole nine yards with the Paul Stewart suit. So I would ask, “Dad, was this the way you spoke when you were a baby?” (laughter) On the other hand, my mother was born in the Bronx on the dining room table, 1534 Charlotte Street (Tovah Feldshuh imitates where and how her mother was born). She had elocution lessons. The immigrants gave their children elocution lessons.
I had elocution lessons and it didn’t do me a bit of good. How is it that, not to use a cliche, how is it you have it all? I was at a women’s journalism luncheon. Barbara Walters said, “Women, you can’t have it all. You can have two of the three.” It’s very unusual to have three. You can have children or a husband or a career, but you can’t have all three. The thought she conveyed was if you try to “do it all,”you will suffer.
That must have been her experience. And I’m sorry it was. I never think of having it all. There are people in this audience who know darn well there are two sides to every coin. I have a great mate. Andrew Harris Levy who did originate Tovah Out of Her Mind. He’s very clever and he’s clean and I don’t just mean in the shower. I got the right mate. His mother was a concert level pianist who gave up her ultimate dream to marry Arnold Levy. She became a piano teacher. I was a classical pianist because my mother was shy and quiet and a classical pianist. And I wanted to be near my mommy. So I took piano; interesting we never did a four-handed piece. That was a bit of a heartbreak for me.
You were going to be a concert pianist.
I couldn’t do the concertos. I could only get to the Finals. I even played for Van Cliburn. It was very hard for me. “Mozart in D Minor,” “Rhapsody in Blue.” And I thought to myself, “You’re going to be an also ran. You better try out for something else.” So I did plays with music and I was immediately cast as Cousin Hebe in H.M.S Pinafore. I thought then…there are three girls singing in this operetta, and I am one of them. So that gave me hope. The next year I got Little Mary Sunshine in Little Mary Sunshine. And I thought to myself, hey maybe this might be something that I can do really well.
But the man I married and I were brought up on the exact same music, the same love of opera. (Tovah imitates her mother.) “If you’re gonna marry someone, marry someone of your race, your religion and your social class. You wanna fight? Fight at the opera.” The woman’s speech patterns that were fancy, devolved as she got older.
I have a certain sized bosom. You really can’t see it because there isn’t a breast pad left in Manhattan that isn’t in this bra. Anyway, I have a very small chest. My mother and my beloved daughter have a very ample chest. My mother looks at my daughter and looks at me and she says, “Well, I guess it skips a generation.” (laughter)
So why do I have it all? I had great parents, but I had the great luck of choosing a man who didn’t begrudge me my work. And his love for me had to do with him not stopping me. We’ve been married 40 years and it’s taken me decades to realize that. There’s times he comes in and he’s working on his law. He’s a fantastic lawyer, the head of a department of huge law firm and now he’s an accountant for the biggest law firm in the world. I will not let him retire. I do not believe in retiring, so I can go to Florida and do my nightclub act. Tovah Feldshuh segues to a joke. So I’m down there and I tell them. I’ll change the opening. I’ll change the closing. And they say to me, “Ms. Feldshuh, you don’t have to change anything. They’re all dead.” About retirement? No. In my experience you have to live for a purpose that is beyond yourself. Children are usually the easiest solution to that.
So I had these good parents. I loved my father deeply. He was a Harvard lawyer. I married a Harvard lawyer. My father-in-law was a Harvard Lawyer. My mother-in-law was a classical pianist. My mother was a classical pianist. I was a classical pianist. So we had enough synchronistic coincidences, that had nothing to do with each other until will met each other. That made vast areas of the marriage easy. And that’s why it was possible in my life, to “have it all.”
Tovah Feldshuh in Conversation With Linda Winer was a delightful presentation. Though I didn’t include all of the lengthy conversation here, you may find it is at the NYPL for the Performing Arts. Tovah Feldshuh, did mention that she wanted to get this “on the record.” She has not had any plastic surgery!
I would credit her youthful appearance to her peace inside, her brilliance, cleverness and her luck in choosing the right partner, and of course, her obvious joie de vivre!
You can see Tovah Feldshuh in The Prompter May 28–June 16 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Tovah is LEONA! is on its way to San Francisco’s Feinstein’s at the Nikko from September 20-21. You can find her on https://www.tovahfeldshuh.com/
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.
