Collaborators in Conversation: Amy Herzog and Steven Levenson

To tease out the connections between the shows, we've asked artists from the different productions to interview each other about their work. Below, playwright Steven Levenson (Seven Minutes in Heaven) talks with Love Song in Two Voices playwright and performer Amy Herzog.

Amy: I wrote down three questions beforehand.

Stephen: Oh, you're so good.

A: I know, I know, but if you saw them, you'd be less impressed. The first one is: I really love plays about teenagers and I think your play about teenagers is so amazing and so funny and empathetic and truthful. I was just wondering what made you write a play about teenagers. Where that comes from and what interests you about the subject?

S: I also love plays about teenagers and I'm kind of drawn to talking about teenagers. I kind of don't know why that much. I didn't have the greatest adolescence, but I didn't really have the worst either. I guess I love how high the stakes are at that age, yet in reality the stakes are fairly low. Unlike like a war play or something where the stakes are actually as high as they seem, this allows a little bit of irony always. I do love the agony and the joy of these teenagers and how impossibly beautiful and awful every moment is for them. So, I'm really drawn to that. But you have plays about teenagers don't you, or plays about twenty-somethings? I feel like you write those kind of plays beautifully as well. 

A: Well, I do have a play, I think you probably don't know it because it was in Youngblood [Playwrights Group] before your time, but I have this play Hungry that's about these three teenage girls that also have the constellation... I feel that, for some reason, this is something a lot of us do, where there's the constellation of three girls where there's the good, nerdy girl; the really mean, really smart and appealing, but the really mean girl; and the really beautiful, torn between many things girl. I was watching your play and thinking that our plays have some kind of like brotherhood or something. 

S: Totally. I was going to ask you about what it's like, the decision to perform your own work, like the rehearsal process and maybe the development process, how different is it when you're the one like doing the material as well?

A: It's really weird. I definitely feel really out of practice as an actor because it was something I primarily did up until I was twenty-two or twenty-three and I turn out to not be that age anymore. There's, first of all, dealing with the writing as a writer, so as I'm rehearsing really trying to listen for story and figure out where there are rewrites that I should be doing. But it is definitely hard to concentrate on that when I have this whole other dimension of trying to work on the performance as if though the piece of writing is a finished piece, which you sort of have to do when you're trying to perform it. 

S: Sure, so it's kind of pschizophrenic.

A: Yeah, it is. But I don't want to overstate it too much. It's also fun, first of all. And giving an actor a script is like the most amazing thing in the world to see someone else give life to something you wrote and then also to give something you've written all of these qualities that they have that the piece of writing on its own doesn't necessarily have. But there is also some kind of distance between what you think this thing is and what it turns out to be in all these other actors' hands, whereas it's really interesting to work when that distance is totally collapsed, when you just are realizing it in the way that you imagined when you wrote it.

S: Do you feel like you write as an actor? Do you feel like your experience as an actor shaped the way you write?

A: Definitely. And I have to imagine that's true of you too. I also grew up reading novels more than plays; so I think a lot of my literary influences are not plays. So that's sort of the other half of the equation. Have you ever had to do this exercise where, when you start working with a director, they make you read your play out-loud to them?

S: Oh wow. I've never done that.

A: I can't wait for you to do it. It's so fun. 

S: I had the experience very recently of reading my stuff out loud to people for the first time. I realized that I've read other people's things, but reading your own stuff is kind of difficult. I thought it would be a lot more fun than it was. I kind of cringed the whole time.

A: What was the circumstance?

S: Well, I've been teaching high school in Connecticut, and they had me read to the students some excerpts from anything I wanted of my own stuff. And I was so excited to do it because I feel like, as a playwright, you're rarely asked to do that, because you usually just give your stuff to somebody else to read. But it's weird. I hear it in my head so much better than when I say it out loud, which I guess is how most playwrights probably feel.

A: Well that's funny. I also think that's a particular situation. I've done that once or twice - reading for students - and it's really oddly nerve-wracking. And you feel like you've been teaching them this whole time and it's this moment where they get to see whether you had any business doing that.

S: It definitely feels that way. It's like the job interview after the fact.

A: Even though they're sixteen and they're certainly not thinking that themselves. 

S: It's very, very true.

A: But you also were an actor, or are an actor. Do you audition at all anymore?

S: No, I don't really act at all anymore. I mean, I do; I feel, like you, I act in writing groups, like I read when people need to hear their plays out loud. But I don't. And you don't either.

A: No. I mean, I'm doing my solo show and then I'm acting in a movie later this year. Yeah, but not too much. I don't know how you feel, but I do miss it. There's something so whole-hearted about acting, about giving yourself over to one perspective that's so beautiful, that I really miss.

