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BWW Interview: Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Bring Frontline Stories Center Stage with THE LINE

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BWW Interview: Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Bring Frontline Stories Center Stage with THE LINEOn July 8 (7:30pm) The Public Theater will present the world premiere of THE LINE, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen and directed by Blank . The live-streamed play, bringing first-person stories of New York City's first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic to the digital stage, was commissioned by The Public Theater and written specifically for the digital sphere.

THE LINE is a new play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen created in the award-winning documentary style that brought you The Exonerated, Aftermath, and Coal Country. Crafted from firsthand interviews with New York City medical first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic, THE LINE cuts through the media and political noise to reveal the lived experiences of frontline medical workers in New York and their battle to save lives in a system built to serve the bottom line.

The company of THE LINE features Santino Fontana (David), Arjun Gupta (Vikram), John Ortiz (Oscar), Alison Pill (Jennifer), Nicholas Pinnock (Dwight), Jamey Sheridan (Ed), and Lorraine Toussaint (Sharon). THE LINE features original music composition by Aimee Mann, and Janelle Caso will serve as production stage manager.

BroadwayWorld checked in with Blank and Jensen ahead of the big premiere to talk all about how the play is coming together.

Can you start by telling me a little bit more about the beginning phases of this? Did the Public come to you with this idea?

JB: We came to them. We were approached by the 24-hour Plays: Viral Monologues. I don't remember if it was the first or second round, but it was right at the beginning. We were enthusiastic about it. Coal Country, our last play, had just opened at the Public when all the theatres shut down, so working on that monologue was useful in dealing with the heartbreak of the play closing suddenly. We asked if we could do our monologue documentary-style and interview a New York City nurse.

JB: The monologue was called "Invincible," and it was like really right in the middle of things. It was really a powerful thing- talking to her. We were both really floored by it.

EJ: We always did interviews in person, so this whole Zoom interview thing... I always felt like it would be cold and not have the same kind of warmth as you would in person. But I actually thought it to be very moving. It was very intimate. Part of the interesting thing people are going to experience when they ultimately see The Line is that it's probably the closest people are going to get to actually sitting down and being in Jessica's and my shoes and getting to sit down and hearing people talk.

So that single monologue led to the larger idea?

JB: Yes, we got the idea, "Oh, we could do a kind of rapid response play!" We had been really closely working with The Public when everything closed down. We were in regular communication with them already, so we pitched it to them. They were still very much, as all theatres were at the time, figuring out what to do in a larger sense. Then they came back around and said "Let's go!" and we all sprang into action.

EJ: I was also quite angry. I felt like my city and the people in my city had been abandoned. All I heard every night was sirens and I knew that like there were doctors and nurses suffering and working really hard without the proper equipment and paramedics. My uncle was a paramedic in North Dakota. I got to hang out with those guys and they do amazing work. I just knew they didn't have what they needed and I knew that the federal government had fallen down and I was furious. I was in my apartment quarantined, unable to see my friends, and that fury is what drove a lot of my interest in this.

JB: Obviously this has been a really intense few months of reckoning for the country and we've all been grappling with the legacies of the violence and contemporary violence that's happening in all of our countries systems and the care actually speaks to that. I think one of the things we learned talking over and over to all the medical workers was this sort of radical acting of caring for people. What they show up and do every day in many ways is the antidote to the violence that surrounds us. I think we all have something to learn from these shows right? It's not just a straight forward, "Oh these are heroes who went through a really dramatic thing." It's complicated... their bravery and their insistence on showing up and caring for people across the board, no matter what is something I think has a broader resonance beyond New York City, beyond just this moment.

EJ: For the country, there's resonance in following that model. I mean, we all can learn from that model. Also, just what sacrifice means to me now has completely changed. All of these people were willing to give up things that they love, family, their health, their safety, and ultimately, their lives. And that kind of sacrifice is so rare right now. That kind of willingness to go in. We need someone to bring us together to do that as a country. We all need to do that humbly. That's what I learned from the piece.

