Tim Sanford and Dan LeFranc
Tim: So, what brought you to the theater?
Dan: I got into theater in middle school. I started doing comedy sketches and stuff like that. There was a talent show my friends and I did. It was the way I could be cool at school and meet girls.
Where was this, by the way?
This was in Orange County, in this new city called Aliso Viejo. We were moving a lot when I was that age, so I was hopping around middle schools.
So I take it the talent show was a success?
Kind of, or at least after that, I got the part of Bill Sykes in Oliver! And from there I went to this high school, which had a really big performing arts program. And I was in something like twenty-five plays in high school.
Wow. That’s a lot. Was it still a way to be cool and meet girls?
No, I was very serious about it. It began as sort of a fun thing. There was a lot of tumult in my home life at the time, and so it became this really amazing escape. And this really amazing sort of surrogate family. I think a lot of people have a similar story. I mean my family’s really fantastic, but at the time we were going through some really big problems. Actually one of the things in this play--I don’t know if I’ve ever really told anyone, certainly no one from the artistic team of The Big Meal--but there was this really big moment where I was in the middle of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Do you know that play? It’s this weird play Shakespeare wrote because Queen Elizabeth was like, “I like Falstaff.”
Kind of like Lethal Weapon 4, right?
It’s a little bit like Shakespeare’s Lethal Weapon 4. So I was deeply into rehearsals for that show and it was about to go up and my grandma passed away. I wasn’t necessarily super close to my grandma but it was the first parent my mom lost and she was devastated. And I was such a little brat I was like, “I’m not going. I have a play. I can’t go.” My grandmother lived in Chicago. So I would have had to leave and miss school and the opening. And I was the lead in the play, so I refused to go. This caused a very big rift in my family.
So you’re like Robbie when he calls his dad from the airport drinking whisky.
Yeah yeah. A little bit. I think I’m just throwing some ugly part of myself into the play.
So when you were looking at colleges were you thinking about who had good drama programs?
I was at first. I was approached by these small schools in California about going to their acting programs. I was really confused. I didn’t know what a small liberal arts school was. I didn’t know much of anything, really. And then I was entered in the California State Thespian contest, late in high school. And I was a finalist. I got far, like I got to the end of the line, but this other guy won. And when we got back to our schools, they gave us our notes from our audition sessions. And one of the notes said, “Your face has a maturity that your body lacks.” And I was like, “That’s your acting note? That’s a note about my body.” And I was so horrified by that. I was like, “I am not going to be an actor.” So I decided not to pursue theater. I think I only applied to three schools, and they were all UCs.
Which one did you pick?
I went to UC-Santa Barbara. It was a bizarre choice. And an easy one. I think I was scared.
Did you want to be close to home because you had a girlfriend or something?
I had a girlfriend, and I sort of wanted to be close to home. I almost attended UC-Irvine, which is literally about fifteen minutes from my home. And my dad was like, “Dude, you are not doing that.”
So how was Santa Barbara for you?
People always give me this odd look when they hear I went to UC Santa Barbara, but it ended up working out really well for a lot of reasons. For one, I was a little uptight when I went to college, and Santa Barbara’s one of the top party schools in the country, so it kind of loosened me up a bit. And I had some great teachers. I was an English major there and finished my degree in three years so I was hunting around for another major. Then right before my senior year, the playwright Naomi Iizuka took over the Playwriting program, so I was like, “Oh, I should study with this person.” I ended up taking on a theater major. And as soon as I dipped my toe back in I was like, “Oh, I really missed theater.” I was really depressed at Santa Barbara at the time, like, really depressed. And theater once again helped me. I realized it was this giant part of my life that I had neglected for a long time.
Was Naomi the first exposure you’d had to a reasonably progressive kind of theater?
