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A Conversation with

A Conversation with Alexi Kaye Campbell

Posted on: October 31st, 2018 by Ted Sod

 

On October 13, 2018, Alexi Kaye Campbell spoke about Apologia with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.

Ted Sod: You were born in Athens, Greece, correct?

Alexi Kaye Campbell: I was indeed.

TS: And your father is Greek and your mother is British.

AKC: Correct on both counts.

TS: Your real surname is…

AKC: Komondouros.

TS: Campbell is your mother’s surname, which you adopted because you didn’t want to be pigeonholed when you were working as an actor.

AKC: I grew up in Greece, but when I was in my twenties I moved to London and trained to be an actor. When I started my career I decided to change my name to Alexi Campbell. Campbell, as you rightly pointed out, was my mother’s maiden name. Then I found myself in this slightly absurd situation when British Equity informed me that I wasn’t allowed to call myself Alexi Campbell because there was a Scottish juggler by the name of Alex Campbell and it was too similar! So, I then ended up taking the “K” from Komondouros as an initial, but I wrote it out. When I started writing plays, it didn’t seem right to change my name back because I’d already been working in the theatre for almost twenty years. I think my father regretted me not using my real surname, but that’s a whole different story…

TS: You went to primary school in Greece.

AKC: I did. I went to Greek school until the age of ten and then I switched to the British school in Athens. We were a bilingual family. We spoke English and Greek at home. I grew up with both languages.

TS: Are you still able to speak Greek?

AKC: Yes, fluently.

TS: I’m curious about your coming to America to attend Boston University.

AKC: I think that was to do with getting as far away from home as possible because I knew it was the easiest way to discover and reinvent myself. There’s a line in the play that Kristin says: “I had to cross an ocean.” And anyway, I was always drawn to America. I grew up in the 70s and the US was an exciting beacon of possibility. I had a friend who came to Boston and so I decided to follow him. I applied and luckily was accepted at BU because I was a terrible student at school. But I slipped through and I studied there for four years.

TS: English and American literature?

AKC: Yes. And then I trained to be an actor in London and since that time I’ve been living there.

TS: What was the event that made you say, “I’m done with acting; I want to write.”

AKC: That’s a good question. I was always drawn to theatre. I had wanted to work in the theatre since I was about 10 years old. I suppose it was a sense of vocation. I loved it. I was obsessed with Shakespeare and all British theatre. But as I grew older I realized that one of the realities of the profession as an actor is that you are disempowered a lot of the time. What I mean is that a lot of the casting process is so random. Obviously, it helps if you’re a talented actor, but sometimes it’s suitability for a part. You don’t have much control. My career as an actor was good enough, I was working at some excellent theatres, but I struggled as well, there were periods of unemployment. And even when I was working it wasn’t always ideal. Say you have four things that you tick off whenever you’re cast in a production: great part, great production, great director, great theatre. I usually ended up with two ticks, so it wasn’t quite doing it for me. I started writing at 40. But I believe that the 16 years of experience I had as an actor very much informed my work as a writer. I think if I hadn’t been an actor, I would not be writing the kinds of plays that I do and in the ways that I do, because a lot of it had been shaped by that experience.

TS: If my counting is correct, you’ve written six plays for the stage and a screenplay entitled Woman in Gold, with Helen Mirren, which was the highest grossing independent film of 2015. Is that true?

AKC: It did very well, yes.

TS: And The Pride, which is one of two plays of yours that have come to New York City, was done in London in 2008 and Apologia was done there initially in 2009.

AKC: Yes, they were timed very close to each other. I think The Pride was first done in December of 2008 and Apologia was first performed at the Bush Theatre in London in May of 2009. So just a few months’ difference.

TS: Apologia was commissioned by the artistic director at the Bush Theatre at that time, Josie Rourke.

AKC: It was indeed.

TS: Can you tell us how that came about? Did she approach you? Did you approach her? Did the idea of the play intrigue her? How did that all happen?

AKC: I had written The Pride and I had started sending it out to theatres and Josie, who was the artistic director and now has a very stellar career as a film and theatre director, read it and admired it. She was the first person who put her money, or at least the theatre’s money, where her mouth was and she commissioned me to write a play. But there was no pressure on the subject matter. I just said I was interested in exploring a certain territory and she gave me “carte blanche” to go ahead and write the play. I presented her with a first draft, which I thought was not very good, but she had absolute faith in it and in me and she said, “Let’s program it.” So, that’s what she did and I was suddenly in a position where I had about four months to work on the play quite rigorously to get it into a better state.

TS: Now, in that version, Kristin was British.

AKC: She was.

TS: Will you talk to us about the revival in 2017 in which Stockard appeared, at Trafalgar Studios?

AKC: So, originally we did the play at the Bush Theatre in 2009 and it was well received and people seemed to enjoy it. There were producers who were interested in trying to give it another life. So, there was a concerted effort to find another home for it in the West End, but it didn’t work out. And then a few years later, there was interest from the States, and American actors, so I thought, let me just try this, and make Kristin American. I decided this because I knew that any actor playing Kristin would not want to do it in a foreign accent – the part is challenging enough as it is. In the beginning, there was a part of me that was worried that I was making this choice for the wrong reasons. But when we did a reading of the American version, I felt it worked better than the original and so I was able to support that idea wholly and with no doubt. I found that there was something poignant about having an American Kristin who had moved away from home to “foreign soil”, and suddenly meets this younger American who shows up at her home. It added another dimension to the play which I enjoyed. I didn’t think that it compromised the original version and I was happy about that. So, now there are these two versions of the play in print.

TS: By the other American, you mean Trudi?

AKC: I mean Trudi, yes.

TS: When we talked for the playgoers guide interview, I asked you what inspired you to write the play and you said you’ve always been interested in themes of inheritance. I believe that’s a theme in The Pride as well. Can you talk a bit about why that’s important to you as a writer?

