TED SOD: What inspired you to write Napoli, Brooklyn? What do you feel the play is about? Does the play have personal resonance for you, and if so, how?
Meghan Kennedy: Napoli, Brooklyn is loosely based on my mother’s adolescence. She grew up in a big, Italian Catholic, immigrant family. I grew up hearing stories about the plane crash that happened in her neighborhood in Brooklyn, and it stayed with me. The play came out of that and my own interest in how struggle in immigrant families is passed down from generation to generation, particularly among women. They had to fight very hard to find their voices and even harder to keep them intact. I want to honor those voices, conjure them as best I can and give them space. My mother is one of those voices. She’s the strongest woman I know. And I wanted to give her a love story.
TS: What kind of research did you have to do in order to write it? What is the most challenging part of writing a period piece?
MK: I had a lot of conversations with my mother. Talked about the neighborhood, the community, family, food, church—everything. I got obsessed with certain details...recipes, songs, how they decorated the tree at Christmas time. Then I built outwards. I pored over old newspapers, read all the different accounts of the plane crash I could find. Looked into the conditions for women working in factories at the time. It’s easy to get lost in the research. But I lived in that area of Park Slope while I was writing the play, and I got in the habit of taking walks past the site to get out of my head. Because it is about that time period, yes, and how the world was then. But at its core it’s about these women, these characters, so at a certain point you put the research aside and let them be who they’re going to be.
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? Was there a formal development process for this play?
MK: This play lived inside my head for years before any of it actually made it onto paper. Which is how it tends to happen for me. It either survives the layers and layers of doubt and self-criticism or it doesn’t. If it does, it usually means that by the time a first draft comes out, it comes out quickly. It's only at that point that I allow myself to start to do research and dig.
Then I usually end up spending a lot of time sort of talking to myself on walks, working through the play. I used to circle around Prospect Park, now it’s down around the promenade and the Brooklyn Bridge.
This play was commissioned by Roundabout and went through a number of developmental readings…several at the Roundabout and also at places like Page 73 and New York Stage and Film and Williamstown. Each theatre was very generous with its resources, and hearing it out loud each time taught me something new. But it wasn’t until we put it on its feet at Long Wharf that I was really able to do the most work. It’s a very physical play. To finally be able to see the way it moves was huge. Working with Eugene Lee’s set and Ben Stanton’s lighting and Jane Greenwood’s costumes--they’re all incredible-- allowed it to settle in front of me for the first time and help me clarify things I had been struggling with.
TS: Do you sense there will be any major revisions during the rehearsal process? What precipitates revisions when you decide to rewrite?
MK: There will be revisions. We were fortunate enough to do the play at Long Wharf Theatre first and worked out a lot of things. But the Laura Pels is a new space, and new people will be saying the words...things change. Inevitably. Which is part of what I love about doing theatre -- it's always moving. Production to production, night to night. If I had to guess, I’d say I will be tinkering right up until opening.
TS: Can you describe what you look for when collaborating with a director on a new play?
MK: Connection. I look for someone whose brain I respect. Someone who is thoughtful and respectful to the actors and everyone in the room. I look for someone who is willing to listen. You spend so much time with this person, you have to be able to speak the same language.
TS: What traits or qualities did you need in casting actors for this particular play?
MK: This play calls for a lot of physicality, so we were looking for strong, grounded actors. Six of the eight parts are women, so filling a stage with a bunch of very different and strong women was a fantastic job to have.
TS: The themes and 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?
MK: Napoli, Brooklyn revolves around an immigrant family trying to survive. The issues each member of that family faced still exist now. The American dream remains elusive for so many new members of this city, of this country. I hope when audiences discuss this play, aspects of its themes will resonate with their experiences -- whether decades ago, or in confronting them now, week by week. I'm interested in how new generations fit into this always shifting American sense of belonging, and I'm interested in what happens when less-heard voices take up uncomfortable space and do just that, belong. And in light of the new presidential administration, I’m happy this play is going into production right now. This is a story about women and immigrants, two groups that need as many spotlights on them as possible right now. I’ve said this before, and I will keep saying it -- at a moment when our rights are at stake and our voices are being threatened, I think it’s the perfect time to make some noise.
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist? What else are you working on now?
MK: Certain routines have become rituals for me. Every morning, I read for about half an hour first thing. Then I’ll get up and make coffee and put it in a thermos and go for a walk. If I can do those few simple things, I tend to stay working. Sometimes I’ll fall off track. Or I’ll get busy and not prioritize that time for myself. But then there are things that jump-start me -- going to see a good film, having a long supper with a friend, even grocery shopping...anything that gets me out of my head.
Napoli, Brooklyn is now in performance at the Laura Pels Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2016-2017 Season, Napoli Brooklyn, Upstage