ROUNDABOUT BLOG

2009-2010 Season

 

Martín Zimmerman

Ted Sod: Please give us some background information on yourself: Where were you born and educated? When did you decide to become a playwright?
Martín Zimmerman: I was born in Maryland outside of Washington, D.C. and grew up in a bilingual household. My mother is an immigrant from Argentina and my father is from Baltimore, so I grew up speaking both Spanish and English. Also, the D.C. area is an incredibly diverse area with residents from all over the globe,whether they are refugees or people who work for foreign governments or global nonprofits, so I had friends from literally all over the globe. This is something I suppose I took for granted at the time, but now I understand was a tremendous gift and has informed a lot of my thinking and artistry. I became interested in acting and theatre very late in high school, but when I became interested, I became very interested. I went to undergrad at Duke University, where I studied both economics and theatre. I dabbled in writing a little bit very early in undergrad and then I acted in a new play festival at Duke my freshman year, and I think that that turned me on to the idea of writing plays. So I very aggressively embraced playwriting as an undergrad and wrote a ton and was very fortunate to get several of my plays staged during that time. I went straight from Duke to graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin — so I also have an MFA in playwriting.

TS: Since you studied theatre and economics, it sounds like you have both sides of your brain working.
MZ: Yes, and I also think that the economics degree helps inform my understanding of how people are shaped by circumstances. I think economics – and all the social sciences — can illuminate how social forces shape people. That informs my thinking as a writer politically as well; how social forces interact with an individual’s psychology to shape the way they behave. Obviously, my mom being an immigrant has also informed the politics of my writing. By that I mean I also try to think globally, cross-culturally in much of my writing.

TS: Will you tell us what inspired you to write On the Exhale? Can you talk about your process writing it?
MZ: The initial spark for the play came in the aftermath of the Newtown Sandy Hook shooting and seeing how even something as horrific as that wasn’t going to move our national government to take meaningful action on gun control. My frustration and deep anger about that was the seed for the play. Once I have the spark of an idea, I’m always immediately thinking about how the form of that play can be tightly bound to the content of the story I’m telling. I’ve long been fascinated with the act of firing a weapon and how it is a very aggressive act, but how, to do it well, you need to be incredibly calm, centered, focused. It can be a meditative experience if you do it very well — I’ve long been fascinated by that paradox. I think that those two things — my anger about gun violence and my fascination with the psychological experience of firing a weapon — converged in my mind. I knew that because the act of firing a weapon is so solitary I wanted the play to be one woman alone onstage in order to replicate that experience. I knew that pretty early on. And, because I knew it would be a one-woman play, the act of writing this piece was very much about being still and trying to live in this woman’s experience moment to moment. Then, as I was actually writing the play, the play became as much about that initial impulse as about how grief can isolate you — especially when you feel unable to grieve with a community. The writing process became about how that tunnel vision of grief can warp the psyche.

Marin Ireland in ON THE EXHALE. Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: Why did you choose not to name the woman who the play is about?
MZ: In a lot of my writing I try to embrace a theatrical world that allows many different people to identify with what’s happening onstage. I want to give just the right amount of specificity to make the world of the play and the characters vivid, but at the same time, I don’t want to give extraneous detail that could shut people out of the world of the play. I feel like too much detail could put a barrier between the character and the audience. I’ve had a number of readings of the play, and at each one people think that the play takes place in many different geographical locations within the United States. Often, audiences see the town that they live in. I tried to make the play open-ended enough so that the play can contain multiple interpretations and can speak to people in different places.

TS: What kind of research did you have to do?
MZ: I certainly did some research for this play in particular, but a lot of specific research that I did for other plays also informed the writing of this play. I worked on a play for a while that was about soldiers in combat in the Iraq War, and a vital part of that play was about the emotional impact of firing weapons. For another commissioned play I’m currently working on, I have done a lot of research about trauma and how it impacts the body and the mind — that research was especially helpful in writing this.

TS: How did you deal with writing about the grief of this character? Is that something that you had to explore for yourself?
MZ: I’ve certainly experienced grief in my life. Most people have. But seeing how people around me respond to deep grief had a greater impact on how I wrote this play than did my own personal experiences of grief. It’s important when you’re writing a character who is grieving to remember the dramatic fundamentals. I think those fundamentals serve you very well. They force you to constantly remember what the character is trying to accomplish. She is intentional. When a lot of people try to portray grief they will depict a character who is stuck in emotion and not moving with any kind of intention or motivation. This character is intentional and motivated, but grief keeps her from thinking strategically, from thinking in the long term. She’s merely following whatever impulse happens to seize her in that moment. That’s how her grief shapes her. When trying to write a character who is grieving, it’s vital to remember that no one can live forever with such massive emotion weighing down on them. Their body would shut down after a while. One of the shocking things about the body is how people are able to assimilate things into their experience and genuinely function after a while. They may function differently, but they do function. Grief can surge up unexpectedly at any moment, but that doesn’t mean someone who is grieving is always consciously aware of their grief. It more subtly tweaks the way that person navigates the world.

