BWW Interview: Monica Piper Chats Bringing NOT THAT JEWISH to NYC, Turning Her Stories into a Play and More
Just ahead of her first preview off-Broadway, BroadwayWorld sat down to chat with the multi-talented comedian and writer Monica Piper to discuss her one-woman show NOT THAT JEWISH.
Not That Jewish is Emmy Award-winning writer, actress and comedian Monica Piper's autobiographical telling of a Jew...'ish' girl's life. From growing up in a show business family in the Bronx and taking her first step on to a Comedy Club stage, to a WASP wedding and an "almost" night with Mickey Mantle, Piper shares the milestones and moments that shaped her life, using the same signature wit found in her writing on Roseanne and Mad About You and her Emmy Award winning work on Rugrats. Over the course of 90 minutes, the audience travels with Piper from innocence to individuality, reliant to resilient, sharing both the hilarity and the heartache along the way.
Piper chats with BroadwayWorld about turning her life stories into a hit play, working with New World Stages and bringing the show to NYC.
Check out the full interview below!
How are rehearsals and previews going?
They couldn't be going any better. I mean, what a team! Michael Alden is an amazing producer. He has assembled just the most incredible team. The director, Mark Waldrop is terrific. The lighting, the sound, the projection guy, I mean everybody is amazing. it's so much fun! The show is really fun.
It originally started at Jewish Women's Theatre in Los Angeles, how has it transformed now that it's Off-Broadway?
Well, the thing that's beautiful about this show is that the text, the writing is the foundation. The writing is really funny. It's very funny, but it's also very moving. So, the text has stayed the same. You know, we've made some minor changes. I've made some cuts, I've added another couple of lines, but the text hasn't changed because we are in such a bigger space we have so much more of an opportunity to do more visually. So, visually it's just getting fantastic. We have an incredible set designer, Mike Carnahan, he's unbelievable. Its changed visually because we have so much space. Before we were in a very small performance space. Jewish Women's Theatre is very intimate, it's very charming, it's a great performance space, but it's not a theater. It's a performance space. So, you work with that and you really just focus on the intimacy of the show. Really connecting eye to eye with the audience. Here of course, it's at New World Stages, which is SO amazing.
So, because we have all this space to fill now the visuals have gotten just fantastic. We've added sound effects and we've just played with the photographs more so that they're more aesthetic. We actually create the feeling of a temple for the first minute of the show. We're in a temple and then I realize I don't understand a word anyone is saying so the temple set disappears. So, the text and the story have not changed that much. You know, it sold out for 16 months in LA in such a small space because of the story because the story and the writing. To go from laughing hysterically to suddenly finding yourself crying at certain moments, that's all the same. We've just expanded and enhanced what's already there with great visuals and great sound. It's really fun.
How is it working with New World Stages?
The whole vibe there is just so great. From the people that work the door to the other shows that are there to the courtyard and the whole vibe around there, I just couldn't be happier.
What made you want to turn your stories into a play as opposed to a TV show or a film?
Plays and storytelling has really taken off in LA. It's a wonderful way for writers and even comedians who don't want to have to get a laugh every ten seconds, it's really different than stand-up. It's like a cousin of stand-up for me. One of the stories was about my grandmother, one was about my father, one was about my son, one was about living with cancer and a teenager at the same and trying to decide which was worse. After awhile we realized, Ronda Spinak, the artistic director at Jewish Women's Theatre, and I realized that they all really deal with this central theme, not so much of being Jewish, but being human. People seem to think for NOT THAT JEWISH if you aren't Jewish you won't like this show, but that's not true. You just have to be human. You don't have to be Jewish to love this show. It's about family, it's about tradition, it's about choosing to be a comedian at a time when women weren't that well received. It's about the choice of adopting a child, it's about when a marriage doesn't work, it's about the death of a parent. It just deals with so many different issues that there's is something everyone can relate too.
