Category Archives: Interviews

SHERMAN YELLEN’S OWN LIFETIME (iii): WRITING TIPS FROM THE WINNER OF TWO EMMYS, DEALING WITH HARD KNOCKS IN SHOW BIZ, AND WHAT HIS MEMOIR ‘SPOTLESS’ IS REALLY ABOUT ·

(SHERMAN YELLEN WILL BE INTERVIEWED ABOUT “SPOTLESS,” BY DONNA HANOVER, ON CUNY TV IN THE “ARTS IN THE CITY” SHOW.  THE PROGRAM FIRST AIRS ON FRIDAY, JULY 14TH, AT 10 A.M.  THE EPISODE WILL SUBSEQUENTLY BE SHOWN SEVERAL TIMES DURING THE MONTH—THE OFFICIAL SCHEDULE IS: 2ND AND 4TH FRIDAYS IN JULY, AT 10 A.M., 3 P.M., AND 8:30 P.M. THE SHOW THEN CAN BE SEEN THE FOLLOWING SUNDAYS AT NOON.  SHORTLY AFTER THE FIRST AIRING, THE INTERVIEW WILL BE ONLINE AT WWW.CUNY.TV. CLICK ON ARTS, SCROLL DOWN TO “ARTS IN THE CITY,” AND THERE THE SHOW WILL BE.)

Sherman Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, with a score by Fiddler on the Roof songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, which he and Harnick have recently reimagined as Rothschild & Sons. Sherman wrote the libretto for the Will Holt and Gary William Friedman musical Treasure Island, winner of the Broadway World Best Regional Musical Award (2012). Among his many theater works is his satirical sketch “Delicious Indignities,” which appeared in the New York and London revue Oh! Calcutta! His straight plays on and off Broadway include New Gods for LoversStrangers, and December Fools.

Sherman was librettist and lyricist for Josephine Tonight, an original musical he wrote with the late composer Wally Harper, about the early life of Josephine Baker, which The Chicago Sun-Times called “a shining new musical” and which the D.C. press praised for being “so hot that it sizzles.”

In his youth he worked as a librettist with legendary composer Richard Rodgers. Together with Sheldon Harnick they recently revised the Rodgers-Harnick musical Rex about Henry VIII. This new version had a successful premiere in Toronto.  Yellen’s teleplays have won him two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America broadcast on NBC, as well as an Emmy Nomination for his Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Beauty and the Beast starring George C. Scott. Sherman’s screenplay adaptations of classic novels range from Great Expectations to Phantom of the Opera. He has received awards in Arts and Letters from Bard College, and he is a frequent contributor of essays on the arts, literature, and politics to online publications such as The Huffington Post.

Sherman recently published his autobiographical novella Cousin Bella–The Whore of Minsk, available in a volume, which also includes his holiday short story A Christmas Lilly,” and a collection of three plays, December Fools and Other Plays (December Fools * Budapest * Gin Lane).  Sherman is married, the father of two sons, Nicholas and Christopher, and has three much loved granddaughters. He has lived in London and Los Angeles, worked in Berlin and Budapest, but home was, is, and always will be New York City.

Sherman Yellen talks, with SV’s Bob Shuman, about his new memoir Spotless: Memories of a New York City Childhood.  The final part, of this three-part interview, will appear, 7/5.

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x 

Sherman Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, with a score by Fiddler on the Roof songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, which he and Harnick have recently reimagined as Rothschild & Sons. Sherman wrote the libretto for the Will Holt and Gary William Friedman musical Treasure Island, winner of the Broadway World Best Regional Musical Award (2012). Among his many theater works is his satirical sketch “Delicious Indignities,” which appeared in the New York and London revue Oh! Calcutta! His straight plays on and off Broadway include New Gods for LoversStrangers, and December Fools.  

Sherman was librettist and lyricist for Josephine Tonight, an original musical he wrote with the late composer Wally Harper, about the early life of Josephine Baker, which The Chicago Sun-Times called “a shining new musical” and which the D.C. press praised for being “so hot that it sizzles.”

In his youth he worked as a librettist with legendary composer Richard Rodgers. Together with Sheldon Harnick they recently revised the Rodgers-Harnick musical Rex about Henry VIII. This new version had a successful premiere in Toronto.  Yellen’s teleplays have won him two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America broadcast on NBC, as well as an Emmy Nomination for his Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Beauty and the Beast starring George C. Scott. Sherman’s screenplay adaptations of classic novels range from Great Expectations to Phantom of the Opera. He has received awards in Arts and Letters from Bard College, and he is a frequent contributor of essays on the arts, literature, and politics to online publications such as The Huffington Post.

Sherman recently published his autobiographical novella Cousin Bella–The Whore of Minsk, available in a volume, which also includes his holiday short story A Christmas Lilly,” and a collection of three plays, December Fools and Other Plays (December Fools * Budapest * Gin Lane).  Sherman is married, the father of two sons, Nicholas and Christopher, and has three much loved granddaughters. He has lived in London and Los Angeles, worked in Berlin and Budapest, but home was, is, and always will be New York City. 

Sherman Yellen talks, with SV’s Bob Shuman, about his new memoir Spotless: Memories of a New York City Childhood in the interview’s final installment.

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x 

Best time of the day for you to write?

I rise at five or six and I write early in the morning.  Walk my dog at eight, and go back to work later that afternoon.   I love mornings when the world is beginning to awaken.  Living in NYC, the early mornings allow me to hear birdsong from the warbler who is sitting on the fire escape outside my window.   Stillness and quiet give me a blank page for thinking. 

Best piece of writing advice you can give someone?

To playwrights or memoirists?   Do not be afraid to produce a terrible first draft.  Be the totally driven writer, not the destructive self-critic when you start on a project.  Let the critic in you come out in your revisions, your subsequent drafts–but get that first draft down–and be generous with yourself as you start to work.  The ruthlessness can be put off for later.  And read–read plays–read Ibsen, read Dickens–just read during dry periods–and the company of a great book or a great writer will urge you to go on. 

What was the easiest part of writing Spotless?  The hardest?

