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Education @ Roundabout

 

Lilli Kay, Elise Kibler and Jordyn DiNatale in rehearsal for NAPOLI, BROOKLYN. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

On July 15, 2017, Julie Golia spoke about Napoli, Brooklyn with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series. An edited transcript follows: (There are spoilers below).

Ted Sod: Will you tell our audience how you became a historian and what you do at Brooklyn Historical Society?

Julie Golia: Brooklyn Historical Society is located in Brooklyn Heights. We just opened a second museum along the Brooklyn waterfront at Brooklyn Bridge Park, so we have a lot of great events going on and for those of you who are interested, I hope you will take advantage of them. You can learn more about us at BrooklynHistory.org. We could talk all day about how I became a historian, but I am basically a historian of gender and media. I get pleasure from studying the deep and very complex history of the borough of Brooklyn. I am also Italian-American, so I have a personal connection to the play we saw today.

TS: There were different waves of Italian immigration to Brooklyn – correct? Will you also talk about a law that was passed in 1924 that suppressed immigration?

JG: Italian-Americans are largely part of what historians call the “Second Great Wave” of immigration in our country’s history. The first major wave of immigrants started in the 1830s and continues through the 1850s, which is when you begin to see the Irish and Germans come over.  Italians come over as early as the 1870s, but it’s really after 1890 that emigration from Italy picks up with great speed. During the first two decades of the 20th century, about three million Italians came to the United States, a remarkable number. An even more interesting number is that somewhere between 30% to 50% of those Italians who came over went back to Italy. When we think about the experience of immigration in the United States, we often think of everyone packing up and leaving their homeland behind for good. The Italian-American experience is a different one than that, with great ties to the homeland; many people went back and forth on what was an incredibly arduous trip. The law that Ted just referenced was a 1924 law that was a major immigration restriction act. It comes on the heels of World War I, the Red Scare, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, and a number of other factors that fostered a growing fear that being foreign was somehow the same as being dangerous to our country.

TS: Sounds familiar.

JG: Right? We historians have a lot to say about the past and the present. So, that law basically creates a quota for different ethnicities. And it stays in place until the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s when it becomes illegal to discriminate against people based on their ethnicity.

TS: Meghan Kennedy, who wrote this play, told me that she didn’t do a lot of research, but that she talked to her mother relentlessly because the character Francesca, the youngest daughter, is based on her mother.

JG: It’s interesting to hear about Meghan’s method of research because taking oral histories from the people who experienced being immigrants or were children of immigrants is something we historians do all the time. Brooklyn Historical Society has a wonderful archive of over a 1,200 oral histories, including some from Italian-Americans who grew up in Brooklyn or moved to Brooklyn from Italy. Meghan captured the intimate nature of family, the particularities of their interactions, the importance of food in the family, their complicated relationship with God and what part religion plays in the family dynamic. These are themes that we are able to glean from oral histories, that are sometimes absent from more traditional sources. In that way, Meghan did copious research on being Italian-American.

TS: Other than the Irish and Italians, what was the makeup of Brooklyn at that time?

JG: Pretty much everything. There is a statistic floating around that I actually have never been able to source, but I’ll repeat it to you anyway because I think there is some truth to it. At the end of the 20th century, one in seven Americans could trace their origins to Brooklyn. And so many Americans come from immigrant families. At the moment that the characters are living in Park Slope, circa 1960, you would have encountered Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and many others. In other parts of Brooklyn, you had Scandinavian families, Czech families and Polish families. This diversity continues today because after the 1960s we see another wave of immigration. Today when you look at a map of Brooklyn, you’re looking at growing Chinatowns, as well as a growing number of people from Central and South America, people from all over Asia and many different Caribbean communities. If Brooklyn is anything, it is diverse.

TS: What about Park Slope at this point? As I understand it, it was referred to as a “transitional” neighborhood -- which means you couldn’t give the brownstones away. Wasn’t redlining going on at this point too?