AKC: I don’t know why I get drawn to certain themes or ideas. You just follow your instinct and see where that takes you. I think I’m interested in the confluence between the personal and the political and where those two meet. For instance, there were things that happened to my own family – my parents’ divorce, for example - which were directly connected to movements in society, none of it happens in isolation. And, as you know, during the 60s and 70s there were huge social and cultural shifts. A lot of the things we take for granted now -- I suppose what you’d call liberal values – were taking root then, especially regarding movements such as feminism, civil rights, gay rights. So I wanted to look at that period – those seismic shifts – and explore the legacies of that time and what the next generation had inherited, both personally and politically.

TS: I watch the play and I’m stunned by the passion that has never left Kristin or her comrade, Hugh, to try to do the right thing socially and politically. When she says that line to her son, Peter, about the work that he’s doing -- what word does she use? Work is an…?

AKC: Offering.

TS: Offering. It feels so foreign now, in our upside down world where greed just seems to have taken over. I love that you have a character like Kristin in your play who has dug in, for better or for worse, and still wants social and political change to happen so badly.

AKC: I’m glad you describe her that way. I think it is pivotal to the play. The character I was trying to create was someone who was on the frontlines and who believes in specific causes. She is an idealist who made sacrifices. She really does feel strongly about what is articulated in the final act of the play by the description of the mask that Trudi gives her: that the personal and the public are connected and interdependent. I think that, even now, if you didn’t have resistance, if you didn’t have people who really believe in justice and equality and in fighting the good fight, things would be a lot worse than they are. It’s easy to take things for granted. Of course when you’re young it’s easy to be blinded by anger and say, “’look at this mess I’ve inherited!” I am also aware that there is some mocking of the 60s mindset, some people think of it as a cliché, like Claire does in the play. But for me perhaps, it is more personal, simply because I am gay. I am fully aware that if it wasn’t for people like Kristin and Hugh, who were pioneers in the 60s and 70s, who really put themselves on the line, it would have been a lot harder for people like me to live with the freedoms I enjoy. I’m very grateful for those changes that happened and I suppose I wanted to honor those people who gave a lot of their time and energy to those causes.

TS: I’m tremendously moved by the end when Kristin has her self-reckoning. What I’ve come to understand is that -- and I don’t know if this is still true -- at the time of her divorce in Britain, Kristin’s husband would have been given custody of their children. Is that true?

AKC: I think it’s interesting that just before Kristin has this visceral response to the past and the choices she’s made, she articulates the fact that she was living in a world which pretty much forced her to choose between being a mother and being a creative contributor to the world. And I think that’s true. Society was shaped in that way. There’s a lot of my own personal history woven into the play, not that my mother is anything like Kristin, but it was much harder for a woman in the 70s to make those choices. In some ways, Kristin did have her arm – and her soul, as she says in the play – twisted.

TS: I sense that Kristin is still hurt by the fact that her ex-husband just took their children and she really had very little recourse. Her sons are fascinating to me because they haven’t really been able to understand her perspective at all and the memoir she writes is a catalyst for that.

AKC: I think that when there’s any kind of trauma in a family, there’s a part of you that freezes in the moment of trauma. The boys suffered trauma when they were children because they were very close to their mother and suddenly she wasn’t there anymore. To some extent, I believe that there is a part of them that is frozen in that moment. You go through your whole life not really addressing those issues. And then something happens that means you can no longer dismiss or ignore it, and in this case you’re absolutely right. The publication of her book makes it very real and raw again so that that part of the boys which is in some ways frozen in time comes to the fore. I think we all create narratives for ourselves to survive. That’s what we do. And then, when we all express those narratives, we realize that our stories don’t always match.

TS: I’m curious about the inspiration for the characters of Claire and Trudi because they are so different. Trudi is just lovely even though I don’t think I could ever be friends with her. I have to say that on some level, she really is a Christian. I love Claire because she makes a viable case for her choice to be in a serial drama on television or whatever she calls it. I think she’s right -- if you come from poverty, and I certainly have, you don’t want to go back.

AKC: Absolutely. It’s easy sometimes for more privileged middle-class people to make judgements about that kind of thing. But for me the act of writing a play is an exercise in exploring one’s multiple personalities! You realize you have all these different sides to yourself and a lot of times you’re finding ways to answer questions that you’ve been carrying around with you for a long time. There’s a bit of me in all of those characters. With Trudi, I was very interested in trying to call out people’s prejudice. I was trying to set up these characters who you think you know, but by the end you realize it’s never that simple. That happens to me a lot. I meet someone and I think I know who they are and then gradually I see that they’re not what I thought they were at all. At moments like that I’m forced to face my own prejudice and that’s always instructive.

TS: Trudi does seem intimidated by Kristin’s intelligence, but Claire doesn’t seem to be bothered by it.

AKC: No, she’s tough. Well, she’s a survivor. As you say, she’s come from a background that has given her a lot of steel.

TS: When I interviewed Stockard, I asked, “What’s going on between Kristin and those significant others of her sons?” And she said, “Well, I wouldn’t want Kristin for a mother-in-law. Would you?” I think what’s interesting is the fact that Kristin is really like a lot of women I know from New York City -- they can get right to the core if they want to.

AKC: I agree and I think that’s why Stockard is just absolutely brilliant in the part and I feel so hugely grateful that she’s playing it.

TS: The only other character we haven’t really discussed is Hugh, Kristin’s gay male friend. That is a 42-year-old friendship. That happens a lot, in my understanding, between gay men and straight women. There’s some…

AKC: Synergy, yes.

TS: Is that something you’ve experienced yourself or just something that you’ve seen? Because it’s rich. It feels real to me.

AKC: I’ve got lots of very close female friends, but I’ve also met people like Hugh. I didn’t have anyone specific in mind, but I’ve seen relationships like the one Kristin and Hugh have. I thought it was very important in the play to have somebody who was completely on Kristin’s side and as he says, is her witness for the defense. There’s something about relationships where there’s no sexual dimension. People get very close in a different way and can become emotionally dependent on each other. At some point they become almost symbiotic and can finish each other’s sentences. I’ve seen quite a few friendships like that.

