Nixon’s Secretary STRETCHes: Truth, Tape and History

What’s next for New Georges? The ever-reaching downtown theater company, whose God’s Ear has transferred uptown and is enjoying an Off-Broadway run in a co-production with the Vineyard, is now taking on history in a timely way.

Their newest production, STRETCH is described as
a fantasia
in which Rose Mary Woods
in the last months of her life
observes the presidential election
of 2004
from a nursing home
in Alliance, Ohio.

Intrigued, the Rail recently took the opportunity to talk with playwright Susan Bernfield and director Emma Griffin, to discuss politics, truth-stretching, missing tape, expanding women’s roles and their exciting new theatrical adventure to the Lower East Side.

Gary Winter (Rail): What sparked you to write a play about Rose Mary Woods (RMW)?

Susan Bernfield: I think it was right after the Harriet Miers disaster, and at first I was interested in kind of a “woman behind the man” thing, the idea that these powerful men are able to get these smart women to kind of go gaga over them and follow them even if it means betraying themselves. But even in very early research, I realized that RMW wasn’t at all like the women who fawn over Bush. She was tougher, and smarter—well, like a lot of the things we say now about the Nixon administration after having lived through Bush, that it wasn’t so bad! Well, neither was Rose Woods.
And I found it fascinating that she died just after George Bush was re-elected, and it was in Ohio—a total coincidence, but enough to get me going. That was the real spark of the play. I’m not so interested generally in plays about historical figures, I never thought I’d write one; it isn’t my intention to transmit much of anything informational, this really seemed more of a way to talk about what I saw happening currently, what I saw as the effects of Watergate much more than Watergate itself. That’s what interests me, the juxtaposition of the time periods, and maybe even the lessons. In Googling her, very early on, I found a quote, I don’t even know from whom, that said something like, “Rose Mary Woods would be appalled at what’s going on in the Bush administration!” And I really believe that. While she certainly observed (and perhaps participated in) corruption, I think just the messiness and f**k-you attitude and just blatant, I-don’t-care dumbness of the Bush folks would have driven her nuts.

Emma Griffin: I have to say, a fantastic perk to directing this show has been the research—the Nixon era is just a completely fascinating part of our history—I had no idea how compelled I would be by the personalities and the shenanigans (and it’s true what they say, our current guy really does make Nixon look like a noble man of the people).
My initial response to her in the play is that she reminded me of my two Irish Catholic maiden-lady great aunts; both of whom were the same age as Woods and both of whom had very successful careers. They were both tart, sharp, witty women who did not, as far as any of us could see, have a single regret about being career women without families; in fact just the opposite—they could tell some pretty wild stories (usually involving cocktails, men and cars).
And then, of course, I was generally sort of enthralled by all the contradictions the play offers—it’s a one-woman show (with three other main characters), it has a live band with a rich context of music and emotion (but no one sings), it’s about history (but not necessarily factual). It’s set in a nursing home (but most of the time it’s not there). I mean, that’s just great stuff for a director.

Rail: I get the impression that RMW knew Nixon, for all his faults, as an intelligent, hard-working man, a man of integrity, whereas Bush has no integrity, has never really had to work for anything, and has limited intelligence. Is that sort of right?

Bernfield: I’d say that’s absolutely right. At least from my impressions and in my imaginings!

Rail: I also sensed a need for power, a need to be part of Nixon’s family; in a way her position gave her both yet she always had to be vigilant to have both; a sense of insecurity that kept her going. Can you talk about this?

Bernfield: Nixon was so known for being insecure, really paranoid, and one of the things I found doing research that’s in the play is these “to be” lists he would write late at night, in which he plotted out how he wanted the public to see him and compared himself to other leaders. So I’m sure that RMW had similar insecurities bred in her from being around him so much, and from observing both in her job and elsewhere in politics how quickly alliances could be taken away. She spent a lot of time defending him, I think she internalized their relationship in ways that maybe, well, are not that healthy if you’re thinking about what’s primarily a work relationship. But she also was so close she could feel that she was on equal footing, she was the only one who could give him what-for, and that’s power too.

