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Interviews

Making His Mark

By: Linda Armstrong

Robert O’Hara, the Tony nominated director of “Slave Play”–a play that made Broadway history by being nominated for 12 Tony nominations–is a perfect example of someone who is doing what he loves, doing what he believes in and acknowledges that he is part of a legacy that includes his mentor George C. Wolfe, Lorraine Hansberry and Douglas Turner Ward. O’Hara knew he wanted to be in theatre from a young age, as he used to perform plays in his grandmother backyard, then he performed plays in elementary and high school. When he first enrolled in Tufts University he thought about studying law and had theatre as a minor. But he recalled, “In college you find out who you are. I came out of the closet in college. I discovered ‘The Colored Museum’ by George Wolfe. I and another student formed the Tufts Black Theatre Company. Being in college, where I could concentrate on theatre as not just being something you do after class, being able to concentrate on it as a real major, was important to me. College allowed me the space and the time to discover who I was. My last couple in years in college is when I decided this was going to be my major.”  

Acting, playwright and directing in college through Tufts Black Theatre Company was something that just seemed natural to O’Hara. “It wasn’t difficult for me because I enjoyed it so much and looked at it as a hobby. I didn’t think of it as difficult, I thought of it as something I liked to do. I didn’t know that writing and directing were supposed to be difficult. In college I decided to go directly to graduate school and become a director. I knew I loved theatre and I knew I needed to get professional training as soon as possible. I wanted to be able to compete on the same level as other people in the profession. There was an arts community in college that made me feel comfortable, everybody is a bit of an odd ball searching for something,” O’Hara shared.

Robert O’Hara

Attending Columbia University where he received his masters in theatre was life changing. He was fortunate enough to intern at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre and not only meet his idol, George C. Wolfe, but be mentored by him. Here was O’Hara, a gay, Black man, who was now in the presence of another gay, Black man who was a genius and successful in the field that he loved. “The Public Theatre was seminal in my development as an artist mentored by George C. Wolfe. Being mentored by another Black, queer director who was running the institution was very empowering. The mentorship was not easy, it was tough love and it taught me and gave me a very thick skin. It was very visceral and volatile at times and challenging and rewarding. It also gave me a respect for how to work with other artists. It wasn’t just following someone as a writer/director, but the leader of an institution. He dealt with staff, maintenance, and the day-to-day operations. He was also directing one of the most important plays in history, ‘Angels in America.’ I went on to assistant him in ‘Bring in Da Noise/Bring In Da Funk’. He assisted in my first play being mounted (Insurrection: Holding History) and allowed me to direct it. So, I would not have started if it wasn’t for George Wolfe and the Public Theatre.”

Wolfe influenced O’Hara a great deal. “George always lived authentically as himself and showed all the flaws and blemishes of being a human being. He didn’t try to be a superhero. When you are around a genius you find the human being ain’t cute–he allowed me to see all his humanity. George was never pretending, when he was upset, he was upset, when he was outraged, he was outraged, when he was happy, he was happy. He knew he was in a position where people looked at him differently. We didn’t talk about being Black and gay, we just did the work. It was the example that he led by his talent and artistry that allowed me to be proud of who I am. My relationship with a Black gay mentor is that I am enough and who I am matters.”

Through his career O’Hara has written and directed several plays and received accolades for his work. Works that often dealt with unconventional subjects. His play “Insurrection: Holding History” was about a young gay, Black man at Columbia getting his masters and at the time O’Hara was doing just that. The play received the 1996 Newsday Oppenheimer Award for Best New American Play. This same play Wolfe opened at The Public Theatre on Oct. 11. 1996. “Brave Blood” talked about a psychiatrist trying to help female prostitutes with their lives. “14: An American Maul,” talked about reinstating slavery to harvest cotton by hand. “Antebellum”, focused on social injustice and won the 2010 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play. “The Etiquette of Vigilance”, continued where Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin In The Sun” left off, following Travis, the boy in the play, daughter Lorraine’s life and hopes to go to college.

Production still from “Bootycandy”.

“Bootycandy” that used vignettes to share comedic and satirical themes on what it means to be a gay Black man in America won the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Drama. “Barbecue”, looked at a family coming together to do an intervention for a drug abusing female member.

Production Still from “Barbecue”.

Considering what he wants audiences to come away with when they experience his work, O’Hara said, “What I ask an audience to take away is the diversity of voices and experiences. My work is unique because of the way I walk through the world. I’m not allowed to work in a superior manner. No one makes me comfortable as a gay Black man. Why am I here to make you comfortable when I live an uncomfortable life? I think my job is to take you on an adventure. I don’t’ think of myself as trying to provoke or make people upset, I just tell interesting stories that are interesting to me. Others who don’t look at the world through my eyes might think it risky. All my life I’ve been different, different is a good thing. My sexuality and race as a gay Black man doesn’t lead me out the door, the world tells me that every day. I don’t think about it in my work, it just shows up. For my survival I have to be aware of who I am as Black and gay and more importantly who other people are.”

Danai Gurira and Robert O’Hara.

In Los Angeles, O’Hara received the NAACP Award for Best Director for “Eclipsed.” Discussing his vision for that poignant drama he shared, “It is a very powerful play. I had already worked with Danai {Gurira} and I was lucky enough to have her there to guide me and the cast. I wanted to give it the weight that it needed and that these were real people and that this behavior existed, though it’s set in a foreign land. I’m aware of the imagery we present about Africa. My job in directing it was to allow the women to lead and to make space for them. I did the research that was necessary to participate in directing them. I think Danai is such an amazing talent that I was just there for the ride. I had to make sure that the play didn’t come so harsh that one can’t watch it or so light that one didn’t know the weight.”

