I have admired Shirley Serotsky’s work as a director on such shows as Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy at Theater J in 2014 and Rapture, Blister, Burn at Round House Theatre in 2015. Shirley also serves as Associate Artistic Director of Theater J, and in that capacity she, together with Managing Director Rebecca Ende, programed the company’s 2015–2016 season, which concludes with Anna Zeigler’s Another Way Home.
Another Way Home is full of feeling about family, loss, and love, and it begins with a nightmare incident that any parent could relate to: A married couple visiting their troubled teenage son at summer camp discover that he has gone missing. Knowing that Shirley not only chose Another Way Home and is directing it but also is herself a new mother made me curious to know more. She graciously took time out of rehearsals to share what turned out to be a very personal take on both the play and parenthood.
(July 11, 2016, update: As I wrote in my review of Another Way Home, I was very moved by the scene near the end between the camp counselor, Mike, and the young counselor-in-training, Joey. In fact I was so struck by the importance of Mike to the play—something I had overlooked when reading the play and when conducting this interview originally—that I asked Shirley if she would answer a follow-up question about the character and the actor who plays him, Thony Mena. Her reply, which has been added below, includes a fascinating discussion about how casting the part with an actor of color enriched the play.)
John: How did you discover this play? What drew you to it when you first read it? And what was your personal response to the play?
Shirley: Anna first sent the play to Theater J in 2012 when it was still in development and called An Incident. I caught up with the play after its 2012 premiere at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco—by that time the title had changed to Another Way Home. Anna and I were having a continuing conversation about several of her plays. I love her writing, and the way she so beautifully and delicately crafts human relationships. Another Way Home felt particularly right for Theater J because it so astutely captures the voices of multiple generations. I was very moved by the anguish parents Philip and Lillian experience over the realization that—for all that they can provide their children—they cannot make them happy. That no amount of money can purchase joy, or acceptance, or a sense of purpose, or meaningful relationships, or an ease about moving through the world. Since those early conversations both Anna and I have had sons of our own—so the play feels even more personal now.
Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51 starring Nicole Kidman opened in London last year and is coming to Broadway in the fall. The play was originally developed at Theater J. Would you talk about the playwright’s connection to Theater J and your work on Photograph 51?
I first met Anna when I was brought on to direct a reading of her play Novel for Theater J in 2006. We stayed in touch after that, and I was able to see many stages of Photograph 51’s evolution: a reading of the very first script in which Rosalind Franklin’s was only one of three stories; then the premiere production of the play at Active Cultures Theatre in 2008. In 2010 Theater J did a reading of the play in its Tea@Two series, during which we tried out a brand-new ending—Anna had continued to revise the play following the first production. In 2011 Theater J produced Photograph 51 on its mainstage, directed by Daniella Topol (who was recently named Artistic Director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in Manhattan). We had a wonderful experience with the play—on top of a stunning cast and production—we had an awesome lineup of special guests doing post-show conversations with us. Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, joined us onstage during the run to talk about the significance of the discovery of the structure of DNA and how that helped us get to where we are now, mapping and naming thousands of individual genes as part of the Human Genome Project. We also had several rich conversations about women in science and the STEM fields overall—a subject that is of great interest to me. The play spoke to so many different people on so many levels: for what it had to say about inspiration, collaboration, gender, and discovery.
Would you talk about the workshop of Another Way Home you directed at Theater J? What did you learn about the play? What effect did that experience have on the current production?
We did a reading of Another Way Home in February 2015 in the library at the JCC. Even with this super-quick process, I started to learn about the rhythm of the play, and how it moves back and forth between memory and real time. The play had last been produced in 2012, so we noted that to produce it in 2016, and have it land as current day, there’d need to be some small tweaks to contemporary references. For example, Taylor Swift is referenced in the play—fortunately for us (and for her!) her star has only continued to rise, but we wanted to make sure we kept those mentions up-to-date. And Anna and I talked after the reading about clarifying the journey of the camp counselor, Mike. Anna joined us for the first couple of days of rehearsal, and did some targeted tweaking—so we’re thrilled that this important second production features a newly revised script.
Rick Foucheux and Naomi Jacobson play Philip and Lillian, an upper-middle-class Jewish couple whose marriage is facing difficulties. As actors they’ve worked together on local stages. What do they bring to their characters and their characters’ relationship?
First of all, what a delight and an honor it has been to work with these two actors. They’ve known each other for a couple of decades, and bring so much respect and joy to their work. They are hilarious in the rehearsal room—both seem to have a joke for every occasion. And I mean true, old-fashioned jokes: with a setup and a punch line. They could go on the road as a comedy team, seriously. But we’re glad to have them here! And both have wonderful spouses—for a play about marriage and family, we’ve all mined our own life experiences to dig deep for this one. The trust that they have for each other as actors, and as human beings, allows a sense of vulnerability and great honesty in the space. That’s such a gift to this production.
