A Conversation with Martin Sherman
April 5, 2000
Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at LCT before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the April 5, 2000 Platform with Martin Sherman:
THOMAS COTT: Welcome to the first of our spring series of Platform events. I'm Thomas Cott from Lincoln Center Theater and I'll be your moderator tonight for our talk with the playwright Martin Sherman.
First, a brief bio: Many of Martin's earlier plays—including Passing By, Soaps, Cracks, Rio Grande and When She Danced—were produced in New York at Playwrights Horizons by André Bishop who is now, of course, Lincoln Center Theater's artistic director. Martin's play Messiah was done at Manhattan Theatre Club and his play A Madhouse In Goa was produced by Second Stage Theatre.
But for the last 20 years or so, he's been living in London, where a lot of his plays have premiered. Many of these plays have also been seen throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
He's probably best known for the play Bent, which was a Tony nominee for Best Play in 1980 and won the Dramatists Guild's Hull-Warriner Award. It's been produced in 35 countries, been adapted by Martin for a movie version and was even recently turned into a ballet in Brazil.
His latest play is Rose, which Lincoln Center Theater is producing at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway. We're delighted to have Rose here in New York and to have Martin with us here tonight. Please welcome Martin Sherman! [applause]
MARTIN SHERMAN: What do you mean it's "spring"? [laughter]
TC: [Laughing] It feels a bit like winter outside today, but it's officially spring… Anyway, for those of you who haven't been to one of our Platforms before, we're very informal. I'll ask some preliminary questions and then if you have questions, please raise your hand or just jump right in and speak up. But I'll start with some questions of my own.
Martin, you are an American. You were raised in New Jersey, went to college in Boston and lived in New York for many years. But having lived in London for the last 20 years, I think some people erroneously believe you to be a British playwright! And some people erroneously perceive Rose to be another London import. I'm wondering how you feel about all that.
MS: Well, it's very strange, because in England I'm thought of as an American playwright. In America, I'm thought of as a British playwright. [Laughs] I'm an American playwright who lives in England, that's how I see myself. Actually, in England, they really classify you. It'll say, "a new play by the American Jewish gay playwright…" [Audience laughter]
TC: Not to put you into too many categories!
MS: Well, it's a country of categories.
TC: Maybe in America you should be perceived as an American-exile-living-in-London Jewish gay playwright? [more laughter]
Let's talk about Rose. Although you've had many plays produced off-Broadway in the last 20 years, this is your first play on Broadway since 1980. Is there a reason for that? And are you pleased to be back on Broadway?
MS: [laughs] I guess I'm just a playwright who has a play on Broadway every 20 years. No, really, I'm very pleased, I'm thrilled to be back. Is there a reason for it? That I can't answer. Between Bent and Rose, in a sense my plays have largely been ignored in America, which I can't possibly explain. Many of them have had long and very successful runs on the West End, they play throughout Europe, but America barely knows them. Perhaps Rose will change all that.
TC: There's actually been a lot of conversation in New York about the unfriendly environment for new plays—especially on Broadway. I'm wondering if you have thoughts about whether London is more hospitable than New York for new plays?
MS: Possibly, but it's hard for me to answer that, because I don't live here anymore and I don't know exactly what the environment is. But are you talking about the New York theater or the Broadway theater? They're very different.
It seems to me there are an awful lot of very good new plays in New York, but very few of them reach Broadway. That's not really untrue of London either, except that it's a bit strange, because the divisions that occur here are not as strong in London. In another way, they're stronger.
There is no "off-Broadway" in London. So there's a huge problem if a play is extremely successful at some place like the National Theatre. If it's to move on to a further life, it has to go to a West End house, which is the equivalent of a Broadway house, and it may not be a play that should be in that kind of theater, in that kind of economic environment. There's absolutely no other place to take it.
A number of really wonderful plays don't get the chance of a further life. On the other hand, a new play, if it's at the Bush or at the National or on the West End, is looked upon in a somewhat similar way. A new play isn't penalized in public thought because it isn't in the West End. It retains a certain stature, which maybe doesn't happen here, but again I don't really know, because I don't live here.
TC: Also in New York, there's a certain cachet to having a play come from London, whereas in London, there's a bit of snobbery about a play that comes from New York.
