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Arthur Miller’s THE PRICE: Interview with Actor Jessica Hecht

Posted on: April 11th, 2017 by Roundabout

 

Jessica Hecht

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated?  When did you decide to become an actress? Did you have any great teachers who influenced you?
Jessica Hecht: I was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and educated at NYU. I grew up in a town called Bloomfield, Connecticut. I was very affected by all the productions I saw at The Hartford Stage Company when I was a kid. I didn’t really decide to be an actress until I met the great actor Morris Carnovsky in 1984. I went to Connecticut College for about a year-and-a-half before I went to NYU and took a Shakespeare course with Mr. Carnovsky. His understanding of Shakespeare’s language just opened up a door for me. I was depressed at Connecticut College for a multitude of teenage reasons, so I asked him what he thought about conservatories, and he said, “Go to New York and study with Stella Adler.” I said, “My parents will never let me go to New York!” And then he told me about NYU. I auditioned and got in, and I also got to study at Stella Adler, and that was my real entry into this world.

TS: Why did you choose to play the role of Esther Franz in Arthur Miller’s The Price? Does the play have personal resonance for you? How do you understand the relationship between Esther and her husband, Victor?
JH: I read the play last year. I hadn’t read it before. I chose to do the play because, for me, the kind of struggle that Esther’s experiencing as a middle-aged woman — thinking that her life would be different than it is — is so beautifully articulated that I couldn’t say no. At the moment, I can’t think of another great American play that has a character whose feelings line up with the issues I grapple with personally. The ideas of the play are things that I think about a lot: the idea of family and your obligation to it. For me, that’s one of the primary things that makes me feel good about myself, but what is the real value? What is the real thing that you are doing when you order your life so that you’re devoted to your family? I think Arthur’s interest in that idea, in terms of his female characters, is fascinating. My experiences acting in A View from the Bridge and After the Fall were thrilling. It's funny because his women are often in marriages in which the husband isn’t as demonstrative as the wife is with love and affection. But it’s not true in this play. I love Arthur’s stage note in the very beginning of the play where he says, “Their relationship is quite balanced.” You see that throughout the script. Victor and Esther are really into each other and want to make life good for one another. Their marriage is built on a deep connection with a shared commitment that their lives would turn out a certain way. That hasn’t happened, but Esther’s holding on to hope. Partially, I feel that their present dynamic is built on guilt. She says, “I wasn’t a very good wife— I should have pushed you more.” She believes enormously in him. I think he in turn feels guilt that he hasn’t given her the life she wanted. She expresses early on that she can’t have a regular job. She says: “I could never go to the same place every day.” She also intimates that she wanted more kids, but they didn’t have the money. They talk about these things — they’re certainly not repressed. I think it’s a very honest depiction of a marriage where a couple is flawed and stuck but they are able to talk to one another. That’s one of the reasons they stay together.

Photo by Joan Marcus

TS: You were nominated for a Tony Award for your work in A View from the Bridge, and I was curious if working on Beatrice in that play would inform your work on Esther. It seems like they’re quite different women.
JH: I do think they’re different. Without giving too much away, Esther has her own demons. The text articulates the fact that she might struggle with alcoholism and sadness. Beatrice has to be the strongest person in the room. And she does that at the expense of her own needs. There’s no romance in that character. That’s been beaten out of her by experience. There’s a deep love, but there’s no romance. I think there is a decided bit of romance between Esther and Victor in this play. That’s what interests me. Not that it’s at all delicate, but there’s a kind of vitality in what is going on with those two characters in The Price. They don’t want to succumb to whatever “middle-aged” means to them, and that is interesting to me because I haven’t seen that in Miller’s other women as much.

TS: How have you been preparing to do this role? Have you done any research about the period? Did you read Miller’s biography, Timebends?
JH: I read Timebends when we did After the Fall at Roundabout, and I read it again before rehearsing A View from the Bridge — so that’s been very helpful. Arthur denies autobiographical elements in his plays for the most part, but it’s always interesting to see what was going on around him at the time he wrote the plays. I love listening to him talk in interviews. I love listening to the way he describes things. He has this meat-and-potatoes way of looking at really complex situations. I don’t in any way want to profess to know him deeply. I only worked with him once. He was still alive when we worked on After the Fall, and that was such a gift. When I listen to him talk about things, it makes me realize that there’s a centeredness about how you have to approach his plays. You can’t approach them in an intellectual way. Basically, the way I prepare is by reading the play over and over again, and I try to get the psychology and history of the character — it is so beneficial — and to hear the way Arthur organized the voices of his characters. He is very practical.