Rail: Who plays RMW and what qualities were you looking for in the actress?

Griffin: Rose Woods is played by the divine Kristin Griffith, who is a sassy, red-haired Irish Catholic with strong convictions (although she is not a Republican—I think she would want me to be clear about that).

Rail: I’m curious about design elements, since the play is a “fantasia”…

Griffin: The needs of the design are quite complex, actually—I mean, sure, you read the play and it’s clear that it needs to fulfill Rose’s “dreamscape”—but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Never mind answering the question “What is a dreamscape?” but we’ve also got to create the boy’s basement, the nursing home, and the five musicians. The design needs to evoke some sense of a past as well as the present, and it needs to have tremendous fluidity—the play is a labyrinthine Chinese puzzle-box of interlocking scenes and the set has to hold all of them together effortlessly so we aren’t watching a lot of really boring transitions (as I often like to point out to Susan—the play has 44 actual scenes). Now, these are totally delicious problems—and the approach that the designers and I had was to create a set that functions as a landscape, or a blueprint (and you will just have to come see the show to see how fabulous it is, but I will tell you that there’s a big red curtain); and then we sculpt within that landscape with sound and lights (in conjunction, of course, with the performed music). It’s been quite fun, really, designing this show.

Rail: Susan, New Georges has been supporting and producing new plays by women since 1992, but I know little about your background as a theater artist.

Bernfield: Well, I was an actor, like so many people who found companies. And I founded a theater before New Georges, actually, with kind of a general “let’s be in plays” kind of mission, with friends from Circle in the Square, where I went to drama school. And it was 1991, and there was all that new wave of feminism stuff after Anita Hill, and I was taking this commercial class which happened to be all women, and everybody would spend a lot of time complaining about these auditions they went on, where they basically just got to be bimbos. Finally I said to a few classmates, hey, I have this theater company, want to be a part of it? So my first partners in the company came out of that class. And the idea was really that it was so hard to find plays to do with interesting roles for us, but maybe if we found some women playwrights...they’d be writing about interesting women and we might, essentially, get better parts, get to do more in the play. And then things kind of steamrolled, my first partners went away eventually but for some reason I kept going, and going, and going...and as the company took over my life, literally and figuratively, the acting kind of went out the window. But I did think, as I met more playwrights and read more plays, hey, I could do that! I’d written a lot as a kid, before I kind of decided that acting was more…socially rewarding? A way to get attention? So it was kind of a way for everything to come together. In fact, even in drama school, and when that first company was looking for things to produce, I had this weird impulse to make something, as opposed to just “doing a play.”
Anyway, whenever I think about this I’m not so sure that I “decided” to found New Georges, it’s been such an evolution and everything came about in such a serendipitous way.

Rail: STRETCH offers a strong lead role for a woman; and you plying your trade as an artist, which is how you began this journey—a satisfying trajectory, no? Any thoughts on how the role of woman theater practitioners has changed since NG was founded?

Bernfield: The voice I hear in my head—and let’s face it, my absolutely ideal woman—is and always has been dry as toast, ready with a quip, banter-y, not suffering fools gladly or any other way. And Rose is that through and through, which is why I think her voice just came tumbling out of me.

Is it better now for women? YES! I think it is, it’s way way better. Some people don’t. But dammit, I do.

STRETCH (a fantasia), runs May 2 to 26 at The Living Theatre, 21 Clinton Street just south of Houston Street. Showtimes: Wednesdays through Sundays at 8pm (special matinee, 5/3 at 3pm), opening night Monday May 5 at 7pm. Tickets: $20/$18 students-seniors/Mondays pay-what-you-will (at the door only). More info: www.newgeorges.org

Contributor

Gary Winter

GARY WINTER is a member of (soon to implode) 13P.

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