AMY AND THE ORPHANS: A Conversation with Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino and Director Scott Ellis
An edited transcript follows:
(There are spoilers below)
Ted Sod: Lindsey, the inspiration for this play came about because of a family member -- correct?
Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino
Lindsey Ferrentino: My Aunt Amy was born with Down syndrome and my grandparents were told to give up care which was, at the time, considered medically sound advice. She was raised mostly in institutions and foster homes, some better than others, and bounced around through the system. As the system got better, her care also got better. She was a big part of our lives -- we would pick her up for holidays and go visit her, but we were never there on a daily basis. After she died, I wanted to write a play about my family's relationship with her.
TS: How did you come to realize that you could write a play about your Aunt Amy and use an actress living with Down syndrome?
LF: I felt if one of the characters had Down syndrome that someone with Down syndrome should be playing her. Even before I started writing the play, I contacted an agent, Gail Williamson, who represents actors with disabilities. She has a large client list of actors with Down syndrome and she connected me to Jamie Brewer, who you saw today. Jamie was in New York - she was the first woman with Down syndrome to walk the runway during Fashion Week -- and she had time between literally walking the runway as part of Fashion Week and a press thing she was doing for "American Horror Story". I met her at a hotel and we had an hour-long conversation about what her aspirations were, how she considers herself a woman of the theater, and that there's not many roles for someone living with Down syndrome. She's played characters with other disabilities, but she's never just played a woman who has a life and also happens to have Down syndrome, a character who isn't just defined by that. I left that meeting promising to write a play specifically for her. She worked on it from the beginning, from the very first time I heard it out loud. It was at a reading here at Roundabout and then we did a production of it when I was still a student at Yale about a year and a half ago. And we did a workshop at the Goodman Theater and a workshop at New York Stage and Film.
TS: Scott, you tell a wonderful story about hearing about the play at a senior staff meeting.
Scott Ellis: We have a meeting at Roundabout where we talk about everything that's coming up, shows that we're thinking of doing, readings, et cetera, et cetera. And in one meeting, it was brought up that Lindsey had finished a draft of the play that she was commissioned to write for Roundabout and it was mentioned what it was about. When I was in high school -- I grew up in Fairfax, Virginia -- there was an institution for "mentally retarded" children -- that's what they were referred to at the time -- and during the summer, I worked there. I always found it fascinating and so when the subject of the play was mentioned, I gently raised my hand and asked if I could read it. I did and I loved it from the first read.
TS: Lindsey, I get the sense that once you found Jamie, you had the idea to write a part that embodied who she is with who your Aunt Amy was. So that the character of Amy is really a combination of people.
LF: All the characters in the play are composites. No one is exactly like someone in my family. My Aunt Amy had very limited verbal capacity and that limitation doesn't lend itself to a large role. What she has were certain set phrases often borrowed from movies, there was a lot of repeated found language. She used to say things like "Terminator" and "Hulk." "Shoot guns" was her favorite thing to say because she loved action in movies.
After she died, I compiled a document with all the things that I remembered that she said, which wasn't a large document. And one of the things that my aunt had in common with Jamie is their love of movies. I feel that allowed me to imagine who this character was outside of my aunt. And also, Jamie said that she was used to playing characters who were at a lower functioning level than she herself is, and she would have to -- the phrase she used was - "dumb herself down."
TS: The research you did included finding a diary of your grandparents, who were Amy's parents. Will you talk about what you learned that was valuable to you as a writer?
LF: I found a journal written by my grandparents while they were in couples' therapy. I was curious about how they made this decision and what pointed them to it. The decision to give Amy up is certainly talked about, but they had complicated lives which they also addressed. They had other children, they had their own issues as individuals. Reading that journal helped humanize this very difficult decision that they had to make and it helped me see them as two married people who were dealing with things that were over their heads.
TS: Scott, this play is very much about then and now. When I saw it the first time, it had an intermission. And I remember during intermission, the people behind me were saying, "Oh, those are the parents!"
