America In Play

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With Jenny Levison, who wrote The Next Big Thing, as inspired by Fashion (1845) by Anna Cora Mowatt, interviewed by C.S. Hanson, playwright.

Q: Anna Cora Mowatt set out to capture the follies of a new country, one in which high society looks to France for its fashions and finds working Americans most plebian. What were your first impressions upon reading the play?

A: I was taken with how similar Mrs. Tiffany is to a woman I used to work for. She herself is originally from Utah, but she knows how things are done in Russia, Switzerland, Italy, and Los Angeles. She paid everyone who worked for her except me, because we’re friends. Instead of giving me money, she gave me a bottle of expensive perfume, because one wouldn’t want to insult a friend by giving them money.

Q: What themes from Fashion are still echoed today in our culture?

A: The United States is still a young country, and we still don’t value what we have here as much as we value what’s in Europe or beyond. Except maybe baseball. And wild ramps. I see they’re very popular in restaurants now, and they’re native to this land. All the recipes I found for them are early American-you’re supposed to cook them in an iron skillet with bacon drippings.

Q: What was most challenging about creating The Next Big Thing?

A: I was very interested in the character of Zeke. Recently I spoke with a director who wanted to direct Fashion, but didn’t feel it would be OK to portray a black servant like Zeke on a modern stage. Later, I spoke with a playwright who wrote an adaptation of Fashion and dealt with the issue by writing Zeke out. I love the character of Zeke, because he helps expose Mrs. Tiffany’s absurd preference for fashion over all else, including practicality. My challenge then was to write a contemporary character who could take the lead in dissembling Mrs. Tiffany, and to let his race be central to the action. I wanted him to be a scam artist, but ultimately a scam artist for the greater good.

Q: Aside from reading the source material, how did you prepare to write your new play?

A: It was rough. I read Us, People, National Enquirer, Defamer, the Gothamist, and Sunday Styles” in the New York Times. I went to Tiffany’s. I read everything I could about Angelina Jolie and Madonna’s adoptions. My sister works in Malawi, so I asked her where Grace’s family farm should be – and which city the city chap should come from. My dramaturg suggested I read Jonathan Swift, but I didn’t actually get to that yet.

Q: What about Fashion most inspired The Next Big Thing?

A: The question I asked myself when I started to write was – what could my main character want desperately to prove that she’s fashionable? When I hit on the idea of a baby, it all fell into place-because of course these days the most likely person to work in a New Yorker’s home would be a woman from a developing nation.

Q: The Next Big Thing is very funny as it mocks society and taps into people’s obsessions with status. Did you have any concerns about offending your audience? How would you describe people’s reactions at the reading?

A: I wasn’t actually concerned about offending anyone. I worked hard to make each character as fully human as I could, and to stay away from stereotyping. I think if you write well-developed characters, even if you’re making fun of them, people will find them funny.

Q: How was your writing affected by the development process, which involved a two-hour session with actors in advance of the reading? For example, did you make changes after the session and prior to the reading?

A: I had less than 24 hours between my development meeting and my reading, but I did make changes. The thing that was most remarkable to me was how deeply, and how quickly, the actors hooked into the characters and the material. Good actors also help create well-developed characters by the way, and to steer away from stereotyping. What I learned in my session was that the play had legs, and could be very funny. The actors played around with accents, and one of them improvised lines that were much funnier than what I had written. I kept his.

Q: Do you have plans to develop your play beyond a one-act?

A: I do. I want to write a full-length play, with twin brothers played by the same actor and everything.