Playwright Jen Silverman and ‘All the Roads Home’

Writer Jen Silverman is obsessed with character and all of its manifestations in her work. “I am only interested in plot in so much as it illustrates how far a character is willing to go to get what they want. I am also really interested in families and the ways we are seen and not seen,” she said.

All these themes – along with a lot of good music – are present in her play All the Roads Home, part of Long Wharf Theatre’s Contemporary American Voices Festival, running from October 20-22.

All the Roads Home is about three generations of headstrong women discovering the threads of unspoken secrets, shared dreams, and unflinching determination that bind them together. “The initial impulse came from my real interest in legacy, and what we as kids receive from the people who come before us,” Silverman said. “Part of what makes the conversation about legacy so powerful is when you can feel the visceral threads connecting generations.”

For example, Silverman’s grandmother was born in Germany and the life she led was quite a bit different than Silverman’s mother’s life, which in turn, bears little resemblance to the life Jen leads now. It is the things the generations share that Silverman explores in her writing. “I am really interested in the threads of commonality,” she said.

Those threads manifest in unlikely ways. “My grandmother was famously stubborn. As I was growing up my parents would say, you are just like your grandmother,” she said with a laugh.

All the Roads Home had its world premiere at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in March, but Silverman said the Long Wharf reading will give them the opportunity to make important changes to the play. There might be even more music in the piece and some of it might be a different style. “(Composer) Dan Kluger and I made a series of discoveries about what the music wants to sound like,” Silverman said.

In Cincinnati they experimented with a bluegrass Americana vibe in the first two parts of the play. In the play’s third section, the music had more of an electropop feel. Silverman and Kluger are thinking of keeping the bluegrass feel through the whole piece. “We started feeling that it isn’t about music changing it is about the characters changing,” Silverman said.

Silverman’s career as a playwright started by accident. Already working in prose, Silverman was drawn to the form during her time at Brown University. “I got pulled into this crazy theatre thing. My parents are scientists so I didn’t grow up going to the theatre … I had no concept of how magnetic and alive live performance is,” she said.

In addition to working on her various commissions – one of which is for Long Wharf – Silverman is working on a novel. She finished a book of interconnected short stories entitled “Island Dwellers” this past fall.

-Steve Scarpa

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Playwright Jonathan Payne and ‘Poor Edward’

Playwright Jonathan Payne’s day job is as a social worker, supporting people with mental health issues who want to go back to college. Through his work he met an unlikely couple, D and A (names withheld for privacy). They were homeless and A struggled with schizophrenia.

“I am working on the fringes of society and relationships are a little bit different there than I imagine them. There were romances and friendships that didn’t really make sense to me. From my privileged lifestyle, me and my co-workers would look at people and wonder why they were together,” Payne recalled.

Payne asked D how her relationship with A worked. “Basically (A) didn’t talk to anyone. He was really quiet. And one day, unprofessionally of me, I asked, ‘what is up with you and A? How is this is a functioning thing?’ And (D) told me that the day before she was really sick with the flu and that A went to the drugstore and with the last of his money bought her medicine, brought it back to her and gave it to her … a lot of people in the community ignored her, but A gave her this attention. It made sense to me,” Payne said.

These unique people, combined with a NYU classroom exercise challenging writers to create a piece with no scene breaks and the film of a Czech fairy tale in which a root is treated as a baby, inspired his new play Poor Edward, part of Long Wharf Theatre’s Contemporary American Voices Festival.

As night descends around Opal and Eddie’s hovel, they grapple to find a way to forge a new life, Poor Edward tells a darkly theatrical story of intimacy and survival, and the seductive power of hope. “I am thinking of people on the fringes of society who don’t have access to things,” Payne said.

Payne’s inspiration as a writer are the works of August Wilson, and has drawn comparisons to Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett, and Bertholt Brecht. Heady company for a person who started their time in the theatre as an actor.