SE: We talked about this so much and in Chicago, we did have an intermission and we tried to find out when the audience knew who the parents were. We put out a survey and just asked the audience a few questions. Some people caught on fairly fast. Some people didn't catch on until the second scene and some didn't get it until they said, "We have to give up the baby." We were ultimately happy thinking that whatever journey the audience is going to take with the parents, that should be their journey.
TS: Lindsey, I'm curious how you came up with the character of Kathy, the caregiver. Can you tell us how you found that very parental relationship and particular personality?
LF: My aunt was in a lot of group homes on Long Island and the women that I remember taking care of her were tough women who weren't necessarily nurses -- they would be wearing belly shirts with scrub pants and would have their nails done -- but they also had this really beautiful relationship with my aunt. It was a job that they loved and I found that whole dynamic really interesting. They didn't go to nursing school, but they dealt with a lot of nursing issues. They knew her personality better than we did. And knew what her daily life was better than we did. And there was a weird tension that I always felt when we would go pick Amy up. I was hyper aware of feeling judged. We'd show up with gifts, saying, "Come, have a good time with us, we'll pack all of our family love into these few weeks that we're going to spend with you."
TS: The tension between Maggie and Jake, Amy's siblings, is fascinating to me. They feel like they inherited a lot from their parents in terms of personality. Was that a deliberate choice on your part or did that just come about naturally?
LF: I think it was definitely a deliberate decision. I think that was something that I was interested in. Especially with Jake, who's really trying to distance himself, but you can never fully distance yourself from your family. They're always in you and that is what that tension is.
TS: Even though they live in different cities, they are instantly reconnected.
SE: When parents start passing away, the relationship among brothers and sisters, if you have them, does start changing. I find that so incredibly truthful. How some siblings don't have a real bond after their parents die. I'm so curious what's going to happen once my mother passes away, what will happen with my siblings and me and how we will adjust for the rest of our lives. I think it's beautifully done in the play. Lindsey explores how Maggie and Jake try to hold on to something that still means family.
TS: Among all the incredible moments in the play, the thing that keeps reverberating is, who is your family? So many people create their own families, either by necessity or because they don't enjoy the company of their blood relations.
LF: I live in New York, my family lives in Florida and I was writing this at the time my brother moved to Texas. My nuclear family, whom I'm very close with, was spreading out farther and farther across the country. My mom's siblings live in New York and Florida and Virginia, so how do you maintain family in a very large country? How do you maintain contact? And in terms of Amy, she was my aunt and I called her Aunt Amy, but what did that mean to her? I thought about what my Aunt Amy's daily routine was and I latched onto this idea of what it means to have a family dinner and who are the people you talk and eat with on a daily basis? It's something that I felt was important for me to explore from Amy's point of view.
TS: Scott, I want to talk about collaborating on a new play. Because it feels to me that without trust, you're never going to get the results you both got. How did you build that trust? How did you two work together and find your equilibrium? What did you learn from each other?
LF: Scott is an amazing director whose work I've seen and knew about. He's also the associate artistic director here at Roundabout, which means a lot. In the very beginning, he kept saying, "I'm interested in this play, but I don't want to pressure you. I don't want you to feel pressure to choose me. You make the decision. I like the play, but you decide." And I was thinking, you do know who you are, right? I would be very lucky to get to work with you. We had done a reading early on and that was the first time we met and talked about the play. We fell into a natural conversation about it.
SE: On a new piece, you want to be very respectful. I wanted to find out how she works. It's important, as the director, to embrace the play she's writing and make sure that's what's being put onstage. The collaboration doesn't always happen, but the collaboration with us was right. I think we bonded when we went to Chicago, that's really when we were basically on the same wavelength as far as the play was concerned. I was asking Lindsey a lot of questions. I'm the type of director who wants the writer to be involved on every level. I'm not pushing him or her away. Lindsey was with us during almost all the rehearsals. And when we were trying to figure out the set (along with the terrific designer Rachel Hauck) the set was a very, very difficult thing to solve because the action of the play moves location so quickly -- that was a real bonding experience for us, too. All of us were figuring out how we could tell this story. We very rarely disagreed on much. There were a couple of times when I said, "I don't know if I agree with that." But really, if that's how the writer sees it, I am going to try that out. I think, hopefully, what you all saw today is a true collaboration because both of us care so much about what's being said in the play. And I'm grateful for that, because I can say it doesn't always happen.
