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Creative

Talkin’ Turkey


Exclusive excerpts from Talking Turkey: The Wit and Wisdom of President Charles H.P. Smith. For one night only, tune in on Thursday, May 7, 2020 at 8pm ET to see President Smith (John Malkovich) and two key members of his campaign team, Clarice Bernstein (Patti LuPone) and Archer Brown (Dylan Baker) tackle major American concerns just days before the upcoming Presidential election. To quote one of President Smith’s most famous lines:  “I always felt I’d do something memorable… I just assumed it’d be getting impeached.”


THE ELECTORAL SEASON

My opponents are yapping at my heels.

I have been asked if I wish them ill.

No, I do not wish them ill. If I wished them ill I would withdraw from the race. For this job, finally, is an unmitigated pain in the ass.

Yes, there are moments of reward – as when the Press goes home, or I can just sit back on Air Force One and tell racist jokes; but, by and large, the job is a never ending grind, with little to look forward to but the hundreds of millions of dollars my supporters will be called upon to cough up when I have left office.

Let me serve notice on them now: you may call it “directorships,” or “Charitable Institutions,” or stock tips, or the “loan” of your beach house, but, friends, I did my part and you’re going to do yours.

And, should one of my opponents prove successful come November, I say to them what the aged parents say to those with a newborn: “Ha Ha – you’re in for it now!”

God bless the United States.

Charles H.P. Smith


ON THE SUBJECT OF THE CONSTITUTION


The constitution is one of the foundation documents of this great country. No, it is not written on stone, it is written on parchment or the skins of some animal which, though perhaps endangered now, was, at the time of its composition, perfectly disposed to have its skin written on.

Is this different than tattooing? Yes and no.

Tattooing is a custom brought to thee shores by those intrepid mariners who first ventured to the great south seas, bringing syphilis and bringing back coral, pineapples, and those cunning print shirts so popular during the summer months. Tattooing is also used, as we know, in identification of the lips of horses, poodles, and other beasts both of burden and enjoyment. These tattoos identify the animals, should they be lost or stolen. So the next time you see an ownerless horse, thank those visionaries who drafted that compact which keeps us safe and secure: your constitution.


Sincerely, 

Charles H.P. Smith, President of the United States


MY MILITARY SERVICE

Military Service, as I understand it, means nothing more and certainly nothing less than service in those branches of the Armed Forces we, as a Nation, have assembled to stand between us and those countries, individuals and groups which want us dead.

What is America? Some might say it but a “washer” keeping Mexico from crashing into Canada, and thus, unacceptably mixing the beavers and the gauchos.

But it is more than this. It is the place where we, many of us, first got laid; and, as such, it is inexpressibly dear to us. Perhaps it was in the backseat of a Chevy, perhaps it was “up against a tree.” How, and wherever, it is an event graven on our memory. And a country worth fighting for.

I recall a poster from the Days of World War II: We’re one for all and all for one Behind the Man, Behind the gun” – as was I, during the years of my eligibility for Military service. 

Did I “serve” – in the commonly accepted sense of the term? Not in uniform, no.

I wear that uniform now. It is a blue suit, and I wear it to my office. Every Day, as Commander-in-Chief of those who also risk their lives, their jobs, and the stability of their marriages, while their spouses, tempted beyond restraint to cavort with the grocer, the UPS Man or Woman, the poolboy, clerk, firefighter, secretary, whose combined effort is summarized in the phrase: “United States.”


DO I WEAR A TOUPEE?

When young we are taught not to make personal remarks. 

Which of us has not seen the unschooled youngster, shocking and disgracing its parents with the remark, “Mommy, look at that Jew!” or similar slurs.

No, we must curb our tongues. The foundation of a viable community is our ability to refrain from those thoughtless commends which sow discord.

“Look at that Big Fat Pig,” for example, is a phrase acceptable only as an expression of delight at the State Fair; and I am hard-pressed to imagine an acceptable situation for “Mormons make me vomit.”

