Two Playwrights of a Certain Age
DAN FINGERMAN with Steven Carl McCasland
Dan Fingerman and I are from the same town on Long Island. We’re both playwrights. We’re both activists. We’re both out and proud. We even both live in the same part of New York City. But believe it or not, Dan Fingerman and I had never actually met, at least not face to face. A group of (wonderful) mutual friends led us to each other on Facebook, and an internet friendship quickly bloomed. Perhaps it was our shared histories, or maybe just the fact that we’re both outspoken playwrights who aren’t afraid to post a status clearly expressing our minds. Either way, I was hooked and wanted to know more about Dan: the playwright and the person. What better way to find out more than sitting down for an interview about the thing we both love to do: write plays.
Steven Carl McCasland (Rail): You’ve got a play about to open! As a fellow playwright, I know how exciting—and terrifying—that can be. So, let’s start with a fairly simple two-part question. Tell us a little bit about your new play, Boys of a Certain Age. What are you most excited about for the opening? And what are you most frightened of?
Dan Fingerman: Thanks so much for doing this, Steven. Boys of a Certain Age is about four very different gay Jews spending a weekend together. Ira is a loud, brash veteran of the gay rights movement and is joined by his nephew Christopher, who might have voted for Trump. Ira’s childhood friend Larry (who came out later in life) and his son Bryan, an angry social-justice-warrior type, join them for the weekend. I wrote the show a while ago and sat on it. I wasn’t sure people would understand or relate to it. It was very gay and Jewish, and I worried that there weren’t many people who would get it. We did it at the Fresh Fruit Festival this past summer, and people reacted very positively to it, so we’re doing a sixteen-performance run at Theaterlab.
I’m most excited about doing the show without the limitations of a festival. I’m also excited by the team we’ve put together to realize this. Dan Dinero, our director, is returning, as well as the original cast. I’m frightened most about things I have no control over, like whether or not a snow storm will suspend performances.
Rail: Most of my plays are inspired by historical figures, so I spend a lot of time doing research before ever putting pen to paper (or opening Final Draft). For me, the research is pivotal in finding my characters’ voices. How do you “get in character” before starting to write? What is that process like for you?
Fingerman: I’d love to write a play about historical characters! For a show like this where there are many political and historical discussions I map out the ages of the characters during major events. For this show, how old were they when Stonewall happened? What was their reaction or involvement? What was their experience during the epidemic or the marriage equality fights?
On a more personal level I think through many lifestyle choices. What kind of underwear do they wear? What is their drink of choice? What app do they use the most on their smartphone? Do they even have a smartphone? What’s their television guilty pleasure? I also think of how they’d react to specific situations, and after I do enough of this it becomes very natural to write for them, because I have a clear sense of how they’d react to things. I get to know them very well.
Rail: I’ve got a little OCD, I must confess, so I have a couple of neurotic habits whenever I sit down to write. I always write for an hour every morning, right after making my coffee. That’s when my mind seems to be the clearest. And there has to be music—always from the time period in which my play takes place. There’s got to be plenty of light. And as a cat owner, I’ve got to wait until my little lion gets comfortable in my lap—or on my desk—where she sits in judgment of every word I write. So, one of my favorite questions to ask another playwright is: What does your “writer’s room” look like? Do you write every day? If so, when you’re not in the mood, how do you make the magic still happen?
Fingerman: I’m envious of that! I should write every day, and I need to get into that habit. I’m a bit old-fashioned in that all of my plays are written by hand on yellow pads in atrocious handwriting that no one but me could ever decipher. I have a few pens that I prefer to use, and buy in bulk, and the first edit is as I put it into the computer. I write anywhere: libraries, parks, the subway, and various restaurants. I imagine some observers might think I’m a madman. When I’m stuck I find a good walk usually helps. I walk down to Astoria Park or the water, and that somehow clears my head. I find deadlines helpful; if I need to get our cast or crew an edit tomorrow, I get it done. If I’m thinking about doing something sometime in the future that has no deadline, it doesn’t happen.
Rail: A few years ago, Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns examined the way we tell stories, and eventually pass them on. But in this modern day and age the art of storytelling seems to have changed. And so has human interaction. Look at us: like so many other strangers across the globe, we were introduced to one another via Facebook. Do you think social media and technology have changed the way we tell stories?
Fingerman: That’s a very interesting question. I was actually thinking about this the other night when I was watching an episode of Seinfeld where the entire conflict could have been resolved by two or three text messages. Social media does change how we tell stories, but it also allows for interesting devices and usage. It’s believable that characters that do not know each other can be familiar or prejudge other characters based on what they’ve seen on social media. In Boys there’s actually an interesting moment when a character realizes that the person they thought they know is more a social media “persona.” Social media allows us to share the people we’d like to be, which is sometimes aspirational.
On another level social media has been a godsend to how indie shows are promoted. If you work at it, you can create a network of supporters essentially for free. There are people who come see my plays and support my work who I don’t know very well. But they read daily statuses about the development of the project and feel connected to it in a way that I don’t think would have possible before social media. And I love that. It’s the “takes a village” approach to creating art.
Rail: Part of the fun of seeing the premiere of a new play is encountering a missing character for the first time: the audience! What’s your favorite part about introducing the audience into the room? Is it the laughter, the silence, the curtain call, the feedback? What do you love most about sharing your work with others?
Fingerman: I used to get very weird about audiences. I’d hide backstage or stand in the back of the space awkwardly. That’s changed as I’ve introduced more plays to audiences and realized there’s nothing I can do by the time an audience member is sitting in the space. The die has been cast! I’ve learned that each audience and every performance is different, which is part of the magical uniqueness of theater. What gets a huge laugh on Wednesday can get crickets on Thursday. Is that because of the audience? Is that because of the way the actors delivered the line? Who knows! I try to remember that audiences seeing a show for the first time have a very different experience than the people working on the show. With this show I get two responses: “That character reminds me so much of myself (or someone I know),” and, “This show made me think about this or that differently.” And I love that. It related to them or it made them think. What could be better?
Rail: Like me, you’re an activist. And you even have a political background! Do you think your recent experiences will shape you as a writer? Have they changed this play since its premiere in the festival?
Fingerman: I worked in politics briefly at the start of my career and it’s been super useful as a playwright. Working on political campaigns and in local governance forces you to talk to a lot of people you may not normally encounter. You hear their stories. What’s good in their lives and their communities and what’s not. And then (depending on who you work for) you hopefully go about trying to make it better.
Much like Richard Nelson’s excellent cycles at The Public, the original production of Boys was set in the summer it premiered. I added a section where they talked about the Pulse shootings maybe a week before our first show. When we were going to be at Walkerspace in November (before it closed), we were going to open around the election and leave it set in late summer. After the election that version felt very foreign, so I moved it to 2017. The interesting thing is that as much as it feels like the world changed, when I did the new draft of Boys of a Certain Age, some references changed but the arcs and underlying message didn’t need to.
Rail: I love the Richard Nelson plays at The Public. You really feel like you’re in their home! Alright, Dan. Last question. What’s different about this play from your previous ones?
Fingerman: I think in my first two plays I was more worried about accessibility, so I steered clear of esoteric references in a way that I refused to with Boys. There’s a part of the show where they talk for quite some time about specific books and authors, but it’s done in a way that you don’t need to know much about, say, Philip Roth, to understand their points and what it reveals about their nature. And I think audiences respond well to feeling challenged.
ContributorSteven Carl McCasland