LF: When you're meeting with a director for the first time, it's like this weird blind date the theater sets you up on. You talk about the play, but you don't really know who this person is. So often you make these decisions knowing you're going to be in a relationship together, you're going to be making a production together, but you decide without knowing who the director is as a human being. And sometimes it doesn't work out and sometimes it does. I have been surprised by how totally open Scott is in the rehearsal room. Sometimes directors like the playwrights to not be around the whole time. Sometimes they like the playwrights to whisper notes to them so they can talk to the actors, which I always feel is so weird. But I didn't have to run my thoughts through Scott. We felt comfortable enough that I could just speak to the actors.
SE: By that time, I knew that we were approaching the play in the same way. So, whether it came from Lindsey or it came from me, we were speaking the same language -- that is important so it isn't confusing to the cast.
TS: Lindsey, you have been very bold to put a road trip on stage. How did that come about? And did you, Scott, as the director, think -- how the hell am I going to stage this?
SE: Yes! It was really a WTF moment. We had a line of model cars, probably eight of them. It's fascinating because that really was one of the first things we talked about -- what is the car? Which dictates, totally, what the rest of the play is. Is it a real car, does it have doors? Does it not have doors? The car was really a part of every conversation we had about staging the play.
TS: Lindsey, was the road trip something that you just knew would work?
LF: My associations with my aunt are always about travel. When I went to NYU, I would drive out to the east end of Long Island to go visit her. When she lived in New York and I lived in Florida, she needed to travel with a guardian and it was my job to get on a plane, fly to New York, pick her up and escort her to the airport, get back on the plane with her and then turn around and do everything in reverse - it was always about travel when it came to seeing my Aunt Amy. And I was also given a formal challenge from my mentor at Yale at the time that I wrote the play, to stop writing stage directions, because I had a tendency in my plays to micromanage the set, to direct from the stage directions. And she said to me, "I feel you would benefit from writing a play without any stage directions. See what happens." This was that play. I was really resistant at first and I thought, okay, if you want that then I'll just really open the play up. But that challenge has completely changed my writing I feel, in a good way.
TS: Can you both talk about the decision to cut the intermission? Scott, did you just say, "Hey, can we do this?"
SE: We had many, many discussions about it. I think this is why the collaboration is so good. I can say that I think Lindsey was a little resistant and for very good reason, and again, no matter what, if Lindsey would have said, "No, I want the intermission back" - we would have put it back. In my gut, I felt once we're on the road trip, we should stay on the road trip. I didn't want to give the audience a break, so to speak. I did take it out on a Friday so we could watch it for a whole weekend. I did do that.
LF: I started to get paranoid about how short both of the acts were, because they were running about 45 minutes each and I was starting to get a bit self-conscious about that. And also, the first act ended when the parents said, "We can't keep Amy," which I felt was an emotional beat that warranted some sort of a break. And I wasn't sure how we could go from that into the monologue about dogshit. But we just tried it. I actually find that tonal shift interesting and weird in a good way. It keeps the momentum going.
TS: Before we move to the audience questions, I want to talk about Andy and the Orphans. I think it's really brilliant of you to have two genders as protagonists.
SE: Everyone knows that, right? Eddie Barbanell does matinees every Saturday and Wednesday.
TS: Can you tell us about your decision to do that?