Jeremy O. Harris, playwright and Robert O’Hara, director.

Considering all the productions he participated in either as playwright or director and him getting to direct “Slave Play” at the New York Theatre Workshop, O’Hara humbly said, “I think that everything in life sort of prepares you for the next thing and Jeremy {O’Harris-playwright of ‘Slave Play’} was a fan of my work and a student of mine after he wrote ‘Slave Play’. He has admired my work and I see a lot of myself in him. To me this was just an extension of the work that I had already been doing. My career prepared me to deal with a play that dealt with sexuality, race, humor and society. Jeremy and I can acknowledge to each other that there’s a legacy that links us to George Wolfe, Lorraine Hansberry, Douglas Turner Ward, no one operates in a vacuum.”

Production Still from “Slave Play”.

Talking about what stands out for him with “Slave Play”, O’Hara explained, “The race and sexuality are secondary, what’s most important is the human condition of each character and that was colored by whether it was gay men or a white woman. We start with–what is the play saying at this moment? The 2nd act of the play is an hour of people sitting and talking. How do you make that active? You do that by giving each of them humanity. You have to know what everybody’s journey is so that you don’t step on it. Everybody has to be telling their story. To the audience it feels natural and seamless, but everything is orchestrated.”

“I didn’t believe it,” O’Hara shared as he talked about when “Slave Play” was being moved to Broadway. “I told the producer I don’t believe a word coming out of your mouth. I was too skeptical, I have seen Broadway, I know what’s been on Broadway, I didn’t believe it. The general managers called my agent and he said ‘believe it’. I had never seen anything like ‘Slave Play’ on Broadway and that was both glorious and terrifying,” O’Hara admitted.

On the morning of the Tony nominations O’Hara recalled doing a zoom call with the full cast, toasting each other and giving each other love. Feeling that they weren’t going to be nominated at all. O’Hara’s feeling of disbelief continued, though a couple of hours later everything changed. “It was the most nomination of a play in Broadway history, we thought they made a mistake. That’s how I protect my heart,” he shared.

O’Hara is proving himself a force to be reckoned with.

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.

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Interviews

The Sound Inside: Adam Rapp

By Will Hochman

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. 

Production Still from Red LIght Winter

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.

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker

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.

Will Hochman, Mary-Louise Parker, Adam Rapp & David Cromer (from left to right)

“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.” 

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker

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 Rapp

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.” 

Brothers, Anthony and Adam Rapp

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)

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Interviews

The Sound Inside- Mandy Greenfield

By: Mandy Greenfield

The first time I read Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, I felt like I’d been given access to the inner thoughts and feelings of someone I’d never met but, somehow, knew and wanted to know for the rest of my life; the characters came off the page with such arresting specificity, nuance, complexity and humanity.

Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside” at Williamstown Theatre Festival

Reading Adam’s dramatic incantation was deeply intimate—the day of that first read, alone, at home, only I got to delight in the humor, pain, brilliance and pathos of Bella Lee Baird’s relationship with her student, with her own writing, with her student’s writing, with reading, with her body, with the bracing snow that falls each winter on the New Haven Green. I loved this play instantly, and, like Bella herself says about reading a novel, “Loving a book is kind of like having an affair, after all.”

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker

I marveled as Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman, under the exquisite direction of David Cromer and in the hands of a gifted team of designers, including the brilliant Heather Gilbert and astonishing Daniel Kluger, translated the intimacy and intensity of Adam’s words on the page into three dimensional, theatrical life on our Nikos Stage in the summer of 2018. It was with a mix of elation and jealousy that I listened to one hundred and seventy people exit the theatre after the curtain call of our world premiere production: I was elated that the audience responded so demonstrably, leaping to their feet for the curtain call. I was jealous that I had to let those one hundred and seventy people share in my affair with the play..

Mary-Louise Parker, Adam Rapp, David Cromer and Will Hochman (from left to right)

In the fall of 2019, nearly one thousand people listened and watched nightly as Mary-Louise and Will spun this most personal, detailed and surprising tale on a platform we, frankly, feared would be too large for so quiet a story:  the stage of Studio 54, part of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s campus of midtown theatres.  Joined by the devoted audiences of Lincoln Center Theatre, the organization which originally commissioned Adam to write the play, and led by the fearless and kind commercial producer Jeffrey Richards, audiences left mesmerized by Mary-Louise’s virtuosic, endlessly gripping and inventive performance; the actors, the design, the production, the words filled that glorious Broadway theatre seemingly effortlessly; David Cromer is, after all, as skilled a magician as directors come. I was, once again, thrilled and inexplicably crushed to share this play — one of the most intimate and beautiful works of theatre I’ve encountered. 

For, the play belonged to the vast audience of Broadway now.  Since then, Audible, with whom Williamstown Theatre Festival collaborated on the entirety of our 2020 season, has released The Sound Inside on its platform.  What began as a secret love affair in my apartment, as I read Adam’s haunting, dramatic words, was now as out in the open – and in the ears of audiences world-wide — as a thing can be.

Williamstown Theatre Festival Historic Building

Writing this, I am put in touch with how far away all of these feelings are; I can recall them but, honestly, I no longer feel them:  the global health pandemic, the year-long shut down of theatres in this country, a renewed movement for social and racial justice, a political insurrection in Washington, focus on vaccine dissemination and endless planning for the reopening of theatres all collude to make The Sound Inside – its critical acclaim, its Broadway life, its Tony accolades — seem irrelevant, meaningless. 

