Holding you up while you are holding up me: The give and take of working for free
Grand Concourse, Heidi Schreck’s most recent play, will have its world premiere this month at Playwright’s Horizons. Schreck takes on the social dynamic of workers, volunteers, and the homeless clients of a soup kitchen. The play begins with Shelley, the nun who runs the soup kitchen, giving an orientation to a new teenage volunteer:
They can be high or drunk they can be falling down
as long as they aren’t violent
If they’re violent you call Oscar
The guys love him he’s Dominican
He speaks Spanish and English
and something else
He can fix things too
Officially, he’s maintenance
But he got roped into being our muscle
It’s a long story and I don’t want to scare you
ERIN COURTNEY (Rail): The setting of this play is a soup kitchen in the Bronx and one of the main characters is a nun. Where did the inspiration for this setting and this character come from? How did this play begin for you?
HEIDI SCHRECK: I grew up working in soup kitchens and my parents ran a shelter for homeless kids so I guess it makes sense that I gravitated toward this environment. It’s a world I know and love deeply, and I’ve always been fascinated by the crazy stuff that happens in situations where people show up explicitly to offer and receive help. The fact is, it’s not always clear who is actually helping whom—the helpers often reveal themselves to be needy and messed up too, and—certainly in my case when I was younger—people’s motives for “helping” can be suspect. Which I suppose is okay in the end, as long as the work gets done. As far as writing about a nun, I’ve been obsessed with Catholic women for about 20 years. When I was a kid, I loved all the saints and their crazy stories, and then in college I discovered the whole wonderful canon of medieval women’s literature including the fables of Marie de France, the poems of Hadewijch of Brabant, and what is considered to be the first autobiography of a woman in English, the Book of Margery Kempe, which I later wrote a play about, called Creature. The nun in Grand Concourse has modeled her life after Dorothy Day, the great social activist who started the Catholic Worker. From Grand Concourse:
You were googling soup kitchens or
Yeah no soup kitchens
I thought if I gave back in some way
if I did something for other people
I thought it would help
Oh well them I guess
the people who need help
and also me
RAIL: What do you think it is, specifically, about Catholic women that interests you. The social activism? The work ethic? The belief in God?
SCHREK: All of the above. In college I was thrilled by the medieval mystics in part because Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love are filled incredible poetry; she describes intense encounters with the Divine that are weird and profound. Also, the Catholic Church, for all its problems, gave women a kind of power they were not allowed in any other facet of life. Becoming a nun was the one path open to women who wanted some kind of authority over their own destiny. They didn’t have to serve a husband so they had the time to write, compose music, pray, and study. In the case of women like St. Bridget of Sweden and Catherine of Siena, they also wielded enormous political power. Later, when I started reading about women like Dorothy Day and Sister Mary Corita, and even later, the Nuns on The Bus and Sister Elizabeth Johnson, I was inspired by their social activism and also understood that like their sisters 700 years ago, these women were still using the power of a problematic institution to do tremendous good in the world.
RAIL: I think it is so interesting how people define their belief system, whether it is a religious belief system or a moral code or a societal standard, and how most of the time people socialize with people who share their belief system. One of the things that I love about Grand Concourse is that you have four individuals who are each coming from really divergent experiences/beliefs and they are “working” together. This can result in some subtle and not so subtle discomfort as characters rub up against each other in this soup kitchen. I also love that class comes into the play in a very complex and real way. How much were you thinking about class and power in relationship to personal interactions?
SCHRECK: One thing I was interested in is that we often make wrong-headed assumptions about other people’s class based on appearances. So the young white female volunteer in the play is perceived to come from money when she’s actually from a poorer family, while Oscar, the Dominican security guard, is solidly middle-class, working his way through college. Oscar is also struggling with the fact that his girlfriend is making more money than he is—which is a new reality many couples are grappling with in the 21st century. Even people living on the street are often not what they seem. Frog, the one homeless character we meet in the play, came from a middle-class family but is now on the street because of mental illness, and Sister Shelley, who has voluntarily chosen a life of poverty, comes from a privileged background. When I was working for Fifth Avenue Committee—an amazing social justice organization in Brooklyn—I found it fascinating how often I often I was mistaken about people’s actual circumstances. I also saw first-hand how illness, divorce, job loss, and other tragedies can plunge seemingly stable families into crisis, and into homelessness.
RAIL: I should add that your play is also very funny, in the way that life is very funny. What types of things make you laugh when you are an audience member?
SCHRECK: I’m a pretty easy mark, but I tend to laugh more at people than at jokes. When characters are being stupidly human, especially when they don’t think they’re being funny, like in Annie Baker’s plays where people are trying but failing so hard. I also like dangerous humor, unsettling stuff that I’m not supposed to laugh at like in Brendan Jacobs-Jenkin’s plays. Your play Map of Virtue made me laugh because I was so scared. Anne Washburn’s plays do that to me too.
RAIL: That is exactly what makes me laugh too! I just want to circle back to poverty for a minute. There is this element in your plays in which every day things—flirting, volunteering, going to work, joking around—begin to feel menacing, because it feels like everything could fall apart in an instant, and we are just animals trying to survive. So this intense survival instinct causes people to do unexpected things. And in your plays, things do fall apart for everyone, and yet there is a place for joy and love too. In Grand Concourse Oscar, the security guard, and Frog, a homeless man, discuss whether or not Oscar should get married:
Well I don’t have the cash to provide for her right now
so it doesn’t seem right to marry her
Once I get my degree I can get a better job/ and
What kinda job are you gonna get
There are no jobs my friend don’t delude yourself
There are no jobs
There are no jobs
Marry her now you guys can figure it out together
This is the 21st century you don’t have to support her
In the 21st century men and women they support each other
He makes a gesture with his hands that resembles “this is the church, this is the steeple”
I am holding you up while you are holding up me
Grand Concourse, by Heidi Schreck, directed by Kip Fagan, runs October 17 – November 29 at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater. For tickets and further details, visit www.playwrightshorizons.org or call (212) 279-4200.
ERIN COURTNEY’s plays include I Will Be Gone, A Map Of Virtue, and Demon Baby. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a 13P, a member of New Dramatists and she teaches in the MFA playwriting program at Brooklyn College.