JG: The first thing to know about Park Slope is that it’s actually a very large neighborhood. Parts of Park Slope could have been considered upper middle class areas, even as other parts of it were much more working class. While Park Slope was established in the middle of the 19th century, before that a lot of it was farm land, as much of Brooklyn was very rural in the early 19th century. When Park Slope was laid out, it was actually one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Prospect Park West, a street that lines the beautiful Prospect Park, was the Gold Coast of Brooklyn -- it was the equivalent of Fifth Avenue – in the late 19th century. In a lot of ways, Park Slope’s trajectory mimics the history of Brooklyn. You have this incredible wealth by the park, and then of course there’s a slope because a lot of things, as you all may know, in New York, are named literally. One hundred seventy feet below and toward Manhattan, there is the Gowanus Canal. There were no wealthy people living by the Gowanus Canal, that was where you would find factories, a lot of them producing awful industrial waste. Nearby, is where the working-class families who worked in those factories lived. So, Park Slope was and continues to be a very diverse place with its own subdivisions. By the mid-20th century, many of the once-grand brownstones of Park Slope had been subdivided into working-class housing. There remained a number of areas where there were vibrant communities and institutions. By the 1960s and 70s we start to see a movement that people call “brownstoning,” in which people would buy inexpensive houses and commit to revitalizing brownstone neighborhoods. One of the challenges they did face is that because Park Slope was so ethnically diverse, many of the areas were red lined. What redlining means is essentially that banks refused to grant loans in neighborhoods that were deemed undesirable – and this was usually racially coded – that is, that when people of color lived in a neighborhood, it was classified as undesirable.  The sad part of the story is that it’s only with the influx of more white people that redlining declined in places like Park Slope and property values actually began to raise in the 1980s and beyond.

TS: They were trying to keep African-Americans out of certain areas, correct?

JG: Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. When people of color moved into the neighborhood, banks and even government organizations like the FHA would recode some areas as a less desirable neighborhood. The investment into that real estate would be deemed risky, and the property value would go down. There were a lot of places in Brooklyn that have the unfortunate history of having white-only neighborhoods establish racial covenants and bar black people from buying homes. So, one of the big takeaways of this is that if we have any notions that segregation only existed in the South, Brooklyn’s history really tells us that is absolutely not the case. Of course, there were neighborhoods in mid-century Brooklyn that were racially diverse; Park Slope was one of them. There were also neighborhoods where residents were so afraid of their property values lowering that they practiced discrimination every single day. In fact, often when we think about segregation we think about public housing in New York, but many of the public housing facilities that were built in 1930s and 40s -- and this is something our oral histories at BHS tells us -- were actually racially diverse. It’s not until the 1960s and 70s that you see more white people moving out of these areas and public housing becomes much more African-American and Latino.

TS: The end of Act I features a plane crash that actually happened in Park Slope. Can you tell us about the history of it?

JG:  In December of 1960, there are two planes flying over air space in greater New York City, and I believe it was a mix-up between air traffic control and one of the pilots. The two planes collided in midair. The TWA plane actually made its way to Staten Island and crashed there, in an unpopulated area and no one who was on the ground died, but everyone on the plane did. The United Airlines plane coasted for a couple of miles before it landed at 7th Avenue and Sterling Place in Northern Park Slope. It killed everyone on the plane except for one young boy. It killed six people who were on the ground, and it hit a church, a grocery shop, and I think a couple of other places.

TS: A worker at a butcher shop was killed.

JG: The sole survivor of that flight was a young man who was about 10 or 11 years old. His name was Stephen Baltz. He was flying alone and as a mom it really unnerves me. His mother and sister had already arrived, they were from Illinois, they were here for the holidays. He got tossed from the plane, and according to the newspapers, he landed on a pile of snow. He was awake enough that he was talking, he actually later described what the crash was like. He was rushed to the Methodist Hospital, which was a few blocks away, and he lived for two more days, but he had inhaled so much jet fuel that he burned his lungs and died two days later with his mother by his side.

TS: There were a lot of neighbors who took care of him and I believe one of the neighbors even had a memorial made – true?

JG: There’s actually a memorial plaque dedicated to him in the Methodist Hospital in Park Slope.

TS: It’s really a fascinating story because all this could have happened in your own neighborhood and that is rather horrifying. I believe the United pilot was nine or eleven miles off course.

JG: It was the worst air disaster in American history to that point. Very few people know about it, which I think should be remedied.

TS: This is why I think Meghan, the playwright, was so fascinated by the story. She wanted to dramatize this event that she has been told about over and over again. I want to talk about your take on women at this time. This play seems like a protofeminist piece.

JG: I was going to say it’s distinctively feminist. It’s captured a moment of protofeminism a few years before second-wave feminism technically takes off.

TS: Exactly and I’m curious what you make of the women who are portrayed and Meghan’s understanding of them. How accurate was it for the time? Will you talk about how you understand a woman’s role in that particular time?