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in “The Sound Inside

And then, I think again – and I listen to the sound inside – and I am reminded by this long-lost lover that a truly great play reminds us that we are alive,  that we’re complexly human, that to live an unexamined life is not to live at all.  The Sound Inside is testament to the ancient power of theatre to provoke, move and transform us.  Just Listen, you’ll remember, too.

Mandy Greenfield is the Artistic Director of Williamstown Theatre Festival.  Prior to joining WTF, Ms. Greenfield served as Artistic Producer of Manhattan Theatre Club where she produced more than seventy-five world and American premiere plays and musicals both on and off Broadway.

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Interviews

The Sound Inside: Daniel Kluger

By: Harry Haun

“What I think is so mysterious about this play is that it has the feeling of memory,” proffers Kluger. “The feeling it always gave me was that I don’t know when the text that I’m reading has been written and by whom. It creates a kind of inversion of the vanishing point of memory.” 

Given the abrupt brevity of the 2019-2020 Broadway season and the fact that not one new musical note made it to that marketplace before the pandemic rang the curtain resolutely down on all things theatrical, it’s rather surprising to find a Tony nominee contending for three awards.

No one is more surprised (and a bit embarrassed) by that fact than the guilty party himself: 36-year-old Daniel Kluger. In case it matters, he brought off this near-impossible feat as a hyphenate “These days, most human beings are,” asides the guy who designed the sound and wrote the original music for Adam Rapp’s riveting drama, “The Sound Inside.” He was nominated for both. 

With no Broadway musicals around this semi-season that are brand-new and nominatable, their usually neglected stepchild–incidental scores for plays–stepped up to the plate for consideration. 

Though pleased with the recognition his music has garnered, Kluger counts it a mixed-blessing. “Obviously, it’s sad that we didn’t get to experience all the musicals in the storefront last year,” he readily allows. “Most of the work that I do is on scores for straight plays. It’s actually a very different craft and art form, so I’m glad that some of that will be able to be discussed this year.”

His third Tony bid is for designing the sound for “Sea Wall/A Life,” a double bill of two one-man plays.  Reflecting his skill at this, all three stars–Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Sea Wall/A Life” and Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside”–came across loud, clear and nominated.

Kluger had his work cut out for him the minute “The Sound Inside” hit town from the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where it lifted off June 27, 2018. It settled in New York Oct. 16, 2019, in that vast barn of a theatre, Studio 54, where two characters command the audience’s attention for 90 minutes. As the show’s composer-sound designer, Kluger’s job was to create and maintain an intensely intimate ambience amid a nonstop torrent of words and literary illusions.

“We worked to amplify the voices in a natural aesthetic so it was really important that we stayed connected to the actor at all times. You need to believe that the resonance of the voice and the clarity of the words are coming directly from the human body. I believe we were able to distribute the amplification evenly around the room and calibrate it so you feel like it’s natural but you’re able to hear all the words. It’s a technique refined by Scott Lehrer. He essentially developed this method of natural amplification a whole generation of sound designers has benefitted from.”

Mary-Louise Parker

Words are a kind of life force for Parker’s character, Bella Baird–an isolated, tenured, 53-year-old prof who teaches creative writing at Yale, trying to open young minds while coping with a cancer diagnosis. Except for when she addresses the audience, she records her activities in a notebook, as if she’s updating the story of her life. Into that life enters a troubled freshman (Will Hockman) with his own piece of fiction for her to critique and mentor. Their lives tangle tragically. Or not: Author Rapp leaves on the table the possibility we’re at the mercy of Bella’s fevered imagination.

“What I think is so mysterious about this play is that it has the feeling of memory,” proffers Kluger. “The feeling it always gave me was that I don’t know when the text that I’m reading has been written and by whom. It creates a kind of inversion of the vanishing point of memory.” 

Regardless of whether he’s providing the sound or the music for a piece of theatre, Kluger admits that his most important relationship on any show is always with the director. With “The Sound Inside,” his guide is a favorite collaborator, David Cromer. “He really is best. You can follow him wherever he will lead you. He is, fundamentally, an inspiring director who doesn’t tell you what to make. He leads you toward the deepest human level of feeling in the story that you are telling,”

They first teamed in 2012 on “Tribes,” Nina Raine’s play, which had a deaf character and another who was going deaf. There were beaucoup options for sound design. “It doesn’t always happen, but you’re lucky when you form a collaboration of trust the first time out. That was a formative experience for me because it taught me how to take certain risks in exploring as a designer.”

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside”

Discovering the sound inside for this project was not easy for Kluger. “The piece that we wound up using—let’s just say that it wasn’t the first thing that I wrote. The best collaborations with directors—and David is an excellent example of this—is when everything comes out of a need in the story, when the aesthetic impulses are coming from the writer or the character– depending on the values of the production. A good director will make those needs clear.

“Sometimes, the most successful things we make feel like surprises, like accidents. David always leaves space for experimentation. I think we tried 12 different placements of where the music should go. It’s not always premeditated if you’re trying to capture the feeling of the unconscious. In music, you must allow accidents to happen so you can find how the music relates to the text.”

Daniel Kluger received three Tony nominations this year in two different categories: two for Best Sound Design for The Sound Inside and Sea Wall/A Life, and one for Best Original Score (music) Written for the Theatre for The Sound Inside.  Other Broadway credits include Marvin’s Room, Significant Other and the 2019 revival of Oklahoma! for which he earned a Tony nomination, 2020 Grammy nomination, Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award.