Monday evening at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center, the New York Library for the Performing Arts and The League of Professional Theatre Women presented another Oral History event celebrating renowned women in theater. Produced by Ludovia Villar-Hauser with Sophia Romma, those in attendance enjoyed Elisabeth Vincentelli’s interview of award-winning, globally renowned playwright and screenwriter Lynn Nottage. Elisabeth Vincentelli writes about the arts and theater for various publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal to name a few of her many writing accomplishments. She also co-hosts the “Three on the Aisle” podcast with Peter Marks (Washington Post) and Terry Teachout (Wall Street Journal) The following interview has been lightly edited. Look for Part II next week.
Elisabeth: You are the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize twice (applause) You have such a rich career. I wanted to anchor it by having you talk about where you grew up. It was right here in New York.
Lynn: I was very fortunate to grow up in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It was a community defined by people moving through it to get to other communities. It was a very marginal neighborhood at the time. My block was dominated by boarding houses. It was very multicultural. It was a neighborhood where people who were pushed out of other neighborhoods found refuge. And as an aspiring writer, I feel like it was the best place to grow up because it was so diverse and accepting and nurturing. It was a true community. Next door to me, for example, in one of the boarding houses, there was a woman who by day wore a full Burqa, a Hijab. She was completely covered up. Her husband was a taxi driver. At night when he would leave, she would actually take it off and put on a Kaftan. That was the type of community it was.
So I think it was inevitable that I would end up as a writer having lived there. As a matter of fact on the same block, if anyone knows the novelist Jonathan Lethem, he memorialized the block in the Fortress of Solitude. And the yard in back where everyone played was the yard where I grew up. Our house was the nexus point for the block. I started my first stories when I was five-years-old. I wanted to capture things that I heard. And the aspect of the place was very rich in texture. I knew there was something very special about that moment in time and about the people who congregated in that neighborhood.
Where did you go to college?
Before college, I went to the High School of Music and Art in Harlem. I was an aspiring musician. And when I got there, I discovered that I was not as good as the other aspiring musicians. (laughter) I decided to do something else. I went to Brown University as a Pre-med student with the assumption that I was going to be a doctor, not that I ever wanted to be a doctor. However, because I was very good in math and science, they decided to give me a scholarship and I got into Brown.
Even before I went to Brown I was writing plays and when I went to Brown I continued to write these little dramas that I managed to produce myself. When I was there I met two professors who were quite influential. One of them was Paula Vogel the first female playwright I had ever met. Up to then, there were only two other female playwrights that I had read. One of them was Lorraine Hansberry, the other was Ntozake Shange. At the time Lorraine Hanesberry had passed away and Ntozake Shange was not very prolific. I was under the assumption that playwriting was really a hobby for women and that it was something that I was never going to be able to make a living doing. Then I met Paula Vogel. She was the first woman who said, “You know, you can do this. And there’s strength in numbers.” There was another professor whose name was George Bass who was the executor of the Langston Hughes estate. He really taught me about the joys and the ritual of creating theater. Theater was not just about putting people on stage. But it was a place where healing could occur and where one could deal with community.
So at that point you’re still grappling with what you wanted to do.
I thought I was going to be a journalist. That summer I was working for a newspaper called The Villager. There were only four of us and we wrote the entire newspaper. For a very brief period of time I was the Arts Editor. And the only reason why I did it was because I could go to the Openings and drink wine. The Villager was located on East Fourth Street.
Did it compete with The Village Voice?
At some point it did. When I was there it did not. (audience laughter)
When did you decide to focus on writing?
I think my decision to focus on writing came when I was deciding what to do after college. I applied to Columbia Journalism School to be a journalist. And on a whim I applied to Yale School of Drama assuming I would never get in. I did. And I spent four very difficult, fraught years in Yale School of Drama where I learned how to be a playwright and then how not to be a playwright at the same time.
Did you go to the theater?
