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Upstage

 

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

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.

Jeremy Shamos and Tasha Lawrence in rehearsal for IF I FORGET. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

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.


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


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On The Exhale: Guns on Campus

Posted on: February 28th, 2017 by Roundabout

 

“Based on current trends, the problem is likely to become much graver over the next decade. It is imperative that lawmakers, policymakers, college administrators, law enforcement and others begin to have a serious dialogue and enact meaningful reforms to address this epidemic and make America’s colleges safe again.” — Citizens Crime Commission of New York City

Spotlight on Virginia Tech
On April 16, 2007, one of America’s deadliest mass shooting incidents occurred on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia. Student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks, before killing himself. Cho was found to have a troubled history of mental health that had not been adequately addressed or disclosed by the University.

The official review panel survey, known as the Massengill Report, included in-depth inquiry of the shooter’s mental health and mistakes made by both the college and the state that allowed this event to happen. It described “major gaps” in the mental health system that “prevent individuals from getting the psychiatric help when they are getting ill, during the need for acute stabilization, and when they need therapy and medication management during recovery.” The Massengill Report offered recommendations to universities about their responsibility to identify and address mental illness and protect the wider student body from troubled individuals.

One year after the shooting, a study of U.S. campuses found that 64% of schools were paying “greater attention and respect” to the needs of security and safety. Mental health of the campus community became a higher priority for college administrators. Research by psychologists demonstrated that campus shootings result in post-traumatic stress disorder for school personnel, including teachers and administrators, in addition to students, and recommended that everyone impacted by such events receive counseling or treatment.

The Virginia Tech shootings ignited a national debate about the right to carry weapons on college and other school campuses. Gun control proponents pointed at the ease with which a mentally unsound individual was able to purchase two semi-automatic pistols, despite state laws that should have prevented such purchase.

The Massengill Report recommended state legislation to allow college campuses to regulate the possession of firearms and went on to recommend campus gun bans, "unless mandated by law." The report also recommended wider gun control measures such as stronger background check requirements for all private firearms sales, including those at gun shows. In 2008, Governor Tim Kaine attempted to enact a law requiring background checks. Less than a year after the tragedy, despite passionate support from survivors of the event, the bill was defeated by a bipartisan committee of Virginia’s State Senate. However, Kaine did work with the legislature to close a loophole that had allowed the shooter to buy a gun even though a judge had declared him mentally ill two years earlier.

Opponents of gun control asserted that the school’s gun-free "safe zone" policy prevented students and faculty from being armed and able to defend themselves or stop the killer. In addition to increased advocacy for guns on campuses by the National Rifle Association, the event spurred student gun advocates to organize. A nationwide group, Students for Concealed Carry, started on Facebook and has grown to over 36,000 members today. The student-run group advocates for legal concealed carry on college campuses, as a means of self-defense in incidents like Virginia Tech. Today, SCC works to “push state legislators and school administrators to grant concealed handgun license holders the same rights on college campuses that those licensees currently enjoy in most other unsecured locations.”

In 2008, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, Inc. (IACLEA) issued a statement declaring their belief that allowing concealed guns would not make campuses safer, but rather would have the potential to dramatically increase violence on college and university campuses.

Virginia Tech shooting candlelight vigil.

The Big Picture: An Increase in Campus Shootings.
A recent study of campus shootings nationwide looked at 190 incidents at 142 colleges between 2001 and 2016, which demonstrated an increasing percentage of campus shootings over time.

Sept 2001 - June 2006: 40 recorded shootings on or near college campuses.
Sept 2006 - June 2011: 49 incidents (including Virginia Tech)
Sept 2011 - June 2015: 101 incidents (153% increase)

The victims:
290 students
5 former students
40 college employees
77 not associated with the college
25 with undetermined relationship to school

167 people were killed
270 people were wounded

Who were the shooters?
59% not associated with the school
28% students
9% former students
4% employees

12 states experienced more than 5 shooting incidents on or near college campuses. States with the most incidents were Tennessee (14), California (14), Virginia (13), Georgia (13), North Carolina (11) and Florida (11). The increase in incidents was most profound for colleges in states with increased access to guns.

The study conducted by the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, recommends:

Real reforms must be enacted in order to make America’s students safer.
The Clery Act (requiring colleges that receive federal funding to report criminal offenses) should be amended to require reporting of all shooting incidents occurring on college campuses and incidents involving students near college campuses.
State legislators should enact common-sense gun laws that make it harder for guns to get into the hands of so many people on or near college campuses (including one-gun-a-month law, training and license requirements, universal background checks, and strict carrying guidelines).
Closer collaboration between colleges and local law enforcement is needed.
Increased education for students and parents on the issues.
U.S. News & World Report and other college-raters should include gun violence statistics in their college rankings to better inform the public.

