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Interviews - East Village Chronicles, Vol. 2
nytheatre.com
East Village Chronicles, Volume II

Martin Denton and Gino DiíIorio, Renee Flemings, Anthony P. Pennino, Trav S.D., Saviana Stanescu

January 12, 2005


NYT.C: A bit of background on the group. What made each of you become involved? Did each play come with its own director or do you have a group of interested playwrights and a group of directors and you then worked to see the best matches?

Renee: This is my second time participating in the Chronicles, and I really felt good about my experience the last time and the challenge of the task.

Gino: I knew a couple of directors and playwrights who worked at Metropolitan and I knew of their work so it seemed like a cool thing.

Anthony: I had gone to Alex Roe (artistic director at Metropolitan Playhouse) after our ďWhatís Old is New FestivalĒ and discussed with him an idea for doing one-acts that celebrate our neighborhood Ė The Lower East Side. I think theatreís strength is that it is specific, local, and unique. And I thought the Metropolitan could really do something that celebrated the rich history, culture, and diversity that make up these few square blocks of Manhattan.

NYT.C: What are the benefits/drawbacks of having to write a play within a specific theme? How much research is actually involved? Since each of the participants obviously has a distinct style, how does this work pro or con when restrictions are put on the subject matter?

Trav S.D.: For me, because the play is "made to order", it involves more "perspiration" than "inspiration", and thus feels more about the craft than something that's burning inside of me that's got to be said. That said, both times I've done it, I've been pleased and surprised at the result. Despite the "artificial" impetus, the play turns out to be very much "me" anyway. Luckily, I am a big fan of the Metropolitan Playhouse's mission and historical theatre is already a favorite area of mine so no new research has been required.

Renee: In some ways it's a bit easier in that I can't go off on a tangent. Also, I love having the experience and a reason to do the research -- making new discoveries. I did various types of research, some reading, some checking in with my prior knowledge, a whole lot of google/yahoo and then conversations with people affiliated with the cemetery in my piece. A really lovely conversation.

Gino: It helps to focus you. Itís like having an assignment. Thereís a lot of research because you want to write something that does justice to the topic and the history of the neighborhood. Itís a short play (as they all are). Yet Iíve done 5 rewrites in a pretty short time.

Saviana: I really like to have to write a play with a specific theme, it makes me creative and focused at the same time.

Anthony: Since I often come up with the specific themes, they are generally subjects I am interested in. I often like the challenge of writing with a specific goal in mind. I find it actually helps focus the creative juices in the brain.

NYT.C: Each of you were given directions to write about a subculture. How did you go about doing this?

Trav S.D.: My brain went to the ones I knew best, the Irish and Jewish, mostly because of my vaudeville research. Not being Jewish myself, I was less comfortable taking that one on, so I went with the Irish.

Renee: I began with the cultures and topics that interested me and let that be my guide.

Gino: My original idea was to write on the Tompkins Square Park riots, but I didnít think I could do it justice in a short play format. I also wanted to make sure I was writing a play as opposed to a lecture on the topic. So I started writing something different and then Tony mentioned that no one was doing anything on Tompkins Square and I thought ďHey, he read my mindĒ. So I nixed the first play and began work on The Pigeon Tree, my original idea.

Saviana: I got immersed into the Ukrainian community through both internet research and live experience. I used to live on 6th Street, between Avenues A and B, and spent lots of time on 7th Street Ė the ďUkrainianĒ street, around Taras Sevchenko Square. I enjoyed the street fairs on Sundays and the folklore objects on display/sale as they reminded me of my home country, Romania, a neighbor of Ukraine. Romanians and Ukrainians have many mutual customs and a similar cuisine and life style. Moreover we share a Communist past under the influence of the Soviet Union. I loved to eat in the Ukrainian restaurants Veselka and Kiev and I would invite my friends there too to enjoy food similar to the traditional Romanian ones.

Anthony: My grandparents were immigrants to New York City, to the area. Many of my plays are about a larger political history. It was a nice change of pace to sit down and tackle some personal family history, to take those stories that I have always heard about --  how my grandparents met -- and weave them into a play. So much that is Italian in the performing arts these days also comes with the Mafia moniker. I was interested in telling a story about Italians that did not involve organized crime.

NYT.C: The plays are all about subcultures that lived and worked in the Lower East Side. Which is more important to each of you; the subculture or the actual location and why?

Trav S.D.: Don't know how to answer this one. Why would the location be of interest to a playwright? It has to be the people.

