Call Redialed: NEW Iris Rainer Dart Interview: "The People in the Picture" at 3Below Theaters & Lounge
It's so great to catch up with Novelist/Playwright/TV Writer Iris Rainer Dart, best known for her novel Beaches being turned into the iconic hit film starring Bette Midler & Barbara Hershey, especially because this interview is a complete full circle for us. Our previous interview was about the Broadway run of The People in the Picture and now Iris & I get to talk about the show's west coast premiere at 3Below Theaters & Lounge.
The People in the Picture spans three generations and celebrates the importance of learning from our past and the power of laughter. It tells the story of "Raisel Rabinowitz" – also known as "Bubbie" – recalls her life in the Yiddish theater during the time of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. By telling her stories to her granddaughter "Jenny," the audience is ripped from the present and thrown back into a time when being who you truly were could mean mortal peril.
The People in the Picture plays at 3Below Theaters and Lounge in San Jose, CA (288 South 2nd Street, San Jose, CA) through May 13! Click here for tickets!
For more on Iris follow her on Twitter!
1. This production of The People in the Picture boasts a cast of 10 instead of the original 18 that appeared on Broadway. What made you want to cut the cast size down for the 3Below Theaters & Lounge run? Thanks for asking me, Adam. I guess the good and bad news for The People in the Picture in 2011 was that it opened on Broadway without any out of town production. Don’t get me wrong, I love Roundabout and particularly Todd Haimes, who had the guts to do an original musical that wasn’t based on anything familiar to anyone and who supported me throughout the experience. That said the creative team was learning on the fly about what worked and what didn’t and the pressure was on. Shows like Come from Away, which I adored, had many opportunities to massage and rewrite and change as they made several stops before New York. Mike Stoller, Artie Butler and I were writing brand new production numbers while the show was in rehearsal. But the good news is that the theatre is alive and can be changed and fixed and improved, so a few years ago when I looked at the script after all I’d learned, I realized that what was lost in the rush was the relationship between "Bubbie" and her daughter. There must have been something good about the original because Donna Murphy was nominated for a Tony, but a whole dimension was lost in the story. So now, by cutting big production numbers and staying with the relationship of the women, the story has become more focused and, in my opinion, richer.
2. How do you feel this new staging makes the show stronger? With the exception of the three woman, all of the other actors get to play a lot of different roles. They love it! I think the audience likes the theatricality of it, and it enables us to present the story in smaller venues. We went from Studio 54 with over a thousand seats to the 3Below theatre in San Jose which has only 210 seats. The show is now intimate and able to hold up in that small but wonderful space.
3. How did you decide which characters to cut? Interestingly, only peripheral characters and ensemble were cut and certain numbers that we loved but found they weren’t moving the story forward were out, and again instead of the eight additional people, the principle actors played the smaller parts too.
4. What was the re-write process like for new version? I was very lucky. Beaches - the musical has had two productions. The first at the legendary Signature Theatre in Virginia. Eric Schaeffer has made that an incredible place to try out new work. Then we had another production at The Drury Lane in Chicago. The Artistic Director of The Drury Lane is a talented director named Bill Osetek. Bill introduced me to a lot of Chicago theatre while I was there, and I was blown away by the talent and the work I saw on every one of my night’s off. We also talked a lot about our past work and when I got home I sent him the original script of The People in the Picture. Bill has a great eye and I could tell by the notes he gave me that he got the show completely and what it needed to make it work better. So I went back to Chicago to work on The People in the Picture with him. The result is the new script which he mentored, and he will direct a production of someday soon.
5. Going forward, do you think you'll want to continue with the 10-person cast version or at times return to the original 18? I definitely would not go back to the larger version of the show. This version is compact, concise, with two gorgeous roles for women, and it’s okay if I brag about the music, since I didn’t write it, but the score is exceptional. Mike Stoller and Artie Butler are both expert tunesmiths and working with them was a complete joy in every way.