JG: It’s a great question. I think more than anything this play captures a moment of remarkable transition, between a very patriarchal way of understanding family and a world that is opening up for women. It had opened up a bit several decades before this play is set, for the first generation of Italian-American women. Many children of immigrants worked in factories. The idea that women didn’t work is factually inaccurate when we look at history. By the mid-20th century, growing numbers of women are working in factories. Especially before they get married. This depiction of Tina is definitely accurate. I think there is a real connection between the experience of joining the workforce and the opening up of financial opportunities for women.  Working gave these women a new freedom and a way to experience the city. Also, as we can learn from watching the characters of Celia and Tina, it’s incredibly back-breaking work. The idea that women were shielded from that type of manual labor, was absolutely not the case. I think we also see a group of young women who are influenced by the growing experience of leisure. I love that we hear about the daughters going to Coney Island.  There was a kind of freedom women were able to find on the streets, in the subways, going to places like movie houses. I would imagine that audiences don’t have so much sympathy for Nic, the father, but you can’t really understand how jarring it must have been for him to be born in Napoli in the 1910s, and then turn around and see this world that is so alien from the world he grew up in. It must have been incredibly jarring for people like him. Finally, with Francesca we see a queer woman who lives in a moment where we don’t yet have the language and the understanding of what it means to be gay in America. The word lesbian was never actually said in this play, and her relationship with Connie was actually very chaste and you could see that they didn’t have the language to understand their own experience. Within 10 years of 1960, there was a feminist movement that would really embrace and think deeply about what it means to be gay and female. We see in Francesca a young woman who is ready to experience that before she even has the structure in which to understand her own life.

Lilli Kay, Elise Kibler and Jordyn DiNatale in NAPOLI, BROOKLYN. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

TS: The idea that Francesca and Connie choose Paris to run away to is fascinating. Paris was more accepting of one’s sexual orientation. A lot of artists like Charles Demuth moved to France because they gained more respect. Can you talk about the middle sister, Vita? Her trajectory in this play is fascinating to me because she is relegated to a convent -- was that unusual?

JG: I can’t say for sure, I don’t know if it was standard for Italian-Americans to send their daughters to convents. It seems very complicated. I guess the best way to understand this is that Italians coming over from Italy, came over with a deep sense of family. Family was the structure of your life and there was nothing else above that structure. I think Vita has a different view of the world, in which family is permeable. She says, “You’re not my father!” It doesn’t sound unusual to us because she just got the sense beaten out of her by him, but to her mother and her father that was unthinkable. Again, I think this is a woman growing up in a society with different values than the ones her parents brought from a different country.

TS: Isn’t this a culture where a woman would stay home if she wasn’t married?

JG: No, and I think that’s the thing we need to understand. There’s this idea of women staying home in immigrant families and even if women did stay home and become housewives like Luda does, many women would actually do things like piece work, they were making extra money for their families as well. More and more, women were going into factories in order to keep their families afloat. This idea that there was one male breadwinner who would keep a family financially afloat in New York, is not necessarily true.

TS: What do you think becomes of these women?

JG: Well I’m interested in hearing what the audience thinks. I’m a historian but putting on the hat of a literary critic, I feel like there’s an element of fantasy in this play, it actually has a weirdly happy ending.

TS: A hopeful ending.

JG: When the father, Nic, leaves, there is a weight lifted from all of them. It seems like this is a moment for all of them to succeed. I don’t know what happens to them in particular, but I do think their lives may not be so hard with him out of the picture.

TS: Do you think Luda runs off with the butcher?

JG: I don’t think she does. Maybe she just wants to be alone and be herself. There was actually a lot of tension between Irish Americans and Italian Americans. Often the newest group is the group who is meant to bear the lower wage jobs or ethnic discrimination. I remember my Italian grandmother telling very bitter stories about how the Irish treated her in school. Today we live in a world where it’s not okay to go to school these days and say ethnic slurs to somebody. I don’t think that was the world people grew up in in the mid-20th century. It wasn’t seen as off-color to criticize someone for their ethnicity. I think there were a lot of tensions between many different ethnic groups even as those groups moved close to one another and interacted with each other.

TS: Does Connie go after Francesca?

JG: Let’s just say the idea of both of them going to Paris makes little sense to me. Francesca could have gone across the river and participated in New York City’s incredibly rich cosmopolitan world in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village. It would have saved her a miserable trip to Europe as a stowaway.

TS: One last thing before we let the audience ask questions.  How did it come to be that the Italians make the best food ever?

JG: That’s an ancient secret, we could never tell you how. Food is a real symbol in this play. Food and the eating of food was in almost every scene, something I’m not used to seeing when I go see plays. It’s so accurate, you couldn’t do a play like this without actually consuming food. Francesca’s rejection of the food is a rejection of her culture. It’s a rejection of the life that she thinks her mother has chosen, in a lot of ways it’s a rejection of her Italianess. The food also contains what is beautiful about being Italian, it’s the love and the affection that Luda has for her family. The passing down of recipes to Vita, the joy of making your child happy and then the joy of having your child say, “Mom this is the best food ever!” In a lot of ways, it is the family bond, it’s the perfect symbol of the complicated times of an Italian-American family in mid-century.

