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If I Forget

If I Forget: Tenleytown

Posted on: February 17th, 2017 by Roundabout

 

It’s a store. It’s a parcel of property. It’s not some kind of magical place. There are no magical places. There’s just dirt. It’s all the same dirt.
-Michael, If I Forget

Tenleytown Train Station

In If I Forget, the Fischer family grapples with the future of a building they own in Tenleytown, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. about five miles northwest of downtown. The town was named for John Tennally, who owned a tavern in the area in the 1790s. It remained a small, rural community until the American Civil War, when its status as the highest point in the District made it a natural choice for the location of Fort Pennsylvania (later renamed Fort Reno) and Union soldiers sent to protect the city.

After the Civil War, a neighborhood called Reno City developed around the site of Fort Reno.  Reno City was a mixed-race, working-class neighborhood. 75% of the population was African- American, and 25% was white. In 1890, a streetcar line connecting the area with downtown Washington began service, and middle-class white families began moving to the areas around Tenleytown. In the 1920s, parts of Reno City were condemned and seized by the government to make way for a new middle school, high school, park, and water tower.

Midcentury, Tenleytown was part of a commercial and residential area with a suburban vibe. Washington’s first Sears and Roebuck department store opened there in 1941. That year, Washington, D.C.’s demographics were about what they’d always been: roughly 70% white, 30% black. But that changed in 1954, when public schools were desegregated. White families moved to the suburbs in response; by 1960, the city was 53% black. In 1970, 71% of D.C. residents were black.

Washington, D.C. after the MLK
assassination

After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, riots erupted in Washington, D.C. and several other cities, a result of years of frustration with systemic racism that led to discrimination in employment, education, the criminal justice system, housing, and access to services. The riots destroyed 900 stores and decimated the city’s black business districts.

While Tenleytown wasn’t damaged in the riots, the city as a whole struggled to recover. The total population dropped 15% from 1970 to 1980, and it continued dropping through 2000. Both white and black residents fled the area.

But by 2000-2001, when If I Forget takes place, money and young residents are returning to the nation’s capitol, part of a national shift in residential living patterns. Immigrants and their children, like the Jimenez family, are also settling in American cities and contributing to their revitalization. Between 2000 and 2015, the city gained over 100,000 residents. Today, the population is 43% White, 49% Black, 10% Hispanic or Latino, 4% Asian, 0.6% Native American, and 2.6% other. Tenleytown has had a spike in property values: a building in Tenleytown today is worth 60% more than it was in 2000.


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.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, If I Forget, Upstage


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Steven Levenson

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.

Kate Walsh, Steven Levenson and Jeremy Shamos in rehearsal for IF I FORGET. Photo by
Jenny Anderson.

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.

Steven Levenson and Daniel Sullivan in rehearsal for IF I FORGET. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

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.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, If I Forget, Upstage


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Maria Dizzia

Ted Sod: Where were you born and what made you decide to become and actress? Where did you get your training? Did you have any teachers who profoundly influenced you?
Maria Dizzia:  I was born in Belleville, NJ. I fell in love with acting one day in the third grade. I was in a summer arts program and we had spent the day doing improvisations. I was not very good at them—I would stand at the perimeter of the circle and ask the other actor a lot of questions. But I loved watching the kids who were good at it. I wanted to learn how to do that and be free and surprise myself and other people. I got my training at UCSD in their MFA program. The most influential teacher I had was Bob Pridham, my acting teacher in high school. He has a vision for actors and the theater—he loves Greek drama—the size, importance and ritual of it and he imported that sensibility into his other work. Spare with big gestures. He helped me see acting as both art and work—the work was the service you paid to the text and to the audience, the art was your interpretation, your point of view—what will that look like?

