Amy Herzog by Carolyn Cantor

BOMB 121 Fall 2012
BOMB 121
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Mary Louise Wilson as Vera and Gabriel Ebert as Leo in 4000 Miles, directed by Daniel Aukin, performed at The Duke Theater, 2011. Photo by Erin Baiano.

When I first read Amy Herzog’s script for After the Revolution , I knew instantly that it was a play I wanted to direct. Herzog’s work grabs you from the first word. She draws you into the lives of people you will come to care deeply about. They are passionate, interesting, and unfailingly honest. Without any manipulation, Herzog’s characters tug at your heart. She writes lines that make you want to be an actor just for the opportunity to say them. Often very little happens by way of plot and yet you feel seismic shifts beneath the surface. While we were at work on After the Revolution , Amy gave me a draft of The Great God Pan . A thought-provoking, entertaining, beautifully written yet unproduced new play is an indescribable gift for a director. The characters in Pan instantly burrowed their way into me. I couldn’t stop thinking about them and wondering how they were getting on in their lives.

I am hardly the only person who has had such a strong and swift reaction to Amy Herzog’s writing. The sublime production of 4000 Miles had a highly successful run at LCT3 before transferring to the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater where its run was extended multiple times. Belleville was a hit at Yale Repertory Theater and is scheduled to transfer to the New York Theater Workshop this winter. Amy has had three major productions and all have been met with critical acclaim, garnering a Lilly Award and an Obie for Best New American Play among other distinctions. She is widely and rightfully regarded as a major new playwright to have emerged in recent years.

I have been spending a lot of time with Amy lately as we are in the midst of casting and designing The Great God Pan , which is opening at Playwrights Horizons this fall. We have had a constant stream of meetings and auditions, phone calls and text messages, so it was nice to have an excuse to get together in a non-work capacity. Amy and I met in her Park Slope apartment where she sat with her two-month old daughter Franny on her lap. Needless to say, it was difficult to concentrate with her beautiful baby staring up at us, but we did our best.

— Carolyn Cantor

Carolyn Cantor So in the past couple of days by way of preparation, I read 4000 Miles, which of course I also saw at Lincoln Center, and Belleville, which I didn’t get to see up at Yale. But as I was reading Belleville I had this feeling of familiarity. And then I remembered your play The Doctor’s Wife.

Amy Herzog Which has not a single line of dialogue in common with Belleville but was its first incarnation.

CC You’d sent me The Doctor’s Wife in 2008 as a very early draft and it really does bear almost no resemblance to where you finally landed with that piece. On the other hand, the two plays of yours that I’ve worked on—After the Revolution and The Great God Pan—appeared on my desk practically fully formed. I don’t know if there were early drafts of those plays that I didn’t get to see. But noting what an extensive rewriting process you evidently had with Belleville made me wonder how you begin writing a new play? Do you start from character or from plot? How do you come to know what you want to write?

AH Belleville is the play I started first and finished last. So I would have answered your questions differently when I started that play. The drafts between then and now reflect the difference in process that has arisen. Back then I started from an idea and a plot, whereas my journey over the last four years has been toward an emphasis on character. 4000 Miles is very character-driven, with basically no plot. That wasn’t the case when I started Belleville, which was then called The Doctors Wife. I had to rewrite it four times, as I was becoming a different writer, learning where my process was potentially problematic.

CC What struck me while I was reading the 2008 draft of The Doctors Wife was how dramatically your life has changed in the past four years. Having three, going on four, major productions, getting married, and having a baby is pretty extraordinary in such a short time.

AH Yeah, it’s really wild. I’ve been thinking a lot about that with The Great God Pan, how I wrote that play before I was married. It’s a play largely about deciding whether to commit to a relationship and have a child. And it’s going to be interesting being in the rehearsal room revisiting those questions now.

CC One thing that runs through all of your plays to varying degrees is the relationship between parents and children—mostly looking from the child’s point of view. In Belleville I love the line when Abby asks Alioune, “When you were little, did your parents constantly tell you: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do when you grow up as long as you’re happy?’” And then Abby says, “That is the worst thing you can say to a child.”