TS: Can you talk a bit about the feast they are preparing on Christmas Eve?

JG: In Brooklyn Historical Society’s podcast Flatbush + Main, we did a wonderful episode on food back in December. My co-host and I talked about our favorite foods and, of course, mine was the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It’s the most meaningful meal in my life, it smells like heaven, it’s the best-tasting food in the world. It’s a great example of how taste can be so tied up with your identity and with the rituals that shape your life, and make you who you are.

Example of the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Audience Member #1: Can you talk about the churches? I think churches united the neighborhoods in Brooklyn and then people started to break away.

TS: I think there were two things that united Brooklyn, the churches and the Dodgers, right?

JG: Brooklyn in the 19th century was called “The city of churches.” The church is an incredibly important institution, it’s one of the first institutions that immigrants established when they came to this country. A very important thing to understand about immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is that today we just think Catholic is Catholic. When Italians came over from Italy in the late 19th and early 20th century, they refused to go to Catholic churches already established here. I think there is some debate as to whether or not they weren’t allowed, or they just didn’t want to worship with the Irish. I think it was a little bit of both actually. By the 1950s and 60s, you would have seen Catholic churches becoming more of what they are today. If they are specific to an ethnicity it’s because of the neighborhood, not the ethnicity. So I think it would have been safe to say that Albert and Luda could have worshipped in the same church. That would have been part of building the bond they have and the way different people would have interacted with each other.

Audience Member #2: I moved to New York and I worked with United Airlines when that 1960 crash happened. I was young and single and New York wasn’t what it is today.

TS: Where did you come from?

Audience Member #2: From Colorado. I was enjoying New York City life. The gay movement was certainly happening, but it was very much more male then -- we didn’t use the word lesbian. I had a lot of gay friends that worked at the airline, and there was a lot of targeting.

TS: Did you know the plane crash was featured in the play when you came to see it?

Audience Member #2: No, I sat here and it brought back a lot of memories.

Audience Member #3: I always thought that Bensonhurst was very Italian and Irish, but I didn’t know about Park Slope. Is there a difference between the areas?

JG: I would say the difference is more about the time period. Further out in Brooklyn, places like Bensonhurst and Canarsie were really hard to get to. It would have been very difficult to live there and then commute to the city or the waterfront where many people worked. So as transportation innovations improved and that trip became easier, it became easier for Italians to establish neighborhoods in those areas. Another interesting thing about the Italian-American experience is that the majority of Italians came from rural southern Italy. They were farmers, so getting off the boat and seeing the booming city of New York City must have been a mind-blowing experience for them. A lot of people yearned for a more rural experience and that is something they could find further out in Brooklyn. A lot of areas weren’t even developed until the mid-20th century.

TS: There is a documentary that was on PBS that I believe was called “The Italian Americans,” about immigrants from Italy. It seems it started sometime before unification.

JG: In a lot of ways it’s the result of unification. Unification in Italy largely takes place by the 1860s and causes a series of government shifts -- a lot of tax money goes to industrialization in the North -- not toward developing the South. A lot of crops failed and created extreme poverty. All immigration experiences usually involve push factors and pull factors. There was little money in Southern Italy and there was a significant opportunity to make some money in New York even if it came at unbelievable hardship.

TS: So those who went back to Italy – did  they go back to poverty or was there more opportunity by then?

JG: The idea was that you would come to America, make money, and bring it back to your family. A lot of people actually left their wives and their children in Italy, and in some cases, people would go back five or six times. The trip was by boat and it was unbelievably excruciating.

Audience Member #4: I grew up in Brooklyn right at the time of that plane crash, and I was the same age as the kid who died. A couple of years later, I worked in a company that had a lot of Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans. I wanted to ask you about the tension I experienced firsthand between the Irish and Italian- Americans at that time.

JG: In a lot of ways you can see this inter-ethnic tension throughout Brooklyn’s history. One example I can think of is in the 1840s, they had this moment of incredible violence along the waterfront when Irish and German workers were actually pitted against each other over wages. There was a shooting, and a number of German people were killed in this small riot between Irish and German people. It’s an interesting thing to think about in terms of labor history. Often labor historians ask, “Why did workers allow these ethnic tensions to come between what could have been a larger solidarity?” I think the universal immigrant experience is getting here and working at the lowest paying, most dangerous jobs that there were and often these were along Brooklyn’s waterfront. I think one way of answering your question is to think about the enormous cultural differences that people brought to Brooklyn. Italians themselves aren’t even actually a homogenous group. In the early 20th century you would have been Napolitano or you would have been Sicilian, the divisions in identity were actually incredibly narrow. There was fighting between Italians, let alone between Italians and Irish, who were seen as a whole foreign experience. Italians didn’t think the Irish really practiced Catholicism. That’s why I think the phrase “melting pot” Is all wrong. It was actually a lot of different pieces in the soup.