MS: Well, that's complicated. Everything about New York-vs.-London is two-sided. There's a certain amount of snobbery with the [London] critics, I think. There's a certain kind of American play which they just don't particularly like. Family-orientated plays, for instance. But that's certainly isn't the case with the theatrical community of London, which in some ways admires the American theater even more than the American theatrical community admires the British theater.
On the other hand, there are a lot of American plays which are successful in London. At times, they are more successful in London than they were here. For instance, last year, Richard Greenberg's play Three Days of Rain had an extended run in London, more so than it had here, where it only played at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
TC: Your play, Rose, was at the National Theatre, and it was done as they normally do things in repertory, but it was done in a sort of unusual circumstance in that it was programmed to play opposite The Merchant of Venice. What were your feelings about that contrast and did people there comment about it?
MS: [laughs] Absolutely nobody commented about that. But Trevor Nunn [who runs the National Theatre] did program it specifically… well, when Trevor read the play, he wanted first to make sure the play was done before the millennium ended, so he had to reschedule things. Because the Cottesloe, the theater Rose played in, was booked about 2½ years in advance. And so…
TC: … he bumped a play?
MS: I don't think he bumped a play, he just changed schedules around. And then I think he realized this would be a wonderful combination with Merchant of Venice, which he directed. I was very happy to have that [pairing], especially because his production was I think probably the great production of that play of our time. But it went without comment.
TC: That's so interesting. Let's talk about the creation of your play. Did you set out to write a one-person show? Was that idea always in your head? [to audience] By the way, have you all seen this play? [nearly everyone nods their head] Yes? Oh, good.
MS: I suppose, at some point, I did wake up one day and realize there's no one else on stage. [laughter]. Certain things it's about were brewing, as they do for years and years. I didn't know what form it would take. Or if it ever would take form. And then at a certain point, it began to come together. And I can't pinpoint when I realized it would be one person. Originally, I was going to write two plays, two companion pieces. This play and another one-person play about a gay man of almost the same age as Rose, going through the century. But I only wrote Rose.
TC: Maybe we can look forward to the other play and they can be produced in rep at the National!
MS: When you finish writing one 1-person show, it's very difficult to even think about writing another! [laughs]
TC: This is the first time you've tackled this form?
MS: Yes, it's radically different for everybody. When we started rehearsing it, Nancy [Meckler, the play's director], Olympia [Dukakis, its star] and I were gobsmacked [British slang meaning 'overwhelmed'], because even with all the years of experience between the three of us, it was totally virgin territory.
All the problems are different. The way you rehearse is different. The way you gauge an audience is different. It was a very strange and wonderful experience, but a unique one.
TC: One-person shows have become quite common in New York. Is that the same in London?
MS: I don't think so.
TC: So were you particularly nervous about the way audiences might respond to only having one person onstage?
MS: Not as nervous as Olympia! [Audience laughter]
TC: Well she, of course, was received with rapturous acclaim...
By the way, you and Olympia go back a long way, no? I read that you knew each other back in college days. I think you were a freshman and she was a grad student?
MS: We didn't really know each other. In fact, she was absolutely amazed when she came to London to do Rose and I told her I had been in school with her. I was in the chorus behind her Clytemnestra [in the Greek tragedy Agamemnon]. She was a very good Clytemnestra!
TC: So your paths had never crossed professionally until now. Did you think of a number of actresses who might possibly play the role? Or when you got to Olympia's name, it sort of clicked?
MS: No, we didn't really think of a number of actresses. You get lists, the casting department gives you a list, we looked at the list and as we got it, a friend of Nancy's actually mentioned Olympia's name and we both thought "aha!" And that was the end of the list. It was instantaneous.
TC: Was it something about her previous work that said to you that she could do this?
MS: Oh, yeah. We both thought she was an extraordinary actress who had depth and a soul and we instinctively felt… we were going to some degree on instinct that there was something about Rose that she would understand.
TC: Having come from an immigrant background herself?
MS: Yeah. We knew that she was first-generation Greek-American. It wasn't until we met her that we really knew how powerful an influence on her life that had been-what strong memories and emotions that produced in her. I think we sensed that. We instinctively had a feeling about that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: In the process of deciding it was going to be a one-person play and the daunting task it would bring to an actor and a director, what were some of your thoughts behind this bold, radical choice?
MS: You can't think about that. All those kind of practical problems you just have to distance yourself from completely.