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.


Categories
Interviews

The Sound Inside: Mary-Louise Parker

By: Harry Haun

“Every single thing I didn’t think I was going to do again is in this play, but it was so beautifully written I said, ‘Well, I’ll do a reading of it,’” she sheepishly admits.

Coming off of three straight productions of “Heisenberg” can give a girl pause. It gave Mary-Louise Parker a firm, inflexible set of theatrical dos-and-don’ts that would steer her to her next stage outing. In Simon Stephens’ oddly romantic drama, she had just spent most of the play’s 80 minutes pursuing a man twice her age; indeed, she was—verbally– all over him like an ant farm.

Mary-Louise Parker in Heisenberg

Never again, she vowed. “I told myself I’m not going to do another two-hander, and I certainly was not going to play a character who talks that much. The one in ‘Heisenberg’ just talks and talks and talks. I thought that I wanted to try something a bit more elliptical with my next play.” 

To these two hard-and-fast rules, she added a third, which she had picked up 24 years ago doing Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive”: “I also said, ‘I’m not going to do direct address again.’ When I did Paula’s play, I just felt that it wasn’t something I excelled at.”

Then she read “The Sound Inside” and was besieged by a wave of second thoughts. Adam Rapp’s gripping stunner of a play checks all the boxes on Parker’s never-again list, but here she is nonetheless, Tony-contending with one of the season’s most haunting and anguished portrayals.

“Every single thing I didn’t think I was going to do again is in this play, but it was so beautifully written I said, ‘Well, I’ll do a reading of it,’” she sheepishly admits. “Of course, in my head, I was immediately casting other actresses, thinking ‘Oh, this person would be good at this,’ or ‘Cynthia would be great at that,’ remembering friends who would be so good at it and do such a good job.” 

Mandy Greenfield, Artistic Director of Williamstown Theatre Festival where the play premiered in June of 2018, blew the whistle on Parker’s mental re-casting. “She was, like, ‘No, I want to hear you read it.’ Sometimes, other people have more faith in you than you do. It was similar, actually, when I first read ‘How I Learned to Drive.’ I didn’t know if I was right for it so I asked to read some of it aloud. I knew as soon as I started speaking I wanted to do it. It just started to wash over me.”

Critics were extremely careful to keep the play’s secrets. Parker is Bella Baird, a creative-writing professor molding young Yalie minds. One pupil of promise, a freshman named Christopher Dunn, she takes under her wing to mentor and into her confidence to resolve her growing cancer fears. 

Will Hochman & Mary-Louise Parker

Will Hochman, who shared the sprawling Studio 54 stage with Parker for some of the play’s 90 minutes, makes an impressive Broadway debut in the part, and his leading lady gives him a ringing endorsement: “He was just wonderful to work with, and we’re friends to this day. He walked into the audition, and there was something about him. He had this really impressive humility, first of all, and was super-intelligent. He went out and got the closest typewriter he could to the typewriter in the play. He’d send me typewritten notes, and we shared poems back and forth.”

But Parker shoulders the bulk of the play’s verbiage. “I really love that Bella is an intellectual and an academic, that she loves words and has a passion for them. I have that. I didn’t know how strongly that would connect me to her when I first read the play aloud. I love how stubborn she is. I think that comes out of what is crushed in her when you meet her in the play—or maybe before that, because when she finds Christopher she is so struck down. She is not letting anyone in. She is not taking any risks. She has sort of sequestered herself and just made her life incredibly safe.

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker

“When we did it at Williamstown, we sat around the table a lot and cut the play. Adam writes so freely. He’s kinda inspiring to watch—one of the most generous collaborators, if not THE most generous, that I’ve ever worked with. He’s not precious with his words, and he just listens to everyone’s ideas. And he’ll say, ‘Well, what about this?’  He’s so fluent. Terrence McNally was like that. It could just flow right out of him around the table. That was kinda thrilling to be around.”

Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside”, “Bus Stop” and “Proof”.

Parker heaps plenty of praise on her director. Simply put, “I cannot envision creating this without David Cromer. He allowed for so much silence on the stage, and he gave me so much freedom in the rehearsal room. I think that if he doesn’t have affection for the characters in a play, I don’t think he would end up directing it. You can feel his affection for the characters as he’s directing.”

Prior to all the quarantine cancellations, Parker had planned a double-blast of theatre for 2019-2020, following her Tony-nominated “The Sound Inside” with a revival of her Obie-winning “How I Learned to Drive,” Vogel’s drama about an incestuous relationship. “We were just about to open,” the actress laments.  “When everything shut down, we were ready to go into the theatre.”

All is not lost, however. Lynne Meadow, for whom Parker gave a Tony-winning performance in “Proof,” has arranged to slip this pandemic-play casualty into Manhattan Theatre Club’s last slot at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater next season. It will mark the play’s belated Broadway bow.

In the meantime: “I’m hoping to do ‘The Sound Inside’ again, somewhere. Honestly. I’d do it anywhere. I love it. It’s so challenging, so arduous. In some ways, it’s the most daunting play I’ve ever done—to the point of where I think, ‘If I could just get through it, I’ll be happy.’ I just didn’t have any expectation I’d be any good. I just wanted to deliver the play because it was enormous.”


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.

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Interviews

Irene Gandy: Living History

By: Marko Nobles

“The producers called the box office and let them know they would not receive any other shows from their company if I were not let in. From that point on I was let in and word got around on who I was.”

Normally when we celebrate our history or historical figures, they are people of the past who have done amazing things to help build our society to where we are today. There are also those that we watch make history as they live their lives. One of those history makers is Broadway’s longest running African American Press Agent and Producer Irene Gandy.

