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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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Interview with Director Gordon Greenberg

Posted on: December 29th, 2016 by Ted Sod

 

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod talked to director Gordon Greenberg about his work on Holiday Inn.

Director Gordon Greenberg

Ted Sod: Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and educated? Why did you want to become a theatre director? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?

Gordon Greenberg: I was born in Texas but raised in New York, where I quickly became a theatre fan and then a performer. I appeared in my first Broadway show at age 12 and attended Stagedoor Manor, a magical summer camp filled with similarly passionate theatre kids. I lived for the summers and remain close friends with many of the people I met there, including my first theatre teacher, Jeanine Tesori (composer of Fun Home, Caroline or Change, and Shrek), my counselor Mark Saks (casting director on “The Good Wife”), and my roommates (we didn’t have bunks) Jonathan Marc Sherman (playwright), Shawn Levy (film director, Night at the Museum), and Josh Charles (actor, “The Good Wife” et al.). It was an idyllic place to cultivate your inner artist and share stories and hopes for the future. During high school, I also went to summer programs at Carnegie Mellon for musical theatre and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London for classics, before enrolling at Stanford University to study Western Culture as a freshman (how’s that for non-committal?). I later transferred to NYU, where I was able to major in Film and Art History. We were very fortunate, as part of an artists' group that also travelled to China, to study with renowned film director Zhang Yimou, and to Russia to study at the Moscow Art Theatre. Our Dean used to rate us on the value of the questions we asked, to ensure that we were always circumspect and thoughtful. That sense of intellectual rigor was intimidating at first. I have always believed that art is first and foremost for the audience. But I eventually learned that respect for craft and quality goes hand in hand with accessibility to all art forms. Stagedoor, Stanford, and NYU began a great awakening to all the possibility of theatre and the value of hard work. But it’s a lesson that I am still learning from every collaborator I work with.

TS: Why did you choose to co-write and direct this stage adaptation of Holiday Inn?

GG: I was working with Universal on another project when this idea came up, and Chris (Herzberger, Universal's Vice President of Live Theatricals) and I jumped out of our skins with delight. I always get excited when a film offers the raw material for a great stage musical without begging to be recreated literally onstage. And Holiday Inn was just that; a classic film with a classic score and a simple narrative that left room for development. It’s a show that is a sheer pleasure to direct, filled with humor and heart and humanity. I try to make the atmosphere in the rehearsal room as buoyant and spirited as the show itself. That’s how we fuel the joy machine that is Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical.

TS: How did you research the world of the play? Can you give us some insight into your process as a co-writer and director?

GG: I grew up with a profound love for this period. My parents are big fans of musicals and the great American songbook, so this was the music that was always playing in our house. Those were the films that were always on our television. So that sense of nostalgia and romanticism for this period was very much alive for me. My grandmother and her sister appeared once on "The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour" television talent show. They didn’t win, but the legend seems to have grown inversely, looming large in my mind from a young age. When we started this process, I immersed myself happily in films, books, and radio broadcasts of the era, although Chad Hodge (my co-writer) and I only ever watched the original film of Holiday Inn once, at the outset. That allowed us to approach the story with fresh eyes. Furthermore, I have spent much of the past four years directing the UK revival of Guys and Dolls, first at Chichester Festival Theatre and then in London’s West End. Since that show was written in the late 1940s, the post-war period in which we chose to re-set Holiday Inn, I felt very much in tune with the vernacular and silly sense of word play. It was also a gift to be able to develop the show at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut, where we were living quite literally in the world of the show, surrounded by that New England architecture, staunch Yankee sensibility, and beautiful scenery.

TS: What do you think the musical is about? How do you understand the relationship between Jim and Ted?

GG: Whenever I start working on a project, I ask myself what the play underneath the play is about. Why must these ideas be put into the world? With Holiday Inn, I was immediately drawn to the idea of what, in art and in life, is truth as opposed to artifice. And where do the lines get blurred? The notion of wanting to swap the frivolity and uncertainty of show business for something genuine and solid was also very much alive for me. Both of these themes run throughout the show, as our protagonist Jim struggles with his desire to live authentically against his love for performing. In one of his moments of epiphany, he realizes that maybe it does take a little bit of performing to live a normal life. But he doesn’t ultimately find happiness until he learns, as Rilke would say, to live in the questions. Throughout the show, Jim has two love stories—a romantic one with Linda, a local school teacher who is not easily charmed, and a platonic one with his oldest and best friend Ted, whose life force energy has become entirely focused on his career, while Jim’s is pointing in another direction. Jim and Ted experience the heartache of a friendship breakup and the ultimate joy in a reunion that shows growth on both of their parts and reaffirms their bond of mutual admiration.