We are all in this together, and even the least of us, the homeless, the old, producers of Reality Shows, are entitled to the same courtesy we extend to their productive neighbors.

Don’t make personal remarks. Teach your children so that they may teach their children (such conceived, hopefully, after the former’s teenage years).


Yours for Abstinence,

Charles H.P. Smith


CONGRESSIONAL SEX SCANDALS

Congressmen should be allowed to turn over a new leaf, but not allowed to turn over one of the pages.


YOGA

Yoga is responsible for more human vice and misery than any force I know.

Children in India steal, some from their very parents, to get money for the study of yoga.

I would rather have a child on drugs than “on” yoga. 

For there is an organization especially created to counter drugs, we call it the police, but where are the heroes, standing up to the scourge of yoga?

I therefore have asked congress to prepare a bill which will be named: “Defense of the Country – The War on Yoga”.


Your President, 

Charles H.P. Smith

P.S. If you see anyone “bending over” too long – call the police.

March 26, 2008

Categories
Interviews

Giving Props to Broadway’s Secret Hoarders

A lamp, a locket, a fiddle, a pie. To theatre fans, these four items conjure up images of iconic shows, and that’s the secret power of props. Though they often blend into the scenery, each prop has its own story to tell and can become the eternal image of a production. But how do you go about finding that all-important piece?

“My process starts with dramaturgy—reading the play, reading the play, reading the play,” says Kathy Fabian, owner of Propstar. “I read about the play, the playwright, about the playwright’s other plays, listen to the director and the other designers [discuss] their interpretation of the piece and their goals so I can attempt to interpret what’s in their ‘mind’s eye’ when they picture the world we are about to create.”

Kathy Fabian - courtesy American Theatre Wing
Kathy Fabian – courtesy American Theatre Wing

Since 2005, Kathy’s company has designed and managed large-scale prop packages for dozens of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, as well as for TV and film. From All My Sons to Kinky Boots, her keen eye and amazing artistic vision have dressed the sets of some of the biggest productions in New York—and her latest challenge is quite a feat.

Kathy will provide the props for David Mamet’s classic play American Buffalo, which is due to open at Circle In The Square Theatre this summer. Set in a junk shop in the late 70s, it tells the tale of the shop’s owner, Don, who plans to steal back a buffalo nickel he believes is worth more than he sold it for.

“The junk shop definitely has its own presence, and even though it doesn’t have a voice, it’s integral to telling the story,” Kathy explains.

“People who do what I do enjoy the hunt…so I got on a plane to St. Petersburg.”

Like an actor building their character, she digs deep to get to know her subject inside and out ensuring it becomes a real place in the minds’ of the audience. “I ask myself many questions like what’s the history of the shop? How long ago did the junk begin to amass? What are Don’s personal interests that might influence what he collects? Does he curate his goods or did he just happen upon/steal/salvage/buy them? What’s the difference between a pawn shop, a thrift shop, an antique store, and a junk shop?”

Monger’s Flea Market

Just like a missed line or an ill-timed lighting cue, a prop from the wrong decade or even a piece with the wrong texture can pull an audience out of the world presented on stage. But sourcing items takes time, research, and patience, particularly for a set that’s densely layered. “I start looking at advertisements from the era and head to eBay and Etsy to look for hero items first. Once I’ve got my smattering of jaw-dropping 60s and 70s lamps, famous toys, posters, comic books, car parts, and specific items mentioned in the script by name, I move onto vintage fillers. Other than a few iconic gems an audience member might recognize from their past, the merchandise, (if you can call it that), is truly junk – used items you wouldn’t believe anyone would buy.”

Kathy Fabian – courtesy American Theatre Wing

Though filling a junk shop may be a prop master’s dream, each show offers its own opportunity, challenges and excitement, with no two jobs ever being the same. “You probably won’t learn something from one project that you can use as a go-to solution on the following ones. One morning, you may find yourself embarking on a play that’s set on an imaginary planet 100 years in the future, and after you’ve translated the playwright’s words into 3D for the stage, your next endeavour might be to recreate the inside of a military hospital during World War II.”

