Playwrights on Playwrights: Jason Jacobs on Richard Sheinmel and Clay Zambo

by Jason Jacobs · January 22, 2013

Jason Jacobs is both a director and playwright (his play Another Horatio Alger Story is on Indie Theater Now). He directed Richard Sheinmel & Clay Zambo’s 2010 musical Post Modern Living at The Club at La MaMa, and he’s currently directing the next show in the “Modern Living” cycle, Lost in Staten Island (opening on June 15 at The Club at La MaMa). Here, Jason answers a few questions about his collaborations with Richard and Clay:

ME: Jason, this is your second time working with Richard Sheinmel and Clay Zambo on the “Modern Living” series. How did you first get to know these guys, and how did you come to direct Post Modern Living back in 2010?

JASON: I initially met Richard when he was acting in the East Village Fragments, wearing a cellophane diaper on 2nd Avenue.  But our mutual friend, actress Nomi Tichman, really played artistic matchmaker for us. Nomi had played “Aunt Sheila” in Richard’s first Modern Living show, and when he told her was looking for a director for Post Modern Living, she suggested he talk to me.  I am so grateful to her for this!  I read the script and was struck by some coincidental connections. For one thing, he named Mitch’s mother “Joy” – my own mother’s name, and the story of her surviving breast cancer touched very close to home for me. I also responded to the kind of gentle, generous spirit Richard brings to storytelling, his kindness to his characters.  I also liked the very causal way he brings in supernatural characters – spirit guides, ghosts – to interact with “real” or living characters. So over lunch I shared how I connected to the writing and my initial images and theatrical ideas, and, ding-ding-ding. it was a match.

I got to know Clay as we started casting that show.  We went into auditions without songs or a sense of who would sing them – which seemed like a challenge to making choices.  At first I was nervous to start a piece without the songs in place, but I realized Clay’s process on this project was very intuitive and collaborative – the songs come both from the feelings he intuits from the script and also the singers in the room. I realized we would be making musical choices on our feet, in the rehearsal room, and gradually I found my own way in as director during this process.

ME:  Can you give us a brief synopsis of Lost in Staten Island? What do you think the audience is going to take away from this piece?

JASON: Well, in our last episode, “Uber Mom” [in Post Modern Living], we established Mitch’s relationship with his mom, Joy, and saw what a great, untraditional bond they have.  They’re really great friends who happen to be parent and grown-up child.  And part of their bond is helping each other with Robbie, Mitch’s older brother who grew up with a host of complex psychological problems.  Lost picks up a few years later. Robbie is gone (I’ll leave out the details so the audience can experience it fully) and Mitch has to go to Staten Island to help Joy deal with the loss – I mean the real day-to-day, unwelcome tasks of losing a loved one.  They are on a kind of road trip, following a “to-do” list. (One we can all hope never to have). It becomes a journey of both confronting and coping with loss.  I think anyone who has had to cope with a sudden loss or trauma in their family will relate to their story. And even those who haven’t will laugh at the dark humor and be touched by the character’s humanity. I hope this piece will offer an experience of healing to anyone, no matter what you’ve been through.

ME: I think of you mostly as a director of drama rather than musicals. Is this show a musical, in your opinion? Is your approach to it different than it would be if there wasn’t music in it? What do you think the music adds to this piece?

JASON: I’ve actually done a few musicals, one opera, and many “plays with music” – though most of these shows have been out-of-town – so you haven’t gotten to see them.  This isn’t the kind of book “musical” where characters break from scene to song. Clay’s songs take subtext and emotions expressed by the characters and – like arias – they take us inside the characters’ experience. They are not “moving the story forward” as we expect them to do in a traditional musical; nor is it a sung-through piece.  In my work with the actors, the process is very much like a nonmusical play – they have to work on their characters and scenes just as they would if there were no music.  And yet, as we put the show together, Clay’s songs and music weave the whole piece together.  The music really influences how the play moves in time and space.   And then there are moments where we have two things happening – some kind of interaction between characters, with a song happening around it, so part of my job is balancing the focus of these moments. This is where the collaboration with our musical director Cody really comes to play.

ME: In the show, playwright Richard Sheinmel plays a downtown performance artist very much like himself, and furthermore the situations in the play are drawn from his own life. What kinds of challenges does that present to you as the director? Is it easy or hard to direct someone playing a version of himself?

JASON: Definitely it has unique challenges – added to the fact that Richard is wearing multiple hats (playwright/actor) so first off, we try to be very clear about which “hat” he is wearing all the time. I have seen actors become protective, defensive, or at least non-objective when playing someone so close to themselves, but Richard is fully committed separating his character (Mitch) from his own life in the performance. We agreed during Post Modern Living that part of my job is to be an outside eye and maintain the separation between life and art that may be difficult for Richard as he is working things out. That means I need to hold on to objectivity. The boundary between life and art is incredibly tender in this process – especially in this play. But Richard is incredibly receptive to my direction and also interaction with the other actors; he always wants to make the best artistic choice for the piece and welcomes all of our feedback and suggestions.

ME: Lost in Staten Island is the final show of La MaMa’s 50th anniversary season. How has that milestone affected your work and the work of the company?

JASON: It’s exciting to be part of this milestone, but even more than the anniversary itself, I’m inspired by the history of the space and Richard’s long relationship with La MaMa. He really grew up there, and we try in this series to acknowledge and utilize The Club space as a specific setting; it’s the container for Mitch’s theatrical storytelling.  Set designer John McDermott and I look for ways to really engage the architecture and ambiance of the room in the set and the staging.

ME: Most of the actors are returning to roles they created in earlier “Modern Living” shows. How does this affect the dynamic of creating the piece?

JASON: When I came aboard to direct the second show, I told Richard I was interested in bringing back as many actors as possible from his first show — even though I didn’t know most of them  — because I love the continuity of ongoing collaborations, especially since “Modern Living” is meant to be a theatrical series.  It turned out that most of the original cast wasn’t available, so except for Richard and Mick Hilgers, most of the Post Modern Living cast were new. This show, we are so lucky that almost all of the PML cast was able to come back.  Some of the actors are playing roles they created last time, like Wendy Meritt playing Joy, so we get to continue to explore this character and see new aspects of her.  Some are playing new roles: Chris Orbach plays Robbie this time; Catherine Porter plays an entirely new set of characters.  Given all the conditions of theatre-making today, it’s become unusual for an entire company to stay together for the long haul.  Very few artists are able or willing to really make that commitment.  We all had a wonderful collaboration on the last show, so there is so much trust and support that we are starting with. Hopefully this will manifest onstage in the depth of performances and sense of ensemble in the show, and the respect for the material.

Learn more about Lost in Staten Island on Richard Sheinmel’s website.





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