During rehearsals, Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) conducted this interview with The How and the Why playwright Sarah Treem (ST). Spoiler alert: Some key plot and character details of the play are discussed. An edited version of this interview appears in The How and the Why Backstory.
PJP: I swear I’m not trying to be too cute with this question, but how and why did you become a writer?
ST: People ask this a lot and my answer sounds so cute, but it’s the truth. I’ve always considered myself a writer. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I’m an excellent mimic and when I was a kid, I would write poems in the voices of Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss to entertain myself. My grandmother lived in New York and when we came to visit her, she would take me to theater. She took me to The Crucible when I was 9. I guess she thought I could handle it.
I wrote my first play at 12. It won a young playwrights contest, which I took to signify that I had found my calling. I remember a certain sense of relief—like, oh good, one less thing to worry about. I was a pretty serious kid. I continued writing all through high school and college and after college I went straight to Yale Drama. So, I wish I had a more interesting answer for this question, but I don’t. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. It is very much a part of my identity. The writing has been my constant companion for my entire life.
PJP: What inspired you to write The How And The Why?
We laugh, we cry, we are born, we die,
Who will riddle me the how and the why?
How you are you? Why I am I?
Who will riddle me the how and the why?
The world is somewhat; it goes on somehow;
But what is the meaning of then and now!
These excerpts from the poem “The ‘How’ and the ‘Why’” by Alfred Lord Tennyson speak very much to the heart of Sarah Treem’s terrifically smart play of the same name. Both Tennyson and Treem—writing more than 150 years apart—tackle many of the questions that lie within TimeLine’s mission of exploring history. What is the difference between then and now? How and why have we evolved to where we are today?
My remarkable colleague Janet Ulrich Brooks brought this play to us, with a passion unlike any I’ve seen in the 10 years I’ve known her. And if you’ve witnessed Janet on stage in such TimeLine shows as 33 Variations, All My Sons, Not Enough Air, Lillian and more, you know that Janet is not someone who lacks passion! Hearing Janet talk about the play and then having our entire Company read it, we saw how and why the play sparked her intense interest.
In a seemingly simple format—two female scientists meeting and talking—The How and the Why probes a tremendous number of provocative issues. It delves into women’s health, genetics, adoption, balancing work and family, and the generational clash between a woman in her 50s and one in her 20s, with the younger one facing different career opportunities and challenges than the other experienced amidst the 1970s feminist movement.
It’s regrettable that one of the things notable about this play is the opportunity to watch two exceedingly smart women who are blazing trails in their field, with nary a man to be found on stage. It’s a depressingly rare thing to see in American theater, just as it’s still depressingly uncommon to find women at the helm in many professions, science and theater included.
Happily, there’s someone like Sarah Treem, who early in her career has already built a body of work in theater, TV and film that is as impressive as it is diverse. Any fan of the TV shows House of Cards, In Treatment or How To Make It In America can attest to the intelligence, daring and savvy of Sarah’s work as a writer and producer. And she has plenty more in the works, including a new play, When We Were Young And Unafraid, opening this spring at Manhattan Theatre Club, starring Cherry Jones.
I couldn’t be happier to welcome Sarah and her work to TimeLine, brought to life by Janet and the equally formidable actress Elizabeth Ledo, under the direction of Keira Fromm. I look forward to discussing with you the many, many questions that this play sparks – all the how’s and why’s that got us to this moment.
What a year 2013 was!
TimeLine was involved in five productions in three venues during the year, a diverse selection of plays that included Naomi Iizuka’s Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, J.T. Rogers’ Blood and Gifts and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun at TimeLine’s home space on Wellington Avenue, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart at Stage 773, and the remount of our 2010 hit To Master the Art by William Brown and Doug Frew at the Broadway Playhouse, presented by the Chicago Commercial Collective and Broadway in Chicago.