The easiest part of writing Spotless was dealing with my mother’s early life on the Lower East Side, her life as a runway model, and her meeting with my father.  She had told me enough during my childhood to give me the material I needed.  And being a curious child I never stopped asking questions about the past.  As I note in the book she was an intelligent woman totally lacking in imagination–so she spoke the plain truth and although she had risen in the world from the worst poverty to affluence–mainly through her astonishing beauty–she felt no shame about her humble origins.   It was harder for me to write about my father.  I knew that I didn’t love him as a son should–because of his intermittent rages and the violence that often accompanied them, and I was afraid that I would demonize a man who was at his core decent and loving.   No, I did not love him in life and yet writing this book allowed me to look closely at his life and my own early years, so, strange as it may seem, I came to love him, if only posthumously.    Spotless also allowed me to live again with those I deeply loved, my late sister and my mother, and all the odd uncles and aunts who are long gone.  Although it is an intensely personal book ,so many readers of different backgrounds and religions tell me that they found their own past in mine, so it confirms my belief that the universal lives in the particular.  

You don’t seem to have been deeply religious, but how important is being Jewish, identifying as Jewish to you today?  Did it become more so as you wrote The Rothschilds?

I was raised as a cultural Jew.  That meant that in our house bacon had undergone a religious conversion together with milk accompanying meat, so that my mother’s two skinny children could put on some weight.   I had to do much research into Jewish life in the 18th and 19th centuries in writing The Rothschilds, since I decided only to use the first few pages of Fred Morton’s wonderful biography of the family as my material.   As readers of Spotless will discover in the last chapter, “An Italian Table Cloth” I came to understand the meaning of being born a Jew through life itself.   

How do you recover from failure?  Or the failure of not seeing your favorite works produced and embraced?  

The first answer is just keep working–you train yourself to live in the day and let go of the past failure, as best you can, or of the lost work that you loved.   Easy to say.  Hard to do. Not so sure I can ever do that with my musical Josephine Tonight or with my play Budapest–the best of my unproduced dramas –but I have the plays published in the book December Fools and Other Plays so if they do not reach the stage as I want them to do, they can reach the minds of readers.  

Spotless seems to be about New York, as much as its characters.   How hard would it be for you to leave it–or would that be easy for you to do?

For years NYC was my base.  I worked in London, Budapest, Berlin, but NYC was always my home.   Summers were spent in a ridiculously cheap farmhouse in Bridgehampton when it was a world of potato farmers and fishermen.  And there was a lost decade in Los Angeles when I worked in TV, writing the scripts that would allow me to pay for college for my sons.  But I am in love with my city and the people in it. Leaving it is inconceivable–certainly not at this stage of my late life.  Hell, I am eighty-five, still working, still hoping, still walking, still loving my family and friends and the world I inhabit. 

No, I do not leave NYC these days–not even for weekends.  The city has become one of my best late-life friends–and I assume that it would strongly object should I abandon Central Park and my surviving friends and family even for a weekend.  Spotless is more than about NYC–I think it is NYC.   At the end of the day it is not so much the story of a precocious child in an odd family but a love story between that child and the city of his birth. 

Thank you so much for this interview.

(c) 2017 by Sherman Yellen (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved. 

Read Part 1 of this interview at: http://stagevoices.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10594&action=edit

Read Part 2 of this interview at: http://stagevoices.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10694&action=edit

Read Part 3 of this interview at: http://stagevoices.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10782&action=edit

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x

Photograph permissions

Yellen photos courtesy of Sherman Yellen: (top to bottom) Sherman Yellen’s twin granddaughters; Sherman and collaborator Wally Harper; himself at age 40; Sherman’s wife, Joan.

SUMMER IS THE TIME FOR STRETCHING ·

(Dave Itzkoff’s, Erik Piepenburg’s, LauraCollins-Hughes’s, and Sophie Haigney’s article appeared in The New Yok Times, 6/28; via Pam Green.)

Relaxing on the beach? Dozing by the pool? Not these writers and performers, who are using the warmer months to take some risks, test themselves and expand their talents onstage.

Brad Hall

Over a span of some four decades in which he helped found Chicago’s Practical Theater Company, with an ensemble that included his future wife, Julia Louis-Dreyfus; acted for two seasons on “Saturday Night Live”; created the TV sitcoms “The Single Guy” and “Watching Ellie”; and wrote comedy movies including “Bye Bye Love,” Brad Hall says he has few career regrets.

“That’s because I have a selective memory,” Mr. Hall joked in a recent phone interview. A bit more sincerely, he added: “Those regrets that I do have are, exclusively, not doing plays that I wish I had done. So now I decided to say yes when people ask me to do them.”

Among the opportunities that Mr. Hall has embraced in this more receptive mode is the Gloucester Stage Company’s summer production of “The Effect,” by the British playwright Lucy Prebble.

Continue reading the main story

SHERMAN YELLEN’S OWN LIFETIME (ii): THE AWARD WINNER ON HIS FATHER AND FAMILY, FRIENDSHIPS WITH RICHARD RODGERS AND NORMAN ROCKWELL, AND WHAT THE DRAMATIST HAS TAUGHT THE MEMOIRIST IN ‘SPOTLESS’ ·

Sherman Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, with a score by Fiddler on the Roof songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, which he and Harnick have recently reimagined as Rothschild & Sons. Sherman wrote the libretto for the Will Holt and Gary William Friedman musical Treasure Island, winner of the Broadway World Best Regional Musical Award (2012). Among his many theater works is his satirical sketch “Delicious Indignities,” which appeared in the New York and London revue Oh! Calcutta! His straight plays on and off Broadway include New Gods for LoversStrangers, and December Fools.  

Sherman was librettist and lyricist for Josephine Tonight, an original musical he wrote with the late composer Wally Harper, about the early life of Josephine Baker, which The Chicago Sun-Times called “a shining new musical” and which the D.C. press praised for being “so hot that it sizzles.”

In his youth he worked as a librettist with legendary composer Richard Rodgers. Together with Sheldon Harnick they recently revised the Rodgers-Harnick musical Rex about Henry VIII. This new version had a successful premiere in Toronto.  Yellen’s teleplays have won him two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America broadcast on NBC, as well as an Emmy Nomination for his Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Beauty and the Beast starring George C. Scott. Sherman’s screenplay adaptations of classic novels range from Great Expectations to Phantom of the Opera. He has received awards in Arts and Letters from Bard College, and he is a frequent contributor of essays on the arts, literature, and politics to online publications such as The Huffington Post.

Sherman recently published his autobiographical novella Cousin Bella–The Whore of Minsk, available in a volume, which also includes his holiday short story A Christmas Lilly,” and a collection of three plays, December Fools and Other Plays (December Fools * Budapest * Gin Lane).  Sherman is married, the father of two sons, Nicholas and Christopher, and has three much loved granddaughters. He has lived in London and Los Angeles, worked in Berlin and Budapest, but home was, is, and always will be New York City.

