By Sandi Durell
The opportunity to interview playwright Deb Margolin was a revealing and delightful experience. Deb, a playwright- performance artist, is a founding member of Split Britches Theater Company. She is the author of eight full-length solo performance pieces, which she has toured throughout the United States, as well as numerous plays, and is the recipient of a 1999-2000 OBIE Award for Sustained Excellence of Performance and the Kesselring Playwriting Award for her play Three Seconds in the Key in 2005. She teaches playwriting and performance at Yale University.
Her play, Imagining Madoff, is about to re-open on Theater Row at the Lion Theatre in New York, running October 17 thru November 9.
Q – Regarding this extension of Imagining Madoff – have there been any changes, significant or other?
A – There haven’t been any changes to this extension of the Imagining Madoff play, save for the set designer. He is new, and the set will be adapted to fit the Lion Theatre space.
Q – You wrote this in 2010, at which time there was a painful beginning regarding Elie Wieisel and his characterization. What effect did this have on you?
A – The donnybrook with Professor Wiesel was very painful. He was a man I held in high esteem, so the umbrage he took at his characterization in the script surprised and unsettled me deeply. The entire conflict was widely publicized, garnering attention to the play of a sort I never intended. I’d thought my portrayal of him, though fictional, was deeply respectful. He threatened to have his attorneys shut the play down. I made very few dramaturgical changes in response to his complaint, changing the name of that character, the physicality, the means of making a living. The character, now called Solomon Galkin, stands in for an avatar of morality and grace. The faith he puts in Bernie Madoff, which leads to disastrous consequences, helps the play reflect on the beauty and the danger of placing absolute faith, in God or in men, without asking questions. Asking questions is so fundamentally Jewish, and here this Hebraicist, this deeply scholarly Jew, doesn’t ask the questions that would have saved him, and so many others, profound loss of capital, both financial and spiritual.
Q – What was your inspiration/motivation in writing this play to begin with? Were you or someone you knew a Madoff victim?
A – The origins of this play are actually funny! Jennifer Muller, the luminous artistic director of an esteemed downtown performance troupe called Circus Amok, said she was doing a sort of vaudevillian ice-skate show at PS122, that old haunt on First Ave. and Ninth Street where I came of age as an artist, and she somehow had a feeling that she should include some monologues for Bernie Madoff. She asked if I’d write some, and I said You Bet! Sure! Happy to! And I sat down and listened for his voice. Theater is a probe: I did no research at all, but rather asked myself: If I didn’t need money; if I ended up living a lie by stealing money; if for 30 years every time told me they loved me I would have to realize that they had no idea to whom they were really speaking; if all of that were true, who would I be? And I wrote the salmon monologue, which you’ll hear if you come to the play. Then I wrote another, monologue and another; I heard his voice! My friend Rae C. Wright played him in Jennifer’s show, and when that closed, I realized I wasn’t finished. I wanted to listen some more to the soul, to the pathology of the mind of this man. Then I thought: What if Elie Wiesel, who lost all his personal funds as well as his Foundation’s fund, to Madoff, were in a room with Madoff? What if the avatar of evil and avatar of moral rectitude were in a room together? What then? It seemed such a perfect and righteous juxtaposition of characters. The third character, the Secretary, is Us; she is alembic, and set apart; she is the one who struggles openly and belatedly with the inadvertence of her own actions.
Q – You raise numerous issues in this play . . . what was the one that you most wanted to talk about and get a reaction to?
A – I did want to talk about faith; the way we humans yearn to place faith in a God who can watch over us, love us, assuage our griefs and grievances; we also put blind faith in charlatans and snake-oil salesmen: we seek relief, and when we think it may be forthcoming, we sometimes abandon our rationality and yearn to be directed, to be taken care of by being told what to do, how to live. I wanted to investigate that aspect of being human, as well as to think about transformation; about how a man like Madoff can suddenly yearn, in the presence of what feels abruptly sacred to him. I’ve partially defined tragedy for myself as that situation in which you suddenly realizes something critical to leading a profound and meaningful life when it’s already too late for that revelation to help you. This element of tragedy is one I wanted to unfold and spread out. I wanted to look at masculinity; how tragically narrow its social definitions are. I wanted to investigate love. I’m so ancient that I’ve finally found the courage to say: All plays are about love, all plays are about death. This play is about these first and finally.
Q – What are you working on now? And when can audiences expect to hear more form Deb Margolin?
A – I’m excited about my new solo work, Just Give Me One Half Hour With My Mother. It’s about my mother as a master joke-teller. Her jokes, taut and perfectly rendered, contained all the grief and comedy of Jewish diaspora, and as long as I’ve evoked her, I do some asking about things I never understood. She didn’t reveal herself. I wish she’d let me know her. She was so funny, and I couldn’t know her. The play is new, and it’s hopefully as funny as she was, and not without its elegiac sadness; Mom died five years ago now. This play is opening for another play of mine, Turquoise, at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia April 2, 3 and 4, 2020. I’m in rehearsal with it now. The Turquoise play, very dear to my heart, is the tenderest! It’s about the simultaneity of all suffering and joy; all experience, great and terrible, at once. It’s a 7-character play, and there’s something about it that makes me feel I couldn’t have shared this wide angle on the world any other way.
Q – Reaching back – what inspired you to become a writer?
A – Language, I’ve felt, is the most accurate way one can scream for help! I love language! It fails! It is a magnificent, aspirational, civilized, raw and radiant failure! Language can’t stop anyone from dying or suffering; that’s why my love of language is most at home in the theater! Theater is subtextual and metatextual; it’s not what you say, it’s what you try and fail to say! Theater is predicated on the failure of language; if language worked there’d be no need for theater! I fell in love with language and its mysteries early in my life, and I decided to become a writer because I wasn’t a good enough musician or dancer. I’d rather have done those, but my vocabulary was not extensive enough in either form. I like those art forms because they are unmediated, and don’t need translation! If I played you a Bach cantata, and you only spoke Farsi, it would be no problem! But! I’m dancing in language! When I was a young person fresh outta college, I read Henry Miller, and I thought: There! There’s a man who writes from the BODY! I want to do that! I WILL do that! There were no women in the canon then, so I thought I was Henry Miller. It was later on that I married my love of language to my love of theater; writing for the theater comes from the body and returns to the body. Furthermore, there’s great margin for error! Theater is human, and being human is a mess!
Q – Is there something very specific you want to convey to your audiences as a playwright?
A – I’m hoping that all my plays convey joy! It’s so brief, so tender, so ridiculous, so full of tiny miracles, this life! I want to spread these morsels out before an audience, and to think about them together with this generous group of witnesses! IMAGINING MADOFF is not a comedy, but still, as always, there are moments of laughter. It is a tremendous privilege to have my work done, and a tremendous honor to have somehow gotten to be alive. I never get over anything! And I don’t mean just difficulties; I never get over great things either!