Articles by

<S. James Snyder>

11/19/10 4:00am

Ask most New Yorkers about the Atlantic Yards project and they'll talk about everything that's being added to the Brooklyn skyline: A new basketball arena, as well as an array of high-rise housing projects.
A little less discussed are the various things the project has displaced in the years since it was first announced. Residents have been relocated—many against their wishes. Close-knit communities have been torn apart. Businesses have gone bankrupt. Activist groups have grown skeptical about the claims of affordable housing and local jobs that are supposedly on the way.

A new play, In the Footprint, gives voice to those lost characters, paying tribute to the people who once lived and worked in and around the development, as well as those who have been stirred to political action by a sprawling project that moved forward while sidestepping the city's political process. For those concerned about the disintegration of the Atlantic Yards community, or the ability of government to seize private property via the process of eminent domain, In The Footprint presents an essential framing of the controversial issues. It offers a populist addendum to the official record; the unknown faces behind the much-publicized arena.

Directed by Steven Cosson (Gone Missing, This Beautiful City), co-written by Cosson and Jocelyn Clarke and featuring music and lyrics by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), In the Footprint is inspired almost entirely by interviews conducted The Civilians—the investigative theatre company that spent two years interviewing more than 150 local residents, business owners, political leaders, union members and community organizers. The goal: To shed a light on the various forces that aligned to make the development a reality—and the people who felt the most direct impact in terms of lives interrupted. At the center of the story is, of course, Daniel Goldstein, the web designer who for six years fought the Atlantic Yards project, refusing to make a deal with developers until his apartment was seized via eminent domain and he reluctantly accepted a $3 million payout.

It's a haunting spectacle, to behold the Civilians' depiction of Goldstein, standing alone on the stage, fighting the seizing of his property, acknowledging his forced relocation. But while many New Yorkers can recall the day that this last Atlantic Yards holdout was forced out, few outside Brooklyn know the stories of those other Brooklynites who felt as if they had no voice in their eviction.

This passionate survey of a disappearing neighborhood runs through December 11 at the Irondale Center in the heart of Fort Greene—only blocks from the Atlantic Yards site. We talked with Cosson about what part of this drama inspired his company to act, and how he views the Atlantic Yards project differently today, after learning more about those in the surrounding community.

The L: When most people talk about the Atlantic Yards project, I think they start thinking architecture and construction and basketball teams. But you saw it and thought: Theater. Why?
Steven Cosson: When the story first started, I was living in Fort Greene and followed the project from day one because it was literally set in my neighborhood. In the play, we try to explore individual stories that are important in and of themselves, but also stories that have a deeper resonance. I think the Atlantic Yards is a fascinating story in and of itself, but if you think about it a little longer, it also says a lot about how our city and state politics and economies are working right now—since a big part of what's making Atlantic Yards possible is that a private corporation is playing the role of what a government might have done.

It's also very much a New York story. New York under Michael Bloomberg is very much about the private developer opening things up for bids, and essentially in many cases about the government staying out of the way and letting it be pretty free and unregulated. In comparison, look at other cities, where the government took a more active role in starting the development, putting out calls for proposals, and allowing multiple developers to submit ideas. In other cases, there was more of a governmental process, where the community was heard and a lot of wrangling was done in search of a compromise. But the New York style is apparently quite different from that; with Atlantic Yards, the whole project started with a private developer who said "This is how we have to do it," and it was approved with no vote, no public process to speak of.

12/08/09 4:00pm

There aren't many cultural districts in Manhattan—only one, in fact. One recognized, endorsed area of the city that has been cordoned off as a haven for the city's most storied cultural institutions.

For those New Yorkers who love music, dance and Off and Off-Off-Broadway theater, you've surely already walked this district—along East 4th Street and the surrounding blocks—perhaps without realizing the area's cultural significance. This is the epicenter of the Fourth Arts Block (FAB), an organization that has been charged with establishing, protecting and promoting the artists, art groups and buildings that have made the East Village the hotbed of creativity it is. For the last six years, FAB has worked not only to preserve decaying buildings in the area, but also to coordinate the marketing efforts of its members, recently opening a street-side ticket booth—sort of like TKTS—where passersby can receive discounts for tickets to member shows.