Philip and Lillian are Jewish, but that fact could easily be seen as incidental to the story. How do you see it?
I think that the journey of the Nadelman family is universal—surely parents of any and all cultural backgrounds can relate to wanting your children to find joy and contentment in life—but it is also specifically Jewish in its details. The Nadelmans are a well-off family living on the Upper West Side of New York, and that’s such a specifically Jewish American experience. Lillian and Philip are parents who provide their children with things and experiences they didn’t have themselves—that particular journey is also one that resonates deeply with the Jewish community. And so many Jewish families send their kids to summer camp! There are many reasons for this, which could be a whole other play. Camp Kickapoo isn’t a Jewish camp specifically, but the experience of sleep-away camp is one that is very familiar to Jewish families.
Chris Stinson plays Joey, their troubled 16-year-old son, and Shayna Blass plays Nora, their more balanced 15-year-old daughter. A playwright’s note says “these roles can be played by slightly older actors who can pass for teenagers.” What direction have you given Chris and Shayna about playing those younger roles?
Anna has written these roles with such respect and integrity—they are young people but they have wants and needs and desires just like every other character in the play. While we’ve considered their ages in the way they speak and move, Chris and Shayna are still doing all of the same good work they would do when playing roles that were closer to their own ages. And I would bet that adolescence doesn’t feel all that far away for either of them. Even at my age I have very vivid memories of being fifteen. The experiences we have as teenagers stay with us our whole lives—for better or worse—right?
Would you talk about the character of Mike, Joey’s camp counselor—what his role is in the play, and what Thony Mena brings to the part?
The role of Mike was one of the big questions that Anna and I wanted to tackle with this newly revised script. It was important to us that he be a fully fleshed-out character—and while his purpose in the play is absolutely to be a catalyst for discovery and change for the Nadleman family, we wanted to make sure that he had a journey and identity of his own as well. The question with an ancillary character like this is: How much do we want to know about him? And how much do we allow the audience to fill in for themselves?
Mike serves as a counter for Joey in many ways: He is at ease when Joey is awkward; he can talk his way into and out of situations while Joey stumbles; he plays sports, and does theater, and seems like someone who has friends and love interests and all of the other things that a young person might want. Joey, as far as we know, has none of these. And as we come to know him—we also discover that Mike achieved all of these things without the privilege of financial resources or family connections. We know that he was raised by his grandmother, his parents were out of the picture. Joey on the other hand has parents (Phillip and Lillian) who would do anything, buy everything, give as much as they could—to improve his life.
Thony did the reading for us, and it was the first time that the character of Mike was played by an actor of color. That’s not actually in the script, but I love Thony’s work and think he is charming and infinitely likable on stage—qualities that Mike had to have. When we came around to casting the play, Anna and I had a conversation about what it would mean to have Mike not be white. Maine is a very white state—would it be plausible that he grew up across the lake from the camp? I thought it actually added an interesting dimension to Mike. We know from the script that he feels like an outsider when put up against the boys who come to the camp because of the difference in their economic status—it is interesting to imagine that Mike also looks different from many of the people at the camp. We had some great conversations in rehearsal about code switching—when and how Mike feels he must do it—and how that plays into his desire to be an actor.
The play deals with some challenging issues about parenting. Philip and Lillian are trying to cope with whatever is wrong with their son—and they don’t know what it is. “First they said it was ADD,” says Lilian, “then ADHD, then autism. Then it was a mood disorder, then an anxiety disorder, then oppositional defiant disorder, and most recently: depression. His diagnoses change as much as he does.”
How do you hope the play will resonate with audiences during its Theater J run, and particular, how do you think it will speak to parents?
I appreciate that Anna does not give Joey a specific diagnosis—for Lillian and Philip the struggle is as much about finding an answer as it is about the answer itself. And they still don’t have a definitive diagnosis by the end of the play: Joey’s struggle remains up for interpretation.
And of course the kinds of social and behavioral struggles that Joey has are more and more common in today’s world. ADHD, autism, depression—these are familiar terms today, to adults and young people alike. They weren’t when I was a kid—I remember one classmate who was diagnosed as “hyperactive” and put on Ritalin, but that was it.
Now as a parent myself, I am trying very hard not to dictate expectations and goals for my son that are not driven by him. It’s challenging—he’s only ten months old and we’re already discussing what we’ll do about school four years from now. But all of that has to be hypothetical—because we don’t know who he will turn out to be: in five years, in ten years. I want so much for him to the most fully realized version of himself, and also to find joy in the world. But I know that there will likely be times when this doesn’t come easily.
So I think the play will land for parents—but also for people who were ever teenagers themselves—even in a time before cell phones and Taylor Swift and SSRIs. And if I’m doing my math correctly—that’s everyone, right?
Another Way Home plays from June 23 to July 17, 2016, at Theater J at The Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.