TS: Did you always know On the Exhale was going to be a play with one actor or did that idea present itself during the writing process? What are the challenges of doing that? What excites you about it?
MZ: I knew from the beginning it would be a one-woman because of the solitary nature of firing a weapon and also because of how being a victim of violence can make you feel isolated, alone. It’s hard to write a one-woman play in the sense that I really had to be inside this woman’s head. As for the challenges of writing a play with one character, once you’ve done that heavy lifting, the act of putting words on the page will flow more easily. You’re just inside her experience. You don’t have to constantly change your way of thinking while writing. Whereas when you’re dealing with different characters, you’re thinking, okay, well this is how this person sees the world, this is how they would behave, and you’re having to leap from one character’s experience to the next. We haven’t entered rehearsals yet, but one of the things I find exciting about doing a solo play is that it is a much more intimate process. I think everyone is in greater communication because everyone is so vital to the process. It allows every collaborator to be really attentive to everyone else in the room, and that is really exciting to me.

TS: Will you talk us through the development process for On the Exhale? How much rewriting did you do?
MZ: The initial spark happened in January or February of 2014. Then I got my first job in TV that March. I knew I wanted to focus on that job while I was in the writers’ room, so I just let the idea percolate in my subconscious. Once I was on hiatus from that job, I knew I wanted to write a new play right away. It was very important to me to maintain my practice as a playwright. So I wrote the first draft in the Fall of 2014. Then I had an in-house workshop at Goodman Theatre during the spring of 2015, and then I had a public reading there in November of 2015. I had a reading at Roundabout Underground in February 2016 and a reading at the Ojai Playwrights Conference this past August. I had another reading at the Alley Theatre in September. Readings are a shorter process in terms of working on things, and there isn’t a ton of rewriting — it’s about gauging the audience reaction and assessing what you’ve learned about the play afterwards. I made the most substantial revisions during those first two workshops at the Goodman, and the workshop at the Ojai Playwrights Conference was more about trying to determine how the play will function theatrically. But I’m always open to rewriting.

Martín Zimmerman

TS: What do you look for when you collaborate with a director?
MZ: I look for people who are humane collaborators, who are very attentive to everyone in the process. Directors who can work with different aesthetics. As a writer, I try not to live in the same aesthetic world, I try to do very different things from play to play, so working with directors who can do the same is very important to me. I also look for directors who understand what makes theatre unique as an art form and know how to exploit the unique advantages of liveness.

TS: What qualities does the actress need to play this role?
MZ: Tremendous confidence. The character is very self-assured, and she has a great strength — she does so much by herself. She’s very independent. You need to have an actor whose instinct is not to lean into the emotion — that’s a great temptation when portraying grief. Part of the strength of this character is the self-assuredness to say, “No, there are parts of my emotional life that you don’t get. They’re just mine.” I think that’s a very important quality. From a technical standpoint, an actor playing this role needs the ability to really shape text — shape it classically — as you would have to do in playing Shakespeare.

TS: What advice do you have for a young person who wants to write for the theatre?
MZ: Writers often get told to start from a place of writing what they know. That’s something I haven’t actually done. To me the writing process has been about finding stories I can viscerally identify with that are also in some way outside of my personal experience. This approach then forces me to research rigorously, which helps keep my writing specific. I think it is important to try and tell stories that are alien to your experience. It’s a scary thing to do — I won’t deny it — but I think it’s good to be scared. I think you should embrace that terror, use it to motivate yourself to be incredibly specific in your research, to be humane and gentle in how you represent characters. Writing plays in order to step outside yourself and learn is a way to sustain a lifelong practice.


On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage


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Arthur Miller’s THE PRICE: Interview with Director Terry Kinney

Posted on: March 20th, 2017 by Roundabout

 

Terry Kinney

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? How did you become an actor and a director in the theatre? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?
Terry Kinney: I grew up in a town called Lincoln, Illinois, which is in central Illinois near the state capitol of Springfield. There was not much exposure to theatre in Lincoln. I was peripherally involved in theatre until I went to Illinois State. I went in as a psychology major. But on the first day of school, someone told me they were handing out tuition waivers if you had an audition piece. I had one monologue semi-memorized from my speech team days, so I went to the tryouts and I got in. This was a fairly new department at the time. It had about 280 undergrads and 100 graduate students. They were all very serious about theatre, and that’s where I met John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf and Jeff Perry. The training there was really just doing plays. They kept the theatre open 24 hours a day and you could rehearse and put on shows on the weekend, which became the impetus for us starting Steppenwolf Theatre after we graduated. The teachers there were all remarkable and had a great influence on me. Most notably, Calvin Pritner taught me a lot about acting and spoke not only about objectives, but also really stressed “given circumstances.” He had a very straightforward approach toward it. He used a lot of baseball metaphors. I had a directing teacher named Don LaCasse, who was integral in helping me understand how to take apart a play before I started working on it. He also taught me how to do a deep analysis of the architecture of a play and common sense blocking.