Payne grew up a quiet and shy kid, and struggled with depression. Auditioning for a play in high school – the musical Gypsy, as he recalls – opened him up and gave him a place for friends and self-expression. He embarked on a career as an actor, but had also been writing for a long time. Finally, he took up writing full time. Payne is currently starting his second year at Julliard and is hoping that he can write for both stage and screen. “I want to merge classic theatre with modern themes,” he said.

-Steve Scarpa

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Playwright Christopher Chen and ‘Passage’

Christopher Chen is trying to do nothing less in his work as a playwright than create a new form.

“I think one of my goals as a playwright is to really find ways to activate the audience, and myself as a writer in the process, by specifically trying to turn over subject matter in new ways to unlock different parts of people’s brains and visceral experiences,” he explained. “I am workshopping the term fable realism (to describe his work.)”

One of Chen’s newest pieces, called Passage, will be performed during Long Wharf Theatre’s Third Annual Contemporary American Voices Festival. He describes the play as a fantasia inspired by A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. Forster’s novel, published in 1924, is a story about the racial tensions and prejudices present in colonial India during British rule. “It was a foundational text in my literary career,” he said. “It helped shape my voice as a literary artist.”

From a purely artistic standpoint, Forster’s work showed the young Chen that a novel or a piece of art can contain multitudes. “A singular piece of art can have a macro wide angle lens, from the epic to the intimate … The way Forster handles these patterns and metaphors in a very organic way,” he said. “And the way he is able to weave in the spiritual and the political. It was really eye opening for me.”

Passage recasts the novel as a minimalist contemporary fable on the clash of two imagined cultures, creating an ominous meditation on perception, prejudice, and power. “I really had to engage with the text. It just couldn’t be more timely right now,” Chen said. “I made a conscious effort to make the play my own.”

Passage has all of the hallmarks of Chen’s developing style. He began work on the play in 2015, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s definitely shot through with that kind of zeitgeist,” he said. Chen maintained Forster’s balance of the spiritual and the political and the sincere inquiry at the heart of the novel, but remove any particular time and place, and used contemporary language. He introduced element of the fable into his play and stripped away the common symbols we might use as shorthand to understand a situation.

“The idea behind this style is that I am almost like a scientist. I am removing most of the variables of the play and keeping certain things uncontrolled, like the humanity of the characters themselves. So the audiences might be flipping back and forth between characters without the normal signifiers as to where their sympathies might lie,” he said.

He is always looking for ways to activate the audience, to make them more engaged with the art form happening before their eyes. “Audiences have to bring 50 percent of themselves to make it the whole and complete experience. That might be a higher ratio than normal,” he said.

-Steve Scarpa

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Meet the Resident Teaching Artists

Long Wharf’s Teaching Artists work in classrooms all over Connecticut to help teachers and students integrate theater with their daily learning. Treneé McGee and Ayla Davidson are LWT’s Resident Teaching Artists and work with the Education Department all year long on a variety of different projects. Read our interviews with them to learn more about their work, the challenges they face, and where they like to eat in New Haven!

Meet Resident Teaching Artist
Treneé McGee

What is your favorite thing about being a Teaching Artist?
My favorite thing about being a teaching artist is being able to walk into classrooms and connect with students who were just like me. Growing up in the New Haven Public School system, I have experienced firsthand what it’s like to be mentored by someone who looks like you, understands your life story and is able identify with your background. Not only am I able to pursue my career, but I am also a part of a scholar’s self-discovery through the arts by implementing theatrical curriculums into their classrooms. I don’t take it for granted.

What is the most challenging thing about being a Teaching Artist?
Although being a teaching artist is one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had; of course like anything, it comes with its challenges. A challenge for me as a teaching artist was learning to accept that some students might have a hard time accepting direction from someone close in age. I have had a unique experience in classrooms because I know the current “slang” language, pop culture trends and I’m familiar with student life outside of the classrooms. It has been interesting for me learning how to combat the challenges of ageism as a teaching artist in classrooms and school systems; however, I have grown to take this challenge as one to help me grow.