While arts organizations across the nation have been suffering through the worst recession in generations, FAB has brought a community together to brave the tough times as a united front. Its executive director, Tamara Greenfield, sat down with The L to talk about the past, present and future of Manhattan’s one and only cultural district.

The L Magazine: How did FAB come to be?
Tamara Greenfield: Well this block has had a history of being a home for the art of different immigrants for the last 100 years. A lot of these buildings were set up as theaters, Yiddish theaters and union organizing halls. And these groups served as a home to the immigrant groups that came to this city. The history of organizing these groups goes all the way back to the late 1950s, when the Cooper Square Committee fought a plan to tear down this whole area to build a superblock of sorts.

But the more recent history begins at the end of the Giuliani term. The city started to unload lots of city-owned property, like community gardens, and the Cooper Square Committee with all the artists, launched a unified effort to keep the arts groups here. This organization coalesced in 2001, and then that became a formal organization in 2003 and as we all worked together, and started securing political support, we managed to convince the city to sell off eight properties at $8 a piece, locations that would become permanent arts facilities.

At the beginning of 2006, once the buildings had been sold, FAB was able to finally get funding, since funders now knew that this district was really going to happen. And later that year, the first paid staff person came on board, with the mission of organizing this community.

11/18/09 12:45pm

The works of William Shakespeare are a staple of the theater—just as are the various reimaginings of his work which arrive like clockwork to the stages of New York City. Any actor or director of significance has taken a crack at reinterpreting the Bard; this autumn alone, we've ushered in new takes on Hamlet and Othello.

But few Shakespearean reinventions can match the creativity or spontaneity on display at the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater's production of Twelfth Night (through November 29), part of La Mama's "Puppet Series 3." This three-tea-tray production, featuring 16 eight-inch marionettes and three live actors, has been conceived, adapted and directed by Vit Horejs. He spoke with The L Magazine about what it takes to rethink Shakespeare at the two-foot level, and why he prefers marionettes to the wacky world of muppets.

The L: What ever made you think Twelfth Night could work as puppet theater—how do you even begin to rework Shakespeare at such a small scale?

Vit Horejs: It's been in the works for some time, actually. We did Hamlet a while back, and when I was working with another company we did Richard III. There's some extensive editing involved, and in some ways our works become a summary of the larger play. When we did Hamlet, it was only 1 hour and 37 minutes long. So it counts on people already knowing the play a little bit, but even though it's for adults we had people bring kids to Hamlet and it still worked. They could sit through it and got something out of it. Many people think puppets are for kids, but what we're trying to show with things like Shakespeare is that you can get a whole lot more out of it.

But it can't be easy, to edit Shakespeare.

The biggest challenge here is doing a Shakespeare production with only 3 people. We have 16 marionettes but only three live performers. So sometimes one person is doing a scene where he's two different characters, and then in another moment he's three different characters. It's quite challenging, to keep it all straight, but ironically it's these different levels and layers that actually make it more enriching in a way.

Enriching in a way different than "regular" theater?

There's a mixture of things that makes puppet theater far more engaging. When you have a live performance with marionettes, it allows for this whole array of different levels of interaction. You have the interaction from puppet to puppet, from the puppet to the puppeteer, and then between the puppeteers. There are even short moments when the action is transmitted to the puppeteers, and you find yourself going back and forth. So there's three levels of performance going on at once.

But does that ever get distracting? For anyone who's never seen a full-length puppet performance, I imagine this sounds pretty out there. Does this limited cast take away from something like Twelfth Night?

It actually enhances Twelfth Night. There are moments where you're surprised by how well it works. The story has this theme of confused identities, and there are some great moments when you're confused in our play as to who is performing—is it the puppet or the puppeteer who's making the choices. It also helps with casting. Its much easier to have one puppeteer be both Belch and Sebastian, and there are moments when both are on stage at the same time and the same puppeteer is holding both and it works right into the themes of the story.