LF: It is something we had been talking about, making the play more inclusive, so more people would be able to produce the play using an actor living with Down syndrome. It's a small pool of talent, so I went back to Gail, who had connected me to Jamie, and I said, "Set me up on some meetings with more actors." I didn't specify gender. And she set me up with Eddie, who is now playing Andy. I met him in Florida, where Eddie lives and my family is and we had lunch. He came to lunch and performed. I said, "Don't prepare anything, we just want to have a conversation about the play." And he brought me an autographed DVD of the movie that he was in and a poster from the lecture he had just given and while he was eating ice cream, he performed Puck and something from Julius Caesar. I left that meeting and called Scott and said, "We have to figure this out, we have to use him!"
SE: She actually sent me a video.
LF: A video of him doing Shakespeare in a diner. So, we went back to Roundabout and they were very supportive of it. I didn't want to change the name of Amy to a gender-neutral name. It felt so personal to me and my aunt. So, we just decided that I was just going to write a male version of the play for him to do. It doesn't change drastically. If you see Andy and the Orphans, it's a different story, but only because Eddie is a different person than Jamie. He has a different delivery and energy.
SE: The only things that really changed are his name and the fact that he has a girlfriend whose name is Tina Turner. And the pronouns change, but, actually, very little in the script changed. The other actors have to readjust, but the story is the same. It's fascinating to watch both versions.
LF: It was an exciting challenge for the other actors who had to perform the same play, but in a new way. That's been really interesting to watch.
TS: Scott, when I interviewed you for this and other plays you've directed here, I always ask what you were looking for in casting and you always say, "I wanted people who I really want to be with for eight weeks." I love the fact that you're using people you've known forever, Debra and Mark, and new people. Can you talk a bit about how you chose them?
SE: We've spoken about Jamie and Eddie. We went up to New York Stage and Film and Mark and Debra came up and did it there and they were terrific together, and we decided to go into auditions for the other roles. We cast some actors who were new to me: Vanessa, Diane and Josh (who are all great actors). Josh, who does a lot of television work, really went after this. He told his agent he really loved the role. Basically, we looked for who's truthful and right for the piece and that's how we did it. And yes, I feel like I want to be in the room with people who are very much on the same wavelength as Lindsey and me.
Audience Member #1: I was wondering about ages. The brother and sister seem older than Amy. I was wondering what your thoughts were in that casting?
SE:Jamie is wigged, and we are trying to make her look a little older. But she does look a little younger. I saw pictures of Lindsey's aunt, who looks very young, too.
LF: My aunt looked extremely young well into her fifties, It's a tricky thing. Anyone from my aunt's generation are not at Jamie's level, because it was a different time with different mindsets and opportunities. Most of the incredible actors with Down syndrome that you see working today are of the younger generation. It's just a reality that you have to buy into.
Audience Member #2: One of the themes of the play, it seems, is the importance of independence and also protection of people with Down syndrome. And more recently I think, we're more sensitive to how vulnerable they can be as a result of the Me Too movement. I was wondering whether that's a theme that, if you were writing the play today, you might address?
TS: Would the Me Too movement change any of your writing?
LF: No, I don't think so. I think I'd just stay true to the story of my aunt in particular and what she went through and that wasn't a part of that movement. There was a line Maggie had though, she said: "Me too, me too," and I did change that. Those two words sound very different now.
Audience Member #3: I'm curious to know where this theme of mortality that runs throughout the play came from? Was it part of your initial idea for the script, or was that something that got formed through the development process?
LF: I don't think I was consciously thinking, "I'm going to write a play with the theme of mortality." But I do feel mortality is part of the storytelling in my play. What set off the writing of the play was the passing of my aunt and my grandparents. I was not consciously writing about death and mortality, but it makes sense that you saw that because two of the characters are trying to put their lives back on track after losing their parents and they are searching for answers about their sister being institutionalized and they are not able to get the answers from the parents themselves because they're deceased.
TS: There is that marvelous moment when Maggie and Jake have the revelation about what their parents knew and didn't know about Amy's time in Willowbrook. There is a sense of what's our responsibility to our family connected with this mortality idea, too. I don't think the older siblings knew that their father was possibly using mustard to help him breathe. That's an interesting point you bring up, sir, because perhaps it is the reality of mortality that is motivating the siblings to vie for Amy to come and live with them.