TS: Do you have a sense of what this play is about?
JH: It’s about the deep distance within families and how we have a really hard time coming to terms with that distance. It’s a very human thing to be lonely within your family, and even more profound is being singularly disconnected in a way that’s painful and difficult to overcome. That is the pain that Miller’s trying to grapple with in The Price, I think. I lost my father almost two years ago. The need to be with your parent as they’re dying is something I recognize. Why does one person feel that profoundly while another person doesn’t? It’s a kind of isolation. Miller wrestles with that in The Price.

Photo by Jenny Anderson

TS: There’s a stranger named Solomon in the play who forces Victor and Esther to think differently about their situation. Do you agree?
JH: Yes. He’s a magnificent creation because Arthur gives him his own personal pain. He is someone who could have escaped Auschwitz. He has a thick Yiddish accent and he comes from that part of the world. He also carries the pain of his daughter who died as a teenager. Even though he has this tremendous humor and is very irreverent, he has this gravitas by virtue of what he experienced in life. And in the end, he owns it with such dignity. It’s fascinating. It’s a very funny part. Danny DeVito will be amazing in it.

TS: How do you think Esther views her brother-in-law, Walter?
JH: I think she’s now fascinated by him and was previously very infatuated. It’s that kind of infatuation you have with someone who is very smart or very talented, but they do something to reveal their narcissism and you are now embarrassed. When Walter walks into the attic, she has this resentment about him not picking up the phone and treating Victor like crap. It pains her. But she’s also a little thrilled and senses that he’s changed.

TS: What do you look for from your collaboration with a director?
JH: I look for a way to access the emotions of the play. I think that’s what’s most vital, and I sense that’s exactly the way Terry Kinney, our director, works. He’s also an excellent actor, and I see that he wants to open these doors for us.

TS: I read in The New York Times that you keep watch from your apartment windows, and I was wondering if that is how you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
JH: I do feel inspired by the fact that everybody seems to experience the same routines and the same pathos. I saw this man across the way from us, and he seemed to be really yelling at his wife. He was screaming at her, and I felt mortified that I was watching them. I looked away, and then I looked back and he was hugging her. He was really embracing her. I thought how beautiful that they had this fight and then they made up. I saw all of it. In a way, that’s better than watching any movie. The dynamics that people go through are so universal. I find it very touching that we’re all in this together. To tell the truth, I think that’s why our neighbors don’t have any window treatments either.

TS: Public school students will read this and will want to know what it takes to be a successful actor. Do you have any advice?
JH: In terms of crafting a career, my only advice is to never say no. You’re too young to have judgment, so the idea is to keep working and keep opening yourself up to people who are as interested in creating art as you are. That is the most important thing. You’re not going to act on your own, and you never actually know who is going to help you fulfill your goals. It’s really important that you open your mind to as many people as possible and become part of a community. The whole point is to create a community. That’s what worked for me. I work with the same people all the time, and I think that’s the only reason I’ve ever grown as an actress.


Arthur Miller's The Price is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Arthur Miller's The Price, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage


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Arthur Miller’s THE PRICE: Designer Statements

Posted on: April 3rd, 2017 by Roundabout

 

Set model for Arthur Miller's THE PRICE

DEREK MCLANE — SET DESIGN
The Price takes in the late 1960s and, interestingly, Arthur Miller said that this play was his response to the Vietnam War. The setting is located in an attic apartment in an Upper West Side brownstone that is going to be torn down so that new high rises can be built. It is where the father of Victor and Walter used to live. The house now contains an enormous furniture collection. The furniture collection comes from the early 1900s, and the story of the play centers around the value of this furniture collection, so we have to see it. Victor wants to sell the furniture, and a big chunk of the play is the negotiation for the price of this furniture. What’s interesting about the furniture collection is what the furniture dealer, Solomon, says about it -- that it’s out of date. It’s actually not worth that much. Victor and his wife, Esther, think the furniture is worth a huge amount of money, but in fact it’s outdated because of its scale. It’s too big for most modern apartments. The value of the furniture also speaks to the feeling of an end of era in this play. I wanted to give the audience the sense of the attic being at the very top of the house and how that relates to the surrounding skyline of an older New York City neighborhood. There are no walls to this attic. There’s a roof and a floor and the roof floats over the floor. The audience sees other rooftops from the surrounding buildings as well as the sky. I tried to create an exaggerated sense of height, so the audience will get the feeling of a precipice. I wanted the audience to be aware subliminally that things are about to change. It’s not a literal set at all, but it has all the things that are called for in the text. It has stairs coming up from below, and it has the furniture that’s referred to in the story, but it’s opened up in a way that gives it a larger — and perhaps more poetic — meaning.