S: I think you're right. I liked what you were saying about your piece and that is the difference, or one of the main differences, between writing and acting. With writing you're always kind of half there and half behind it or ahead of it or looking at it. And as an actor you get to just trust what you're doing; you have to really. That is kind of liberating, to not have to worry if this the right draft or if everything is there; you just have to trust that it is and go for it. 

A: I miss that. It just occurred to me that that is also a very vulnerable and scary position to be in, which I know is something that bothered me about it at the time when I was acting primarily, that you feel like this thing is so out of my creative control. 

S: Yeah. When I started writing, I realized it was this weird thing. When you have a reading of something, it always feels like, once it's over, all the actors go home and the director goes home and you're sort of left with all the pieces, like you're the last one in the room, which, I don't know, it is kind of nice, but it is a little scary that way too.

A: Yeah, it's lonely. But I'm sure we chose it for a reason. We ultimately want to be that. 

S: Because it's hard also not to have any control, or a lot of control, over things.

A: Though I do want to say that I think you are a wonderful actor. And when we were in Play Group at Ars Nova together, I totally would. write certain roles imaging you reading them. And I think someday we should do a production where it's writers acting.

S: Totally. I totally feel the same about you. You were one of the powerhouse actors in the Ars Nova Play Group. But it is true. I had like the Amy Herzog roles, and the Annie Baker roles. It's very odd. I have been thinking about doing a solo show. I wanted to talk to you about your piece in terms of the difficulties of it. It's obviously like a really personal piece in a lot of ways and really wrenchingly beautifully so. I was just wondering how hard is it to go such a personal place in your writing? I feel like your writing is often personal in such a wonderful way. I guess that's a completely incoherent question. I guess what I'm asking is like, in this piece you play your mother, and how difficult is that and to talk about things that are so personal and autobiographical in a way? Are they autobiographical?

A: Oh, yeah, this is totally autobiographical. People often ask me some version of this question and I've also had the experience of people seeming not quite uncomfortable, but I don't know. I've talked to people after the show who feel like they have to confront what they had just listened to and talk to me about it. And there is a way I have a separation, where it is a play I wrote and, at some point, I made the decision to talk about these things pretty publicly. Part A of the answer is that it feels kind of okay. Part B is that it took me a really long time to tell my mom that I had written this show. The first time I performed it, I hadn't told her anything about it. And it went up at the Yale Cabaret. And the second time it was performed, again at Yale, and it was going to be at a time that she was there. So I really had to tell her and my real feeling about it was that the piece was that it was a great tribute to her and was very loving toward her. But it also is not unequivocally so and there are certainly things in it that I knew she could take exception to. So I sent it to her and she read it and was characteristically the most generous mom possible about it. It was hard for her. And, every time I've performed it since, she's come to see it. And it's really hard and makes her really sad. But we always have really good conversations afterward and I feel like, in a kind of amazing way, it's opened up communication between us further. Like I guess there are things I didn't say to her until I wrote this play, and then I effectively said them to her, and now she wants to make it clear that she heard them.

S: Well, I feel like so many solo shows can come across - well, at least in my experience in seeing undergrad solo shows in college - so many of them became like vindictive letters to their parents that they could never send. And yours totally did not feel that way at all. In fact, I felt like the unflinching honesty of your piece comes across in the you character really. Like all of the stuff about the breakup, and all that, it's just so honest and so powerful. And you give such generosity to all of the characters, including yourself. That's kind of amazing, the way that you speak about your parents, or your mom, with honesty, but also with a kind of generosity. I really like that.

A: Well, thank you. I feel like the exact words could be so easily applied to your play about these teenagers who are so ridiculous. You are so unsparing about it; there is nothing sentimental anywhere to be found in your play. But, at the same time, there's obviously a deep love behind it and even at the darkest moments, there's this sense that these people are going to be okay. I come out of the play thinking that these are people going through a totally operatic and insane time in their lives, but they're going to be okay. 

S: Yeah. I always do try to write things being as generous and loving to the characters as I can; I think because I get bored otherwise. And I feel like your plays are definitely like that as well. I can't think of a villain in any of your plays that I'm familiar with. 

A: Nor yours; that's really interesting. 

S: I feel like in TV and film there are always villains. And in certain plays, and certain playwrights, for sure, there are the good guys and the bad guys. It just feels so easy, I guess, to condescend to your characters or to have contempt for them and so much harder to find whatever's special about them. 

A: I feel exactly the same way and I never put words to it. I can't really imagine writing a villain; I can't imagine staying interested in it. But that said, I'm like, what about Iago? How amazing to write one of those really compelling villains.

S: Yeah, I guess Shakespeare doesn't... I mean, I don't know how he actually felt. But it feels like he loves that character so much, like everything he says is so juicy. It must be really fun. I guess the worst characters are the un-fun... You know, there are certain writers who I'm thinking of specifically who write plays with the nasty, misogynistic characters and it's like, "where's the fun there?"

