The Playwrights: Deb Margolin, Jason Lott, and Helen Pafumi
Joel: Where were you when you found out that you had been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award and what was your first reaction?
Deb: I came staggering home late from a rehearsal of HAMLET which I’m directing up at Yale, to find a warm and cordial note of congratulation from Ari Roth, the Artistic Director of Theater J, to all involved in the production of Imagining Madoff. Jennifer Mendenhall received a well-deserved nomination for her portrayal of the Secretary in the play, and the play itself received a nomination for the MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play. I was elated, and was glad that Ari mentioned in his email that this wonderful nomination was an acknowledgment for all involved in the production.
Jason: I was actually at the Helen Hayes Award nomination reception (as you were) as a representative for Longacre Lea Productions, hoping to hear Kathleen Akerley’s name for her new play. My jaw literally dropped when I heard that Helen and I had been nominated and I felt like my brain had been doused with both hot and cold water in the same moment.
Helen: I had just gotten home from coaching my son’s basketball team. Jason sent me a text. I was so surprised and incredibly delighted.
Joel: Tell me about your nominations.
Deb: The Madoff play was the result of my having been invited by a dear friend and downtown NY artist to write some monologues for Bernie Madoff for a vaudeville/cabaret play into which she passionately wished to insert his voice. Once that was done, it whetted my appetite for further investigation of this public figure: an avatar of evil but, as is true of every villain when all is said and done, just a man.
Jason: Helen Pafumi and I were nominated for adapting the movie It’s a Wonderful Life into a one-man show called Wonderful Life. Helen approached me about performing a one-man version of the screenplay and I was immediately interested. When she told me she was planning to write the adaptation herself, I asked if she would mind if I wrote it with her. Thankfully for me, she graciously said yes…
Helen: Jason Lott and myself were nominated for writing Wonderful Life, a one-man adaptation of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. I was drawn to creating the piece because it is something that celebrates the best of what we are. The idea of sacrifice and investment in your fellow man is through out.
I would also like to say that was just as thrilled to hear that Birds of a Feather was nominated for ensemble and Outstanding New Play. Marc Acito worked with The Hub for over a year on this world premier. I was so proud of the work he did, and the life that the cast brought to his script. They are all so deserving of accolades. Birds feels like just as much my baby as Wonderful Life.
Joel: What were the biggest challenges for you writing this production?
Deb: Watching productions of this play has been a joy beyond description for me. It’s a play written in subtext, and to have the honor of observing brilliant actors puzzle it out has filled me with humility and happiness. The Madoff play was originally intended to feature novelist, professor and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel as a moral foil for Madoff, but, when out of courtesy he was sent a copy of the script prior to production, he threatened to have the play shut down. I felt I had
treated his character with profound respect. The script was changed to remain dramaturgically intact but to lose him as a main character.
Jason: One of the biggest challenges was stripping down the screenplay to a manageable size. There are so many fantastic characters and sub-stories in the source material that we really had to make tough choices about which characters to keep. In the end, it boiled down to whether the characters helped advance the story of George Bailey’s discovery of his importance in the lives of his family and friends. Additionally, because we decided that my performance wouldn’t include impressions of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, we were very conscious of making sure that the characters (as written) weren’t dependent upon those well-known performances. The characters on the page in our script needed to exist independently of the well-loved black and white images we see on screen every holiday.
Helen: Finding the right voice was difficult at first. Jason and I struggled with the storytelling vice for a while, once we found it, it was much less scary. Gregg Henry deserves much credit for helping us hone our piece. He is an amazing director.
Joel: What are some of the fondest memories you have about this production?
Deb: The first night the Imagining Madoff play opened, in Hudson, NY, was a night of such relief and pleasure for me. And to have finally brought the play down to Theater J, to see the theater filled with hundreds of people who did know me by sight, was lovely! I heard women talking excitedly about the play in the ladies room, not realizing I was in the next stall! And then, there was an advertisement placed on the back of DC buses about the play, and my sister sent me a photograph of the back of a bus with the Madoff play pictured in full billboard-like regalia! She was so delighted to see it she almost crashed her car, and took a picture of it at a stoplight!
Jason: I loved performing the show every weekend and seeing how similar reactions would sweep across the faces of the patrons, despite their diverse ages. Because the show is direct address, I could see just about every person in the house and tell that there were generations of It’s a Wonderful Life lovers experiencing the story in a completely new way. Grandchildren, parents, grandparents, all sitting side by side, smiling, laughing, (sleeping), and sighing, all at the same time… It really speaks to the timelessness of the story and the transformative power of theatre. It was wonderful to see it first hand.
Helen: Well, Jason did the appearing, but I did so love his rendition of Violet Bick. It cracked me up. I also loved the last moment when you see George at peace in his life – how could I not?
Joel: What’s next for you on the stage?
Deb:I’m at work on a new multi-character play, which I can’t quite describe yet, and I have a new solo work entitled: Good morning, Anita Hill, it’s Ginny Thomas. I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought and certainly pray about this and come to understand why you did what you did. Okay have a good day.
This piece puts comedy and tragedy in bed together, explores age as the process of aggregating memory and images, and looks retrospectively at the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings of 20 years ago.
Jason: Next up is The 39 Steps at Olney Theatre Center. It’s a fast, funny, highly theatrical version of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, with 4 characters playing all of the roles and sending up stage and screen craft in the midst of a love story… We’ve already extended to May 20th, but tickets are going fast…
Helen: I am directing John & Beatrice by Carole Fréchette at The Hub which opens April 13th. It features the amazing Jenna Sokolowski and Eric Messner. It’s a completely beautiful play and I can’t wait to share it.
Recipients of the 2012 Helen Hayes Awards will be announced on Monday, April 23, 2012 at The Warner Theatre. Here is more information on the event.
Here are the 28th Helen Hayes Awards nominations.
Congratulations to this year’s nominees!
Pat Davis’ review of John & Beatrice.