Meet the Playwright: Zack Friedman

by Martin Denton · December 13, 2015

What inspired you to write FATHERS & SONS? Is the play based on real people/situations in your own life?

The seed of the play came to me three years ago for a playwrighting class at the Einhorn School for Performing Arts, working with playwright Eddie Sanchez.  I wanted to write about my father's experience in the early '90s, when I was a depressed adolescent and my grandfather was approaching the slow, difficult end of his life.  As my friend (a literary editor) Marta said with a grin, "Your play has the three D's: death, depression, and dementia." It was a way for me to examine a period of my life, but from my father's point of view.  And my grandfather's point of view. 

Father/son relationships are one of the great recurring themes in classic American drama – in plays like I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER, THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES, and most of Arthur Miller’s plays, for example. Do you have any thoughts about why that’s so? Did any of those classic works push into your psyche when you were creating FATHERS & SONS?

I think everything we've read and seen sits and nests in the recesses of our minds, and waits patiently until we decide to use it for something.  Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Donald Margulies, David Auburn's Proof. I am fortunate to have a very close relationship with my parents, and as a result I search for my own story in anything I read - plays or novels.  If we are raised with love and care, then as adults all we want is to "do" for our parents they way they did for us.  And we can't.  Because, although there is a heartbreaking symmetry between a parent helping a child at the beginning of life, and the grown child helping a parent at the end of life, it still somehow doesn't even out.  That's the bitch of it.

I love that you state, in your bio, that Neil Simon was a powerful influence on your career choice. I don’t think a lot of artists your age would cite Mr. Simon in this way. What is it about Simon’s work that jazzes you? Which of his works matter the most to you—have influenced you or inspired you?

Neil Simon was the first author who's dialogue I heard and thought, "Oh, that sounds like how I talk. That sounds like my family." Simon's humor and sensibility - i.e. post-war Jewish American - made the intangible world of theater, comedy, and art, somehow attainable. For an imaginative ten year old it's Phantom Tollbooth, for a moody thirteen year old it's Catcher in the Rye. Those were me, too. But Neil Simon opened the door. The first film of a Neil Simon play I remember watching was The Sunshine Boys, starring Walter Matthau and George Burns. I was ten and watched it religiously with my father. That movie, which most people do not know, will forever be a part of my identity. The rhythms, the pain, the beautifully beige 1970s look of it all. Every father and son should have A Movie. That's ours. Then I watched/read Brighton Beach Memoirs, which starred an adolescent who wanted to be a writer- very empowering for a young boy to see that. Then The Odd Couple, Biloxi Blues, Lost in Yonkers, reading and watching the anthology. I hear that's how Aaron Sorkin started writing too, so I am proud to love Neil Simon.

You’ve spent some time at some very interesting and wonderful NYC theater institutions, notably Writopia and ESPA. How did your experiences with them influence your work? Are they places you’d recommend others get involved with?

Working with the wonderful teachers at ESPA - Eddie Sanchez, Rogelio Martinez, Julian Sheppard, to name a few - helped me write and complete some of my favorite works.  The feedback from classmates helps, but mostly its the guidance from the mentors, as well as the deadlines for class each week.  I measure years based on accomplishments, and I define accomplishments by writing.  Those years after college are a blur.  Wading and waiting, lost and wondering.  But ESPA motivated me to start writing, and I have a play to show for every class I took.  I would not trade those years for anything.  Writopia has been inspiring, watching young writers on the edge of their seats in the rehearsal process every spring for the Writopia Worldwide Plays Festival.  Since 2007, I've been impressed by the sophistication and wit of these young artists.  And, admittedly, a little threatened by their talent.

Who are your heroes? Who are your theatrical heroes?

My heroes are my parents - working class teachers who wanted only to raise good children and who are as proud of me for being a pleasant conversationalist at a cocktail party as the neighbors are proud of their son for being the youngest attorney in his law firm.  My parents always stressed character over income, that's why their three sons are all creative, interesting, humorous, and poor.

Theatrical heroes are the playwrights I've mentioned: Simon, Margulies, Auburn, Miller, Williams, Kushner, Sarah Ruhl, Craig Lucas, Itamar Moses.  I like smaller stories, intimate lives of individuals.  Big picture is important, sweeping scope and perspective, but I prefer to get into the private lives of people.  I'm lucky enough to have friends who are playwrights, and as Neil Simon said about Woody Allen, "Petty jealousies fade away in the light of overwhelming admiration."

How was the FringeNYC experience for you? Did it meet your expectations? Why had you decided to bring the piece to FringeNYC in the first place?

The FringeNYC experience was a learning experience.  As a co-producer I worked out of my comfort zone of being anything but a producer.  The audition process was a challenging from behind the table as it was when I've auditioned as an actor.  Everyone is anxious, actors and playwrights.  I had to continuously remind myself that a production in FringeNYC  is not the final destination of one's play, but the beginning.  When you work hard for several months, you expect there to be a culmination, a producer with a big cigar to pat you on the back and take you to Sardi's for lunch, tell you you're the next big thing, and for your career to begin.  At least I did.  Because I'm an idiot.  But the run is just a few performances, you get a chance to taste what a version of your play could be like, and in a blink the festival is over and it's time to rewrite, it's time to move on, it's time to work.  One of my writing colleagues, 2013 participant and Writopia Worldwide Play Festival founder Dan Kitrosser encouraged me to submit FATHERS & SONS.  Sometimes I need an extra push, the way writers need deadlines.  Any class, any festival, any friend, is a welcome push to keep writing, to finish that scene, finish the act, finish the play, then turn it into something living.





More about the playwright in this article:
Meet the Playwright: James McLindon
James McLindon now has a collection of three plays published on Indie Theater Now, complex and interesting scripts.
Meet the Playwright: Nick Rafello
Nick Rafello is an articulate and exciting new addition to Indie Theater Now. You should become familiar with him and his work
Meet the Playwright: Michael Reyes
Michael Reyes, new to ITN, has two plays online. From his interview he seems to be a fine addition to the site.