 

Sherman Yellen talks, with SV’s Bob Shuman, about his new memoir Spotless: Memories of a New York City Childhood.  The final part, of this three-part interview, will appear, 7/9.

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x 

What can playwriting teach a memoirist?

Plenty.  Playwrights learn to create a world onstage made up of scenes, comic and dramatic ones.   A memoirist, who has some experience as a playwright, can recreate the past in terms of scenes–and, just as a playwright must often choose to kill his favorite bit of dialogue, in order to advance the plot, a memoirist must know how to select from a full life of events, and select only those that are the most telling.  Although I have tried to adhere to the truth of the events in my life in Spotless, there are moments when I depended upon remembered dialogue to flesh out a character or an event.   I am about to become immodest but who cares?

Sheldon Harnick, after reading Spotless, wrote of it, “In Spotless, Sherman Yellen has brought his skill as a playwright to bear.  Reading his memoir is like watching a totally absorbing play: the characters come to vivid life and the event they experience registers as first-rate drama.  Bravo, Mr. Yellen! Bravo!”   I am not only kvelling inside, I am bowing.  

Your father suffered from depression–to what extent did you or could you understand him growing up? 

My father Nat’s depression was something I took for granted growing up.  It was simply part of the world, as I knew it.   As children we accept the most aberrant behavior as normal if we are faced by it daily.  Since he was also capable of euphoria and great generosity it was confusing as hell.  His was a world before tranquilizers, although his severe depressions ended in electroshock therapy–treatments that I took him to as a boy of fourteen.  As a small child I never knew who would walk into the room, that angry depressed man, or the loving, generous father.

My very calm mother kept the family together, despite the many tantrums of my father.  Divorce was not an option in those days. She balanced his instability; like many women of her time, she placed her children first, and protected us as much as she could–particularly when he became violent.   And despite having this unstable father, as the book reveals, there was so much laughter in the house. My sister and I grew up with a precocious sense of irony, an awareness of the ridiculousness of most human pretentions–and, later in life, I would try to bring that to my work.   As an adult I experienced some depression, that unwelcome guest who tells you he will only stay for a few days and always overstays his visit, but I managed to master it, and, for most of my life, I have been depression free–thanks, in part, to a life spent with a wonderful wife, great friends, and a loving family.   And a devotion to my work.

How did your father react to your going into the theatre?

My parents enjoyed my early success–I was one of the lucky few.  They saw my first TV show produced, when I was in my early twenties, and I was still relatively young when my plays were done.  They knew that I was living the life I wanted–and for all their concerns about my security (some of that justified)–they only encouraged my work.   My father loved theater and took my older sister, Simone, and me to theater every Saturday, from the time I was ten years old.  I am one of the few alive who saw the first NYC matinee of Oklahoma!, as well as the opening of Streetcar and Death of a Salesman.  Not appropriate for a kid?  Perhaps.  But I loved the truth that I saw in those plays on those stages. My father very much wanted us to enjoy our lives, but his demons often intruded on that enjoyment. 

You seem to have been witness to important people and events.  One of them is the crash of the Hindenburg–do you feel that there was a continuing impact because you saw that, or how do you think of it in terms of your own history? 

I don’t believe that my accidental viewing of the Hindenburg explosion–altered the course of my life.  These were not of my making, and even as a child, I knew that what was most interesting were not accidents but character.  I was, I suppose, remarkably precocious in my desire to study people and try to take them apart, like a clock, to see what made them work.  My first ambition was to be a fine artist, and I sketched everyone and everything I saw. As far as some of the notable people who came into my life–I can truly say I did not seek them out.  My friendship with Norman Rockwell, who provided a cabin in Vermont for my wife and I on our wedding trip, came from my friendship with his son.   Other notables, like Richard Rodgers and Sheldon Harnick, became friends because we worked together, in harmony. The experience of success or failure only drew us closer together.   It may seem odd to say this but I am a good friend–I care about the people in my life–and I learned early on that you do not abandon people in their difficult years–not if you wish to live comfortably with yourself, or your idea of yourself. 

You’ve worked with both Richard Rodgers and Eileen J. Garrett, two people from very different walks of life–but who would you say influenced you the most growing up?

You mention my work as an editor for the medium Eileen J. Garrett.  She was never a real friend–just a boss at my first after-college job as an editor at Tomorrow magazine.  Later, she was a patron who made it possible for me to live in London and work on a Shakespeare study by giving me a grant from her foundation.  A great year in my early life.  She told me that I had a wonderful “aura”–God knows what that is–I think it is a halo that mediums can see–and in this I feel she was off course in her mystical declarations.   If I ever did have a halo, it has slipped off me or tarnished in my eighty-five years.   I believe that she was the inspiration for Madam Acardi in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.   And I was told that she also inspired the character of Auntie MamePatrick Dennis having worked at her publication, a few years before I did.  I do love eccentrics–not as much as I love dogs and cats–but they come in a close second.  She was imperious, generous, a tad frightening, but I feel fortunate in having known her.  Through her I met Aldous Huxley and Gloria Swanson and other notables–great fun for a very young man. 

My friendship with Richard Rodgers is one of the subjects of my next book, Absent Friends.  I met him late in his life, when his health problems were tragically debilitating, yet I found him wonderfully creative, generous in praise, a true creative collaborator, and a man who did not look to blame others when a musical play did not succeed.  Rex, the musical that we worked on together, was not a success at the time–although after forty odd years, Sheldon Harnick and I have revised and reimagined it so that it is now the fine show we always wanted it to be.   It is soon to be seen, this summer, in repertory at the Utah Festival of Opera and Musical Theater in Logan, Utah . . . and to my delight, it’s sold out for its run.   Rodgers was very much a man of his time, one who did not show emotion easily–he expressed it through his music–and how wonderful that music is.  There is some stunning music in Rex, and I take no small pride in that, hoping that it is was inspired by my libretto.  Rodgers was a brilliant, witty man, a political and social progressive who lived what he believed–and he influenced my life in one important way.   I learned from watching him how one survives illness, old age, and losses by continuing to work–to keep drawing from within, rather than looking to the world for pity or comfort.   After Rex my wife and I were frequent guests of Dorothy and Dick Rodgers, both in NYC and in Connecticut–they were gracious and so appreciative of our friendship.   Friendship is a talent like any other.  It requires the ability to look beyond the self and take a true interest in the lives of others. Many biographers have stressed the negative side of Rodgers–a view encouraged by his late daughter Mary.  My experience, however, as his friend was altogether different.  But I know, from my early life, that we are many things to different people.  My father employed the handicapped and minorities in his sweater factory–nobody did that at that time.  He had an understanding of suffering and, in his work, he acted on his best instincts–this man, beloved by his employees, was an altogether different man than the terror we faced at home.  That is part of the mystery of being human. 