Audience Member #4: Congratulations, you must be very proud of your work. When Amy says: "My home is not with you, my home is with my friends" -- did that result from a conversation you had with your aunt, or is that something that you intellectually developed by yourself?
LF: My aunt wouldn't have had the verbal capacity to have those kinds of conversations. That's more of an imagined conversation that I wanted to give her the power to be able to have. I wanted to give her the last word in that debate. She basically asks, "Are you family or are you not?"
Audience Member #5: I'm curious, was Jamie wearing an earpiece? And if so, if that was medical or technical?
SE: That is a technical earpiece and, by the way, she doesn't really use it. But we gave it to her literally as protection. Sometimes when Jamie does forget a line or gets off, it's harder for her to get back on track. And I could give you a list of actors who do the same thing. So, the purpose is just to safeguard the actor if something does mess up or if another actor doesn't cue her correctly. But she really doesn't use it.
LF: She was the first actor off-book and having the earpiece just gives her the confidence to not have to worry -- not that she really uses it. When we did a production at Yale, at the last performance after the show, she came up to me and said, "I tricked you. I unplugged it!"
Audience Member #6: What kind of changes did you see in your family throughout the process of writing this play and after it was finished?
LF: It was good for us all to talk about Amy. My mom and her sister and brother, all had different relationships with Amy. I asked them what their perception was of the experience that she endured? I asked why did they think she was given up? I asked what they thought went into that decision? You don't sit down and ask your family questions like that unless you're the annoying daughter or niece who's writing a play about your family. Families just don't have those conversations about family history unless there's a reason to have them. So, I feel it was good for my family to get to talk about Amy. And I think when they saw the play at Yale, they did not have a problem with it; in fact, I think they really loved the play. We've all learned a lot with me writing the play because we only ever knew people with Down syndrome of my aunt's generation and didn't know people, we wouldn't have had access to people with Down Syndrome of Jamie's generation, who are walking in Fashion Week and starring in plays off-Broadway. That was really a healing as well as a learning process for my family and me.
TS: Will you talk about the advocacy work that you've been promoting through writing this play, how people can get more information or make contributions to certain advocacy groups for people living with Down syndrome?
LF: Jamie and Eddie are huge advocates, so I don't want to take credit for any of that, but right from the beginning, we had conversations with Roundabout's marketing department about how we can partner with different advocacy groups. We also did sensitivity training for the cast and the staff here at Roundabout and we're doing sensory friendly performances through the Theatre Development Fund, which is an amazing program that TDF sponsors. Certain performances are adjusted to be more sensory friendly to people who need that. Eddie is a big promoter of ending the r-word, so that no one says that word anymore. Eddie kept saying, "I want people to have to sign something." There's a huge poster in the lobby and you can all take the Special Olympics pledge to end the r-word by signing your name to that. Jamie and Eddie are really the advocates and we as an institution are supporting them.
SE: I always feel I'm so lucky to be part of Roundabout. I just couldn't be prouder to be part of this theater company because they've been so incredibly supportive and proactive and they feel this is important. I do think it will change the perceptions of the audiences who see it. And I think that is a great thing.
LF: I have commissions to write plays at a few theaters and when I originally had this idea to write about my aunt and knew that the play would require someone with Down syndrome to play the role, there were theaters that I talked to about the play that said, "That's not something that we feel is doable." And Roundabout said, "That's great, we don't know how it'll be done, but if you want to try it, let's try it." The resources of Roundabout are wonderful, it's such a lucky place for the play to be.
TS: Will you both tell the audience about what's coming up for you?
TS: And, Mr. Ellis, you are directing a new musical that I'm dying to see.
SE:God help me, we're going out of town in August to do the musical version of the film Tootsie. It's different because Dorothy/Michael auditions for a Broadway musical and not a soap opera in the musical version. I'm in the middle of all that. And then later next season for Roundabout, I will direct a revival of Kiss Me, Kate starring Kelli O'Hara.
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