An Interview With
I'd like to start by talking about your upcoming project with The Talking Band, Panic! Euphoria! Blackout. I know it's not supposed to happen until late this year, but what can you tell us about it? Can you give a basic outline and tell us what we can expect? Also, maybe mention a bit about Paul Zimet's new play New Islands Archipelago that you will be performing in (and for which you've composed music) at 3LD in May?
I like to choose challenging and evocative starting points for my plays. In Delicious Rivers I collaborated with a mathematician and explored the mathematical idea of dissymmetry. In Flip Side I developed the play from Anna Kiraly’s set design. The inspiration for Panic! Euphoria! Blackout comes from the paintings of the early renaissance Dutch painter, Marinus van Reymerswaele. I saw them at the Prado a couple of years ago when we were visiting our son who was studying in Madrid. They had the most extreme and theatrical hands and faces. They turned out to be paintings of money lenders. There has been a lot of interest in our dysfunctional financial system recently, so the themes of the play began to take shape. It has been developed through a series of workshops at New Dramatists, with actors Paul Zimet, Mary Schultz, and Randolph Curtis Rand and Katie Pearl as director. Faye Driscoll will be joining us as choreographer.
The play will explore the role of money lending, trade, debt, fairness, and finance and its effect on culture, both past and present. The three characters in this play are traders and outsiders—middlemen who bear all the responsibility and none of the power. I am using the ring form as a structure for the play. It is an archaic structure used in such texts as The Iliad and the Book of Days. The ring form, describes a journey that ends where it begins. It tells a story up to a climax or turning point then reverses itself and returns to the beginning. This form seems appropriate for this piece—it echoes the history of finance with its cycles of bubble and crash.
So let's talk about The Talking Band. You are a co-founder of this company with Paul Zimet and Tina Shepard, and you've kept the company thriving for about three decades now. What's the secret of your longevity? Is there a simple way to define what a Talking Band production is like?
I think the secret of our longevity is that we love doing what we are doing and that we are constantly trying to re-invent ourselves. We work with different collaborators all the time, we love the challenge of new people, with different points of view, and being inspired by younger theatre artists. For instance, we have commissioned a new play by Taylor Mac which will be produced next January at La Mama. And right now we are getting ready to go into rehearsal for a new Talking Band production written by Paul Zimet. (I will be composing music and acting in this one) New Islands Archipelago It will be done at Three Legged Dog, where we have access to all kinds of new video technology that we will be incorporating into the play.
Paul Zimet is your husband in addition to being your frequent collaborator. Are there special challenges in working so closely with your spouse? How do you separate the personal from the professional when you work together?
That’s a hard question to answer. We’ve been doing it so long that it seems normal. I guess its not that different than working together to raise your kids. You have something very precious in common, a long term project.
Your versatility is remarkable—you're a fine actor, playwright, and composer. Do you prefer one discipline to the others? Do you ever act in your own plays, or do you always avoid doing that?
I enjoy doing all three. They all use a different part of the imagination, and are challenging in different ways. My father was a writer. He worked at home, so I grew up with someone sitting downstairs at a big desk made from a door, scratching away eight hours a day with a fountain pen. It seemed fascinating, but I couldn’t imagine being able to sit still for so long. Acting seemed like it would be much more fun. I decided that I would be a writer when I got “old”. When I was in my mid-thirties I wrote my first Betty Suffer play. It was a solo piece, and I was the performer. I wrote quite a few plays before I decided that it would be easier to be objective, to see what was working and what wasn’t working, if I wasn’t in the play. I also write the music for most of my plays.
You come from a family of distinguished artists. Can you tell us a bit about your father, who was a noted screenwriter, and your mother, who was a dancer?
My father was a screenwriter. He was nominated for an academy award for his screenplay of Asphalt Jungle. He also self produced a film called The Savage Eye, the first fiction film using documentary footage. Moma shows it sometimes. It's in their collection. He also wrote poetry, short stories, novels, and essays about photography. He once wrote a play (Soft Targets) for the Talking Band. My mother danced with Martha Graham. You can see her in those wonderful Barbara Morgan photos of the company (her stage name was Freda Flier)'
I'd also love to hear about your children. You have a son and daughter--how old are they, and what are they doing?
My daughter Anya (28) works with homeless families at Legal Aid. She is about to start graduate school at U Penn. She is going to get a masters in nursing. She wants to be a nurse practitioner in women’s health. My son Isaac (22) graduated from college last year. His major was sociology. He is working at a company that makes products that have to do with language barriers in medicine. Both of them are fluent in Spanish. They grew up in the theatre world, going on tour, sitting through endless rehearsals, etc. Both of them were in several of our shows, so they have a realistic idea of what downtown theatre is about, and have made the choice to do something else.
Finally, after all the time working in indie theater, is there a particular moment or production that stands out for you? A collaborator or audience member that you feel especially lucky to have come across along the way?
I was an intern at the Open Theatre in the early 70’s. The work that Joe Chaikin and Paul and Tina were doing was profoundly inspiring and gave me an idea of what theatre could be. Otherwise I think I would have given up and become a psychiatrist, or something. Being a member of New Dramatists has also been a major influence. I feel like I’ve learned to take myself seriously as a playwright.
Interview with Ellen Maddow was conducted by Martin Denton April 2010