June 2018 - Let Us Entertain You: A Q&A with Mark
From some of our readers who may not know of you and your talented works, tell us a little bit about your history, influences and when theatre became a passion for you?
I was born in Mt. Carmel, IL, the closest hospital to Grayville, where my father, just out of medical school, was the only doctor. We were also the only Jews in Grayville, a town of seven thousand at that time because of the oil boom in Southern Illinois. I never remember feeling there was any bias against us; quite the opposite, I felt my father and mother were revered, and therefore my brother Bud and I were assumed to be good little boys. We moved to Louisville when I was seven so my dad could finish his residency, then to Miami Beach, FL, where I finished elementary school, went to junior and senior high. Undergrad at University of Miami; worked in Washington, DC, for two years, was hit head-on by a young man making deliveries for a liquor store. Hospitals in Washington and then home to Miami Beach. Decided to give the real world a rest. Graduate school in English and Creative Writing at Stanford. Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Gallaudet in 1982.
November 9, 1986, The New York Times Magazine published “IN PRAISE OF TEACHERS,” a very personal article about my teachers and their influences. You can get the article on The Times site via Google.
I fell into the theater by accident. In the hallway of the English Department at New Mexico State University, my first-semester teaching, one of my colleague, a founder of the Las Cruces Community Theater, said, “Why don’t you write a play and we’ll put it on.” So I did and they did and I had found the road beckoning to be taken.
What was your inspiration for writing Children of a Lesser God? You wrote the role for the late actress, Phyllis Frelich, how did she inspire you? What were your goals for the play at the time you were writing it?
The actor Phyllis Frelich and her husband, Scenic and Lighting Designer and actor Bob Steinberg, parents, teachers, and the most extraordinary friends changed my life. Without their generosity of spirit, there would be no Children of a Lesser God. Our families pretty much lived together for a year while I drafted (and rewrote each draft) and we did a workshop of the hominid of the play.
Phyllis was simply an inspirational human being, as well as one of the most well-adjusted and consistent. In our work, she was utterly fearless; never reckless. What she did, in sum, is help me find the first decent female character in me; she was aided and abetted by my wife Stephanie and our three daughters, Debra, Rachel, and Jessica.
I set out to write a love story about a hearing man a deaf woman. Phyllis and her husband Bob Steinberg became the closest of friends. I watched them, I asked questions, and, like any other piece of my writing, I made stuff up. Phyllis said later when I had infused the play with a political point of view, that she was me and Sarah was bit of both of us and a lot of someone we met coming off the page. The Medoffs and Frelich-Steinbergs spent a lot of time together, as I wrote four other plays for Phyllis and produced her one-woman show, Lolly Foster’s Daredevil Airshow. Bob and my wife Stephanie are my most trusted critics. Bob and I continue to work together on everything I write for the stage. Their son Rueben was my cinematographer on the movie Refuge, starring Linda Hamilton, Chris Payne Gilbert, Lena Georgas, and Chris McDonald. Phyllis had a role in Children on Their Birthdays, the first movie I directed, which also featured Chris McDonald, Sheryl Lee, Tom Arnold, Tania Raymonde, Joe Pichler, and a thirteen-year-old Jesse Plemons.
Would you be willing to share some insight into your process as a playwright?
My mentor at the UM, Fred Shaw, told me, among other things, that writing was rewriting. I am an avid rewriter. I do myriad drafts of every play. For a year or so, I keep to myself; then I invite people to read to me and tell me their thoughts. Repeat all of the above. A year or two into that process, I look for a theater to workshop the play. I often have a director; often I am my own director. Bob told me early on I could be my own director because I was “ruthless with the playwright.” In either case, I am very open to listening and responding, sometimes immediately in rehearsal, often at home or in whatever Show Biz hotel I’m in, by myself very early in the morning.
Did the play have many revisions before the original Broadway production in 1980? Are you making any revisions for this revival? If so, what prompted them?
We workshopped the play at New Mexico State University with Phyllis and Bob playing Sarah Norman and James Leeds. I rewrote maniacally. I had twelve characters. Gordon Davidson, one of the archangels of the living playwright, had a slot suddenly open up at the Mark Taper. I went to see Gordon. He had thoughts. By the time I reached the airport from his office to go home, I’d cut five characters in order to address his major note: Make the female Sarah equal to the male James. I was ready for that challenge, as I felt I’d been radically feminized by one wife and three daughters. During rehearsals in LA, I had a tiny office—might have been a closet with a fancy name: “Stage Manager”—and I went from my cubby hole to the rehearsal room, back and forth. The rehearsal room had about an even number of hearing and deaf/hard of hearing people. Among the deaf/hard of hearing were three actors, several interpreters, and a couple of bright people there to respond to what we were doing and available to me for questions. I didn’t quit rewriting until the play was ripped away from me the day before we opened in NYC.
Do you relate personally to any one of the characters in Children of a Lesser God? If so, which one and why?