TS: I want to talk about the story that Simon tells Kristin at the beginning of act two because I sat in the audience thinking, this is going to end badly. This is going to be one of those abuse stories where a young boy is taken advantage of. But it doesn’t turn out that way. Can you talk a bit about finding that? Was that a discovery?

AKC: There was a discovery in that I knew that Simon has two objectives in that scene. One is that he comes to punish her. And the reason he comes to punish her is he’s just read the book. He just feels that it is a rejection. And, of course, he’s a storyteller so he will punish her by telling a story of something that happened to him. And the second objective is to articulate his truth - the very act of speaking something which he’s never expressed before, and which is connected to his mental and emotional state. There is a kind of release in that. I didn’t want to sensationalize it by turning it into a story of sexual abuse but he did experience this moment in his childhood which jarred itself in his mind and he needs to get it out in some way. The memory of that night in Genoa comes to represent all the feelings he had as an adolescent missing his mother. Those two objectives of Simon’s – to speak his truth, and to punish his mother – form the basis of that scene.

Audience Question 1: Did you write the roles of the two brothers to be played by a particular actor that you knew? How did you make the decision that the brothers never interacted? Did you ever imagine a scene with them together or did you always want to keep them separate?

AKC: That’s a really interesting question because what happened was in the first draft of the play, Simon came on earlier. He came on in the dinner scene and I realized something happened which has to do with tone. The first half of the play has a comical dimension; that was my intention. I wanted it to be teetering between drama and something more comical. But, of course, the minute Simon came on you couldn’t do that, because the tone suddenly shifted. In the second draft, I kept Simon’s entrance separate. That made sense because you come back after the interval and meet the play on new terms. Something’s changed. It also felt dramatically correct because I think that scene with Simon is the beginning of Kristin’s reckoning. It takes place in the middle of the night and needs to feel almost like a dream, it sits separately from the comic naturalism of Act One. In the original production, we had two actors playing the brothers and then I went to see the play in Germany and they had one actor playing both roles and I liked that because it raised the play slightly out of its naturalism and gave it a more poetic quality.

Audience Question 2: Coming back to the play in this current climate, do you think that the kind of radicalism that helps move society forward necessitates the personal cost that the play explores?

AKC: I think it probably does. I can’t imagine that giving a great deal of your time to political or social causes won’t take its toll on your personal life, how is that even possible? And yes, in times such as now these questions are becoming more urgent than ever. When we played the play in London, I liked the fact that a lot of the younger people were very much on Kristin’s side. It’s interesting because it’s split a lot of times. People either move toward her or judge her but it was a lot of the younger people who admired her and understood the sacrifices she made. I wrote this play ten years ago, but I was saying on the first day of rehearsals that I’m glad it’s taken this much time to come to the States because suddenly the subjects the play discusses -patriarchy and feminism amongst others - suddenly feel more topical than ever.

Audience Question 3: Getting back to the question of the brothers, what was the thinking about naming them Simon and Peter?

AKC: I’m going to be absolutely honest with you. I wrote this play and when I finished it, there was all these Christian themes and motifs that seem to be woven into it. I’m not religious, and yet the play is full of religious references. At the risk of sounding hugely pretentious some of the choices you make when you are writing are conscious and some aren’t and you have to trust them. The names of the characters – Kristin, Simon, Peter – could be seen as being allegorical, but that wasn’t the intention when I chose them.

Audience Question 4: You have the characters reference Giotto’s Lamentation, Anna Karenina and A Doll’s House as ways to explore agency and femininity and motherhood. How did you find yourself using those as reference points for those characters?

AKC: It’s difficult to think back now because I wrote the play a long time ago. I write in bursts. Some of the choices I made, I don’t really know why I made them. Some of it is conscious and some of it isn’t. I realize that on this play, which is all about questioning motherhood and female empowerment, there are references to great works of art which have also questioned female identity in patriarchal contexts. And I promise you that’s not in any way self-aggrandizing – I’m not equating this with any of those pieces of work! -- but I think it just happened naturally. Anna Karenina is probably my favorite book and Doll’s House I also love, but it was not conscious. I really didn’t sit and think, now I’m going to find another feminist reference. I didn’t do that. You tell a story, characters express themselves, that’s all.

Audience Question 5: Kristin’s profession is art history, but I found that an interesting choice because it’s such a conservative profession, especially with her focusing on the Renaissance. I’m thinking that in the 1970s, for her to go to grad school and become a writer and professor was in itself a radical act when she was also a mom. I’m wondering why you chose that for her profession?

AKC: In Britain in the seventies there was an art historian named John Berger who wrote a seminal book called Ways of Seeing, and he was a very pivotal cultural figure at that period . Mostly because he did a series on television that was seen by many thousands of people. He was a Marxist art historian. I’d read his work and I was drawn to the idea of looking at art from a radical political perspective. And yes, for that to come from a woman is even more unconventional than it is coming from a man, for the reasons you’ve just mentioned. The way I tried to weave it in is that even when Kristin’s talking about Giotto, she talks about it from a Marxist perspective. That’s what I was interested in exploring. Kristin keeps going on and on about the responsibility of the artist and the social changes that art can bring about and she sees art as being in conflict with religion. Ultimately, I kind of feel that both art and religion do offer stories and versions of reality which try and help us to make life more bearable and point us in a certain direction. There is a link between religion and art, I feel. Kristin sees Giotto as somebody who is trying to take religious motifs and move them beyond religion and give them a humanist dimension.

TS: The political changes happening in this country and elsewhere are mindboggling and scary for me. The only hope I have is art. That movie, Philomena with Judi Dench, turned Ireland against the Catholic church. They now have gay marriage and women have the right to an abortion. I may be wrong, but it seems that that movie, that work of art did that. Do you follow what I’m saying?

AKC: I do, absolutely. It’s an interesting question because you never want any form of art to be either moralizing or didactic or anything like that. You want to invite different ways of seeing. Ultimately, I think art is about making it easier to see that there are lots of different perspectives and hopefully we will be able work our way through discord.