Do you consider yourself lucky?  

Yes, in family and friendships.   Some days when I consider the plays I have written that I love, those which have yet to find a production, and the best of my musicals  Josephine Tonight, written with the late composer Wally Harper, one that received superb reviews in Chicago and in Alexandria, I get exasperated that my best work has never come to NYC–I feel unlucky about this musical but I get over it.  It takes so much energy and so much financing to get a play on in this city today that I am happy that I can now devote myself to my memoir writing, and see my work produced in regional theaters.  

Thank you so much.  We’ll look forward to next week.

Read Part 1 of this interview at: http://stagevoices.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10594&action=edit

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x

Photograph permissions

Yellen photos courtesy of Sherman Yellen.

Sheldon Harnick and Sherman Yellen: The Forward.

Norman Rockwell: Saturday Evening Post.

 

SHERMAN YELLEN’S OWN LIFETIME:  THE AWARD-WINNING PLAYWRIGHT, LIBRETTIST, SCREENWRITER, AND LYRICIST ON OLD NEW YORK AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD,  CENTRAL PARK NOW, AND BECOMING  JOHN ADAMS, MAYER ROTHSCHILD, AND THE OBSERVANT CHILD IN HIS NEW MEMOIR ‘SPOTLESS’ ·

 

Sherman Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, with a score by Fiddler on the Roof songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, which he and Harnick have recently reimagined as Rothschild & Sons. Sherman wrote the libretto for the Will Holt and Gary William Friedman musical Treasure Island, winner of the Broadway World Best Regional Musical Award (2012). Among his many theater works is his satirical sketch “Delicious Indignities,” which appeared in the New York and London revue Oh! Calcutta! His straight plays on and off Broadway include New Gods for LoversStrangers, and December Fools.  

Sherman was librettist and lyricist for Josephine Tonight, an original musical he wrote with the late composer Wally Harper, about the early life of Josephine Baker, which The Chicago Sun-Times called “a shining new musical” and which the D.C. press praised for being “so hot that it sizzles.”

In his youth he worked as a librettist with legendary composer Richard Rodgers. Together with Sheldon Harnick they recently revised the Rodgers-Harnick musical Rex about Henry VIII. This new version had a successful premiere in Toronto.  Yellen’s teleplays have won him two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America broadcast on NBC, as well as an Emmy Nomination for his Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Beauty and the Beast starring George C. Scott. Sherman’s screenplay adaptations of classic novels range from Great Expectations to Phantom of the Opera. He has received awards in Arts and Letters from Bard College, and he is a frequent contributor of essays on the arts, literature, and politics to online publications such as The Huffington Post.

Sherman recently published his autobiographical novella Cousin Bella–The Whore of Minsk, available in a volume, which also includes his holiday short story A Christmas Lilly,” and a collection of three plays, December Fools and Other Plays (December Fools * Budapest * Gin Lane).  Sherman is married, the father of two sons, Nicholas and Christopher, and has three much loved granddaughters. He has lived in London and Los Angeles, worked in Berlin and Budapest, but home was, is, and always will be New York City.

Sherman Yellen talks, with SV’s Bob Shuman, about his new memoir Spotless: Memories of a New York City Childhood.  The second part, of this three-part interview, will appear, 6/28.

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x 

How are the Yellens, the Rothschilds, and the Adamses the same; how are they different?

When I write about people I can only do so by connecting them to myself, my character, my beliefs, and my experiences.   All three: the Yellens, the Rothschilds, and the Adamses come from very different cultures, but what they share is a deep belief that the world must be better, and we must work to make it so.   It may sound foolish but, while writing these very different works, I became John Adams, Mayer Rothschild, and the little boy who inhabits Spotless, the saga of my family.  If we don’t bring ourselves to everything we write, there can be little truth or passion in the writing–it becomes a dry history rather than drama.   The trick is to find some part of yourself in every character you write, even the nasty ones.  For a while I had the joy of being John Adams, Mayer Rothschild, and, late in life, the observant child that I was.   

Did you ever believe that you would excel in writing about families–or how would you describe your new book?

I’ve always had a deep interest in families–what holds them together, what pulls them apart–probably flowing from the closeness of my own family– both my first family, the one in Spotless,  and the second, with my wife, Joan, which has lasted nearly 64 years.  I am deeply interested in how we remember those who are gone:  For me, Spotless was an attempt to recall and recreate what I had experienced as a child of the ‘30s and ‘40s–to go deeper yet into that world of my grandparents and parents: their journey, from European and Lower East Side poverty to affluence, and the cost of it, for everyone who traveled that very American path.   It is summed up by critic/novelist Christopher Davis who said, “Spotless is a story of family love trapped in the old world’s hurricane of desire to share in American dreaming.”

How did you decide on the title?  Tell us about it.

The title Spotless has several meanings–it certainly has little to do with that questioning, and somewhat judgmental, child on the cover of the book, a born observer:  indeed, the title has more to do with my mother’s use of the word to describe the character of a friend, a housekeeper, or the kitchen floor in our apartment.  In a sense it was her ideal.  She came from a world where half her family died of TB–spots on the lung were the sign of that disease.  To be Spotless was, for her, to be safe, healthy, and to be alive.  

You write that hardship “doesn’t often make people better, it just makes them harder.” You are referring to the Depression and the ‘40s.  Have you noticed other periods when people became harder–and have there been times when they seemed otherwise? 

My observation is a generalization, and, like most, it is only partially true.   There are people who rise up from their own despair to help others in the worst of times, but I have observed that many who have suffered are locked into their own cages of suffering, and they have not found a key to escape.  I do believe that we learn and grow more from kindness than from suffering.  Corny?  Maybe.  But I have found the truth in this over a long lifetime.

What do you miss most about the New York you grew up in (the book brings up cultural references, such as Baby Peggy, Olive Thomas, and Sonja Henie)? 