With a breadth of eras, locations, venues, and environments to create, the number of items needed by such a prolific prop specialist is astounding. “Space is always an issue, especially in Manhattan,” Kathy explains. “I keep two large rooms of small items like houseware, tools, soft goods, and collectibles at my studio on 52nd Street. We offer smaller companies with challenged budgets the option to rent items for $5 to $10 a month. This keeps things moving. I keep larger items in storage units in New Jersey and Yonkers. Shows like American Buffalo provide a great opportunity for spring cleaning as they allow me to lend things from my own stock and make some much-needed space for a while.”

With rows and rows of incredible items that have created their very own time capsule, along with all the equipment any theatre company may need to kit out a rehearsal space, Propstar’s warehouses are treasure troves that would wow anybody lucky enough to explore them. Packed full of vintage telephones and signs, banquets of fake food and old-school accounting calculators, miniature books and handmade textiles, Propstar’s wealth of products are more than a starting point for any production’s needs. However, Kathy’s hunt for the perfect items never stops. “I visit flea markets, Goodwills, salvage yards, Craigslist… the online auction sites these days are so very helpful. When I started my career, all my shopping was on foot, and in some cases, I really had to get lucky!”

Kathy is part of a community of prop specialists that work on Broadway. Between them, they form a network of knowledge and contacts that can find almost anything a director could want or need for a show. “If I hit a wall and can’t find the particular item I’m looking for, I call around to some of my junk dealers and other pals in the business. People who do what I do enjoy the hunt, so often once I put the word out there that I’m after something, folks join in on the search. We trade favors.”

However, there are times when all the favors in the world aren’t enough to find that one special item and you have to go a little further afield to find what you’re looking for: “For Fiddler on the Roof in 2004, no one could come up with the authentic Russian antiques which were required to fulfil the design vision, so I got on a plane to St. Petersburg.”

With tight schedules and a creative team awaiting input, prop masters don’t always have time to fly across the world. Luckily, there are other ways to get your hands on that elusive object. “Sometimes, rather than wasting too much time looking for something, I decide it’s more effective to just start from scratch and build a copy of the item. The wealth of talented craftspeople in this local network affords us that option as well.”

Kathy herself has always had an interest in making and creating, learning crafty hobbies at a young age. “Both my grandmothers taught me to sew, and so my hands were busy with crochet projects, needlepoint, doll-making, etc. from a very young age.”

This creative nature followed Kathy throughout her life and eventually led her to a career in props. “During my time at the University of Vermont, I was very active in theatre, both the performance side and the technical side. I took a special interest in carpentry and finish work. When I first moved to New York, I worked as a furniture maker and began receiving offers for props work. Slowly I took on more and more projects (while keeping my night job, of course), built a small company, and graduated from Off-Broadway to Broadway offers. Finally, one day I realized I didn’t need to wait tables anymore.”

For anyone interested in starting a career in props, Kathy has two pieces of advice: “Number one, call me! And number two, be prepared for a wild ride of multitasking and shedding your fears of trying new things and asking questions. You will never find the words ‘I’m so bored’ floating in your mind again.”

Categories
Long Form

The Show Must Go Online

Since 1929, there has been a student-written musical performed at Northwestern University under the title of The Waa-Mu Show. Its consecutive run has only ever been interrupted by World War Two. And this year was no different—until students were sent home because of the worldwide spread of the coronavirus. And while the fate of a university musical in the face of a global pandemic might not be of the most urgent concern, what happened on the evening of Friday, May 1, 2020, was a glimmering light in dark times. 

The set that never got seen – Design by Scott Penner

The Waa-Mu Show is a musical written, performed, arranged, orchestrated, and produced by students at Northwestern University every May (full disclosure: I am an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern and serve as a songwriting mentor for The Waa-Mu Show).