Not so much, then. I went to the theater a lot when I was young. I was fortunate to grow up in New York City. At the time there were a lot of rising African American Theater Companies. There was the New Federal Theater. There was The Negro Ensemble. There was the Billie Holiday Theatre. My parents, who were great lovers of art, made sure that not every weekend, but certainly a few times a year we saw plays. So I encountered the work of Charles Fuller. I remember when I was in High School going to see Giancarlo Esposito. I was with my girlfriends and we were so excited. The performance was electric. At that time theater was affordable. We could go as teenagers.
What about the Billie Holiday Theatre?
They did a renovation and it is thriving. There are wonderful artists that are working there and they are doing representative work emphasizing being inclusive.
You mentioned that you dropped out of playwriting?
The time I was in graduate school coincided with the time that was a crucial moment in American Social History. It was the AIDS Crisis and the Crack Epidemic. So in school we were losing students, we were losing professors. It was really hard to make art in that environment. It felt like there were many more urgent things that needed to be attended to. After I graduated from Yale School of Drama, I felt that I wanted to do something with impact. I sold my computer, if you could call it that. It was sort of like a word processor, and I went to work for Amnesty International, which at the time was the largest human rights organization in the world. I was a press officer and I spent four, intense really concentrated years doing human rights work. In many ways the time I spent with Amnesty International became my second graduate school. It really shaped me not only as an artist but as a person. By the time I left, I knew exactly what I wanted to do as an artist which I didn’t know prior to that time.
Did you feel that playwriting could convey what you wanted to say?
I did. I will tell you a story. It was the moment that I decided to go back to playwriting. A woman named Donna Ferrato, who is a quite famous photographer came to our office. She’d taken these beautiful and disturbing photographs of women arriving at a battered women’s shelter. I saw these images of women who were in a moment of absolute crisis, but there was a look of relief on their faces as well. I was incredibly moved by the photographs.
During that time at Amnesty International, we were struggling with the notion that women’s rights should be separated out from human rights. The organization wasn’t doing enough to address specific human rights abuses. I saw these photographs and I knew that there was nothing that we as an organization could do. But as a human being I felt that I needed to respond to those images. So I closed my office door and I wrote a play. It was the first time I had done that in four years. The play was Poof. Poof is a short play about a woman who’s abused. She tells her husband to go to hell. He spontaneously combusts and turns into a pile of ash. (laughter) She calls her best friend on the phone and she comes down and they have a discussion about what to do with this pile of ash. Finally, they decide to sweep it under the rug. (laughter)
I had returned to playwriting and it felt really good. I arrived at a total synthesis of the “human rights” brain and the “writing” brain. I thought, I can do both things. I don’t know why I have to compartmentalize. For me that was incredibly liberating.
Was Poof your first professional production?
Yes. It was my first professional production. I submitted it to it the Humana Festival. It won the Heideman Award. And Seret Scott who was a fantastic director became my first professional director and my first professional mentor who guided me through the process.
You had three plays in quick succession in the 1990s being produced around the country: Crumbs From the Table of Joy; Mud, River, Stone; and Por’Knockers. Could you speak about each?
Crumbs from the Table of Joy was my very first professional commission. It was commissioned by Second Stage which was still uptown in a 97-seat theater. The play was specifically commissioned for young audiences. I wrote this play assuming it would never get produced. They decided to do it.
It’s really interesting because it was directed by Joe Morton. People know him as “Papa Pope.” At the time he had a very robust acting career and in the middle of directing it he got a job and he was drawn away. So the previews went on for a really long time. As a result the play began to build an audience. By the time he came back, it actually was a success even before it opened. Word of mouth sold it. It starred Ella Joyce and she had just come off of a very popular series. And she used to go to the Beacon Theater which, at the time, was a venue for The Chitlin Circuit. And she would hand out flyers. She would say, “You think this is good, just walk down a few blocks.” People recognized her because she was on the series (Roc) and they followed her advice. She was really responsible for this robust audience that we had.
Mud, River, Stone was commissioned by The Acting Company. We actually developed it on the road before we brought it into New York. When it came to New York, we did a short performance at Playwrights Horizons and then were invited back to do a larger production. I never felt that I finished that play. Before we went into rehearsal at Playwrights Horizons, I had my first child. I was nursing and at rehearsal. Every time she cried, I’d sneak out. The day of the first preview, my mother died. So I had all of these major life events occur during that play. As a result, I felt that I never really had the opportunity to properly tend to that play. That was my great frustration with it.