6. Now, let's take some of the plot from The People in the Picture and apply it to your life. In the show, "Bubbie" wants to pass her stories on to her granddaughter, but "Bubbies'" daughter, "Red," will do anything to keep from looking back. What is one thing from your past that you still look back on to this day? Interestingly (probably just to me) unlike many writers, I actually had a terrific childhood. I was a child actress at the Pittsburgh Playhouse from the time I was five years old. My parents both worked, so my older sister took me to auditions and rehearsals and was kind of my "Mama Rose." My Father was a social worker at The Irene Kaufman Settlement in the Hill District, a neighborhood made famous by August Wilson. My Dad was involved in what was called The Curtaineers, probably the first, maybe the only inter-racial theatre group in the country, maybe the world. I acted there too as a little girl, and I like to imagine that somewhere, in those days, I passed August Wilson in the hallway, since we were born a year apart. The happiness in my life also came because there was more Yiddish than English spoken in our home (both of my parents were immigrants, and we get the job done) and Yiddish is a language filled with humor. Being raised to laugh at everything is what shaped me into becoming a comedy writer which I was for ten years in TV.
7. The People In The Picture celebrates the importance of learning from our past and the power of laughter. What is something you learned from your past that you feel has shaped who you are today? My parents always stressed the importance of family. I had a much older brother but until his death in 2003 we were very close, I am close with my sister too and her children and grandchildren. I am crazy about my brilliant family. Many of the women marched in the recent women’s march in New York and I wept for joy as I walked with two generations of very brilliant strong smart women my sister and I raised. In the 60’s I went to consciousness raising groups and was a kind of trailblazer in the TV business, often being the only woman on all male staffs. Now my daughter, a talented theatre director is fighting to make sure there are systems in place to keep women in the theatre safe from harassment and exploitation, and I couldn’t be more proud of her work on this matter.
8. When has there been a time laughter made everything better? When has there not? In my family we have laughed over the absurdities of life even as we sat at funerals of our loved ones. Even now under the terrible circumstances of the current political climate, thank heaven we can find a way to laugh at it. I watched Saturday Night Live recently and laughed a very loud relieved laugh at their recognition of and ability to so hilariously mock the horrible situation the country is in.
9. If your legacy could only be told through one picture and it was called The People in the Picture, who would you want to be featured so people know who Iris Rainer Dart was by looking at this picture? I think it would go all the way back to a shtetl near Kiev where my grandmother, who had given birth to nine children, was waiting for my grandfather in America to get settled with some of the older children so they could travel to America too. While she waited, in order to make ends meet, she took advantage of the fact that they lived in a house with a dirt floor, by digging a hole in the floor and fitting a still into the hole in which she made moonshine whiskey. Then she sold the whiskey to the Cossacks. That was how my Bubbie made the money to get herself and the remaining children to America. Knowing that under those circumstances my maternal grandmother could be so creative and resourceful always gives me courage to be unafraid of challenges.
10. If you were to turn The People in the Picture into a film, who would you want to be cast? Well, a movie producer might want Meryl Streep, and I love her in everything she does. But after seeing Donna Murphy, I will never forget her exquisite performance and how, with nothing but changes in her posture and her voice, she was able to play the same woman at 35 and 85 and transform before our eyes, with no tricks of makeup or lighting. As everyone who has ever seen her work knows, she is an incredible actress with a gutte neshumeh (Yiddish for a good soul). So, I would choose Donna.
More on Iris:
Iris Rainer Dart is a pioneer! She was the first female writer on The Sonny and Cher Show, has written nine best selling novels, including Beaches, which became the iconic film starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey.
Born in Pittsburgh, PA, Iris started her career out as a child actress on the stage of the "Curtaineers," the first inter-racial theatre group at the Irene Kaufman Settlement where her father was a social worker. She went onto to attend classes at the Pittsburgh Playhouse where she performed at as well as with The White Barn Theater. Iris received her degree in theatre from Carnegie Mellon University where she won the BMI awards for libretto and lyrics she wrote for the varsity musical with the one and only Stephen Schwartz. Iris moved to Los Angeles where she became a member of the Columbia Pictures contract workshop. During her time in Hollywood, Iris wrote for both situation comedy and long-form television including Chico and the Man, The Odd Couple, and The John Davidson Show before turning to novels.