And beyond Shakespeare, puppets often can bring more to a piece. It's true that they can't do some things that live people can do, but they can also do some things that live people can't do. They can express themselves in different ways, jump in the air and then hold that position for just a second and express a sense of exuberance. Puppets can express a state of mind in ways that live person couldn't, which can really draw in an audience.

09/17/09 4:00am

As the world’s focus shifted to Iraq in 2003, much of the talk centered on what was about to enter the country: The American army, flanked by warriors from the “coalition of the willing,” dead-set to topple Saddam Hussein. But what the media failed to realize in the days, months and years following the leader’s execution–and the violence that came to define the power vacuum that followed–was that the more compelling human drama involved what was exiting Iraq. In the turbulent aftermath of the second Iraq War, millions of Iraqi citizens were forced to flee their homeland–displaced refugees that had to abandon their houses, families and the good bulk of their worldly possessions.

Aftermath, the new production now showing at the New York Theatre Workshop through October 4, is an attempt to tell their stories–to reconstruct the brutal conditions that compelled so many to give up all they knew. Playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen traveled to Jordan in June of 2008, speaking with 37 displaced Iraqis about what forced them to flee Iraq. The L Magazine spoke with Blank, who also directed “Aftermath,” about her latest foray into documentary theater and what she learned about the war as she sat down with these dozens of strangers in their homes halfway around the world.

The L Magazine: The second Iraq War began six years ago; when did the idea for Aftermath first begin to germinate?

Jessica Blank: The initial seed was hatched two summers ago. I was developing a play for New York Theater Workshop at Dartmouth College and I started talking with artistic director Jim Nicola about how little work had been done in the contemporary theater about the two wars that America was currently involved in.

Why do you think that was–that these conflicts had yet to be fully addressed on the stage?

Well that’s a whole different conversation. This story, about the millions of Iraqis fleeing their country, hasn’t been a story that we’ve heard about extensively in the mainstream media, where I think there’s a great deal of censorship. There are war photographers in Jordan who talked about not being able to publish photos because they were deemed too graphic. I also think there’s a dearth of stories about civilians from these wars because there’s this sense that these are stories that Americans don’t want to hear. That’s just looking at the media; in the theater, I think it’s hard for American playwrights to think about how to write about the perspectives of Iraqis. It’s so different than our own–and you see a lot of plays instead that have explored the perspective of American soldiers, which is a lot easier for playwrights to conceive.

So you decided to travel overseas to get that foreign perspective…

In documentary theater, we’re working in an interview-based format. We don’t come up with the stories ourselves, but instead are going after telling stories that are hard to get. In terms of Aftermath, that challenge was compounded by the challenge that today there are massive Iraqi civilian populations in both Jordan and Syria, so where do you focus your attention? We were lucky enough to be able to work with a humanitarian organization, and to work with their network of translators and fixers to get around all the hurdles that confront you when you’re trying to get into these refugee communities. We received a grant from the Ford Foundation and over two weeks last June we spoke to 37 Iraqi civilian refugees, bringing back those interviews and working with translators to create word-for-word transcripts.

09/14/09 1:30pm

William Shakespeare’s Othello has long been considered one of his more timeless creations–a careful case study of war, racism and the intense fog of love that can lead sane men into passionate fits of jealousy, betrayal and vengeance.

Reenvisioned for a thoroughly modern staging by the Public Theater and LAByrinth Theater Company, in association with Wiener Festwochen, Vienna and Schauspielhaus Bochum, Othello returns with a limited series of performances scheduled at NYU’s Skirball Center through October 4, starring John Ortiz as Othello, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago and Jessica Chastain as Desdemona–the wife who finds herself caught in the crossfire between two men jockeying for power in the upper echelons of the Venetian army.

The L Magazine spoke recently with Chastain, about updating Othello for a 2009 audience, working alongside the likes of Hoffman and Ortiz, and what it’s like to perform while lying on a bed made out of plasma television screens.

