Called to a life of religious service, Shelley is the devoted manager of a Bronx soup kitchen, but lately her heart’s not quite in it. Enter Emma: an idealistic but confused young volunteer, whose recklessness pushes Shelley to the breaking point. With keen humor and startling compassion, Heidi Schreck’s play navigates the mystery of faith, the limits of forgiveness, and the pursuit of something resembling joy.
Shelley, soup-kitchen-running nun, first meets Emma, a young and lost volunteer.
Adam Greenfield: What was your first access to theater?
Heidi Schreck: My mom had this incredible Shakespeare company for kids, called The Short Shakespeareans. When I was six years old, I played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then I played all the great Shakespearean heroines between the ages of 6 and 12! And we got to perform at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival every fall, so I got to see all the plays there, all throughout my childhood. The first play I saw there was Macbeth, when I was six, which was very traumatizing. It’s a horrible, thrilling play to watch as a six-year-old.
Since the show takes place in a soup kitchen, we thought it appropriate to ask the always charming Grand Concourse cast for their favorite soup, the meaning of forgiveness, and few corny jokes to top it all off.
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‘Grand Concourse’ author Heidi Schreck gives us insight into the show, and her own soup kitchen experiences that lead her to writing this compassionate Bronx-based play.
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When I was in middle school, a family friend—I’ll call him Mr. Hornby—asked my parents if he could borrow a thousand dollars. Mr. Hornby had divorced his wife and lost his job and he needed the money to get his car fixed. A thousand bucks was a lot to us—this was the 1980s and my parents were public school teachers saving to send two kids to college—but they scraped it together and gave it to Mr. Hornby, who was genuinely grateful. Then Mr. Hornby got in his Buick, which was not actually broken, and drove eleven hundred miles from our little town in Washington state to Las Vegas, where he lost the money at a blackjack table.
Grand Concourse is probably the most recognizable place name in the Bronx (next to Yankee Stadium). Built at the turn of the century at the height of the City Beautiful movement, taking fifteen years to construct, its Alsatian architect modelled it on the Champs-Élysée, only on an even grander scale. Yet the Bronx itself, despite gradual improvement, still stands in some people’s minds as a symbol of urban blight. Heidi Schreck’s play, Grand Concourse, evokes both of these associations. Set in a soup kitchen in a church managed by a progressive, secularly-dressed nun, the play depicts the world where idealism and reality meet head on. With only four characters, the play represents a remarkably broad spectrum of players in this struggle.
Noticing an upswing of plays on and off Broadway that were written by actors, the New York Times offered that “there are lots of reasons why actors might want to flex new muscles, trying their hand at creating their own characters instead of interpreting ones created by others,” in an editorial that manages to belittle actors, playwrights, and actor-playwrights. “Appearing in plays both good and bad can be a fine apprenticeship in how to write and how not to write a play, at least for actors who can see beyond the limits of their own lines. (And, to be sure, there are many actors who probably never do.)” I can understand how the crossover between acting and writing might seem unusual to someone unfamiliar with making plays; in most fields, one necessarily narrows one’s focus toward a niche. But theater is intensely collaborative, and the best artists have a handle on the entire storytelling mechanism. So it's no surprise that Heidi Schreck’s playwriting reflects the same self-searching, self-deprecating, open-hearted elegance we've seen from her in performance on stages all over New York; Heidi the playwright is the same artist as Heidi the actor.
As she prepared to receive her first sacraments in 1927, Dorothy Day must have seemed an unlikely Catholic. She was thirty years old, unmarried, a new mother, living in a cottage on Staten Island she’d bought with her own money three years earlier when Hollywood bought the film rights for a novel she’d published. Called The Eleventh Virgin, the thinly veiled autobiography chronicled a youthful love affair and an early pregnancy that ended, when Day was twenty-one, with an abortion. (She would later refer to it only as “a very bad book.”) She’d spent her twenties making a living as a journalist, writing for radical Socialist papers including the New York Call, The Masses, and The Liberator.