TS: Why did you choose to play the role of Sharon in Steven Levenson’s If I Forget? What do you think the play is about?
MD: I wanted to play Sharon primarily because I love Steven’s work. I’ve known him for a long time and wanted to have the chance to be in the same room with him for awhile. I feel that way about Dan Sullivan, too. I’ve seen so many of the productions he’s directed. So many different kinds of stories that he’s brought to life and I wanted to learn from him—to learn from the questions he asks. The role of Sharon, in particular, because she has so many feelings and has a hard time expressing them. I think in a lot of ways she is conflict-averse, but ends up feeling backed into a corner and getting very upset. The play is about whatever the people watching it think it’s about. Really, I don’t mean that in a flippant way. It’s about family and identity and culture and history and those topics are so personal. It’s about what it means to care—it’s about betrayal and loyalty. And about the ultimate betrayal—time. Do you feel that the passage of time is your friend—does it heal all wounds? Is it a relief that ”this too shall pass” or does it make our lives meaningless. And if time betrays us, does that set the terms for us all? Can we create something in spite of the threat of being erased or are we doomed to betray—to misinterpret, to ignore, to forget.

TS: What kind of preparation or research do you have to do before rehearsals begin in order to play this role?  
MD: I have to learn more about Judaism. I don’t know Hebrew, I don’t know a lot of the stories of the Torah and I’m excited to read them and begin to study the way I believe Sharon is studying. I have to read the play every day to learn about the family dynamics and make sure I know their history.

Larry Bryggman and Maria Dizzia in rehearsal for IF I FORGET. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

TS: How is this character relevant to you?  I realize the rehearsal process hasn’t begun yet, but can you share some of your initial thoughts about who your character is with us? What do you find most challenging/exciting about this role?
MD: What I find most challenging about Sharon is that she has been living near the threshold for so long. She was with her mother through her hospice and death, and now she is with her father as his health declines. She’s been standing at the door between life and death for so many years. I think that’s a hard place to be. I think the reality of it is overwhelming and relentless and a person needs to cope somehow.

TS:  At the early stage in your work, how do you understand Sharon’s relationship to her siblings and her father?
MD: I think Sharon is devoted to her family. Preserving her family’s history is a way to honor the people who have shaped her. I think she has her own rules, however, about who is family and who isn’t. She’s the youngest and didn’t get to bond with her siblings when they were younger. They were already older and had their own sibling culture by the time she showed up. I think she feels a bit on the outside and wants desperately to be in the heart of it. She kind of is the heart now as first the primary caretaker of her mother and, currently, of her father. Maybe she sees herself as the new matriarch. I think about the line from August: Osage County: “I am running things now!” Sharon might like that, but she’s a little more dependent on others.

Maria Dizzia in rehearsal for IF I
FORGET
. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

TS:  What do you look for from a director when working a new play?  What do you look for from the playwright?
MD: From the director, I look for support and clarity. Support in the way of nurturing things he can see, but that aren’t fully formed yet. And clarity in terms of saying what isn’t working. What things should be dropped to make way for behaviors that are more dynamic and truthful. In the playwright, I look for insights about where the characters and ideas came from. Guidance about what things are most important to a character.

TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
MD: I try to pay attention to things. I try to learn new things. I look at art and watch movies and talk to people I like.

TS: Students reading this interview and will want to know what it takes to be a successful actress  -- what advice can you give young people who say they want to act?
MD: Believe in yourself. Which is such a hard thing to do and so confusing because who is yourself anyway. I think it’s the most important thing, though, because it contains the idea that we are a work in progress. I don’t think it means unconditionally love everything you do. I think the belief part means you are not there yet. You are believing you can achieve something so, therefore, you are in the process of building it. So, I think the self you are believing in is the self that wants to learn, that is curious, that wants to do something it doesn’t have proof of yet. This is becoming a weird answer. I mean believe in yourself and keep learning. Take classes, study films and plays, learn about people, read a lot. Take all the opportunities that come your way and learn from them. One of my favorite quotes I read in Backstage Magazine—I don’t know if they still print quotes in the magazine like they did when it had more of a newspaper format—but it’s Thomas Edison’s: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”


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.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, If I Forget, Upstage


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