Ted Sod: What inspired you to write If I Forget? What do you feel the play is about? Does the play have personal resonance for you and if so, how?
Steven Levenson: For a long time, I’d wanted to write a play about the ways in which the Holocaust continues to linger and resonate in American Jewish life today. I know it has in my family. And I wanted to write a play about what it meant to be an American Jew at the end of the twentieth century and the start of the new millennium. A lot of the debates that happened around Jewish identity in my parents’ generation – debates about intermarriage, secularism versus religion – felt like they’d been settled, or at least argued to the point of exhaustion. I wanted to talk about the new fault lines, the new conversations that were happening.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to set the play amid the general disillusion and cynicism that set in after the failed Middle East peace talks of 2000, because in hindsight that really felt to me like a bellwether moment when a certain kind of idealism for American Jews died. From that point on, it seems, the conversation around Israel and what it means to be an American Jew has fundamentally changed. We could no longer continue to have blind faith that these issues would work themselves out with enough determination and good faith. The Oslo Accords, those images of Arafat and Rabin shaking hands on the White House lawn, created such a sense of promise and possibility, and all of that collapsed with the failure at Camp David in 2000. It forced some difficult soul-searching, which in many ways we’re still grappling with now. I was ten when the Oslo Accords were signed, and so much of my Jewish education was inflected with the optimism of that moment – peace was just around the corner. I was sixteen when the Camp David talks fell apart, and I remember the terrible sadness and disappointment of that. Working on this play, I began to feel that the sadness and hopelessness of that moment really did seem to signal the end of an era and the beginning of another. It was only a few months later that Bush was elected, and only a few months after that, of course, that the 9/11 attacks occurred. The carefree prosperity and peace of the 1990s – the setting of my childhood, essentially – in many ways ended there at Camp David. It was a growing-up moment for all of us, for better or worse.
TS: Is this story about a man who does forget?
SL: I would say, actually, it’s a story about a man who can’t forget – if anything, he’s someone who can’t stop remembering. He wants to forget, because he wants to be rid of the burden of history, because it’s so painful to him. He’s paralyzed by it. It’s a naïve fantasy, to believe that you can snap your fingers and simply wish away the traumas of the past, but I think it’s understandable and very human. Michael’s thesis that you can take the traumatic parts of your history and just forget them is a deeply destructive idea; but it’s also very provocative to me, because it points to a pervasive fantasy in our society today that, if we just ignore the painful parts of our history or paper them over somehow, then we don’t have to deal with the consequences.
TS: What kind of research did you have to do in order to write this play?
SL: I ended up doing quite a bit of research in the writing of the play. Michael, the main character, is a Jewish Studies professor who has written a controversial book about American Jews, the Holocaust, and Zionism, and so I looked a lot at how issues around Israel and Jewish identity are playing out on college campuses, and also the role these issues have played in larger arguments about academic freedom. There are a number of very high-profile cases from the last decade or so, involving people like Steven Salaita, who lost his position at the University of Illinois after making some particularly unsavory comments about Israel on Twitter. I also looked a lot at Norman Finkelstein, probably one of the most controversial and polarizing figures in this debate. His writings on Israel have been incredibly incendiary – at times purposefully so, it seems – and he’s really one of the poster children for the intense politicization of the entire Israel conversation that has happened in academia. I also did some reading in the field of Memory Studies, which is still a relatively new area of scholarship, where people are looking at the ways in which cultures and societies choose to remember and memorialize their histories, and the way such collective memories are inevitably intertwined with deeper political forces.
TS: What about Birthright trips and the Jerusalem Syndrome? Were those things that you were already familiar with?
SL: Birthright is pretty ubiquitous in the Jewish world. I have family that has done it, and a number of friends, all of whom had terrific, often life-changing experiences. Jerusalem Syndrome is just something that I’ve been fascinated by for as long as I’ve known about it. It’s such a peculiar and mysterious phenomenon. The play, to me, is a lot about the power of place – does geography really hold metaphysical significance? Birthright and Jerusalem Syndrome, in their own ways, both answer, “yes.”
TS: How did you find the connection between the character of Lou, Michael’s father, and Dachau?
SL: One of the more troubling things that has happened, I fear, as the Holocaust recedes further into the past, is that we have gradually begun to lose a real, visceral sense of the absolute horror of what happened. We’ve seen so many films and read so many books that it begins to feel almost familiar, like any other event in history, a sequence of dates and a series of statistics. Lou, as a veteran who was actually there for the liberation of Dachau, can provide us – I hope – some sense of what it might have been like to experience a death camp before knowing exactly what it was. Before it had been classified and understood and put into context, the way it is today, seventy years later. I think it is essential that we never lose, at a very basic level, our shock at what happened, at the fact that human beings did that to other human beings on an industrial scale. My grandfather was also a soldier in World War II. I never met him, he died many years before I was born, but around the time that I began working on this play, my mom was going through an old safety deposit box and found letters that he had written home to his mother from Europe during the war. They don’t say a lot. It’s all very between the lines, but you can tell that the things he was seeing were absolutely appalling and impossible, really, to assimilate into his understanding of the universe. I wanted to try to capture that feeling of what it must’ve felt like to see the horror that these soldiers walked into before there was a name for it.