Audience Question 6: Just to follow up on art causing change, when Kristin and Trudi are going through the history of the mask, Kristin suddenly realizes that it’s highly appropriate to her way of thinking -- this idea of women leading community in an entirely different way.

AKC: I think Kristin sees her role in some ways as a protector and nurturer, which traditionally we associate with motherhood. Hugh says to Peter, “She did it all for you.” And Peter says, “How was any of that for us?” Then Kristin and Trudi come back in the room, so the question is left hovering in the air, and then the mask articulates the answer to that question: that the personal and the public are completely interdependent. We are in a moment of great crisis and it’s interesting to think the model isn’t really working - we seem to be destroying everything, including the environment. So, if women are to start having a more influential and positive role on where we go as a species, as a planet, then we need to rethink the patriarchal models which have been around for hundreds of years because they’re not working anymore. And I think the empowerment of women – and the feminine in general – are pivotal to that.


Apologia is playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through December 16, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.


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2018-2019 Season, A Conversation with, Apologia


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A Conversation with playwright Theresa Rebeck

Posted on: October 19th, 2018 by Ted Sod

 

On September 22, 2018, Theresa Rebeck spoke about Bernhardt/ Hamlet with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.

Dylan Baker, playwright Theresa Rebeck, and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Photo by Jenny Anderson

Ted Sod: You were born in Ohio, you went to the Ursuline Academy, you graduated in 1976 or so, you did your undergraduate work at Notre Dame and you have three advanced degrees from Brandeis: an MA, an MFA and a PHD.

Theresa Rebeck: That’s all true.

TS: You are not only a playwright, but you are also a novelist, a writer for television -- you created the series Smash -- and you have two new movies coming out for which you wrote the screenplays -- one with Bill Pullman and Anjelica Huston entitled Trouble and one with Jessica Chastain and some other fabulous women entitled 355.

TR: 355 is just in script form now. I wrote it for Jessica, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o, and Fan Bingbing, but that goes into production in the spring.

TS: You also directed the film with Angelica and Bill.

TR: Yes, I did.

TS: You are directing two plays, a revival of Crimes of the Heart, and a new play…

TR: By Rob Ackerman. I’m directing it this coming in the spring at the Working Theatre and it’s called Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson’s Head and it’s about a commercial -- this is a true story -- it’s about a commercial that the great documentarian Errol Morris made for AT&T in which the props person had to drop red gumballs onto Luke Wilson and chaos ensues. It’s a true story. It’s very funny, I think.

TS: And you have another play opening this season with Tyne Daly and her brother, Tim.

TR: Yes, Downstairs. I wrote it for Tyne and Tim and there’s a third character in it too, played by John Procaccino, who’s one of our great actors, and that’s going to be at Primary Stages. You should come see it; it’s quite remarkable. Tyne and Tim are remarkable together. You know, it’s the only thing they’ve ever done together on stage in their whole lives. It’s the first time they’ve been on stage together in fifty years.

TS: And when is that scheduled?

TR: It starts around November 8th and runs through Christmas, I think.

TS: Bernhardt/Hamlet is your fourth Broadway play, which makes you the most produced female contemporary playwright. Congratulations.

TR: Yes, it’s true. Thank you.

TS: That’s an accomplishment.

TR: Yes, it is an accomplishment. Obviously, there are other wonderful female theatre artists who have written musicals. But we’re basically talking straight plays. I don’t do musicals. I’d like to! In case anybody out there is looking for a book writer. It just hasn’t happened.

TS: Well, Smash was a musical of sorts.

TR: Yes, but it was on television and not of the theatre.

TS: Did I miss anything important? You live in Brooklyn with your husband and two children.

TR: Yes, that’s true.

TS: Anything else I should mention?

TR: I think that covers it.

TS: Great! So, in 2009, after we produced your play The Understudy, you were asked by Todd Haimes, our artistic director, to be a resident artist here.

TR: I think that’s when it was, yes.

TS: And with that you were given a commission, correct?

TR: No.

TS: No? Okay! Please explain how this play came to be commissioned.

TR: I had been thinking about this idea of writing a play about Sarah Bernhardt doing Hamlet. It’s something that occurred to me ten years ago and I thought it was a good idea and so I started reading about her. It was pretty clear to me that there was a play there, but I needed to think about it for a long time. I didn’t know how to start it. I didn’t know how to get into it. And then I said to Jill Rafson, “You know I’ve got this idea.” And she and Todd talked about it for a second and said, “Go do it.” Part of the reason I even approached Jill was because I thought, I need a hand at my back urging me to write this now. I was slightly avoiding it at a certain point, I didn’t know how to do it and I really did need someone saying, “Are you writing that play about Bernhardt yet?” And Jill provided that function for me.

TS: Jill Rafson has really been working on developing all the new work here at the Roundabout. Of course, Todd Haimes has the final say, but she has been fundamental to the success of the new plays we present.

TR: She’s exceptional. Can we all applaud Jill for a minute?

TS: What was your process on this? Did you lock yourself in a room? Did you go away from your home?

TR: I wish I had a steady answer. It’s changed a lot over the years. It’s better for me when I can lock myself in a room and just get myself through a first draft. With this play, I had the opportunity to go to the Sundance Playwrights Lab in Ucross. Philip Himberg, the artistic director there, called me and said, “Do you want to do this?” I had my little studio and I’d go there every day and I can actually get so much work done when I can clear everything out of my life like that. Once I had those three weeks at Ucross, I came out with about 40 pages. I will say I have an obsession with numbers and colors. I have that synesthesia thing – anyway, if I can get to page 62, then the play is almost done.

I had a draft of this play and Jill read it and I had friends read it to us and then Jill and I talked about it a little bit. It was very private. And then we did that again. Then we decided to do a reading for Todd and people at the Roundabout and make it more open to the community and that’s when we sent it to Janet McTeer and said, “Do you want to play Sarah?” Since then there’s been more readings and workshops and discussions. So that’s relatively a speedy process, if you don’t count the ten years when I was just looking at pictures of Sarah Bernhardt.

"La Dame aux Camilas" poster. Credit: Alphonse Mucha.

