The idiosyncratic, dream-like plays of Rosemary Moore are not easy to define. They live just at the edge of realism, bordering on the elusive and almost surreal, creating an odd yet familiar vision. In the dialogue of Moore’s plays we experience the slightly off-kilter code of strained family relations, along with the requisite small talk and tiny melodramas punctuating every day life. Her seemingly small stories move quietly yet fiercely under the accumulative weight of mundane daily detail and a storm of shifting emotions. Home exists as a warm, nest-like refuge, only to be interrupted by a sudden poisonous word or a sharp-nailed pinch breaking the skin. The people in her plays (mostly female) appear on worn chintz couches, looking out from behind fading, elegant curtains, not quite comfortable in the charged air of their own domestic spaces. They speak for themselves, taking their time and their own circuitous routes, leaving an audience not quite sure whether the world they are witnessing is meant to be “real” or something not quite, creating a subtly jarring theatrical experience.
“Rosemary’s work always has a beautiful precision and specificity to it, both in the way people talk and in the way stories unfold,” says Ian Morgan, the director of the upcoming production of her latest play Side Street, which comes to the midtown Theaterlab in October. “She always lets the people determine what happens in the play—a great quality for theater, because of how it creates such truthful and surprising moments.”
In Side Street, a middle-aged woman comes to an apartment where she finds her long dead mother living in a parallel universe. “It’s a cubist rendering of coming of age in middle age,” says Moore. “And it’s my ‘mother’ play. I realized so many playwrights have one.”
Side Street began as a series of short scenes, which came as “free-writes” during various writers’ group meetings—where Moore says she finds great inspiration from fellow writers. The scenes in which Moore pursued her character into her dead mother’s apartment and find “what they would talk about” developed gradually, through many drafts and readings, into the play that is Side Street. It’s been a creative journey she’s shared in part with director Morgan, associate artistic director at the New Group, who has periodically provided helpful dramaturgical feedback.
From his first reading, Morgan felt strongly about the play. “I think it is exceptional in many ways—the sense of it capturing the way a dream can seem fully and even objectively real, “says Morgan. “The central character can be said to be ‘dreaming’ about her dead mother, but the play never suggests that; it accepts that reality the way we do when we are actually dreaming. Somehow that paradox has always given the play an extra purchase on my consciousness; it oddly feels more real than more seemingly naturalistic plays often do. It’s a kind of meditation on death but from the perspective of a woman who has not been able to deal with her own mother’s death, many years later.”
Last spring, Moore decided she wanted to move forward with the play. Rather than wait for “permission” from a theater, she and Morgan agreed that it was time to bring the play full circle and into production, with Moore herself acting as executive producer. Space was found at Theaterlab and Lanie Zipoy was brought on as associate producer to help coordinate the many facets of production. Moore was able to raise funds for the production via crowd sourcing on Indiegogo, going beyond the initial goal to fully cover all artists’ fees and technical costs, along with the performance space rental. In taking charge of her own work and enlisting the collaborative help of others, Moore has embarked on making a production of her play actually happen.
It was important to both playwright and director to find a non-theater space that would become a room in the apartment of Dora, the dead mother. An intimate audience of 20-25 people will enter the small, open space where just a few simple elements (couch, lamp, and chair) will convey the world of the play. In speaking of the approach to the production, Morgan says, “We want to create a very simple environment in which the smallest gestures can take us from one reality into the next. Grounding it with actual actors in an actual room does so much to the meaning of the story. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens to the story when there’s an audience in the room—given that we’re doing it in a room, not a theatre.
Moore grew up as one of nine siblings, in Jersey City, Indiana, and Washington D.C., moving to N.Y.C. in the late 1970s where she performed her own solos and appeared in works by experimental theater artists like Jim Neu and Yoshiko Chuma. Years later, getting her M.F.A. in playwriting from N.Y.U., she studied and was greatly influenced by María Irene Fornés, Tony Kushner, and mentored by A.R. Gurney as part of the Cherry Lane Mentor Project. Residing in Brooklyn for many years, she’s raised twin daughters (now grown) with her husband Joshua Shneider, a jazz composer and musician. I recently sat down with Rosemary in a Brooklyn café to talk about Side Street and asked where the play started for her.