It jumped out at me because having children myself, I sometimes feel that the main thing I want is for them to be happy. But what does that really mean? It’s interesting to be in a position to look at that question from both angles: the parent’s and the child’s.

AH Happiness is a subject I’ve thought about a lot. I went through a period in my twenties when I really resented the pressure to be happy that I felt from my parents and from the world at large, because aspiring to be happy doesn’t always lead to the most interesting life. It’s an unfair pressure; it’s an ugly thing to feel that not being happy is a failure.

CC And what is happiness, really?

AH Yeah, what is it? Of course I want my daughter to be happy but I wonder if that is a selfish wish for a parent to have. You want your kid to be happy because it will give you peace of mind, but they may need to go through periods of suffering that’ll be hard for you but important for them. But I’m sure I’ll feel completely different about this once I have a sentient, cognizant child.

CC Abby in Belleville articulates the problem with this desire so beautifully. She feels the pressure of needing to be happy for the people who are around her. And she just isn’t.

I think more so than any of your other plays, Belleville is kind of a genre play, a psychological thriller. I would call it “domestic horror.”

AH I love horror films, and I love domestic thrillers. But I was trying to honor character at the same time as I was trying to honor this genre, which has particular plot demands and devices. I found it so hard to write the end of that play, the penultimate scene is the climax and I’ve rewritten it so many times. There’s this danger of writing a big hinge point—a gasp moment. I wanted it to be a gradual realization so there’s no single moment, or cheap turn; instead it’s this incremental process. And that, I don’t think I’ve quite achieved yet.

CC It does have this slow, discomfiting burn. Like, Oh my God, what’s happening in this relationship? It’s very uncomfortable.

AH Anne Kauffman, the director, and I talked about that a lot—how intimate relationships can be scary in their totally false supposition that you know someone, when there are things that are really just unknowable. So we were discussing how this could become a completely realistic and detailed portrait of a relationship that everyone will recognize versus what you’re talking about—the genre play.

CC Part of what makes it successful is that the characters feel so multidimensional. By page three I felt like I knew these people—I believe that they exist in the world somewhere.

AH It was the hardest challenge I’ve set for myself as a writer in the last few years.

CC The challenge of character?

AH The challenge of character within a framework, where I knew the end. With some of these other plays, I did not know what was going to happen as I was writing them and I felt like I was able to honor the characters’ journeys a little more. Whereas with Belleville, I knew what was going to happen in the climax, so I wrote characters in order to arrive there, which felt to me like a backward way of going about it.

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Maria Dizzia as Abby and Gilbert Owuor as Alioune in Belleville, directed by Anne Kauffman, performed at Yale Repertory Theatre, 2011. Photo by Joan Marcus.

CC You write these well-drawn, beautiful characters that actors are drawn to and want to play—in part because they’re so complicated. But that could make the casting process really challenging—looking for actors who can embody all of the necessary nuances. Is that something you’ve found to be true?

AH I mean, yeah, you know that better than anyone else. We’re going through our second casting process together right now for The Great God Pan. I think about casting when I write—(baby crying) sorry baby!—but in general I don’t write for particular actors, which I know is something a lot of writers do. After I write the play the process of casting feels like a whole other but equally important creative step.

CC We did have a pretty exhaustive casting process with After the Revolution and now it seems like we’re having one as well with Pan. It’s interesting that it’s so hard to find the right actors for those two protagonists. Maybe it’s for similar reasons—they’re both characters who can tip into the land of being difficult to like or difficult to sympathize with. I think, we’re looking for someone who is not afraid to go there but whom the audience will ultimately care deeply about.

AH Yeah, it’s funny that you’re directing the two plays that have those real protagonists, which isn’t true of the others where there’s not one person who everything is happening to. After finishing After the Revolution I vowed never to write that structure again, I remember saying that. And then I wrote The Great God Pan. It’s really hard when one person carries the play because that character can potentially become blank or a projection screen. You’re asking an actor to fill in a lot that the play leaves open.