Absolutely. And certainly the first professional I met from the new play world. Everything about the professional theater world felt so abstract to me at that age. These were people that were just in books, you know. I remember one day when I’d been reading A Director Prepares, the Anne Bogart book, and I was so into it. I was talking to Naomi about it in her office hours and she was like, “Do you want me to email Anne?” And my head basically exploded and I was like, “She has, like, an email address? You can email Anne Bogart?” So on that level Naomi was very important. She was also very important on an artistic level. This is a good Playwrights Horizons story: I was in her playwriting class. And until I’d met Naomi, all the things I was writing were these bad imitations of Beckett, these really bad abstract plays. I was just a kid from Orange County, so I felt like, “Why would anyone care what I had to say about anything related to my life?” So I went the other way and was like, “I’m gonna put people in voids and have them speak weird lyrical, pretentious crap.” And in Naomi’s class I ended up writing this scene of just two kids who make out in a closet and find this board game and that was the scene.
It’s still kind of a void.
It is a sort of void. But at least it’s a closet. There were walls. And they find this game called “Taboo,” where you guess people’s words. And they sort of start to click on this game; and they hit it off. And I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever written. I was like, “This is so stupid. It’s just kids drunk making out at party. Who cares?” I turned it in and I was like, “Whatever.” And then Naomi comes into the class next day and is like, “We have to read something. Dan we’re gonna read your scene. Class, listen to this.” And she gets two actors up. One of whom is Lucas Near-Verbrugghe--we went to undergrad together. So he and this other actress read the scene and I was shocked. People were laughing and really into it. And after they read it, Naomi was like, “See, that’s music.” And that like totally blew my mind, I was like “Oh my god playwriting is like music!” I had thought of it as literature for so long and it totally warped my mind in a great way to start thinking about it as music and not as literature. And that really helped me from then on. And also, she would listen to me talk about my family and talk about where I came from and she would say, “You what? That is so weird, that’s so interesting.” And I was like, “I can’t believe this person actually thinks what I’m saying or where I came from or my stories are at all interesting.” She was like “No, this is really interesting; your voice is really important.” And I’m sure you can understand how immensely powerful that was for me to know. That someone, especially someone like Naomi Iizuka, really cared and wanted to know more about me and wanted me to write about it. So from then on I just felt a lot more empowered to draw from my own life.
So you were pretty committed to playwriting by the time you graduated from college.
Yeah and Naomi got me to apply to the Humana Festival. She was like, “You should be an intern at the Humana Festival. You should apply.” And I was like, “What is the Humana Festival?” So she hooked me up with this internship. Which was humongous.
How long did that last?
I was an intern for a year and then I was hired on for the summer. It was amazing. The first week I was there I read all these plays by playwrights like Jordan Harrison and Bridget Carpenter. This was the season Gina [Gionfriddo]’s play After Ashley came in. So many plays come through the Humana Festival. Every lunch break I read like three or four plays. I read all of Kirsten Greenidge’s work. I’d read the new Jose Rivera, and like, Sarah Ruhl before she was Sarah Ruhl. Noah Haidle. So I kind of got this master class in new plays.
Were you thinking about graduate school yet?
Sort of, yes. Because when I started figuring out which writers I really admired, I started wondering where these people went to school and who their mentors were.
Were you writing still?
I was. I wrote a short play that won the Actors Theater of Louisville ten-minute play contest and received a full production there. And then Craig Lucas ended up publishing it in this short play collection six or seven years ago.
Were you ready to write a full-length play yet?
I started to. Louisville was absorbtion time for me. But then after the internship was over, I was hired on and was sort of there by myself. And I started to write a full-length play to get into grad school. But I found it’s really hard to write when you’re just reading everyone else’s scripts and telling them no. I would get the pile that no one else wanted to read, so occasionally I got to write a really nice letter. But most of the time it felt awful, like, “Why am I writing and feeling like I can do this when I’m just sitting here telling everyone no?” It’s very odd.
I get it.
So then I moved to Milwaukee with my girlfriend and got temp jobs and over the course of a year worked on this kind of non-linear, time bendy play that followed this family living in a home in a landslide-prone area of Orange County. I’ve actually never heard it out loud, but it got me into grad schools, which was shocking.
How many grad schools did you apply to?
I applied to five and I got into four of them, which was great. So I ended up going to Brown.
So Paula [Vogel] was your teacher?
Yeah. Paula was my teacher.
