The Many Meanings of Choice

As girls growing up in the post-war suburban paradise of Long Island, the most acceptable careers fo women were homemaker, teacher, or nuse. It seemed unlikely back then that they were destined for groundbreaking work on Broadway and in television.

But after many twists and turns, both playwright Winnie Holzman and director Sheryl Kaller garnered Tony Award nominations, Holzman for the book to the musical Wicked and Kaller for her direction of a play Next Fall. Holzman is also the creator of "My So-Called Life" and a writer for many television shows. 

Director of New Work Lisa Timmel sat down with each of them to talk about the choices that led them to this moment.

How did you first choose to get into theatre?

WH: I started taking acting classes in New York City when I was 14 with a woman named Sonia Moore who was a disciple of Stanislavski. She was very old, was very Russian and had a stick like a ballet master would have that she would pound if the scene didn’t have the correct pacing.

In many ways I was a quiet, introverted person and suddenly I just decided I’m going to study acting with this Russian woman who studied with Stanislavski. I’m going to be the youngest person in the class and I’m going to go into New York by myself — yet somehow it seemed natural. When I look back at it, I’m touched actually by my willingness to follow my own inner direction.

SK: I grew up very middle class in suburban Long Island. My mother was involved in community theatre and once a month took me on a “mental health day” to a Broadway show. It was a good fit right from the beginning. It was the place that I always felt represented me in a way that felt honest and true. The first show I ever saw professionally was Pippin, so Bob Fosse became the guy that I followed.

How did you choose where to go to college?

WH: I went to Princeton. Interestingly, my high school guidance counselor said, “Oh, you’ll never get in there, don’t apply.” I think that’s what made me apply. On the surface my personality is kind of easygoing, but there is a little rebel inside. If somebody says you absolutely won’t be able to do that, part of me goes “Well, just wait. I will do that.” Princeton has a wonderful theatre tradition, particularly a student-run theatre called Theatre Intime. When Iwas there they had no theatre department. What was thrilling was we did it all ourselves. It was just this thing that we were pursuing — although back then I was acting and not writing for theatre.

SK: When I was a senior in high school, I did Bye Bye Birdie. I remember the day of the first performance my classmates were really excited and I wasn’t. I wanted to rehearse more. This was at the time that I started looking at colleges. I went to a college fair and I wound up at the booth for Emerson College. They said, “You don’t have to be an acting major or a directing major or a design major.”At Emerson, you were a dramatic arts major. It all happened at the same time — I realized I didn’t like performing, I was more excited about the process.

You both started your careers in New York, but left before youfound your greatest success. What lead to the choice to leave?

WH: I moved out to LA with my husband and my daughter. After she was born, my husband, who had always been turning down stuff that would bring him to LA, wanted to get a series andso he did. I had just had a musical produced Off Broadway that had not been well received and I was at loose ends.

A big blessing of that time was that I had my little daughter. I was very caught up in being the mother of a toddler so I didn’t have a huge amount of time to sit around feeling really bad about the musical. Whenever I could find the time, I did feel bad about the musical. You have to keep learning this lesson over and over again that these things that you put out there you think you understand: “Oh, this was a quote-unquote success. This was a failure.” You even tend to live with a certain amount of shame about the quote-unquote failures, and you don’t even realize that in truth that is a meaningless, empty, unnecessary idea. At the time, I was struggling with whether I should stop writing. I made a choice without any job. I had a realization that writing was part of who I was even if I was going to be an unsuccessful writer by the world’s standards. I was not going to be able to stop writing. It’s the question of identity, who are you really? Eventually I wrote a spec script for “thirtysomething,” they bought it, and that started my career in television.

SK: After Emerson, I came to New York and did everything that I could possibly do from running spotlight to doing props. By my late 20s, I was getting some directing gigs, doing a lot of downtown theatre, and I was a member of the Circle Rep directors lab. My mother died when I was 29. I had a baby a year later and another baby two years later. My mom was 52 when she died, and I had this irrational belief that I was going to die young as well. If that was the case, then I needed to be home with my children. It worked for me because I had two friends who were similarly questioning career-family balance. One lives in Bermuda, and we started a not-for-profit arts and education program on the island. I lived in Bermuda part-time with my two friends and, collectively, our seven children. We did arts and education, and play development, so my creative juices were going all that time. Then we developed a play that I believed in, so I called Joanna Pfaelzer at New York Stage & Film, I think, once a week for about six months until she took my phone call. They let me do a workshop, gave me some visibility, and eight years after that, I made my Broadway debut. Joanna helped me defy the odds and come back into a career.

What lead to the choice to work on Choice?

WH: I wanted to write something that people weren’t expecting me to write. I feel inspired by doing the unexpected, by allowing myself to go somewhere new. I got an idea that evolved and ended up being Choice. No pun intended, but there was no choice there. It clearly wasn’t an idea for a television show, or a movie or a musical. In truth I wanted to write a play, but I was also scared to death of this idea. Many people have said to me, “Oh, it’s not your first play because of Wicked,” but you know it kind of is. In some ways I was walking into virgin territory, or pushing myself into a place that was not my comfort zone.

SK: Winnie is a groundbreaker, one of the women that paved the way for me and for you. She was one of the first women, one of the most consistent women, in television. Then she created her first Broadway musical and it turns out to be Wicked. Who does that other than Winnie Holzman? What Winnie’s trying to say in this play is that we create our choices. Not only do we have choices but we create our choices. Winnie found me at a time in my life where my 50s and 60s are ahead of me, and what am I going to do in this act three of my life? Not a lot people write about women at this age where we start reflecting on our lives. How do we reflect and move forward at the same time? What are our responsibilities as women moving forward, our responsibility as mothers, our responsibilities as human beings on this planet? It’s not only that we recycle our bottles. What else can we do?

Women having choices at all is a relatively new thing inhuman history. How has it affected you and the choicesyou’ve made? Being a woman, have the choices been tougherin some way?

WH: There is no question that — and this doesn’t just apply to women — that if you don’t see something modeled for you, you have to make it up as you go along. You need a huge burst of courage and imagination, or you may not be able to do it. Our generation of women didn’t really see having choices modeled. We were flying blind. Most of us didn’t grow up with moms who were leading lives that had a core of feminism. When we took that on, we didn’t know what that would look like. I have a line in the play where Erica says, ‘We looked at our mothers and we thought, ‘I can’t live that life.’ But then how am I going to live? It left a big question mark. Any time society makes a big shift there are tremors and aftershocks. That’s inevitable. And there’s discomfort. Writing a play is not about having a lot of answers. Writing a play is about asking questions and wanting to talk about those questions out loud with a group.

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