In Dialogue: Framing Rinne Groff
1. I’m meeting Rinne Groff at New Dramatists and am surprised to see that it’s actually an old church. For some reason in my mind I had imagined it would be this super slick Logan’s Run-inspired design playwright fortress. A big dream for a non profit, I know, but it could be possible in New York. The gatekeeper of N.D. lets me in, but tells me there is a meeting in the library today. When Rinne arrives, she gives me a hug and is a little relieved to go to a café anyway, because she’s just come off the train from Providence. We walk down the street and she’s much like her writing: warm, friendly, hilarious. She talks about collaborating on a new musical at Trinity Rep with Charles Strouse, who also wrote Annie, the first Broadway musical Rinne ever attended.
2. We go around the corner to the Film Center Café and after the waitress gives us a slight scolding for only ordering drinks I ask Rinne about her initial decision to transition from acting to writing, her experience of studying at NYU and her early plays. She mentions that one of her first, House of Wonder, has a quality that she suspects may be influenced from growing up in Florida. “Some of the characters sleep on this fold out couch, that kind of thing” she says. At the suggestion that she might have a Florida play in her, she agrees and begins telling me stories and images from her home state—for instance, seeing a man in a white linen suit with a parrot on his shoulder at the Miami airport and thinking, “What is this place?!” She collects newspaper articles for inspiration and one of them she has held onto is about a Florida highway. As she free associates how the Sunshine state might yield a play idea I got a glimpse into her writing process. The world comes first, and as she questions her relationship to the material, the form emerges to frame it, tease out the story and reveal the sometimes latent, but always present passion in her characters’ hearts.
3. The first play I experienced by Rinne was Jimmy Carter Was A Democrat in a stellar production produced by P.S. 122 and directed by Michael Sexton. It was one of my favorite theater outings of that year, because it was so incredibly sexy, funny, and smart. It features everything I love about classic meat and potato scripts, but then spins it in ways that speak both to Rinne’s originality and her experience as a performer with the downtown theater companies Elevator Repair Service and Target Margin.
The opening stage direction will give you a sense of the play’s unique framing structure:
Samuel B. Shostakovitz’s home: a dingy, one-room apartment. All the events of this play, even those which literally take place during 1980-81 in various locations, are played out in the space of Sammy’s apartment.
Sammy’s furniture (his chairs, couch, bed, TV, refrigerator, etc.) serves the needs of all the other characters at their homes and at work. Sammy performs whatever rearranging of the furniture is necessary to make the scenes run. He has a microphone and various costume pieces (hats and masks) which he uses when he is playing different roles.
Sammy is a labor historian from Queens and becomes a kind of Stage Manager as he presents the play as a lecture about the Air Traffic Controller Strike of 1981. At the same time we watch scenes that depict the intimate lives of the traffic controllers both at home and work. One of my favorite moments in the play occurs when Sammy gets too caught up in one of his lecture subjects. The moment begins with Emily, the foxy controller reflecting from the couch:
...Why can’t that be the way we think? Why can’t we teach our children that in the womb? Not to be afraid. Not to assume yeah, sure you’re Up now, but here comes Failure, you might as well throw in the towel. And if a baby could feel all right, up in the air, in a plane, soaring along, could experience freedom from all that pulls her down; if she could learn that, can’t you maybe imagine that she could get free of a bunch of other shit, too? That we’d grow as a species and triumph? And change, and growth, and all that are possible?
She’s flying. She’s flying.
Oh, Emily. She wrote that herself. I just helped her to structure some of the ideas. I wasn’t sure if she was going to present it today, but.. [suddenly] Emily, I love you. I’m in love with you. I love you.
Of course, there is no response from Emily.
Sammy was so brilliantly realized by actor Steven Rattazzi that I ask Rinne if she wrote the part with him in mind. She replies that, no, for some reason she never writes with a specific actor in mind, but she was so impressed by Steve’s ownership of the role that there were times while watching him perform that she questioned if she really was the author.
4. Rinne’s play The Ruby Sunrise (produced to great acclaim last year as co-production between Trinity Rep and The Actor’s Theater of Louisville) hides its inspired framing structure until intermission. The first act is set in 1927 Indiana and concerns a teenage farm girl who is racing to invent the first television. The act ends in a cliffhanger of sorts as a huge explosion occurs and a pregnancy is suggested. When the curtain rises for the second act, we’re in 1952 New York in an early television production office. There’s a young script girl trying to pitch the story of her mother, who, you guessed it, almost invented the television. We discover the rest of the 1927 story, but through the very subjective lens of watching the teleplay of the event go into production. Handled with grace and humor, it’s magnetic to see how this version of her mother’s history is going to unfold.