This herculean task of building and producing an entirely original book musical in under a year begins the previous June. It goes something like this. 

At the end of the academic year, a group of student co-chairs are selected to lead the process of creating The Waa-Mu Show. Before the students break for the summer, they hear pitches from students on what the next year’s musical could be. An idea is selected and writing coordinators are chosen to lead the writing process—which will ultimately include up to fifty writers. In the fall, the student leaders begin to outline the story and slowly accumulate other participants. By winter, the outline is loosely nailed down, the set designs are approved, and casting begins—often without the existence of a single note of a song or a word of dialogue. Throughout the top of the year and into the spring, the show is concurrently written, built, rehearsed, arranged, orchestrated, promoted, choreographed, directed, and ultimately put on—culminating in a fully-produced original musical with over 160 student participants. If it sounds crazy, that’s because it is—it’s a small miracle from the gods of theatre when the show debuts every May. 

And this year, things began in a very similar fashion with every indication that the show would continue its venerated tradition. A story was pitched by student Matthew Threadgill, telling the tale of the futuristic city of Dalesworth—a metropolis vying to become a future capital while grappling with the issues of its past. Outlines were created. Characters were invented. Songs were written. However, just as the team was gearing up for its last developmental reading presentation in mid-March, the news of a spreading pandemic began to roll in. Of course, the students had concerns other than their show. “The gravity of the moment didn’t immediately draw my attention to Waa-Mu,” said writing coordinator Ruchir Khazanchi. But eventually, his thoughts turned towards the production. “Hundreds of students had been working non-stop for almost a year to make this happen. And for it to be swept into uncertainty so quickly was jarring for a lot of folks.” Writing coordinator Emmet Smith agreed, “I think the hardest part was how drawn out the process of our spring cancellation was—every day we came up with contingency plans for the best and worse case scenarios given what we knew. And every day our best-case scenario of an on-campus production grew grimmer. It would’ve been easier on our hearts if the Band-Aid was ripped right off.”

Students were sent home and the future of this year’s Waa-Mu show was thrown into question. Khazanchi feared for the worst. “Nobody knew what the next steps were, or if there were going to be next steps.” The Waa-Mu team gathered on the video conferencing tool Zoom to discuss what would happen next. Co-chair Emma Griffone knew that they had to continue. “Waa-Mu has always been a process-oriented organization, so we were primarily concerned with working through our draft.” But as discussions began, it became clear that perhaps there was something more that could be done. Music supervisor and faculty member Ryan Nelson remembers that first call fondly. “That first meeting with the co-chairs, writers, music team, and our director was really thrilling. There was so much energy and so many ideas. At the end of the call, we decided we were doing Waa-Mu. No matter what.”

But what that actually meant was still completely up in the air. And now, in the usual crush of writing and producing a new musical came the question: What does producing this musical even mean?

As rehearsals went on over Zoom, co-chair Leo Jared Scheck was impressed with how it all started to come together. “It wasn’t until rehearsals had been going for a few weeks that we started to realize, hey, this is actually turning out really well. So we decided to do a reading on May 1st, our original opening date.” Co-chair Jon Toussaint added, “And even then, it was only the week of the show where we began to open the online reading to people who weren’t on the team.”

So there it was. This completely original musical would be produced on Zoom. But how? Co-chair Olivia Worley remembers the initial challenges. “Obviously, there are a lot of aspects of a live performance that are really hard to translate to a virtual platform, so a big part of our process was figuring out how to create collaborative relationships when we can’t all be in the same room together.” Paramount to that is, how do you sing together over Zoom? Latency issues make it impossible for more than one person to sing together at once. Enter Team Music. 