TS: I know you were also inspired by the poster work of Alphonse Mucha – who is a character in the play.

TR: I went to Prague with my husband and we did a tour of the Mucha Museum and every one of those glorious posters of Sarah Bernhardt is in the museum.

TS: So, for a long time you thought Sarah would be a good subject for a play. How did you land upon her wanting to play Hamlet?

TR: There are a lot of biographies about her, she had a very long, complicated, and fascinating life. She really is someone who reminded me of Joan of Arc in a peculiar way and I kept thinking, where did these women come from? How did Bernhardt create herself? Her mother was a courtesan and she never knew her father at all. She lies and makes up stories about it in things that she’s written. When she was about five years old, her mother, who was Jewish, left her at a convent and the nuns took care of her and she was becoming stabilized. I think she really liked it there. And then her mother came back a few years later and said, “I want my kid back.” There was nothing but chaos around her and she was not parented. And then she rose out of that. That’s very interesting to me. I felt like the moment she decided to take on Hamlet was the crystallization of her self-creation. She was 52 years old and at the height of her powers. It is a situation that presents a lot of fascinating gender questions that are occurring in wider and murkier ways now. She did this unthinkable thing, which was really moving to me. That’s really what I was interested in. I wasn’t interested in a biographical play, although obviously some biography is in the play -- like the fact that she slept in a coffin.

TS: Were you extremely familiar with Hamlet? How did you find the torturous things that actors go through when they play that role?

TR: I talked to actors who had played Hamlet.

TS: Well, there are amazing actors who have played that role. Did you talk to Benedict Cumberbatch?

TR: I did not. I don’t know him. I talked to Alan Rickman about it. He was really interesting.

TS: Was it just talking to the actors that helped you find your way inside taking on the role of Hamlet or did you read the play over and over? I feel that’s a palpable part of this play -- how an actor takes on a role and then has this self-doubt.

TR: One of the things that I found out fairly early on was that when she finally did the play, she did this version of it that had taken the iambic pentameter out. Janet and Moritz, the director, and I spent a lot of time talking about why that was. I never got to see that script she used. I looked all over for the one she ended up doing. Nobody knows where it is. You’d think they would, but they don’t. I was terrified of trying to make it up myself. Do you know what I mean? And then I thought, oh, I should have Rostand do it! Then I’d have somebody on stage really grappling with how terrifying the idea of rewriting Shakespeare might be. You know you’re in a good dramatic place when both sides of the argument are right. Because ultimately what she did was to restore the heart of the play. There are a lot of bastardized versions of Hamlet out there and they take a lot of the scenes out. She was right at the forefront of the beginnings of naturalism and she wanted to present something more emotionally truthful. She really wanted to perform a more naturalistic version of who Hamlet was, what he was feeling, what he was looking for. And to her, the iambic pentameter stood in front of that. I didn’t make that up. I did have to pick and choose which bits of Hamlet we were going to see in Act I, and then the play moves forward off that discussion.

TS: Being such a brilliant actor/manager, she may have known who her audience was.

TR: I don’t know.

Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, and Dylan Baker. Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: I want to talk about finding her relationship to Rostand. How did you find that and how did you decide that it had to have this dramatic impact when he couldn’t finish her requested prose version of Hamlet?

TR: They worked together on two plays before he wrote Cyrano. One is Princesse lointaine and then they did La Samaritaine. And then he wrote Cyrano and, if you read Cyrano, he’s clearly writing about her. Who she was. It is just factually true that when he was working on Cyrano, she was starting to work on Hamlet, so those two things overlapped. And, also, apparently to know Bernhardt was to sleep with her. People just fell in love with her and adored her. I just shoved things together. I wanted there to be a sturdy argument between two people who were deeply entwined in each other’s psychology, where there was real intimacy, where the argument of the play could be played out.

TS: You have two powerhouse scenes in Act Two back to back – first is the one with Rostand’s wife, Rosamund, asking Sarah to read Cyrano and requesting that Sarah allow Rostand to finish it, and then after Sarah reads the play, she confronts Rostand and she tells him quite bluntly that Roxanne is not a great part.

TR: Every woman I know is happy that I did that. All of us are out there thinking, I love Cyrano. Why is Roxanne such a drip?

TS: I’ve noticed watching the play that women sit up when that moment happens. And the applause seems to be led by women. And I think to myself, Theresa isn’t a polemicist, as you’ve said many times, but you must have a feminist perspective.

TR: This is my view on it. I am who I am and my agenda’s the truth. I wouldn’t say I’m not a feminist, but I’m not trying to write feminist plays. I was trying to write a really good play about Sarah Bernhardt. And I think I did. The agenda is always the truth and telling an authentic story about people -- that is really what I’m after. We live in dark times around questions of gender and power and early in my career, people would write nasty things about me saying, “She’s a feminist,” and I would think, well, Jesus, David Mamet’s a misogynist. And I thought, this is so peculiar because back then I was young and trying things out and I thought, I don’t even know that I’m very good at being a feminist. Because I didn’t have a political agenda. I just knew the world that I saw and there was something strange to me that people weren’t telling that story, which for me was the simple truth. In one of my early plays, Spike Heels, which was my first play to be done in New York City, the woman says, “Hang on, hang on. This doesn’t actually work for me.” And that was seen as provocative, when, in fact, it was just the truth. Does that make sense?

TS: Absolutely.

TR: I really love it when Edmond comes in and says to Sarah, “You knew this was going to be considered provocative if you did this.” And I think, of course she knew that, but I also think, what was she supposed to do? It’s not like she’s trying to be a provocateur. She’s trying to get at something that’s powerful and part of an artistic journey.

TS: And if the label offends you, I didn’t mean it to.

TR: It doesn’t offend me, of course I’m a feminist, but…

TS: But that’s not what you were writing.

TR: I’m not writing agit-prop. I’ve had to say that so many times. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that either. There are all sorts of different reasons to write a play. Getting at the truth is mine.

