David Greenspan has been a distinctive presence on the New York stage for almost three decades. After working in the eighties as a playwright-in-residence at HOME for Contemporary Theatre and Art, he served as a director-in-residence in the early nineties at the Public Theater, where he also performed in his plays Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain and The HOME Show Pieces. Over the years, he has appeared in works by such playwrights as Terrence McNally, Richard Foreman, Sarah Ruhl, Mac Wellman, Adam Rapp. For Target Margin Theater, he portrayed Mephisto in Douglas Langworthy’s translation of Goethe’s Faust, Parts I & II (2006) and mounted his adaptation of Aristotle’s Poetics as a performed lecture (2007). Greenspan is a compelling solo artist who has also presented lectures by Gertrude Stein and starred in one-man shows playing the entire cast of his play The Myopia (2010) and of Barry Conners’ play The Patsy (2011). He is the recipient of five Obie Awards, including a 2010 Obie for Sustained Achievement.
Terry Stoller spoke with David Greenspan in August 2015 about his boyhood interest in Broadway show tunes, his acting training and his performing techniques, his work in a revival of The Boys in the Band, his solo pieces, his early days as a playwright, and his recent works, She Stoops to Comedy, Go Back to Where You Are, and I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees.
Terry Stoller: You’ve talked in interviews about your introduction to the theatre through listening to recordings of Broadway show tunes.
David Greenspan: One of the interesting things about that was that these musicals were for the most part recorded from the radio by my father. So I didn’t have the stories. I only had the recordings. It wasn’t until later that I got a better sense of the stories. Some time in high school, I began to check out these cast albums from the library, and I accumulated more musicals. Many people involved in the theatre started with musicals—so I’m not unusual in that regard. The other thing I would do was—I recorded certain television shows and film musicals and would listen to them over and over again. I recorded Born Yesterday with Judy Holliday, which was not a musical, and listened to that many times. And to The Wizard of Oz. I think I knew every word of The Wizard of Oz. I might still be able to recite large portions of the film’s dialogue.
While you were listening to those recordings, did you think, I really want to be a performer?
I think I had aspirations to be a performer pretty early on. Even in elementary school, I was doing shows. If I couldn’t articulate that was what I wanted to do with my life, it’s only because at that age, you don’t necessarily know what you want to do with your life. I think I always wanted to perform, and I did perform.
Did you have music lessons as a boy?
I studied the classical guitar, of all things, when I was young. We didn’t have a piano. I was involved with performing certainly by high school. There was choir, and there were musical theatre classes, specifically in theatre singing, with an emphasis mostly on performing technique. By high school, I was raring to go in terms of being a performer.
You’re from Los Angeles. Did you have any aspirations to act in films?
Any kind of performing career was in my fantasy and dreams—whether it be film or on the stage. So I would have been interested in that too. But coming to New York always felt important. And I knew when I was in college as a drama major that I would come to New York—for the musicals.
In your play The Myopia, the Orator character talks about what went on in his acting/singing class, about the students being urged to access pain and anger—or as you wrote, “to make that long-distance inside phone call.” Is that drawn from your actual experience?
When I first got here, I auditioned and did a couple of plays, all the while juggling restaurant jobs. At a certain point, I hadn’t done anything for a while. One of my co-workers was taking class with an acting teacher who specialized in theatre singing, so I thought I’d check it out. That was the class described in my play. It wasn’t as though we didn’t learn anything. It involved a lot of emotional work. But there was a therapy aspect to the class that became problematic. I ultimately went to study with the actor Lee Wallace, the teacher who helped me the most. From him, I learned specific techniques for getting in touch with emotional states or emotional memories and also with playing actions, finding objectives. It was a more sensible approach. It wasn’t completely divorced from the work I had done before, but it was more in the context of acting in a play. The other class was just songs; there was no context of a show.
Critics have called you a stylized actor. How do you feel about that characterization?
Whenever I read that, I think, Oh, gosh.
I don’t think they’re saying it negatively.
They’re not. They’ve also referred to me—not mean-spiritedly—as mannered. I never intend to do that.
What do you set out to do?
