In 1990, the year that Anna Campbell would have first performed her protest piece, “Naked Wilson,” at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the word intersectionality was not yet in common usage. The idea that individual bodies can collide with multiple, often overlapping forms of oppression simply because of their race, gender, and sexual identities was not widely acknowledged or understood. For African American women like me, hoping to craft careers in the American theatre, the work of August Wilson presented a special challenge by forcing considerations of race and gender to be viewed exclusively through a passionate and undeniably black male lens. Many late-night sessions examined and reexamined the plays hoping they would reveal themselves to be love letters if we could just break the code. “Naked Wilson” would certainly have been part of those conversations.
Pearl Cleage is an Atlanta-based writer whose works include three novels, What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day (Avon Books, 1997), I Wish I Had A Red Dress (Morrow/Avon, 2001), and Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do, (Ballantine/One World, August, 2003); a dozen plays, including Flyin’ West, Blues for an Alabama Sky, Hospice and Bourbon at the Border; two books of essays, Mad at Miles: A Blackwoman’s Guide to Truth and Deals With the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot; and a book of short fiction, The Brass Bed and Other Stories (Third World Press). She is also a performance artist, collaborating frequently with her husband, Zaron W. Burnett, Jr., under the title Live at Club Zebra. The two have performed sold out shows at both the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and The National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia.
She is a frequent contributor to anthologies and has been featured recently in Proverbs for the People, Contemporary African American Fiction , edited by Tracy Price-Thompson and TaRessa Stovall and in Mending theWorld, Stories of Family by Contemporary Black Writers, edited by Rosemarie Robotham.
I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of press about The Thanksgiving Play over the past few years as it became one of the most produced plays in America. So, if you want to know the origin story of the play, please google it. There are many radio, TV and printed interviews where I have answered those questions. This production is different.
I have barely done any theater since Covid shut down our field. I’m fortunate that I also have a career in film and TV that, although significantly slowed, kept me employed over the past year. As the theater field put things online, I happily gave permission for folks to do this play on zoom and other virtual venues. I showed up at a few rehearsals and the talk backs were supportive and enthusiastic. But the truth is, I didn’t watch any of those productions. Not one. I have not admitted that before now. The truth is, I was too heartbroken to watch.
Although I didn’t start in theater, I did start on stage. I love performing, I love watching performances, I love being in a room with people working to touch hearts and change minds. I am a social introvert but put me on a stage, no matter how large or small, and it immediately feels like home. When I tried to do theater work on zoom, I would leave the session more depressed than before I started. I deiced I just wasn’t going to do it. I would do my privileged writing work and wait out the pandemic until my field returned.
Then I got a call from Jeffrey Richards with the opportunity to support one of my favorite organizations, The Actors Fund. I said yes, but I planned to keep my distance and protect my broken heart. However, Jeffrey isn’t a guy who lets you sit on the sidelines. He was calling me for ideas of directors, actors, collaborators. We landed on Leigh Silverman, a director I had only met briefly but admired for a long time. I then tried to pass all decisions on to her, but Leigh is exactly my kind of director, collaborative and fun. Before I knew it I was sucked further in.
Then a Covid miracle happened, Leigh and I zoomed with the delightful Keanu Reeves and he agreed to play Caden. (My teen self was more star struck than I knew I could be, while my professional self tried desperately to keep it together.) Keanu asked me if I’d consider re-setting the entire play on zoom. He immediately started playing zoom ideas for Caden. I burst out laughing and suddenly I was completely on board.
Before I knew it my assistant and I were going word by word through the script, coming up with small but significant changes to place these four familiar characters in a whole new world, so that the audience could be immersed with them instead of having to pretend we weren’t on screen.
The rest of the dream cast fell into place quickly and once again, I was in love. In love with the process, in love with the raw bravery of actors, in love with how designers make everything from nothing, in love with directors’ ability to see everything at once, in love with the awkwardness of zoom (When Heidi lost her internet I got to rehearse a scene with Keanu and Bobby!), in love with theater and the way it can make us laugh and cry and rage and change all in a few moments of time.