“Our Team Music community is a cult of freaks of nature, and they have always thought outside of the box. So I never had a doubt in my mind that they’d be able to make it work,” said Smith. As songs neared completion, the music team—made up of music directors, arrangers, orchestrators, and copyists—would lay down a track in a program called Logic. They would then send that track to the various performers so that they could learn the song. Rehearsals would take place over Zoom alongside rehearsals with director/choreographer Amanda Tanguay. Once everything was learned, students would record their sung vocals—often on their phone—and then send them back to Team Music so that they could mix them into a final track. Now that the show was tracked, there was the question of how to come close to recreating the theatrical devices of theatre—and how to make it all as live as possible. 

On the evening of Friday, May 1, around 400 people across the world gathered on a Zoom webinar to watch the live debut of The 89th Annual Waa-Mu Show, State of the Art. By reconfiguring the default settings of the software, the entire cast and crew made it so that when they turned on their video they would appear on screen, effectively making an entrance. By muting their video, their box would disappear and they would make an exit (instead of leaving a box with their name or a picture on it). Scenes with two people could grow to have three, four, or more with just the click of a button, and Zoom would reconfigure the boxes automatically. Backgrounds were used to suggest settings, and character names appeared below every performer. 

When the time came for musical solos, the performers would activate a track in their own space and sing along live. And when group numbers arrived, a stage manager would play the pre-recorded group audio while the cast muted their own audio and sang along to the track. Over the next two hours, a fluid, entertaining, and moving live experience featuring actors all around the country was performed for an audience as far-flung as the Netherlands. 

The sets that never got seen – Designs by Scott Penner

Songs were born. Characters sprung to life. And a new story made its theatrical debut. What began last year as a dream had without warning become a seeming impossibility—but was now emerging as a full-fledged reality. And as students’ faces took to this new stage, one after the other, it was hard not to be moved by their ingenuity, artistry, and optimism. An ensemble number made up of a grid of thirty undergrads singing their hearts out to a track written by one team and assembled by another has its own theatrical power—and is touching by the very fact of its own existence. These students were handed a uniquely challenging situation and found a way to create something truly of themselves all the same. 

Writing coordinator Michael-Ellen Walden recounted the experience of watching it all come together. “An unexpected delight during the final performance was realizing that, although I couldn’t hear or see the audience, I could view the names of each of the 400-plus viewers. Scrolling through the names of Waa-Mu alumni and classmates, the parents of those who had worked on the show, and professors reminded me of not only how many people have been touched by State of the Art, but The Waa-Mu Show in years past. I hope we made everyone who has been a part of Waa-Mu proud of us continuing the tradition against the odds.” 

And although director Amanda Tanguay was thrilled with the final performance, she celebrates something bigger. “We banded together, supported the creation of new art, but also supported each other during a difficult period of time. Ultimately, it is very clear to me that the final performance is not the only thing that makes Waa-Mu special. It is the people involved.”

All musical theatre fans are right to hope that the future of their beloved art form is not relegated to the confines of Zoom webinars. It’s an imperfect simulacrum of the real thing. However, it is hard to not be inspired by a group of students who refused to let their show be interrupted by a worldwide pandemic and instead joined together to create new ways of storytelling. And if that’s not the future of musical theatre, I don’t know what is. I can’t wait to see where they lead us.  

Ryan Cunningham is a Jonathan Larson Award winner and a Drama Desk and Mac Award-nominated lyricist, bookwriter, and playwright. His Off-Broadway musical written with Joshua Salzman, I Love You Because, has played both nationally and internationally in five different languages. Also with Salzman, he has written the musicals Next Thing You Know, The Legend of New York, and Michael Collins. He is a Creative Director at the Broadway advertising agency AKA and teaches at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons. 

Categories
Video

The Empty Epicenter

I put on my two masks, some old winter gloves, grabbed my little camera and jumped on my bike from Brooklyn and I braved the rainy social distance ride to Midtown to capture some broll for a project coming up.