The same thing that I was taught. It depends on what I’m doing. Generally speaking, as an actor, I’m trying to arrive at emotional states, give the appropriate emotional condition and play actions, developing characteristics as I understand the character from the way the play is written. This is obviously in concert with the director, and if it’s a new play, with the playwright. So those are my main objectives.
When I’m working on something like the Gertrude Stein lectures or the Aristotle piece [The Argument], I think a character emerges. But in that kind of work, my primary action is making the ideas as clear as possible—and that’s something we can talk about later, my interest in the performative and theatrical potential of nondramatic texts, particularly things like lectures, which are themselves performances.
I watched a tape of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band [1996, WPA], and what struck me about your performance as Harold was that gesture was very important, and so was the way you used your voice. You have wonderful comic timing, and you landed every laugh—which was audible on the tape. It seemed that you were conscious of performing, rather than getting absorbed into the character.
I have only the highest admiration for actors who can—for lack of a better word—play naturalism. You are absorbed. I did study ballet when I was in college. That gave me a sense of comportment. I have a kinetic response or connection to a part I’m playing. I do consider myself absorbed in the part from that perspective.
As Harold, you came gliding in, and you had a particular way of speaking. Did you plan that out on your own, or did you work with the director on those elements?
I think that was my own invention. It was kind of intuitive. Harold is supposed to be an ice skater.
And you were definitely gliding.
It was partly the shoes they gave me, these amazingly high platform shoes to make me taller. He’s stoned, so there was an altered state. Some things are intuitive, but they become part of your conscious acting agenda if you’re going to repeat them. You find something that seems to work for the emotional connection with the performance, as every actor will, and you repeat it.
You’ve said that you develop a kinetic vocabulary for your solo performances, particularly the Gertrude Stein lectures and The Argument, the Aristotle piece. Using the gestures helps the audience focus on the ideas and engage with the difficult language. Have you worked that out on your own?
Those pieces are self-directed. There, too, the objective was to make the ideas as clear as possible. I didn’t plan anything that manifested itself gesturally.
When you return to an idea or a phrase, you repeat the gesture. Do you make notations for those movements as a dancer might?
No, I just repeat the gesture. I have continued to perform The Argument and Stein’s theatre lecture, “Plays,” and in time, things have become simpler. I’m able to do them without as much gesture; the gestures aren’t as pronounced.
Obviously, Aristotle’s Poetics can be daunting to read and to hear. So it was always to make it as clear and as accessible as possible. Also, The Argument is based on Gerald Else’s ideas and notes that are incorporated in his 600-plus page commentary, Aristotle’s Poetics: The Argument. In some ways, I was trying to represent the wit and humanity I found in Else’s writing. And I remember professors who could lecture in a very entertaining way—and that was my goal. Else made jokes in his writing, so I used some of them and tried to make the piece as enjoyable as possible.
Because the Stein material is so circular, the emphasis that the gestures create helps the audience understand why the phrases and ideas are repeated.
The more I perform Stein’s lecture “Plays,” the more I understand it. And the same is true of Composition … Master-Pieces … Identity. It was in memorizing Stein’s lecture “Composition as Explanation” that I began to understand it more and more. In speaking it, you get a clearer idea.
You started writing because you wanted to work. What was the inspiration for your early theatre pieces?
They were ideas I wrote down in my journal that turned into monologues, and there were places to do them, as there still are today for young artists. So I would perform little pieces here and there. And I was collaborating with certain choreographers, and we were creating theatre dance pieces in which there would be monologues and brief scenes interspersed with dance. And then I studied with Lee Wallace. As I emerged from that study, my work had more playlike structures; they became more plays than dance theatre pieces. I wasn’t working with the choreographers anymore. So I created plays that incorporated monologues. They were fragmented, but still they were plays.
You’ve been asked about your work with regard to the avant-garde and metatheatrical. Indeed in your plays, you critique the work itself, and the characters refer to the processes of writing and the structure of the piece.
Avant-garde is tricky because one person’s avant-garde seems to be another person’s conventional theatre. There are so many different forms of experimentation.
Would experimental be a better term for your work?
