Bad Jews

Interview with Set Designer, Lauren Helpern

Posted on: September 16th, 2013 by Roundabout


Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Set Designer Lauren Helpern about her work on Bad Jews.


TS: Tell us a little about yourself. When did you decide to become a designer?

LH: I was born and educated here in Manhattan.  I went to college at Brown University, where I was in the theatre department, and then grad school at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.  I started going to theatre when I was very young.  It was considered a special treat, and we would get all dressed up.  We would go for my birthday or for other special occasions.  I saw some amazing productions, mostly musicals.  One of the reasons I fell in love with scene design was the first five minutes of the original production of Sunday in the Park with George – that was my “aha moment.”


Set design model: Lauren Helpern.


My father is an architect so I’ve always been exposed to building design and, at one point, I considered following in his footsteps.  I even did a summer program in architecture, but I realized I cared more about creating illusions than real spaces and how the plumbing and electricity worked behind the walls. I like telling stories and being able to explore different periods and styles.

I had lots of wonderful teachers along the way but two people who were particularly encouraging and helpful in grad school were Campbell Baird and Lee Rand.  Mentors are also important.  Robin Wagner, whom I worked for before I even went to grad school, has always been extremely supportive.  And I rely on my production management friends for their technical advice.


TS: The set for Bad Jews presents very specific challenges. Can you talk about them?

LH:   It’s a very specific setting.  The story I created for myself was that the apartment was purchased within the past year by Liam and Jonah’s parents.  They set it up to be a place for their kids and also a guest room, so the personality of the space is pretty neutral.  I felt there was a certain level of investment – maybe not completely gut renovated, but significantly spruced up with a new, relatively high end, kitchen and bath - but not completely top of the line.   I designed it as something they could easily flip if they wanted.  We know the apartment has a view of the Hudson River that’s from the bathroom so the question becomes about its orientation toward Riverside Drive and where the windows and doors are located. The biggest challenge in the show is the building hallway and how it relates to the apartment.  We tried all different scenarios.  Because the scenes that take place in the hallway are important, it ended up downstage.  I kept it as narrow as possible so the apartment would not feel remote from the audience.  Some atypical choices that Daniel pushed for, like the couch and front door facing upstage, help create the physical boundary between the acting areas.  He was also very specific that he wanted the room to feel like an obstacle course, that people had to climb over things, like bouncy airbeds and sleeper sofa mattresses.  He wanted to create a space that allowed for physical comedy while also having a sense of claustrophobia.


Tracee Chimo (Daphna) and Molly Ranson (Melody) in Bad Jews. Photo by Joan Marcus.


TS: How are you going to maintain that feeling of claustrophobia in the Pels, which is a larger space?   

LH: Surprisingly, the Underground and the Pels have almost the same stage dimensions but the audience configuration and the sight lines are extremely different, so it’s impossible to just pick up the set and move it upstairs.   We knew we wanted to hold onto as much of what we had before as possible, but the longest discussions were definitely about the claustrophobic feel of the room and how to keep the intimacy when you have to reach a much larger audience.  The Underground has a very low ceiling that closed in the set and the Pels has so much air.  I changed some proportions, which might not be noticeable if you didn’t know about them, raised the wall height so people in the balcony could see, and added in a ceiling beam to cap the space.  I’m looking forward to seeing how it translates.


Bad Jews begins previews at the Laura Pels Theatre September 19. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2013-2014 Season, Bad Jews

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Interview with Playwright, Joshua Harmon

Posted on: September 16th, 2013 by Roundabout


Before rehearsals began, Education Dramaturg Ted Sod asked  playwright Joshua Harmon to discuss his work on Bad Jews.


Ted Sod: Tell me about yourself.

Joshua Harmon: I was born in Manhattan, and spent what I like to call my formative "year" in Brooklyn before my parents basically ruined my life and moved us to the suburbs, which is where I grew up. The suburbs are fine, but I think I understood from an early age that if I ever had a shot at being cool, I would have had to stay in Brooklyn.


TS: What inspired you to write Bad Jews?

