Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth’s new play, Andy and the Shadows, isn’t entirely autobiographical. But when you’ve been working on a script for twenty-six years, it’s probably inevitable that chapter after chapter of your own life will change and inform the personal story you’re telling in some extraordinary ways.
Theater J’s Locally Grown initiative, founded last season, offers numerous opportunities to playwrights of new works, and Roth hopes to underline the organization’s commitment to new play development with this mainstage production as well. Directed by Daniella Topol, the show began performances on April 3rd and runs through May 5. It’s the product of weeks of script work this spring, and many a soul-searching moment for Roth, who began writing Andy and the Shadows when he was 25 years old.
“I had a wonderful directing teacher who once said, ‘Work on shows in which you don’t feel the walls,’” Topol said, who has made a career out of directing only new plays. “In other words, do a show because you don’t understand it wholesale. This show falls into that category. It’s fantastical and realistic, comedic and dramatic. It asks big questions about how we come to understand what our parents have lived through, and how we carry that with us… how it shapes our choices and politics. It feels very universal, this way that families have of burying some of their secrets.”
Roth took a break from rehearsals a few weeka ago, to speak with DC Theatre Scene by phone about years of writing, weeks of workshopping, and the tricky art of looking critically at one’s own work.
Hunter Styles: You started writing Andy and the Shadows in the mid-80s. The show has had different names over time, and you’ve done multiple workshops. Why is it time now to produce this play?
Ari Roth: The play really became relevant to me again in 2008, when a book came out called “The Fate of Holocaust Memories.” It’s by Dr. Chaya Roth, my mother. In 2009, while the book was being distributed, we were holding family panels at child psychiatric conventions and at Holocaust conferences. Family members would present short papers. For my part, I would read a scene or two from this play, which I had been writing for a long time.
In 2010, when my mother came to the DCJCC, Shirley [Serotsky, Theater J’s Associate Artistic Director] and Delia [Taylor, Theater J’s Associate Producer] and I did a 20-minute reading from the play. Delia and Shirley were struck by the play, and by what it revealed about my writing and about my family.
I was working on two other plays at the time: Born Guilty and The Wolf In Peter, which became two parts of what I call the Born Guilty cycle. We decided that Andy and the Shadows belonged in that cycle as a third play, and we spent six weeks working on it in 2011. So it’s been coming for a while.
The other element of this, believe it or not, has to do with Arthur Miller. During this work on Andy and the Shadows in 2011, Theater J was producing After The Fall, which is often described as a play that stems from Miller’s own psychoanalysis. There’s an associative structure to that play, which I think comes from how swiftly the past and present collide from scene to scene. I myself have spent a very therapeutic number of years with a wonderful psychoanalyst here in Washington, and so I was encouraged by the idea that the play I was working on was a right and relevant way of looking at my life, and at this theme of the enduring trauma that survivors and child refugees of the Holocaust carry with them.
That’s something most clearly done as an adult, I’d imagine.
Yes. Finding a way of writing about my parents, and investigating my own life, meant going back to this play with a more adult perspective.
How has it been to work with director Daniella Topol on this project?
Daniella is the best new play director I’ve worked with. She directed Photograph 51 with us in 2011. She’s a very smart, good, fast reader. She’s efficient and confident in her directing. And she brings a level of enthusiasm, insight, and rigor to the play. She knows how to go after the most important aspects of character relationships and hone in on questions of clarity and strength. It’s been pleasure to be able to have her here.
Have you been in rehearsal much?
I’ve actually been in rehearsal almost every day, and there have been changes to the script almost every day. Daniella wanted me there. She didn’t want the play to become frozen in place too soon, and she encouraged the actors not to want to have their text set right away. She has always wanted to keep working toward clarity.
It has been a new experience for us at Theater J. We’ve done 38 world premieres, but having the playwright in the room the entire time is new. At first, I think we were expecting that I would be out of rehearsals weeks ago. But it’s been a wonderful luxury for a playwright to feel the play is being thoroughly investigated, that it’s everything you wanted it to be and that you didn’t run out of time. We feel really good and confident.
What kinds of changes and edits have you been looking to make during this time?
I was rewriting for action a lot, to make sure that we were all working towards the same goal on a scene in the moment. That’s about clarifying what the characters want and are working toward.
The structure has changed in some important ways as well. When I was writing the play as a younger man, the heart of it was this 25-year-old who couldn’t get married until he had found his duendé, until he had achieved a sort of tragic, ecstatic soulfulness that would give him an experience akin to his parents. In other words, back then the play was about a young man’s search for identity.