My other play which was Por’Knockers began at New York Theater Workshop. It came out of this multicultural group that I was in. We presented a short evening of plays. The Vineyard Theater came to see the play which is about a group of terrorists who blow up an FBI building and inadvertently kill some children. They have to decide over the course of the evening whether to take responsibility for their actions or not. They each get their turn to go to the phone to inform others about the explosion. Each one has to figure out what is the price they are willing to pay for their beliefs. At the end, none of them are able to make the phone call. The play was enormously successful at NY Theater Workshop. Then we did it at the Vineyard Theater. But the world had changed. Six months before we did it at the Vineyard, Oklahoma City Bombing happened. The FBI building was blown up. And the day we opened at the Vineyard Theater was the Million Man March. So the play that was a social satire suddenly became very different and much more intense. As a result people just didn’t respond to it.
Now, we’ll move on to Las Meninas which is an outlier, but every one of your plays is an outlier. That’s beautiful. I love that. Could you speak about Las Meninas
Sure. Las Meninas was actually a play that I wrote in graduate school. The play is based on a tiny slip of history that I read about. It was the relationship between Queen Maria Theresa of Spain, the wife of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and her African servant, Nabo who was a dwarf. When I read about this, I thought this is fascinating. Why don’t we know more? I ended up doing years and years of research. True story. I found a book in the New York Public Library, the main branch. I think I was the first person to ever read this book. It was written in 1710 and it was a translation of one of the memoirs written by a mistress. In this memoir the mistress detailed this relationship. I wrote a little bit about this and became an almost expert. I was getting calls from historians asking “How did you find this?” I said, “I don’t know. I’m a playwright.” Because the play is so whimsical and is a costume drama, it doesn’t get done that often. But it is one of my favorite plays because it is so delightful and it’s a true story told from the point of view of their daughter.
Now we move on to a key play in your career, Intimate Apparel directed by Kate Whoriskey. Was that your first collaboration?
Yes. I describe our meeting as a theater blind date. Someone said ‘Oh you and Kate should meet.’ I remember that we met at New Dramatist, in their library which was very cold. We both talked to each other shivering. We decided to work together. I was excited to work with her. Intimate Apparel was a commission by Center Stage. And it was the first play that I had written after my mother died. My mother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease and I spent a lot of time caring for her. During that period, I didn’t have time to write. Also, I had a child. I was having to figure out, how do I make all of these pieces work. When my mother died, suddenly I became the main caregiver of my grandmother. My mother was just an only child. It was just my mother and my grandmother. My grandfather was there, but that’s a different story.
I was going through my grandmother’s things and literally, she would put photographs in the middle of magazines for some unknown reason. I found a photograph and it was the first time I had seen a photo of my great grandmother, my grandmother and her sister. And I was struck by the fact that my grandmother who had dementia, couldn’t answer questions about this woman in the photograph. I couldn’t ask my mother who was dead. And it really broke my heart. So I wanted to reconstruct her life. I went to the New York Public Library. I wanted to figure out who was this African American woman who came to New York at the turn of the century, by herself. Who was this seamstress? How did she survive? How did she make a living that enabled her to build a family and that led to me being on this stage today? So Intimate Apparel became an examination into my own ancestry.
You wrote this at the same time…you say that you work on a number of plays at the same time. While you were working on Intimate Apparel, you were working on Fabulation?
Yes, Fabulation is a social satire. I was imagining Esther who is the central character in Intimate Apparel. Esther is an African American seamstress who falls in love with a Romanian Jewish man and she’s corresponding with a Caribbean man. It’s this little love triangle. I was imagining who might Esther be one hundred years later, if she had gone through the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement and felt fully empowered. So Undine of Fabulation is Esther 100-years later. Also, I wanted an outlet. Intimate Apparel was a play I wrote for my mother. I imagined what play might my mother want to see? Fabulation became my escape…the place that I went, when I didn’t want to cry.
You were working on poems at the same time, also. But how do you handle the juggling act of writing two plays at the same time?
