Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Talking Babka


I am just old enough that the Internet will never not seem like a miracle. Skype is one example. We actually had videophones in the 1970's, with Pittsburgh being one of the first places they were tested, but the technology never caught on. Besides being expensive, it turned out that people really didn't like being seen.

Well, Skype changed all that. Not only did they make it free (a miracle in itself), but they managed to get people to stop caring about that intrusive camera.

And that's great, because yesterday it allowed me to talk to the cast of a production of Babka Without Borders.

The school was Belmont Day School in Belmont, MA. Director and drama teacher Christopher Parsons was as excited to have his students meet me as I was to meet them, and other than one brief technical issue (mostly involving my forgetting to click my camera icon), the call went off without a hitch.

Chris was unable to set up his laptop to allow me to see everyone, so after each student ran up to the camera to introduce themselves, they returned to the bleachers so they could watch their intrepid instructor ask me the questions they'd submitted ahead of time.

Here are a few of them:

Q. How long did it take you to write the play?

A. Writing an hour and a half a day, I can usually finish a play in four months. But I struggled a bit with this one because it was difficult to get the tone right, and it ended taking me about six months.

Q. What was your inspiration for the play?

A. I once read about a town that straddles the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, and I was fascinated by a picture that showed the border wrapping around the outdoor patio of a cafe.

Well, that got me thinking. What would happen if the border didn't wrap around the cafe but cut right through it? And what if the two countries that divided the cafe weren't allies but enemies that went to war? It just seemed like a premise with tons of potential for conflict and humor.

Q. Why did you write the play as a single-set?

A. I love single-set plays because they're so theatrical. When you have one set to build, you can make it a lot more detailed and realistic. That was especially important for this play because I wanted the painted line that represents the border take a prominent role.

Of course, the main challenge with writing a single-set play is that you can't rely on scene changes to keep things fresh. So the way around that is to constantly shuffle the characters who are onstage.

Q. Are any of the characters based on real people?

A. No. My characters are always inventions. If they weren't, my family would have disowned me by now.

Q. Which character is most like me?

A. I don't know if Peter is like me, but he's the character I would most like to be. Between his idealism, his joie de vivre, and his gift of gab, he was a lot of fun to write, and I just love his whole approach to life.

Q. Which character was the hardest to write?

A. Luisa, for sure. She also had to play the sensible yin to Peter's romantic yang. But, as one of the leads, she also had to be likable. That's not an easy combination to make work. But I think as audience members, we also like characters who are earnest and well-meaning, so I tried to bring out those aspects of her personality as well.

Q. Why did you set the play in early 1900's Europe?

A. They're mostly forgotten today, but when I was a kid, I loved reading Leonard Wibberley's Mouse books: The Mouse on the Moon, The Mouse That Roared. They were funny books about a tiny European country ruled by a silly, pompous royal, but behind the funny was a very effective satirical take on modern politics. Bunkelburg and Primwick are very much patterned on that country.

Q. What do I want the audience to get out of the play?

A. I've always been struck by something John Glenn observed when he first orbited the earth. Looking down on that beautiful blue marble, he could see the continents as clear as day. But he couldn't see any borders.

Let's be honest. Borders are inherently arbitrary, and their main purpose is to separate people. As human beings, our goal should be bringing people together, not building a wall between them.

Q. Why did you choose babka?

A. I needed a pastry that was Eastern European, but "Kolaches Without Borders" didn't sound right and blintzes would be difficult to throw with the required precision (besides which, I've always been a big fan of Seinfeld).

Q. What kind of babka is your favorite?

A. Chocolate, definitely chocolate. Everything else is lesser babka.

I'm always available for Skype calls, so if you'd like to pick my brain about the play you're performing, send me an email by clicking here.

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