SARAH HOLDEN — COSTUME DESIGN

Costume renderings for Arthur Miller's THE PRICE

When I first read The Price, I was struck by the deep and complicated relationships among these four people. Although the play takes place over just a few hours on one day, it is infused with a much larger history—the history between two brothers and between a husband and wife combined with the literal history of a lifetime accumulation of furniture, possessions, and memories. The history that gets in the way of them being able to talk honestly and openly with each other. Even Solomon, the one character who is unknown to the other three, comes in with his own messy and tangled human story. Designing costumes for The Price began with getting to know these four characters. Talking with director Terry Kinney about who they are, how they relate to each other, and what the stakes are for each of them on this day. The next step was diving into the research. Finding their world by reading plenty of magazines from the late ‘60s, searching through catalogues and learning everything I could about the NYPD uniforms circa 1968. For me, the most interesting challenge was making sure these characters onstage simply look like real people wearing real clothes. This involved talking to each actor and beginning that collaboration, which continues through the fitting process and all the way to the costumes onstage. If I did my job well, the audience will forget about the costumes and just see Victor, Esther, Walter, and Solomon, who have met up in an attic apartment on this day bringing with them both their histories and their hopes.

DAVID WEINER — LIGHTING DESIGN
I am completely thrilled to be designing the lighting for Arthur Miller’s The Price. What makes this opportunity so compelling for me is how Miller masterfully renders a landscape of memory within the literal landscape of Victor and Walter’s familial past — their childhood attic, littered with relics that bring painful memories into sharp focus. My challenge is to use the lighting to render a visual world that enhances Miller’s writing with the same sense of dramatic poetry. Derek McLane has designed a stunning deconstructed attic in which the outside world bleeds into the inside. They are both separate and one. We are surrounded by the skyline of late 1960s New York, where the play takes place over a couple of continuous hours one fall evening. By using time of day as a mechanism for delivering light into the space — a giant sculpture comprised of assembled furniture pieces — I hope to illustrate and sharpen the emotional journey that the two brothers make during their reunion after being long estranged. As Miller unravels their relationship in front of us, we will descend through sunset into night penetrating the attic with the light of waning sun and moonlight. Shafts of light will carve up Derek’s attic sculpture, bringing specific relics of Victor and Walter’s past into focus to help illustrate their emotional journey – a harp, their father’s chair, an armoire filled with their mother’s gowns, an old Victrola. The trick will be for the lighting to enhance the storytelling in a subliminal way, so that the audience is never aware that their attention is being directed by the light even though it is.

JESSE TABISH — ORIGINAL MUSIC
I was familiar with other Arthur Miller plays, but, to be honest, I had never heard of The Price. I was immediately engaged and found it deeply human. It's deceiving at first because of the simple, plain talk and domestic setting — but, as the play unfolds, the characters start to unearth themselves as they recall their own versions of the past. A creeping tension builds and builds. There's no big bam ending, which I loved. Real life stuff. The research I did in order to compose music was looking up old interviews of Arthur Miller where he talks about life and his work. I even tried sneaking some of that audio into the music! Not sure if it will make the cut though. Initially I had written several pieces that in retrospect came off as too gloomy/dramatic/ sad. After talking with Terry Kinney, the director, we realized that there was much more love and lightness in the play. So, for me the challenge composing this score became balancing tension and human fragility without coming across too epic or sad. I hope I have achieved this. I'm so honored to be a small part apart of this production with its amazing cast, crew, and director.

ROB MILBURN AND MICHAEL BODEEN — SOUND DESIGN
During discussions with our director, Terry Kinney, he described the aural landscape of The Price as subtle, spare, super real, and dreamlike. The play embraces both the joy and unreliability of memory. There are also two key aural moments in it that are written in the stage directions by Miller and are the first sounds we hear in the play, even before we hear an actor speak. The first one is the plucking of a single harp string by Victor, creating a heavenly, light sound that resonates against all the large old furniture stacked in a dark attic. The second thing we hear is a record on a wind-up Victrola. The needle is dropped onto a slightly scratchy record. The song is an upbeat and happy vaudevillian tune sung in a back and forth manner by two male singers. We immediately have a sense of nostalgia of a happier time. It connects to this attic of memory again in a contrasting way -- light and upbeat versus dark and solemn -- but now there are two voices. The first record is almost immediately replaced by a second, where we hear a trumpet, then a woman laughing, then a man laughing. They laugh hysterically. It's a cacophonous trio. It is a surreal moment, as if in a dream, a memory of past good times but skewed by the strangeness of the voices we hear from the Victrola. Derek McLane's beautiful set includes a skyline of the Upper West Side in the late 1960s that surrounds the attic. The spare sounds of the outside world will reinforce David Weiner's lighting gestures, and the subtle use of composed music by Jesse Tabish will float through the space like a distant memory.


