Here is an excerpt from an interview between Cristin Kelly of Florida Studio Theatre and UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL playwright Glen Berger. Read the entire thing on their blog here.
Cristin Kelly: Will you tell me a little bit about the history of Underneath the Lintel? How did you start writing it? What was its development history?
Glen Berger: Two things really inspired the writing of it: One was listening to old recordings of klezmer songs, some of them recorded in the 1920s. And most of my plays come out of music, so the more I listened to it, the more I was attracted to this melancholy, spirited, yet minor key sort of mood.
Also, more and more in my writing I’ve been trying to figure out how to encompass a large amount of time, how to get the proper scale of history and the universe. It’s been clearer and clearer to me that we can’t really get an understanding of the state of things until we’ve heard the perspective of how big the universe is, how old the earth is, and how long life has been around. Trying to figure out how to get a lot of human history into the show and those two strands sort of came together in this play. I began to figure it out.
I had a friend who is curating the Yale summer cabaret. He said there was a spot open for me if I had anything written – I didn’t have anything written yet, but I figured I could probably get something together pretty soon. I did it for two performances at the summer cabaret, and then put it back in my drawer. But, a director named Randy White, who I’ve worked with a lot since then, convinced me that I shouldn’t put it back in my drawer. And it’s had about eighty productions since then.
CK: It sounds like your writing takes on musical qualities. I’m interested in that, since you said most of your plays start out from some kind of music. Do you have a musical background? How
does music inform your writing?
GB: I don’t have a musical background, but I’ve always been attracted to the musicality of language. In fact, I’m writing more and more musicals these days, for a lot of reasons. Also, because it’s easier to get the pattern of what you’re going for across in a musical.
I’m writing the Spiderman musical. I’m also writing several others, including one which is actually about the evolution of language, about really a neo-linguist belief that before we could speak, we could sing. There’s a whole ancient communication that hominids employed that had more to do with music than with linguistics. It really had to do with them communicating and bonding on a more emotional level and relying more on cadence and inflection, and music, basically. There’s something about reaching people on a deeper, emotional level when you really dip into music and musical forms.
CK: I’m fascinated to know how you researched Underneath the Lintel. How did you build all the connections between the events in the play? Did you have a journey in mind, or were you unraveling the mystery as you went along?
GB: I think I kept a little list, in the back of my head or on scraps of paper, of various things that interested me or that seemed to fit with this general topic, but I also remember making a lot of things up. When you write a play, you don’t really think, “This might be seen all over the world, and people will actually scrutinize it.” I had to go back later on and make things a little more accurate. It’s a lot easier just to make it up and pretend you’ve done a lot of research. It’s really easy to get lost in research, and it’s a bad habit of mine. It turns out that you really don’t have to know that much detail to write a play because it’s ultimately never very theatrical in the end. It’s much better to come up with something on your own – to make up the footnote. It’s funny, with Undereath the Lintel it came together in a way that none of my other plays seemed to come together so easily. This one didn’t take half as long as some of my other ones take.
CK: That’s interesting to know because it’s such an intricate play.
GB: You never know when that’s going to happen. It’s a little bit like with every play, you have a crossword puzzle that isn’t filled in There’s no telling whether this one’s going to be an easy one or not.
CK: In terms of the production history of Underneath the Lintel, it’s noteworthy that it premiered at SoHo Playhouse in Lower Manhattan just a few days after 9/11. Did that change your experience of this play?
GB: Right after 9/11, there were definitely some playwrights who were questioning some of their plays. They seemed a little lightweight in light of 9/11. Strangely, Underneath the Lintel still seemed to resonate. The theme throughout of “I was here” resonated with the audience in New York. People were putting up fliers of people who were still missing after 9/11, and they wouldn’t take them down. They became more and more testaments to a life that was lived.
In New York we relied on word of mouth a lot to keep the show going. We wound up running 450 times.
Then it became interesting because the play has this librarian bringing his suitcase and traveling all over the world to deliver this lecture. Since then it’s been a self-fulfilling prophecy. He’s been in cities all over the place delivering this thing, including Holland, actually.
CK: One of the things that I love the most about your writing is the way that your characters always, not just survive, but persevere through the obstacles of their lives. I see a lot of hope in your work, and I feel like that’s not very trendy right now in playwriting. Many writers today are more nihilistic. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the use of hope and why it’s so prevalent in your work.
GB: Maybe it will get trendier. It’s turning around a little bit. I think it goes in cycles. In Great Men of Science, another play of mine, one of the characters talks about the concept of “naïve cynicism.” Generally one thinks of the cynic as the one who has seen it all and who has reached a cynical view of the world and the universe. But something in that that, to me, seems naïve. They actually haven’t seen enough to truly know the way of things. Which isn’t to say that the world is just terrific, but I think in the end, the best we can say is that it’s so bewildering. It’s just beyond our ability to grasp. That’s at least cause for awe. And awe, at least, isn’t boring. There’s no need to be filled with boredom and ennui and a lack of interest and engagement. Every seemingly mundane item, or an atom in the world, when you stop to think about it, it can blow your mind by its very existence. The hope comes out of the fact that the universe is a pretty undeniably psychedelic place.
CK: You write for PBS’s children’s television (Berger is currently the Head Writer for PBS’s Fetch). Do you have, as a writer, a different toolbox that you go to, to write for children, or is it the same set of skills or ideas?
GB: It’s definitely the same set of skills. There’s always going to be narrative and character. Kids don’t let you get away with half of what adults will let you get away with in the name of art. So, it’s challenging and rewarding when you get it right. The other thing about working for PBS is that with children’s television is that there’s always an educational objective. Your mandate isn’t just to be funny and engaging, but to be teaching science or social skills at the same time. There’s a different, if not set of tools, at least a different scale of wrench and screwdriver. When you’re working with animation, there are certain things that you can do that would be far too expensive in a play. You can set it anywhere in the world, you can change scenes, and you can have robotic arms come out of the pillow – whatever you need to make it work.
CK: Can you also tell me more about the Spiderman musical that you’re working on?
GB: I think it will be good. (U2’s) Bono and The Edge have come up with some really great, theatrical music. It sounds like U2 and yet it also sounds like nothing they’ve ever done before. It’s been a really rewarding experience for me because Bono and The Edge and Julie Taymor are pretty amazing collaborators. They’re incredibly open, and they’re very tireless in their pursuit of good art. Our meetings will go without a break and will last hours and hours and hours, which is something I’ve been looking for for years – that relentless, hyper-focused struggle of trying to figure out this thing.