I didn’t know it could happen so fast, but this process began to heal my broken heart. Like always, when you watch this play I hope you laugh and enjoy yourself and question everything you thought you knew. I also know that in the past year, lives were lost and changed and we will never be the same, but now that we are on the cusp of recovery for our field, I hope that this wild zoom play at this moment in time will help you start to heal too. I’ll see you online, and then, soon, I’ll see you back in the theater.
Spotlight on Plays’ Spring 2021 season of virtual plays has concluded and there are no re-airs scheduled at this time. We greatly appreciate your support of The Actors Fund and can’t wait to see you back at the theatre!
When will I receive my access code to watch?
Your access code for each play will be sent to the email registered with your Stellar account shortly before each premiere. You must be logged into the Stellar account that you used to purchase your ticket in order to view.
How can I watch the Spotlight on Plays presentations?
The Spring Season is available to stream exclusively on Stellar Tickets. You can watch in several different ways:
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Each Spotlight on Play presentation will be available for 96 hours following the initial premiere time of 8:00PM Eastern Time. You are able to watch the show at any time during this window. Please note that on-demand access will not become available until after the live event has fully streamed. If you miss the premiere, the on-demand video will become available a few hours following the event. Once the time frame expires, there will be no encore performances and the presentation will be unavailable for streaming.
If I’m not able to watch the premiere, can I see it later?
Yes! Each title will be available for 96 hours following the initial premiere time. You must watch the show before this time frame expires.Once the time frame expires, there will be no encore performances and the presentation will be unavailable for streaming.
I purchased multiple tickets. How do I transfer the additional tickets to my friends?
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How long is each show?
Run times vary between 90 minutes to 2 hours and 30 minutes. Longer presentations will include a brief intermission.
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There are no exchanges or refunds for the Spotlight on Plays Spring Season. This is a series of charitable benefit performances and we greatly appreciate your generous contribution to The Actors Fund. If you have questions or concerns, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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March is Women’s History Month and it is a time when women who paved the way are recognized for their accomplishments. Dessie Moynihan is the perfect person to recognize as she changed the face of senior management at the Shubert Organization in 2006 when she became the first woman to be named a vice president. “I’ve seen Shubert grow from a very private company that had been family run to a multifaceted corporate organization. As time went on there was another female vice president appointed–in Human Resources–and in the past 5 years a number of women have risen to the director level, which is really great. I see a change in the world and I see a change at the company. Leadership has embraced it, so it’s not as singular as it once was,” Moynihan explained.
Reflecting on her responsibilities as Vice President of Creative Projects, Moynihan stated, “My department looks for material for Shubert to produce, invest in and book into our theatres. Part of that is putting money into plays and musicals that other people are producing. Part is thinking about what should go into our Broadway houses. Part of it—the really fun part—is being in a project from the very beginning and seeing it through to opening. Right now with Neil Meron we’re developing the new musical ‘Some Like It Hot’ by Matthew López, Amber Ruffin, Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman, directed & choregraphed by Casey Nicholaw. It’s been a delight. And I’m lucky enough to work with Bob Wankel, our Chairman and CEO, on both bookings and productions.”
Breaking down the booking process, Moynihan explained, “We keep up with what is going on in theatre in New York, across the country and around the world. We go to London to have meetings and see shows. Most of my interaction is with the producer. He or she will say, ‘I have this new musical, I’m doing a reading and I’d love for you to come see it and give us a theatre.’ There’s a long list of productions that want to play Broadway but the list of available theatres is short and has been for several years. It’s complicated by the fact that some shows have been quite successful and they take their theatre ‘off the market’ for a long time: ‘Phantom of the Opera’ has been playing for over 30 years, ‘Chicago’ over 20, and there are several other long-runners. In our smaller theatres we tend to book limited-engagement plays. If we know a show will run for 16 weeks, we can book a second show for the same season. Overall it’s a complicated puzzle with many factors, including making sure we have our houses lit, that we give new producers a chance and that we host a diverse range of material and voices.”
The Shubert Organization owns and operates 17 Broadway theatres, but its profits go the Shubert Foundation, a charitable organization. Since its establishment in 1977, the Foundation has awarded over $505 million to not-for-profit theatres, dance companies, educational institutions and arts-related organizations throughout the United States. Last year, $32 million was awarded to 560 performing arts organizations. “One of our priorities at the Shubert Organization is to ensure that we can contribute to the fantastic work the Foundation is doing, especially in this time when so many non-profit companies will be in such dire straits.”