But our offerings were just a small part of the incredible array of great theatre produced in Chicago last year! So it was particularly gratifying to see TimeLine productions named on several 2013 “Best of the Year” lists. Here’s a compilation, plus a couple of other fun items you may have missed:
The Wall Street Journal
In an article about how theatres must highlight their intimacy to combat the “stay-at-home” and “on-demand” mindsets of today’s society, Terry Teachout included TimeLine among a short list of “first-rank U.S. theater companies.” Read the article >>
American Theatre magazine
In a major feature for the January issue of this national publication, writer Kerry Reid followed production manager John Kearns as he worked on load-in of The Normal Heart, illuminating what it takes to be “figure-outer-in-chief” for TimeLine! Read the article >>
Hedy Weiss named both Blood and Gifts and The Normal Heart to her Top 10 for the year, and included A Raisin in the Sun and To Master the Art as close runners-up. Read the article >>
Chris Jones named A Raisin in the Sun #2 on his list of the 10 best Chicago theater shows. Read the article >>
Catey Sullivan named both A Raisin in the Sun and The Normal Heart to her top 10 best Chicago theater shows of 2013. Read the article >>
Time Out Chicago
Time Out Chicago named The Normal Heart #3 on its list of “Best Plays in Chicago theater” and the cast of A Raisin in the Sun as among the top 10 “Outstanding Ensembles.” Read the article >>
Chicago Reader (also printed in the Chicago Sun-Times)
Tony Adler recounted his favorites of 2013, including the remount of To Master the Art. Read the article >>
The website named A Raisin in the Sun among Chicago’s Ten Best of the year. Read the article >>
Ada Grey Reviews
9-year-old Ada named To Master the Art to her top 10 of 2013, reminding us that “people who would like this show are people who like food, France, and fun!” Read the article >>
And for some fun:
TimeLine staff and The Normal Heart cast and crew videotaped “happy holidays” messages for a compilation video from the entire theater community put together by the Chicago Tribune. Watch the video >>
We are grateful for all of this recognition and want to thank all the artists, subscribers, donors and supporters who made 2013 so special. Here’s to a wonderful 2014!
We’re all going to go crazy, living this epidemic every minute, while the rest of the world goes on out there, all around us, as if nothing is happening, going on with their own lives and not knowing what it’s like, what we’re going through. We’re living through war, but where they’re living it’s peacetime, and we’re all in the same country. — Ned Weeks in Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart”
With plays that focus on recent history, it is natural to cast your mind back to that time period and any personal memories you have of that moment in time. One of the things a production of The Normal Heart does for audiences now is to combat a bit of revisionist history. It can be easy to forget how little was known about the disease and how slow the political and social structures of the country were to respond. Huge parts of the country were not initially affected by the crisis and felt it was something that happened to other people; the fact that those people were mostly gay men, Haitians and IV drug users only exacerbated the indifference.
I was a child when AIDS entered the public consciousness, living in Idaho—about the most remote you could be from the deaths in major cities. AIDS entered my personal consciousness in 1984, when I showed my parents the article on the first reported AIDS cases in Idaho, which I proposed to take to school for my current events assignment. My parents, who were liberal-minded for Idaho, suggested that it might not be appropriate for me to take to school because the teacher and some of my classmates would not want to talk about the people who were getting sick. I don’t recall any of my other current events articles, but my parents’ caution made the article lodge in my mind. Why would front-page news be something that you couldn’t talk about?
That same year hemophiliac teen Ryan White would make AIDS a source of concern for those in states like Idaho. The controversy surrounding whether he should be allowed to attend school with other children slipped into our playground consciousness. Because children are the natural distillers of their parents’ opinions and conversations at home, “faggot” and “gay” became the new insults. Children no longer talked about cooties; the shunned child on the playground had AIDS.
That mix of fear, indifference and hate has a way of becoming part of the cultural fabric. A few years later, when I was diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune disease, I hid it from my friends. I found that teachers and adults who knew me looked at me with this unnerving mix of fear and pity, and I did not want anyone to know. I started preparing myself to die before the age of 20. It turns out that my illness was quite treatable, but because the immune system was part of the diagnosis in a climate of little information about AIDS—paired with an atmosphere of judgment and fear—it had me contemplating my mortality at age 12.