Which show are you most excited about this season?
Crowns for sure! I am excited to see a story told through the lenses of gospel music and African American traditions. Both of whom I connect with deeply as an African American young woman with pastoral parents; I believe it’s so important to tell all stories! Including those who sing in choirs and use gospel music as a means to connect with people through history, rhythm and poetry. Regina Taylor is also an influencer of mine.

What is your favorite place to eat in New Haven?
Both Mecha Noodle Bar and Modern Apizza are my FAVORITE food places! I can eat from both all of the time!

Meet Resident Teaching Artist Ayla Davidson

What is your favorite thing about being a Teaching Artist?
I love the variety of the work. No two weeks are the alike and the same lesson can feel very different with each new group of students. It keeps my learning fresh and keeps me learning.

What is the most challenging thing about being a Teaching Artist?
Driving! I’m not a city girl, so navigating downtowns, finding schools, and parallel parking is not my favorite part of the job.

Which show are you are most excited about this season?
“The Chosen.” I read the Potok novel in high school and can still picture my interpretation of the characters. I’m interested to see them brought to life on stage and to hear their discussions aloud.

How do you like to spend your free time?
I enjoy being outside: at the lake, going for hikes, working in the garden, hanging out in the backyard. I like having a “walk and talk” with friends (sometimes over the phone). I enjoy cooking and trying new recipes. This summer I spent most of my free time hanging out with my now 15-month-old son and watching him grow!

-Eliza Orleans

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Drama Notes: Matthew Barber

Like the protagonist of her novel Eleanor & Abel – which Matthew Barber has adapted here into his new play Fireflies – Annette Sanford was a high school English teacher in a small Texas town. She was always fascinated by short stories, and would write them during her summers off. After 25 years, she left teaching to pursue writing full time. She went on to produce two acclaimed short story collections and one novel, Eleanor & Abel – a romantic, charming examination of the challenges involved in taking risks and changing course in the twilight years of life.

Matthew Barber is no stranger to taking novels to the stage. His adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel Enchanted April premiered at Hartford Stage in 2000 and opened on Broadway in 2003, garnering Drama League and Tony Award nominations for Best Play and the John Gassner Award for Outstanding New American Play. Literary Manager Christine Scarfuto sat down with Matthew Barber to talk about his process of writing the play and his relationship with Annette Sanford’s work.

When and how did you first discover Eleanor & Abel by Annette Sanford, and what made you decide to adapt the novel into a play?
I was already familiar with Sanford’s collections of short stories — delicately humorous portraits of small-town Texas life — when I learned that she had expanded one of my favorite stories, “Housekeeping,” into her only novel, Eleanor & Abel. In this story in particular — and even more-so in the novel — the small town environment was a character in itself, a challenge to the central character, an educated, increasingly reclusive retired schoolteacher suddenly at odds with her own life. For several years I tossed around the idea of a screen adaptation of the novel, and then in one re-reading I locked onto a 90-page section that I felt contained the foundation for a small, focused stage play — a single week in the central character’s life during which she must confront her past, her future, her own sense of self, and make the choice of whether or not to risk heading in a new direction late in life. Once I saw that stage play in my mind, I wrote to Annette Sanford with the idea and, thankfully, she loved it.

Everything about the play feels so true to small-town Texas. How did you cultivate the feeling of that particular world?
I think part of the affinity I always had for Sanford’s writing was that the rhythms of the narrative and dialogue were familiar to me. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but nearly all of my family there — which were many — had migrated from small-town Nebraska. I absorbed their rhythms, the sharp humor, the saying much with very little. Once I started Fireflies, I went to the source itself — I drove through southern Texas to Jackson County, the play’s setting, and met with Annette Sanford in the small town in which she lived. The world of her short stories was all there in front of me. I observed and I listened. Two years later Annette passed on, at the age of 82. That trip and the time spent with her were invaluable.

