About three years ago I stopped by the office of wonderful MCC literary manager and brilliant dramaturg Stephen Willems to talk about a play of mine. We got to chatting about what we saw recently that we liked and he started waving his hands, excited. “Did you see The Umbrella Plays that Daniel directed at the Fringe?” Daniel Talbott and I, as most folks know, work on many plays together, but this show I had missed and it just closed! As I listen to Stephen talking about how beautiful this simple, evocative, poetic, yet grounded show about characters whose lives themselves are stormy weather was—how moving these six “snap-shot-sized” moments in the rain were for him—my regret mounted. “And the staging! You should have seen what Daniel did with these buckets of water. How could you miss it Crystal?” Cue: head bow of shame.
Speed to present, and not only am I thrilled to be getting a second chance to see the show, which is being remounted at the Tank, but I also get to check out rehearsals with Daniel and playwright Stephanie Janssen…What a gift! And The Umbrella Plays is all about gift giving to me. What I love—having finally read the script and seen what Daniel and Stephanie are up to—is how the play focuses on all these wonderful characters discovering a moment of change in their lives on one particular day of crisis in New York City. Right up my alley. The drama of the piece comes from how these stories weave and center around a particular object that Stephanie has always found romantic:
“Oh, I just like them, you know? I like their shape, I like the way the city looks when everyone has them in hand, and we’re all just these canopied mysteries, moving around the sidewalks. I like how after a rainstorm you’ll see them strewn about, destroyed, in the gutters and in trashcans. I like their easy-come, easy-go nature. I just think I could fall in love under an umbrella. And I think in a pinch, I’d share one with my worst enemy.”
After selling out in its original run, and being awarded Outstanding Play at the New York City Fringe Festival, it’s great to see this crazy-funny and moving play have another chance. For indie shows the runs are so short—they can become a bit like ghosts or myth after their departures. Hunched over beers we often share about the show we’ve seen that changed our lives—and the group we’re with may never have seen it! So it was a real joy for Stephanie, already experiencing the excitement of getting her first Broadway acting credit in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, to come back from a day of shopping at the Trader Joe’s in Boreum Hill to discover an email from the Tank wanting to revive The Umbrella Plays in their 2011 season. To have another chance for a smaller show to move and have a longer run is an incredible thing and will share the play with a whole new audience. I ask Daniel how he hopes a new audience will respond.
“I hope they’ll connect to how human and personal the situations are! I feel like I see the people in Steph’s play all over New York City all the time, and, especially right now with how hard things are, I just hope you can sit with us in a room and have a blast and feel like we’re busting our butts for you and that we’re honoring the fact that you came and spent a night with us and that you feel like you’re part of the dialogue and you can feel like you’re included up there onstage.”
And what The Umbrella Plays is putting on stage are wonderful, inner-connected, intimate moments between strangers and friends that are very theatrical. In each piece, this simple object really does become something else entirely to another character. Watching rehearsal I’m struck that so much of the play is about transformation.
Stephanie agrees, but she admits that she came by this realization retrospectively. The actual germ of the play was actually a little game she set out for herself. “I’d always had this idea that I wanted to be in—or make—a play that involved umbrellas, just because I sort of liked them, visually, and I did have this relationship with them—stupid as it is—but I was always losing them, or being given them in need, or being without them in need,” Stepahnie shares. “I just thought they were these kind of funny things in life. Disposable, and necessary. Or disposable if you like—but then there are always those people, I notice them in the rain in the city, who clearly have very expensive, ‘keeper’ umbrellas. I mean, who are these people? But God bless them. Anyway, I played this game with myself, where I said, ‘Okay, kid, how many stories can you write about an umbrella?’ And that was it.”
“I think all theater is about transformation, hopefully,” Daniel says, “and that a lot of the reason we go to theater is to challenge what we think we know and believe and hopefully to change and grow. I love that Steph’s play is so human and that it looks at these pockets of life in many different ways through the same object, and that it explores an object that Stephanie loves and is fascinated with. I always love how many possibilities are in any given thing and how something can be flipped in so many different ways. It’s a great reminder never to settle and to always keep looking and re-imagining everything around you.”
One of my favorite moments in the play is the scene aptly titled “Nice for a Funeral” in which a woman deals with her loss of losing a lover from her past who she has actually been missing for a long time. It is just beautiful and so moving. I have to ask Stephanie about it, where it came from for her as a writer:
“That piece, that piece. It’s funny that one — I think, or I gathered at least, after our first go at this, that that’s the piece people assume is the most autobiographical, which I guess makes sense—woman about my age, sounds like me (go figure), direct address. Certainly there are things in that one—details, yes—that are grabbed from my life, though the piece itself isn’t about any one event in my life, or any one person. I actually wrote that backstage during a tech rehearsal of a play I was acting in, and all in one fell swoop. It’s a real amalgam of experiences, from a detail perspective—I did have a friend who died in front of me when I was 20 years old, at college, in Vermont. It was 72 degrees the next day, it was in December. I have had high tea at the Mark Hotel—not with little girls, but even so. I don’t have a dead ex-lover (thank God and knock on something). I did I guess though, while writing that, have in mind the idea of how we see the world in a heightened moment of our lives, so I was thinking very deliberately about detail—the weird things we remember, the tiny insignificant things we remember in spotlight kinds of moments. I wanted to focus on that phenomenon, because when I think about really seminal moments in my life, I have memories like that—not the ones in the piece specifically, but in that vein—there’s a car accident or something, and you remember what someone was wearing, you remember the lights burned out in the neon sign of the bar down the way—your senses are heightened and not that discriminatory in what they record for you, so certainly, I was trying to capture that feeling, that experience of a moment.”