TC: Did Olympia ever say 'it's too much, I can't do this.'
MS: No. Actually, she said 'it's so much, how CAN I do this?" But when you're writing something, you have to put yourself in a state of utter naiveté and absolutely ignorance, which means getting away, for one thing, from where I live.
At a certain stage of the writing, I have to go away. To some place which doesn't have a theater or doesn't have a theater in a language I understand, so I'm totally unaware of what's being produced, of who's doing what, of any of the practical considerations of presenting a play. I have to tell myself that I'm going to write something that no one would ever, ever produce. And that it doesn't matter. I just have to do it for myself. If I start thinking about the practical considerations, I won't do it.
TC: Now you said this play was gestating for a number of years. At some point, you said, okay I'm going to write this now. So you went away to write this. Is that something you normally do?
TC: So you went to some exotic locale…
MS: I went to Paris.
TC: That's not so bad.
MS: A lot of… [he laughs] I was going to say British playwrights… playwrights in England do go to Paris to write, it's not uncommon.
TC: And did it just pour out of you in a weekend, or was this a long process?
MS: No, not in a weekend, but it did pour out. I think if it doesn't pour out, something's wrong-with the play. I'm sure it's very different with a novel, for instance. But I think it's the nature of a play, the nature of something that is spoken, something that is acted, that it tends to pour out. But it only pours if all the groundwork has been done, emotionally and mentally for a long time before. I mean, for instance, you hear the classic story that Noel Coward wrote Private Lives over a weekend. I'm sure he did. But there was probably two years of thinking about it and figuring it out before that weekend.
TC: The play that you wrote in Paris, how different is that from the play that we see now?
MS: It was longer.
TC: And has the play changed from London to New York?
MS: It's a little bit shorter still. But values change, because it's a different audience and so there's a subtly different reaction. Plays change constantly anyhow. They evolve. They take on different colors and different meanings as time goes by. Incidentally, the reason it was cut is-as I said, doing a one-person show was a new experience for all of us-we had no idea of how long it was.
Nancy and I certainly are very used to judging the length of a play from what's on the written page. But it was much, much longer than we had thought because when you have an actress like Olympia who inhabits the character so completely, who inhabits every word so completely, it takes time. And so it reads like a shot, but it plays much longer. And when we first finished rehearsal, we had a play with a playing time of about two-and-a-half hours.
TC: And now it's about two hours.
[LCT's executive producer Bernard Gersten is in the audience and asks:]
BERNARD GERSTEN: Martin, would you compare the response of the audience in London, Tel Aviv and New York?
TC: Yes, we should explain that the play has also been done in Israel.
MS: The New York audiences are much more attuned to plot. They listen to the story in a way that the London audiences didn't. Not that the London audiences didn't listen to the story, but it wasn't as important to them, in a way, as the American audiences.
What was important to the London audiences were ironies that would abound, which New York audiences don't care as much about. They want to know more exactly what happened, so you get reactions here that are absolutely thrilling, such as the reaction to what happens in Arizona. [In the play, Rose recounts a trip to Arizona where she encounters a man who may or may not be her first husband, whom she had assumed died in the Holocaust.] We never had that kind of vocal reaction in London. I think in a few weeks I'll be able to say more about what the differences are. I need some more exposure.
They laugh at some different things here. Again, the London audiences laugh at things that were highly ironic. There's a passage at the beginning where Rose talks about her mother. She explains that her mother took in washing and with the money she got for it, she bought fruit which she sold on the side of the road. With that money, she bought food for the family. And Rose can't understand why she didn't just use the money she got from the washing, but if she had done that, she wouldn't have been a martyr!
Well, in London, the audience really laughed at the line that Rose didn't understand why the mother couldn't use the money she got for the washing. That was the big laugh. And there was much less of a laugh on the "martyr" line. In New York, it's a nice laugh on not understanding about the money, but a BIG laugh on "martyr", because the first one is ironic and the second one is an interesting statement of fact, with reverberations.
AM #2: How real, in your mind, is what happens in the Arizona episode?
MS: What's in my mind doesn't have to be what's in your mind. But in my mind, it's absolutely real.
AM #3: But is it real for Rose? And if it's real, why doesn't she talk to him?