Audience Member #4:  My father-in-law had a butcher shop at Sterling and 7th and he came out and he spoke to the little boy who fell out the plane. It was very real to us sitting here watching the play.

JG: Low-slung houses like brownstones allowed people in that period to interact with their neighbors much more than the high-rises of today. People know each other, people frequented the same shops over and over again. If you saw a kid in the street, you’d be out there taking care of him. It’s one of the things I love about Brooklyn.

Audience Member #5: Why didn’t any of the women in the play aspire to marry one of the Dodgers?

TS: They left Brooklyn in 1957.

JG: It’s true, there wasn’t mention of the Dodgers in the play. We could have a whole conversation about the Dodgers. It is enormously controversial. To this day, Brooklynites are so torn over it. Right now at Brooklyn Historical Society, we have an exhibit on Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers and we get both sides. Even after all these years, people still feel so passionately about the Dodgers and some still feel so betrayed. One of the things the Dodgers did do, is they brought people together. Especially after Jackie Robinson. The moment that the Dodgers left, which was on the heels of industrialization, the closing of a lot of factories, it felt like a moment of major change. Meghan’s play is a very intimate and domestic experience, a lot of it takes place in a house, and it was a cast of almost all women. Maybe it wasn’t on their radar. It wasn’t the most important thing in their lives.

TS: Can you tell us a bit more about the Dodgers exhibit? Where they could see it?

JG: It’s called “Till Everyone Has It Made: Jackie Robinson’s Legacy” and it is at our Brooklyn Heights location at 128 Pierrepont Street. It’s just a quick stop over the river. We have other exhibits going on over there too -- one about Brooklyn Heights in the 1950s, one is about Prospect Park. We just opened our newest location, a gorgeous gallery, in the Empire Stores Building in Brooklyn Bridge Park. You can find more information about all of these events at BrooklynHistory.org.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Napoli Brooklyn, Upstage


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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.

Erik Lochtefeld, Michael Rispoli, Alyssa Bresnahan, Jordyn DiNatale, Elise Kibler and Lilly Kay rehearsing for Napoli, Brooklyn. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

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.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Napoli Brooklyn, Upstage


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Anne Kauffman in rehearsal for Marvin's Room. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

On June 24, 2017, Anne Kauffman spoke about Marvins Room with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series. An edited transcript follows (There are spoilers below).

Ted Sod: Anne was born and reared in Phoenix, Arizona, and she is one of six children. She was educated on the West Coast in California for both undergraduate and graduate school. Anne, while you were at undergrad school, a teacher said to you, Youre a director; how does it feel to be a director? Will you talk about how it felt to be validated by him?

Anne Kauffman: That happened during my first couple of years in college. As Ted said, I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, in a very protective family. Going to college away from home, many of us experience that confusion where you don’t know who the hell you are. I had such a strong upbringing and I learned so much in college by being exposed to many different people, I was actually very destabilized. It truly has taken me until now to get myself together. So, at that particular point in my life, when someone from outside my family saw me objectively and suggested I was good at something – something that I actually wanted to do -- it was really empowering. I think if he didn’t say that to me, I may not have continued on this path. I think we’re so fragile at that time in our lives, throwing things against the wall and seeing if they’ll stick.

TS: In graduate school, Les Waters, the director, had an influence on you. Will you tell us how that manifested?

AK: I don’t know if everyone knows who Les Waters is; he is a British director. He is fantastic. He’s done a bunch of things in New York City. He directed Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice at Second Stage -- The Christians at Playwrights Horizons -- and he’s worked a lot with Caryl Churchill. I took a lot of time off before I went to graduate school because I decided I needed to have more life experience. I had been in school forever. Les was very specific about wanting students who had lived a bit. He was actually a new teacher and he treated me like a colleague -- which was a new experience for me.  I learned a lot about collaboration working with him. He put himself on my level; we looked at a problem side by side rather than as mentor and mentee. It was unnerving at first, but I was able to realize that there is no right or wrong when it comes to being an artist – a director is collaboratively trying to figure something out. You fumble around in the dark for a while. You can have a lot of experience in the field, but some of the problems you encounter are always going to be the same.