I don’t think so. Then you have someone like Richard Foreman, who seems highly avant-garde. I’m not nearly as experimental as he is. Or even Stein’s text. My plays tell more of a story—at least now they do. Some of my early monologues were very associative and repetitious. But as I began writing plays, there were more stories involved. So there are different degrees of experimentation.
I don’t set out to write a metatheatrical play. But often a sense of self-consciousness finds its way into my work. It interests me, and I incorporate it. When I began to write She Stoops to Comedy, I planned on writing a conventional play. But a running commentary started working its way into the text, and I just allowed it to develop.
In 2011, the critic Charles Isherwood suggested that Go Back to Where You Are, which was produced at Playwrights Horizons, was “in many ways” your “most traditional-feeling piece of playwriting.” Do you see a progression in your concerns and your technique?
I think She Stoops to Comedy  is every bit as traditional, even though there are self-conscious things involved. Many of the authorial ruminations get integrated into Go Back to Where You Are as well. I don’t think it’s the most conventional play I’ve written. I wrote some plays like The HOME Show Pieces  that were very realistic in certain ways. She Stoops to Comedy, Go Back to Where You Are, and I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees are a kind of unit for me. They’re all about theatre people. (That’s not unusual for me, completely.) They all take place in the summer, summer stock or the Hamptons. Even Helen Twelvetrees has a summer stock situation. But there is a progression. She Stoops to Comedy is a farce, Go Back to Where You Are is a poignant love story, and Helen Twelvetrees is a tragedy, a play of pathos. There is a trajectory there.
I believe you saw photographs of Helen Twelvetrees at the New York Public Library, and from those you came up with a memory play, a kind of Glass Menagerie. Except the memories are primarily of her life, rather than your own.
[Against the framework of a young man traveling from Los Angeles to Long Island to see the actress in a summer stock production, I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees focuses on the story of her rise as a Hollywood star and her early fall, with scenes from her troubled marriages being played and replayed. The play had its premiere at the Abrons Arts Center in 2015.]
I put references in my play to Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire—obviously Streetcar being a production Helen is doing—but also the little metal burro, like the little glass animals in The Glass Menagerie.
I’ll tell you a fascinating story. I wrote in my play that the two men who owned the theatre where Helen was performing Streetcar were lovers—because I wanted to make reference to the two men spoken about in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof who owned the house Maggie and Brick are in, whose bedroom belonged to these two men. I used some of the writing of a woman who was actually an apprentice in that Streetcar summer stock production. She had written about it online. I made her a character in my show. An actress who had worked with Keith Nobbs (who was in Helen Twelvetrees) knew that woman, and I ended up speaking to her on the phone after the production was up. I told her she was a character in the play, and she wanted to read it. She was in Los Angeles, so I said, I’ll send it to you, but I did make up things. I made up that those two men who owned the summer stock theatre were lovers. She said, Oh, but they were. We were all so delighted by this.
In each of the three plays you’ve mentioned, there was a cast of actors in addition to you. But you’ve also acted solo, playing multiple characters yourself, as in The Myopia and The Patsy. What was your impulse to go solo?
I was doing solo pieces years ago with long monologue plays. One was called The Horizontal and the Vertical, which is a reminiscence of a sexual act; it must be about a forty-minute piece. That was produced at HOME for Contemporary Theatre and Art. In Dig a Hole and Bury You Father (yes, it is You), which was also produced at HOME, a woman spoke with her dead mother at her gravestone; to a certain extent, it was based on my own mother and her relationship with her parents. So I was performing monologues pretty much from the beginning.
But were you playing more than one character?
I was doing all kinds of monologues and fragmented texts that I would perform solo. The thing about multiple characters—The Myopia was unusual because there were so many characters, more than two dozen. When I first started writing the play, I intended for it to be performed by a group of actors and for there to be big scenic effects—for instance, Koreen’s giant hand coming through the bathroom door. But at some point I realized it would be more effective without that. In that piece now, everything in the writing process is discussed: the second act that was thrown away; the fourth act that was never written; the third act, which was also dropped. I had by that point realized I would do it alone, playing all the roles and reciting the stage directions, and there would be more mileage in that. I sat in the chair for the entire play. I gestured, but never left the chair.