I arrived about 1:45pm – normally, a Saturday matinee day in NYC is one of the busiest times and places in the country. The hustle and bustle of a normal Saturday is electric. It was isolated, lonely…it felt safe and quiet. The only sounds were the hum of the busses and the occasional ambulance. I could hear some birds chirp. Birds chirping in Times Square?! I felt brightness, waiting to shine.

Enjoy this short I made and see a bit of what I saw. It was surreal to say the least. I used Cyndi Lauper’s version of Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business” because it perfectly captures the resilience of our industry.

The second act opening number is always the best part anyway!

Categories
pre-publish

Directing via Zoom

“The fabulous invalid” has been in traction for most of 2020–laid low but, miraculously, not out by the coronavirus. Somehow in these pandemic times, theater has a way of seeping through and finding an audience, no matter where it’s sheltering. Broadway’s Best Shows has been providing one substantial way with the “Spotlight on Plays” series of livestream readings it offers to benefit The Actors Fund.

The series’ first season concluded with a Zoom presentation of Barbecue, a rambunctious social satire which premiered five years ago at The Public Theater. Robert O’Hara, currently Tony-contending for his direction of Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, wears two hats for this opus—director and playwright, lording over a cast of ten, the third largest cast in the series.  

“We got some great actors and just let them go,” O’Hara declares with some delight. “Jeffrey Richards, the producer, cast most of it, and then I made a few calls to some of the people I knew. Everyone we asked said, ‘Absolutely!’” You couldn’t get some of these people if it were normal times because they’d be working. These are all professionals, and they have genuine comedic skills. You don’t have to worry about them landing the joke. Having these amazing actors read the play was great for me.”

Emmy winners S. Epatha Merkerson and Laurie Metcalf head the cast, along with Carrie Coon, Colman Domingo (who directed the L.A. version of Barbecue), Kristine Nielsen, David Morse, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Annie McNamara, and, from the original Off-Broadway cast, Tamberla Perry and Heather Simms

Barbecue

 “When we all got together on Zoom, I let them ask questions, and we discussed it,” O’Hara recalls. “They’d already read the piece, and they had their thoughts, so we read it a few times to see if there were any questions. These days, actors don’t have to all get together in the same room. And it doesn’t take that much time to do. It’s a charity reading.  If it were a production, it would be much more involved.”

Barbecue is a comedy full of surprises and sharp right turns, and critics in 2015 bent over backwards keeping its secrets. “We begged them,” admits the author, “because that’s part of the fun. You keep wondering, ‘What’s going on here?’ It’s always fun with plays when you can hold on to a secret. Very few things are secret anymore.”

The entire original Broadway cast of seven in Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other reunited to do their Zoom reunion. Time Stands Still also reunited its original company of actors. 

The cast of characters consists of a lonely, conflicted gay (Gideon Glick), his granny (Barbara Barrie), his girl (space) friends (Lindsay Mendez, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Sas Goldberg), their spouses (Luke Smith)—plus Mr. Right (Smith, doubling) and Mr. Wrong (John Behlmann). The play put in time Off-Broadway at the Laura Pels before bowing on Broadway on Valentine’s Day of 2017 (“Singles Awareness Day,” it insisted). 

“I felt especially grateful that we got the original cast back together again because of Barbara Barrie,” beams Trip Cullman, who directed both stage versions and the Zooming. “She was magnificent on stage, but she’s such an accomplished film actress her performance on Zoom is like, honestly, Academy Award-worthy.” He does not exaggerate. Actors Equity Association presented its Richard Seff Award to the 89-year-old actress.

Of late, Cullman has been exploring a different medium than the stage, co-directing with his brother a short film called The Soldier, which they are now in the process of submitting to festivals. 

Thinking cinematically was how he approached Zooming Significant Other. “It was sort of a discovery process,” he says. “Because it was recorded and we edited it afterwards, I really felt I could make some adjacent kind of choices in terms of pacing and the way the characters related to each other. The ability to use filmic techniques like cuts was super-helpful in getting across the kind of compulsive forward momentum of the play.