The pandemic has definitely affected Moynihan’s work. “Every company, every person in the industry has been impacted by this. Shubert’s income was drastically reduced. We own Telecharge, but for the past year very few people have been buying tickets. We had to make severe cuts. My routine is very different. Not being able to go to readings, workshops and productions has been difficult. I watch things online, but it’s just not the same experience. I check in with producers to see if their plans have changed and how their shows are progressing. With our own projects, like ‘Some Like It Hot,’ we are proceeding with the development process.
The focus for everyone right now is the future,” Moynihan remarked. “Communication with our audience is going to be even more important. New Yorkers will be there right at the start, then domestic tourists and then international travelers. It’s impossible to predict exactly what people will want to see when this is over. But I think it will need to make a statement, to speak to the truth of being a human being or to be terrific entertainment. Hopefully there are shows that do all those things! I think that’s what people are craving–to be moved, to laugh, to be brought to tears.”
“The thing that’s great about Broadway is that it really is a community. Even though there is competition among producers and creatives, there is a feeling, especially with the Broadway League, that we’re all in this together. I’m hoping that when we relaunch, there is going to be a burst of excitement and we can get back onto the regular Broadway season with the Tony Awards in June. Having been through this weird year, everyone is feeling, yes, there is a way forward,” Moynihan declared.
Moynihan’s path to where she is today was an interesting one. While growing up in Manchester, New Hampshire she didn’t get bitten by the theatre bug until she was a member of the Drama Club in High School. Her theatre teacher told her if she wanted to do theatre, she needed to go to Hunter College in New York City. She only applied to Hunter, got in, headed for New York City without knowing anyone. “It was 1973. I got a room at a YWCA on the East Side,” she recalled. She left New York the next year, but came back for graduate school, receiving her M.A. in Drama and Dance and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from NYU. “They were academic degrees, as opposed to acting and directing. But they gave me a knowledge of the history of the craft. I learned how the discipline evolved. If someone said ‘I want to do a Brecht play,’ I knew who Brecht was and his theories,” Moynihan explained. “I was also an Assistant Editor at ‘The Drama Review,’ a quarterly publication, and that trained me in the ways to think about performance and write about it.”
While at NYU she worked at Circle Repertory Company in the PR/Marketing department, headed by Richard Frankel, who would go on to be a Broadway producer and general manager. “PR is a very high pressure environment and I learned an incredible amount about the process. Because of that I was then able to get a job at Ensemble Studio Theatre, again in marketing. It was a smaller organization; there weren’t walls between departments. I was able to move from Marketing to Literary, where I felt most comfortable. As Literary Manager I worked with member artists who were creating projects and assisted Artistic Director Curt Dempster with developing shows for the main stage. That was one more piece of the puzzle that was helpful when I got to Shubert,” Moynihan said.
From 1988 to 1995 Moynihan worked at The Shubert Foundation, starting as the Program Assistant processing applications and eventually moving up to Program Director, where her responsibilities included meeting with applicants, seeing productions, and preparing material for Executive Director Vicki Reiss. Being a multi-tasker, Moynihan also taught theatre history and dramaturgy for the first five years of her time with the Shubert Foundation.
The Shubert Foundation proved to be vital groundwork for Moynihan to move forward. “It was from the Foundation, getting to know all of those theatres across the country and what they were doing, that made for a natural transition to the creative side. In 1988, the landscape of the American theatre was very different from what it is today. Non-profits usually didn’t take their work to Broadway themselves. If a show was successful, a commercial producer would come by and move it. ‘A Chorus Line’ changed all that. It originated at The Public Theatre; but instead of giving it to someone else, the Public raised the money and moved it to Broadway. It was a risk but it turned out to be a giant hit. And it demonstrated a theatre could produce a show commercially, retain artistic control and have money flow back to nurture the core mission. So suddenly there was a ton of new work being generated by theatres across the country. At Shubert, there wasn’t a department dedicated to tracking that or looking for material for us to produce ourselves. I was in the right place at the right time. Because I was at the Foundation, worked in non-profit theatre and had the educational background, I was the person who was selected to start Creative Projects department in 1996,” Moynihan recalled.
