The American Legacy
220 East Fourth Street ~ New York, New York 10009
Office: 212 995 8410 ~ Tickets: 212 995 5302
"One of my favorite downtown theaters" ~ Martin Denton, nytheatre.com
East Village Chronicles, Vol. 1
Anthony Pennino & Martin Denton
East Village Chronicles
January 10, 2004
MD: East Village Chronicles is part of a larger project, with the umbrella title East Side Story, that is being presented this month by The Metropolitan Playhouse. For this project, The Metropolitan Playhouse has received a series of grants. Could you give us a bit of background on how this came about and what its goal is; also how did you become involved in the project?
AP: Well, “Alphabet City” (the oral history/monologue section of the project) is something that has been planned for a long time. We received funding from Nancy Quinn Fund of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York for this aspect of the project, first. For both the monologues and East Village Chronicles (the drama portion of the project), we applied for and received further generous support from two grants, which are both administered by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council: The Decentralization Program of the New York State Council on the Arts and The Manhattan Community Arts Fund/New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Our main goal is to provide a theatrical event about and for our neighbors in the Lower East Side. The Lower East Side has a rich and diverse culture and history, and it is something that should be and needs to be celebrated. As for my involvement, well, I have been involved with the Metropolitan Playhouse for a while developing new works for the theatre. And my involvement here is an outgrowth of that. The idea of “theatre is local” is something near and dear to my heart, and I wanted to do a festival about the Lower East Side.
MD: Nine playwrights were commissioned to write a one act about a specific time in the East Side. How were the playwrights chosen and what was the process in which each received his/her specific assignment?
AP: I have worked with one playwright, Craig Pospisil, for a long time. We have been involved in a number of different workshops together and collaborated together on Washington Square Dreams back when Gorilla Rep was still around. He’s a terrific writer, and I can’t imagine not bringing him on board for something like this. Two other playwrights – Renee Flemings and Erica Silberman – I knew from The A-Train Plays at The Neighborhood Playhouse; I enjoy their work and thought they might come up with something very cool and innovative for this project. I also know Mary Baldridge from The Neighborhood Playhouse and thought her style and her great dramaturgical sense were a good fit with the festival. Michael Bettencourt has a long-standing relationship with the theatre, while Staci Swedeen has worked for years with Metropolitan resident director Yvonne Conybeare. As for Trav S.D. and Michael D. Jackson – I have followed their work – near and far – through nytheatre.com, and I thought that they might complement the other writers well. In a project like this, you want a mix of people you know and trust as well as “fresh blood” to keep you on your toes.
MD: Now tell us a bit about your own plays -- when are they set and what are they about?
AP: I have written two. As you know, we are running in rep between the plays of the 19th century and the plays of the 20th. Each of my pieces ends their respective centuries. My first one is about the sinking of the Slocum. My second one is about September 11. Not the happiest of subjects, I suppose. But it is interesting in the history of New York and the Lower East Side that at the turn-of-the-century points there were these two disasters. Many people don’t know about the Slocum any more, but it was this terrible shipping accident in the East River where over 1,000 people – mostly children on their way to a picnic – drowned. One of the characters from the Slocum play appears as a ghost to a victim of 9/11 and basically imparts the message, “This too shall pass.”
MD: Besides the setting, is there any commonality to be found among all the plays or were the specific themes left to each author?
AP: No. In that regard, the authors were all encouraged to be as creative as possible within their respective periods. You want Trav S.D. to be Trav S.D., and Renee Flemings to be Renee Flemings. The playwrights could write of non-fiction events, fictional ones, a mix thereof, or even rely on personal/familial history. And what a mix we have! Audiences will have a chance to meet P.T. Barnum, Washington Irving, Emma Goldman, and Margaret Sanger. They will get to see Lillian Wald go mano a mano with the Devil. They will be there for the Draft Riots and in the drawing rooms of John J. Astor.
MD: Have the playwrights worked together in any way to critique or suggest ideas so as to make a cohesive evening or will it be a surprise to each once it goes up?
AP: I think it will be a bit of a surprise for them. Many roles are double-cast, so they know in a vague way, I think, through their actors what is going on in the plays around them. And there was some horse-trading as to who would get what era. It is sometimes a hard thing to judge because we do want to create a cohesive evening and yet, at the same time, we want the playwrights to be true to themselves.
MD: In conjunction with these plays, Metropolitan Playhouse is mounting evenings of monologues recounting actual interviews. Were you involved in this process also or is this a separate thing and how do you feel these monologues fit into the entire program?
AP: I am pretty much focused on the plays. As an audience member, I love oral history – the act of bringing someone’s words and experiences on stage; I am a great fan of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight series. But my expertise is working with writers, and my place is working with them. I do think, however, the two projects juxtapose nicely together. The plays are about the Lower East Side’s past. The monologues are about the present and, to a degree, the future. They definitely belong together.
MD: Why do you personally believe this is an important project and will it have an afterlife somewhere once this production is over?
AP: Ah, you’ve touched a on a subject near and dear to my heart. I could ramble on for hours about it – and probably will! To put it bluntly, the theatre, especially Broadway and commercial theatre, is lost. There are many reasons why this is so, but one in particular for my purposes here: a lot of New York theatre has forgotten its roots. Sure back in the Golden Age of Broadway, producers always had their eye on the out-of-town/tourist trade. But in order to get to that stage, they had to play to New York City residents. The local market. A show, even a Broadway show, had to be for the local community, if only at first. But it seems that we have all been forgotten in favor of attracting ticket-buyers in the Midwest or Japan or Europe. Why are so many shows dance shows or spectacles (like De La Guarda) or revues or anything without a specific setting, complicated plot, and meaningful dialogue? Because you don’t need to speak English to see them. They are for tourists. Our theatre is being taken away from us. Don’t get me wrong. I think tourists are very important to the theatre business, but so are people living in the Greater New York Metropolitan area. For me, what is important about this project is that we are making theatre local again. The Metropolitan Playhouse is located in the Lower East Side. Much of what the different plays touch on – class issues, racism, immigration, ethics, mortality, etc. – will have resonance with people from across the country. But they will have a particularly special meaning for the residents of our neighborhood. Theatre is by definition local. Unlike a movie, only one group can see a particular production of a particular play at a given time. Someone in Sydney and someone in Dublin can see the same film a week apart and still have basically the same experience. This project is important because it is designed for the Lower East Side Community and the New York City community. We are giving them a show that is about what is specific and unique about them. And that is what theatre does best (not the crashing chandelier or the landing helicopter). As for an afterlife for these plays, I hope there is one. I am personally very proud of this project as both a writer and as one of the organizers. I love working with this group of artists we have assembled. But as for anything specific, I’m not aware of anything at this time.