TS: Why did you choose to direct Arthur Miller’s The Price? Does the play have personal resonance for you?
TK: Miller has always been my favorite American playwright, and The Price has always been very special to me since the first time I read it. I thought it was so different from many of Miller’s other plays. It seemed more personal. It felt like he was writing about his own life. I had no evidence of that, and in fact Miller has denied it, but it’s what I felt. Having a brother and older parents, the play has become more and more important to me. Every time I read it, it still moves me deeply. It makes me wonder about the aspects of our memories, and how we fashion ourselves into the protagonists of our own life stories. How we assign villains in our lives. How things that we can’t take responsibility for, we assign to others. That metaphor resonates with me greatly and always has.

Photo by Joan Marcus

TS: How did you prepare to direct this play? Can you give us some insight into your process?
TK: When actors get in a rehearsal room, everything changes, and I like to allow for that. I really want ideas to flow, and that will dictate the direction of where we take the story. On the other hand, I prepare a lot. I try to do exhaustive research, you know, the time period, all that entails. I might let go of some of my preparation once we’re all together, but I’ll hang on to some of it. I inform myself by reading the play obsessively. I read it over and over to the point where I really know what’s going to be on the next page. I don’t pre-block a great deal because I don’t want to lay that on the actors. I usually have a clear notion of how I want to stage it, but the marriage of my ideas and the actors’ impulses is what make a production far more nuanced and richer. The design elements — the set, the lights, the sound and composition of music — all of that goes into the preparation of any piece I direct. I would say the preparation I do is thorough, but it’s also open. It’s open to changes that will naturally develop.

TS: How do you understand the relationship between Victor and his brother Walter?
TK: It’s like a lot of sibling relationships. Their perceptions of how their family operated and how they fit into that family — who they were to each other — has a lot of personal stinging truth and also a lot of fabrication. I’m talking about the kind of memories that you fabricate to protect yourself from your own responsibilities. These two guys are estranged because neither of them have the courage to face what really happened to their family. It was awful, and they had opposite impulses of how to deal with it. Victor martyred himself and has never been able to admit that he did it because of how he felt about himself. He was convinced it was his destiny. He sees himself as a loser. Walter, on the other hand, had a great deal of ambition. He wanted to feel free to make his own choices, and he wanted to be free from responsibility for his father and brother. Everything in that part of Walter’s nature aided him until he broke down. After his breakdown, he continues to struggle with his old nature and has a great deal of anxiety because of it.

TS: I also want to ask about the marriage between Esther and Victor. Do you think that it’s a healthy marriage?
TK: I think it’s a complicated marriage as so many marriages are. It’s been a long-term marriage with not a lot of money, and you know how that is. Esther has wanted enough money to feel comfortable and happy, the way she imagines others feel. She thinks that money will fix things, and she’s turned to alcohol to assuage her disappointments. They love each other a lot, and they don’t communicate very effectively anymore because they see the world quite differently. They put a lot of energy into their son, Richard, but now that he’s gone out of the house, what Esther would love is to reform Victor into someone that he had the potential to be before he turned to the police force. Victor thinks it’s just too late. Do I think they are in deep trouble as a married couple? I can’t say. I think the actors will have a better idea of that. I think the way we want to play this relationship is that there is a great deal of love between them and they still wow each other when they look at each other. They still are very attracted to each other.

Photo by Jenny Anderson

TS: What about the character of Solomon — do you think he’s in the play to remind the Franz brothers and Esther of where they came from?
TK: That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I think that what Miller’s doing with Solomon — and his name is no mistake — is to bring into the conflict a person who’s seen it all, who has survived it all, who keeps going, and who sees both sides. When you see both sides of an argument, you realize there is absolutely no right or no wrong. It’s all a gray area. I think Solomon knows that. I’m excited about what Danny DeVito will bring to the role.

TS: What type of actors did you need for the rest of this cast?
TK: With Victor, I wanted someone with a quiet intensity who was compelling even when he wasn’t saying anything. A man who makes you want to know what he is thinking. I wanted a good listener and someone with gravitas. I wanted a man who understands personal pain and cost. That’s a tall order, and we are so lucky to have Mark Ruffalo in the role. Walter is a character who walks in and the audience has heard so much about him that they are prepared to dislike him. Well, that’s not the way Miller saw it — he wanted both arguments to be given equal weight. I needed someone who is charming and who can access a deep well of feelings. A person who is gentle and can explain why we choose the life we choose. Tony Shalhoub has all of that depth of feeling. The character of Esther, which sometimes gets short shrift in the analysis of the play, is a woman who is patient and understanding, and yet she bristles against all the misogyny in her world. She is angered by the men in society who parse out wealth to the few that they feel deserve it. She’s a loving woman and yet very frustrated by her plight, and it requires an actress with a great deal of heart and skill. That’s why I’ve asked Jessica Hecht to play it.

