Ted Sod: Why did you choose to direct Steven Levenson’s If I Forget?
Daniel Sullivan: I was interested in the play. I feel the ideas regarding the direction Israel is going in are important. It seems to me that these are conversations that go on around the kitchen tables of Jewish families all over the country, all over the world. You just don’t ever hear it on the stage. That’s one reason why I was interested in Steven’s play. The characters have some powerful arguments to make. I thought what better place to hear them than on the stage because his characters are wonderfully theatrical.
TS: So, it had all the elements that you look for in a new play?
DS: Yes, exactly. It’s set in 2000 and 2001, during the failure of the Oslo Accords and what’s interesting is how little things have changed in the political context of the play. The constant threat of violence in the Mid-east, in Israel, the conservative and reactionary views against the more liberal views as to the direction of the country, all of those things are as important now as they were then. Perhaps a little more so now in terms of the religious right in Israel.
TS: What would you say the play is about?
DS: It’s about the “if” of If I Forget. It’s both the argument of the play and the story of the play outside its own political context. It’s also about what happens if we forget our own history, our family history. What happens to us? Who are we? That’s the constant question of the play.
TS: How do you understand the relationship of Michael and his sisters, Holly and Sharon, to their deceased mother? Michael also seems somewhat of an outsider in his own family. Both things feel important to the storytelling. Do you agree?
DS: Yes, I think that’s true. I think it accounts for Michael’s radicalization as well. The mother of the family has passed on and that’s a huge event. You try to locate who she was and the power she had in that family, which is now missing. The siblings are a bit lost and trying to find themselves in this new situation with their mother gone. That’s one of the motors of the play. Lou, the father, and his relationship with his son, Michael, is also key. And, with the mother gone, that relationship has become even more important to Michael. He has been trying to prove himself to his father for a long time. The father is withholding any kind of praise from his son. Michael’s family hasn’t been able to grasp in any way his academic life, they haven’t understood the previous books he has written as part of his academic life. He hopes his new book will not only blow the lid off the academy, but will get noticed by the general population as well. Keep in mind, Michael’s gone out of his way to marry a shiksa, which is also a statement to his family that he refuses to be pulled into the Jewish religion or culture. He has deliberately separated himself from his family.
TS: Do you think books still have the power to be scandalous and are able to bring about someone’s downfall?
DS: Yes, I do think so. Michael has written this book so that the statements he’s making will reverberate beyond the academy. He knows that overstatement is what’s necessary. Steven Levenson may have been inspired by the case of Steven Salaita, who was fired from the University of Illinois, and then sued and was compensated. Salaita’s tweets about Israel and Palestine were definitely alarming. They were violent. Protecting his First Amendment right was the main argument against his firing, but certainly what he had to say was scary. The same thing is true here with what Michael is suggesting in his book. Michael has to know that what he’s written will not just shake the academy, but the larger world as well.
TS: Will you give us a sense of your collaboration with Steven Levenson, the playwright?
DS: Steven came out to Illinois and we sat around and talked for a few days about the play. That was a majority of the work that we did on it. I work with a writer the same way I work with an actor: I just ask questions. One of the things that I noticed in an earlier version of Steven’s play, was that the first scene was a hilarious family scene and I felt it was getting us off to a false comic start. It raised the usual expectations about watching a comedy and then the rest of the play turned out not to be that. Steven had written another first scene that he cut with Michael on the phone with his daughter Abby, who is in Israel on a birthright trip. He went back to that as the first scene, so now the play begins with a scene that I think allows us to visit not only a humorous world, but the political and moral issues at the heart of the play are in focus from the beginning too.
TS: And I imagine your work together will be continuing until you open.
DS: Our main focus right now is what is the cost of writing this book to the character of Michael. Does it have a cost to him? What is the decision at the end of the play costing him if anything? I keep going back to The Cherry Orchard and what does the sale of the cherry orchard cost the people in that play? I know the cost in The Cherry Orchard; I’m not clear yet what the cost of it is to Michael.
TS: The play takes place approximately 16 years ago. Did you have to do any research regarding the world events mentioned in this play?
DS: I am trying to get as much information as I can about the weeks surrounding the Oslo Accord and what was actually going on and to read as much as I can during that time period – but it is very déjà vu. The rhetoric of the time hasn’t changed at all except that everybody has gotten more dug in.
TS: What did you look for in casting the actors? What traits did you need?
DS: It was an interesting casting process. There were some actors I think who were avoiding the subject matter. It does need actors who are bright, smart people and who understand the issues at hand. That’s extremely important. It needs the most realistic ease of playing that you can possibly imagine. I want the acting to be completely naturalistic and detailed.
TS: How important will the use of sound or music be to the storytelling?
DS: I believe that the television will be on most of the time and it will provide the necessary sound, and I don’t want to underscore dramatically. I feel like that would be false. Sometimes music will help us escape something and I would rather keep the sounds environmental and any score will weave in and out of that. I don’t know at this point what I’ll do at the end of the play when things start to get abstract. I don’t know how I’ll handle that because it is stylistically very separate from the rest of the play.
TS: You are also directing Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes this year – do you think these two plays are in conversation with one another?
DS: The Little Foxes is black and white. Regina is the most complicated and interesting character. But Hellman’s play is a melodrama and If I Forget isn’t. There is a certain mild queasiness that the two plays share, but I think that we still need to admire virtually all the characters in If I Forget and that’s certainly not true with The Little Foxes.
TS: Do you have any advice for young people who want to direct?
DS: Just relax and observe. Directors have to be empathizers and they have to study behavior. All we can do is to bring that into the theatre, but we can’t do it if we don’t empathize with everything we see and understand it in some way. That’s what I try to do. Most directors think the job is to talk people into doing stuff and I certainly think that’s true, but the arsenal that we have as directors is the fact that we don’t forget. We keep behavioral observations with us forever and that’s what we bring into a rehearsal hall. We must be able to see both sides of every argument. If I Forget is a play that tries to present both sides.
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