The L Magazine: Looking at all the movies you’ve been working on, you’ve just come away from collaborating with some serious cinematic heavyweights: Working with Al Pacino in Salomaybe? and John Madden in The Debt and Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life. Was it a big adjustment to go back to the stage?

Jessica Chastain: I’ve been craving to do a play again. I haven’t been on stage in three years and that was all I used to do. My Juilliard training was mostly in theater, and so when I finished working with John Madden, out in the middle of the night and doing all these nighttime action sequences, I came home to California just exhausted. But then I heard about this project–one of the greatest plays that Shakespeare ever wrote and the chance to work with Peter Sellars and Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz–and it was sort of a no-brainer.

Obviously you have a strong affection for this play–but what is it specifically about the part of Desdemona that you find so captivating?

What I think is most beautiful about this character is that she’s the embodiment of ultimate love, and ultimate forgiveness. She is all about seeing the good in people and always trying to find a way to excuse the bad and forgive people, and asking herself: Why is someone behaving like this? When you play someone like that, it can’t help but teach you a little bit about your own life, and so in that way I feel really fortunate that I’ve had the chance to play someone so great and beautiful. I show up every night and I feel like I’m doing a lovely story between Othello and Desdemona–I think all of us see the story a little bit differently, but for me it’s really this profound story of unconditional love.

08/05/09 4:00am

For anyone who loves independent, boundary-breaking theater, Christmas comes early yet again this year.

Since 1996, the New York International Fringe Festival has become a staple of the city’s summer theater scene, bringing hundreds of works from independent and fringe playwrights around the globe, introducing the slate to a community of open-minded theatergoers hungry for something new and different. The 2009 Fringe Festival (August 14-30) is notable both for the international diversity of its schedule and its vigorous attempts to rise above the recession that has ravaged so many fringe theater groups across the country – both issues that The L Magazine addressed in a recent, in-depth interview with the festival’s producing artistic director Elena Holy.

The L Magazine: Obviously the elephant in the room this year, for every arts organization, is the recession that’s affected everything from consumer spending to philanthropic giving. How do you think the Fringe fits into the ongoing financial turmoil?

Elena Holy: In some ways, we’ve become even more important to the artists who appear hear. As great a producing a bargain as Fringe NYC has been for the last 13 years, this particular year we have a lot of indie theater companies that, if they weren’t in Fringe NYC and weren’t receiving the support we provide in terms of a venue, they wouldn’t be able to make work happen at all. We’re proud of the fact that we’re still the cheapest way to produce a show in New York, and I think that’s a benefit that became even more important this year. Even for established New York groups, we get into off-Broadway venues that are typically out of reach financially. For Off Off Broadway productions, unless you just stop producing and fundraise for years for your Off Broadway production, the budget for the typical Off Off Broadway show is $20,000, but your typical Off Broadway show is $250,000. So our exposure can help these shows a great deal.

Looking beyond the support you provide the theater companies, what are you doing to reach out to the average theatergoer this year, who might be watching their pennies a little more closely?

We’re been very intentional about keeping our ticket prices low this year. The top ticket costs only $15, it’s been the same since 2003, and this year we’re considering ourselves to be New York’s “Best Staycation.” In fact, all our shows are divided up by different staycations – almost 30 different categories that can guide you through our web site, to find just the show you’ve been looking for.

08/05/09 4:00am

At the center of A Lifetime Burning, the new Off Broadway play now showing through September 5 at 59E59 Theaters’ Primary Stages, is a literary, legal and familial tug-of-war unleashed by a memoir that’s more fiction than fact. Inspired by the peculiar case of Margaret Seltzer, a privileged child of the San Fernando Valley who last year published an epic, fabricated memoir involving a life of drugs and South Central Los Angeles gangs, A Lifetime Burning marks the Off Broadway debut for playwright Cusi Cram, her words given life by no less than Jennifer Westfeldt – the writer and star of the hit film Kissing Jessica Stein who here steps into the role of a fraudulent manic-depressive memoirist who’s in the midst of being found out by both her agent and sister.