TS: Wasnt it through him that you became familiar with the type of work you ultimately brought here and did with The Civilians?

AK: Les Waters worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London, and there was a company called Joint Stock which they formed with Max Stafford-Clark, Caryl Churchill, Timberlake Wertenbaker, and a lot of artists that many of you would recognize. They created work through an interview process. There are a number of Caryl Churchill plays that were actually created through this Joint Stock process. My colleague Steve Cosson and I were schooled in this process in graduate school. Les taught a class on Joint Stock and we were very taken with the method. Steve decided he wanted to start a company here in New York City, so we could make work using that same process. We picked a topic; we interviewed a number of people about it; and then we developed a show.

TS: When I interviewed you for the Marvins Room playgoers guide, you said its ironic that you were making your debut on Broadway with a revival, because youve directed so many new plays. You said one of the things that you miss about not working on a new play is having the playwright in the room with you.

AK: I feel like I really know Scott McPherson. I didn’t know him when he was alive -- he passed away in 1993 -- but I feel like I know him because his sensibility reminds me of the circle of friends I had when I first moved to New York. Marvins Room was originally produced in Chicago. Scott and his partner, Danny Sotomayor, lived in Chicago. After the show opened at the Goodman Theatre there, it was brought to Hartford Stage in Connecticut, and then to Playwrights Horizons in New York City in 1991, which is when I moved to New York. I didn’t see the play at that time, thank God, because I’m very impressionable. But I like to say that Scott and I both came to New York in 1991 and we’re making our Broadway debut together these many years later. I feel like I grew up on his particular brand of absurdism and realism and how elegant he is at interweaving comedy and tragedy.  What I love about his language is that it is very funny, and it feels somewhat absurd, but how far from reality is it really? You get such a strong sense of Scott’s perspective on the world. I think a lot of people see this play through the lens of AIDS. The play’s themes of mortality happened to coincide with a very particular moment in history in our country. His perspective on the spectrum of life and death never seemed so far away from each other. The play is a celebration of the interweaving of both. I do think that in this country we are very afraid of illness, becoming older, dying, and the prospect of what is going to happen to us. Caregiving is a very tricky concept in this country. I think it’s not something that is celebrated in the way that it should be, and I think Scott celebrates it in this play.

Lili Taylor in rehearsal for Marvin's Room. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

TS: Was there a time when you thought, I really want to ask Scott this particular question? Was there a moment when you needed to commune with him if he were still alive?

AK: What is great about a good playwright is that they put a map on the page. Whenever I got lost, I’d go back inside the script and ask, “Why did he choose this word rather than that word? Why is the period here rather than there?” It’s illuminating, and it helped me feel like he was there with me. I feel like I have his sensibility; I feel very close to him. But, having said that, it is always really nice to have a living playwright in the room to add another dimension to the discovery process.

TS: So many directors tell me that their process with the playwright is to ask a million questions to get inside the play, so that they can understand it as fully as possible. Sometimes I dont even know if the playwright knows what theyve created.

AK: Well, if they’re good they don’t. They’re writing unconsciously, and they’re writing from a part of themselves that doesn’t completely understand what they’re writing. I completely agree.

TS: You have a remarkable cast and I would like you to talk about what you were looking for in the audition process. Scott Ellis, who is Associate Artistic Director here, always says, I wanted to find people I wanted to spend eight weeks with. Its really very intense working on a play together. It seems to me that you needed very specific skills from the actors you cast. Is that true?

AK: First of all, I think Scott Ellis is absolutely right. I need to know if the actors are willing to collaborate and to listen and to push forward. If there are blocks in the rehearsal room -- meaning if there’s a lot of resistance -- we don’t get very far. I knew with this company of actors that they were going to dive in head first and be very open and engaged in experimenting with everything. I think that the particular kind of actor needed for the tone of this play is very specific; they have to be comedians with huge hearts and their understanding of the humanity in the play is very important. Both qualities are necessary, so you can have those moments of laughter and then deeply felt pain. We all know that comedy is the flip side of tragedy, etc. For example, Celia Weston playing Aunt Ruth in the scene where she’s talking about not telling Marvin that Bessie is gone and how she ignores the nurse – what is so extraordinary about that is that it’s funny, but we also feel Ruth’s inability to confront Marvin and tell him something that would absolutely crush him. That sort of comedy and tragedy juxtaposed is what is required of the actors in this play.

TS: There is something quite profound in this play when Lili Taylors character Bessie says Ive been so lucky to have loved so much. That is a moment that just lands in such a marvelous way because it is filled with wisdom.