I know that you're in the rehearsal process right now. What has that been like?

EJ: It's a new form. We've directed films and we've directed plays and co-written plays together. It's got its own rules you know. You're dealing with sort of a camera-style acting and at the same time you don't want to lose that spontaneous theatricality of it. It's very interesting.

JB: At the end of rehearsal yesterday, everyone was in the Zoom meeting and we had just done the first read-through of the play altogether. One of our actors was like, "You know, it feels like we should be in a room together and I should give you all a hug." There is this way in the theatre that we're really used to being in a room together in each other's presence- not just in the performance of it, but in the making of it too. We all miss that, and at the same time we're getting work done and it is possible to get really good work done digitally which is a really interesting thing to experience.

And what an incredible cast that you have brought together!

They're all wonderful theatre actors who have all done a lot of television and both of those skill sets are at play here. That's been really useful. We feel really grateful to be supported in a project where we get to sort of experiment and learn about this New Medium. It's a very steep learning curve for everyone involved. For us, for the actors, the theatre. We're all figuring it out as we go but that's an exciting thing we get to do.

Why do you think people should tune in on Wednesday? What can they take from watching this play?

JB: I think the whole New York has just been through something truly unprecedented. Erik and I were in the city on 9/11 and that was unprecedented then. With this, there was a period of time where it felt like 9/11 every day and we didn't get much of a window into the people who were on the frontlines. After 9/11 I think there was a lot of attention paid to firefighters and first responders who went in to help people, but because of how hospitals work and privacy laws, there are a lot of things that the general public doesn't know about what things were like for the folks on the frontlines of this crisis. This is unfortunately not something that is going to just be contained to New York City's experience. There are other cities in the country that are about to go through or are going through things like what New York went through and I think that there's a lot for everybody to learn.

On a deeper level, what we were talking about before, the courage and bravery and heartbreak of these folks is I think all of us have so much to learn from- not just how to deal with this immediate crisis we're dealing with as a city and a country, but in terms of how to live.

Jessica Blank (Playwright/Director) and Erik Jensen (Playwright) are writers, actors, and directors. They are authors of Coal Country (NYT Critic's Pick, Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, two Drama Desk nominations); The Exonerated (Lortel, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Ovation, Fringe First, and Herald Angel Awards) and its award-winning TV movie adaptation starring Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover, and Delroy Lindo; as well as Aftermath (NYTW; NYT Critic's Pick, two Drama League nominations). Their play How To Be a Rock Critic (based on the writings of Lester Bangs) ran at the Kirk Douglas, South Coast Rep, ArtsEmerson, Steppenwolf, and UTR at The Public, with Jensen starring as Lester Bangs, and Blank directing. They are developing this play for feature film with Likely Story; their first film, Almost Home, was released in 2019. They have developed and written TV for Gaumont, Fox TV Studios, 20th Century TV, Virgin Produced, and Radical Media. Jensen's acting credits include arcs on "The Walking Dead," "Mindhunter," and "Mr. Robot"; leads in "For Life" (ABC, season 2 renewal) and pilots "Second Sight," "The Frontier," and "Virtuality"; he played baseball's Thurman Munson in "The Bronx is Burning." Other appearances include "The Americans," "Turn," "High Maintenance," "Elementary," "The Blacklist," "Chicago PD." Film includes Black Knight, The Love Letter, and over two dozen indies. Theater: Pulitzer-Prize winning production of Disgraced (Lincoln Center); The Good Negro (The Public); Y2K, Corpus Christi (MTC); etc. As an actor, Blank's TV credits include "For Life," "High Maintenance," "Blue Bloods," "Elementary," "The Following," "The Mentalist," "Bored to Death," "Rescue Me," "Law and Order: CSI," "The Bronx is Burning," NBC pilot "Shelter," and over a dozen films. Blank teaches at the Juilliard School. Blank and Jensen are married and live in Brooklyn with their daughter Sadie.

Photo Credit: Diana Davis

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