Renee: The last time it was about the people. This time it was an even distribution of importance: The location, the Marble Cemetery has always fascinated me. I was actually more interested in the relationships between the subcultures that attempted to co-exist historically, than a particular culture.

Gino: The subculture. Itís not a historical document. You can bend the truth or the facts a little bit, in my view, as long as youíre capturing the people and whatís at the heart of their story.

Saviana: When I got the opportunity to write a play about the Ukrainian community in the East Village I was very happy of course. It was a way of exploring my own heritage and the status/feelings/emotions of Eastern European immigrants in New York Ė a topic I am deeply concerned with. I am always interested in dramatizing that feeling of ďinbetweenessĒ, of not belonging anywhere, generally the negotiation between the old and the new culture that any new immigrant experiences.

Anthony: To a certain degree, geography is important in the development of communities. And people came from all over the world to live in this tiny section of the city. That interaction fascinates me. But what gets a playwright up in the morning are the people.

NYT.C: How ethnically related are this group of playwrights to these subcultures being depicted and do they feel it is important?

Trav S.D.: I have Irish blood in me, but am not culturally Irish...the main line in my family is English, Scottish and Scots-Irish and my American roots go back to the earliest colonial settlements in Massachusetts and Virginia (quite different from the Irish immigrant experience of late-19th century). But it was the only Lower East Side ethnic group I had any connection to at all!

Gino: I donít know. I can only speak for myself, I wasnít from the Lower East Side. My grandparents were immigrants and to that extent thereís a correlation. Thatís not what Iím writing about though. Iím writing about the drug culture just before the riots in the late 80ís and I have some direct experience with that. So itís not an ethnic relation, but rather a cultural one.

Saviana: In my play Ukrainian Blues I tried to explore the cultural clash as well as the generational gaps on a background of gender-related issues. I hope I succeeded in writing a play that is able to educate while being touching, believable and dramatically successful.

Anthony: Iím Italian. I donít live so much of what you think of as a stereotypical Italian life. I have found that it is through the theatre Ė writing Italian-American Cantos and this work Ė that I can explore my Italian heritage. I have also written a play that tackles the Jewish community here, which was more of a challenge. But the basic idea of a family struggling in the New World is a universal.

NYT.C:  Why do each of you feel this is a worthwhile endeavor and what do you hope will be achieved by an evening of stories about a specific place? What do you expect audience reaction to be -- is it more important that they be entertained or that they learn something or doesn't it matter? What did each of you learn about your subjects and your process?
Trav S.D.: As America's cultural cosmopolis, there is an unfortunate tendency in New York theatre to talk about the global and to neglect the local. That can be a mistake sometimes, particularly when your theatre is not located in Times Square and lacks a million dollar budget. In terms of connecting with your audience, talking about the things that concern and interest them is important. It's important to talk about your neighborhood. Alex has been very smart about adapting this strategy...of involving the neighbors. But it's not just a strategy, it's the mission of the theatre really. It would really be unconscionable -- sort of imperialistic -- not to do that.
Renee: Because it was a learning experience, and learning is always a good thing. There was so much history surrounding the relationships between Irish and African/African Americans of the time and then I was always fascinated by the Beat generation in the latter part of history.
Gino: I love that Metropolitan has such a strong focus on history and the stories of America, the theatrical history of the nation. And it makes perfect sense to have a group of playwrights find and help produce the stories of a neighborhood. I know itíll be entertaining and informative. But more than anything, I think, it helps to keep history alive. As not something that only lives in a dusty textbook, but a story performed on a stage. I think it has more staying power that way. Amadeus is a perfect example. That play gave birth to Mostly Mozart and festivals of its kind all over the country. This neighborhood has a remarkable history, and Iím hopeful this festival will help to underline that fact.
Anthony: I think it is important to create theatrical events specifically for oneís community. The Ancient Greeks did so, as did the Elizabethans. I believe this strategy strengthens the bond between audience and production. I hope audience members, whether they are from the Lower East Side or not, come away with a greater appreciation about how much this exceptional neighborhood has to offer. And it doesnít work if the evening isnít entertaining. This is my second time doing this, and I am continually amazed about how much this area has to offer.

NYT.C: How closely does the group work together or is each play an entity in itself? How much input is there from other members involved who are not the playwrights?
Gino: In my case, itís mostly conversations between myself and the director, which have been very helpful. A good collaboration.
Anthony: Playwrights are solitary critters. They donít generally work together.

NYT.C: Would you do this again and did you feel it was worthwhile?
Trav S.D.: Sure!
Renee: Yes and yes.
Gino: Absolutely. Itís a great way to work.
Anthony: Of course.