JH: I didn't realize it at the time, but the seed for this play was planted at a depressingly unmoving Yom Hashoah service I attended my sophomore year of college. The theme of the service was "Grandchildren of Survivors," so instead of a survivor speaking, a group of fellow students whose grandparents had survived the Holocaust spoke. It was strange and sterile and laden with clichés but lacking in genuine feeling and it scared me. A year or so later I came up with the title Bad Jews and started taking notes about the characters during my senior year, but then I put that notebook away for many years (fortunately it wasn't stolen). I think I felt like this play would either be the worst thing I would ever write, in which case, what was the rush; or, it might be the best thing I had ever written, and I somehow understood at 21 that I wasn't good enough to write something really good. So I sat on it for many years, like a chicken a little bit, you know, hatching my eggs.


In December of 2010, I went to the MacDowell Colony, in New Hampshire. I felt embarrassingly unworthy, like I had somehow conned these very nice people into thinking I was a legitimate writer, so to prove myself worthy of the honor, I felt like I needed to write a Really Important Play, which, word to the wise, when you set out to write a Really Important Play you wind up writing the opposite, i.e. the WORST PLAY EVER. I brought this piece I had been working on about gay bullies and whales, and I spent three and a half weeks trying to write it, but it just wasn't happening, it was terrible, and I felt horrible about myself, churning out junk in the same studio where Alice Walker had worked. So I had a little ceremony to say goodbye to the gay whale play: I spent a night watching Schindler's List, which is my go-to movie when I'm depressed, and I sobbed, and the next day I said to myself, you know, I have to leave here with something so I looked at my list—I make "Plays I Want to Write Before I Die" lists every so often—and Bad Jews kept making the list going on six years and I guess I got tired of seeing it stare back at me, unwritten, so I figured why not, and I left MacDowell with the first thirty pages and finished the first draft later that spring. Is it worth noting that when I finished the first draft I had a serious panic attack because I felt in fact I had just written the worst thing I'd ever written? My friend Libby talked me off the ledge. I was seriously ashamed of this one. Several workshops and readings later, here we are.


Tracee Chimo (Daphna) and Peter Ettinger (Jonah) in Bad Jews. Photo by Joan Marcus.


TS: What would you say the play is about?

JH: Purely in terms of plot, the play is about a young woman named Daphna Feygenbaum who comes to New York for her grandfather's funeral and has something of a battle royale with her cousin over an object which belonged to their grandfather which they both want very badly, albeit for very different reasons. And though there is nothing in that humorless description to indicate the play is a comedy, it's supposed to be funny. If any larger ideas or themes are at work, I really don't feel it's my place to lead that discourse. My job as the writer is to tell a story and then get out of its way. What resonates with the audience is for them to discover for themselves, not for me to dictate. The play, like all my writing, comes from a very personal place.


TS: What was the most challenging part of writing your play? What part was the most fun?

JH: The most fun part was writing those insanely angry monologues. I'm not a very angry person in my day to day life, so trying to tap into all of that rage was new for me, and kind of thrilling to discover.

The most challenging part is the fact that the play takes place in one room, in one night, in real time. At one time, Bad Jews was going to take place over a weekend, but my friend Molly Smith Metzler wrote a killer one room/one night play called Elemeno Pea, and she encouraged me to give it a shot. It's daunting to try to imagine how an entire story can be told in an hour and a half in one room, and to let the audience feel like they've really gone on some kind of journey, without any tricks or magic or scene changes. Just, come sit in this living room and watch what happens. That sounds unbearably boring to me, which is why it's such a challenge, to try to find the ecstasy in that situation.


TS: Are there any changes you anticipate making to the script as the play moves into another venue?

JH: There are. I'd like to make a few changes, and we'll see how that works in rehearsal. But the changes have more to do with the play itself, and less to do with the new venue. The question of how the play will work in a much larger space won't be something we'll really know until we get into the Pels. I'm excited to see it in such a big theatre. But I'm most excited just to get to see everyone again. A lot of really lovely friendships formed during the run in the Underground. It will be wonderful to reunite.


TS: What are you working on now besides the production of Bad Jews?

JH: I'm going into my second year of the Playwrights Program at Juilliard, and they expect you to be writing, writing, writing, which is good for me because I have a lot of writing to do. I'm trying to finish up a re-write of one play, and I have 2 commissions now, including one from Roundabout (which I think is officially overdue), so it's a busy time, but I'd much prefer to be busy than the alternative. But I know that the opportunities which have presented themselves in the last year all stem from the Roundabout Underground production of my play. I feel tremendous gratitude to them for taking a chance on me and my play. I know that's what the Underground was designed to do—to give someone their first NY production is an inherently risky proposition—but the magic of that leap of faith still hasn't worn off.