I have two screens. (laughter) Literally, when I would get stuck on one play, rather than step away from my computer and do something else, I can literally switch the screen and write something else. The plays are so different and use completely different muscles, I can enter in both worlds without feeling burdened by the other.
You have discussed that your plays are thoroughly researched. Then you transmogrify the information into drama.
I found in my writing process, that procrastination is a form of creative exploration. (laughter) When I’m not writing and beating up on myself, I just continue to investigate. When I was working on Sweat, for instance, I spent two-and-one-half years exploring. But I felt that I needed that time to explore. I needed that time to know my characters. Rather than to rush into writing, I felt I needed that time to know a completely different world and immerse myself. I did the same thing for Ruined. I spent three years of immersion with Ruined, going to and from East Africa trying to find a story that I wanted to tell. And I thought it was a very productive way to spend my time.
Ruined was a run-away success. It was extended numerous times. I remember one time I was seeing it with a school group in the audience, and I thought, “Oh, my God.” But they completely adored the story.
When you wrote Sweat, it was a fascinating project that you spent time researching, but you had a companion project with it.
It was a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that specifically invited playwrights to write plays about an “American Revolution.” The revolution that I wanted to write about was the Industrial Revolution in America. By the time I finished, I thought it would be history and it would be living history.
I went to Reading, PA, and spent a lot of time. I began forging these very deep, complicated relationships with people in the community. But I didn’t want to be a carpetbagger. I didn’t want to write this play that goes to Oregon, and travels to various theaters then comes to New York. I didn’t want to forget the play’s origins. I wanted to create something, a play that was still very connected to the people who were in Reading, PA and make use of these hundreds of hours of interviews that I didn’t use and didn’t filter into the play.
So after I did Sweat, the following year, I decided to build this massive performance installation that would be set in Reading, PA. We decided we wanted to re-animate the Reading Railroad that everyone knows from Monopoly. It had been abandoned since 1981. When it was closed down, it effectively shut Reading off from the rest of the country. Suddenly, people who used to get to Philadelphia in 55 minutes could no longer get there easily. They had to take a bus to Allentown and then go to Reading.
When I got to Reading, PA it was the poorest city of that size in America. When you walked around, you felt the sadness and the frustration and you felt all the things you experienced in a place that once had been an industrial powerhouse. It was literally withering on the vine. We thought, how do we revitalize this downtown area? The railroad station became symbolic. It was one of the few places that everyone had a connection to. At some point in time, everyone had passed through it.
We thought it was going to be difficult to get keys to the station. But the guy who had the keys said, ‘Yeah.” He tossed us the keys, and said “Here, just leave it in the same condition you found it.’ And we then went about building this installation that charted Reading from the moment the station closed down to the present. We wanted to create a space, like we said in our mission statement: “To create a space where a homeless person and the mayor could sit down together and recognize that they shared the same narrative,” and that they could sit side by side together. It’s not hyperbole to say that we achieved that. We didn’t get the present Mayor of Reading, PA. For various complicated reasons he was our antagonist. However, we did get two former Mayors who came and sat there and wept along with a lot of homeless folks. So it was successful and really gratifying to know that you could make theater outside of the proscenium that had resonance.
In 2017 Sweat was on Broadway. Then there was another stage in the Sweat saga with the Public Theater. (See This is Reading on Lynn Nottage’s website)
When we first produced Sweat at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we raised a grand to bring Sweat back to Reading, PA with the same cast. So the day we closed Sweat at the Public Theater, the next day we got up at 7:30 am and drove down to Reading and performed Sweat for 250 people in the Reading community. When we drove down there we were terrified about how the community would react to the production. However, we were overwhelmed by the response. We had a Q and A and people testified and told their stories and didn’t want to leave. We recognized that there was a real necessity for people who were going through the same predicaments as the characters in the play…for them to have an outlet for them to talk about their own struggles.
Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, was overwhelmed by the response. He said, “I’d like to do this on a larger scale.” The Public Theater has their Mobile Unit which moves around New York City, but never does that nationally. We spent a year to try and identify places to go. We decided to do a mobile tour of the Rust Belt. We selected five swing cities that first voted for Obama and then voted for Trump. We didn’t want to go to just places that were Red or Blue. We wanted to go to places where you would have a real dialogue and where you could bring people into a space where people would listen to each other. We did that in the fall of 2018. It was not just spaces, it was union halls, small colleges, we went to churches, we went to school gymnasiums. These were stripped down, bare bones productions. It was quite powerful. End of Part I
The brighter heaven shines, the greater the darkness created. If shadows metaphorically apply to guilt, depression and constriction, then surely the Kilgannon and Jablonski families who have experienced the brilliance of heavenly scriptures and folkways via the culture of the Catholic Church and St. Aloysius school have also been shadowed in darkness. This thematic point-counterpoint prevails throughout character interactions and behaviors in Laura Pedersen’s intriguing and incisive comedic-dramatic play The Brightness of Heaven, exceptionally directed by the always on-point Ludovica Villar-Hauser. The production is currently at The Cherry Lane Theatre.
What can mitigate the glare of burning church doctrine and the traditional cliches that bring little personal happiness yet bond the Kilgannons and Jablonskis in strangleholds of deceit? There is the soft light of love and forgiveness created by the family’s individual colors. However ironic, however subtly truthful, all blend. The rainbow created strikes at the heart of how the Jablonskis and the Kilgannons are able to find their way along life-paths, sometimes bending to compromise, other times forging out alone and in silence. Nevertheless, they do come back to stand with each other, whether in shade or in a pale reflection of the heavenly light that continues to bathe them, in the hope of creating a new understanding about each other and themselves.
The play begins as Ed Kilgannon’s sister Mary Jablonski’s, and Ed’s wife Joyce Kilgannon prepare for the evening’s special occasion bringing all the Jablonskis and Kilgannons together for their “family act.” This will be performed at St. Aloysius school. Pedersen has set the action in Buffalo, NY, 1974. With humor she anchors the backdrop of this family’s strict religious culture, the narrow attitudes, the adherence to the social life of the church and St. Aloysius through the discourse of these velvet matriarchs. There are religious statues in the kitchen, and Pedersen and Villar-Hauser have clarified the importance of Catholicism to these women who have been raised in a Catholic community and who have rigidly brought up their children in the tenets of the Church.
The beauty of Pedersen’s writing and Villar-Hauser’s direction is that Mary (Paula Ewin), and Joyce (Kate Kearney-Patch), are thoroughly delightful, folksy and funny seen through the lens of our trending 21st century viewpoints. They are not scary “religious” right, hard-nosed fanatics, though on another level they could be. But this is a subtlety that we are lured away from considering outright. One reason is that Pedersen guides us through the exposition cleverly. The characterizations appear to be human and well rounded. The setting and staging are comfortable, homey and warm. Another reason is that Villar-Hauser’s fine direction and the talented actors Ewin and Kearney-Patch remain amazingly empathetic and likable. We understand that their beliefs are borne out of love and faith, not political didacticism. We are with them back in 1974 as we listen to them gossip with each other and take care of homely chores.
The worm turns, however, when the adult children show up for dinner and prepare for the family event. As the children and parents interact, we begin to see the effects of the stultifying, religious upbringing. We hear the dark undercurrents and the verbal swipes of irony and sarcasm in their conversation. We also note other behavioral clues the playwright, actors and director have developed for us. For example Grace (wonderfully played by Emily Batsford), whips her caustic humor like a rapier. She ironically quips about losing friends during softball because her mom shouted at her on the baseline, “Thou shall not steal.” Grace stands with a crooked, caved in posture. It is a clever detail signifying how rigidity not only can have a negative mental influence, but a physical one as well. The scripture which is supposed to “make the crooked straight” has failed; Grace’s self-perceived “weirdness” manifests in her body. Pedersen’s characterization reveals that her conflict of attempting to “live in grace” has ironically had a warping effect on the character. Grace has not yet “found her way of salvation” in life, as she struggles with the religious notion that the afterlife, not the present life, is where one wants to be as a Catholic.
