Artist to Artist; An Interview with Playwright Erika Sheffer by Danial Talbott

“I’m inspired by the people and places in this city that seldom find meaningful representation in the arts.”

DANIEL TALBOTT: You just recently had your extraordinary play ‘Russian Transport’ produced at the New Group. I think that’s pretty much every emerging playwright’s, and just pretty much any playwright’s wet dream, to get to work at a company like that.

If you remember, what was going through your head on the train ride from Brooklyn to the rehearsal space on the first day? Where were you at starting out on that massive project and adventure as a playwright and theater artist in this city, heading there that day?

The train ride in.  Well, I was kind of dazed.  It was my first production and I think I was still in a bit of shock. That didn’t wear off, by the way, until about a week after we closed.  I couldn’t believe this play I’d started, years earlier, was getting an off-Broadway production.

I wasn’t sure whether I was good enough/talented enough/smart enough/blah, blah, blah.  I was grateful for the biggest break I’ve ever been given, because really, no one deserves opportunity.  When someone puts themselves out there for you, as Scott and everyone at The New Group did in producing an unknown playwright (Just ’cause they freakin’ liked my play?), it is shocking, and incredible, and yes, a shiny bit of incredible luck.

DT: If you could sit in any city in the world and have dinner with any playwright ever, living or dead, who would it be, what would want to ask them and share, and what do you think or hope their advice would be to you as a playwright writing in 2012?

ES: I would share a plate of goulash in Budapest with Lilliian Hellman.  Budapest, because I’ve never been to Hungary, and Hungarian is the only language, other than English, in which I can have a conversation (slow and halting, but a conversation nonetheless).

Lillian Hellman, because she was not only a brave writer, but a brave woman.  She was unafraid of telling stories from her darkest corners.  Also, I heard that the night before her death at age 79, she propositioned a male guest at a party, so sounds like she knew how to have a good time.

I’m guessing she probably had it hard.  A woman in a man’s world who was using her brains to achieve success?  I can imagine…  When playwrights complain about how difficult it is to get their work out there, how few opportunities there are for minority writers, female writers, etc., they are right.  But I think Lillian’s advice to 2012 playwrights would be something along the lines of, “Yeah it’s fuckin’ hard.  Do it anyway.”

DT: What neighborhood or place in the five boroughs inspires
you the most as an artist, and why?

ES: I come from an immigrant family, so those are the communities I draw from.  We first lived in Boro Park among a sea of Hungarian Hassidim, then moved to Sheepshead Bay, which at the time was a working class Italian, Irish Catholic neighborhood.  My family arrived at the start of the Soviet wave to hit that area.  Nowadays, I live in a West Indian section Flatbush.

I’m inspired by cheap little 99 cents stores with off brand cleaning products, the old guys who sit in front of the building and slowly get drunk as the weather warms up, the musicians at Russian restaurants, the dishwasher at the hotel where I work, who comes here from his job at a bakery on the Lower East Side.   I’m inspired by the people and places in this city that seldom find meaningful representation in the arts.

DT: Do you have any interest in directing or producing your own work? Working in TV and film, stepping into other areas of the theater, etc.?

ES: I can’t say I have a burning desire to produce my own work, though that may change, were I to write a play that I believed in, but could not get produced.  I’m definitely interested in working in film and television, but there are two plays halfway between my laptop and head, that are screaming to get out.  Sometimes I miss performing.  Other times I’m grateful not to have to do the same thing every night for four weeks, or longer.  Thus far, I’ve only worked on what I most wanted to do in the moment, and right now, I want to write plays.  Directing my work?  Not sure.  It’s kind of nice to spread the stress around a little bit.

DT: Your work to me is always so wonderfully unexpected, honest, streetwise, and with messy edges—like life. How do you fight to keep that beautiful integrity when so often work is directed down a path that all its wonderful sharp and fucked up edges are forced to be cut off and well-rounded?

ES: Thanks, D.  I’ve tried to do things like “foreshadow” and “explain what I mean,” but it always ends up sounding terrible.  When in life do we ever say exactly what we mean?  I think 90% of the time we are saying what we think we mean in relation to how much we love/hate/want to fuck the person we are talking to.  Rounding out the edges of your work is a great pit stop to make along the way, though.  Explain everything.  To yourself.  (That’s the shitty draft). Then trust that the audience understands human frailty in a profound way that does not need to be articulated.

Look, it’s theater, so we’re not in it for the money.  You and I have talked about this before, but at the end of the day, all you have is your integrity.  I think the most important thing I learned in production and development was to listen, try everything, and believe that ultimately, it’s my play, my name.  I need to stand behind every word.

DT: Who are some of your heroes, and why? What about them helps you keep going and striving?

ES: I have theatrical heroes, Odets, Miller, Carol Churchill, absolutely.  The heroes that keep me striving, though, are the people who struggle to live good lives and support their families despite the deck being stacked against them, because they’re poor, illegal, of color, single parents…  I don’t see many of those stories onstage, so for now, that’s keeping me going.

DT: Here are some of those Inside the Actors Studio/ Pivot/Proust questions:

a). What is your favorite virtue?

Kindness

b). What is your favorite color and flower?

Colors are like moods, you can’t survive on just one.  Flowers, ditto.  (But sunflowers are nice).

c). What is your favorite quality in a woman?

Courage

d). In a man?

Humility

e). Where would you like to live?

Anywhere my husband is.

f). If not yourself, who would you be?

Yo Yo Ma while he plays Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1

g). What is your ideas of happiness and misery?

Happiness: Appreciation of a single moment.
Misery: The desire to please.

h). What is your favorite curse word?

Fuck (in all it’s glorious incarnations)

I). What natural talent would you like to be gifted with?

Patience.

J). If god exists, what would you like to hear him or her say
to you when you reach the gates? (Or something like that.)

Everyone you’ve loved and lost is here.

8. If your plays were the work of a painter, who would they
be by, and why? And what great American writer would they
want to have a torrid affair with?

My plays would probably be the work of Banksy.  They’re current, and there is a lot of profanity.  Whether successful or not, I am trying my best to say something lasting and true, in a completely ephemeral way.

Oooh.  My plays would want to have an affair with Joyce Carol Oats.  Her work is funny and flashy and sad and violent and full of humanity.

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