Prolific press agent & Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy

A conversation with Irene is an education on the theater, media, racism, changing times, the music industry and a lesson on communication and building relationships which has been the central theme of her 50+ years as a press agent. “Originally I went to NYU and I wanted to be a writer.” Says Irene of her beginnings. “My professor said I couldn’t write and I should change my major. So I was only there for six weeks and I was in Greenwich Village and I decided to be a hippie. This was in the 60’s and I was sleeping in the parks along with people like singer Richie Havens, Peter Tork of the rock band The Monkees, All of those people ended up being something including Bill Cosby who was performing regularly at the Id. 

Irene spent one day as an Actor, but her one small acting part led to a chance reconnection with a high school classmate. This chance encounter would set her on her path to becoming a Broadway Press Agent. “I ran into Fred Garrett, who I hadn’t seen in years, he was working for the Negro Ensemble Company as a company manager. He said that they had all the actors they need but they were looking for a press agent but the only candidates coming for interviews were white and we’re the Negro Ensemble Company and we want to train Black people for these jobs so would you interview for the press agent position doing an apprenticeship with Howard Atlee? I knew nothing about what a press agent does so I just went and talked to him and I ended up interviewing him about what a press agent does. I left and thought I would never get the job. Howard Atlee called me a couple days later and asked me if I could start working.”

Profliic press agent & Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy

Irene’s first major task as a press agent was to deliver a press release for a Negro Ensemble Company benefit to the New York Times for coverage. “I went to the 3rd floor to get the release to Sy Peck and the person at the front said I’ll take it to him but I said I have to give it to Sy Peck, so I’ll wait for him. I had to wait because Howard said to give it to Sy Peck directly and I had just started. I did not want to lose my job. So eventually Sy Peck comes out wondering who’s holding up his schedule (it was deadline day). So I gave it right back to him telling him ‘Howard Atlee said I have to get this to you and as a matter of fact who are you and what do you do that’s so important that I have to wait an hour and a half?!’ He then explained what he did and took me on the floor, introduced me to everyone explaining their roles. That was the start of my good relationships with the press. That was my first real introduction to being a press agent. “   

That led to working on many shows including River Niger, Ceremonies of Dark Old Men, Hay Fever, Johnny Johnson and then she went on the road with the legendary musical Purlie! At that time there were no Black persons working on shows in that capacity. In some cities Irene wasn’t even allowed to go into the box office.  Irene called back to New York and instead of making the issue about race expressed concern for the bottom line. “The producers called the box office and let them know they would not receive any other shows from their company if I were not let in. From that point on I was let in and word got around on who I was.”

By now Irene was in the union as one of the few Black Press Agents and is the longest Black Female continuously working on Broadway over the last 50 years. Why is that? Because one needs to work continuously on Broadway for three years to be accepted in the union. “With me starting out with Negro Ensemble Company and them always having shows it allowed me to work continuously and most people only work show to show and how many shows are on Broadway for three years?” Irene also explains that the job of a press agent is not a glamorous one. “You have to be thick skinned, sometimes you are really a glorified flunky – getting cabs, going to get newspapers, holding umbrellas. But really for me being a press agent is building relationships. Going to lunch, getting a new media staff member at a tv show coffee. The relationships are key to getting stories placed.”

Prolific press agent and Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy with Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad.

Over her career Irene has actually retired and unretired many times. During one of her retirements from the theater she went over to the music industry and worked with legendary artists including BB King, Patti LaBelle and The Jackson 5. 

After her time in the record industry Irene decided to move to Seattle with her daughter Mira so she could live “a normal life.” But boredom set in, theater came calling and Irene returned to New York to work on Bubbling Brown Sugar. 

“After one of my shows closed, in 1986,  I received a call from the union that Jeffrey Richards needed a press agent which began my years in his office …Ironically I worked for his mother, Helen Richards, a General Manager, on the musical Purlie when it went out on the road many years earlier.”

Prolific press agent & Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy with the eight time Tony Award winning producer Jeffrey Richards.

For 35 years she’s been with Jeffrey Richards (who she lovingly dubs her “work husband”) as the Press Agent on countless hit shows including Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hair, Radio Golf, Speed-the-Plow, August: Osage County, Race  and many others. She’s brought her unique relationships with media and the community to help make these shows successful. 

The next evolution for Irene was to become a producer. She first served as a producer on the show The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and then in 2014 Irene co-produced Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. 

Gandy is hopeful that on Broadway she can see more Press Agents, as well as creatives, producers and managers, of color in the future. As a trailblazing Press Agent she says, “I think the producers should invest in people of color to be a press agent. Because when a show closes the press agent is immediately let go. So, there is not the opportunity to continue to work for the necessary time to be accredited as a press agent. If the producers would commit to invest in an ongoing position, then there would be the chance for that press agent to go to the next show without that gap and not have to start over to get that three years of service.” Irene also warns those looking to work as a press agent “you have to realize that you’re really behind the scenes, not trying to be backstage. This job,  it’s all about relationships and learning to work with others.”

Prolific press agent & Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy

When we talk about history it is too often in the past but there is something utterly amazing about being in the presence of history and Irene Gandy is Living History.

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Marko Nobles spent years learning, growing and becoming an experienced professional in the fields of PR, Marketing, Radio, Event Production and Entertainment. Born & raised in Harlem, Marko has worked with community organizations, non-profits, small businesses and even developed his own company, InJoy Enterprises, a multi-service business that provided consulting services in the areas of PR/Promotion, Marketing, Event Production, and Event Management & Coordination and continues to produce special entertainment events featuring independent artists.