TS: Well, I think you’ve done it. And I’m curious how it will affect people. What I sense is that people want to hear what you’re saying. Ten years ago, I read a statistic from the League of Producers that said 75% of theatre tickets are bought by women and I thought to myself, wait a minute, then why are all of the plays written by men and directed by men? That doesn’t make any sense.

TR: Yes, we’ve raised this question many, many times.

TS: It takes so long for people to get it. One of the things that I thought was remarkable is the fact that Sarah says to Rostand, “No woman should have to play the ingénue,” but, ultimately, she goes on to play it. I think you’ve put your finger on it. You’re stuck. You want a career and yet you have to please those people who are in power. And it’s a complicated issue. People compromise themselves all the time in the theatre and elsewhere for all kinds of reasons.

TR: I would say, the play is the play and Sarah’s life is Sarah’s life. What I’ve learned is that she did go back and play Roxanne because Coquelin came with her to do Hamlet on tour, so I think it was a deal that they made with each other. Which, of course, we all do. I think that she and Rostand loved each other. And when Sarah died, the last people that were with her were her son, Maurice, and Rostand’s wife, Rosamund. There’s no question that these people remained entwined in each other’s lives. And Rostand wrote L'Aiglon for Sarah. That’s historically accurate. He wrote a britches part for her. I look at Rostand and I think he’s “woke.” When he says the things that he says to her in that last scene, it’s a way of throwing down the truth of what they are confronting together. And then I think he has to confront that he’s not as woke as he thought he was. And he does that. He writes his next play for her as a britches part and I think it’s a beautiful gesture.

TS: You write a lot about artists and artistic process. And in this play, there is this beautiful sense of community that really can happen on certain productions. That sense of community, is that something that you feel we’re missing in our lives? Because that’s what I feel the play is saying to me. It says, find your community, invest in your community and maybe you will be less depressed by what’s going on around you.

TR: I agree with that. A lot of times people say to me, “Why do you keep working in the theatre?” And I respond, “Well, because it’s beautiful.” That is one reason, but the other reason is because I think it creates community in this astonishing way, that we’re all here together, spending the afternoon together, sharing a story together and sometimes I can see something sparkly in the air when things are going well and that’s very moving to me. So, yes, I agree with you, Ted.

There’s this really beautiful book that’s one of my lodestones called The Gift by Lewis Hyde, and it talks about gift-giving cultures and how gifts create community in this anthropological way and he ties it into art as a gift of culture. And if you look at artists like Janet McTeer, you would have to say, “She’s gifted.” That a gift has come to her and when it moves through her, it moves back out into the community and that creates circular motion. That is what the purpose of art is. I’m not doing this book justice, but it’s quite powerful and argues for what you just proposed.

TS: Well, that’s what I took away from it because I feel like if you don’t wrestle with the themes of a play, what’s the point of seeing it?

TR: Yes, and I would also like to say I’m not a nihilist. I’m clearly not. There’s a lot of nihilism that’s out there in art and things get very, very dark and meaningless and that’s not what I’m going for. That’s just not where I live. And I think that’s what you’re sensing -- that this is a life-affirming enterprise.

Janet McTeer. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Audience Question #1: Clearly, the part fit Janet McTeer like a glove. Did you have her in mind at some point when you were writing it or was it just a perfectly wonderful happenstance that she was available?

TR: I did not have a specific actor in mind for any of the parts when I wrote this. Sometimes I do, like when I wrote the play for Tyne and Tim Daly. But certainly when we got to casting a reading and they asked me and Moritz, “Who do you want to offer it to?,” and Janet’s name was on the list -- the two of us looked at each other and said, “Let’s just see if she’ll do it.”

Audience Question #2: First of all, thank you so much. It was a wonderful experience. I’m so happy to have a playwright in front of me because I’ve always wanted to ask this: Do writers think about us? I knew nothing about Sarah Bernhardt. Now, I want to go read about her, because it was so interesting and the play was so good. But do you writers think, how much information should I put in so they understand what’s going on and how much should I leave out? How do you make those decisions?

TR: I’m going to be honest, everybody’s different, obviously. I hate exposition. I’m one of those people who says, “They can catch up. They’ll catch up.” Because the thing about exposition is you have to have a very real reason for one person to tell another person a piece of exposition. And a lot of times, plays just grind to a halt when someone just starts telling. In 19th-century plays, they used to call them the “dust maid scene.” Have you ever heard of this? It was usually at the beginning of a light comedy and a couple of dust maids were literally walking around dusting furniture and saying, “When are they coming back?” “Well they’re coming back this afternoon.” “Did you hear that so and so…” and they baldly set you up -- who’s sleeping with whom and whose heart is broken and blah blah blah -- and then the play starts. And yes, we all laugh at that because it’s kind of stupid, and it is kind of stupid. For me, you have to have a real reason to put a piece of exposition in because the scenes die. I tend to be light on exposition and then people say to me, “Theresa, you’ve got to add a little more there. Figure out a way.” Of course, you want the audience to not be mystified by what’s going on. At the same time, there’s a lot of stuff about Sarah Bernhardt that I left out of this play because this isn’t a play about Sarah Bernhardt’s life, it’s about this moment in her life.

TS: Am I mistaken, or is television writing a lot of exposition?

TR: I think bad TV writing can often be a lot of exposition. Right? I do. I mean there are TV shows that I love. I love that show Better Call Saul; I used to really love Breaking Bad. That show slows down time a lot, but it doesn’t lean on exposition. But you’re 100% right. I’ve written my share of exposition for TV and I’m not doing that anymore.

Audience Question #3: I think one of the most satisfying parts of this show was watching these artists discuss their art as it was happening. I thought, how can I capture conversations that I’ve had in rehearsal rooms with people? I’m wondering if you have any advice?

TR: I feel like that’s a question of your ear. You can keep people talking for a long time as long as there’s forward motion in the speech and a good ear for dialogue. I’d go back and look at Shaw. Sometimes I get so bored reading Shaw, but he really knows how to set up an argument, send it flying and keep it going. With a lot of my arguments, I have to say to actors, “Yes, there’s 7,000 digressions, but you can never lose sight of the fact of where you’re going.” You really always have to have a major throughline and a passionate need to have this speech or this discussion so that there’s dramatic truth underneath. Shakespeare did it too. You have to really hang on to the muscle of dramatic truth. That’s partly what Sarah struggles with in this play -- the fact that Hamlet is so cerebral -- his brain can go there, but it gets detached from his gut.

