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Jay O. Sanders
The Apple Family Plays

by Beth Herstein


Sally Murphy and Jay O. Sanders in That Hopey Changey Thing
Photo by Joan Marcus
Over the past three years, The Public Theater has presented a trio of plays by renowned playwright Richard Nelson, about the politically liberal, well educated Apple family of Rhinebeck, New York. That Hopey Changey Thing takes place on midterm election night 2010, Sweet and Sad on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In Sorry, the characters convene on the morning of the day of the 2012 Presidential elections. The fourth and final play in the series, Regular Singing, is set on November 22, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In each of them, the family gathers and discusses both the issues of the day as well as their personal trials and triumphs. The reviews and the original cast were both stellar: J. Smith-Cameron, Shuler Hensley, Maryann Plunkett, John DeVries, Jay O. Sanders and Laila Robins.

Now, as Regular Singing rolls into town, The Public Theater is giving audiences a chance to discover, or rediscover, the first three plays chronicling the Apple family, and to view the four works together and see their collective import. Together, they create almost a historical record of our times; it's the kind of oeuvre one might put in a time capsule to tell future generations what we—or the northeastern liberals among us—were like, whom we loved, what issues we faced. Due to other commitments J. Smith-Cameron and Shuler Hensley are not in the current four productions. However, they have been replaced by Sally Murphy and Steven Kunken, and the remainder of the cast remains intact.

The day before the first performance of That Hopey Changey Thing I was fortunate enough to interview the versatile and talented theater veteran Jay O. Sanders. He is an intelligent, warm and interesting individual, and I could have talked to him for hours. Also, he was generous with his time. When, after I while, I said, "I could ask you a million other questions, but I know this is your off day," he responded that I should keep going. "Ask whatever you want to ask. I'm a champion of this project."

Beth Herstein:  What is it like preparing to do all four of the shows in this series?

Jay O. Sanders:  It is quite a challenge, unlike anything I've ever done. I've done repertory before, but generally in repertory you may do a couple of lead roles and a supporting role and a walk on or you're off for the fourth play. I'm going to be on stage and talking for all four plays. For all of us, it's a real [exercise in] memory and focus, and it requires a lot of listening and responding.

BH:  At some point in my theatergoing I started to appreciate the acting that actors do when they watch and listen to the other people on the stage.

JS:  Absolutely. You have to be completely tuned in all of the time. There's no letdown [when you're not the one speaking]. Especially when you're working with good material and good actors, it's interesting to listen to.

BH:  How long have you spent preparing for these shows?

JS:  We've been at work for the last four-and-a-half months. We started relearning the lines around the beginning of June. Richard [Nelson's] dialogue is particularly challenging to memorize, and particularly rewarding once you've got it. He writes very much the way we talk. We're constantly interrupting ourselves, changing tenses from past to present to future, repeating words and putting things in odd sequences. When you hear it, it sounds perfectly natural, because we don't tend to talk in edited copy form. In learning it, it requires that much more focus, and even when I'm relearning it still requires very intense focus.

BH:  You've done so much Shakespeare, which has a very specific rhythm. How does that compare?

JS:  Shakespeare wrote for actors in rhythms that actually help you memorize. "Is this a dagger which I see before me?/ The handle toward my hand." The iambic pentameter is useful in that process. I actually use Shakespeare as a palate cleanser between plays. Sometimes at night when I'm trying to go to sleep and I'm having trouble shaking my Richard Nelson world, I go to Shakespeare. It takes me to a different form. Even though it's additional language in my head, it somehow gives me a different kind of rest.

Richard, like Shakespeare, has great complexity and depth, but different kinds. Richard's is the most intense form of naturalism I've ever encountered. There was an actor from one of the other shows [currently at the Public] who said to me, "I heard you guys in the theater and thought you were just sitting around talking. Then I suddenly realized, 'Oh, that's the play.'" There are times when we all say a line in the play and one of the assistants throw us a line because they think we're asking for the line. We're actually asking a question in the play. And, they've got the script right there. There's that kind of crossing of boundaries, and that happens all the time.

BH:  If a writer puts in the amount of "ums" and "you knows" that people actually use, it reads false. When you're speaking lines in a play, I suppose it's different.

JS:  Yes. As an actor you also have to make choices with the dialogue - where you take breaths, phrasing ... We do our best to keep everything very fresh, so we're not just saying lines, we're really asking the questions. It makes for a very active stage.

BH:  It's been a long commitment on your part. How did you first get involved with the shows?

JS:  Richard Nelson and I had worked together my first year out of college. It was a one-man play of his called Scooping ... So, he and I have known each other since February of '77. We've been friends all this time. He's come to see me act, and I've gone to see his plays all these years. I've done readings of works for him, but I'd never done another play in all this time. He's also worked a number of times with my wife, Maryann Plunkett, who plays my sister Barbara. He's a close friend; we've spent many holidays together, many New Year's together. We know each other's families, and I watched his girls grow up.


Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, Sally Murphy, Stephen Kunken and Laila Robins in
That Hopey Changey Thing

Photo by Joan Marcus
One day, I looked at him and said, "Well Richard, I don't understand why it is that we're so close and we enjoy each other's work but we haven't worked together in all these years. What's the matter with us?" Two weeks later he called to ask me to do a reading of That Hopey Changey Thing. He had already written Maryann's character, which he based on her. As for the other characters, I'm not sure who he had in mind, but as far as I know she's the only one he had in mind from the beginning. I'm playing Richard, who's a combination of him and me. So it's all very personal, to him as well. We did that first reading three-and-a-half years ago, and we've been on this ever since. I've given up many other work opportunities to stay close to this project.

BH:  You work, it seems, almost without a stop, and frequently with the Public.

JS:  The Public Theater is not a place where you make your living, but it's a very important home to me, from all the Shakespeare that I do there. Also, I started out at The Public in '76, during the summer. I was in both shows in Shakespeare in the Park. Both Richard Nelson and The Public Theater are as personal and as close to home as I could be. I'm right where I belong. As long as I can do other things—voiceovers and things to help me make a living—I couldn't be happier.

BH:  Someone told me that the staff sometimes calls it The Jay O. Sanders Theater because of all the work you do there. [laughter]

JS:  I love that place, I love the Shakespeare, I love the work, I love New York. We live in the West Village, we walk to the East Village to the theater. It's in my blood. I've done workshops there of a play I've written about the genocide in Rwanda, that I'm hoping will be produced in 2014. I've been working on that play for ten years. So as a writer, I'm also engaged there.

BH:  I've read about your play, Unexplored Interior. Can you tell me more about it, and how you started writing it?

JS:  I started writing ten years after the genocide had happened. Our one son, Maryann's and mine, was born five weeks before it happened. As new parents are, we were inside more than usual, and watching the news every night. We watched this unfold on the news, and we were horrified. It touched a very personal place in me, because I thought, "Is this the world we're bringing him into, and what have I done to make any difference?" Obviously it happened and no one in the world did anything about it, which is part of how it was able to happen. It ate at me for ten years. I thought about it a lot, and I read about it a lot. I started out thinking I'd do a one-man play about Roméo Dallaire [Force Commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda in 1993-94, who tried to stop the genocide and has continued to work to prevent mass atrocities]. Now it's a 14-actor, 25-character play. But I ended up circling over the idea that I had to do something about it, learn about it, and use the language that I know best, which is theater, to tell it, to share it.

BH:  What was the journey like for you? What are your goals for the play?

JS:  I flew over to Kigali for the tenth anniversary in 2004, and I have since become close with many people there, and various people here from there, and other people here who are involved with Rwanda. It's provided me with an important window through which to see and understand the whole world. It's one of the smallest countries in the world and yet, if you go deep, it is as complex as the United States or China or Russia, with far larger sets of organizations. The basics of human nature, what people are pushing against, the way people cheat each other, and lie to each other—all those things ...

It was very important to me to explore the Rwandan society and present them not as "the other," but rather as us. I wanted to show the commonality, because I think that's what's so often missing ... I think we achieve that. The actors I've had working with me, who are quite brilliant, have created an amazing company, and they've been with me over the past five years, doing readings at the Public and at Cherry Lane, workshops I've done. Last year, we had a packed house on April 7, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was a profound place to do it. I'm really hoping that in 2014, for the twenty-year anniversary, the play can finally function in the way that I wrote it, which is as a love letter to humanity I guess, looking at one of the darkest moments in human history, but hopefully to find what is good and what is possible as well as what is horrible.

In all that, my dear friend Richard Nelson, who is a wonderful teacher as well as a playwright, has been extremely supportive of my work as a playwright.

BH:  Back to the Richard Nelson plays, many of the cast has worked together throughout this project, including your wife, and you developed a really tight ensemble. What has that been like, and what has it been like having new actors in the cast?

JS:  I want to say that the replacement has been seamless, but there are seams of course. There are always seams, and that's important. The two actors who are replacing are both fantastic, and yet we will always miss our other two, Shuler Hensley and J. Smith-Cameron, who are both such amazing actors and amazing people, and dear friends. I think we're expanding the family, not replacing them. The characters that Sally [Murphy] and Stephen [Kunken] have created are not the same Jane and Tim that J. Smith-Cameron and Shuler Hensley originated. They are very different.

We're having an incredible time working together. All the actors who've worked on these projects have been so devoted and so talented, and every one is an actor who has carried a play on their backs at other times. [It's great] to play with that kind of balance, and that kind of trust that we have. As you were saying, we all are listening to each other [and supporting each other] at every moment; it's nothing any of us could do by ourselves.

You know, too, that the technical side, our stage management crew, is the same. Our prop person. Amelia, who is the food person, has come back two years in a row from North Carolina to do the food. Our assistant stage manager moved to Oregon last year and she came back to do this show. Our designers are the same. We're blessed. It's an incredible thing.

BH:  It sounds like a wonderful ensemble.