Now the play is about a 50-year-old man looking back at the weekend his engagement party fell apart, at when he broke off from his fiancee got broken off, and when he was involved in the filming of a sort of fiasco film project. He ends up in prison, then with his father in the hospital, and ultimately he comes to a healing catharsis and a way back to the wedding. But that’s all framed by the present, with his parents now octogenarians. So the memories of the past are bracketed by anxiety in the present.
You have written that “family history is inflected with fabulation.” What do you mean by that, in relation to this play?
For me I think that idea is mainly influenced by two movies: Fannie and Alexander and Annie Hall. Plus, as I mentioned, a bit of Arthur Miller and After The Fall. The idea for me is about how to find, and tell, an authentic history when you’re a child refugee, a Holocaust survivor. These are my parents’ stories. In the play, I try to get the details of these sagas to adhere as closely to my parents’ stories as I can.
But the children’s struggles are also important to me. In one scene, a mother shares her stories with her 10-year-old son. And the son imagines these stories: his mother hiding in the Alps in Italy, coming to Rome, seeking shelter in an Italian convent, becoming a favorite of the mother superior… and the young boy, the son, imagines his mother as a child herself, with angel wings, who recounts these miraculous escapes. The fabulation is that a boy can see a vision of his mother as a child, in angel wings, visiting him with stories, and that these stories comprise many of the facts he needs to know his mother.
Memory, then, as it lives between generations, is an important theme.
Yes, the play explores the different stages of remembering, and telling your memories. We get this portrait of a mother when she’s 30, sharing her stories with her small children. Then we see that mother at again at 40, at 50… and at each stage she is a different teller of her own tale, leaving out some things and admitting to different elements of others.
Sounds a bit like the process you went through yourself, writing Andy and the Shadows over the long term.
I started by writing what I knew as a 25-year-old writer, so there were many sections that do hold up still because that writing is truthful. And there are other sections that went away, because they weren’t truthful enough. It’s nice to try and protect a part of that younger artist I was, because part of my job is to preserve authentic voice and authentic memory. And the other part of my job, now, is to insist on the maturity of the piece.
To ensure that this play had enough richness and depth and color, there had to be a lot of throwing things out and experimenting with giving new voice to certain characters. Each of these characters has a lot of new things that they’re saying, and so we also had to get rid of a lot that the play could no longer hold. Sometimes that involved going back to previous drafts and pulling from them.
Shirley and Delia and I have observed that our process with Andy and the Shadows could actually become a hallmark of the Locally Grown process. Sometimes the writer of a new play leaves after three days in rehearsal, but this play wouldn’t have worked like that, not with all the work and development that went into this one. Three days would have been laughably inadequate for this process. So I am thinking we can do this longer development with other local playwrights. It creates a sense of company and a seamlessness in finding the ultimate objective of putting on a new show, where writing meets staging meets acting.
Closes May 5, 2013
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $45 – $60
Tuesdays thru Sundays
We have a wonderful cast of actors. And it’s not to be overlooked that some of these actors are people we’ve had a chance to collaborate with for over a decade. Jennifer Mendenhall, for example, was a major creator, as an actor, of the work on the Born Guilty cycle we did with John Vreeke back in 2002, so to be writing for her again is amazing. We also have Veronica del Cerro, Alexander Strain, and Stephen Patrick Martin, which makes for a reunion of three of the actors from The Seagull on 16th Street [produced at Theater J in 2009]. For Alexander, who plays Andy, this is his tenth collaboration with Theater J since 2007, which is pretty extraordinary. He’s had a number of major roles with us, and it’s been a very happy collaboration.
Is there a specific audience, or type of audience, that you hope sees this play?
We’re looking for a wide audience! Honestly, this play needed to prove itself as a comedy to my staff and to the circles here… We focus so much on it being a story of second-generation survivors that for a while the play got cloaked as a “Holocaust play.” And that’s understandable. But it plays like a coming-of-age comedy now, and it’s got a lot of theatrical life and imagination to it, with some dream-like elements to it as well.
So if you like the ambition of some of the really exciting plays that have come out about family and history, like those from Tony Kushner, we’re going to be walking in some of those prodigious footsteps. I started writing this play well before anyone had heard of Kushner, but in many ways this is a cousin to his work. We’re going to have fun with it.