GUNS ON CAMPUS: State-by-state
Among the many controversies about guns in U.S. society, the right to carry concealed weapons on school campuses emerged as a point of debate after 2007. While the majority of U.S. public colleges still prohibit guns, the states of Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin have passed laws allowing the carrying of firearms on campus premises, including classrooms, dormitories, or parking lots.

Across these states, colleges have differing authority to determine gun policies. For example, Texas still allows each school to determine sensitive areas and buildings where concealed weapons will continue to be prohibited. But the Attorney General of Kansas recently denied a request by the University of Kansas to ban guns on certain parts of campus, such as high security areas containing dangerous materials.

Learn more about campus guns on a state-by-state basis here: http://www.armedcampuses.org/

Moms Demand Action
In 2015, in response to the devastating school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Moms Demand Action was founded by Shannon Watts. The grassroots organization quickly grew, with chapters in all 50 states. The group supports the 2nd Amendment but advocates for common-sense solutions to decrease gun violence. Through its efforts, the group helped keep guns out of schools in Virginia, North Dakota, Kentucky, Florida, and Alaska. The organization also reaches out to educators, to work on opposition to gun proliferation in schools.

Learn more about Moms Demand Action here: https://momsdemandaction.org/


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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On the Exhale: Solo Plays

Posted on: February 24th, 2017 by Roundabout

 

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

A solo show (often also known as a “one person show”) can take many different forms, from just a comedian musing on stage to a piece of performance art. When we think of a solo show, many of us think of something biographical or a memoir. This is because the genre is dominated by this type of storytelling. Some famous examples include Elaine Stritch at Liberty, where Stritch documented her life, and actor John Leguizamo’s semi-autobiographical solo shows on Broadway, which drew on his life experiences to create explosive storytelling. With one performer, the storytelling can lend itself to being more insular, for the performer to open up to an audience in an intimate setting. On the other hand, actors such as Whoopi Goldberg have also used the opportunity of a solo show to show their versatility, playing hundreds of different characters. On the Exhale charts a slightly different course—it is a full play that happens to be performed by just one actor, who is telling an original, fictional story. But what is it that makes the solo show so enduring? In an age of big, bombastic shows, why tell a story in this format?

WISHFUL DRINKING marquee.

On a practical level, solo shows are usually simple to assemble and cost-effective. You do not have to worry about paying a large multitude of actors, and sets are often cheaper. Also, budgetary concerns of theatres have limited cast sizes over the last ten years. In an article for the New York Times in 2007, Todd Haimes, Artistic Director of Roundabout, stated that “a new playwright now, no matter how talented, would never write a play for 15 people because it wouldn’t get produced... [B]y virtue of the constrained budgets theaters have we’ve changed the style of playwriting. Arthur Miller wouldn’t write The Crucible today.” But does this mean you would opt immediately for a solo show? Not necessarily. In the same article, James Nicola, Artistic Director of New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), had a slightly different view: “if you are comparing a solo piece to something with 12 actors and three musicians there is a huge difference in budget… but a four-person play as compared to a one-person play— the savings is some, but not huge. The bulk of production expenses are for advertising, design, printing expenses; those prices are the same whether there is one person on stage or 20.” That being said, an average four-person show at NYTW costs $300,000, whereas a solo show will cost around $250,000, which is still a considerable saving. Fast forward ten years, and in terms of budgeting, it does not seem like much has changed. For On the Exhale, Roundabout estimates that the show will save $85,000- $100,000 compared to a normal Underground show. The savings made are not just on actor budgets, but also costume costs, set design (as one person shows tend to be less set heavy) and labor (teching a show with one actor will be considerably quicker).

Kevin Bacon in AN ALMOST HOLY PICTURE.

But simplicity and practicality are not the most important ingredients for doing a solo show. On the Exhale will be the first solo show at Roundabout since 2009, when Carrie Fisher performed Wishful Drinking. Before that show, the most recent solo shows at Roundabout were Beyond Glory with Stephen Lang (2007) and An Almost Holy Picture with Kevin Bacon (2002). Wishful Drinking was an autobiographical romp through Fisher’s past, while Beyond Glory looked at the courage behind servicemen who were awarded the Medal of Honor. An Almost Holy Picture had Bacon playing a priest, and On the Exhale explores gun violence. So what binds all these disparate plays together? Simply, the ability to provide intimacy and a compelling relationship with the audience, to really engage with them on a visceral level, which you often cannot get through larger casts. In almost any solo show, the performer constantly breaks the fourth wall, and many shows are completely in direct address to the audience, so there is a constant immediacy with the performer. In the words of NYTW’s Nicola, with a solo show “there is an energy in the room of authentic experience being conveyed that is not like anything else.”


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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