In this interview with Extended Play, members of the original cast of "This Beautiful City" talk about the show's origins, Michael Friedman's legacy and the bittersweet experience of recording the new album.
Before March of this year, there were two specific things I virtually knew nothing about: Helen Keller and devised theatre. Nearly six months have passed, and while not an expert on these two subjects by any means, I gratefully know a bit more than I did back then. Like many things in life, my introduction to these subjects seemed to happen almost by accident.
Michele Pawk, a well-known actress with whom I am have worked a few times, is a good friend of mine. A few years ago, she accepted a full-time job as a Professor of Theatre at Wagner College in Staten Island. Every year, she’d invite me out to teach a master class, and I always had a wonderful time meeting and working with her students. Last year, she asked me if I’d come out to direct the students in a production in their blackbox theatre. I said yes, and then they asked me what I wanted to direct.
Everyone assumes that directors have a long list of titles they’re dying to direct and perhaps some do, but most of the directors I know have no such list. I was on the phone with Michele and Department Chair Felicia Ruff and frighteningly asked, “Anything?”
“Sure! Anything you want!” they replied.
“Ok,” I said, “let me get back to you.” I glanced over at my one bookshelf of plays, none of which seemed much help at the moment. So, I turned my attention to Turner Classic Movies, and “The Miracle Worker” was on. After 30 seconds of careful analysis, I thought, who doesn’t love “The Miracle Worker” — wah-wah tears, Anne Bancroft sass — perfect. Everyone agreed, and they got the rights. We were off, until one night when I decided to actually google “The Miracle Worker” and do some “research.” One review I found questioned whether the play seemed dated. That was it for me — I decided we were not going to do “The Miracle Worker,” because it was dated and old-fashioned. Now, when I actually got around to reading and watching The Miracle Worker, I discovered that it is not dated and is actually a brilliant, deeply moving play. But, in my defense, at 3 a.m., one can be made to believe anything. So, in my late night swirl of “doubting Miracle Worker madness,” I came upon Helen Keller’s Wikipedia page and discovered that Helen Keller actually lived an entire life after “The Miracle Worker” ends. Who knew? In fact, she lived for another 82 years, writing over a dozen books and countless articles, giving thousands of speeches around the world and mingling with everyone from Mark Twain to J.F.K. She advocated for birth control, believed in Bolshevism and oh my God my head was exploding. I called the Wagner team and said that instead of doing “The Miracle Worker,” I’d love to do an original piece about Helen Keller set after the action in “The Miracle Worker,” using her own words, culled from her seemingly endless writings. They were supportive and said, “Whatever you need, we’re here.”
I had never devised a theater piece from found writings, and I didn’t know where to begin. First, I made a list of everything she wrote—approximately 16 books and too many magazine and newspaper articles to count. I ordered whatever I could from online retailers and downloaded everything I could find from the internet. I showed up at Wagner to a cast of thirteen with no script, an extremely heavy canvas bag of old books and lots of photocopied articles. There were only three things I knew for sure: the show would be called “The 8th Wonder of the World” (Mark Twain’s reference to her), it would begin with the cast telling every single Helen Keller joke known to man, and we would recreate/deconstruct the famous breakfast scene from “The Miracle Worker” halfway through the show.
With no script, I sat around the table with the cast, talking about everything from their personal lives to body image. I began circling paragraphs or sections from books and bringing them in for the cast to read aloud. We spent time talking about what we had just read, more often than not being deeply touched by her inspirational sayings, before feeling guilty that our seeing and hearing lives would never be as noble as hers.
After a few weeks, Helen Keller and her needlepoint view of life started to become, well, boring. So I began to search in vain for anything where she was cranky, sad or downright furious. Thankfully that part of Helen appears in her writings if one looks hard enough. She wanted to get married and almost did until her mother called it off and kicked the poor fellow out of their lives. She toured vaudeville and developed a wickedly smart and hilarious tongue (“What is the slowest thing in the word? Congress.”). She abhorred the mistreatment of any person and was deeply ashamed of her family’s slave-owning past. She fought hard for women’s rights and supported Lenin and the Russian Revolution with full force. She was a pacifist and never forgave Woodrow Wilson for getting us into World War I. Conversely, when World War II broke out, she could not understand what took us so long to enter it! I felt like I was sitting on a gold mine.