The specific story that Lou tells about Dachau comes out of research I did into what happened when the Americans first arrived at the camp. I don’t want to give too much away about the actual events, but I do think there is always a danger in making the narrative of the Holocaust simply a story of victimhood which, of course, it is on one level, like all instances of genocide. The story that Lou tells, though, which is based on a true story, gives agency back to the victims. These were not just faceless suffering masses, these were people with rage and dignity and decency. Lou’s story is also meant as a corrective to what Michael is saying in his book. How do you forget something like that? Why would you? You can’t forget something like that. And even if you think you have forgotten, that kind of trauma is something we pass on to future generations, on an almost cellular level. We live with our histories whether we’re conscious of them or not.
TS: Can you give us a sense of your process as a writer? How do you go about working on a play once you have an idea?
SL: For me, it takes a long time to start writing. A lot of time thinking, a lot of just throwing ideas at the wall. With this play in particular, there was a lot of research and prewriting, as I call it. I came up with a detailed family tree and a family history and biographies for all of the characters in the play and some characters who aren’t in the play, but are crucial to the story. Then I started writing. Usually the first draft is pretty quick for me, a few months. It’s all about getting down everything in my head, trying not to judge whether it’s good or bad, just putting it on paper, so there’s some place for me to start. The hardest thing is always the blank page, so I try to get that out of the way as quickly and painlessly as I can. Then the revision process is, in some ways, where the writing really happens. That’s when I discover the play. That process can take years, and usually does. I began working on If I Forget in the winter of 2012, for instance, and completed a first draft of the play in April or May of that year, and I’ve been working on it since then.
TS: Do you sense there will be any major revisions during the rehearsal process? What precipitates revisions when you decide to rewrite?
SL: I always expect revisions when I go into rehearsal. I rewrite a lot. I know as soon as I step into the rehearsal room, I’m going to want to change everything. The main way that revisions happen is just listening to the actors read the play. It feels like every step of the way you learn more information and so, on the very first day, when you do the first read-through with the cast, you learn a tremendous amount about what’s working and what isn’t. The actors themselves have questions and thoughts and concerns and that’s a huge part of rewriting as well. That’ll keep me busy through rehearsals, and then previews happen, and at that point you always think you know everything already. And then the audience comes in and it’s almost like you start all over again. Inevitably, the things you thought were working aren’t and the things you didn’t think were working are – so it’s a constant process of discovery and refinement up until the end. Roundabout allots a very generous preview period, several weeks, which is pretty much the best gift you can give a new play – time to grow.
TS: Can you describe what you look for when collaborating with a director?
SL: What was important with this play is that it be an intimate, deeply personal and emotional family drama and also a play about larger ideas and concerns – never tipping too far in either direction. Dan Sullivan just understood that intuitively, on his first read of the play, and he’s been incredibly attentive all along to the balance the play is hoping to strike. As I’ve rewritten, he’s pushed me constantly to be alert to the ideas and to the way in which themes are explored and the way that story and character can illuminate those larger ideas. His instincts for character and for the way that actors are going to approach material are incredible. Because he was an actor himself, perhaps, he understands immediately what’s playable and what isn’t. So, he’s able to look at a text on a lot of different levels at once – in terms of dramaturgy, performance, the physical needs and limitation of a production. I think that’s probably what all great directors can do, which is of course why they’re so incredibly rare.
TS: What traits or qualities did you need in casting actors for this particular play?
SL: There’s a certain rhythm to the language in this play. It’s the rhythm, really, of any family dinner at my house. There’s an ability for all of these characters to emotionally switch on a dime. They can go from one emotion to another with incredible speed and it’s not fake or put-on. It’s a bit self-dramatizing, but it’s a very true thing. There’s a heightened theatricality to the way these characters behave in their everyday lives, especially the siblings. It’s not a falseness, but it is inherently performative. We wanted actors who could have that kind of agility and nimbleness with language and humor, but could also be one hundred percent rooted in the emotional truth of these people. We were looking for quite a lot from these actors, so we’re beyond lucky to have gathered this extraordinary ensemble.
TS: The ideas in the play are sure to stimulate a lot of discussion – what would you like audience members to keep in mind when they are discussing the events of your play?
SL: I’m really hoping that the play does stimulate discussion. Much of the play itself came out of discussions that I found myself having with family and friends, discussions that I wasn’t really seeing on stage. So, for me, the play is an extension of an ongoing conversation, a conversation that we’re inviting the audience to join as well. I don’t know that it’s something I would encourage the audience to keep in mind, but something that’s certainly on my mind as I listen to and watch the play today is how different it feels to have these conversations now than it did only a few months ago. Inevitably, one of the first targets of any authoritarian regime is history itself – what we remember, how we remember, why we remember. The past is never neutral and history is never settled. This play doesn’t attempt to offer any answers, but I hope, in its own small way, it can help to articulate why it is so vital that we continue to ask difficult questions, to grapple with painful, uncomfortable subjects. I believe, in the coming years, we will need theatre, more than ever, to remain a place for difficult questions.
TS: What else are you working on? Dear Evan Hansen is having a wonderful new run on Broadway.
SL: I’m very eager to get started on a new play. After six years with Dear Evan Hansen, and writing for four seasons on the TV show Masters of Sex, I’m really looking forward to having time to devote to playwriting. I have some outstanding commissions, including one from Roundabout, which I’m very excited to begin. I’m also just getting started on the screenplay for an original movie musical with composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, inspired by a book called Everything Is Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals.
If I Forget is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, If I Forget, Upstage