When I Was Your Age We Called Them Pictures
I’ve been a big fan of David Greenspan’s work for a while now – I can unabashedly say he’s a major figure in my inspiration pantheon (whatever that is). His plays are spikey, funny, and, perhaps for a better word, textual – there is a way in which the act of writing the play, the act of performing the play, and the existence of the play as a physical text, are all recognized as a part of the play itself. He writes with a deep love of theater and a deep obsession with the thick metaphor that is a performance on a stage. As a performer, he is generous and strange, highly theatrical but never showy, seemingly able to move with his essence rather than his body. He is transformative without ever having to transform (indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the man wearing anything one might call a “costume.”) I would say he is an absolute master of the form.
So I was excited when my great good friend, the talented and lovely director/writer Kareem Fahmy, invited me to see Greenspan’s latest piece, I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees (which ended April 4th at Abrons Arts Center). Kareem and I tend to approach theater from opposite directions (to use overly reductive terms, he’s more heart and I’m more head). I don’t think of Greenspan as somebody in Kareem’s taste wheelhouse, which is probably why I was so excited to see this show with him.
Briefly, Helen Twelvetrees is a fragmented imagined memory play about the life and career of Helen Twelvetrees, a real stage and film actor (Brooke Bloom). Greenspan imagines himself as Mike, a kid who seeks out Twelvetrees after seeing a haunting photograph of her (which in itself was Greenspan’s inspiration for the show – Twelvetrees died in 1958). Greenspan also plays various auxiliary characters in the story, as well as, at times, himself (his own chronology is lightly and obscurely woven into the play). Keith Nobbs plays Helen’s first husband, Clark Twelvetrees, a failed actor turned stagehand turned alcoholic. He and Helen’s story lightly parallels A Streetcar Named Desire, which, as it turns out, Helen was in (as Blanche) in a 1951 summer stock production on Long Island (where much of Greenspan’s play is set). The play proceeds associatively rather than chronologically, but traces Helen’s life (and Greenspan’s relationship to it) from her time as a young hopeful to her eventual death from an overdose of sedatives. It’s delicate, difficult, and absolutely gorgeous.
Leigh Silverman directed, and quite brilliantly had the audience sit on the mainstage at Abrons, so the backdrop for the action was the empty historic theater. The stage was covered with (fake) grass. The set was bare (a few lawn chairs), the costumes, simple. I wish I could see it again.
Below is a (lightly) excerpted and edited transcript of Kareem and my post-show conversation.
Jerry Lieblich: I’m looking for Helen Twelvetrees
Kareem Fahmy: I’m looking for Helen Twelvetrees. Which is also the first line in the play.
JL: Which, like so many things in this show, in the wrong hands could be the worst thing ever. Tell me a little about what your emotional journey was through it.
KF: The thread that captured me started with the relationships with the men in Helen’s life, and how full of love and danger and tension all of those relationships were. And that was always being paralleled with the journey of her career as an actress, how to get what she wanted out of life she was constantly at odds with the various men in her life, and the sacrifices she had to make for that. And it really was quite heartbreaking, because you felt how much she loved these people who ultimately couldn’t be there for her. So when you land at the end to see her dying alone, you see all the moments of potential that could have been different. I think the act of reconstructing her life as echoed in the form of the play was really elegant – it felt like it could go in so many different directions at any time.
JL: That feeling of going in any different direction is so much of what attracted me to it. The first moment that I emotionally got really snagged was that stutter-step scene where Brooke Bloom and Keith Nobbs are talking about the roommate, Stephen. First its his roommate, then its her roommate, and they kind of just do the scene twice. That effortless pivot – let’s just do the scene twice with the two different circumstances to let it hook in more. And Stephen then becomes so central – he’s the unfulfilled gay lover of Keith Nobbs’ character, Clark Twelvetrees.
KF: Or fulfilled! The one that ultimately Clark truly loved, and therefore was unable to love Helen the way she needed to be loved.
JL: And love himself the way he needed to be loved.
KF: And then throwing himself out a window but then failing at it!
JL: He fails! And he doesn’t even know what saved him! That was amazing. We keep hearing “he fell on an awning,” “he fell on a convertible,” “no it was the awning” “no it was the sixth floor,” “no it was the seventh floor.”
KF: That was really for me the thread that pulled me through, this deeply emotionally lost man that she was trying to help but also needed a lot from. And then in the relationship she had with her second husband, Woody, and then her third husband, Conrad, there’s this progression where the men become harsher-
JL: I thought Conrad was so nice! But by then she was a wreck. He was lovely but she wasn’t there. And he even says “I thought you were one kind of woman, I took you home and you were another.” And I think what’s interesting about this is that our conversation is already so much about Brooke Bloom and Keith Nobb’s characters. And I think that what that shows me is that David Greenspan as this third pivot character is so interesting, in that he spends so much of the play literally on the side watching it.
KF: He’s the Tennessee Williams observer – Tom, from Glass Menagerie.
JL: The whole play feels in conversation with Tennessee Williams.
KF: Right at the beginning I felt “that is such a memory play trope.” But he takes the trope of it and then totally turns it on its head.
