“Office Hour” is a play that makes you question reality, exploding a moment and its infinite possibilities. It made me question my own life, and the connections, choices and chances that have whittled out my one path from all the branching options. I am grateful that nothing in my life approaches the severity of the content in this play, but I can still delve into these juicy questions:
- When is a time that someone reaching out made a difference for you?
- Has someone ever given or denied you the benefit of the doubt in a way that impacted your life?
- Do you think you could be as brave as Gina?
Just before sixth grade, my family moved from San Francisco to New Hampshire. That first lonely summer, my sister and I often walked to the public beach at the lake and I’ll never forget the one day when a girl my age asked me out of nowhere if I wanted to play frisbee. Kelley became my first friend in a new place and my best friend over many years. Making such a huge move, both geographically and culturally, was easier for me, partly because of Kelley, who reached out to the strange new girl at the lake.
Years later, when I told my high school calculus teacher that I wanted to join the AP section he responded, “I think you and I both know that would be like climbing Mt. Everest.” I walked away, confused and stunned. I was a solid math student and I enjoyed the work. How could he be so sure of my failure? As angry as I am that my teacher didn’t give me the benefit of the doubt, I am mystified that I didn’t give myself more credit and fight to be included in that class.
My senior year of college, I found myself in front of a class of students teaching a demo lesson during a job interview. It was the first time I’d ever actually taught. And yet, instead of looking at the experience I lacked, my administrator looked at what I had: a steady job history, an excellent academic record at an excellent school, and a better demo lesson than other experienced candidates. He said, “This is someone who is smart, knows how to work, and clearly has a rapport with kids. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt.” With today’s competitive job market, I doubt I would get that kind of chance again. I’m glad I got it when I did.
One of the scariest parts of “Office Hour” is the uncertainty around whether the troubled student, Dennis (Daniel Chung), is a shooter or not. Does Dennis deserve the benefit of the doubt? He is brooding and silent, but unlike in previous shows this season, his silence is not a blank canvas of possibility. Instead, it is a blockade, a gulf. We worry about his teacher, Gina (Jackie Chung), scared for what could happen. And yet, Gina sends out a tenuous thread of connection across that gulf and attempts to walk it like a tightrope to the other side.
Like in “The Chosen,” Gina and Dennis share a common culture, but experience it so differently. Only in “Office Hour,” the divide is so much greater, widened by fear and the possibility of harm. Widened by the fact that this iffy connection could be the only chance for salvation. Why is it so much harder to reach out to someone in so much need? To someone who is so raw with pain? It’s natural to want to recoil, but Gina shows us instead to be brave and to reach out. Could I be as brave as she was if someone needed me as badly? I have no idea, honestly. The only answer I can give is: God, I hope so.
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 Theatre. You can find her on Facebook: facebook.com/leahandelsmith and on her website: leahandelsmith.wixsite.com/website.
Thanks to the New Haven Free Public Library for curating the Micro-Branch in our lobby for Office Hour. Stop and take a look at these titles before or after the show. Find one you like? Check out one of these books with our Box Office using any CT library card then simply return it to your local library!