MS: We talked a lot about this in rehearsals. It's not just that it's something that's in her past and she can't go back, but that they have moved so far apart and his life has clearly been a fairly awful one and hers has been a full and a rich and in certain ways a successful one. To impose their present selves on each other at that point would cause so much pain that neither one can do it.
TC: At a performance I saw recently, the audience gasped when she tells that part of the story.
MS: Yeah, that's what I mean. That never happened in London. But it's interesting. The audience here gasps for two reasons. One, because the audience as I said, is so involved in the story.
The other is because I cut about three minutes before the Arizona scene, three minutes between going to visit her grandson in Los Angeles and arriving in Arizona. They were three very interesting minutes, but they were three minutes which absolutely stood in the way of going with the story and made the Arizona story seem just another example of her going someplace else, instead of having the forward thrust. Cutting is such a wonderful thing.
TC: Really? You're the first playwright I've ever heard say that!
MS: It is. And sometimes, it just takes time, seeing something in front of an audience, time and time again, to know that something is just subtly wrong in the chemistry and it has to go.
AM #4: Mr. Sherman, I just want to tell you that I just saw Rose and I haven't enjoyed a play so much in a very long time. But I was wondering if Miss Dukakis had not been available, who else might you have chosen?
MS: Thank you very much and if Olympia had not been available, we would have been in deep trouble!
TC: Well, someone else played it in Israel, right?
MS: Yes, but she wasn't playing it in English.
TC: Was the play very different with a different actress in the role?
MS: Yeah, it was different because the audience made it such a different experience in Israel. I mean, it really is their lives. Actually what happened in Israel was very interesting. What one might think would be the difficulty in Israel was not. In other words, politics. That was no problem whatsoever. Now it has to be said that Israel is really a divided country and the 50% of the population that would agree with the politics of this play go to the theater and the 50% of the population that wouldn't agree, don't. [Laughter] They used to, but they now see the theater as useless and they don't go.
With that said, the politics of the play presented no problem. What did present a very subtle problem was the feelings about Yiddish that the play presents and they did the play without an intermission in Israel, and so they made some cuts. And one of the things they cut was the conversation that Rose has with her son after the kibbutz, which is the conversation about Yiddish vs. Hebrew.
It was cut for previews but after I arrived, it was no longer cut, needless to say. But the reason they gave was "but we all know that here, we've all had that conversation. And if you have what happens in the kibbutz, that's all that we need." And I said, "no, what happens in the kibbutz is making fun of Yiddish and the conversation is a defense of Yiddish."
And they were nervous about that, but they had to put it back. They view anything involving Yiddish as kitsch, which just proves the point of the play, but they were nervous about that. The reviews were excellent, but a few of the reviewers—whilst praising the play—did say occasionally, it has Yiddish-isms which are, I forget the word they used, but it means kitsch. There is a deep nervousness about it, and in fact the actress who played it, a wonderful actress, is Rumanian, and she didn't play it with the Yiddish accent. And I asked why, and they said, well she has an accent, she has her own Rumanian accent. And I said, yeah, but that's the actress, not the character. They're very, very nervous about that.
TC: In fact, wasn't it your own observation of some other play that involved Yiddish language and the response to Yiddish was…
MS: Yes, the incident in Rose, is something I actually saw. In a kibbutz in Israel. A play called The Survivor, which was about teenagers in the Warsaw Ghetto. The incident that I describe is exactly as it happened.
TC: Which leads me to a next question, which is how much of this play is really from your own life and your family's life?
MS: There are tiny bits and pieces scattered in all kinds of ways, combined with things that I've heard about, combined with things that I've made up. Put all those things into a blender and it comes out as a whole.
TC: You drew somewhat on your, is it your mother's mother?
MS: Yes, to a small point, But I think people touch on that a little too much. There are aspects of her personality in Rose, her humor. And there are certain facts of her life, in that she worked in a hotel in Atlantic City, but the hotel was owned by her sister, who is my aunt.
My father's mother had the personality of Rose's mother, so in a way my paternal grandmother is the mother of my maternal grandmother in this play! My maternal grandmother had a son who had a similar disease to the husband, so everything is… And my aunt and uncle owned the hotel. My uncle had a glass eye. So…
TC: One London paper wrote that this play is as much your story as it is your family's. Do you think that's true, that the act of writing this play was an act of expressing something about your own life?
MS: I think that's true of every play you write.
TC: There has to be something personal about it.