“I’ve done live Zoom things as well as recorded and edited Zoom things, and I’m much more a fan of the latter. One of our actors, for instance, had terrible internet connections. We had to completely re-tape her audio in post-production to fix it because she was unintelligible. If we had been doing it live, that would be how it would go out to people—and no one wants that.”

Phylicia Rashad, who collected her Tony for the 2004 revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, turned director for the series and addressed David Mamet’s gripping drama, Race.

Basically, the play is a taut court-roomer that takes place far from a courtroom—in the office of three criminal lawyers (Ed O’Neill, David Alan Grier and Alicia Stith). There is a fourth character–their client (Richard Thomas), a wealthy businessman accused of a racially charged sex crime—and the drama, sharp-tongued and smart like most Mamet, lies in the interplay of the three attorneys over a red sequin dress as they prepare their defense.

Direction is new to Rashad’s skill set. She enjoys dabbling in both disciplines, but “Zoom-directing is different from anything I’ve ever done. If I was just doing a reading of a play, I would have had more time. With the Zoom factor, it’s all very quick. Zoom means fast, right? We were not allotted much time with this. Fortunately, we had a very good cast.”

Grier, a current Tony nominee (for A Soldier’s Story), and Thomas have a head-start on the play, hailing from the original Broadway company. O’Neill was already cast when Rashad came aboard, but she personally assigned Stith the role Kerry Washington originated. “Alicia’s a new face, coming out of the NYU graduate program. I’m very pleased with what she brings to the play.

“The significance of these Zoom presentations is that they can be enjoyed specifically for their literary value. You don’t have staging, you don’t have wardrobe. What you have is the text, and you have the actor. That’s all you have. You don’t have a live theater space. The actors are not even in the same room. Ed was over in Hawaii somewhere, David was in Los Angeles, Alicia was in Baltimore, and Richard Thomas was in Canada. Everybody is on their own computer. It’s an interesting way to work, I’ll put it that way.”

Jerry Zaks, who has won four Tonys and been nominated for four more, has a special way of approaching a play if he is directing it for Zoom: “Reluctantly,” he laughs, and there’s a discernible ring of reality in that laugh. “It’s so lacking in what makes rehearsal special, which is the in-person contact. Directing in person—that’s obviously gone for the duration, but there’s no denying that it’s fun to work.

Luckily, he picked the perfect play for these pandemic times: Love Letters, A.R. Gurney’s deceptively simple epistolary two-hander of 1988. It was written to be read to audiences by actors sitting at their respective desks, reviewing the correspondence of a pair of lovers who go through life never connecting. With rotating star-couples, it racked up impressive runs Off-Broadway and on and was last seen on Broadway in 2014 with Mia Farrow and the late Brian Dennehy.

Luckily again, Zaks got an ace pair of award-winners to do the honors—Tony and Emmy-winning Bryan Cranston and twice-Oscared Sally Field. “They worked so hard, and the three of us got along so well. Is it better than not doing something? Yes. It’s better than the alternative, which is nothing at this moment in time. Look, I’m grateful that I had a chance to work with these great actors.”

As with these other Zoom shows, a table read is a quaint thing of the past. “I’m on my iPad. The actors are on their computers, and we’re talking to each other via Zoom. You can only spend so much time working on Zoom. You get tired looking at the screen. The nature of rehearsals is different. You don’t have as many rehearsals. With Love Letters, it was really important that the actors become as familiar with their words as possible. Ordinarily where I might stop and start and stop and start when I’m in rehearsal, I really didn’t want to take a chance on the actors not getting a chance to rehearse the whole piece so I had to be very careful about when I interrupted them.”

Among the plays that will be shown in the spring season of the “Spotlight on Plays” series are Adrienne Kennedy’s The Ohio State Murders, Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, Sarah Rhul’s Dear Elizabeth and Pearl Cleage’s Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous.

All proceeds for these events will benefit The Actors Fund, to aid during this time of unprecedented need.


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.