JL: At the end we get that absolutely gorgeous long scene with him and Brooke sitting on the grass together, and her just saying Helen Twelvetrees’ history as it’s documented, and him just saying his own history (what I assume was his own history) – that really exploded the trope, or maybe braided it, into something very personal – what is it for him to write this play and to make this exploration?
KF: He felt very present as the observer and narrator.
JL: And creator. He’s so honest about the act of making the play. Scenes repeat, there are all these contradictions, and that he points that out. It’s as if he doesn’t go back and fix things and edit them, he instead just adds on them and lets the play accumulate the history of his thought. He’s such a personal presence in it, that so much of the time I found myself thinking about David Greenspan, the person, and thinking “how kind of you to show me your heart in such a bare and honest way, and to give me a way into this very delicate, ephemeral feeling that you’ve been having about memory, and time, and performance, and your own mother.” Showing us that, without pointing to it.
Something I’m very humbled by, as a writer, is looking at this play, which has such metatheatrical elements, it’s so aware of itself as a text, but is without any sort of post-modern winkery. It’s totally honest. It doesn’t feel like “what are all the games I can throw at you to show you how cool I am?” Instead it’s from a place of “how can I be as bare and honest as possible?” Which includes honesty about the act of actually writing and making the play.
KF: And thinking about David Greenspan as a performer – I’ve never seen him this grounded, and very devoid of winking or irony.
JL: While still being very theatrical.
KF: But so deeply felt. Which has never been the quality I associate with him as an actor – there’s often this sense of “look at me performing.” Which, even though we were aware of that, it still felt so present and, you used the word delicate, I think there was a real delicacy to his performance, and emotional honesty that I had never seen before.
JL: And that’s the thing that I so admire about him – he’s such a cerebral writer, but he uses that as a way into the heart. And it’s not just cerebral cerebrality for cerebrality’s sake – it’s a way to get at something so honest. And again, that humbles me so much. That’s something I really aspire to.
There’s something about the play being aware of itself as a play – the multiple times where he says “that’s not history that’s just the play,” or pointing to the fact that he wrote this (again in a not winky way) – that feels like the act of memory. It’s dishonest to take the memory as an isolated event without the remembering as a part of that event. The act of remembering is always going to be part of the memory. And it feels like in this play the act of the play is also a part of making the play. And it’s not just as a formal device – it’s a way for them to be honest about what the thing is so that we can be honest watching it. So that we can be honest feeling it. Which is just so hard to do without being winky.
KF: It’s actually I think a really big achievement. I think normally that idea of “I’m going to insert myself into the narrative” actually separates the audience from the play. And in this piece I felt it actually brought me a lot closer. It pulled me into the experience of the play.
And when you think about the physical production of actually bringing the audience into the play, onto the stage, makes even more of a statement.
JL: Just getting to look at that big empty theater for an hour or so.
KF: There was that beautiful moment where she bows to the empty auditorium, and it was just stunning.
The story of a person who desires and seeks fame and notoriety isn’t new, but this play captured that in a way that you never laughed at her, never judged her.
JL: It felt so honest. And there’s something about the fact that the play came from looking at a photograph. There’s something about the permanence of fame. And there’s something about “I want people to know who I am, so they will remember me, so I will not disappear.” And that’s so honest.
KF: It’s also interesting to think that this is a person who maybe did desire that permanence, but I certainly knew nothing about her, and I would say most people don’t. So it’s a fascinating story to take this disappeared figure and reconstruct that journey of “I tried to leave something, but in fact I didn’t. Or did I?”
JL: And saying that the fact that you didn’t – that’s equally beautiful. There’s that image at the end of drawing the flower that’s broken by the wind – the fact that it was, and that it was broken by the wind, is gorgeous.
And that can sound so trite, because it’s so delicate. It can easily fall into cliche. But the fact that it doesn’t speaks to the accomplishment of the play.
I’ve been reading a bunch of Gertrude Stein lately, in reaction to this beautiful article Alex Borinsky wrote in the Brooklyn Rail interviewing Greenspan about this piece and his upcoming solo piece performing some of Gertrude Stein’s essays and lectures. And in one of the lectures that Greenspan is going to be performing, Stein talks about how for a long time in her writing she tried to capture this sense of the eternal present, of thought as it is happening right now, beginning and beginning and beginning again, as a way to examine the experience of thinking. And there’s a way in which this play keeps beginning and beginning and beginning again. About two thirds through he asks “How does the play start?” And he goes through describing a different beginning that wasn’t the actual beginning of the play – and he discards it right there. And then he says “There is no beginning or ending.”
All of that is to say that there’s something of that experience of fragmentation that mirrors what thought feels like, or at least what thought feels like to me, or what memory feels like. And again, it’s something I’m so impressed by, in that it’s something I’ve often tried to do in my writing but often feels artificial. What was so beautiful about this was that, because it was so quiet and so associative, it just let the thoughts flow in the way that thoughts are flowing and are fragmented, without it feeling like “I’m willfully disrupting your sense of narrative.”
KF: Let’s talk about performance.
JL: Brooke Bloom!
JL: All three of them, really.