Rather than turn it into a sitcom, it just felt right as a play. I've written for sitcoms. I wrote for Roseanne and Mad About You and then I was head writer of Rugrats and I was always writing in other people's voice, but now I finally have the opportunity to write my story in my voice without the boundaries of what that other character that I was writing for. Let's say on Mad About You, Paul Reiser wouldn't say that or Chuckie or Tommy wouldn't say that on Rugrats, but I would. It's what I was yearning for. Because of storytelling I got in the habit really forming an arc where there was a beginning, a middle and an end. With a sitcom, you always have to think 'Well, what's episode 35 going to look like,' with no end.
I wanted to try writing a play. Writing a one woman show. You know, I can get up and do an hour of standup anywhere. I'll do that in other venues, but this is different. I wanted to be able to go a page or two without a laugh if I could move people. If it meant getting to the truth. As I started writing I realized that this can't just be ongoing. There needs to be a conflict in the beginning, a question, and by the end of the play that question has to be answered and once that is answered you're pretty much done. It's like writing a screenplay, you have to have the conclusion and Act 3 you're getting real close to the conclusion. It's really different. I have created sitcoms. I have two sitcoms that I've created, that are original that I finished writing that I'll probably pitch someday. Once this show is a big hit, then I'll start selling my stuff all over the place. '
How is it bringing the show to New York City?
I'm just so thrilled to be doing it back in New York. I grew up here and the whole beginning of the play is about growing up in our apartment building in the Bronx where we lived on the 17th floor and my aunt and uncle and cousin lived on the 9th floor. It was a real family affair. So, I'm just so excited to be bringing it back to New York. Bringing it to New York because my roots are here. So far, everything has been going great. It's really great to be bringing it back to where I'm from, but the fact that I'm opening off-Broadway whether I had come from here or not is a whole separate thrill.
Not That Jewish has been on quite a journey is sounds like.
Yes! It started out as some stories for Jewish Women's Theatre and it's ironic because originally when Ronda asked me she said, 'I've created this thing called Jewish Women's Theatre and I want you to write original pieces and perform them," and I said, 'But Ronda, I'm not that Jewish.' She said, 'Yes you are! Just create from the heart.' And now here we are, this is like 8 years later. She said 2 years, almost 3 years ago, she said, 'Remember when you said you were not that Jewish? That could be a great title for your show.' I said, 'Oh god you're so write.' That's why it's called "Not That Jewish."
It's just really about the autobiographical ride of a jew-ISH woman's life. I'm satisfied to be jew-ISH until I have a son and then I feel the need, for some reason to raise him as a jewish man. Then just before his 18th birthday he says something to be that rocks my world and makes me think about what being Jewish really means. So, that's how I come to the ending. There's more laughter than crying, but it's a great journey to be on.
Production Photo Credits: Carol Rosegg
MONICA PIPER (Playwright and Performer) was a Campfire Girl... in the Bronx. "You sense your life isn't normal when you're sitting on the D train with a bag of marshmallows and a twig." Monica began her career as a high school English teacher. While finding it rewarding, she realized her passion was making people laugh. She studied improv with Second City in Chicago, and performed with "Sons of the Sunset," and "Papaya Juice" in San Francisco. Monica then went solo as a stand up and soon became one of Showtime Network's "Comedy All Stars." It wasn't long before she landed her own Ace Award-winning Showtime Special, "No, Monica... Just You," and was nominated for an American Comedy Award as one of the top five female comedians in the country. Monica was recruited by Ms. Barr herself to write on Roseanne. Thus began her career as a sit-com writer. She went on to write for Mad About You and Veronica's Closet. Now a mother, sit-com hours meant too much time away from her son, so Monica turned to animation. After writing for the adult cult favorite, Duckman, she became the showrunner of the #1 children's animated series, Rugrats, for which she won an Emmy. She went on to develop and write series for Nickelodeon, Disney and Cartoon Network. Monica has returned to her first love, performing. As a stand-up, she's the headlining entertainer for organizations around the country. Her most recent include fundraising dinners for the City of Hope, the Jewish Federation, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, The Premiere Oncology Foundation, as well as Jewish groups nationwide. An artist-in-residence with the Jewish Women's Theatre, Monica performs original pieces for their acclaimed At-Home Salon Theatre. She is eternally grateful to the JWT and a special patron for commissioning her one-woman show, "Not That Jewish." Monica lives in Santa Monica with her son, Jake, whom she loves and adores almost every day.