Moynihan commented, “I had no idea what my future would be. I didn’t have a strategy. I am amazed that my path has been such a wonderful journey. I’m just one of the luckiest people in the world. I am incredibly grateful to the people who helped me and pushed me and gave me opportunities: Richard, Vicki, Bob, Curt, Jerry Schoenfeld, Bernie Jacobs, Phil Smith. I owe them–and many more–a great deal.”
Speaking to young women who want to be a part of the theatre industry, she said, “There are places for you. The most important thing is to seize every single opportunity. Every networking event—do it. Contact someone and say, ‘I heard you speak on a panel, can we have coffee or can I talk to you for 10 minutes?’ Find a company, a production, a play that speaks to you and try to meet the people behind it. I’ve found that people are usually very generous about sharing their advice and experience because someone helped them. Be prepared. Put your best foot forward. Connect in any way you can. Because you never know where that connection is going to lead.”
Linda Armstrong is a theatre critic with the New York Amsterdam News, Theatre Editor for Neworldreview.net, A&E Editor for Harlem News Group and has written for Playbill Online, had a Theatre column “On The Aisle” for Our Time Press, Network Journal Magazine, Show Business Weekly Newspaper, Headliner Magazine, Theatre Week Magazine, Black Masks Magazine, and The New York Daily News.
Before she became a costume designer, Dede Ayite studied behavioral neuroscience, and the two disciplines aren’t as different as they might sound.
“Part of my training [in college] was focused on understanding psychology, and the process of research and uncovering gave me skill sets that come into costume design,” she says. “I’m trying to go past what you’re seeing on stage to add depth and layering to the character. What makes them come alive? What moves them? What breaks their heart? I love finding ways to express that, and to my mind, it all translates to costumes.”
The breadth of Ayite’s expressive power is reflected in the current race for the Tony Awards, where she has two nominations for Best Costume Design of a Play. On one end of the aesthetic spectrum, she’s been recognized for her work on Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris’ formally audacious satire about interracial couples who enact plantation fantasies to work through their sexual and personal baggage. On the other, she’s also been nominated for the revival of A Soldier’s Play, Charles Fuller’s drama about the murder of a Black soldier in he 1940s.
With Slave Play, she knew her clothes had to match the heightened world of the script. In the first scene, for instance, the audience doesn’t know that the characters are modern people pretending to live in the antebellum South. “I wanted to drop little hints, so that we didn’t get ahead of the satire,” Ayite says.
That’s why, when the character Kaneisha entered wearing a slave costume, it read as “traditional” from the neck down: a dirty blouse, a cloth skirt, and a well-worn apron. “But I also threw a head scarf on her that was a bold blue color,” Ayite notes. “During that time, a slave wouldn’t be wearing such a vibrant head wrap, so that shifted it enough to make us aware that something was a little off.” Similarly, she added lacy black gloves to another character’s plantation mistress outfit, hinting at the sexual fetishes she would reveal later.
With a more realistic show like A Soldier’s Play or David Mamet’s American Buffalo, which Ayite will design for its upcoming Broadway revival, the costumes have to do just as much storytelling, but it has to be almost invisible. “Those are the hardest kinds of shows!” Ayite says, laughing. “A pair of jeans is never just a pair of jeans. You’re sorting through potentially 50 pairs of jeans to find the one that moves the right away and has the right tone and color.”
In A Soldier’s Play, all the characters wore similar military uniforms, but Ayite was still able to reflect their individuality. “I personalized their uniforms through several distressing techniques: sweat, wear and tear, the degree to which a uniform has been cared for,” she says. “Did a particular uniform have a crease because that soldier was adamant about always looking sharp? Or did it fit a tad looser based on that soldier’s relationship to their role in the military?”
Currently her preparations for the American Buffalo revival have her thinking about how Donny, a junk shop owner in 1970s Chicago who will be played by Laurence Fishburne, might present himself. “I want to honor where he is and what survival means to him,” she says. “He might not be dressed in something from the time period of the play. He might be dressed in a garment from a slightly earlier time period — a time when he was at the height of who he thought he was. He might be dressing as the person he used to be.”