TS: What are the major differences between this adaptation and the movie version? Will you talk about any songs from the Irving Berlin canon that are being interpolated into this stage adaptation? Why did you choose them?

GG: The stage musical is inspired by the original screenplay, but it’s very freely adapted. Although we held onto all the beloved set pieces (songs, dances, ideas, and moments), we largely reimagined the story, characters, and tone. We have also added several fantastic songs from the Irving Berlin songbook. What a treasure trove to select from! The new songs in the stage musical are like a hit parade from the Irving Berlin songbook, including “Cheek to Cheek,” “Blue Skies,” “Shakin’ The Blues Away,” “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Heat Wave,” and “Easy To Dance With.”

Bryce Pinkham, Gordon Greenber and Denis Jones

Bryce Pinkham, Gordon Greenber and Denis Jones

TS: What do you look for in a musical director and choreographer? Will you talk about working with your collaborators in these roles, Andy Einhorn and Denis Jones?

GG: First and foremost, you want to work with people who enjoy collaboration; people who derive joy from the spark of creating new ideas together, bouncing back and forth improving them. I am fortunate enough to have met Denis many years ago when we were both actors. He was always a bright light in the room and continues to be one in every room we work in. He is never shy with ideas or less than flexible —and always a source of good humor and spirit. We always see our work evolve as we discover more about how best to tell a story. For example, at one point the opening number of this show was a gigantic cavalcade of dancers, which was thrilling in and of itself, but ultimately confusing to an audience who needed to know that our protagonist was not at the top of his game and wanted to quit show business. There was an inherent mismatch of ideas, but it took a minute for us to see that. Denis is the rare choreographer who was able to turn on a dime, throw that spectacular number away, and whip up a rinky-dink cabaret sketch that set us up for narrative success—all with pleasure. Andy is new to the show but is a top notch musician and highly sensitive to the overall needs of the show. He listens not only as the music director, but also as an audience member experiencing the show for the first time. That’s a crucial distinction, because it’s easy to become myopic and obsess about your department specifically. Being able to see the big picture makes for great collaborators and, ultimately, a much better show.

TS: What did you look for in casting the actors?

GG: Because Holiday Inn lives in a specific time period, style, and vernacular, we looked for actors who connected with this language and sensibility; actors for whom the humor came naturally, and who could fill this style with truth and humanity. On top of that, they all had to do justice to this glorious music. And then there’s the dancing. For the role of Ted, we needed someone who could command the stage as an actor and singer—and tap dance like a star. Indeed, trying to fill the shoes of Fred Astaire was a slightly terrifying prospect for us—but we ultimately freed ourselves in much the same way we did with the book – by embracing the idea that this is going to be its own new creation. And the more we take it in new directions, the better it becomes.

TS: How will the play manifest itself visually?

GG: We found a lot of great inspiration for the visual world of the show up in Connecticut, where there are a wealth of old farms, inns, bungalow colonies, and school houses that feel like we could find any of our characters living in, working in, and loving. In fact, the proscenium surround is a loving homage to the Goodspeed Opera House, where the earliest version of this show was performed. As far as the general aesthetic for the design of the show, we aimed a contemporary lens at the vintage world of 1946. The graphics, patterns, and colors are all little gems we found in vintage shops, online, and in some public buildings I happened upon in London. Camera phones have made trading ideas much easier!

TS: Any advice for young people who want to be theatre directors and who specifically want to direct musicals?

GG: Have a trust fund. I jest, but it’s true that a career in directing takes time and mileage to cultivate. Be prepared to dedicate the time. If you want to become a professional theatre director, you should first and foremost take in all of the arts; visit museums, see every play, opera, ballet, musical, spectacle, prayer circle, paintball tournament, poetry reading, movie, and live event you can. It’s all woolgathering. It will free you to dream up your own stories, and it will all come back in your work one day in ways you can’t even contemplate right now. Also, live life outside of theatre. If you want to paint mountains, you have to go look at them. Don’t settle for just looking at other people’s paintings of mountains. Finally, write. Even if you think you’re a lousy writer, write something every day. It will make you more sensitive to the process, and you may even find that you have a play or musical or novel in you.

TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?

GG: I teach. There’s nothing more inspiring than inspiring someone else, helping them discover an unknown part of themselves. As a director, you are responsible for so many departments that you can sometimes get lost in the weeds and disconnect from the sheer joy of creation; the need to express something profoundly personal and human. So working with young artists becomes a great way to reconnect yourself; encouraging them to reach down deeper for the art in themselves; to tap into that soulful stream that runs through all of us. You don’t realize how much life has beaten you up until you watch a group of kids experience something for the first time. That’s pure— and theatrical.

 

Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin musical is now playing at Studio 54. Visit our website for tickets and more information. 


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Holiday Inn, Upstage


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Theatre and Restorative Justice, Part III

Posted on: December 27th, 2016 by Leah Reddy

 

Leah Reddy is a Master Teaching Artist at Roundabout and has served as Partnership Coordinator for Roundabout’s partnership with Brooklyn School for Music and Theatre (BSMT) for the past 5 years. At BSMT, Roundabout Teaching Artists partner with educators to co-plan and co-facilitate 8-visit classroom residencies that explore classroom content through theatre. This fall, Leah partnered with Kayla Dinces in her creative writing class. Together, Leah and Kayla worked with the school’s Restorative Justice Coordinator, Yuko Uchikawa, to explore creative writing using theatre and restorative justice practices. The students attended Roundabout’s production of KINGDOM COME as a part of the residency. In a series of 3 blogs, Leah will share her experience as a Teaching Artist in this residency. The following is blog 3 of 3.

We live in a world where young people, particularly young people of color, are disrespected and devalued. I don’t want the environments I create in the classroom—even if I’m just there for 45 minutes—to reinforce or replicate that power structure, and I started this project because I had a hunch that Restorative Justice could help with that. One of the cornerstones of Restorative Justice practice is the restorative circle, in which a community sits in a circle and passes a talking piece around, with each community member having the opportunity to speak on the topic at hand. Yuko told me that “since restorative circles value equity in the space one takes up (use of talking piece allows everyone the opportunity to speak) and also the circle keeper is also a part of the community, not above or below the participants… it creates a place of expression and respect and not replicate the hierarchical power structure.”

TRJ3_02

We had circles in each of our workshops, often at the very end, when we responded to a reflection question. As a teaching artist I liked the practice not only because it made a comfortable space for every voice (something difficult to do when you have outspoken students in a class) but also because it highlighted that we are all on an artistic journey together.

We spent this week working with students to develop their collaboratively-written, original short play, Acceptance? Kayla and I began the process by offering a scenario for students to build on that connected back to Kingdom Come: two cousins and a grandmother in conflict over something the grandmother discovers online. We left the conflict, and it's resolution, open.

Tyreese, Kahmeeca, and Olivia improvised several ideas, eventually circling in on the grandmother discovering that the male cousin was gay, and the fallout as her beliefs clash with her grandchildren's experiences. From there, Donta, Chelsea, and Akima worked as playwrights to develop the script, while other students took on design and technical roles. The process was student-driven and the engagement and energy in the room changed. It felt successful: students were actively making theatre, inspired by a Roundabout production.

BSMT teacher Kayla Dinces, and Restorative Justice Coordinator Yuko Uchikawa collaborating on lessons for the residency

BSMT teacher Kayla Dinces, and Restorative Justice Coordinator Yuko Uchikawa collaborating on lessons for the residency

The process ground to a halt when the playwrights wrote in language and plot twists the actors didn't feel was true to their characters or story. Would our ensemble be able to be able to analyze and resolve their conflict? What effect would our practice of restorative circles and the time spent exploring dignity have? How much should we, as authority figures, guide the conversation?

The initial conversation was a mixed bag: the students were thoughtful and articulate, but not always able to give each other the benefit of the doubt, or acknowledge the work each group had put into the project. Afterwards, Yuko, Kayla, and I brainstormed additional ways we could have shaped the conversation so that students maintained ownership but were more mindful of their classmates’ perspectives.

Our residency is ongoing: like theatre-making, Restorative Justice is a collaborative process that takes time. I hope the students walk away with a better ability to analyze how conflict develops, and the awareness needed to resolve conflict in their own lives.


Related Categories:
Education @ Roundabout, Teaching Artist Tuesday


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