So what I’m curious about is how the relationship of form and content developed in your work. You talked about how Naomi encouraged you to write from your life, and the play that got you into grad schools would seem to have done that, but at the same time Brown is known as a hotbed of experimentation. A lot of the writers you discovered in Louisville graduated from there. How did your voice take shape and find itself at Brown?
I definitely learned how to be a writer at Brown. Paula is incredible at just teaching you what it takes day-to-day to be a writer, just making you write, write, and write. She makes you very un-precious about your writing. So I wrote a lot of plays my first year at Brown. And that matched Paula’s philosophy, which was, “Write a ton of plays now, but don’t worry if they’re complete. Start them so after you graduate you have five years’ worth of material to craft and get out in the world.”
Some of the plays are assignments, right?
At Brown? Yeah, definitely. Paula will give assignments she calls bake-offs. She’ll give you a host of ingredients and say, “Go.” Like, “We’re all going to write adaptations of this one play,” which ended up being super-helpful for me. Like I wrote this kind of like weird riff on the Electra story called Bruise Easy that I wrote under the auspices of Erin Cressida Wilson who was similar to Naomi Iizuka in the way that she’s like, “I just wanna hear about you.“
She was a teacher at Brown?
Paula and Erin at the time were the two teachers.
You know she runs Santa Barbara now.
I know. It’s all very strange. So Erin was just so great at asking like, “What is this really about?” And you’re like, “It’s like a riff on Electra.” She’s like, “It’s about your sexual relationship with your mother.” I mean not, like, really sexual but what’s underneath. And you’re like “Oh my god, you’re right. I have all these issues.” It was really exciting.
What form did it take?
It had these very elaborate stage directions. And a chorus of neighborhood boys. It felt very Naomi Iizuka-esque. But in answer to your question, it was also the first play I wrote where I had characters speak like Californians. Like they would say, “like” and “dude” and sound like, not the way people talk in plays, but the way people I’ve been around talk. And it started to really work. That play is naïve and flawed but it was really important for me to crack that.
In his subscriber bulletin article, Adam talks a lot about the formal invention of your plays.
Adam has worked on a lot of these plays, actually.
At Portland Center Stage. Right when he got this job here at Playwrights Horizons.
He cites Bruise Easy, Night Surf, Origin Story...
All those plays I wrote my first year at Brown.
So, Origin Story he talks about....
It looks like a comic book. Right.
Was that an assignment?
It was an assignment. It was an adaptation of Penthesilea, and as a separate ingredient, Paula wanted us to do research on Wonder Woman. So I read all these Wonder Woman comics. Then I went back and visited the old comic shop I used to hang out in when I was a kid in middle school. So I wrote this play that looks like a comic book and kind of operates like a comic book. It’s the story of this character who we learn later in the play is this hermaphroditic teenager, but this character learns she or he has the power to alter reality by illustrating. Basically, anything it illustrates in this comic book becomes real. But the only thing it can’t change is its own body. And so it’s the story of this character falling in love with these other two teenagers then taking revenge on all the people that have wronged it throughout its life. And that play has gotten me a lot of attention. I was having this conversation with Annie Baker, too, like the plays of ours that got any traction are the plays that we thought were jokes. Like, “This is just an exercise, this isn’t actually a play. Nothing’s gonna come out of this. Throw it in a drawer.” But Origin Story and Sixty Miles to Silver Lake were my two sort of calling cards for a long time. And I think they worked well in tandem becauseSixty Miles was formally inventive but was sort of naturalistic so people were like, “Oh he writes good dialogue.” And Origin Story was just so nuts, but still a total story and I think a very emotional story.
Is it crying out for the formal invention of the director, or are the keys on how to do it embedded in the script somewhere?
I think it’s the former. And it’s a tricky script. You know I feel like I’m actually just starting to understand with The Big Meal how my plays best operate in time and space. If you look at a play like Origin Story, or even a play like Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, they seem like you should do a lot of design. They seem like the kinds of plays where you should have a bunch of stuff on stage. And in Sixty Miles I call for it. But after working on The Big Meal I’m realizing that, actually, I write language plays.
What do you call for in Sixty Miles?