CC Although you write so specifically, you are a writer who trusts actors very much and loves to see what they bring to the work.

AH I do like to think that I leave a lot up to the actor’s gift. But I also think there’s some weird secret mystery where the actor either is or is not in the world of the writing.

CC True. During the auditions we have often turned to each other after someone has left the room and said, “I love that actor, but they’re not this role.” And there are actors who just are in the Amy Herzog world or who can click into it.

AH It has a lot to do with what they sound like when they say the words. As opposed to what they look like or what they act like. There’s just something about the rhythm of the language being there or not.

CC Do you hear it very specifically in your head as you’re writing it?

AH Yes. I hear it sort of like a score. I hear very particular rhythms. I’m able to let go of some of them once actors are in the roles. But I feel that with some things, there’s only one way to say them.

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Mare Winningham as Mel and Peter Friedman as Ben in After the Revolution, directed by Carolyn Cantor, performed at Playwrights Horizons, 2010. Photo by Joan Marcus.

CC As you said, it’s interesting that I’m directing the two plays of yours that have true protagonists. I also am directing the two plays that take place in multiple locations. Do you think about design or physical space when you are writing? Some writers write such specific things with regard to what they imagine the design to be, whether it’s highly realistic or abstract. You don’t write that much about the location but I wonder if it’s specific in your mind as you’re writing?

AH For 4000 Miles and Belleville I did think a lot about the fact that those plays are contained in one location. It felt dramaturgically important and I was doing that on purpose. In terms of multiple locations: For After the Revolution I was picturing more literal locations and with The Great God Pan I knew that they were going to be more abstract. If I’d had a longer process I might have been more intentional about the design but this is the way it flew out.

(Baby gurgles.)

CC She’s so cute. Let’s talk about Pan, because that’s the play we’re working on together. How did that play come into existence?

AH It was the fastest writing process I’ve ever had, by a year. I went on a retreat with the Orchard Project where I wanted to write a new draft of Belleville. But when I got to the retreat I was miserable, I couldn’t face the play and—mostly as an exercise to clear my mind—I decided to start writing this other play. Then, somehow, three days passed and I’d finished it. It’s not exactly the draft we’re working with now but all of the characters are the same, the scene order is the same, probably 90 percent of the writing is the same. As you know, there’s one character in particular, Paige, who has gone through an evolution since I wrote it. But it basically came out whole without any planning. That’s never happened before and I don’t expect it to happen ever again.

CC Did you have a starting point? Did you know what you wanted to happen in the first scene?

AH I knew what the revelation was going to be in the first scene and I vaguely knew who the characters would be. I’d been thinking about the subject of sexual abuse. At the beginning I considered a female protagonist, probably because I am a woman, and I spoke about the play with Annie Baker, who is a writer I love. I was talking about how to find my way in and she said, “Well, what if you made the protagonist male? Would that provide you with some helpful distance?” At first I said no because I had the idea that it was a pregnant woman going through a discovery process of her early childhood. But turning the protagonist into a male did become the thought launching the piece. The whole strand of other characters emerged as I was writing.

CC So you felt led by the characters?

AH Yeah, I felt led by the characters and by the sense of discovery. In every scene Jamie, my protagonist, had to learn something new. There had to be something continuously pulling him along on this search. The scene with his dad in the middle of the play is a good example of that. I didn’t know at the beginning of the scene what his dad was going to tell him. But I knew he had shown up at Jamie’s apartment because he had some piece of information that was troubling him. I only knew there had to be something—there had to be a reason he was there that would complicate the picture.

CC And how did the other characters come in? Did they sort of show up?

AH They kind of showed up. I’ve been writing all these plays about my extended family and this is the play that had more to do with aspects of my immediate family. Not directly, but I set it in the town that I grew up in and it has some of the geography of that town—a creek that used to be there became really important in this play. But it was more culling, picking, and choosing. It wasn’t a wholesale borrowing as was the case with some of the characters in After the Revolution.