Bad Jews begins previews at the Laura Pels Theatre September 19. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2013-2014 Season, Bad Jews


Interview with Actress Tracee Chimo

Posted on: September 16th, 2013 by Roundabout


Before rehearsals began, Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Tracee Chimo about her role in Bad Jews.


Ted Sod: Please tell us a little about yourself. You started your career as a dancer, correct? When did you decide to become an actor?

Tracee Chimo: I was born in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts called Saugus. My parents were both born and raised in pretty tough neighborhoods of the city and are both products of ethnic, blue collar families.  My Dad’s family came here from Albania, and they spoke no English. I have big admiration and respect for my Dad, how he was brought up, how he conducts himself, and how he’s worked for everything our family has. He raised us good. So did my Mom. She busted her ass to be a great mother. She gave up a lot to be with us. My parents both pushed me to leave Saugus right after high school because it wasn’t the best town to grow up in, as far as “making something of yourself” was concerned.  Acting was just something I liked, not something I thought I could do for a living. I was supposed to become a choreographer, or teach dance classes like my Mom. It was the only thing I thought I was good at. At the time, I saw acting as fun and awesome. I didn’t really know how to “be an actor.”

Come senior year, I was all set to go off to college on big dance scholarships. One night in the middle of a dance performance, I blew out my left knee.  In one week, I lost all my dance scholarships, could no longer attend the school of my choice, and was told by doctors I'd never dance again. After my injury, I learned the only school that accepted late submissions was Salem State College. So that's where I went. I auditioned to be in their BFA program, but because of my strong Boston accent, they wouldn't accept me without dialect training. So I had private dialect sessions after school to learn how to speak properly. I re-auditioned the following semester and got in. It was great. After school I moved to NYC and thought I'd try my hand at dance again. I missed it. So I went on some auditions and was offered a 10 month contract dancing for Carnival Cruise Lines. After the contract was up, I came back to NY and said, "Well, that was fun. I think I'm done now." So I hung up my dance shoes and poured everything I had into pursuing acting.


Tracee Chimo (Daphna) and Michael Zegen (Liam) in Bad Jews. Photo by Joan Marcus.


TS: Why did you choose to do this play and the role of Daphna?

TC: To be honest with you, I did not choose this play or Daphna. She chose me. I was sent the script and read the first two lines and thought, “Oh my God. I know her. I know this girl.”  That was it. Truly. It was simple. I just fell in love with her immediately. I agree with her way of thinking and I like how bold she is. She’s unapologetic. I wish I was that unapologetic. I’ve only just begun to embrace not apologizing for myself all the time. I’ve only just begun to stop doing that. I admire how she owns who she is. That’s a tall order in this day and age. It can be hard to stay yourself in this world. You’ve got to work at that every day. For Daphna, it’s effortless. I love that about her.


TS: When we did post-play discussions during the Roundabout Underground run, audiences were always surprised that you are not Jewish. What kind of preparation or research did you have to do in order to play Daphna?

TC:  No, I’m not Jewish, but I do come from an Eastern European background.  My Mom is Italian and Irish and my Dad is 100% Albanian, so I’m a good mix. I found myself focusing less and less on the religious aspects of this play, and more and more on the family dynamic. To me, this play is not about Judaism. It’s about doing what’s right by your family. Being loyal to your blood, where you’re from, where your family’s from. That’s what this play’s about in my eyes. Yes, of course I did research on the significance of the Chai and the Israeli Army and things like that, because they mean something to Daphna. She wants to join the Army. She’s got big dreams. I wanted to have a full understanding of why those things mean something to her. I try to understand Daphna’s upbringing and family life in the same way I recognize certain things from my home and my past in Boston. Jewish, Catholic, Albanian Orthodox, Hindu, this play is about family. The religious aspect to it is deeply important to Daphna, but it’s certainly not the crux of this particular story.


Bad Jews begins previews at the Laura Pels Theatre September 19. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2013-2014 Season, Bad Jews