This deep thinking is crucial to Ayite’s work. She explains, “The first read of the script is the most important to me, because after I read a play for the first time, I give myself a moment to tap into my immediate emotional reactions. I make a point to hold that somewhere in my mental space. I’m always hearkening back to it to make sure I then can capture that for an audience member.”
In some ways, that first read of the play is the closest Ayite will ever come to being an audience member for the production herself. Acknowledging her own first reactions helps ensure that her designs keep the audience in mind. “I want to remind myself about what happened to me when I read it,” she says. “If there was wonder, how do I create wonder? I want to take audiences on that type of journey through specific choices with the clothes.”
‘Even though I know how to write a play, I want a novella in the theatre.’ I was excited by that. You couldn’t put the story down. It was so evocative. It was like diving into a beautiful novel.
Because director David Cromer more or less specializes in drama—much more than less but not exclusively—he was surprised to get his 2018 Tony for a musical. Granted, “The Band’s Visit” was a character-rich musical and he fortified it with three Tony-winning performances from the cast (Tony Shalhoub, Katrina Lenk and Ari’el Stachel), the turf was still unfamiliar to him. It was to be Hal Prince’s last show, and, when he couldn’t make it, its producers scouted around for a likely replacement, their sites finally settling on Cromer because of the care and craft he showed drama.
Currently, Cromer is contending for his second Tony more comfortably with something right down his alley. “The Sound Inside” is a play that theatrically pushes the envelope.
Its author is the prolific Adam Rapp. Like Cromer, he is a Chicago native who started his invasion of New York’s theatre scene in 2000 by transplanting his Steppenwolf productions Off-Broadway. In 21 years, he has turned out 26 plays, one of which (“Red Light Winter”) was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006. “The Sound Inside” marks his first time on Broadway and his first shot at a Tony.
“I’ve known Adam forever, in Chicago and here,” Cromer says. “We actually have the same agent. When this play came up, I was given it to read. Usually if I get a new play, I procrastinate, fearing the worst. This, I whip through in one sitting and said yes.”
At first glance, the director found much to admire about the piece. “It was just so rich. I love that it challenged the theatre form. Adam is a very gifted playwright who wrote a play which he was aggressively turning back into prose. He said, ‘Even though I know how to write a play, I want a novella in the theatre.’ I was excited by that. You couldn’t put the story down. It was so evocative. It was like diving into a beautiful novel.
“I was drawn to trying to explore the feeling of reading prose by yourself, reading a great novel on a cold night, with only one light on, at home—but in the communal experience.”
“The Sound Inside” had its shakedown-cruise premiere in June of 2018 at Mandy Greenfield’s Williamstown Theatre Festival and opened on Broadway in October of 2019 at Studio 54. Mary-Louise Parker, who’s performance is Tony-nominated, carries a star’s load of the show alone, playing a seriously ill Yale creative-writer professor who narrates the play verbally but constantly scribbles in her notebook as if she’s writing the story she’s living. A Broadway-bowing Will Hochman plays the only other character in the play, a wannabe young writer she takes under her wing to mentor, hoping he can come to her aid.
Parker, one of our most articulate and persuasive actresses, was already attached to the project when Cromer came aboard. “I don’t know what Adam was thinking when he wrote it, but he may have done what he always does, which is to write and then he finds an actor later,” figures Cromer. “Mandy and Adam and Mary-Louise had already decided that they wanted to do that play at Williamstown, and I was the last piece of the puzzle and I think she and I were a good team. I would love to take credit for that performance, but I can’t. She’s one of the best there is.
The amount of memory work Parker’s part requires was pretty staggering. “It was, I’m sure, very difficult for her to do. It was a problem because it also kept changing. It evolved. Mary-Louise has great instinct about the progress of a play, and Adam was doing beautiful work rewriting while we rehearsed. It was hard, and we all just kept making it harder—but to the betterment of the play.”
“Mary-Louise must manifest so much of it and not have anything but her voice to do it. She was alone a lot of the time. We were happy when Will came on, but she had to spend most of it alone.”
Hochman was a find the director is particularly proud of. “Will was the last guy who came in. He heard about the play, got to read it and really hustled. He came in and said—not literally, of course—‘No one will work harder on this than me. No one will give you everything they’ve got like me.’ So that was exciting. When he left the room, Mary-Louise said ‘Yup, that’s the one.’