Rosemary Moore: My mother died when I was in my early 20s and since then, I’ve had this recurring dream where she’s still sick but she’s alive, and living in her own apartment on a side street in Manhattan, and I thought, oh my God, I can’t believe she’s managed to stay alive! What if actually I went there—to that apartment—what would we talk about? And I opened that door and went through it.
Lizzie Olesker (Rail): In Side Street we literally meet the ghost of Meg’s mother. All of your plays seem to be inhabited by ghosts of past lovers, secret crushes, betrayals, physical pain. How did you come to actually have a dead person—a ghost—in this play?
Moore: What I write isn’t quite about ghosts, it’s about just being in the room with the people who are your characters. It’s about letting the scene get written, completely intuitively. I can’t write on purpose, really. I did all this research on ghosts and I found that they usually want something, that they have some unfulfilled emotional errand. But I think ghosts are more like the presence of a person who has left your life but who is still lingering there. I stopped researching them because I realized Meg’s mother isn’t really a conventional ghost who walks through walls, but a dream figure, living a kind of life, who must be treated as a real person.
Rail: In the opening of Side Street, Meg sees a woman on the street who she’s sure is her mother. We’ve all had that experience, I think, where we think we see someone we miss—who is dead—and maybe we follow them?
Moore: That’s what happened to me after both of my parents died. I sometimes thought I saw them in a crowd. You’re startled and a little door opens a crack and it kicks into your soul. In the end, it’s just some tall guy with white hair, not my dad. I’d see my mother somewhere and I would feel amazed that I couldn’t actually touch or see her ever again.
Rail: How does grief—and loss—affect this play?
Moore: The character Meg’s loss is as big as the Grand Canyon. She feels a deep, deep homesickness. This dark thing clings to her. To make any kind of separation can be like walking off a cliff.
Rail: Is letting go of this play also a separation?
Moore: Years ago, I remember a teacher saying, write as many plays as you can. Don’t hang on. So what did I do? I hung on to this play. I kept having readings—I guess I was haunted. There were many times I thought, I can’t do this any more. Eventually, I thought that if I saw a tiny paragraph somewhere describing this play, I would want to go to see it. I could have spent two more years circulating the play to see if I could get a production, or I could do it now. I decided I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to do it now.
Rail: Now that you’re in rehearsal with actors (Jan Leslie Harding, Gayton Scott, Richard Thieriot, and Katherine Folk-Sullivan), what are you discovering about the play and your work?
Moore: My work actually needs to be heightened and slightly on the edge of panic. Unsettled. But with humor, it’s creepy, but makes you laugh at the same time. It’s a fine line, and a director has to be intuitive about how to achieve it. It’s this close to naturalism but then you say, “I don’t want to have a coffee table!”
Rail: There are so many young, new playwrights—can you talk about longevity?
Moore: Every day that I’m writing I feel like a beginner—the page is blank. So yes, there’s longevity but each day is a new day, a new job. I stay with it because there’s the buzz that I get from writing, so, you just keep going with it. And I was kind of a shy, less-than-confident kid, but when I started writing, it was like oxygen. When people read or heard what I wrote, I could breathe for the first time. So when writing is something like oxygen, I don’t know whether you have a choice.
Rail: We were in a writing group together, and a recurring question was how being a mother affects our writing. How has being a mother affected your writing—and this play, more specifically?
Moore: Well, in general it’s made me less of a perfectionist. You just have to get it done, churn it out without being too precious. And in Side Street, one assumes the perspective of the daughter, Meg, but I also could see things from Dora’s perspective. I could fill in the mother part of this mother/daughter play from my own current experience as a mother.
Rail: We need more ‘mother’ plays.
Moore: And I’m also reminded of what my mother didn’t get to do. She was a writer, and she shared what she was passionate about with me. But her work was cut short when she died. This play and production is about me saying I have to do it now. It’s about what it means to keep going—to not stop. I want my daughters to see that.
Side Street by Rosemary Moore, directed by Ian Morgan, runs October 2 – 12 at Theaterlab (357 West 36th Street, 3rd floor, Manhattan). For tickets, visit ovationtix.com/trs/pr/928231
LIZZIE OLESKER is a playwright living in Brooklyn.