[The Myopia involves Koreen, a giantess, and her much smaller husband, Febus, who spends his time in the bathroom, purportedly trying to write a musical play about Warren G. Harding. Febus comes to a bad end when his wife overhears his plans to run away with another woman. Koreen’s giant fist breaks down the bathroom door, and the wayward husband is destroyed in the ensuing melee. Their offspring, Barclay, who appears as an illuminated globe, takes up the challenge of writing the play about Warren G. Harding. The Myopia includes scenes featuring the Harding story as well as commentary on theatre in general and the play-in-progress by the Raconteur, the Orator, and his Doppelganger, who is Carol Channing. The Myopia was produced by the Foundry Theatre in 2010 at Atlantic Stage 2.]
One of the other things about the plays in which I portray more than one character: In Helen Twelvetrees, I played multiple roles. That was partly because I wanted to feature two actors in the principal roles. Brooke Bloom and Keith Nobbs each played only one character. So I supported the story of Helen Twelvetrees and Clark Twelvetrees. I wanted the primary focus on them. The main character I played was the one reminiscing about his childhood and declaring that he wrote this story. The subsidiary characters are there to support the story of the two principal characters.
I’m also very interested in disguise plays. Dead Mother is a disguise play; Harold is disguised as his dead mother. [Greenspan played Harold, adding only a string of pearls for the disguise]. And with She Stoops to Comedy, it’s a woman [an actress played by Greenspan], who’s disguised as a man.
[In She Stoops to Comedy, a lesbian actress named Alexandra (portrayed by a male—but not in drag, per author’s note) follows her estranged lover, who has gone off to play the cross-dressing Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Alexandra assumes the “disguise” of a man so that she can audition for the role of Orlando, which she indeed gets. The result is layers of disguise and gender confusion, with theatrical high jinks, including a reunion scene of two ex-lovers, both women played by the same actress. She Stoops to Comedy was produced in 2003 by Playwrights Horizons.]
I wish I could have seen that. I read that you were speaking from offstage for the beginning of the play as you were getting into the guise of a man, and when you entered, you looked like yourself.
Yes, it was a lot of fun. In Go Back to Where You Are, I played two characters.
[Greenspan portrayed Passalus, an actor from ancient Greece, and Passalus in disguise as the 70-something Mrs. Simmons in Go Back to Where You Are. The play is set at the summer home of a leading actress who is hosting a gathering of her theatrical friends in honor of her daughter’s birthday. Released from hell, Passalus makes a pact with God to help free the actress’s daughter so that she can make her own life. In this way, Passalus will be able to achieve what he longs for—oblivion. The catch is that he has been warned not to get involved with anyone else. However, because he is privy to the thoughts of the clan and their guests, he gets drawn into the problems of the entire party. And although that means he will remain earthbound, he finds work as an actor and, more importantly, the beginning of a love relationship with the actress’s brother, the playwright.]
When you perform female roles in your plays, you’re generally not in drag, although you have performed in drag for other people’s plays.
The only drag I’ve ever done in my own plays was in Dig a Hole and Bury You Father, which I wrote for an actress friend of mine. She did it very well, but she wasn’t available when the play was revived, so I played the role. And I did wear drag for that. Other than that in my own work, I just use my voice and body to represent male and female characters.
The repetition of segments in Helen Twelvetrees, replaying scenes from her life, are really effective. And there are also time jumps. You do that in She Stoops to Comedy too, for instance, changing the year of the action. Can you explain the use of those techniques?
In Go Back to Where You Are, too, there are repetitions, going back and forth to the party when Passalus arrives in disguise as Mrs. Simmons. Then he appears as himself, and he keeps going in and out of the room. And you jump back in time to when he first meets Bernard [the playwright]. Then back to the party, then back to their conversation. There’s a lot of time jumping. The theatre is malleable in that way. You can do that in film too, but I think it’s particularly effective on the stage because it allows the audience to use their imagination. That’s one of the things that are very important to me. That’s why there’s often very little scenery in my plays. I like descriptions of things.