It’s set in a car, and it calls for images to be projected on the windows and says, “The car starts to strip away...” It’s sort of cinematic. In the Soho Rep/Page73 production the car splits apart. Now I actually feel like if I had my druthers I’d go back and strip all that stuff out of that play. It should just be two guys sitting in chairs. Like I don’t even think I want a steering wheel. That may not work, but I feel like that’s actually closer to what my aesthetic is becoming.
Sixty Miles to Silver Lake feels like an intensely personal play.
It is. It is very personal. It’s an amalgam of my parents. It’s not my dad. It’s like my stepdad and my mom and my dad smushed into one guy. And it is really personal. The younger character in that play is me but it’s also my brother.
So the play depicts conversations between a father and son in a car after he’s divorced the boy’s mother, right?
Yes, he picks him up on the weekends and drives him up to his new apartment in Los Angeles. At first you think the play has a naturalistic unity of time and action. Then as it goes on, there are these sort of hiccups in language and what you think are maybe mistakes, and then it slowly becomes clear that we’re actually skipping time and we’re moving forward in time rather rapidly and that this isn’t just one car ride it’s kind of every car ride this father and son have taken over this ten-year period following this divorce. So we get this family history through this one car ride.
So, my question is what came first, the form or the story?
I didn’t start that play thinking, “I need to write this tricky play where there are going to be time leaps.” I started by writing these conversations between the father and son, remembering things I’d said, conversations I’d had with my dad or my mom or my stepdad, and then I was like, “What is the experience of being with your parents? Like, trapped in a car?” Whenever I’m with my parents suddenly I start acting the way I was acting when I was twelve or eighteen. It’s like all time is happening in that car ride. And I was like, “Oh my god, that’s it! That’s what it’s like to be trapped in a car with my dad. I feel like a little kid and then I feel like my present self, and then we start having these conversations and I’m like, ‘Didn’t we have this conversation?’ Like, ‘We’ve been down this road.’” Do you know what I mean? So what got me excited about that play is that it felt really true. The form wasn’t a way to show off. It was a way I think to capture a real experience.
I tend to get on a soapbox about the unity of form and content. When I was in grad school, it always felt like form took center stage. And it felt like they looked down their noses at genres where the form is less showy, like American Realism.
Where did you go to school?
Stanford. But working here, I’ve developed a really profound appreciation for how even with writers writing within a realistic mode, there is a form that’s unique to each writer who has a voice.
And when you’re an undergraduate, it’s fun to play with form because it breaks you out of things, but divorced from content it’s reductive and artificial.
I totally, completely agree with you. And I feel like, in this moment, the plays I really admire are plays where their form is a little more invisible. Like writers like Amy Herzog and Annie Baker. In some of Annie’s plays the form is a little more evident, but a writer like Amy, you’re never aware of the structure. It just sort of happens to you. And then at the end you’re like, “Oh!” You’re mapping out the way she’s put it together and it’s really smart.
Well and I think that discovery that Naomi made for you that plays have way more in common with music than they do with books or even movies also holds true, actually.
Like to me the big example is Three Sisters, which is totally realistic but structurally is built like a symphony, with each act matching in tone of the four movements of a symphony. In the same way, Sixty Miles is like a chamber piece and The Big Meal is more orchestral. Talk about the genesis of The Big Meal. When did you write it?
After I graduated, I stayed on at Brown for a couple of years on a teaching fellowship. I had one playwriting class and this other class I was allowed to do whatever I wanted with. And I had this class with six of my favorite students and we created a little theater company. I just gave them weird assignments to go out and create bizarre theatrical experiences around campus which was actually really, really fun. So I wrote The Big Meal during that year right after I graduated. Asher Richelli [Co-Executive Director of Page73, a co-producer of Sixty Miles to Silver Lake in New York] had asked me while I was working on Sixty Miles to Silver Lake if I had read Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner. So I eventually got around to reading it and I was like, “Oh my god this play is incredible. This is like my new favorite play.” And I think I’d just seen a production of Our Town somewhere, and I was like, “Thornton Wilder is the greatest.”