I miss so many of the old pleasures of the old NYC: the trolley cars in the Bronx, the double-decker buses on Fifth Avenue, the old Schrafft’s restaurants, where my parents took me for a Sunday lunch, and I miss the mom-and-pop stores that helped to create the New York of neighborhoods–I miss the old Reuben’s Restaurant, of the 1950s, which allowed my wife and I to dine with our schnauzer Gus seated beside us–before the health police took charge of the city.   I love the spirit of that city, before real estate became the King of New York, driving the small shopkeepers out and bringing in those ubiquitous banks and chain stores.  And I miss the affordable price of a theater ticket, and the smaller, more human scale of the city.  An example of that is the old MOMA.  I would go there with my friends and girlfriends, as a teenager at the High School of Music & Art–a kid who loved fine art–and it was a welcoming place.  Today, it is a glass palace, an expensive tourist spot, not the warm, second home for many art-loving city kids.  Needless to say, I loved the New York that didn’t have a Trump Tower and kept its Trumps sequestered in Queens.

I am not one who subscribes to the idea that the high cost of living in NYC is proportionate with the cost of living in the past.  Baloney!  The world was affordable for those who were not in the one percent.  It was there for most of the residents–even during the Depression.  I miss the courtesies that made for a gentler city, and oh Lord, do I miss those marvelous movie theaters–growing up, as I did, in the golden age of Hollywood.  Nothing short of heaven itself can replicate the grandeur of the old Loew’s Paradise, on the Grand Concourse, and its sister theaters throughout the boroughs.    I do not miss the bigotry of that time, but we may have traded it in for the repellant hard-nosed ambition that I often see today.   But oh, the beauty of Central Park now–almost nothing compares with it in the past–and the everyday mix of races and classes in NYC makes me proud to be a New Yorker.

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x

 

(c) 2017 by Sherman Yellen (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.

Yellen family photos: Courtesy of the Sherman Yellen. All rights reserved.

Central Park: Fodor’s Travel Guides.

BEOWULF BORITT, SET DESIGNER, RENOVATES HIS HOME ·

(Joanne Kaufman’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/26; via Pam Green.)

What I Love

It may well be, as the saying goes, that doctors’ wives die young, shoemakers’ children go barefoot and car mechanics drive wrecks. But if Beowulf Boritt is any proof, set designers would sooner hand over their staple guns than give short shrift to home sweet (and soignée) home.

For 15 years, Mr. Boritt, who is 46 but looks like a graduate student, lived in a 1950s-era Sutton Place co-op in New York, where he and his wife, the actress Mimi Bilinski, combined a studio and a one-bedroom. The building may have been postwar, but the couple’s apartment was anything but.

“I did all my set-designer tricks to make it look prewar,” said Mr. Boritt, who added crown moldings, redid the baseboards and installed French doors.

(Read more)

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/26/realestate/beowulf-boritt-set-designer-renovates-his-home.html?_r=0

Photo: iapot.tv

DAVE MALLOY WROTE ‘THE GREAT COMET,’ BUT HE’S NOT MUCH OF A PAINTER ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 52/5; via Pam Green.)

The composer and performer Dave Malloy isn’t the kind of New Yorker who can look at a room and instantly tell you its square footage. How big is his rehearsal studio, on a block of old industrial buildings in Gowanus, Brooklyn? “I’m six foot tall,” Mr. Malloy, 41, said this week, eyeing the dimensions. “So if I lay down twice — it’s probably 13 by 11 or something like that?”

With an upright piano against one wall and a wooden thumb piano hanging from another, this unassuming space strung with festive mini-lights is where he writes — though the flurry of awards season has put that on pause for the past month. “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” his immersive stage adaptation of a section of “War and Peace,” is up for 12 Tony Awards, including best musical. His book, score and orchestrations are all nominated.

(Read more)

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/25/arts/design/dave-malloy-wrote-the-great-comet-but-hes-not-much-of-a-painter.html

 

CRAIG SMITH ON ORTON—50 YEARS LATER: THE PRODUCING ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF PHOENIX THEATRE ENSEMBLE AND ‘ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE’ (ONLY THROUGH MAY 14), ADVANCING THE STORY, AND DIRECTING A MODERN CLASSIC ·

Craig Smith is Producing Artistic Director of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.  He was an ensemble member of New York’s prestigious Jean Cocteau Repertory where he made his artistic home for more than 3 decades appearing in over 200 productions from Stoppard to Shakespeare and Sophocles to Williams. In 2004, Craig and four colleagues founded the award-winning Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.   Now under the direction of Mr. Smith and Artistic Director, Elise Stone,  Phoenix presents  3 to 6 productions of new and classical works annually, a reading and new play development series, and an arts-in-education program for NYC public schools.  He is the recipient of the President of the Borough of Manhattan’s Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts and Community Service.

Craig Smith talks with SV’s Bob Shuman about his new production at the Wild Project.

One question you’d ask Joe Orton if he was around?

Your work in Entertaining Mr.  Sloane has a tragic through-line that has the emotional impact equal to that of Arthur Miller.  You moved away from this with Loot and What the Butler Saw–why? 

One of the early reviewers of Entertaining Mr. Sloane called it a “dirty highbrow play.”  Is it? 

Orton was a 1960’s rebel–Ed and Sloane are in the words of critic Randy Gener, “rapacious bisexuals”–the play’s raw treatment of sexuality was new and titillating in 1964.  But the real dirt is the way family members treat each other–no one can inflict pain the way your family can.  “Highbrow”:  the language is sophisticated, like Wilde, Coward, and Pinter, such as “you superannuated old prat” coming from undereducated people who live in an isolated house, situated in a rubbish dump. This anachronistic use of selected words, here and there, is delicious. About the language:  It is a challenge to memorize in the way all really good language is—it does not come easily.  It is a singular voice.  When done well, it crackles. Language that is easy to memorize often comes off as ordinary and a bit uninteresting.

How would you describe what Entertaining Mr. Sloane is about?

A love story.  Four deeply wounded people in need of love.  It’s about a family–a family with very old wounds–hard facts that they have tried to ignore or forget.  But the introduction of Sloane to this family unit proves explosive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s more interesting?  Joe  Orton’s plays or his life (and death)?

Very difficult to compete with the colorful—some would say the outrageous–life of Joe Orton.  The plays have order–even the chaos has a choreographed order to it–but Orton’s life was not choreographed.  

Your greatest satisfaction from being in the theatre?