MS: Yeah. It's a question of how filtered it is, how disguised it is. In a sense, there are these connections, but I think most writing, especially most writing for the theater is hugely autobiographical. It's just not necessarily so in a clinical way. But it is.
AM #5: I'd like to get back to the differences you perceived between the audiences in London and New York, the difference between irony and plot. Don't you think that it might also have something to do with the different audience? Surely a much larger percentage of a New York audience would be likely to be reacting on the one hand to the immigrant experience and on the other hand to local references like salt water taffy?
MS: Obviously, there are specifics like in Atlantic City, that would be much more familiar to an American audience. But England has an enormous immigrant heritage, far more than people realize. And the English theater, like the American theater, is somewhat aligned to Jewish audiences, far more than people realize. It's just that when you look at them in England, you don't know that they're Jewish! [Laughter]
You'd be totally surprised. It's one of my favorite things to read the obituaries in the English papers and you see Lord so-and-so—who was at the center of power in England for many years—was Jewish. And you would never have known it, the way you would here. England is very surprising in that context.
TC: You've had a few experiences with the movies, most recently with a movie you did with the director of this play, Nancy Meckler, Alive and Kicking. But you've not done a lot of movies. Is that of your own choosing? I know you have a lot of new movie projects in the works.
MS: Until a few years ago, no one really asked. So it wasn't really of my own choosing, and I'm not a prolific playwright. I can't write a play every year. It takes me a while, and to be able to write films in between is fantastic. It's a very different discipline and I think one enriches the other. Now when I'm writing a film and I sit down to write a play, it's such a pleasure to be able to have characters talk. It's just a joy. And when I sit down to write a film, it's a great pleasure to have them not talk.
TC: Can you see a film version of Rose happening? And if so, how would it be different?
MS: [laughs] I haven't seriously thought about it. I don't know. I don't know how you could film it. I think the idea of seeing an epic, costing zillions of dollars with four actresses playing Rose is very unappealing. So I don't know. It's one of the things, it's a very interesting thing, it's why I finally arrived at writing a one-person play actually. It's that theater and film are strangely ill-equipped to deal with the entire life of one person. Especially if it's a long life. It's rarely convincing to have three actors play a person. To have a 25-year-old actor piled with make-up in a film, to look to be 80 is not really convincing. It's very, very hard to do.
TC: The film projects that you're working on now… can you talk about them at all?
MS: The wonderful thing actually about films that you're working on is you have to understand is that probably none of them will be made. [Laughter] That's a given. Or ALL of them will be made at the same time. Once you've arrived at a certain place in your career as a playwright, your play can be guaranteed will end up on a stage somewhere. It might not be the stage you choose and you might not be pleased about where it ends up. But you can find a life on a stage. And that's not true in films.
Most films that are written are simply not done. So, with that said, I've written an adaptation of a brilliant novel called See Under: Love by the Israeli writer David Grossman, that I think is one of the great novels of the last fifty years. It seemed to be impossible to make into a film, so I had to do it. [Laughter] At the moment, that's looking promising, that might happen.
I just finished an adaptation of a journal that Arnold Wesker wrote. Arnold Wesker had a play called The Merchant—about Shylock—produced about 30 years ago. Zero Mostel starred in it, and died when it was on the road. John Dexter directed it. The BBC decided this would make an interesting film, and so I've written a film in which they all appear and [laughs] a number of people that Bernie [Gersten] knows also appear…
And I've also just finished a film for Franco Zefferelli and I'm about to write another one for him. The next one will be about Maria Callas. And I'm also writing a new screen version of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.
TC: Boy, those are all very different projects. Do you get excited at the prospect of working on many things all at once?
MS: I never did before, but starting about four years ago, it suddenly happened that things came at one.
TC: So you decide, "today, I'm going to work on…"
MS: No, that doesn't work for me. You have to put your main energy on one, but there are subsidiary energies on the others. You can't do an hour on one, and an hour on the next. That doesn't work.
TC: And is there an idea for a play percolating in your brain?
MS: Somewhere, it's trying to come out. But it hasn't found its form yet.
TC: Well, we look forward to that and to the opening of Rose on Broadway. But we have to stop now, because Martin has to go the theater to see tonight's preview! We are grateful to you all for coming tonight and especially grateful to Martin Sherman for being here. Thank you so much, Martin! [Applause] Good night, everyone.