AK: For us, it was a real discovery for Bessie. It’s something that she is puzzling out as she has this moment of real weakness. She sees the end may be near and the arc of her life flashes back to her. In rehearsal, it felt like that moment was an enriching discovery for the character.

TS: Especially in a culture that emphasizes being first, all about yourself, making the most of every opportunity and taking as opposed to giving. This play also says a lot about our responsibility to our families.

AK: I have four sisters and a brother. The idea of family in this play is very important to me.  In many of our families, the way our parents and siblings regard us helps to define the role we play in that family. You sometimes get stuck in your role. When you come home, you are almost calcified in that role. What is so extraordinary about Scott’s play is how he dramatizes our ability to break out of these roles. We see Lee slowly become the comfort-giver rather than the comfort-receiver. Lee really steps up and Bessie allows Lee to take care of her. Families are where so many of our behavioral patterns begin and I really love this idea of family being a mutable, living, generous thing that can shift.

TS: One of the wonderful things in this play is the budding relationship between Bessie and her nephew Hank. You can see that they both need each other: she not only wants him to take the bone marrow test, she sincerely wants to know more about him and he craves the attention. I have a niece and nephew and I find that sometimes that dynamic is so different from the dynamic between parents and their children.

AK: Absolutely. Out of six children, I’m the only one who doesn’t have children. I am very close with my nieces and nephews and it’s just a different relationship. My curiosity with my nieces and nephews is very pure -- I have no agenda with them; it’s pure love and curiosity. I feel my nieces and nephews actually gravitating toward me because I am pressure-free, and they can tell me things they can’t tell their parents. I love this relationship of blood that has no real pressure or responsibility.

TS: I read a New York Times interview with you, Lili, Janeane and Celia, and you said something to the effect of, I dont walk into the rehearsal room saying this is what its going to be. I want to make discoveries about the play together. Can you talk a bit about those discoveries and that process?

AK: When I was a younger director, I felt like I had to plan everything out, and that I had to know everything to the nth degree. Theatre is a very collaborative, live art form, and what I realized was that when I would come into a rehearsal room and just sort of dictate, I wasn’t really paying attention to who I cast, the chemistry, the group of personalities, the contributions that the actors themselves could make. When I discovered that something that I had pre-planned so diligently wasn’t working, it was very destabilizing for me. It took me a long time to come back around to fix a moment, because it was so hard to unclench my fists from it. As I get older and busier, I tend to leave myself big gaps. I’ll know what the play means to me and then we all make discoveries in rehearsal. I think that one of the biggest preproduction processes that I engage with is the set design; when I’m working on the set design, that’s when I really dig into the play. It’s enormously helpful. I have incredible design collaborators. I learn more about the play through its physical manifestation and what the space means metaphorically. I always have to start from a place of metaphor with a space. Laura Jellinek, the set designer, and I wanted to see the play through Bessie’s eyes and the ridiculous journey through her medical experience. The turntable, which is kind of a carnivalesque carousel, becomes concrete in Disney World; it reflects her crazy ride from the time that she’s diagnosed with leukemia till the end of the play. Again, the turntable is practical in terms of getting from space to space, but then it also became deeply metaphorical for the absurd journey that she takes.

Celia Weston in rehearsal for Marvin's Room. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

TS: Ive heard directors say time and time again, that the stage in this theatre has its own challenges, because it is so wide.

AK: It’s really wide, yes.

TS: Especially for something that wants intimacy. Thats another thing I loved about your production, how naturally the actors are projecting. It never feels like theyre pushing. You really do feel like youre eavesdropping. Was that difficult to accomplish?

AK: Yes, sound in here is very tricky.

Audience Member #1: I absolutely loved Marvins Room. My question is about Hank. To me, he is coming back for a sacrifice. Im wondering what you think the motivation for him coming back is?

AK: Oh, that’s interesting. You think he is coming back to sacrifice himself for Lee?

Audience Member #1: Right, because I think he would be better off by himself.

AK: I think that something happens at Disney World for everyone. Not just because Bessie faints and everyone has to come to her aid. Because Hank and Bessie start to form a relationship, I think Hank is ready to reach out to his mother…and Lee, having witnessed the relationship, wants to start over with Hank as well. So, at the top of the scene, when Lee and Hank are sitting on the bench together I think there is a real effort on both their parts to reach one another. I think their chemistry is volatile, we watch them try to control their regular impulses with each other.  When Hank carries Bessie in the following scene, I think that action -- from my point of view -- solidifies the change in his behavior. Hank says in an earlier scene, “I wish I were someplace else” and Bessie says, “Well, why aren’t you then?” What I think happens is that Hank’s idea of what that someplace else is morphs; he gets there physically and then he realizes that someplace else is actually back with his family starting a new chapter. Hank and Lee have a long way to go, but I think Hank really just doesn’t want to leave Bessie or Marvin, and really wants to make a connection with Lee.