Breakthroughs in the rehearsal room.

Biggest obstacle for theatre companies today?  

The extraordinarily entertaining work being done on cable television.

 

Tell us about the casting process:  What kind of actors were you looking for—and tell us who finally won the parts?

Good actors . . . I knew I wanted Elise Stone (my wife and Phoenix Theatre Ensemble Artistic Director) to play Kath and John Lenartz to play Kemp–both great, talented actors who I have worked with for decades.  Ed is the most challenging role in the play, and I asked PTE artist, Antonio Edwards Suarez, to play this complex man who struggles with his sexuality.  But . . . I did not have a Sloane.  Then we went to see some director scenes that friends were working on–and I saw this good looking, interesting young actor with very intense eyes.  We asked him to join a reading we were doing of Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine.  Once cast, I could see that he had excellent instincts, took direction, and was a really nice guy–so after that, I asked Matt Baguth to play Sloane. 

At Phoenix Theatre Ensemble do you typically work with the same artists?  Who are your current collaborators?

Yes, we have an ensemble of resident artists, but casting is not exclusive to that group.  Over time these artists have developed a creative shorthand and a knowledge and appreciation of each other.  It is a great way to work and btw, I won’t work with difficult people.  

Does the company look for a certain kind of play to produce?   How does the ensemble decide on a season?

Many think that you just sit down and pick out some favorite plays or playwrights that you might want to produce.  It is a very complicated process, though.  We have to consider budgets, performance rights, plays that complement each other–we like a mix of new works and classics—spaces to perform in, and the challenge the season will be to our actors and directors.

How much liberty do you believe a director can take with an established script?

In 30+ years of theatre work, this is my directing debut.  I’m enjoying it immensely.  I take more liberty with scripts than others do or would.  As an actor, I’m legend for paraphrasing–particularly with scripts in translation–perhaps this has given me a sense of entitlement, some would say a “false entitlement.”  I am not of the opinion that actors and directors are interpreters only.  As a jazz musician will riff on a piece of music, I encourage the same thing in theatre.  Lots of people disagree with this–some vehemently, but I don’t really care. 

Tell us about your background. How did you get started in the theatre and how has your career evolved?  

As a young man new to the city, I auditioned for Jean Cocteau Repertory and then attended a performance of Waiting for Godot, 10:00PM on a Friday night.  The play was at their 50-seat storefront theatre in a neighborhood that I considered the downtown “murder district.” It was indeed a pretty rough area. I had never seen anything quite like that performance before; I went back the next day and asked if they needed help sweeping the floor. I stayed with them for 30+ years.

Most unlikely problem you’ve faced during the rehearsal process—and how has it resolved or how is it resolving?

The pauses–I have worked on quite a bit of Pinter and Beckett–masters of the power of the pause.  Orton was a fan of Pinter, and the script is littered with “pauses” and “silences”–way too many of them. If he had written this later in his short career, I think he would have been more selective. But regardless, I thought I had a good handle on this–the non-filled pause–the power of nothingness hanging in the air—but it is a challenge.   We continue to work on them.

Most influential director, person in theatre, or mentor in your life? 

Eve Adamson and Elise Stone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does knowing about the early ‘60s in England help in understanding Entertaining Mr. Sloane?  Or do you feel it’s not necessary to explain?

Well, young Matt, in rehearsal one night, referred to the time of Sloane as “way back then”–like it might have been an 18th-century play, which I found both humorous and sobering at the same time. There is a generation that doesn’t know who Orton is, who think that “edge” is only contemporary to the last few years.  In a way, this play could have only come out of that culture-changing decade–a decade I am so glad that I experienced. But the play is not stuck in that time period.  In my opinion, it is worthy of being considered a modern classic.

Does knowing about the current political or cultural environment in the U.S. inform your production in any way? 

I didn’t think it would.   We did Brecht’s Arturo Ui right over the election–it could not have been more timely, and we reaped the benefits.  I was relieved we were doing Sloane, because I thought it would be a break for us–and for our audience–from the overload of politics and the plethora of new works coming out in response to this U.S. administration.  But, in a very short time, we are now in a culture of repression and regression:  from the progressive victories of same-sex marriage to the horrors of Chechnya; from the rise of domestic hate crimes to the overall demise of compassion. So, unfortunately, we once again find our work being very, very relevant.

Give the answer to an essential question about yourself that you realize won’t be asked here.  

I find beauty in what others find to be gross and disgusting.

Best piece of theatrical advice you ever received? 

Don’t retreat–advance the story.   And also from a director, who gave me this note:  “it is, of course, complete hokum, but you must imbue with complete truth.”

Thank you very much.

Entertaining  Mr. Sloane by Joe Orton

When:   May 4–14; performances Tues-Sat @8:00 PM;  Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2:00 pm; Sunday matinee at 3:00 pm.

Full Schedule: Thurs 5/4 @ 8pm; Fri 5/5 @ 8pm; Sat 5/6 @ 2pm & 8pm; Sun 5/7 @ 3pm; Tues 5/9 @ 8pm; Wed 5/10 @ 2pm; 8pm; Thurs 5/11 @8pm; Fri 5/12 @ 8pm; Sat 5//13 @ 2pm & 8pm; Sun 5/14 @  3pm.

Information: http://www.phoenixtheatreensemble.org/;  212-465-3446

Tickets:   Tickets are $30 each; Call 212-352-3101 or visit www.PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org.

Where: The Wild Project @ 195 East 3rd Street (Avenue A and Avenue B)

Transportation: By Subway: F Train to 2nd Avenue; by Bus A14 to 4th Street and Ave A; 8th Street Crosstown. 

(c) 2017 by Craig Smith (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble production of “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” photo credits: Gerry Goodstein.

WAYNE ALLENSWORTH’S AMERICAN SHOWDOWN II: THE AUTHOR OF ‘FIELD OF BLOOD’ ON THE EPIC, RUSSIAN INTELLIGENCE/WESTERN ASSUMPTIONS, AND CHARACTERS WITH HARD CHOICES ·

Wayne Allensworth worked as an analyst for the Foreign Broadcast Information Service from 1991 to 2002.  He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 1998.  He is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine.  His short story, Man of the West, was nominated for a Western Writers of America Spur award. He has contributed to the following collections: Exploring American History (Marshall Cavendish, 2008); Peace in the Promised Land: A Realist Scenario (Chronicles Books, 2006); Immigration and the American Identity (Chronicles Books, 2008); and Russian Nationalism and the National Reassertion of Russia, edited by Marlene Laruelle (Johns Hopkins University). He lives in Ft. Worth, Texas. 

