Apr 6, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 139: Amy Herzog
Hometown: Highland Park, NJ
Current Town: Park Slope
Q: Tell me about the play reading you have coming up at Soho Rep.
A: The play is called 4000 Miles. It’s about a young man who stays with his grandmother in Greenwich Village for a few weeks following a crisis. She’s an old communist, he’s a belated hippie, and they’re both dealing with grief and figuring out how to be roommates. It’s my second play about this character Vera, an old New York lefty based on my grandmother, Leepee. Leepee is funny, dry, sassy, and devastating at ninety-three. I try to do her justice. My director is Pirronne Yousefzadeh, and we’re on our way to a wonderful cast.
Q: What else are you up to?
A: The other Vera play, After the Revolution, is going up this summer at Williamstown and next fall at Playwrights Horizons. The play is about three generations of leftists, inspired by my dad’s side of the family. It takes place in 1999, which was a time that for various reasons the American Left was being asked to do some self-examination, and it was a really tough time for my family. My grandfather had recently died after a long illness and some questions were popping up – quite publicly – about his past. I didn’t fully understand what was happening at the time, but I was aware of this pervasive sadness and disappointment that was partly about disagreements within the family but also about what had happened to the Left since my grandparents were young and sure that the revolution was on its way.
Carolyn Cantor is directing both productions.
In other news, I’m performing my solo show, Love Song in Two Voices, at the Emerging America Festival at the Huntington in May. Portia Krieger is directing and teaching me how to act. That one’s about my mom. Because fair is fair.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Oh dear. I can tell just by reading that question that I will write something I regret is on the internet in ten years…
Well, what the hell, this was third grade and my class was doing a zoology unit. Our assistant teacher, Mr. Hogan, announced that we would create a play in which every student would play a different animal. But get this: there would be one human. A young woman decides to become a zoologist and the plot is born. Those of us with acting aspirations auditioned for Mrs. Lefelt, the English department chair. The sides were from a dramatic adaptation of Rumpelstilstkin, and as I remember it was a very emotional scene. We were whittled down to two – it was me versus Alexis for the lead. Alexis would later be Lucy to my Sally, Ms. Hannigan to my Annie, the Witch to my Little Red. Oh, Alexis, where are you now? I am delaying the painful revelation that Mrs. Lefelt ultimately chose Alexis to play the human. I was to be one of twenty-five representatives of the animal kingdom. I would have to make a costume out of construction paper and tell Alexis about the salient features of my species. This would not do. I approached Mr. Hogan and offered to write the play, and because it meant he didn’t have to or because I was obviously going to be a pain in the ass about it he agreed. In my rendering of the story we had outlined as a class, there was one important addition: the protagonist had a sister –the sensible, buttoned-up foil to Alexis’s impractical dreamer. I remember one of my lines, which I wrote for myself all in caps: “THIS TIME YOU’VE REALLY GONE OFF THE DEEP END!!!” If anyone resented my flagrant hijacking of the collaborative process, no one said anything to my face.
That is the story of my first play.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I would just make it way way cheaper, that’s all.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Be patient. Be happy for your friends and colleagues. Avoid reading theater news; read novels instead.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: I’m so excited for Annie Baker’s new play at the Rattlestick. It’s called The Aliens and it’s really wonderful. www.rattlestick.org