The play seems to ask whether we are able and willing to open ourselves up to new experiences as we get older. Why do you think this is so hard for the characters in the play, and for people in general?
Our focus is on the future, on goals, on the steps toward those goals, and on finding the role we think will take us through life. But the truth is, even if all of that is successfully achieved, most roles don’t last forever. Our willingness to open ourselves to change later in life may be just as strong as when we were young, but that willingness is now up against an equally strong pull to not let go of what we had, even if what we had is now only a memory.

-Christine Scarfuto

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Small Mouth Sounds: Juicy Questions for Conversation and Reflection

Community Ambassador Leah Andelsmith

After watching an impressive preview of “Small Mouth Sounds” through the Community Ambassador Program, I plan to bring a group to see the show later this month. I look forward to the conversation it sparks as I have some questions I’m dying to ask my companions. The themes of this show are primarily introspective and reflective, and my juicy questions follow the same lines:
1. Of the six characters on stage, which individual or combination of characters tells your story?
2. Which character are you not able to see yourself in? This question gets deeper when you stop to think about why that might be. What is it about that character—or about you—that keeps you from identifying with his or her experience?
3. Which characters remind you of your family, friends and theater companions? Does your answer match how they identify themselves? (Careful not to get into hot water answering that question!)

I see myself in Alicia’s messiness and her lack of punctuality, in her way of not exactly breaking the rules, but bending them. Alicia (Brenna Palughi) lives on the edge of the rules, finding exceptions for herself, sometimes unintentionally. I am present in Ned’s note-taking and his nervousness about making sure his experience is “just so.” Ned (Ben Beckley) wants to get so much out of things that this obsession sometimes distracts him from his goal. I see my wife reflected in Jan’s (Connor Barrett) calm attentiveness and I see the two of us reflected in the closeness of the couple (Socorro Santiago and Cherene Snow) and the concern and care they show for each other, especially in the small moments. I could not find myself in Rodney. Edward Chin-Lyn gives a believable and authentic performance; it’s not that. Rodney is such a cool guy, someone that people emulate. I never was that cool.

What is cool is that “Small Mouth Sounds” parallels my experience as a community ambassador. Six strangers at a silent retreat, looking for change in their lives, together in their solitary journeys. Six stories to read between the lines. Right now, I am at a point of change in my life. Having just left my teaching career of thirteen years, I have what feels like an ocean of possibility in front of me. I wonder what journey the theater will take me on as I attend the six plays of the 2017-2018 season. I wonder what rhythm Long Wharf Theater has laid out for me: how the mood on stage might change with the seasons, how the plays will influence my thoughts and challenge my beliefs as the year goes on. Six stories to uncover. Six windows into the world. Six small journeys that share a wider arc. And I am not alone. I have a cohort of community ambassadors to share the journey with. Six chances to come together over a shared love of theater, over big ideas and warm conversation. Six opportunities to find togetherness in our solitary experiences. Although I don’t know where the journey will take me in the end, it began this week at Long Wharf with an ocean-sized breath in.

—Leah Andelsmith


Leah Andelsmith is a writer living in New Haven. She loves the arts and finding magic in the everyday. This is her first season as a community ambassador for Long Wharf Theater. You can find her on Facebook:

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‘Small Mouth’ Stories | Cherene Snow

Left: Cherene Snow. Right: Cherene Snow as Judy in Small Mouth Sounds, Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Judy, Cherene Snow’s character in Small Mouth Sounds, has a lot of trouble keeping quiet. Not so with Cherene.

A few years back, Snow’s friend, a monk, invited her to spend New Year’s at a quiet retreat. It was a transformative weekend. Negotiating the politesse of everyday life was a challenge – the “thank yous” and “pleases” and “excuse mes” of polite discourse. But Snow found there is so much that can be said without words. “In the evening you were silent and I loved it,” she said.

