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Interview with Susan Yankowitz

Night Sky

By Beth Herstein

Jim Stanek and Jordan Baker in Night Sky
Playwright, novelist, lyricist and librettist Susan Yankowitz has earned acclaim by confronting tough subjects with intelligence and humanity. Among the highlights of her career are the ensemble piece Terminal, a collaborative examination of mortality and reactions toward death; and Slain in the Spirit, a gospel and blues opera with music by Taj Mahal, about Jonestown. She also wrote one piece of the documentary play Seven, which profiles seven women human rights activists of note. Yankowitz profiled Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who helped bring the men who gang raped her to justice and who then went on to advocate for women's rights in her country.

Perhaps Yankowitz is best known for the play Night Sky. The play dramatizes the struggles of a brilliant astronomer named Anna after an accident leaves her afflicted with aphasia. Yankowitz wrote the play after Joseph Chaikin—the founder of the famed experimental group Open Theater and the director of Terminal and several other of Yankowitz's works—developed aphasia after complications from heart surgery. Since its first production in 1991, directed by Chaikin himself, the play has enjoyed a healthy life in regional theaters and at colleges. It recently commenced a run at Baruch Performing Arts Center in Manhattan starring Jordan Baker, in Baker's first New York stage appearance since she co-starred in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women with Marian Seldes and Myra Carter in 1994-95.

Shortly before the production officially opened on June 4, I conducted a telephone interview with Yankowitz about Night Sky.

Beth Herstein:  You have a personal connection to aphasia because of the experience of your good friend and mentor Joseph Chaikin. Can you talk a little about that and about how you came to write this play?

Susan Yankowitz:  I began work in the theater with Joseph Chaikin, who was really a legendary figure. He was my inspiration. He gave me my entry into the theater, with Terminal, in 1969. We remained friends after that and worked together on several projects over the years. In 1984, he was having surgery to replace a valve in his heart—he had developed a heart condition after having rheumatic fever as a child. During the surgery, a clot went to his brain and caused him to have aphasia, which none of us at the time knew anything about. What it is, for those who don't know, is an injury to the language center in the brain, which causes the words to get lost somehow in the mind. The intelligence is there—the person knows what he wants to say but just can't find the right words.

A year or two after this, Joe asked me if I would write a play about [aphasia]. He asked me, I think, for a few reasons. One is that we were close. The other is that I had written a novel about a deaf mute, so he knew I had a particular feeling for problems dealing with communication. Another thing was simply that he wanted to have a vehicle to instruct people, to educate them, about this condition. When he would go out in public—similar to what I showed in the play—people would assume he was an idiot, he didn't understand anything. For somebody of Joe's outstanding intelligence and previous eloquence, it was just a horrible situation.

BH:  What drew you to write that earlier novel? How do you explain your preexisting interest in the issue of communication?

SY:  I guess I have always had the sense that I am not able to really articulate what is inside of me, and my words only approximate either my thought or my feeling. The second thing is a sense that I'm not understood—that what I have to say doesn't really communicate in the way I would like to other people, so they don't really understand who I am, what I'm trying to express. Probably an early childhood feeling. [laughs] But, one of my many therapists will probably have a better answer about that.

BH:  Those feelings can be part of what drive people to express themselves creatively, including in language.

SY:  That's probably true. My sister is a sculptor, so she has found another creative outlet. But, actually, a lot of our themes overlap.

BH:  I read an interview you and she did together about balancing parenting and being working professionals in the arts. As I watched the show, I remembered that you had a son, because the dynamic between Anna and her daughter felt very real to me, and the daughter's behavior throughout seemed very authentic.

SY:  I think when you write a play—and probably to a large degree when you write a novel—you are all the characters. So I feel very close to that character; I feel that I was like her. But, also, of course, a parent would understand that parent-child relationship better than someone who wasn't a parent.

BH:  There is some discussion of science in the play because Anna is an astronomer. You also challenge the audience to think about and respond to the ideas in the play. Can you talk about the challenge of writing a play about ideas while maintaining dramatic tension?

SY:  When Joe asked me to write a play, he gave me three conditions. One was that the main character be a woman, not a man. One was that the person be injured in a car accident, as opposed to a stroke or something that happened on the operating table. Both of those are understandable as ways of distancing the material from himself a little bit. But, the third condition was that she should be an astronomer. I asked him why. I will never forget his response to that. He said, "Stars, stars. So many stars." And he made a gesture, pointing above. I said, "Yes, but what about them?" He couldn't find the words to express it.

When I started working on the play, I knew nothing about astronomy. I knew less about astronomy than I knew about aphasia. So I had to research them both. In researching, I discovered what I thought was this fabulous metaphor, which was the dark matter of the brain and the mystery of the brain, and the dark holes in the cosmos, the black holes in the cosmos. Some of the same language actually applies to both of them, words like "missing" and "mystery." This became for me the center of the play.