We sat around the table for a full five weeks. There was no real method to my process of selecting which of Keller’s writings to include other than, “Hmmm, this seems interesting.” One day, I gathered all the material I had selected and walked into rehearsal with a stack of paper that was ten inches high. Each cast member took an inch or so, and we sat and went round the table and read every single sheet. After about ten minutes, it felt like we were reading the phone book. Devoid of snappy dialogue found in plays, these were narrative writings meant to be read, not performed. We discovered we really had our work cut out for us. We had to figure out how to make first person narrative prose interesting and present and emotional.
Keller never heard speech. Her vocabulary was huge and written in another time (how many times a day do you use words like “allotted” or “unscrupulous?”). Her sentences are complex, and at times her train of thought is rather complicated. But she is a gorgeous writer nonetheless — a true artist. When talking about her mother, who was only 23 when Helen’s illness took away her sight and hearing, she writes, “It was as if a white winter had swept over the June of her youth.” That line gets me every time, not only for the poetry of it but for the obvious deep love for her mother it contains.
Eventually the ten-inch stack of writings became more manageable. I used the student cast as a focus group, holding up sections and asking bluntly, “Boring or not boring?” One distinct advantage of starting a show like this with students is quick and honest answers. The one time I blatantly overruled them had to do with “Gone With The Wind.” In her published journal, Keller tracks her reading of the Margaret Mitchell novel over several entries. The image of her curling up in bed at night excited to read the latest chapter of this romantic saga made her that much more real to me. One student knew “Gone with the Wind” quite well and begged for it to be included —and so I gave those sections to her. Next, I asked each student what sections they personally connected with and assigned them accordingly. I felt that it was better for the show that, when possible, the actors should have a personal stake in choosing their own material. Although they were speaking her words, they weren’t literally playing Helen Keller; they were interpreting her words and, as a result, playing themselves in the end. Eventually I put everything in an order, and an abstract, yet accessible portrait of Keller’s mind and heart began to emerge. I mocked up a rudimentary staging. The cast held their scripts, which consisted of tattered photocopied pages with crude edits I had dictated — I wonder how the actors could even read from them, much less act in front of an audience!
I finished my process at Wagner, and the Transport Group show scheduled for this summer was postponed until next summer. So I decided to put the Helen Keller piece in our summer slot. I retitled the show “Three Days To See,” the name of an essay Keller wrote in 1933 about what she would do if she could see for just three days; that essay ends our show.
We cast the show with a diverse cross-section of seven professional actors: men, women, children, older, younger, African-American, Caucasian and Asian. Keller wrote that, in reality, we are all one body, and since she spoke and advocated for “the world,” I wanted as much diversity in the cast as possible. The process of bringing her worlds to the stage was remarkable and quite a gift. She used her disabilities as tools to experience and learn about the world. Accordingly, she has taught all of us who worked on this show that the power of the heart and mind have no limits. The world is meant to be experienced by every sense fully. The ability to truly see and hear one another is the key to ending hatred. These things probably sound obvious, but when articulated by such a mind as Helen Keller’s, they have a resonance that far exceeds any I have ever known.
“Three Days To See” has definitely produced a desire in me to continue pursuing devised work. There is something about letting subjects speak for themselves that brings an unexpected authenticity to the experience. We put signs in the lobby that reminded the audience that every word — aside from the opening sequence, in which the cast tells every Helen Keller joke we could think of on that first day at Wagner — are Keller’s and nobody else’s.
One of the most powerful moments in the entire process came from a student cast member at Wagner. Molly was a senior whose dad had passed away a few years ago. They had been a close family, and this unexpected tragedy had shaken their world. Her mother had recently been starting to date a man, and Molly was simply not having it. One weekend she attended a wedding with her family, including her mother’s new boyfriend. During that weekend, Molly finally realized that this man her mother was dating was a perfectly kind and good human being. I was surprised and asked what brought about her change of heart. She said, “You know, I think this play is having an effect on me, because all I could think of was Helen. I thought of all that she did in her life, and I said to myself, if Helen did all that, then I believe I can do this for my mother. And so I did. And it actually felt great.” To think that Helen Keller, dead for nearly fifty years, was an impetus for bringing this torn family a little closer together was remarkable to me.
My simple goal with “Three Days To See” was to illuminate a human being who unfairly has been reduced to a joke. We have much to learn from Helen Keller, and the vast majority of it occurs after “The Miracle Worker.”
I’ll end this article, as I have been accustomed to doing lately, by letting Helen — in my imagination, we’re on a first name basis — speak for herself:
“If you can enjoy the sun and flowers and music where there is nothing except darkness and silence, you have proved the mystic sense.”