“What’s interesting about Will is that he wanted to be an actor all his life, and he wouldn’t admit it. He went to college and studied finance, and finally, late in college—it was like coming out of the closet—he said, ‘Goddammit, I want to be an actor.’ And, a couple of years later, he’s starring in this play on Broadway. He had not spent his life preparing to do it, and then, through grit and determination, got it there. You hope The Guy is going to come in and appear. You hope you can solve this terrible problem, which is we don’t have anyone for the play. He came in and won it.”
The drama at hand comes at you in a kind of theatrical freefall where you’re offered a variety of interpretations, not the least of which is that the whole story might have happened in the head of Parker’s character. Cromer believes it’s a matter of sorting out what’s real and what’s not.
“Mary-Louise’s character wrote a piece about a kid who ran through a wall. She called the kid Billy Baird, and her name is Bella Baird. In the play she tells us her mother had neurofibromatosis, that terrible illness that creates tumors and becomes cancerous. Then later, when she finds out she has cancer, she doesn’t want to go through what her mother went through. She says, ‘I don’t have neurofibromatosis. I just have good old-fashioned cancer.’
“That’s what Adam’s mother died of. First of all, none of it is real. It’s all created. Bella’s a teacher at Yale, and Adam was a teacher at Yale. Every life is made up of a bunch of little details. It’s all constructed out of other things. Everything we look at is made out of other things. It’s all real, it’s all happening, and then none of it is happening. I change my mind about what is true in this play all the time.
“Adam lived it–so it’s all real, and, simultaneously, none of it is real–which is the pure nature of art. It can be interpreted many ways. I interpret it many ways depending on the day, and actors will interpret it different ways on different days.”
Harry Haun has covered theater and film in New York for over 40 years. His writing has appeared in outlets such as Playbill Magazine (“On the Aisle” and “Theatregoer’s Notebook”), New York Daily News (where he wrote a weekly Q&A column (“Ask Mr. Entertainment”), New York Observer, New York Sun, Broadway World and Film Journal International.
In the before times, we used Zoom to design “The Sound Inside”. Scattered around the world, we came together on a morning in March 2018 for the first time, some in person and some virtual, for our first meeting for the show. This is always my favorite moment–to hear David Cromer’s words, to listen deeply and hear what is important, what we want to explore and where the weight is.
These are the notes I took that morning.
Time of year when it is dark too early
Bleak but woodsy
Is color still a thing
And you are
Fast simple spare
She stands right of center a little US and on a diagonal
Things only appear when we need them
Trees in the common appear
Christopher invades the show
Us carving our way through the dark
My old friend, the brilliant director, is also quite the poet.
Carving our way through the dark, things appearing when we need them.
And that is the job of the lighting designer—to combine poetry with physics and make the play shine.
The puzzle in the job is figuring out where to put each light, figure out the angle and the direction that will catch the edge of the desk just so, but not hit the huge black serge walls behind the office, that scenery so perfectly designed to hide itself until we wanted another element revealed. What are the exact lights to shift Bella and Christopher in a mere breath to a new afternoon—and is that a fade of 6 seconds or a blink of 0?
Does the shape of the window change as we move from afternoon to evening? Is a 15th light with shutter cuts just to the upper body of Mary-Louise Parker sitting at her desk to make her float slightly differently in the third scene in the office really necessary? (The answer is yes, it totally was)
Creating worlds like Bella’s kitchen and transforming it into the hotel room in Christopher’s novel was a huge part of designing the show, but I really loved the part of the design where Mary-Louise Parker would tell her story to the audience, standing in the empty void—just her and Adam’s words and my light. For me, that felt like a dance, starting from the super slow fade up at the top of the show, with Mary-Louise standing right of center, a little US and on a diagonal. Just like David said the first meeting.
Heather Gilbert is an award-winning lighting designer based in Chicago. Recently Heather designed Ms Blakk For President with Tina Landau and Dance Nation with Lee Sunday Evans at Steppenwolf Theatre. She was nominated for a 2020 Tony Award for her work on The Sound Inside directed by David Cromer, for which she also won the Drama Desk Award and was an honoree for the Outer Critics Circle. Other productions with David Cromer include Our Town in London, Chicago, New York, LA, Boston, and Kansas City, and BUG at Steppenwolf Theatre for which she won a Jeff Award for Best Lighting Design.