Read Part 1 of Wayne Allensworth’s interview:

http://stagevoices.com/2017/04/15/wayne-allensworths-american-showdown-the-author-of-field-of-blood-on-modern-westerns-frontier-situations-and-the-best-books-and-films-in-the-genre-including-his/

Wayne Allensworth saddles up with SV’s Bob Shuman to talk about writing, formal institutions, and informal structures, in the conclusion to his two-part interview.

Read the prologue to FIELD OF BLOOD at the end of this post.

You mentioned Lonesome Dove as an example of an epic Western.  What makes a Western an epic?  Is “Field of Blood” an epic?

Epic Westerns are poetic, heroic, and tragic in the way of the ancient epics. There is a Homeric quality about them. They have a sweeping scope, taking in a series of adventures on a long trek, like the cattle drives in Red River and Lonesome Dove.  The backdrop is the mythic West, Ford’s Monument Valley, for instance.  The narrative may take place over a long period of time, maybe years, as in The Searchers, both Alan LeMay’s novel and Ford’s film.  But all good Westerns, books and movies, carry the elements of the epic within them to some degree, the tragedy of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, for example, the fatal last shootout, fatal both literally and mythically, in The Wild Bunch or The Shootist. Every good Western evokes mythic heroes and storied battles.  My Darling ClementineGunfight at the OK Corral, and Tombstone did that with the Earps and the Clantons.

My novel, Field of Blood, is an American epic, covering decades in time, encompassing wars, peacetime, and the new frontier situation the characters are confronted with. It’s about who we were, who we are, and what we are becoming. It is tragic, and in scope covers landscapes across the world and here at home. It’s a modern Western in the ways I’ve already covered, including a showdown very much in the vein of the old Westerns.  So I hope it might be thought of as an epic story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How did you come to write the novel–what was its inspiration?  Why was it important to tell this story?

My professional life has been spent on following events in Russia and the former Soviet Union. In trying to explain that reality, I had to look closely at what had happened in a country that had collapsed, where the old structures had been swept away.  There was a crisis of identity, as well as an economic and social crisis.

When the formal institutions of a country cease to function, or function only at a minimum level, then informal structures arise to fill the vacuum.  Those informal structures often include organized crime, as well as economic and political “clans” that actually govern, and of course, family, a few close friends acting together. The circle of trust shrinks.  The world becomes smaller. Life outside that circle becomes precarious.

Elections, court proceedings, these are mostly surface formalities. The rules are informal and are enforced outside the law and courts.  It may not be the legal system or police who punish those who violate the rules, but the hit man, the enforcer, or the police acting on behalf of informal “clans” or the criminal world.  On the other side of the coin, defending yourself means either seeking the protection of those who have the will and the weapons to do that, or acting yourself.  Just look at vigilante groups in Mexico for an example of that.  Often, it’s either current or former police or military, acting informally, who fill the gap.

Men belonging to a self-defense group stand at a checkpoint in the town of Las Colonias, Mexico, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. Two leaders of the main vigilante groups in western Michoacan state said Tuesday that they are pulling back from confronting the Knights Templar drug cartel because the Mexican government has promised to oust traffickers from the area. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

I found that a lot of Americans were quite naïve about how much, probably most, of the rest of the world operates. Americans have taken a law-based country, one with high levels of social trust, for granted, as the norm, when in fact it’s a very rare thing. 

I lived in the Washington D.C. area for a number of years, and each time I visited my native Texas, I could see with my own eyes what was happening.  And I could read about the crime and corruption I was familiar with from my professional life gaining a foothold in a place and among people I cared very much about.  I could see what globalism meant for ordinary people.  And I could see that it was happening all over the country. Nobody had asked us about this.  People with power and influence were intent on creating a world they wanted, one in which our country and people were expendable. That explains where the premise for the book came from.

Do you consider yourself a political writer?

I didn’t set out to write a book about politics, but about people in a certain situation.  It carries my world view with it, of course.  Every writer has one.  I didn’t intend the book to be overly didactic, though I think the point or points made are pretty clear.  I think the situation we are in is plain to see now and all this is being talked about in a way it wasn’t when I started formulating this book and began writing back in 2010-2011. The story is about the characters and the choices they have to make. In the context of the story, what’s right or wrong and what can or should be done isn’t always clear.  That’s the way life is.

A good story puts its characters in situations that require them to make hard choices, situations that test them, that present them with a dilemma, or make them think about the most fundamental issues. Life, death, God, meaning, loyalty, identity, fight or flight.  Who is right, who is wrong, who the good guys or bad guys are isn’t always clear.  I was aiming for that kind of story.

Thank you so much, Wayne.

Read the prologue to FIELD OF BLOOD: Field of Blood Prologue

(c) 2017 by Wayne Allensworth (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.

Credits: Wayne Allensworth photo (c) 2017 by Elizabeth Allensworth Merino.  All rights reserved.

Photo Lonesome Dove: Cowboys and Indians Magazine.

Vigilante Group: Jammedup News

Texas: Free Creatives.

(c) 2017 by Wayne Allensworth (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: ON THE STAGE IT’S JUST ME, AND BRODSKY’S POEMS ·

Mikhail Baryshnikov performs Brodsky/ Baryshnikov, based on the poems of Joseph Brodsky at BAC on March 8, 2016.
Photo Credit: ©Stephanie Berger

(Irene Kukota’s article appeared on Russia Beyound the Headlines, 4/17.)

Russian Art and Culture: How would you describe Brodsky/Baryshnikovin one sentence?

Mikhail Baryshnikov:. A poetic journey

What made you say “yes” to participating in Brodsky/Baryshnikov project staged by Alvis Hermanis?

M.B.: Alvis Hermanis invited me to do it, and I was honored to work with such a remarkable director. I couldn’t say no! I prefer live theater. The immediacy, the terror; it’s the ultimate challenge

Did you take part in the writing of the performance script? 

M.B.: There was never a script. The director, Alvis Hermanis, selected a range of poems including very early and very late ones. To explain the staging of this show would take a long time. We lived with this text for some time and it was a fascinating process for both Alvis and me.

It is frequently said that this show is about death, powerlessness against time and age. Do you also see it this way?