TS: While watching today, I got the feeling that he was stepping up in a paternal way when he tells Charlie, You have to study, why are you doing badly in school? Obviously, Charlie is smart. I sensed that Hank is ready to take on some kind of responsibility.

Audience Member #2: My question is about the father, Marvin, and what kind of work you did when talking about who he is.  Also, who plays Marvin so beautifully, and are those sounds he makes recorded or are they improvised?

TS: Carman Lacivita plays him, right?

AK: Carman, yes, and he plays Bob and he plays the guy in the gopher or dog suit at Disney World. We spent a lot of time talking about who Marvin was to these two sisters. It is so easy to project onto Marvin the idea that he was the perfect father. We were very interested in the relationship that each of the sisters had with him before he fell ill, so we explored that history with the them and with Ruth. It is a very detailed back story that we have. And how his relationship with each daughter differs. In his compromised state, the state we now see him in, we came up with this idea of a man who has his wits about him, but he just doesn’t have the ability to communicate. We think that Ruth and Bessie know exactly what he is saying. And they are right. I think the distance between who Marvin was to each sister and his current state is a point of real interest for each of them. I think their musing about his younger virile days speaks to their desire to be taken care of again.

TS: You get a little glimpse of how he might have treated his daughters when the two sisters are talking about the carny worker Bessie was involved with. They talk about how their Dad wouldve hated that.

AK: Yes, we think he was strict and a military man.

TS: Is Ruth related on his side? Or the mothers side? Do we know that?

AK: It’s not in the script, but I always thought Ruth and Marvin are blood related.

Janeane Garofalo and Lili Taylor onstage in Marvin's Room. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Audience Member #3: There is a scene where Lee talks to Hank about how Hank was being hurt by his father. It happened very quickly, but maybe that explains why Hank is the way he is. Was I imagining it?

AK: You were not imagining it at all. That’s exactly right. What is so beautiful, again, about what Scott has written, as far as I’m concerned, is that you understand that Lee’s guilt is contributing to the combative relationship between her and Hank. Information about the abuse that seems to have happened comes out very quickly and then Ruth and Charlie enter and Hank is left with this piece of information to sort out on his own.

Audience Member #3:  So when Charlie came along, Lees husband was still there?

AK: When Charlie came along, Lee says, “I wanted to stop this and I threw him out.” Which is an intense admission to make to your other son – she basically says, “I wanted to save Charlie, but I ignored what was happening to you.”

Audience Member #4: As a director, do you move on to a new project when this opens, or are you still very much involved with the entire run of the play?

AK: There’s a certain point in the rehearsal process right before we open that we call “freezing the show,” and we’re headed toward that moment. Once opening happens, I disappear. I don’t disappear fully; I’ll come and watch and give notes, but technically, I’m onto the next project and the cast and crew take it and run with it.

TS: The stage manager pretty much takes over, correct?

AK: Yes, our stage manager Barclay Stiff will keep watch over the production. Barclay is one of my favorite kinds of stage managers because he’s got a director’s eye -- so when I give a note, he understands where it is coming from and how it is supposed to manifest. With someone like him, I have a real partner in the maintenance of the process.

TS: Anne, do you want to tell the audience what youre in rehearsal for now and whats happening at New York Theatre Workshop next season?

AK: Sure, at Encores!, I’m directing Assassins next.

TS: And then you are directing a play that you did at Yale recently that is coming to town correct?

AK: Yes, I’m directing a play by Amy Herzog. She wrote 4000 Miles and Belleville. We’re working on her new play called Mary Jane and we’re going to be at New York Theatre Workshop this fall.

Audience Member #5: Did you have any problems finding the comedy from the dialogue?

TS: So, youre asking her how she went about doing that or if there was a challenge in doing that?

Audience Member #5: Was it a challenge to do that?

AK: Directors are completely reliant on the actors’ understanding of what is funny about a line, but also, at a certain point during the process, we take every line apart and it becomes deeply unfunny for a very long time. And then, there’s structure and rhythm that helps. A good playwright like Scott really understands rhythm. I think the challenge is finding and sticking to the playwright’s rhythms. A comedy is a machine of sorts that a good playwright builds and if you give into it, it is enormously helpful in guiding the comedy.


Marvin's Room is now in performance at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.


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2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Marvin's Room


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