I write this not to evoke pity for me, I am fine, but to try to remember and understand the world that changed with AIDS. With the benefit of hindsight, I ask myself: If I was that filled with fatalism as a young girl, what was it like to be a gay man who lost not just a few friends to a mysterious illnesses, but tens or hundreds?
My point in reflecting on AIDS and this moment of early understanding is similar to performing Kramer’s play at this moment. We are asked to look back and see what we did or failed to do. We are also asked to look at ourselves in the present moment and examine whether or not we are still failing.
Kramer’s language in both the play and the essays and articles he wrote throughout the early years of the AIDS epidemic are polemical. He is hard on the mostly straight and straight-laced people who ignored or feared the first deaths in New York and San Francisco. However, he is equally hard on the gay community, and ultimately, on himself. His language is that of a Biblical prophet crying out in the desert because someone had to raise an outcry.
I thought, what a perfect symbol; what a warm, comforting, middle-class, middle-American, traditional-family-values symbol to attach to this disease that’s killing homosexuals and IV drug users and Haitian immigrants, and maybe, just maybe, we could apply those traditional family values to my family. — Cleve Jones, Founder of The Names Project: AIDS Memorial Quilt, interviewed on “Frontline”
At the same time Kramer also presents us with a beautiful, tragic love story. He asks us to reach out sympathetically and identify with these men. Like Cleve Jones, a San Francisco gay activist and part of the group who created the AIDS Memorial Quilt, he asks us to make room in our family values to be more inclusive, more compassionate. Much like A Raisin in the Sun put us in the middle of the Younger family and asked us to make their troubles our own, we are asked to grieve with Ned, Emma and Ben for the loss of the Felix in their family. We are asked to redefine family.
When I see the play now, I wish the young me had brought the article to class, or stopped someone on the playground from using a slur. But I also have to ask myself: What have I done for my friends who managed to grow up in Idaho and come out of the closet? What am I doing to ensure that they are being treated as my healthy equals, as Ned Weeks asks his brother to do in the play? What about those who are HIV positive or will be HIV positive, those who can’t afford the cost of medicine, those who live in countries without access to the medicines that are not a cure but a way of slowing the virus down. A friend wrote me a note when much of The Normal Heart cast and crew participated in the AIDS Run & Walk Chicago and thanked me fore walking. I wrote back that you don’t get to work on Larry Kramer’s play and not do something. In truth, it doesn’t seem like enough.
At TimeLine, we regularly ask these questions of ourselves: “What is the relevance of this play at this time? What is the power of art to promote social change?” Larry Kramer asks us not just to be moved by the sight of these men in love and their tragedy, but also to get up off our asses and do something. I have some catching up to do. We hope audiences will be inspired to do something, too.
Join The Normal Heart. Help us make this amazingly moving production even stronger for those who will come to see it! It’s a project unique to our production, built on your participation.
We would like anyone who comes to see TimeLine’s production to bring a photo of a friend, family or loved one who lost their life to HIV/AIDS or the effects of the virus.
Read on for more and how to get involved …
One of the many reasons I started working with TimeLine is because the visual aspects of the show are very important to our work. We often push ourselves to produce work that even amazes us as a company—we end up asking, “How did we do that?”
You could see this from the very first show ever produced in our Wellington Avenue space, Gaslight, on to Copenhagen, and Blood and Gifts. And I think that The Normal Heart is no exception.
The back wall of The Normal Heart stage, which is only 17 feet from the downstage edge of the stage, is a wall of books—40 feet wide and nearly 20 feet tall. At first this wall was to represent playwright Larry Kramer’s bookcase in his New York City apartment on Washington Square, full of life and clutter, much like the bookcases in my own studio.
But The Normal Heart bookcase has come to represent so much more. It is the clutter of New York City in the early 1980s. It is people’s lives—book by book, and as collections.
