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Manna-Hata

nytheatre.com q&a preview by Barry Rowell
May 16, 2013

What is your job on this show?
playwright and co-director.

What is your show about?
MANNA-HATA is an epic performance that takes audiences from room-to-room through two floors of the James A. Farley Post Office on a site-specific journey through the last 400 years of NYC history.

Are there boundaries as to what kind of theatre you will take part in?
I hope not! I'm trying to expand my boundaries as much as possible: on this piece, I've been trying to find ways to tell the story visually—with action and movement—as well as aurally, and to use music to tell the story (or to ask Howard Fishman, our composer, to help me tell it with music). I think any kind of theater can be compelling and exciting if the artists have something that's important for them to communicate: a few years ago, I saw a big, expensive production of "The Tempest" that stunk to high heaven and then saw David Herskovitz' production that was beautiful—same play but David's production had a passion that the other one sorely lacked.

Complete this sentence: My show is the only one opening in NYC this spring that...?
takes place on two floors of a landmarked building. I could tell you more but that would spoil the surprises... that's right—plural surprises. I can tell you that there's a change about 20 minutes into the show that I expect will make everyone's jaw drop.

How did you meet your fellow artists/collaborators on this show?
Almost everyone working on the show has collaborated with PWP in the past (as is true of all of our shows). Kathleen Amshoff, with whom I'm directing, directed one of the pieces in last year's SPRING PICTURES OF THE FLOATING WORLD: after seeing what she did there, I was really looking forward to working with her again. Lynn Neuman, our choreographer, has worked on projects with us since 1998—she has an excellent sense of humor that I think comes across in her dance work and an ability to create movement that seems natural and artful at the same time. Myrel Chernick, who is doing our video and projections, is a wonderful visual artist who also has a sense of the theatrical—in her own work, as well as on the projects she's done with us. David Castaneda, lighting, is just a phenomenal collaborator: period; he did our first show in 1993 and I love to work with him whenever I can. Angela Harner also worked on SPRING PICTURES and created some of my favorite costumes in that piece—we're lucky to have her again. Lake Simons, who's creating the visual design, and Howard Fishman, our composer, are artists that I've wanted to work with for a long time and am thrilled to have the chance to now. I've thought Lake is an amazing visual artist and an inventive designer and puppeteer for years—plus, we're both Fort Worth, Texans! And Howard is the kind of musician I would be if I could be a musician: soulful and intelligent but with clear understanding that he is standing on the shoulders of giants... personally, I think he's standing beside them. And, of course, Ralph Lewis and Catherine Porter and I have been collaborating for 20 years now.

Groucho, Chico, Harpo, or Zeppo?
I wrote a play with a central character based on Groucho so I lean that way. I'm also a sucker for quotable quotes and Groucho had them in abundance. But the brothers all thought Zeppo was the funniest... that probably says something, I'm not sure what.

How important is diversity to you in the theater you see/make?
For this piece, in particular, diversity was vital. Even when it's not important, we prefer to have as diverse a cast ethnically, age-wise and gender-wise as possible. Here, we actually needed people who ARE Chinese, African-American and Latino; they play other roles, too, some of them Caucasian, but there were many instances where it was important that the actors be a particular race. What's been interesting is trying to figure out when race is important and when we can go colorblind: in one section, there are four scenes that play simultaneously and the audience will divide up and see them all in a different order. One of them is a 1920s Harlem rent party but we don't want to segregate all of the African-American actors into that scene so we're trying to determine how to spread the actors around but still keep true to the fact that the people who attended these events were largely, if not entirely, black men and women. It's a fun challenge!