TS: Do you have any advice for young people who say they want to direct for the theatre?
TK: My advice is don’t let anybody talk you out of it. Hopefully, you are aware that you aren’t going to make money. Making money is not why you should be doing theatre to begin with. If you want to direct, go out and find friends and a room to do it in and direct. Nobody can really stop you from doing that. That’s how Steppenwolf Theatre was born. What we wanted was to just make art together. We were in the church basement, and nobody gave a shit.

TS: What keeps you inspired as an artist?
TK: I like truth. I like things that take me unaware, things that don’t reflect my daily life but shed light on it through metaphor and image. I’m inspired by music all the time, and I listen to a lot of it. When I work on a play, I listen to music constantly. There’s a musicality to language that’s essential to every play that I direct, and I like to find that musicality in the music I listen to. I’m inspired by everybody who is brave enough to make art because I think it requires a great deal of bravery. Every time I go to see something — whether it be theatre, opera, or the Philharmonic — I constantly find myself filled with the same wonder that I had the first time I ever saw any kind of art. I’m in awe of how they do it. I’m not the least bit jaded when I go to theatre. I’m not overly critical. I am a perpetual amateur. It serves me well to retain that status because I still find wonder in each moment that we build together as artists. When you build something and it works and everybody in the room knows it’s working — that’s just an incredible feeling.


Arthur Miller's The Price is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Arthur Miller's The Price, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage


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On The Exhale: Trauma and the Brain

Posted on: March 17th, 2017 by Roundabout

 

Trauma is the Greek word for “wound.” In ancient time it referred to a physical wound, but today trauma is also understood as an emotional wound.

Experiencing a traumatic event changes the chemistry of our body and brain. These changes can remain long after the event has ended.

There are two types of traumatic events. In an acute traumatic event, someone experiences a serious injury or the injury or death of another person, or the threat of death or serious injury. Violations of personal physical integrity, like rape or sexual assault, are also acute traumatic events. Chronic traumatic situations happen repeatedly over longer periods of time and include being exposed to domestic violence, living through a war, and some bullying.

The human brain is the most complex system known. It has three main parts.

  • The brainstem, the most primitive part of the brain, controls the basics like breathing, eating, sleeping, and survival instincts.
  • The limbic or midbrain processes emotions and controls how we perceive the world around us. The amygdala, which controls our sense of danger and safety and triggers the release of stress hormones, is part of the limbic brain.
  • The cortex, the frontal and outer parts of our brain, is sometimes called the rational or cognitive brain. It controls language, empathy, learning, organization, and inhibition of inappropriate behaviors.

Fight of flight.

During a traumatic event, the limbic brain takes in sensory information from the body and sends it in two directions, to both the amygdala and to the frontal lobes of the cortex. The amygdala receives the information sooner and makes a snap judgement as to whether or not a situation is dangerous. In a potentially dangerous situation, the amygdala tells the hypothalamus and brainstem to secrete stress hormones. These hormones prepare the body for fight or flight: bronchial tubes and pupils dilate, digestion slows, muscles contract, heart and respiration rates increase. If fight or flight is impossible, the brainstem will trigger a freeze or collapse response. Processes not necessary for survival shut down. The cortex, the thinking brain, is disconnected from the limbic brain and essentially turned off.

Because of this disconnect, the human brain struggles to consolidate memories and emotions into a coherent narrative after a traumatic situation, which is necessary for working through a trauma. The areas of the brain responsible for understanding time and place are bypassed, explaining the woman in On the Exhale’s inability to process what happened in her son’s classroom. Trauma is remembered as disconnected images and sensations.

In some cases individuals experience flashbacks of the trauma, or dissociate completely, unable to connect with either their emotions or their everyday life. The woman in On the Exhale seeks the rush of firing the gun, suggesting that she may be having a dissociating response.

Marin Ireland in ON THE EXHALE. Photo by Joan Marcus.

After trauma, the amygdala, which warns of danger, can go into overdrive and trigger release of stress hormones in non-threatening situations. This can cause emotional and psychological problems, as well as physical symptoms like high blood pressure and digestive issues. In recent years, scientists have shown that trauma symptoms lessen if treatment includes a somatic, or body-based, component. Movement and breathing exercises like yoga, or group rhythm activities like dance or choral singing, send information from the body back to brain, signaling safety and calm. Over time, these practices can help create new patterns and physical responses in individuals who have experienced trauma.

 

 


On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage


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