Artistic Statement

Artistic Statement

Here’s what I knew about my Grandpa Frank when I was a kid: he escaped Nazi Germany, along with my grandmother and infant father; he owned a car repair shop; he never shed his thick accent; and he killed himself when my dad was in college.

My dad told me that my grandfather thought he was terminally ill and would be unable to take care of his family. That felt insufficient, yet that’s all my father would say. So when my Grandma Luise announced that she was self-publishing a family history/memoir, I thought I might learn more of the truth.

What I learned, instead, was an important lesson about storytelling. While my grandmother did include details about my grandfather’s suicide, she also described the suicides of her mother, father and father-in-law, plus scores of other lives lost to Nazi atrocities—and then titled her book How We Survived.

I laughed in shock and disbelief. How could a book which chronicles so much death be a tale of survival? But I came to appreciate that the only way my grandmother could have survived the tragedies she’d faced was to tell her story this way. Even when she was purportedly telling the story of my grandfather and other relatives she’d lost, she was really telling the story of herself.

As a middle school educator I taught my students to interrogate historical documents, asking whose stories were included, whose left out. In the carefully constructed world of the classroom there were always alternate texts to study. In my grandfather’s story there were none. He had left no written trace; even his suicide note had been lost. I had two choices: resign myself to never fully knowing his story, or do my best, given the information I had, to imagine it into being.

As a playwright, this is the work that drives me: envisioning and constructing missing or neglected perspectives so that I can tell more complete, more complex stories. It’s what I’ve done in the play I named in honor of my grandmother’s book, How We Survived, where I’ve attempted to reimagine my grandfather’s life, depict the struggles he and my grandmother faced, and the illuminate the tension between how they each viewed them. It’s what I’ve done in my play Exposure, where a fascination with painter Georgia O’Keeffe led me to research characters in her shadow, photographer Paul Strand (disciple of O’Keeffe’s partner Alfred Stieglitz) and his wife Beck, writing a play not just about one artist but about a quartet of individuals enmeshed in a web of envy, admiration, jealousy and support. And it’s also what I’ve done in my play Illusion of Control, where the tale of white magician Alexander Herrmann’s early death in 1900s New York led to a piece about those he left behind, his widow Adelaide and his African-American assistant, known to most only by his stage name Boomsky.

I’m drawn to playwriting because I love the immediacy theater brings to storytelling. Each character is physically present: flesh and blood, just like those of us in the audience. We hear them as they speak, see them as they move; we have no choice but to contend with their presence and perspective. As we sit in the darkened theater we are also aware of our own physical selves and those of our fellow audience members. We watch the same play yet we may each be sympathizing with different characters or constructing different interpretations of what we see because of the different people we are. Our stories matter, too.