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Stories from the Stage Lois Smith


The role that escaped me – one that I would have loved to play.

It’s a play I’m pretty sure hasn’t been written yet. There are significant roles for Vinie Burrows and for me. I’ve met Vinie only a couple of times and seen only a little of her work.  But she impresses me, and I want to do this play with her.

Maybe we, the not-only-white American theater, are on the verge of gaining and expressing more insight about how our country’s systemic racism has formed us, as people, as citizens, as artists. If so, then this insight will of course flow through us, from us, in our work, as our gift to our audience.

Vinie has experienced the injustice of lessened opportunity in our racist theater, and also her own resilience and strength. She carries the legacy of the crimes against her forbears, and their suffering.

I have experienced easier opportunity, and a sense of such privilege as normal. That has certainly made earning a living as an actor easier. I’m not feeling strengthened though by a legacy of racism.  In this case, easier isn’t better. I need to keep learning more about my history and experience of racism, and of hers.

It would be my privilege to do this play with Vinie. Working together is more fun than anything. I like to think we have something to offer each other, our colleagues, our audience.

I hope she’ll say Yes when the offer comes. I don’t know who is writing the play. Quickly please. Vinie and I are getting on.


Lois Smith is a three-time Tony Award nominee for her performances in The Grapes of Wrath (1990), Buried Child (1996), and The Inheritance (2020).  Her film career, spanning seven decades, includes East of Eden (1955), Fatal Attraction (1987), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Twister (1996), Minority Report (2002), and Lady Bird (2017).  She was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2007 for her outstanding contributions to the theatre.

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Interviews

Hair to the Throne

By Mark Peikert

You may not know the name, but you have seen Paul Huntley’s work. With a career that stretches back to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, the wig designer has worked extensively on both sides of the Atlantic, in film, television, and theatre. Faye Dunaway’s hair in Network? A Paul Huntley wig. Princess Margaret’s ‘60s beehives? Huntley. Patti LuPone’s Evita hair? Huntley. From Mae West to Joan Crawford to Glenn Close to the hair that transformed Santino Fontana into Dorothy Michaels eight times a week in Tootsie, Huntley has been in close counsel with the biggest stars of the last 70 years.

Paul Huntley and Jan Maxwell for Lend Me a Tenor

The erstwhile Brit is still going strong, contributing hair to Broadway’s Diana and in the process recreating the look of a woman who conjures up a thousand different images in our collective memory as soon as her name is uttered. From the royal wedding to her media blitz tour post divorce, The People’s Princess was a master at recreating herself—and in that regard, she’s well-matched by the talents of Huntley.

“The truth is she looked different every time she walked out the front door,” Huntley says. “Sometimes short, spiky hair and sometimes blown out really large. And then her color changed all the time.”

Of course, recreating royal looks for a Broadway musical requires sleight of hand with which something more documentary-like (say, Netflix’s The Crown) doesn’t have to contend. There are microphones to consider, quick changes, and condensing a lifetime into a two-and-a-half evening show. 

Huntley, Tony-winning director Christopher Ashley (Come From Away), and bookwriter Joe DiPietro settled on establishing Diana with just four iconic looks: the style with which she was first introduced to the public as the future Princess of Wales (“We call that the pudding basin look. Because it really wasn’t that becoming to her”); the darker hair from the royal wedding, the must-watch event of 1981; the tousled and “quite big” hair that most people picture from the early ’90s; and the shorter, spikier style from the end of her tragically short life.

Huntley is also responsible for the rest of the royal family, as well—though one imagines Queen Elizabeth II’s hair was a fairly simple feat, changing has it has not a whit for decades at a time—in addition to Diana’s aunt, romance novelist Barbara Cartland, who sported a very specific look during the period. 

Each wig takes an average of five days’ work from Huntley and his team of five to create from human hair (Huntley sources it from “wig merchants” and most of the hair comes from Russia). For a project like Diana, what is particularly interesting is that there are very few natural blondes in the world; most blonde wigs audiences see have been dyed that shade. And throughout the process, Huntley remains in communication with both the creative team and the performers.

“That’s the first thing: You want to make sure that everyone knows what you’re going to do and whether that’s what they want,” he says. “And I prefer always to be the quiet one. People have a different view of me than that, I know!” he laughs.

Though certainly not one to back down from an argument about his work—he tried in vain to convince Faye Dunaway not to restyle the Maria Callas wig he gave her for Master Class—Huntley has a c’est la vie outlook that has kept him sane while working intimately with some of the biggest divas of all time. “We’re not curing cancer here, he says. “It is, after all, a musical. And people are wearing these things on their face, so you have to sort of say, ‘Oh well, what the fuck.’ You really can’t make too much of it, I don’t think.”

Over the course of his long career, Huntley has seen fads come and go, and stars wax and wane. But throughout, the nature of his relationship with the performers has remained steadfast, ever since the day he crawled into Mae West’s bed to set her wig. “Honestly I’ve never gotten over that,” he says. “And all I could think was… ‘My god, how does anyone have teeth that white?’ It was like Walt Disney stars, they were so fucking white!”

“I always felt from my earliest years that they were the stars, and they were the most important people and therefore I was just someone who helped,” he says. Now, of course, his reputation precedes him, but Huntley remains the “strange Englishman who’ll probably do some wonderful stuff,” as he puts it.