Placed in front of the bookcase, there are slick, clean-lined doors that sometimes allow you to see people ghosting behind them. These doors often block the bookshelves throughout the play, but they can never cover up the chaos of the city and the destruction behind it. It took Mayor Koch nearly 3 years to ever deal with this outbreak that killed so many in the gay community, and now every community all over the world.
What happens to one’s book collection and personal effects when you die? What artifacts do people leave behind? What things have people collected of their loved ones? Today, in this world, there are photos of, and pieces of art created by, the (mostly) men who died in the early- to mid-1980s.
The TimeLine Company, director Nick Bowling, and I would be honored if you would join us in creating a wall of memories—making this amazingly moving production even stronger for those who will come to see it.
We would like anyone who comes to see TimeLine’s production to bring a photo of a friend, family or loved one who lost their life to HIV/AIDS or the effects of the virus. Together, let’s make this powerful back wall of the theater a living memorial until the day we close.
You would honor us by letting our cast, crew and audiences celebrate the life of this person, these people. Please bring the photos with you when you attend the show and hand them to the house manager. I will personally come to the theater every three days or as needed to put up these photos or small remembrances. I will take great pride and care with them.
NOTE: Please keep in mind that we are not able to guarantee return of your items after the show closes.
I hope you will join us and Larry and the more than 30 million people worldwide who have lost their lives to this tragic epidemic. I thank you so very much.
In 2010 TimeLine’s literary manager, Ben Thiem, encouraged me and my fellow Company Members to read Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Embarrassingly, initially I made the mistake of assuming that it was a dated play. And then I read it, for the first time.
Like my colleagues, I was completely knocked out, and not just by its political vibrancy and call to action. Larry Kramer crafted one of the great historical dramas of the 20th Century, brimming with heart, courage and humor, and aimed a piercing lens at an era that too many mistakenly think of today as dated. It not only retains its potency since its premiere in 1985, but it’s evolved with age into a searing reminder of how history takes shape before our eyes due to the actions—or inactions—of people like you and me.
TimeLine’s mission is not just about looking backward into history. It’s ultimately about how we look forward.
The Normal Heart takes us back to a time when a fast-spreading plague had no name. It was first referred to as a “rare cancer found in homosexuals,” then “gay-related immunodeficiency syndrome” (GRID). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome” (AIDS) in 1982—a full five years before President Ronald Reagan would ever utter the name in a speech.
During that time scores of deaths were attributed to the disease and fear-inducing rumors spread rampantly about how people could acquire it —from drinking fountains, toilet seats, or, in the case of hemophiliac AIDS patient Ryan White, from just sitting beside him in class. That particular myth initially barred White’s entry to his school in Kokomo, Ind., and elicited a bullet shot into his family’s home.
What Kramer’s play reminds us in 2013 is that while the play’s setting during the 1980s era of misinformation may feel distant in some respects, we mustn’t forget the genesis of the AIDS epidemic and what exacerbated its escalation. In a 2006 interview the playwright said: “A very strange thing has happened in the post-AIDS generation. I don’t know what to call them; it’s not really post-AIDS, but let’s call them healthier, younger ones … They don’t want to know the history; they don’t want to acknowledge that the people who died were even part of their history … These people died so that you could live.”
TimeLine’s mission is not just about looking backward into history. It’s ultimately about how we look forward. It’s about igniting dialogue about how the past informs the present. During our Company’s 2010 discussion about The Normal Heart, it was immediately clear that this was a TimeLine story, urgent to tell even in the midst of an encouraging new era of civil rights advances.
But our ability to do The Normal Heart right away was put on hold by the emergence of a star-studded reading of the play in New York, followed by a highly acclaimed Broadway production—which received the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play—and rumors of a national tour that ultimately never materialized in Chicago. So here we are, after patiently waiting, bringing you a Chicago revival of Kramer’s play.
Since TimeLine first became interested in producing this play in 2010, there has been much progress for LGBT rights in the United States. But there are still a disturbing number of stories of intolerance, discrimination, fear, shame and death—both in our country and beyond.