JS:  It's an extraordinary situation. John DeVries is doing the work of his life. I've known him for as long as I've been acting, and I think he's extraordinary. Laila and I have known each other for years, and we did Tatania and Bottom together in Shakespeare in the Park, and all sorts of readings and other things. Maryann and I [know each other], obviously. It's like we're building a company here. We're already saying, "What are we going to do after this?" You don't want to go away from people you trust so much. It's like having a band or a string quartet. Once you achieve that sort of harmony, you don't say, "Well, that piece of music is over. Let's leave." You say, "What else do you want to do?" I have a feeling we will find our way back together in various forms. Maybe as a whole group, maybe in pieces. I don't know. There's definitely a family that has grown together.

BH:  Richard Nelson is also directing.

JS:  We have an extraordinary talent in Richard Nelson, not only as a writer but as a director. There are very few—and I'm thinking about it now, and can think of no one else—who is such a phenomenal director of his own work. To the point where I don't really have an interest in performing in his plays with someone else as director, even though I'm sure other people would be good. Getting it straight from the mouth of the person who felt it to begin with is amazing. He says, "I can't tell you how to do it, but I can tell you if it's wrong. I can guide you in the feeling." We are pursuing that together, and it's taken us to such depths, and it's also taught him about his own works because he trusts us ... Many times you want the playwright around periodically but not all the time. You want to tear the play down and put it all together. Richard understands that process in a way that is very unusual.

BH:  The plays present people as very human—caring, grappling with important issues, but with flaws.

JS:  The characters are written with such love, and yet every page is full of them bumping up against each other, the way families do. It's really human, but it's not nasty. I also think they are genuinely smart people, people who have lived. You're not watching teenagers falling in love. That's a whole other kind of story. We're watching people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are looking at the world. Not just the characters, but the majority of the New York audience, and all of us, are northeastern liberal democrats. It would have been easy for That Hopey Changey Thing to have been a bash fest. You'd all laugh, and we'd all make fun of the people we're "better" than. It would be shallow and totally different. Instead, people came in thinking that might be what we're doing, and gradually realized that we were doing something more. As I say in that play, "I'm not defending Sarah Palin, but criticizing us." Even a family that has grown up with the same beliefs, they still have different ways of seeing the world. They recognize that humans include that full range of possibilities and the need to talk and question. There is not one right way and one wrong way ...

BH:  Having all four plays performed together, and giving people the opportunity to see all four in such a short period of time, should make it a richer experience.

JS:  Absolutely. In some ways, though each one is self contained, they are four acts of a much longer single play. They work together. The sensibility is the same, and things in Regular Singing that come together thematically and question-wise relate to all the other works. We're working on Hopey Changey now, and there are echoes of that play in Regular Singing. That's been fascinating, to be going back and forth between them.

I would go so far as to say these four pieces are Richard Nelson's masterwork, in a very prolific career. What he has achieved with these four plays is phenomenal, and I'm particularly excited to be part of these.

BH:  Have you learned more about your character by working on all four this way?

JS:  Definitely. In the past, we had very limited time to work on each show. We'd do a few days of workshop then have a couple weeks off during which we'd begin to learn the lines, then three weeks rehearsal. And we only played each one for three weeks. There's a whole growth thing that happens just in the amount of time that you live with a work. Going back to them now, there's additional growth to our performance. It's as if you did it for six or twelve weeks, or six months. Every time we return to any of these shows, we dig deeper and we learn more.

BH:  How has it been working on the project with your wife?

JS:  Maryann and I joke that the fact that we're both doing the shows has saved our marriage. If one of us had gotten to do this project and the other one hadn't, we might have been so jealous that it might have caused a terrible rift! [laughter]. We always love working together and we're both very much creatures of the theater. It's where we came from and what we've always loved most. We're absolutely where we belong, and with an incredible leader. Hopefully we'll be appreciated that much more as people see the depths of all this.

BH:  Do you think you'll be working on these shows again in the future?

JS:  I really wish there was talk about taking this to London. I think that would be extraordinary. It would show them something more American in style and subject, which also is universal. We get so many things coming the other direction, and this is something I've not seen somewhere else.

These plays depict the kind of experience we don't get much in the theater. It's the ranting—what about this, what about that, trying to tell you a message. Richard dares to have us lost, confused. He doesn't have the answers but he ultimately brings us to the need to talk, the need to come together. Ultimately, that is [the province of] the theater. That's the reason that Maryann and I choose to live and work in the theater and not in film or in other arts which we enjoy and love doing. In the theater you have live bodies in the seats, really there with you, experiencing and feeling the heartbeat. It's incomparable. It's the same reason I wrote a play and not a movie. I wanted everybody to sit in the theater together and experience this ... It's what the Greeks felt about theater. We all need to come and take a look at the most difficult parts of being alive, and feel the catharsis that comes when we dare to question who we are and what it is to be human.


The Apple Family: Scenes From Life In The Country through December 15 at the Public Theater. For more information, visit www.publictheater.org.


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