She’d always been comfortable with her own thoughts, but this retreat showed her that silence can be a valuable thing in her life. “I found the peace in it. I found that I didn’t have to talk, it was ok not to talk, that I enjoyed not talking,” Snow said.

-Steve Scarpa

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‘Small Mouth’ Stories | Socorro Santiago

Left: Socorro Santiago. Right: Socorro Santiago as Joan in Small Mouth Sounds, Photo by T. Charles Erickson

If you want to calm Socorro Santiago down, simply invite her to see nature.

“We are looking for relief. We are looking for answers. We are looking for peace. We are looking for forgiveness. We are looking for another way,” Santiago said. “We are always talking in our heads. I have to do this, I have to do that. I have to plan this. I have to call so and so. I have to text so and so. E-mail, e-mail, e-mail.”

She’s traveled all over the country, particularly Florida and Utah, seeking out quiet moments with animals. She has stood by while zebras raced around her. She has fed giraffes. Santiago has petted hippos and quietly watched geese drop into a body of water. She once held a cheetah, a moment that stayed with her long afterwards. “I have to tell you, it is the most poignant thing. Powerful, quiet, empowering. It’s magnificent. Nothing better,” Santiago said.

The characters in Small Mouth Sounds seek that ‘other way’ through silence. For Santiago, that ‘other way’ can be found outdoors. “Nothing can be more magical than someone taking you by the hand and saying ‘Look,’” she said.

-Steve Scarpa

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‘Small Mouth’ Stories | Brenna Palughi

Left: Brenna Palughi. Right: Brenna Palughi as Alicia in Small Mouth Sounds, Photo by T. Charles Erickson

It’s hard to find a moment to just be with yourself, particularly in a place as bustling as New York City. When Brenna Palughi is on the subway, she’s checking her phone for e-mails and alerts, or reading scripts as the chaos of the city swirls around here. Just coming to rehearsal in the city can strain even the calmest person. “Even getting out at Times Square … the onslaught of noise and people. It’s just exhausting,” she said.

The older she gets, and the longer she lives in New York, the more important silence is to her. “I want silence now, a lot more than I did when I was young,” Palughi said. “Actually, it’s kind of a relief to communicate with the other characters and actors in silence.”

Alicia, Palughi’s character in Small Mouth Sounds, is not that good at being at a silent retreat. It takes her some time to find that inner peace, Palughi said. “She does seem to have a beautiful moment, and it is just a moment, of relief from herself,” she said.

Palughi expects that audiences will discover something about the silence of Small Mouth Sounds that she herself found in rehearsals. “Your ear starts to tune differently, if that makes any sense. Small sounds, you pick them up more, and they make more of an impact,” Palughi said.

-Steve Scarpa

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‘Small Mouth’ Stories | Orville Mendoza

Orville Mendoza grew up in a deeply spiritual household, one where faith was at the forefront of his everyday life. “Issues of spirituality in this play resonate deeply with me,” he said.

Perhaps that is one reason Mendoza was drawn to the role of The Teacher in Small Mouth Sounds, a person he characterizes as sincere and anxious to share what he has learned about navigating life. “There’s a message of hope and community in the play and though we all come from different backgrounds and are different hues, we all go through similar struggles. There’s the idea that we complicate life more than it needs to be. But the biggest idea in the play for me is that no one is perfect, and in that imperfection, no one is ever really alone,” Mendoza said.

There is another reason this role has become special to Mendoza. He is Filipino American, born in Manila, raised in Southern California, and has lived in New York with his partner for almost 20 years. “I feel at home on either coast,” he said.

As an artist of color, Mendoza has played a wide variety of roles of different cultural backgrounds. “Sadly, I’ve only played Filipino characters maybe three times in my over 20 years as a professional actor,” Mendoza said. Although Wohl doesn’t specify the Teacher’s ethnicity, it was important to Mendoza to make his interpretation of him distinctly Filipino. “It’s an homage to my roots and to my father,” Mendoza said.

-Steve Scarpa

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