An equally big thrill is how Rinne replicates the sound of 1950s plays—or, maybe closer to the mark, the screwball rhythms of 1940s movies—in the second act. Here’s Lulu our script girl pitching her writer, Tad:
Well, for the moment, I wanted the opportunity to meet you; so I engineered it to have Mitzie occupied with a movie star at coffee time.
Why do I not know how to respond to that revelation?
I’m sure you can come up with something.
Allan Wright’s given name is Hiram Markowitz.
That might account for the funny nose.
But aren’t you Jewish?
Is that a problem?
Are you asking me out on a date?
If I were, would it be a problem?
I’m a bastard from the mid-west; is that a problem?
Are you equating Jews and bastards?
Yes, I’ll accept a date with you. Does that answer your Jewish question? Tad.
My mother named me Tad.
A likely story.
5. Reading Rinne’s body of work to prepare for this essay, it was interesting to note how many of her plays feature shows within the shows. I’ve already mentioned how the lecture in Carter and the teleplay within Ruby are used to lift the stories into another realm of context. Within The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem, a large cast period comedy set in 1911 at Oceanside Resort in England, there is a hilarious attempt at staging a play within the play. Sopie, 11 and daughter of the brilliant mathematician Moses Vazsonyi, directs Gilbert, the resort’s proprietor’s grandson, in a piece of her own devising that will be performed in honor of her father. Gilbert begins to “act.”
You are to evoke Georg Cantor’s daring contribution; an epiphany so bold it is a wonder it has not yet driven him mad.
Do it now: Thinking.
Gilbert stands there.
Yes, but Thinking.
Gilbert stands there. He’s trying.
6. This winter Rinne had the rare experience to revisit one of her earliest scripts, Inky. Inky was produced successfully with Clubbed Thumb and Salt Theater in 1999 (directed by Emma Griffin), but now it is premiering in a newly revised form at The Women’s Project. Set in the 1980s, it tells the story of a young couple who take in a Slavic nanny who is obsessed with Muhammad Ali.
Rinne talks about some of the relief of turning back to the simplicity of the action of a script in which she doesn’t use the framing devices of her current plays. I mention that one of the things I admire most about this play is its mounting tension. She agrees, “When it’s really working, it should be as if the audience is saying, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next...but it’s going to be something really bad!’ Here is a moment between the couple where Inky’s influence, pugilistic and otherwise, starts to become suspect:
I want you to hit me.
Haven’t you ever wanted to? Here’s your chance.
You don’t even have to do it as hard as you can. Just enough to be real.
You cannot be serious.
I won’t tell anyone.
I’m going to go change my clothes.
Just once, to see what’s on the other side.
I’m going to change.
Just a little bit of real. Just one good solid slug.
He exits to the bedrooms.
Barbara, alone, walks toward the window. She looks out.
7. When I think about what strikes me the most in Rinne’s plays, it’s their pervasive tone of generosity. The brightness, charm and intelligence that come streaming through her during our brief interview is equally present in her writing. The characters are richly developed, because she has worked as an actor and knows what a gift it can be to be handed a great part. The framing device of the plays are built partly to welcome the audience and partly to challenge them to see the plays in a different way. As Rinne suggests, once this is accomplished it also gives them a chance to invest deeper within those limitations. The content of the plays are drawn from the world by someone who is actively engaged in it, questions it, and wants to contribute to it by creating her own visions of the world. Visions that are funny, sexy, whip smart, and deeply felt. A.k.a. my ideal night in the theater.
Inkyby Rinne Groff, directed by Loretta Greco, runs through April 3rd at The Women’s Project’s Julia Miles Theater, 424 W. 55th Street. For tickets: www.telecharge.com
Plays by Rinne Groff to be seen in NYC during the 2005-2006 theater season: Of a White Christmas (Clubbed Thumb) and The Ruby Sunrise (the Public Theater).
Deron Bos is a playwright living in Brooklyn. His play 707 Pine recently had a reading at Chashama and his play Flagstaff will be produced this summer.
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright, and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at: editorial –at- brooklynrail.org
Deron Bon is a playwright living in Brooklyn.