Audience Question #4: Thank you for showing the video of Bernhardt at the end because during intermission, I googled Sarah Bernhardt audio and I was surprised because her voice was almost “trilly,” that’s the only word I can use to describe it. And I was wondering if, as you were writing this, you had the sound of her voice in your ear?

TR: I did not. I never listened to her.

TS: I will say that I’ve been reading about Sarah and I’ve read that her voice was supposedly absolutely mesmerizing.

TR: Yes, that’s one of the things I’ve read too.

TS: And her diction was said to be perfect, so I believe she knew how to play her instrument.

Audience Question #5: I feel a little guilty because it’s not so much a question as to thank you because I think this play is genius.

TR: Oh, thanks.

Audience 5: It kept blooming for me throughout the whole afternoon. This is going to be done over and over and people are going to get so much out of it and there’s going to be such richness in reading it. It was extraordinary. It was the most incredible ensemble. In the beginning, I worried a bit. I thought, is this going to be a problem play where it has to have Janet McTeer? And as it went on, I thought, no, there’s going to be a lot of talented people who can inhabit this because the words are so gorgeous. So, thank you.

TR: Well, thank you.

Audience Question #6: When we look back at the body of work of some playwrights, we see connections among their plays thematically -- subjects that they return to. Do you feel that way about your own work?

TR: I would have to say that I do feel that gender and power is a theme that appears and reappears. It’s just in my instrument. The other thing that’s in my instrument is a strong belief in a good laugh. I don’t understand why people don’t take comedy as seriously as I do. I’m always thinking, I’m sorry, but comedy was invented at the dawn of time alongside tragedy. And quite frankly, comedy is harder to do. And so, when people aren’t laughing I’m thinking, What am I doing wrong? -- which is not necessarily the most mature response. Sometimes you just don’t write a funny play, but I often do write what I think of as comedy.

TS: You return to writing about artists quite a bit.

TR: Yes, I do.

TS: And that’s important because you live in that world, I would imagine. And there are all different types of artists.

TR: Sometimes people say to me, “Where do you get your ideas?” And I say, “Well, I shop at the idea store!” Nobody knows where their ideas come from. I do have a sort of sturdy belief in the muse. I understand why the Greeks would invoke the muse, because ideas just show up and then you think about them for a while. It is a little bit like having somebody tap you on the shoulder saying, “This would be a good idea. What about this idea?” And I think that that’s partially because there’s always a lot of people talking to each other inside my head and that’s why I’m a playwright. I don’t actually feel fully in control of this and it’s just gotten worse as time’s gone on. Because now, sometimes people will ask me to do things and I think, Well, that sounds really interesting! And then this person inside me who I now call “Writer Girl” is thinking, Nah, I’m not doing that. And so sometimes, my agent or my manager will call and say, “Hey, could you…” and I’m responding, “Hmm, I don’t think she’s going to be interested in that.” They think I’m insane. I’m really not. I’m sort of like the agent of Writer Girl and I do think that Writer Girl is compelled by stories of gender and power. I feel like the world we live in is just marked by it. It’s just everywhere. I can’t get away from it. I don’t think any of us can.

Audience Question #7: I just wanted to thank you and Writer Girl. Having written a couple biographical plays, I know it’s a very difficult task. A lot of research is done. I was curious if Bernhardt performed in French?

TR: She did, yes.

Audience #7: So, the Shakespeare would have been translated?

TR: Yes, there were questions about that fact that I pondered a lot. And then I thought, I can’t. It got too convoluted. This was the cleanest way through it for me. I actually did go to the Folger Library because they have a copy of the Hamlet that she did when she was playing Ophelia. There were standard translations that preserved the iambic pentameter. So, this thing that she was doing in terms of taking the iambic pentameter out is historically accurate. But, yes, she performed it in French.

Audience #7: What is your take on Bernhardt versus Duse as the greatest actresses of their day?

TR: Sarah kicked Duse’s ass.

TS: And on that note…

TR: I don’t know very much about Duse. That was a slightly cocky response. There were some other things in the play about Duse that we ended up taking out, but they did the same thing that we do -- they would trash talk each other.

TS: Maybe that’s a TV series, Bernhardt and Duse Talking Trash…

TR: Ha, what a good idea.

TS: Can we please thank Theresa for joining us today!


Bernhardt/Hamlet is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through November 18, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2018-2019 Season, A Conversation with, Bernhardt/Hamlet


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Interview with playwright Anna Ziegler

Posted on: November 30th, 2017 by Ted Sod

 

Anna Ziegler

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you? 

Anna Ziegler: I was born in New York City and grew up there, in Brooklyn. I went to St. Ann’s School for 12 years, which as some people probably know, is a bastion of/for the arts. So, it wasn’t so much a question of whether I would become an artist, but which kind. I am being a little facetious, but it really was an environment that made a life in the arts seem possible and respectable. Teachers were often working writers and artists, which was incredibly inspiring. At St. Ann’s, Marty Skoble, who taught me poetry for many years, had a profound influence on me, as did Beth Bosworth and Elise Meslow. Later, in college, Arthur Kopit saw something in my poetry that made him think I could write plays and suggested I apply to graduate school in playwriting. There I was lucky enough to be mentored by Rinne Groff and Martin Epstein, who showed me that there were so many ways to write a play, and that you didn’t have to follow certain rules. You could make up your own rules, and then break your own rules, and a play could also be poetry.

TS: What inspired you to write The Last Match? What would you say this play is about? 