M.B.: I think that’s up to the audience to decide. They are the main participant after all. The goal is always to stay true to the director’s original vision. The set is a beautifully decrepit glass winter garden from the turn of the 20th century. I think it captures the quiet introspection and pensive mood of the play perfectly and Joseph would have loved it. It can be lonely out there, speaking of the ultimate challenge, but I love it.

(Read more)

http://rbth.com/arts/literature/2017/04/17/mikhail-baryshnikov-on-the-stage-its-just-me-and-brodkys-poems_742825

Photo Observer.

WAYNE ALLENSWORTH’S AMERICAN SHOWDOWN: THE AUTHOR OF ‘FIELD OF BLOOD’ ON MODERN WESTERNS, FRONTIER SITUATIONS, AND THE BEST BOOKS AND FILMS IN THE GENRE—INCLUDING HIS OWN ·

Wayne Allensworth worked as an analyst for the Foreign Broadcast Information Service from 1991 to 2002.  He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 1998.  He is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine.  His short story, Man of the West, was nominated for a Western Writers of America Spur award. He has contributed to the following collections: Exploring American History (Marshall Cavendish, 2008); Peace in the Promised Land: A Realist Scenario (Chronicles Books, 2006); Immigration and the American Identity (Chronicles Books, 2008); and Russian Nationalism and the National Reassertion of Russia, edited by Marlene Laruelle (Johns Hopkins University). He lives in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Wayne Allensworth saddles up with SV’s Bob Shuman to talk about writing the epic, the poetic, and the tragic in a two-part interview—Part 2 will be published 4/25.   Read the prologue to FIELD OF BLOOD at the end of this post.

Wayne, tell us about your new book—would it be fair to call it a “Western”?

 The themes and setting make Field of Blood what some might call a “modern Western.” I think of the book as taking place in an imagined present— a small Texas town is transformed as the American Southwest gradually melds with Mexico.  America is merging with Latin America, with all the dislocations, conflicts, and moral dilemmas that arise out of a clash of cultures.  We aren’t quite there yet, but are headed in that direction at a rapid pace. If the elite of both countries had their way, that’s where we would be now. That was my starting point.

I tried to imagine what that would look like. It’s very much a frontier situation.  The rule of law is breaking down where the old America is passing away, the globalized world bringing with it chaos and disorientation.  The corruption and frenzied violence of today’s Mexico are crossing the border.  That’s what’s coming. You might say that the drug cartels and their accomplices are a criminal counterpart to trans-national corporations, both out to take advantage of the erosion of borders and national institutions.  They share an interest in dissolving boundaries, doing away with the old institutions, and exploiting the situation for profit, no matter what the cost to ordinary people. 

My characters are struggling with the new reality and their own sense of identity, as well as a sense of loss.  I tried to get at the surrealism of globalization, and the bizarre situations it creates.  America is being forcibly merged with Latin America, but it doesn’t stop there, not for us or them. It’s really an anti-human and anti-humane world, one without reference points, that benefits the most ruthless among us the most.

In this setting, I set up a situation that forces people to take sides in a way that is especially pronounced on a frontier.  It’s the kind of dilemma that leads to an inevitable showdown. That’s very much like a traditional Western, but in a modern, or post-modern, setting.

How did you become interested in Westerns–and what is it about them that made you want to write them?

My grandfather told me stories about the Old West when I was a boy.  I heard stories about Quanah Parker, the range wars, about his meeting Frank James, and seeing Geronimo.  Westerns are uniquely American, they are elemental, dealing with fundamental issues—survival, identity, loyalty—and they are about us, about our people and how we came to be what and who we are.

I read Westerns my grandfather would pass along to me after he had read them, books by writers like Louis L’Amour, Ernest Haycox, Jack Schaefer, and Alan LeMay.  Later on in life, I read Larry McMurtry, Charles Portis, and Cormac McCarthy.  McMurtry wrote his great epic Western, Lonesome Dove, in an urbanized, technological era when Westerns had fallen out of fashion.  I think he revived the Western.  McCarthy wrote his masterpiece, Blood Meridian, as a metaphysical Western, one that drew on authors like Melville and Conrad, but the violence and stylistics of the novel were from a later period. McCarthy took the Western to places it hadn’t been before.  You might call some of these books “modern Westerns,” books like McMurtry’s Horseman Pass By, McCarthy’s border trilogy, and his No Country for Old Men.  Modern Westerns, especially, have an elegiac quality about them; they are stories chronicling the passing of an era, the passing of the old America, its values and way of life.  But that sense of something dying out, that something we’ll miss, the good and the bad, is part of a lot of Westerns.

Westerns were once a very important genre in America cinema, and movie Westerns and Western books drew on each other. It was a two-way street, the books, dating back to the dime novels of the 19th century, to the authors I’ve mentioned.  They provided much of the raw material for movie Westerns, and the films provided a lot of the imagery used in subsequent Western stories. The great movie Westerns, films like StagecoachRed RiverShaneHigh NoonThe Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, gave the genre its stock of characters and themes, and the imagery of a mythical West.  Directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks set the standard for movie Westerns and made them art. Movie stars like John Wayne and Gary Cooper became the face of American Westerns. John Wayne, in particular, became a symbol of the American Western.  Clint Eastwood took up Wayne’s mantle to a certain degree. He was in Westerns on TV and in the movies, and, together with director Don Siegel, made modern Westerns like Coogan’s Bluff and, some would say, Dirty Harry, which I’ve heard called an “urban Western.” 

I think films like Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country and his best movie, The Wild Bunch, drew on the somber tone and texture of elegiac Westerns.  The Wild Bunch took Western films into some of the places Cormac McCarthy would take the literary Western.  Peckinpah made modern Westerns like Junior Bonner and The Getaway, while films based on McMurtry’s books, Hud and The Last Picture Show, contrasted the Old West with the new one, the ideal of the West as we like to think of it, and the realities of modern life.  That kind of movie is still with us—just look at the success of Hell or High Water.

Thank you so much.  Looking forward to next week.

Read the prologue to FIELD OF BLOOD: Field of Blood Prologue

Read Part II of this interview: http://stagevoices.com/2017/04/26/wayne-allensworths-american-showdown-ii-the-author-of-field-of-blood-on-the-epic-russian-intelligence-western-assumptions-and-asking-his-characters-to-make-hard-choices/

Wayne Allensworth photo (c) 2017 by Elizabeth Allensworth Merino.  All rights reserved.

(c) 2017 by Wayne Allensworth (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.