And despite medical advances, we are far from being a post-AIDS generation. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of October 13 there are approximately 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States, and almost one-fifth them are unaware that they have it. Since the start of the epidemic, 1.7 million Americans have been infected with HIV and more than 650,000 have died of AIDS.
That’s just our country.
Worldwide, there were about 2.5 million new cases of HIV in 2011, and about 34.2 million people are living with HIV around the world. In 2010, there were about 1.8 million AIDS deaths. Nearly 30 million people with AIDS have died since the epidemic began.
These are numbers you may have seen countless times, perhaps with numbing effect. Yet strings of facts and figures—breathtakingly large as they may be—often don’t pack the same punch as when the disease’s carnage is felt more personally through a human face. And that is what Larry Kramer boldly and unapologetically did in 1985 with The Normal Heart. He put a face on not just the devastation, but also on the fight. And the face he put on it was his own, embodied in the play’s chief antagonist Ned Weeks.
We mustn’t forget the genesis of the AIDS epidemic and what exacerbated its escalation.
Kramer has never shied from a fight or debate, nor sugar-coated any blistering criticism—whether it was about others in the gay community or those outside it. He calls it like he sees it, and for decades his crusade has been a relentless indictment of silence, inaction and being closeted. Even during the heralded Broadway run of the play in 2011—26 years after his play’s argument began—Kramer was often a fixture on the sidewalk outside the theatre, handing out flyers as the audience came out, passionately urging them to learn more and do more.
We don’t have the benefit of his presence on the Belmont Avenue sidewalk outside Stage 773 each night, but we hope you’ll still experience his urging through this play.
I am incredibly proud to welcome an astonishing team of artists to this production, led on stage by one of Chicago’s finest provocateurs, David Cromer, embodying Kramer’s impassioned agitator, Ned Weeks. And at the helm, we have another of our city’s finest provocateurs, TimeLine’s Associate Artistic Director Nick Bowling, once again infusing new electricity into a play from the past that is about how we get to tomorrow.
During rehearsals, Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) talked with director Nick Bowling (NB) and actor David Cromer (DC) about The Normal Heart. An edited version of their conversation appears in The Normal Heart Backstory.
PJ Powers (PJP): Here I am sitting with Nick Bowling, TimeLine’s Associate Artistic Director and the director of our production of The Normal Heart, as well as actor David Cromer, who is playing Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart. Thanks guys for joining me. I know you have to dash off to rehearsal soon, so let’s just jump in. Do you remember how you first met?
David Cromer (DC): No.
Nick Bowling (NB): I do. We first met on And Neither Have I Wings to Fly.
DC: Yes, yes.
NB: I worked as your casting director on that.
PJP: And when was that?
NB: Right, 2000. And we had a great time in that audition room.
DC: It was a great cast.
NB: It was a great cast, and then it was a really lovely production that you directed.
PJP: So you worked with him as casting director. Wow, and now 13 years later here we are. So David do you remember what your first experience with The Normal Heart was?
DC: I saw the Next Theatre production when it had moved from the theatre in Evanston to the Ivanhoe.
PJP: Now the Binny’s wine superstore just down the block from TimeLine.
DC: It was relatively soon after the New York production, and it’s one of the few occasions I legitimately without any doubt leaped to my feet at the end of it. Just the raw power of it was really shattering. And so, that was my first time.
PJP: Nick, was your first experience when we read it as a company about three years ago?
NB: Yes, and then first time seeing it was this Broadway revival that happened two years ago. I definitely knew of the play but I don’t think I’d ever read it before and I was taken by that production in New York. I was mostly taken by the contextualization of the play from today’s perspective, and in particular the idea of looking back at AIDS from the perspective that we have today. That AIDS had such an impact on the gay community, in of course terrible awful ways, but also the positive impact it had on bringing a community together and giving a community a point. And also realizing how strong Larry Kramer was, what an important voice he was in helping us shape that focus toward advancement as a community.
PJP: For both of you in revisiting this play, seeing it in New York and re-reading it and so on, did you go into those experiences thinking “Oh, I wonder if this thing is dated?”