Beginning his career in England with Stanley Hall at Hall’s Wig Creations—a major wig creation company for film at the time—Huntley was creating wigs and false eyebrows for director Mike NIchols—who suffered from alopecia—and made the leap to America after Nichols hired him to do the hair on Carnal Knowledge and asked if he’d ever considered moving. 

“He said, ‘Well, you know, why don’t you come and live here?’” Huntley recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh I couldn’t possibly go to America! Good heavens, it’s so loud!’”

“That’s where the ‘grand voice’ comes in,” he adds dryly.

But Nichols pressed on and ultimately sponsored Huntley’s visa. Two years after Carnal Knowledge was released, Huntley made his Broadway debut with the Nichols-directed production of Uncle Vanya, starring—in a very eclectic cast—George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Wilson, and 70-year-old Lillian Gish.

“The sweet thing about Lillian was she said, ‘Oh, Paul darling, I’m going to look so young on the stage! You’re going to have to give me a gray wig,” Huntley recalls, laughing. “And she did look young!”

Huntley’s list of devotees reads as a Who’s Who of theatrical and Hollywood history. He worked again with Gish a decade later, when she starred with Bette Davis in The Whales of August; he did Crawford’s wigs on her final film, Trog (a project that produces the equivalent of a good-natured verbal shudder from him); he restyled Marlene Dietrich’s wigs when she toured the world with her concert act, receiving them in plain brown parcels with a note and a next destination to which he’d send the refreshed wig; he works extensively with Glenn Close, on everything from Sunset Boulevard to 101 Dalmations; and Patti LuPone famously has him written into her contract for every project since Evita. In fact, Huntley is the man behind her memorable, flame-colored wigs on Ryan Murphy’s latest Netflix series Hollywood.

Evita – Patti LuPone

But even a man who counts the original Broadway productions of Dreamgirls and Cats (the project he’d most want to relive) to the most recent revivals of Anything Goes and Noises Off! has a few projects he wishes had been his. 

“I would have liked to have worked on [the 2019] Kiss Me, Kate,” he says. “I did the 1999 revival. I would have loved to have done that again. But there are good people. David Brian Brown, Charles LaPointe…I can respect people who do good work. I have no qualms about praising people if it’s good work.”

But with more memorable creations on his résumé than even seems possible, it’s safe to say that Huntley’s missed opportunities are few and far between. And with Diana, he proves once again who the royal hair creator is.


Follow Paul Huntley on Instagram at @paul_huntley_wigs

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All The World’s Her Stage (…and Backstage)

Beverly Jenkins is not afraid of a cut show. That’s a performance where there are more actors calling out than there are understudies or swings to replace them, and it requires a last-minute reconfiguration of everything from blocking to costuming to the placement of props.

For many people, this would be terrifying, but for Jenkins, who’s been a Broadway stage manager since the early 90s, it’s an opportunity.

“It’s a challenge I actually enjoy,” she says. “I know it’s a crazy thing to enjoy. It’s not something you wish for, but if you need to make it happen and you have the right people, you can make it happen.”

Case in point: At one performance of Broadway’s A Bronx Tale The Musical, she only had one Black actress available, even though there was a scene that required two. “I had to decide,” she recalls. “‘Do I have one Black female on stage, or do I have a Black female and a Black male in that other track?’ I’d planned for that, because you have to plan for that, even if it never happens. So I made the decision to have a Black male on stage, because otherwise it would have thrown some things off [to just have one person]. I spoke to some people; we made a few changes, and it worked. No problem.”

That solution indicates what a distinct style of stage management Jenkins has developed over her career, which includes landmark productions like Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk; the original Miss Saigon; and her current gig as the production stage manager for Hadestown.

The cast and crew of Hadestown

Crucially, she sees a cut show as a chance to connect. “It’s a community event,” she says. “You check with wardrobe, and they’ll make adjustments. The music department and the dance captains are involved. I always reach out to the director or the AD to make sure my choices are okay. And I take the personal trip to tell people what’s happening. I get a couple of extra steps in on my FitBit, and I’m good. I want to make sure I’m personally letting people know what’s going on before they step on stage.”

Those steps — up and down stairs, into the green room, into the wings — set Jenkins apart “Beverly runs a building, and she doesn’t have to open her computer to do it,” says Michael Rico Cohen, a fellow stage manager who has worked alongside her on A Bronx Tale The Musical, Amazing Grace, and Fully Committed.

“She is the person-to-person contact. She’s the problem solver. She’s the empathy master.”

Or to borrow a phrase Jenkins uses to describe herself, she’s a mom of many. “I’m fine with the tech,” she says. “It’s all good. I’m very calm, and I can call a cue just as well as the next person, but I believe my speciality is about being hands-on with the people. I put a lot of thought and care into everyone — not just the actors, but everyone — coming into that theatre.”

On every show, then, a big part of her job is figuring out exactly what this particular group of people needs. For instance, on Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, the 1996 dance musical that uses tap to trace Black history in the United States, Jenkins worked with performers who were more familiar with the dance world than with Broadway. “Sorry Equity, but I had to bend the rules for this group of young men,” she says. “I had to assess the rules and see what they needed. Like, ‘I know this is half hour, and if you’re not here at half hour, then I need you to call me and tell me how far away you are. And as Iong as I know you’re coming, you get a five-minute grace period.’ And that’s something I still do, the five-minute grace period.”

On Noise/Funk, she also turned her office into an occasional daycare center, so that parents in the company could bring their children with them when there were no other options. She recalls, “I had Barney tapes. I had a playpen. I was like, ‘You’re not going to be forced to miss work because you’re doing the right thing with your child.’ I have to get my show up, no matter what. I have to figure out how to get the best show on stage today. And on that show, watching kids was part of it.”