So there’s repetition in all three of those plays. The most repetition is certainly in Helen Twelvetrees. And that was because I wanted to write the scene again, and it came out a little differently each time. Its circularity was influenced by Stein. If there’s been any impact by Stein in terms of my work, that was on my mind to some extent, that I could revisit a scene and make it different—not consciously attempt to make it different, but it would come out differently, and some other aspect of the situation could be explored.
The actress Helen Twelvetrees had a period of film stardom in the 1930s, but she is probably not widely remembered. Can you talk about your interest in the ephemeral?
Even in Go Back to Where You Are, Passalus talks about all the people that are forgotten. He refers to “players in a passing show.” And when I did The Patsy—nobody really remembers Barry Conners, the play’s author. If they know The Patsy at all, it’s through the 1928 silent film with Marion Davies. That ephemerality is interesting to me. Most people in the theatre, particularly performers, will not be remembered. And so the theatrical lens is interesting. I guess that’s what metatheatre is: you’re viewing life through the lens of the theatre. All the world’s a stage or theatrum mundi. It’s like a lens to view relationships and situations. So I’m interested to some extent in the people that aren’t well remembered. I believe that’s true of every person—and that idea inspired a line in Helen Twelvetrees about the dead “rising in memory until the last shadow that remembers them fades as well.”
Why did you choose to do the 1920s play The Patsy as a solo performance?
The Patsy came about because the director Jack Cummings saw The Myopia, and he had this idea of doing a play with one actor playing all the roles. The play he had in mind was I Remember Mama, which he ultimately did a beautiful production of with older actresses. So we were looking for a play, and I remembered the silent film, which I had found moving. It was poignant, and who doesn’t identify with being the less loved, the less attractive sibling? I thought it was a kind of Cinderella story.
But it’s such a conventional play, and you’re an unconventional theatre artist.
I like conventional plays. I like all sorts of plays. I’m always trying to write a regular play. It just comes out differently. I liked this story, we read it, and we felt, Let’s do it. And then we read it again some months later and thought, My god, it’s so long. We did a really good cut of it, preserving the story and the characters and the integrity of the piece, just trimming things that didn’t transcend its time, certain jokes, certain conventions. It turned out so well, and we loved doing that piece.
And recently you’ve been doing Yiddish plays.
The first one I did, The Haunted Inn by Peretz Hirschbein, was with David Herskovits for Target Margin in 2013. And because of that I was hired by Ellen Perecman, who has a small company called New Worlds Theatre Project, where they were also doing a Peretz Hirschbein play. I’ve done three Hirschbein plays. I’m probably one of the few—if only—living actors who have performed in three plays by Peretz Hirschbein. He’s a fantastic writer. And now I’m doing another play with Ellen called Professor Brenner by David Pinski. It will be at HERE. I’ll be on my fourth Yiddish play.
I didn’t intend any of this. You take what comes along, and you make what opportunities you can for yourself. I welcome any opportunity I can get. And once I make a commitment to a play, I don’t look for better. It would have to be an extraordinary situation for me to drop out of a production. In fact, one time I made a commitment for a nonpaying situation some months in advance, and I did it. It was a William Hoffman play [co-written with Anthony Holland] called Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor. I was in drag for that. There was a front page review of the production in the Friday New York Times [Jan. 30, 2009]. You can’t do better than that. So I’ve learned to take any offer unless I have a prior commitment, even if it’s not paying. It’s very important to stay in front of the public as much as possible, to stay onstage. Because work leads to more work.
Are you working on any new plays of your own?
My most recent play, The Things That Were There, will be produced at the Bushwick Starr in January 2017. It’s infused with memories of family, childhood, and adolescence. The memories shift—in a sense are rewritten—during the course of the play. One of the central images is the grafting of a lime branch onto a mandarin orange tree and the fruit that graft produced. In a way, I have grafted fictions onto a tree of memory, and from that graft, different memories grow.
Source cited: Isherwood, Charles. “From Amphitheater Bit Player to God’s Errand Boy.” Review of Go Back to Where You Are, by David Greenspan, directed by Leigh Silverman, Peter Jay Sharp Theater, New York. New York Times, April 13, 2011.
Photo credits, from top: William Kennon, Erik Carter, Hunter Canning, Jon Wasserman, Joan Marcus (2). Courtesy of David Greenspan.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2015 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council