CC In After the Revolution, Emma, the protagonist, is in nearly every scene. In Pan, Jamie is just as much the protagonist, but there are two scenes he’s not in where we see his girlfriend, Paige, at work. Are these scenes counterpoints to what Jamie is experiencing?

AH Their function might be thematic, which is my least favorite word to use when talking about plays in practice as opposed to talking about plays in English class. But I also think Paige deserved her own story in a way; she deserved a little more time and life than she would get if she were just in the service of Jamie’s story.

CC I know you said Annie Baker had some influence over Jamie’s being male. But since Leo in 4000 Miles is also a guy, I wonder whether, after After the Revolution, you wanted protagonists that audiences wouldn’t so readily assume were you. Do you think that was in your consciousness?

AH I can’t decide what the answer to that question is. I’ve thought about it a lot. With After the Revolution I took some critical flak for Emma. I’ve stopped reading reviews since then, thank God, but I do remember some critics being somewhat nasty about it and saying that Emma was the author and that she was mean and uninteresting or something. So that hurt my feelings and I reacted against it. I thought that if I am writing a protagonist that is too close to me in age and gender and other qualities, I will have less perspective and the writing will be less successful. I do hope that Emma is a character that people can love and find complicated and frustrating but ultimately interesting. But Leo in 4000 Miles is really far from me and I had perspective on that protagonist in a way that I didn’t have with Emma. I made that same decision with Jamie because I was writing about someone in their early thirties dealing with these very common questions about making life choices and I thought writing a male character would help me find distance.

Donald Margulies was one of my teachers and I remember him talking about Sight Unseen, where he was writing about an artist and was concerned about this very thing. So he made the character of Jonathan Waxman incredibly successful and this was before Donald had had that much success. That was his way of differentiating and that allowed him to create the character. It can be gender or it can be a million other things that make the audience certain that this person is not you.

CC I think the conventional wisdom is “write what you know,” and the closer you are to the thing the easier it will be to write. And you’re saying the opposite, at least in terms of character.

AH I guess if there were a character close to Tennessee Williams—well … a Tennessee Williams scholar is about to jump down my throat because I’m about to say something totally uninformed: Tom in The Glass Menagerie might be closer to Tennessee Williams than most of the other characters. You’d never say Tom was the most interesting character he wrote. You would think of all of the amazing women, you’d think of Blanche DuBois and Amanda Wingfield, maybe of Maggie. He knew all of those people. It’s “write what you know,” but it’s also “write what you know when you’ve had some time to think about it and are at some distance from it.”

CC This also speaks to your ability to write multi-generational characters. In After the Revolution and 4000 Miles, the characters of Vera and of Morty are brilliantly drawn. We don’t often see the 80-plus generation on stage.

AH Yeah, why is that? Every actor who is still acting at that age is amazing.

CC Like you, I have a 93-year-old grandma who lives in New York and is very much a part of my life. But we are feeling the disappearance of that whole generation from society and also from the stage.

AH Also our audience is largely older. Some people complain—and we should be concerned about not having more young people going to the theater. But it’s amazing that we have that older generation coming out to see our work. So it seems especially important to write some characters they’d be able to identify with. But it’s not like I have some political or virtuous mission with it—I’m just interested.

CC So when is it that you stopped reading reviews?

AH After After the Revolution. I didn’t read any from 4000 Miles on. It was hard, it was like being a junkie at first, I didn’t know something that everyone else knew and it made me feel really crazy. But now I feel very liberated from it all. There are writers and other artists who have a healthy relationship with criticism, who can read it, integrate it, and have a sense of humor about it. I’m just not that good of a Buddhist yet.

CC After the Revolution was by and large favorably reviewed and a big hit. It’s not that you got this scathing horrible response and had to put criticism out of your mind.

AH I think both positive and negative reviews can be really damaging.