As Edward Albee would say, “It’s a really tough play.”
It is a tough play. It’s funny; my impression of Thornton Wilder when I was younger was that he’s so cute and tweedy. But he’s like the coldest. So anyway, I had always wanted to write a play in a restaurant because my parents had met in a restaurant. My dad still works in the restaurant industry, my stepmom works in the restaurant industry. My mom is a barista at Starbucks. The service industry is in my blood. So I was like, “There’s a play in me about restaurants somewhere.” So when I read The Long Christmas DinnerI felt like it might be my “in” into that restaurant play.
You mean because The Long Christmas Dinner is set at a table? Is that what the click was?
I guess so. I was like, “Thornton Wilder and I are kind of in conversation. He was also interested in this device that I’m interested in.” So what happened was Bonnie Metzgar was running this workshop at Brown and invited me to participate. So I decided I was going to do a bake-off based on The Long Christmas Dinner and did all this personal research mining my family history in restaurants. I spent a couple weeks journaling and figuring out the big, seminal moments in my family’s history.
What kinds of things did you remember?
The big throw-downs. I mean we got into so many fights in restaurants. Like screaming matches where everyone else in the restaurant is like, “Oh my god. I can’t believe I’m witnessing this.”
So you did this journaling for your bake-off. Then what?
Paula always said you can spend as much time as you want preparing. You just have to write it in two days. So I did all this research and was sort of tinkering around with my Word document being like, “How am I gonna do this? If I’m gonna capture my family I’m gonna need a lot of cross-talking.” I was playing around with Churchill-ian slashes but that didn’t work. And then I started doing columns and I was like “Oh columns are starting to work. But I need way more columns.” But even when I turned letter-sized paper sideways, I couldn’t fit enough columns. And I was like, “What am I gonna do, put it on legal-sized paper? That’s crazy. Val, my agent, is never gonna send this out.” I just signed with Val Day and I was afraid she would be like, “Why did I sign you?” And I was like, “You know what? Fuck it, no one’s ever gonna read this anyway. I just need to do this. I’m just bringing this into the Brown workshop and who cares?” So I wrote the first go of it on legal sized paper in like a day and a half while I was on a plane and then like in a hotel room in D.C. And for whatever reason, the way I’d done it got all screwed up on the printers at Brown so all the alignments were off. And people were like, “What the hell is this?” And I was like, “No guys I think it works if...” And they’re like, “Sure, Dan. That’s cool.” So Bonnie said a couple of very important things to me about the play and so did Anne Marie Healy, but after that workshop I was like, “Well this doesn’t work.” And I threw it out. [Click HERE to check out Dan's unique formatting.]
What led you to re-open it?
PJ Papparelli, who is the Artistic Director of American Theater Company in Chicago, was interested in Sixty Miles. So he called me and was like, “So we really love Sixty Miles to Silver Lake and we’re really wanting to produce this play, but we wanted to get to know you before we take that leap. So we want you to come out here and just work on something else. We’ll get you a room and some actors and just hang out. What do you want to work on?” And I was like, “I don’t know!” And I threw a couple of other plays at him and he was like, “These are okay. I don’t know, we’ll figure something out.” And then I get a call from him like a week later being like, “So Bonnie Metzgar just moved here, she took over About Face Theater, and she told me about this play you have that takes place in a restaurant.” And I was like, “That’s not a play, I don’t wanna do that.” He was like, “Why don’t you just send it to me?” And I’m like, “I threw that away.” And he was like “Please, just give it to me.” And I was like, “Alright.” So I email it to PJ and he calls me back and is like, “I don’t know what the hell this thing is, but it seems really interesting,.”
Shades of Naomi Iizuka, right?
Totally. So I fly out to Chicago, and we get this great group of actors, and they read it, and for the first time it lined up. It had been like a year, a year and a half since I had done that first bake-off with Bonnie, and I hadn’t even thought about it. But they read it, and I was like, “Oh, this works.” They really showed me what the play was and what the conceit was doing. And it was super exciting, and PJ afterwards was like, “Let’s do this play. Let’s develop this thing. Forget Sixty Miles, this is really exciting. Let’s try to do this.” And so, for the next couple years I started to work on The Big Meal.
