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Interview: Steven Fechter & Terrence O'Brien Talk Importance of Memories & More in THE MEMORY EXAM World Premiere

Interview: Steven Fechter & Terrence O'Brien Talk Importance of Memories & More in THE MEMORY EXAM World Premiere

Fechter and O'Brien discuss art imitating life, staging love scenes and fight scenes with older actors, what it means to be remembered, and more. 

The world premiere of The Memory Exam, written by Steven Fechter (Rehearsing the Wannsee Conference) and directed by Terrence O'Brien (Pimm's Mission) is now in previews at 59E59 Theaters in Theater C. Set to open on September 10, The Memory Exam will run through September 25, 2022.

Set in a future world when the simple act of forgetting can be fatal, vigilante laws turn
neighbors, friends, and colleagues into spies and informants. Three people in their
autumn years covertly hire an expert who can coach them for the perilous Memory
Exam. Failure is almost all but certain - but the coach has devised a method that
depends on how well they can recall the specifics of their most enduring memory no
matter how factual or fantastic.

The Memory Exam is a play about courage, survival, and the fear of losing your future
because you're forgetting the past.

The cast of The Memory Exam includes Alfred Gingold (Equus) as Hank, Gus Kaikkonen
(House of Mirth) as Tom, Bekka Lindström (The Sky Inside) as Jen and Vernice Miller (Eve's
Song) as Dale.

The Memory Exam features scenic design by Tamara L. Honesty, costume design by
Amy Sutton, lighting design by Greg MacPherson, and sound design by Charles Hatcher.
Jenna Lazar serves as Company Manager, with Charles Casano as Stage Manager.
Helene Galek is the Casting Director.

Tickets to The Memory Exam begin at $20 and are on sale now at
www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/the-memory-exam/.

BroadwayWorld spoke with writer Steven Fechter, and directer Terrence O'Brien about art imitating life, staging love scenes and fight scenes with older actors, what it means to be remembered, and more.


I would love to hear about the journey of this play. Steven, can you tell me a little bit about the process of writing it, and the timeline from when you first began to where we are now?

Steven: I started writing this play during the beginning of the shutdown, and I wanted to write a play for older actors playing older characters with memory issues. Yet these characters are still vibrant, passionate, full of life, sexual, all those things that any character should have. And so, as I was working it, it was horrifying that all these elders were dying during the early stage of the pandemic. There were certain politicians who were encouraging elders to sacrifice themselves for the good of the economy. And that's when I decided that the stakes had to be higher for my play. So, I did a big revision, it became a different play with the same characters. And that's how The Memory Exam became what it is, with that in mind, in this kind of dystopian world which I was fearful we were heading into.

I had a couple of workshop readings with some groups, and then I had wanted to reach out to a director, and I thought of Terry, who I had met once before, and I saw his work, and I thought that he would be the right person for this. So, I emailed him. He was interested in reading the play, he read it, he liked it, he got it. I live in Beacon, New York, which is upstate, turns out Terry was also living upstate 10 miles from me, so we met a couple of times. The big turning point, I don't know if me or Terry brought it up first, but Brad Fryman at Oberon Theatre Ensemble, Terry sent the play to him, he liked it, and he set up a reading, which got a tremendous reception from the people who came.

Terrence, what were your first thoughts when you read this play?

Terrence: The house that I had was in Garrison, New York, I don't have the house anymore, but it's out in the woods, and there's a section of the property that I had that looked exactly like the setting for this play, so it was really easy, immediately, to visualize where the play would happen and what it might look like. And I had even thought, and Steven and I had talked about this, of doing the play- because it was the pandemic, theatres weren't open- so we thought that one way to execute the play would be to do it on video. But that never materialized, I sold the house, came back to New York. And then, the sequence of events that Steven described with Brad, and 59E59 followed.

Can you both tell me what can audiences expect to see with The Memory Exam?

Steven: What the audience will see, is three characters in their later years, led by a slightly younger woman, who is going to coach them, and she's leading them into a clearing in the woods. The atmosphere is frightening, they look nervous, they look fearful, all of them, because of this new world they live in. And she tells them how she's going to help them pass the exam. And I won't give away too much, but I will say the key is that if they can recall their most vivid memory in their lives, and use that in the exam, that will help them answer the questions. In other words, their memory will defeat the memory exam. So, we hear their stories, their memories, they are, I hope, all interesting and surprising, and even kind of fantastic, unbelievable. And some secrets come out among these people, relationships, long last loves. This is a play that is full of fear, but there is also humor in it, there is also a big of a love story in it. I don't know if the audience will like all of the characters, but I think they will care about all of these characters.

One of the big things it's about is survival. How will they survive? I think there will be questions about the value of the individual. There will be the question of 'what is memory?' What are the memories that are worth saving? What memories are disposable? And my hope is that after they see this play, they will think about it and talk about it for days afterwards.

What do you think it is about the themes of this play that make it right for this time?

Terrence: One thing I think is really interesting is that Steven seemed to have been very prescient about the sort of social surroundings of all this, because one of the things that happens in the play is if you have a memory lapse somewhere, if you forget your credit card in a restaurant, or forget your keys, or you cant remember your home address when you're making an application to a business, or something like that, other citizens can report you, and then you get a summons, and then you have to take the memory exam. And all of this is happening before some of the events that are going on right now, where they're sort of deputizing citizens to be vigilantes against their neighbors basically, in certain states. And all of that started to happen after the play was written, which I think is really interesting.

What was the rehearsal process like? How has it been working with these actors?

Terrence: Well, we were doing studio rehearsals, and what I'm trying to do, because it's a world premiere, is I'm trying to be as non-interpretive as possible. I'm just trying to do the play in the most straightforward way as possible, and I'm trying to work with the actors in a way that doesn't have any of us inventing, or interpreting anything, but just trying to take what's on the page and say it to each other, and then see how people react. So, there's a degree to which it sort of feels like we're doing an improvisation. It's not that it's a moving target, I believe in direction, but I don't believe in destination. And the destination that we end up at, we end up at jointly.

One of the things that's really interesting is that there is a love scene between an older couple, so we've been working with an intimacy coordinator to execute that. And that's something I think we don't see every day. It's kind of moving and sweet. And then there's a fight scene between two really old guys too [laughs]. But that's one of the things that fascinated me from the beginning, there are these people who are older, and yet they have erotic lives, they have passions, they are not the cliché old person whose hand is shaking on the cane and all that stuff. It's really fascinating to see I think.

It's always bothered me that people only see a one dimensional portrait of someone who is older, as if life just stops after a certain point. I think it's amazing and important that plays like this help change that view. What do you hope that audiences take ultimately away from The Memory Exam?

Steven: I hope they take away the fact that they want to be remembered, that it's important that people remember them, especially the older audience members. That when they're gone, people will still remember them because of their lives, the value of their lives. I'm hoping that will connect very strongly, not only with older audience members, but all of them. So that's a biggie for me.

Terrence: As you get older you tend to forget things, but the things you remember are the important things. And that point is made in a bunch of different ways, it's not just, "I forgot my keys on the table," or "I don't remember where I parked the car," but they remember the really important things. They remember what their country stands for, they remember the people they love the most, those things that are important. It's sort of the like the difference between knowledge and wisdom, I suppose. Wisdom is kind of accumulated over many years, and these older people are the repositories of wisdom that shouldn't be discarded or disregarded.



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