I’m inherently all of them entirely. One of the joys of writing is being the worst and best people roaming my psyche, extrapolated from life and hurled around my unconscious until they revolt and demand to get out. I believe in what Sartre called “Object Making”: I need you to be what I need you to be to make me comfortable and unaggressive; you need the same. In this play, I admire James’ struggle to promote the freedom to choose oneself in opposition to the opinions of others. The “lesser god” of the title is the very propensity to try to make others over in our image of what they should be for our comfort and pleasure. Politically, I’m Sarah Norman. I so admire her strength to change her mind, to allow herself to be in a perpetual state of change. Once unleashed, her power transcended the page as well as the stage and seemed to have at least some measurable effect on both the deaf and the hearing.
I should note that I didn’t set out to change the world; I set out to write a love story. The stories of we lesser gods is, from my perspective, a battle to remake the Other and a willingness to lose or adjust the rules of engagement en route through a never-ending process of being and becoming.
As a young writer, my teens and early twenties, I did think I could change the world with everything I wrote—or should be able to. My mother said to me once that if I changed the mind of one person through my entire writing life, I should consider that a great accomplishment. I was deeply offended. As with many things, I learned continually that both my parents were a lot smarter than I was in my teens and early twenties.
So, the fact that Children had some effect on our cultural was shocking. Nice, but stunning.
Can you describe what you look for in a director? How do you and Kenny Leon collaborate? What questions did you ask each other?
I am looking for someone who is no less than a soulmate, who with me will be a co-head of a family. I’m looking for a generosity and confidence that gives credence to the value of every voice in the room. I don’t sit in the back of the rehearsal room and stay quiet when I have something to say. I need a director with enough confidence to welcome that collaboration rather than shun it. If I’m standing next to my director, it’s not because I have a compulsion to straighten out his interpretation of my work; it means I am available as needed to ask and answer questions—or if I can’t answer them this minute, I’ll go somewhere and start typing. I need a director and a cast who can keep up with my obsession with rewriting and tweaking and futzing and fixing (knowing from the very beginning to opening that I’ll never think I’ve created a “perfect” anything).
When Kenny and I first met, my thought was to update the play a little. Kenny and I talked ourselves around in a nice, big circle for five days. We realized the moment I put a cellphone into the play, it would have to be updated a lot. Kenny’s final point of view was the play was the play it was because it was the play it is. But for three small changes to clarify a couple of things for a contemporary audience, there were no additions. There were two small cuts.
When we talked about casting, Kenny said, “Let’s make the cast look like America.” I loved that.
How does the play feel or play differently in 2018 than it did in 1980? What has changed in the world?
When I arrived for a few days of rehearsal with the company at the Berkshire Theater Festival last summer (2017), Kenny had the family do a run-through for me. The middle of the second act, I was struck by this thought: “This is a good play. I like it.” That was an incredible relief.
Producer Hal Luftig has been on a mission for four years to get Children back on Broadway. I am immensely grateful for his drive, ambition, and his belief in my work. He could treat me less politely if it would save him time and energy.
Since my twenties, I’ve been way left of center politically. The conjunction of the Religious Right, the self-destruction of the very decent Jimmy Carter, and the move from “Death Valley Days” to the California State House and then the White House by Ronald Reagan fueled much of the anger in the play. At that time, the deaf were not on my radar specifically, but I was motivated out of the leftist fervor of The Sixties to fight for the rights of the disenfranchised and “other.” Then I met Phyllis at her home in Rhode Island. She was currently on leave from the National Theater of the Deaf (a founding member) and raising two young boys. Within twenty minutes of meeting her, I was fervent to learn American Sign Language and I told her I wanted to write her a play.
What has changed in the world to reinvigorate your interest in this play?
Perhaps the most onerous and odious occurrence in my lifetime. There rose from the cesspool of Epic Narcissism a true—not fake news--abomination of a human being. An ineffable yet fully comprehensible portion of the populace, massively and mordantly uncomfortable with the rest of us, especially those of hues not-white and other than “Christian,” helped elect an active sexual predator, a compulsive pathological liar, dim-witted, barely literate anti-intellectual, Donald Trump, President of the United States.
The point at which I got febrile about my play again, its revival, was the day The Abomination mocked—heedlessly, in front of the world—mocked a reporter, not representing his grade school newspaper, but with the The New York Times--mocked this man’s developmental disability, making gestures that are semiotics all over the world for “retarded.”
In our family, we have a Trisomy 18 little girl, Hope Elizabeth Harrison. She is severely developmentally delayed, wasn’t supposed to survive the womb, birth, the first minute, hour, day. She is a remarkable gift. She will turn 4 years old on April 11, the day the play opens in NYC and the day after Phyllis Frelich died four years ago.
Bob and I talk a couple of times a week and still work together whenever we can. We are both 77. At this age, I am reminded at least once a day of a line at the end of Sartre’s No Exit. "One always dies too soon--or too late. And yet one's whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are--your life, and nothing else.”