For Amazing Grace, the 2015 Broadway musical that explores how the British slave trade inspired the titular hymn, Jenkins knew her job required extra compassion. She says, “Amazing Grace was important to me because of what was happening on stage. How hard is it that the first time you see Black people on stage, they are stuffed in a crate, and then they get pulled out, thrown on the ground, and shot in the back? So when the actors come off stage, how can they not carry that off stage? How do we make sure that these people are not carrying the feelings of trauma off stage with them?

“We had company morale-building events. We had t-shirt day. We made sure the dressing rooms were mixed, and that we weren’t keeping the Puritans over here and the Africans over here. It was good to see everyone put thought into how to make this a harmonious backstage area and still tell that particular story.”

It no doubt helped that Jenkins herself was spearheading the backstage culture. “She is wildly good at creating fellowship and community,” says Rachel Chavkin, the director of Hadestown.

“She exudes exuberance, but also doesn’t beat around the bush when she’s got a problem to work through. And she’s not precious, because she’s focused on problem-solving at every turn.”

Jenkins asserts that small touches help a company avoid bigger problems, particularly when they’re together for a lengthy run. That’s one reasons she runs a “turkey hand” contest for Thanksgiving, getting everyone in the building to trace their hand on construction paper and then turn it into a decorated turkey drawing. “And believe me, there are prizes, honey,” she says.

Cohen confirms, “There’s nobody that loves a turkey hand competition more than Beverly Jenkins. But it’s more than just turkey hands or door decorating contests or the Father’s Day barbecue. She’s a master of the casual-but-meaningful interaction. It creates a camaraderie and an immediate trust. It’s these little things that really make the building a happy place over a period of years. All of those things are just as important — and sometimes more — than announcing what we’re doing in understudy rehearsal on Friday.”


Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.

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The Minutiae of The Minutes

By Mark Peikert

Everything about The Minutes on Broadway has been crafted to make its world seem as real and as familiar as a half-remembered episode of a classic Americana sitcom. A lost episode of The Andy Griffith Show where Opie learns about local politics, maybe.

The Minutes is, however, a Tracy Letts play—so it doesn’t take very long before things begin to shift from the comedy of small-town bureaucracy to something more sinister. Told in real-time during a city council meeting, Letts’ play lures audiences into expecting something very different than is what is on the playwright’s mind. But it all begins with the set on the Cort Theatre stage, a room of desks and framed certificates and flag stands as instantly recognizable as your parents’ living room.

It’s an American iconography. You feel that immediately when you walk in the door because it’s so recognizable.

“The setting carries with it an iconography,” director Anna D. Shapiro says. “You look at the set, you see those tables, all those little microphones, you see the flags behind them—I mean, it’s an American iconography. You feel that immediately when you walk in the door because it’s so recognizable.”

That familiarity—culled by set designer David Zinn from an actual coffee table book of city council rooms—is the result of a specificity so honed that it becomes universal. “When you’re that specific, it really tightens the focus,” Shapiro says. “The audience starts to understand that contract of where they’re looking for their information. And all that we’re trying to do in theater is figure out a way to communicate the contract to the audience as fast as possible: These are the rules, these are the possibilities, this is the world.”

The set is all Zinn, but the individual props on each council member’s desk all came from the performers. Each character may seem like an archetype—the befuddled but vocal older man; the very prim and dignified woman of a certain age; the combative guy; the new guy still figuring it out—but each is also a fully realized person participating (or zoning out) in the meeting being held.

“I have to say, I watched probably 100 hours of YouTube videos of city council meetings from all over the country,” says Letts, who also stars as the mayor. “If you suffer from insomnia, let me recommend you watch 100 hours of YouTube videos of city council meetings, because they’re crashingly boring. But they’re also very funny in their own way.”

For a play about politics on Broadway in 2020 (and one written in 2016, no less), The Minutes is both apolitical and shockingly current. “I don’t think the words ‘Republicans’ or ‘Democrats’ are ever spoken in the play,” Letts says. The Minutes is not intended to be a comedy about political party differences; what Letts and Shapiro are interested in is engaging audiences about bigger questions. “How do we conduct ourselves as a civilization, as a society, particularly an American society?” Letts says. “And I think it’s asking some very basic questions about the kind of society you want to live in. Where do you want to live and how would you have us conduct ourselves in the world? And I hope it’s doing it in a comic and accessible way.”

Beyond local government and its politicians, Letts points out that the way we behave in any meeting—be it in an office, during a job interview, or anywhere else—is a different mode of conduct than in a restaurant or with friends. “You see a lot of different types surround the table that you recognize,” Letts says, adding that he also drew upon meetings with at the Steppenwolf Theatre for the play, “though I won’t mention any of them by name.”

“You know, you could watch it several times because you could track one person through the whole thing once you actually know the plot of the piece,” Shapiro adds. “It would be fun to be able to watch your favorite character and how they dealt with all of these little moments that you didn’t understand the first time you saw it.”

The Minutes

Those little moments add up to what Shapiro refers to as “a tipping point” in the play. In fact, it’s a major reason the play is 90 minutes long, with no intermission. “It takes a really long time for things to either go bad or get good, but the truth is that there is a tipping point,” Shapiro says. “There’s a moment where you go from being OK to not OK. There’s a moment where you were healthy, and then there’s a moment where you aren’t. There’s a moment where the German town became a Nazi village. There’s a moment, those things happen. And I think it’s important to know that that can happen in minutes.”