But I knew deep in my bones that I was the right person for the job and I did everything I knew how to make that a reality.
“I think there’s something about the life force of making a play that is sort of the antithesis of cynicism,” Adam Rapp tells me on the phone. “You know, we don’t get paid very much money. We don’t get our lunches paid for. We show up and we do this absurd thing where we’re making a story up and we’re hurting each other and we’re loving each other and we’re creating actions onstage for an audience to witness and to digest and then we go drink together and then we talk about it and then we fall in love together and then we do another one.”
Adam has been “doing another one” for almost thirty years. He’s the opposite of a cynic. He’s an inspiring, caring, hilarious man utterly committed to his work and to the people with whom he brings that work to life. He’s written an astonishing twenty-eight plays. His work has been produced all over New York, the country, and the world. He is a bonafide theater legend. He’s a Pulitzer Prize Finalist with his play Red Light Winter. He’s published eleven novels and two graphic novels and written two films and directed three. The man is prolific. And, at last, in 2019, he arrived on The Great White Way with The Sound Inside. He finally made his Broadway debut. And, somehow, with only a few years of experience, so did I.
By the time I auditioned for The Sound Inside, which would first run for two weeks at the 2018 Williamstown Theatre Festival, I had only a small handful of professional acting credits. I graduated from college in 2014 with a degree in economics and only three semesters of acting experience. I never did theater in high school. The first time I properly gave it a go was halfway through college. I probably had some amount of natural skill. But I had infinite curiosity and an insatiable hunger to make it all, somehow, happen. And with this play, somehow, it happened. Maybe I was in the right place at the right time. Maybe it was luck. Maybe it was preordained. I don’t know. But I knew deep in my bones that I was the right person for the job and I did everything I knew how to make that a reality. It felt then, and continues to feel now, even a year after the show closed, like catching a bolt of lightning. I’m endlessly grateful. I’m in awe of the entire experience.
Adam says that with each play you make a crazy little family. I think he’s right. There’s a unique place in my heart for Mary-Louise Parker and David Cromer and the rest of our masterful team. Since I came on board back in 2018, Adam has become a dear friend. I admire his work and am inspired by his approach. I’m thrilled that he finally arrived on Broadway and that he did it with such a bang and, my goodness, that I got be a part of it. The Sound Inside was a hit, a critic’s pick, and is now nominated for six Tony awards. It’s quite the accomplishment. So, at the request of our fearless producer, Jeffrey Richards, I called Adam in February to talk about his extraordinary, and long, journey as a playwright.
“I just didn’t think it would ever happen,” he tells me when I ask him about making it to Broadway. Adam wrote his first play in 1993. He had just arrived in New York. I was, admittedly, an infant. The play was called Prosthetics and the Twenty-Five Thousand Dollar Pyramid. “It was a crazy, crazy, crazy play where a hand grenade was onstage and someone had a fake penis and someone professed their love to someone else under gunpoint,” he says. (As is often the case when talking with Adam, I find that I’m laughing.) It was his first hands-on experience with theater. He was, like I was twenty years later when I moved home to the city, totally new to it. He was hooked. “I loved what a play did to the audience,” he tells me. “I loved the social event of it.”
Adam found himself in the theater. “In terms of writing plays, writing fiction, telling stories, being a storyteller, directing, working with people, it’s something that I really, really love to do. And I feel so lucky that I get to do it. I love making things with people. So it kind of became just a practical, vocational thing.” He committed himself to making it happen. This would be his life.
“You know, there’s something about creation that feels incredibly powerful,” he tells me. “You’re making something and it’s out of nothing and people are gonna come witness it and then you might talk about it and they might even be moved by it. They might even be changed by it in some small way. They might, like, go call their kid or they might call an old friend or they might reach out to somebody that they haven’t before. There’s something about that and about being able to attempt that that made me feel worthy.” I know exactly how he feels. It made me feel worthy, too. He goes on, “It made me feel like I had a place in the world, because I didn’t before that. I was just a, kind of, I was kind of lost. I was obsessed with basketball and reading and books and trying to write novels and you know that can be very, very, very lonely. I didn’t have a social life. I couldn’t find my place in the world. So the theater and making plays, it gave me incredible purpose. I feel so lucky.”