For each of the adult children, religion has made an impact bringing light and dark. The conflict between these forces has caused them to live a life of duality. They put on “righteousness” masks with their mothers and with the community so they will not be a “disappointment.” But they flout religious traditions behind their backs. However, living a life of deception in conflict with the truth is hell. The Kilgannon and Jablonski children are suffering. They have learned to lie to Joyce and Mary at a great cost to their own personal happiness and dignity. Whether they are honest or deceptive, someone will get hurt. There is no easy or smooth road ahead.
Pedersen draws the characterizations profoundly. We see that each of the children yearn for acceptance and understanding. They don’t realize that they may have it, for the “religion” they fight against has at its foundation love and forgiveness. The question is, do Mary and Joyce follow the religion after the spirit (grace, love)? Or do they follow it after the law (looking righteous to please the church community)? During the first part of the evening, the children don’t challenge their parents. It takes strength to confront Mary and Joyce. Since they do not muster the courage to reveal their own hypocrisy of living in the shadows, the secrets remain hidden. Pedersen hints at their dualities and the aspects of light and dark in the characters’ interactions.
Some of the light comes in the form of song interludes where various family members sing out of a love of the family’s togetherness. The cast are magical as they integrate the music seamlessly and skillfully with the play’s dialogue. The light also comes in the form of humorous comments to the matriarchs; even Dad Ed (the talented Peter Cormican), chimes in with jokes to shift focus away from uncomfortable topics. The levity (a specialty of Pedersen), is organic, arising from each character’s individual struggles. It indicates the extent they are trying to resolve hypocrisy or self-deception. The jokes also help them defuse the tenets of Mary’s and Joyce’s interpretations of sin and right behavior. Mary and Joyce are good-natured and well meaning, though religiously inflexible and indirectly condemning. So the benign ridicule is an effective counterpoint to the characters’ underlying guilt, the “gift that keeps on giving.” notes Grace.
The light also manifests when the adult children are out of earshot of their mothers; it is then that they can be honest with one another. For example before Brendan (a fine Bill Coyne), enters the house, he speaks with his brother Dennis (Mark Banik portrays him with rectitude). They argue about how religion impacts them. Dennis (who appears righteous to his mom but is deceiving her), criticizes Brendan for drinking and not living a “proper” life. Brendan tells Dennis, pointing to his head, that “one can make heaven out of hell and hell out of heaven,” a comment Brendan wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to his mom or aunt. Like Grace’s caved in posture and “weirdness,” Brendan’s drinking reflects his inner conflicts, disappointments, deceit and perhaps his inability to completely reconcile his religious beliefs. In each instance, Pedersen reveals that all of the children are learning how to be themselves within a narrow framework as they try to establish a life away from their parent’s traditions. All are struggling to break free so that eventually, they can reveal themselves to those they most desire acceptance from, despite the risk censure that may follow.
It is not a coincidence that Pedersen has the youngest daughter risk speaking the truth about her life, and has Mary’s son do the same. Both have committed mortal sins in the “eyes” of the church. Kathleen Kilgannon (an excellent performance by Kendall Rileigh), and Jimmy Jablonski (James Michael Lambert in an equally fine portrayal), can no longer pretend to be holy while living in self-deception and misery. The confrontation scene takes place at the dinner table; Pedersen deftly escalates the strains of dark and light, anger and humor until they erupt and boil over from undercurrents that had remained below the surface.
The pleasant dinner turns into an unruly communion. Some of the family get up from the table in avoidance, but there is no turning back and the truth explodes brilliantly as the Kilgannons and the Jablonskis stare heavily at its brightness. Now there is the freedom to speak. The children dredge up their secret sins and throw them on the table for everyone to see. With this roll of the dice, they have taken a chance on being real, hoping to satisfy their own personal integrity and gain peace, though it may mean turning their back on the church. For Mary and Joyce who have made safe wagers all their lives, the dice rolls snake eyes. Now it is their turn to reveal what they are made of and who they are. Should they follow the spirit of grace in love and forgiveness? Or should they strictly follow the church and condemn what their children have done?
Pedersen’s powerful resolution crafted by the actors and the director’s fine tuning is symbolic, believable and real. The actors’ ensemble work and the life they and the director effect moment to moment are always refreshing and organic. This thought provoking production is too good to miss.
The Brightness of Heaven will be at The Cherry Lane Theatre until December 14th.
The review first appeared on Blogcritics.