[laughs] But this was not at all what Joe had in mind. He directed the first production. I kept asking him, "Was this what you meant?" He said, "It's not what I meant." But, he loved the play even though I didn't capture his purpose.

BH:  Night Sky has had a long life, and it's been performed in a lot of university settings over the years. To what do you attribute the success and ongoing life of the show?

SY:  What it might be is that it is actually a play with an inspiring message, which is not so frequent in much of my other work, which tends to be darker. I don't know why it is, but students in acting programs feel that they can inhabit this very complicated character [of Anna]. But they do inhabit the character, and they often do it well. And that's another interesting thing. They get it. They understand how difficult it is to speak. Often, it's somebody who has a language problem. For instance, most recently there was a production at Salem State, and the woman who chose it and directed it is Japanese. She's had her own struggle with the language, with communicating, with being understood, and this was definitely one of the things that attracted her.

BH:  Have you been very involved in the New York production?

SY:  I've been to every rehearsal and performance. I think this week will mark the end of it. But, yeah, I have been completely involved. I've had a kind of love fest with the director [Daniella Topol]. She is a person I've never worked with before. She's young enough to be my daughter, and I think she's just terrific. I also think it's a really fabulous cast. Jordan [Baker] is really astonishing as Anna. Each night she finds something new that actually lends another note to the overall music of the play. She's really extraordinary in that. I haven't actually seen that many actors of her caliber.

We cast [Baker] from an audition. It's a very interesting sidelight which I'd like to write about sometime. Not many actors want to come in and audition. In the theater, people consider it an insult, "You should know my work." I think we're really lucky Jordan was willing to come in. Neither of us wanted to cast somebody we couldn't see first. Just because you're a good actor doesn't mean you can do this role.

BH:  There is a lot of humor in Night Sky, even in scenes about the challenges of living with aphasia or interacting with someone with aphasia.

SY:  That's an important aspect of the show to me. The humor is in the play because it has a counterpart in the real experience. People make mistakes when they speak—we all make mistakes, but aphasics in particular make mistakes. The kind of mistakes they make is fascinating, and I include that in the play. My husband said to me for example, he really loves the scene in which an aphasic patient practices how to match up an emotion and a word. He says, "I scarred" before he says "I scared." There is a relationship between scarred and scared. It's not just a word that he's substituting. It's a word that is close in its meaning to the word that he's trying to find. The same thing with Joe when we were in rehearsal for the revival of Terminal in 1996. He said to one of the actors, "Zebra. More zebra." Of course, we all said, "What do you mean?" We were all laughing, because we knew that wasn't what he meant. Then he said, "Zipper." We knew that wasn't it. Finally, we got to the word "zigzag." [Chaikin wanted the actor to move across the stage in a zigzag direction.] If you think about it, a zebra has stripes, and a zipper has that pattern. So, he was close to zigzag but he couldn't find the word. And the play tries to leaven what is a very painful situation in a lot of ways with humor. When the play works well, there is a balance between the humor and the pathos.

BH:  Is there anything in particular you hope audiences will get out of this play?

SY:  I'm really glad when people understand how rich our language is. When we speak, we have a gold mine. We have so many words at our command. It's a beautiful thing to be able to use language. In our time in particular, there's really a kind of dismissal of language. The kind of shorthand I use myself, on Facebook or wherever we go. I think that generations are now growing up without a love of language.

The other thing is that there are these wonderful forms of communication that are available to us. Like music, like other languages, like touch. We probably should avail ourselves of them more as ways of speaking to one another.

Finally, though I don't have any prescriptions for what people should think about the show, I hope they come out of it with the idea that people can change. What happens to Anna is that her intellectual self is forced to retire to some degree, and it allows space for her emotional or spiritual life to emerge. I actually think this is something that happens often in cases of brain injury, that a different aspect of the self can emerge. And I think that is something that is important to understand about human things, that we're not fixed.

BH:  One other question I have is about collaboration, which always interests me. Can you talk about your own history of collaboration, and say how important it has been to you?

SY:  At its best, it's the most fruitful form of making theater. At its worst, it's hell. And there have been instances of that hell. Often the hell is when other people don't do their work. We don't all have the same work ethic, and that is really a problem. Usually you choose people to collaborate because you have some sort of artistic sympathy with that person, so the problems often are not on the creative level but on these other levels. They come down to very petty things sometimes, like the credits, and also showing up, getting to work on time. Because you're dependent on one another for inspiration.

The reason for collaboration is that somebody else can supply something that you can't. Two heads are better than one. But if the other person isn't working, it's incredibly frustrating and very damaging to the work. But I love collaboration at its best, and this has been a very good collaboration.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Night Sky at Baruch Performing Arts Center (55 Lexington Avenue) through June 20, 2009. For ticket and performance information, visit

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