I ask Daniel what it’s like to stage such a delicate moment. “For me it’s just about giving Nat [actress Natalie Gold] the room to be as great as she is and can be. To give some foundation and footing here and there and let her rip. She’s phenomenal and so effortless and beautiful and personal in that piece, just gorgeous, and I think Steph’s writing is just extraordinary.”
As I sit in rehearsal with Daniel at 440 Studio, we are watching a scene set in an art museum, and he describes how he is staging the scene for the main theater at the Tank space, using the various playing levels already in place. As I watch how the scene perfectly gives the feeling of the Guggenheim yet embraces the natural environment of the Tank, I see him doing what he always does so well. Daniel and I began working on play sites specifically for Jimmy’s No. 43 and he teaches site specific directing at Primary Stages. When he stages work in a theater, it’s no different in many ways. As he says, “You have to make the space your best friend.” When I press for more:
“I really believe you can make great theater happen anywhere. I feel like the space is one of your most important collaborators, and it’s important to be receptive and open to where the play you’re working on is going to be living. A space can really make or break your show, and I don’t think every space is right for every play. And if you can’t afford the perfect theater (in your heart and head) for a project but you have this wonderful little backroom, or closet, or sidewalk, or park, or whatever, then commission one of your playwright friends or find a play that will live brilliantly with what you’ve got. For me it’s just trying to turn whatever resources you have into a positive and not constantly get stuck in the never ending uphill battle of money and fundraising all of the time.”
When I ask what it’s like to be working on the same play in a whole new space, I love his response to this, too: “For me, I’m just trying to be careful to re-look at and re-hear the play and not get stuck in what we did before, but it’s hard sometimes, and I definitely catch myself pushing something in a direction that worked before without really taking in what’s going on, and that’s when I have to be like, ‘slow down, dipshit, and watch what’s happening in the f***in’ room, not in your brain.’”
“And there are the buckets of water used for the storm, right? I was promised buckets of water!” I cry. Suddenly Daniel and Stephanie become a mischievous mini-play of awesome:
DANIELI think we just thought it would be a really fun way to bring in the rain and stuff and I love water, and water on stage, and so people definitely get soaked.STEPHANIEIt’s not like a Gallagher show or anything. If you’re in front there might be some… splash-age, but you don’t need a parka or anything. I promise.DANIEL(slyly)
Maybe in the front row a little…
And that…is exactly what I love. The play is serious but playful and all about New York, which on its best of days is the most beautiful place in the world and on it’s worst of days is a nightmare—and most important—like the weather, can be a quick switch from one to the other, as the play skillfully notes. But that playfulness is always in the room when Daniel works and I ask him about how that comes about for him as a director.
“I just read in Judi Dench’s biography that she can’t work if she can’t laugh in a rehearsal room and I really agree with that,” Daniel says. “You have to be able to be human when you’re working, and I think you have to work your ass off, but you can have a blast and laugh and love what you’re doing and work hard too. Just because you take something seriously doesn’t mean it can’t be exceptionally hysterical and joyful at times, and I know I work best that way too when I can have an honesty in the room and truly be crap and know we can laugh whatever happens and I’m going to be supported and held up in the room regardless. We can be such strange and judge-y creatures sometimes and that’s never good for creation or ensemble. We’ve all sucked, and we’ve all been great, and I think it’s good to always remember that. I think I’m especially lucky to be getting to work with not only a bunch of actors who I love and admire but who are some of my closet friends, and I hope that that love and camaraderie falls off the stage when we get to do the play together. It’s such a gift to love and respect the people that you’re working with and get to go to work everyday with friends who support each other.”
The Umbrella Plays by Stephanie Janssen, directed by Daniel Talbott, featuring Macleod Andrews, Matthew Dickson, Natalie Gold, Jan Leslie Harding, Stephanie Janssen, Sam Soule, and Chris Stack will run March 31 – April 10 at the Tank (354 West 45th Street, between 8th & 9th Avenues), Manhattan.). Set by Eugenia Furneaux-Arends, Lights by Brad Peterson, Costumes by Tristan Raines, Sound by Emma Wilk. For more info and tix ($15), visit www.thetanknyc.org or call 212-563-6269.