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The Chess Lesson

nytheatre.com q&a preview by Sari Caine
December 31, 2012

What is your job on this show?
actor/playwright/producer.

When did you know you wanted to work in the theater, and why?
My parents knew I wanted to work in the theater when, as legend has it, I ran out early on to the stage during my ballet recital for threes, and threw one of my only childhood tantrums when they tried to get me off of it! I knew when, 3 years later, I was acting in a show at EST and got carried away during a very long monologue and fell backwards out of my chair. The charming actor playing my father swooped me up with one hand, caught the chair with the other, and all without missing a beat of his reply. But in that moment, I remember feeling clearly the thrill of an accident. Something had happened that wasn't planned for, my heart was pounding, I felt shocked into existence in that moment. The awareness of the potential for 'mistakes' in live theater created a strong impression in me of how thinly we skirt the line between danger and order in our search to find real moments. We get up on stage with everything, and then, in a sense, we leave it all behind in order to find what we didn't plan for. In addition to the thrill of performing, as a child growing up backstage I just fell in love with the whole environment! Actors smoking cigarettes carefully in full clown make up, eating egg sandwiches and chugging down coffee in immaculately coiffed attires, feet resting on suitcases stuffed with newspapers and sitting on fake living rooms or in dusty dressing rooms, moving from horoscopes to a thundering Lear to a forlorn Williams to gargling before I could blink. One of my favorite shows, everything went wrong. The actors had to climb in and out of the window because the door wouldn't work, the window got jammed and people were stuck onstage, the hooks on a woman's costume got stuck to her lover's hairpiece. Not to mention all the grownup actory advice my fellow castmates were applying to my non-applicable middleschool heartbreaks! Then there was the time I broke a window in the Vanderbilt Mansion playing baseball during a film shoot break. And the time I got the hiccups every time they called action shooting Mr Destiny ... followed by telling James Belushi two hours later I loved him in the Blues Brothers. I love the almost cavalier casualness of people who bravely put themselves to the test, night after night. I know I sound like a Judy Garland musical now, but  really, every performance is another challenge, a duel with yourself. You are never done. My acting teacher, Fred Kareman, used to quote Eleanor Duse's saying, "Strength and Faith." You have to have strength to go on and do it, he would explain, and faith in yourself that you can.  That test makes me a better person, and makes me keep myself open, vulnerable, and aware, when most of the time, I would much rather retreat!

Complete this sentence: My show is the only one opening in NYC this fall that...?
Deals with the Board of Ed, parents, teachers, getting high, superheros, love, infidelity, the biological clock, and, chess. And all on a chess board floor too!

In your own words, what do you think this show is about? What will audiences take away with them after seeing it?
The awareness of the magic and rarity of actual contact between people. In chess, like life, we can have dreams and make plans for things, but ultimately, we have so little control. How do you stay flexible and able to adapt, without letting go of your dreams? Sometimes, yes, things don't work out the way we've planned but every now and then, if we are open to it, something or someone might come along and surprise us. It is those moments, of sudden intimacy and actual human connection, that we live for.

Theater is a necessary ingredient in democratic societies. Do you agree or disagree, and why?
I Definitely agree. I was listening to an interview with a journalist last week, and he was sharing his experience covering the war, and how he had been injured. For months after, he was trying to make sense of it all, and he came to this conclusion: That once we stop seeing people as people, when we no longer identify with their suffering, we begin to lose our own humanity as well. He concluded that he had gotten lost in his work, viewing people simply as 'stories,' and through his injury, he regained his empathy. We all lead such busy lives, and our time for contact is limited… even as our ability to contact people, via Facebook, email, blogging, Twitter, etc, is a fingertip away. It is easier to lose track of emotions when everyone appears so easily reached but we’re actually so distanced from one another. It is only through identification with others, that we can ensure we will act with decency, humanity, and sustainability for the future. Theater ideally tells so specifically the story of others, that we find ourselves, and our own story in that. We re-learn ourselves, re-discover our spouses and family, and perhaps even have a desire for change. Theater (like chess!) encourages thought and consequences around action. Theater is the ultimate Utopian experiment. You are building something where there was nothing; it helps us all to keep dreaming, and to believe (ugh, now I sound like a Unicef commercial!) that we are capable of building worlds.