Arthur Miller's The Price is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Arthur Miller's The Price, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage


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Arthur Miller’s THE PRICE: American Consumerism

Posted on: April 1st, 2017 by Roundabout

 

Photo by Joan Marcus

In The Price, the Franz family is forced to deal with the practical and emotional results of financial decisions made during the Great Depression. The play takes place in 1968, and money dominates the conversation. But the value of money changes over time. Today, the $1200 that Solomon offers Victor for the family’s old furniture isn’t worth what it was in 1968. And in 1968, that $1200 wasn’t worth what it was in the 1920s, when the furniture was new.

  • Let’s break down the relative value of some important numbers in the play.
  • $1 in 1934 would have the purchasing power of $2.60 in 1968, and $17.70 today.
  • The Franz dining room table cost $1200 or $1300 in 1921. That’s the equivalent of spending about $15,900 to $17,200 today. The family was well off back then!
  • Victor asked Walter for $500 to finish his college degree in 1938. In today’s dollars that’s equivalent to $7,100.
  • Solomon offers Victor $1200 for the family’s old furniture. Today, that’s equivalent to $8,170.
  • Walter tells Victor they should donate the furniture, and he’ll write it off on his taxes, then they’ll split the tax savings. That savings—$6000 in 1968—is equivalent to $40,900 today.

The relative value of money isn’t the only thing that has changed in the past 80 years. What Americans spend money on has also changed dramatically. The amount of money available for discretionary spending increased markedly during the twentieth century, both across the nation and in New York City specifically. This opened the door for the rise in consumerism, which helped shift how we, as human beings, assess our purpose and value in society.

Back in 1934, the average NYC family spent 76.2% of their household income on basic necessities: food, clothing, and shelter. Around the time the play takes place, in NYC only 64.2% of income was spent on the basics. In 2003, that number had dropped to 56.7%.

The United States’ early economic system was agrarian, or farm-based. Most of what was consumed--food, cloth, furniture, tools, etc.—was produced on the farm or acquired from other locals through a bartering system. Unnecessary purchases weren’t an option. Thrift, frugality, and efficiency were valued. Religion also played a role in shaping American ideas about consumption: Puritans, Quakers, and others believed that emphasis on luxury or material goods distracted from the proper focus on God, and some even regulated what congregation members could purchase or wear.

Three important things happened in the late nineteenth century that changed American consumer behavior.

  1. Factories, in which goods could be mass produced, were developed.
  2. Millions of people immigrated, creating a large pool of low-cost labor for those factories.
  3. The government invested in transportation infrastructure like railroads, making it easier to move goods across the nation.

Suddenly, there were inexpensive goods available for purchase, and wage-earners, no matter where they came from or their social class, could aspire to own them. Everyone could work towards a lifestyle of security, comfort, and beauty. In many ways mass production was a democratizing force. It also created the current definition of a healthy economy: in order to sustain production and employment, more consumer demand for goods had to be created.

Newspapers and magazines, which became cheap and widely available in the late nineteenth century, put advertisements in front of the American public. The number of advertisements produced annually quadrupled between 1914 and 1929, the years Victor and Walter were growing up. Beginning in 1922, many of these ads ran on the radio, a new invention.

The U.S. became a nation of boundless acquisition of things. People began to measure success through acquisition of material goods, rather than through educational, creative, or professional achievement, civic contributions, or family or community engagement.

The Great Depression and WWII shifted the U.S. away from a focus on economic growth. But after the war U.S. citizens went on a production and consumption binge, eager to shake off years of depression and wartime rationing. Consumer spending, which helped the economy, was considered patriotic. The rise of suburbia, fueled by the G.I. Bill’s home loan program, encouraged purchase of cars and household appliances.

In order to keep the need for consumer goods high, products became, as Solomon puts it, “disposable,” through planned obsolescence or change in fashion. Television became popular in the 1950s, exposing American families to more advertising than ever before—advertising that encouraged them to keep up with changing fashions and new conveniences. By 1968, the United States was the most materially-rich society in world history.


Arthur Miller's The Price is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.

 


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Arthur Miller's The Price, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage


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