What did you work on specifically with them?
I think the first draft was shorter and more confusing. I worked a lot on the transitions from character to character. And I fleshed out the characters, so we get to know them better. There used to be some theatrical devices, there’s still one of them, where people speak in tandem, and then age up, and that used to be the way that a lot of people aged up.
Where did you use it?
When Cameron [Scoggins] and David [Wilson Barnes] switch up to David and Tom [Bloom].
Oh yeah, in the airport when Robbie says he can’t go to the funeral.
That’s the only time we do that. But they used to be throughout the script.
Why did you cut them? Were they self-conscious or confusing?
A little bit of both, I think. More self-conscious than confusing. And it interrupted the velocity of the play in a few key spots
As I’ve gotten to know the play better, I’m struck by how carefully thought-out your technique is for making the time shifts. Like in the very first shift, Nicky asks Sam, “What’s your name again?’ and we immediately know that we’ve made a jump.
That’s one of the things I knew I wanted to do after Brown. It used to start with the older track, the David and Jenny [Mudge] characters. But I knew I wanted to start it with the younger couple instead. There are so many things happening in this play and I needed to be more deliberate about the way I introduce devices. And so I was like, “You know what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna essentially write a little one act romantic comedy that starts us off, so we learn the way time shifts in this play,” And then it introduces the idea of character shifts, where nothing else is in the way. Cause there was an earlier draft where the first character shift was in the middle of a big family scene and the audience was like, “What the hell is going on?” But when there’s just two of them, and they’re like “Nicky,” “Sam” you’re like “Oh, they’re the same people.” Then the next time we age up is when the little kids become Cameron and Phoebe [Strole]. We’re like, “Oh we’ve seen the device, we get it.” I think it also aids the storytelling; it led me to an interesting story that they broke up as young people and when re-meet.
There are also things that changed besides the technique. Like it used to be that both Sam and Nicky had scenes with potential affairs. Right?
I lost that in the workshop here for many reasons. It was draggy, and I felt like it was not true. I didn’t understand why would Nicky have an affair with a pool boy. She wouldn’t do that. It felt tidy.
Plus there’s a nice payoff now when she says she’s met somebody. It’s a nice reversal.
I like it when the audience goes, “Oooh.”
Something stayed with me earlier when you talked about studying with Erin and unpacking a kind of submerged sexuality--which is kind of her specialty. And it reminded me that I think there’s a kind of charge this play carries because of all the doubling and tripling the actors do. So in one moment Phoebe and Cameron are bickering as brother and sister about the car, then they both turn right back around and are boyfriend and girlfriend. And it brings a kind of emotional color to it.
Yeah yeah yeah. I like that stuff too. It’s the kind of thing you don’t quite know until you’re seeing it with actors, in space, doing it. It stirs up these weird things. Like my sister, when she starts getting really close to a boyfriend, she’ll start accidentally calling me by his name and she’s like, “Oh, that’s so weird,” you know, but it’s like he’s becoming lodged in the part of your brain where you keep your family. Do you know what I mean?
There are other associations the shifts carry that seem more intrinsic to how the story works. When characters jump a generation, there’s a sense they are becoming their parents, and also that you’re imagining becoming your parents. And in the same way, as younger generations appear for the first time, we see explicitly how their parents are contained in them. It’s like what you were saying about Sixty Miles to Silver Lake that you continue to carry your inner teenager and child within you. But it’s also a way to dramatize the unity and the continuity of a family. Were these suggestions you were after when you wrote it?
Absolutely. I’m obsessed with the way we become who we are. What’s encoded in us from birth, what’s inherited from our parents whether we’re aware of it or not. And the little decisions we make that shape our lives in tremendous ways.
I want to back up a bit. You said you had wanted to write a play about your family and restaurants when you came across The Long Christmas Dinner. Did you know the play you were going to write was going to deal so heavily with mortality?
Yes, I knew that from the get-go. I wanted to enter into the conversation with death that Thornton Wilder had started with The Long Christmas Dinner and Our Town and go from there.