The L Magazine talked to Westfeldt about her return to the theater, her ever-changing relationship with long-time partner Jon Hamm (of Mad Men fame), and her unsettling research into the difficulties faced daily by manic-depressives.

The L: Is it stressful at all, to keep jumping between all the various platforms? You were on the big screen with Kissing Jessica Stein and Ira & Abby, you just finished a recurring role on Grey’s Anatomy, and now you’re back on the stage…

Jennifer Westfeldt: I did a small thing at last summer’s New York Stage & Film, but that was the first time I was on the stage since Wonderful Town in 2004 [for which she received a Tony nomination], so it’s wonderful to return to something that feels so familiar, and flex those muscles. It helps that this play has such an interesting structure, and goes about telling the story in such an original way. There are such quick transformations and jumps in time, as the story unfolds in both the past and present, and certainly from an actor’s perspective you want to hit all those transitions and have it be perfect. So it’s been challenging on multiple levels.

How did you decide that A Lifetime Burning would be the right work for your return?

I’m great friends with [playwright Cusi Cram]. We met in an acting class in ’94 or ’95, when she was still acting. She’s a wonderful actress, and I had a total talent crush on her. I’ve loved her work ever since, she has a really original and poetic voice, and this piece is incredibly topical, with the stories of James Frey and Margaret Seltzer out there and how blurry the lines have become between reality and fiction. You look at things like reality TV and we’ve arrived at a place where fiction and reality are pretty closely linked, and Cusi’s found a way of writing this that is very language-driven, that molds very complicated 3-D characters despite its poetic approach. As an actor, it’s an honor to live in something as complicated and range-y as this role. It’s a multilayered part, and you don’t get much of that with most of the women’s roles out there.

06/10/09 4:00am

There are actors who disappear into their parts, and then there are actors like Delroy Lindo, who stride in as an unforgettable force of nature, commanding each and every scene. From the movie screen to the theater stage, Lindo has ably transferred his versatile stage presence to the film set, stealing the show in such blockbusters as Heist, The Cider House Rules, Clockers and Malcolm X. But through it all, Lindo says, he’s waited for just the right time to make a return to the New York theater scene – to the community that bestowed him with a Tony nomination as Herald Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

His long-awaited 2009 return takes the form of the New York Theatre Workshop’s Things of Dry Hours, which shows through June 28. Written by Naomi Wallace and set in Alabama during the darkest days of the Depression, the play focuses on Tice Hogan, an out-of-work African American Sunday school teacher and member of the Communist Party, as well as his daughter, whose daily routines and racially-defined worldviews are turned upside down when a white factory worker stumbles to their front door in the middle of the night. Tice suspects from the outset that this visitor is a spy, sent to rout out area communists, but the stranger insists that he’s been fired from his factory job for assaulting a foreman, and is fed up with the same working conditions and disrespect that has rallied so many black citizens in this ailing region around the Communist Manifesto.

The L Magazine talked to Lindo in the midst of previews for the new show:

The L: It must be a big jump, to go from working with movie cameras for so long to going back in front of a theater audience – how is the transition going?

Delroy Lindo: It’s actually going really well – I feel the whole enterprise is going in the right direction. I did a play last year in Los Angeles (Agamemnon at the Getty), but prior to that I had not been on the stage for 10 years. But what I found last year when I returned is that, in doing theater before film, that muscle you’ve developed is still present. It may have been dormant for a while, but I was surprised, as I started rehearsing and working again on the stage, that a lot of things came back almost instantly. It was sort of like being a fish out of water. When I returned, it was a very familiar form that my body instrument was familiar with.

So even after a decade, the acting instrument stayed fresh…

Prior to Agamemnon, it was all the way back in 1998 that I starred in Othello, and those intervening 10 years were a long stretch, but I think what it is, it has to do with muscle memory. I had done 10 years of theater solid before that, from off-Broadway to a lot of regional theater, and so it’s a muscle that’s always there. Through the years, I had gotten my instrument into a way of working for the theater that all I had to do was dust it off and reinvigorate it, rather than many film actors who have never done theater before and this is a totally foreign concept to them. I was very fortunate in that regard, and pleasantly surprised that I could slip right back in.