Adam had purpose. He had work. And he poured everything he had into it. I ask him about that, about his commitment and his drive. He tells me, “One of the great things that Marsha Norman used to say,” she was one of his mentors when he attended Juilliard for playwriting, “is that all of the ups and downs and the successes and the failures, they mean something. But the thing that means most is getting your body of work out there. Getting a body of work in the world and having it be witnessed and having it be digested and having it be published. That is the true mark of excellence.”
Adam became a staple theater maker in the city. His plays appeared everywhere off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway. He wrote. He directed. He directed what he wrote. He collaborated with everyone. But despite the decades and the steadily growing body of work, Broadway wouldn’t come. “I just couldn’t figure out the right way to – you know, I just didn’t have the luck or I didn’t have a good enough play or I didn’t have the right combination of things. And the few times that it almost happened, it just sort of fell short. So I was resigned to the idea that Off-Broadway is an incredibly sophisticated audience and a great way to continue to make art and make my work and I was totally fine with that. It wasn’t going to discourage me. I was going to continue to write the plays that I was going to write.”
So he put his head down and he made his work. He asked hard questions. He challenged his audiences. He, in his words, freaked people out. He churned out play after play after play and, finally, in 2019, something clicked into place and he arrived on Broadway. He made it.
I ask him how it felt. He takes a breath. “It was definitely vindicating.” And the Tonys? “It was really exciting to be nominated,” he says. “I was really happy. It’s always nice to be recognized. I don’t know what artist doesn’t want to be recognized. It’s really hard what we do. It’s really hard to arrive at that level and to succeed at that level.” No kidding. How many people dream of working as a theater maker or making it to Broadway or getting nominated for a Tony Award? How many people are nominated for six?
Adam has been succeeding and failing and succeeding again for about as long as I’ve had a pulse. He’s well aware that as wonderful as it was to make it to Broadway and then to be recognized for it, the successes can be, frankly, hard to predict. “It’s all so weirdly random. That’s one of the things that theater has taught me. Just when you think you have the Rolls Royce, it’s not. It’s the Volkswagen Bug. And just when you think you have the Volkswagen Bug, it becomes the Rolls Royce. You just can’t predict it.”
So, what does a person do in the face of so much uncertainty? How does a person navigate the unpredictable world of theater? For Adam, you control the only thing that you can. You go back to the reason you did it in the first place. You work. If you’re a writer, you write. If you’re an actor, you act. You keep showing up. You keep doing the work. “Just knowing that the play got produced and that the play is having a life and that the theater supported you and your body of work is expanding. That’s always kept me, you know, hopeful.”
“A lot of people come to NY and are trying to make work and can struggle to get the first thing done. It’s hard. It’s hard to maintain your confidence. It’s hard to feel vital. It’s hard to feel like you matter. But I’ve always said, my whole career, whenever anyone asks, “What piece of advice can you give somebody?” Don’t wait for anybody to anoint you. Just make something in your living room. Make something in a garage. Make something in a basement. And then invite your friends and your family. Don’t wait. Make work. Because that’s how you learn and get better.”
And then, maybe one day, after the uncountable hours of learning and growth and success and failure and the years of rejection and acceptance and doing it all again, maybe you pick your head up and you raise your eyes to the entrance of a theater, and maybe there’s your name, maybe it’s glowing in the lights, and maybe there’s the audience vibrating with anticipation, heading inside to see something new and to be amazed and to be all together, and maybe, just maybe, smack in the middle of New York City, there you are, taking it all in, a person who makes theater, a person on Broadway.
Will Hochman is an actor and, on occasion, writer, photographer, director, and filmmaker. He was born and raised in Brooklyn. Recent theater credits include: “The Sound Inside” original cast at the Williamstown Theater Festival and on Broadway at Studio 54, “Dead Poets Society” original cast at Classic Stage Company, “Sweat” at CTG Mark Taper Forum. Recent films: “Let Him Go” (Focus Features), “Critical Thinking” (directed by John Leguizamo). Recent TV: “Blue Bloods.” Upcoming: “Master” (Amazon Studios)