A: I'm thinking again about your play. And it's clear that we're both really interested in cruelty, even though we're not interested in villains. With Ballard, it is so fun to watch that girl tear everybody apart and it's because you're actually watching a human tragedy. I mean, she is so sad, but her way of dealing with it is immensely entertaining.

S: Yeah, I knew all these girls in high school, and I've talked to other people who've seemed to have had this experience. There were these girls who were always described as being so funny; they were the funny girls. Everyone just loved because they were so funny, but the truth is that they were just actually really cruel. And, whenever they were nice to you and shined their light on you, it was like they were the best people in the world. And then they would turn in an instant and lacerate you. I do really love that character and the things that she says. And we've talked about how insecure she is. And yet, in a way, I really resist giving her that moment where it's like, "oh, she's just like us. She's actually just really insecure." Because I kind of think that those people don't even realize that they're insecure... until much later possibly, in therapy.

A: In ten years, she'll know she's insecure. But now she buys the story that everybody else believes.

S: Right, exactly. I feel like that's the weirdest thing that I struggle with a little bit, is this idea that you want to give every character that humanity that we're talking about, but you kind of want to make it a little bit subtle. Anytime there's a movie now about a Nazi, they always have that moment where we see that they're really people, just struggling. Like in Inglorious Basterds, I think that's the beauty of that character in it. Have you seen it?

A: No, I'm sorry.

S: There's this character, played by Christoph Walz, and he has no self-consciousness of himself as a villain. He's just doing his thing and enjoying it. It feels possibly honest or something.

A: Yeah, that's very refreshing. What you're talking about is a little different, but I hate when you find out that the villain was abused as a child or something. Whatever the humanity is has to be imbued in every moment of the writing; it can't be the plot turn that now makes you...

S: Like they're just repeating what their mother did.

A: Though doubtless they are.... Oh, we started to talk about teaching a little bit, because we both teach. And I was just wondering how you were liking it?

S: Yes, I'm very new to teaching and you've been doing it for a while now. I've actually asked you many questions about what the hell I'm doing. I like it. Speaking about performance and nerves and all that, I find teaching one of the scariest things I have ever done. And I thought I wouldn't, because I was an actor and I'm not the kind of person who's scared talking in front of people. But I get in front of these, and it's not that many, it's like eight sixteen-year-old kids and I just fall apart. I cling to my notes and my throat gets dry. It's really scary, but it's also really pretty incredible when it works: when you feel like they're with you and what you're saying is really clicking. And then to hear their writing is obviously so gratifying, to feel like this person who came and maybe didn't know anything about playwriting or writing at all leaves thinking of themselves possibly as a writer. Do you feel like teaching is something you want to continue doing? Is it something you do just to make a living? Or how do you feel about it? 

A: I had always imagined that it would be part of the soup of things that I would do professionally. And I don't know if that's because my father is a professor, and my brother is a professor, and I'm just pretty unimaginative and I just sort of imagined that I would also be a professor at some point. But I do really love it. And I do still get incredibly nervous. I know you studied with Paula Vogel. I studied with her for a week or two this summer. And I talked to her about my nerves and I said something like, "I'm just excited for when that goes away." And she said, "It never goes away." And, to me, she's like the revered playwriting teacher. And she said that it's important, it means you still really care about it. But I do get really nervous. During the semesters I teach, I don't write nearly as much. I usually teach in the fall, just one semester. I'm incredibly productive from January through August and then in the fall semester, even though it's probably twenty hours a week I spend on a class, I just don't have the mental space. I'm walking around thinking about my students, and their plays, and how I'm going to talk about the play we read next week. I find it really absorbing, but in a great way. I think it's a privilege to have to put into words every week why I'm doing what I'm doing, and what these plays mean, and why it matters to write for the stage. It keeps me honest. 

S: It does force you to do a reckoning with yourself. Every time I go in to teach, it's like, "is this really important? Is what I'm telling them something that they need?"

A: And it's so encouraging. I usually have three or four students per semester who are really serious about the theatre and I sort of forget that there are students of that generation who still feel that way. And of course there are and we desperately need them. When you have a nineteen year old who's telling me that they went into New York to see the Sarah Ruhl play and really want to talk to me about it, that's really encouraging. And they look at me and think that my life is like a dream. And that's not necessarily how I feel going from day to day, but it's a great reminder that that's what I would have thought looking at my life at nineteen or twenty and that's how I should look at it now.

S: Yeah, it does make you grateful. This one young woman asked me for a list of plays that I thought were good. I was like, "do you have a specific period?" And she was basically like, "I've read absolutely nothing." And that was kind of a god moment, where you get to shape someone. This arbitrary list I came up with for her was so exciting to do. I think I spent much more time than she thought I was going to. 

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