So you’ve seen other film actors struggle with that transition?

Well, I really love working with film, but it’s a totally different art form. Part of what I love about film is being able to take my training as a theater actor and adapt it strongly for the camera. But one of the things that always made me nervous about film was the lack of preparation – the fact that I come from a theater background gave me a much-needed foundation of confidence that I’ve been able to lean on. I remember on one film, I had a half-page monologue and one of my co-stars said, “Wow did you nail that,” and I started thinking: Gosh, in the theater, that’s just the way you train. To be able to retain Shakespeare, to come out and talk for a page and a half straight, it’s nothing – so you gain a certain confidence in the theater. That’s why I think people from the film world find the theater so challenging.

How did Things of Dry Hours come your way – how did you know this was the right way to return to the New York stage?

I actually wasn’t familiar with this play. I knew Ruben Santiago Hudson from over the years, and he called me months ago, saying that he had a piece of material he wanted me to look at. So he sent me the script and was extremely patient as I worked out scheduling issues, but I very much wanted to come back to New York, and so it was very timely that this particular material presented itself.

Tice is such a different character for you – your other characters are so confident and sure of what they think, but here, Tice doesn’t really seem to know what to think about this visitor, and about whether his attempts to spread the communist message are working. There’s some insecurity there. Did you feel that he was different from what you had done before?

For me, in terms of my interpretation – my ever-evolving interpretation, because it is evolving – is that certainly this is a man who is very resolute about something, but who is also searching and questioning himself in a very deep way, and even though I believe the writer feels differently, I think in terms of my interpretation, that’s one of the reasons he comes back. The character has been killed and comes back to Earth, and one of the central reasons Tice comes back to tell this story is to bring closure to some very deep-seeded strands that have been left hanging in his life. His relationship with his daughter, his political beliefs, he comes back because he has not figured everything out.

There are times where Tice seems just a little confused about whether he’s actually making progress in this community…

Confused is a good word. The writer and director may disagree with me, but I have always thought that one of the fundamental questions from the outset was: Why does Tice come back? In one of the last moments, Tice says ‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ and it’s such a subjective climax. It could mean all kinds of things – is he frustrated? Amused? I don’t know if Naomi Wallace has changed her mind since we’ve been rehearsing, but she said that part of the reason Tice comes back is that he has something to share with the world now – the world in which we’re living in 2009. But the more I have lived with the character, the more I think it has to be something far more personal. It’s an intriguing and interesting and illuminating process, to rehearse and explore that very question.

Clearly this character is leading you to explore these new issues of confidence – what previous roles in the theater have challenged you to grow most as an artist, to prepare for a challenge like this?

I think my craft as an actor has improved tremendously as a result of two parts I did in particular. One was Walter Lee at the Kennedy Center, in a 1986 production of Raisin in the Sun. It was a wonderful connection, and I felt like I connected with the part of Walter in a very full and immediate way, it was a very definite and specific point in my career. And I think part of it was that I went up to Yale to play the part in the original production in 1983, and I wasn’t very good, and so to have a second crack at it a few years later, it was very fulfilling creatively. That, in tandem with Herald Loomis (in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone), which was profoundly personal to come. My connection with that part, I was able to tap into those very intimate, personal resources to bring them to bear. And with that show culminating on Broadway, it was a huge step forward for me.

You talked about wanting to make it back to New York – what’s your favorite thing to do, now that you’re back working in the East Village every night?

Well, I haven’t had any time! In addition to the play, I wanted to come to New York to direct a reading of this very interesting new play that’s stuck with me called Levee James, written by Sherry Shephard-Massat – which is a play I hope to be involved in in the future – and so I’ve had the time to do that. But other than that, it might sound mundane: I love to just find a wonderful little café and shoot the breeze with friends. You have to realize that the East Village has changed a lot since I was last working in the city, but it’s just so good to be back in the middle of all the energy that you find here in New York.

Things of Dry Hours continues at New York Theatre Workshop through June 28.

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)