AZ: The idea for the play took root when Andy Roddick retired from professional tennis in 2012. I was so moved by his goodbye speech at the U.S. Open and by the idea of someone so young (he’d just turned 30) having to change course so entirely, to give up everything he’d known and worked so hard on. Little did I know I was about to undergo my own retirement, in a sense. Within a few weeks, I was pregnant with my first child. And while I can’t say that having kids has felt like a retirement in any traditional sense of the word—in many ways, of course, it’s the exhausting opposite—I did shift gears, and move beyond the life I had known. And I came face to face with my place in the cycle of things. And I think it was the combination of these two things – along with a love of tennis that began when I was a little kid, and played all the time – that inspired the writing of The Last Match.

To me, it’s a play about how and why we do things—why we push ourselves to compete, why we have children, find love, grieve -- in the face of or in spite of death. Why we keep wanting things throughout our lives, especially given the fact that nothing is ever enough. Or the bravery of wanting things despite nothing ever being enough. It’s also about a kind of American denial of mortality, and the feeling – the hope we all harbor – that certain athletes can defy time.  Early in the play, one of the characters says that the fans at a tennis match want the newcomer/underdog to defeat the long-time reigning champ – and, also, they don’t want that at all. Because somewhere, deep down, we want to believe that that reigning champ can live forever, and that so will we.

Gaye Taylor (G.T.) Upchurch

TS: How are you collaborating with your director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch -- can you give us a sense of what you look for when collaborating with a director on new work

AZ: G.T. – as she is often known – is an amazing director, and I’ve been really lucky to have worked with her on this play for a long time. She directed its first production at The Old Globe in San Diego and brought it to life in a way I never could have imagined, giving the audience powerful access to its poetry and its humor, and finding visual poetry and movement that made everything more vital.

When I collaborate with a director on a new play, I look for someone who is going to embrace the less traditional aspects of my work – the fact that time can be fluid and that we’re very often in a memory space as opposed to a literal one – along with the need for a strong dramaturgical hand…and patience! Theatre requires a lot of patience, and I’m not long on that, so it’s good for me to work with directors who enjoy the process, who accept that different people will figure things out in different ways, at different times, and that ultimately, despite all these personalities (and often we are not at our best when beset by the terror that what we’re making won’t work, or will be an embarrassment) the play will find itself.

TS Will you give us some insight into your process as a writer? What kind of research did you have to do in order to write this play? How active will you be in rehearsals on this particular show? 

AZ: Embarrassingly, I don’t have much of a process. I work in different ways on every project. The Last Match was a lot of fun to write because I felt close to the world I was writing about and it all kind of flowed. I loved writing these characters. And even though I felt I knew the tennis world pretty well, writing this play was a good excuse to read Open, Andre Agassi’s wonderful memoir, which I couldn’t recommend more highly. It really pulls back the curtain on professional sports—and is catnip for a writer because it gives you a sense of what people are really thinking while they’re performing, while they’re making things look easy. Spoiler alert: things are not as easy as they look and life sucks for everyone. I hope to be really active in the rehearsals for this show – this production is happening in New York, where I live, after all. You have to make the most of that as a playwright because so much of what you do is out of town.

TS: Do you expect there to be any rewriting during the rehearsal and preview periods? If so, how does the rewriting process usually manifest itself on your plays? Is there more rewriting done during the rehearsals or during previews or...? 

AZ: I do imagine there will be some rewriting in September. But since this play has already had a production, I don’t feel like I’m in a place where I’m still figuring it all out. Now it’s about refining. in general, I rewrite a lot in the lead-up to a first production – during workshops and in anticipation of readings – and then when I’m in rehearsals it’s often a process of making the thing as lean as possible. Previews are for gauging where the audience drops out and figuring out how to fix that – which can be accomplished through any combination of text changes, acting notes, and shifts in the design.

TS: I’m curious how you understand the relationship of the two couples to each other and how the men and women relate to each other in this play. It seems to me both couples (Tim and Mallory, and Sergei and Galina) are somewhat symbiotic -- would you agree? 

Cast of The Last Match. Photo by Joan Marcus.

AZ: Yes, I do. Sergei certainly needs Galina – in a very obvious way, she supports him and motivates him – but she also needs him; it might sound a little anti-feminist, but he and his career give her a purpose, too. She relishes being what he needs, the only one who can truly inspire him—and also, and not least, they really love each other. Tim needs Mallory to keep him grounded, to find humility, and to make sure he doesn’t take himself too seriously. She needs him to keep her from going to darker places in her mind. I think they are also deeply in love. This isn’t a play about people who shouldn’t be together, or people searching in vain for connection. I have written those plays, but this isn’t one of them. And in terms of how the couples relate to each other, we’ve talked a lot in rehearsals for this play about how the trajectory for the Americans is one of coming to accept life’s limitations, while for the Russians it’s about coming to accept life’s possibilities. Sergei and Galina ultimately see that joy and success are achievable, and Tim and Mallory see that no matter what our lives are going to be pockmarked by sadness. In some ways, the couples exist in inverse relation to each other.

TS:  What traits did you need in casting the actors for the four roles in The Last Match?

AZ: I’d say that these four all need to be versatile actors – all of the characters exist in different places on the emotional spectrum at various points in the play. And all four need to be funny, to have a good sense of comic timing and a light touch.

TS:  How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist? Do you have any advice for young people who say they want to write for the theatre? 

AZ: Seeing and reading plays definitely keeps me inspired. In fact, there’s nothing more simultaneously soul-crushing and soul-nourishing than seeing a play you love. Soul-crushing because you fear you will never write something as good, but also here is the bar, now a notch higher. It’s incredibly motivating. Also, just living this complicated, full life, juggling kids, parents, and a husband along with this strange, unpredictable job that requires different things each time – all of that is pretty inspiring, too. Which isn’t to say I don’t periodically endure stretches of panic because I don’t feel inspired – I do. But, in general, I find that the fuller and faster life feels the more hungry I am to try to set it down on paper in some way, maybe as a way to slow things down, to think about what’s interesting or troubling or gnawing at me.

As far as advice to aspiring writers goes, I’d go back to reading and seeing lots of plays. These will teach you what you like and want to emulate, and soon enough your voice will be your own.


The Last Match runs through December 23 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, A Conversation with, The Last Match


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