I wanted to ask you a question. I think of you as a casting genius, it’s one of your great strengths as a director. I was wondering how did that happen? How did you come to your taste in actors and what is your casting process, what thoughts are going through your head?

CC I like, if possible, not to cast from auditions but to cast actors whose work I’ve seen and who I instinctively believe are right for the role. I’m interested in the possibility of what they will bring. In the end, the best actor for me is the one who is going to surprise me.

AH Do you think you gravitate toward actors who have a directorial or storytelling awareness? Or do you gravitate towards actors who are really inside of their roles and who need a director to arrive at the performance, to arrive at the demands of the play?

CC I most love working with actors who get very immersed in their character and feel less concerned about things like, “Wait, is this chair going to be here?” They’ll take whatever the givens are and will be smart problem solvers and also really bold in their choices. But I am open-minded. Everyone’s process is different and I love collaboration. For example, Mare [Winningham] in After the Revolution. On the first day of rehearsal she came in with really specific ideas about her costume and who she thought Mel was and it was different from where we were going. But we were able to see her perspective and get excited about it. I think her version ultimately was more interesting and unexpected.

AH She also asked for a rewrite which I ended up doing, not because she wanted the role to be bigger but because there was something her character was not saying and she was finding it hard to live with. She didn’t understand what her character’s point of view was about her husband keeping this big secret from his daughter. She was right, and I needed an actor to say it in order to see it.

We started out talking about all the life changes I’d been through, and I was wondering how was it being a director and how your work changed when you had kids?

CC When I was pregnant with Stella, I was directing a play that culminated in a pregnancy, and the birth of a child. I remember wondering whether I was going to feel differently about it in six months, whether I’d have some greater understanding and a different idea for it than I did as a childless person. But I think the true and not very interesting answer is that the biggest change is just the volume of work and trying to manage being present as a mom versus taking on new projects. Each project is so consuming and demanding. It’s hard for me to figure out how many I can do, and if there is a certain number I have to do in order to have momentum in my career—or is that less important to me right now? I’m sure there are lots of other psychological shifts but that is the one I wrestle with and think about the most.

AH What was the play that culminated in a child’s birth?

CC Orange Flower Water.

AH Oh, I wish I had seen that. Childbirth is such a common dramatic device and it’s in The Great God Pan and Belleville. It’s one of those catch-all, life-changing moments.

CC I’m sure it’s different for a writer, as you don’t have to physically work elsewhere. But you do have to be rested and have mental space.

AH That is true, and that has been the challenge for me since Franny was born. Not finding the hours in the day, but the mental space.

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Greta Lee as Amanda and Gabriel Ebert as Leo in 4000 Miles, directed by Daniel Aukin, performed at The Duke Theater, 2011. Photo by Erin Baiano.

CC What other kinds of writing are you up to besides playwriting? Are you moving into screenplays?

AH I’ve written the first draft of a screenplay and I’ve been working on an idea for a pilot, so both film and TV right now.

CC Are you liking that?

AH I mean, it’s hard because I spent ten years learning how to write a play. It took me a long time. It’s a hard thing to do. And a lot of the lessons I’ve learned I can apply to writing film and television but there’s still a whole new learning curve. It’s interesting—I finally feel like I’ve stopped being a beginner at playwriting, but now I feel like a total beginner at these other things. Which I’m sure is good for me in all kinds of ways.

CC I always feel like a beginner, starting each new project. I think maybe that’s a good place to be.

AH That’s true. Every time I start to write a play, I think, I have no idea how to do this! But then, somehow, toward the middle of the play, I know how to get to the end.

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Originally published in

BOMB 121, Fall 2012

Featuring interviews with Miguel Gutierrez and Ishmael Houston-Jones, Haim Steinbach, Carolyn Cantor and Amy Herzog, Ben Chasny and Sir Richard Bishop, Kurt Andersen and Susanna Moore, Edith Grossman and Jaime Manrique, Lucy Raven, and Josiah McElheny.

Read the issue
BOMB 121