KF: I think it’s a real marriage of phenomenal ensemble acting and really really precise direction [by Leigh Silverman]. It felt really collaborative, it felt really organic. And again, delicate. There was some really beautiful gestural language.
JL: Those fights – they hurt.
KF: Simple little moments of putting on sunglasses, taking them off. Sitting down on the lawn chair and feeling the sun on your face. You just felt so close, so connected. And I think all of these actors, they really kind of glowed. There was something magical about how they worked together. And I think Brooke’s emotional availability is so stunning. Nothing felt artificial, for even a second.
JL: I think it’s really easy with a play like this, where the chronology is so scrambled, to do the version where the company knows exactly what’s going on but somehow you as an audience member are not let in at all. It was amazing how, even when I couldn’t follow it I still felt with it. The sense of something washing over me was equally important because it felt like memory, it felt like sifting through a lot of memory information and history information. And that speaks to the precision of direction but also that emotional availability – really opening it up.
KF: They did a really great job of not indicating. Because it does keep shifting, in terms of character, perspective, timeline, I think it’s tempting to want to indicate. But they were ok with us not always being exactly with them at every moment. Sometimes it was for them and sometimes it was for us. And the way they used direct address felt like a privilege to be invited into what they were doing.
JL: I feel like I finally saw what an aside was. And I loved it.
KF: Keith’s character never had any asides. He’s so shut away.
JL: He’s trapped in the machinery – running the pulley.
KF: I found his physical presence on stage really really beautiful.
JL: There was a moment towards the end when was standing upstage center for a really long time, and I realized I hadn’t even seen him there, even though he was directly center – I was so focused on Brooke and Greenspan.
KF: That’s funny because I saw him the entire time – I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His presence so informed what was going on in the other scene to me.
JL: I think both of those reactions are fascinating – the fact that he’s in plain sight but you still don’t pay attention to him, or that he’s not doing anything but you can’t take your eyes off him. They both feel like exactly what that character is.
[Here the author admits that maybe the above thought doesn’t make any sense.]
KF: The design did a great job of exploring the idea of obscurity in different moments.
JL: In none of the corny ways. They used the smoke, they used the scrim, but it wasn’t like “oh, we’re only seeing silhouettes and it’s all so hazy in here!”
KF: It was elegant. It was a beautiful, rarified world.
JL: There’s such a trust in the poetry of all of it – taking the more delicate choices and the more restrained choices, leaving a lot of gaps. Which in turn makes it all feel so full. As opposed to, say, the plays that are so worried that the audience won’t understand or not follow that they pave every square foot of the road for us.
KF: I can’t pretend I knew everything that was going on at all times.
JL: It took me all three times seeing that fight scene to be able to follow it. But that was part of the joy of it.
KF: There was always enough emotional honesty within each moment to keep you connected. And that’s a big achievement. It’s easy to get lost in the play, and I bet some people will see it and get lost, but the performers trust in themselves and trust in the material enough to just have the experience. And I really felt that all of them were really having an experience. That’s the type of theater I really like to see – where the actor really feels like they’re putting themselves at risk emotionally, just to be there.
JL: For a play that also could be very heady and cold, it was very warm.
KF: Warm is a good word. There was a beautiful summery quality to it.
JL: Summer on Long Island. It just feels tragic.
I’d like to talk for a second about the second timeline in the play, which comes from what I assume is Greenspan’s own biography. There’s all the stuff about listening to his roommates have sex (in which he becomes Stephen), and adopting a dog, and his mother in the hospital, and his mother dying-
KF: Wow I think you tracked that a lot better than me.
JL: I think what’s great is that that doesn’t matter – because I bet you tracked it emotionally.
JL: What I loved about it was that it was so naked, so bare. And it actually make me really love David Greenspan, as a person. I want to give him a hug.
What I find so touching about it is that it’s so emotionally naked, but he puts it in the far corner of the play, these very tiny moments that are very obscure but are very there in the most naked way. And, not to overly psychologize the man, but the feeling that that brings out in me is just how delicate and personal your own life and your own story and your own history is. Which for me is the nugget that makes the whole play come alive.
KF: It shows how you can take another person’s history and find moments of your own within it. And how it illuminates your own life to look at somebody else’s.
JL: Or even just look at a photograph of somebody and imagine who they are. Of course, that act of imagining who they are is imagining who you are. It’s that kind of beautiful circle that the play is walking around.
I also just want to highlight the last line of the show, which is maybe one of the most gorgeous lines that I’ve ever heard spoken in the theater [and here the author admits that he referred to the script]:
“It’s fall now – and the dead are left for a time to their silence – rising in memory until the
last shadow that remembers them fades as well. But the moment of memory is enough. The leaves of the past have fallen into the street – swirling for a moment in the wind – brushing against the curb – crushed under the wheels of a child’s bicycle.”
KF: And this is why you’re a playwright and I’m primarily a director – while you were appreciating that beautiful text, I was looking at that beautiful moment of staging. As he is saying that, he’s walking backwards into the void. The lights come down watching a performer move upstage, backwards, away from the audience. I thought that was stunning. Four steps backwards, into the darkness.