How did you come up with the idea of the plates dropping down on the characters?
I was thinking about how would one represent death in a restaurant. And also I started thinking about people I’ve lost, and a lot of my memories are about the last time I had a meal with those people. For me it’s just such a very visceral and very present memory...the last meals. And I lost a grandparent as I was working on this play and the last time I saw him was in this restaurant in Chicago when I was working on the piece. So restaurants and eating and death are just so intrinsically linked on many levels.
And the plates are kind of surprising because even though it’s set in a restaurant, it’s the first time we see any food.
I remember when I was young sometimes the waiter would bring a really big plate and drop it in front of me and it was kind of scary.
Did you have in mind what it was going to be like to actually see someone eat a meal on stage?
It’s a very strange thing to watch someone eat food for a long time in the theater. I didn’t really know what it would be like.
I like that the production makes each one a little different. Like Tom eats his with a kind of coarse gusto. Then the little boy is kind of private and vulnerable. And Anita [Gillette] relishes hers. It’s almost serene. And Jenny sees hers coming. And Cameron just scarfs his angrily. Each one is very personal and unique. And the last one just kind of lingers, like old age.
You know during the workshop in Chicago, I was trying to figure out the last moment of this play. And this older actor, I can’t remember his name, came to this reading and we had this informal talkback afterwards. And he said this amazing thing where he was like “You know, you start a family, and you think at the end of your life you’re just going to be surrounded by them. Like you’re going to be at the head of the table and your family will be around you. But what happens is that your kids start having their own lives, and they go off and do their own thing, and you’re just kind of left alone. Your kids get consumed with their own shit, and you become an annoyance.” And I felt that was very truthful. I don’t give nearly as much time to my grandparents as I should. My grandmother is still alive and I try to really keep in touch and visit her when I can but it’s hard. And so the way I interpret that comment is that what happens in life is that the big meal starts happening elsewhere.
Sam [Gold] has talked a lot himself about the music of this piece, of treating the script almost like the score of a player piano that scrolls by. But he’s also talked about how he wanted the production to have its own time frame, like the counterpoint of macro-temporal... Whereas when you read the play, there’s a sense of the snap of the micro tempo. Now I think a lot of what Sam was talking about is endemic to the writing. There are three distinct movements to the piece. But I also think there’s room for interpretation. You’ve had two productions of this play, and both have similarities but they seem to have different gestalts to me. The Chicago production felt scrappier to me while there’s a certain majesty to Sam’s production. And I’m wondering, there’s always freedom in any production to have its own character, but it seems to me possibly, I don’t know if it’s more so in this play because of how fluid it is, or maybe it’s less so because there’s just not that much you can really do.
Both productions were really different, but both were ultimately pretty spare. There were a lot more props originally in Chicago, but then in tech we got rid of almost everything.
Were there costume elements?
There were more costume elements than we’re doing in New York. Every character had some little thing. And there were more lighting shifts in Chicago. I think when it’s published I’m gonna be a bit more specific in the author’s note, like “Very little can be in this play.”
One of the things that has been evident from the very first reading is that you’ve written a tear-jerker. Did you know it would be? People have been wildly moved on a kind of unprecedented level from the very beginning. Did that surprise you? Do you feel it yourself?
I remember writing it--I wrote that last section between Nicky and Sam in a couple days in my first apartment in New York. It was a winter day, and I will sometimes cry when I’m writing. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that what I’m emotionally moved by when I’m writing will necessarily translate to how an audience will respond to something. It just lets me know that I’m really hooked into something and I’m really caring about something and I was, I was definitely crying as I wrote that last section. But I didn’t know that it would necessarily register with people the way that it has.
But yeah, I mean it’s your family but it’s every family.
And that’s what you discover it is--notwithstanding all the character work done, which I think is excellent--these are specific people and we track them through time. But there’s also the abstraction, you know, something you learned from something has stayed with you from your Beckett days, or maybe it’s Thornton Wilder--the abstraction of it just allows us all to see ourselves in it, I think. Or see something we’ve gone through.
That’s good. I didn’t know that when I was writing it. I was just sort of writing what I thought was honest.