Sonora – Hannah Lillith Assadi
Silent Alarm – Jennifer Banash
Rubbernecker – Belinda Bauer
Hate List – Jennifer Brown
The Stranger – Albert Camus
The Basketball Diaries – Jim Carroll
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
The Architecture of Loss – Julia Cho
BFE – Julia Cho
The Language Archive – Julia Cho
The Piano Teacher – Julia Cho
Columbine – Dave Cullen
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
The Outsiders – S.E. Hinton
Spy the Lie – Philip Houston
The Teenage Brain – Frances E. Jensen
Lockdown – Laurie R. King
A Mother’s Reckoning – Sue Klebold
Luckiest Girl Alive – Jessica Knoll
A Separate Place – John Knowles
Defending Jacob – William Landay
Why Kids Kill – Peter Langman
A Thousand Cuts – Simon Lelic
Newtown – Matthew Lysiak
How to Raise an Adult – Julie Lythcott-Haims
Colin Fischer – Ashley Edward Miller
Shooter – Walter Dean Myers
Rampage – Katherine S. Newman
This is Where it Ends – Marieke Nijkamp
Dangerous Instincts – Mary Ellen O’Toole
More Like Her – Liza Palmer
The Second Opinion – Michael Palmer
School Days – Robert B. Parker
House Rules – Jodi Picoult
Nineteen Minutes – Jodi Picoult
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock – Matthew Quick
Finding Jake – Bryan Reardon
Sometimes the Safest Place to be is Underwater – Marisa Reichardt
Odd Girl Out – Rachel Simmons
Give a Boy a Gun – Todd Strasser
Good Girl – Sarah Tomlinson
The Humanity Project – Jean Thompson
Long Wharf is proud to announce its fourth annual Moments & Minutes Festival: an evening of original performances by Connecticut youth. All Connecticut K-12 students are welcome to submit original poems, raps, songs, or monologues. All writing must be in response to the question of what does it mean to be truly seen and to see others? Writing will be evaluated on the following criteria:
- Is your work truly original (plagiarism will not be tolerated), and does it represent your unique point of view?
- How well does your work grapple with the theme of what does it mean to truly be seen and to see others?
- As a performer, are you physically and emotionally connected with what you’re saying?
To apply, students must submit the text of their piece and YouTube video of themselves performing it via longwharf.org/momnets-minutes-festival. The deadline for submissions is February 15, 2018.
Teachers may bring a Long Wharf teaching artist into their classroom to audition students in person. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
Follow Directions in Video to Submit!
Long Wharf Theatre is thrilled to welcome Julia Cho’s acclaimed work back to the stage for Office Hour, directed by Lisa Peterson and produced in conjunction with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Office Hour marks Cho’s third play to be produced at Long Wharf. The first, BFE, premiered at Long Wharf in 2005 directed by Gordon Edelstein, and transferred to Playwrights Horizons later that season. The second, Durango, premiered in 2006 directed by Chay Yew and then moved onto the Public Theater, where it won Obie Awards for both performance and direction. In addition to BFE and Durango, Cho’s play Aubergine received a reading in Long Wharf’s first-ever Contemporary American Voices Festival in 2015 directed by Eric Ting before premiering at Berkeley Rep in 2016.
Office Hour grapples with a particularly timely and difficult topic: school shootings. With the tragic events of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook in mind, Cho’s play takes the subject on from the point of view of a college instructor who tries to forge a relationship with a student who is feared to be a possible shooter. Long Wharf’s Literary Manager Christine Scarfuto and Berkeley Rep’s Literary Manager Sarah Rose Leonard sat down with Cho to ask her some questions about the play.
Q: What inspired you to write this play?
A: When I really think about where the first idea came from, it was probably the Virginia Tech shooting. It was on a college campus, it was a Korean American shooter, and it was the highest body count at that time. It was such a striking event, something I couldn’t really forget. I didn’t think of writing a play about it initially. How could you possibly write about an event that sad, violent, and troubling? At the time, I was thinking more about writing and its purpose, and what I wanted to say with my plays. I had been doing a lot of thinking about identity, and the role of an Asian American writer, an Asian American citizen, an Asian American artist. I was sort of like, who am I? And what kind of work do I want to do?
The next event that really stood out in my mind was Newtown. It really broke me. I remember I saw it on the news and I just fell to my knees. I started asking questions about this violence in American culture, where it was coming from, and whether I, as a writer, had anything to say about it. Being in the theater has been like one very long, unending class in empathy and understanding. So much of our energy has been spent trying to understand each other, trying to understand characters, trying to understand people who are different from us. I think that extension of empathy makes sense to me in terms of trying to understand what this violent phenomenon is and why it is happening. I don’t think Office Hour is an answer to any of those questions, but it at least posed the questions and could say look, these are the things I’m struggling with, are you struggling with them too?
Q: How did you find the structure of the play? And, how does it connect with Gina’s experience of paranoia and fear?
A: I struggled to write the play for a very long time. It was such a huge topic, such a terrible thing, this idea of writing a play about mass shootings, that I just had no idea how to even approach it. For the longest time I had it sitting on the periphery of my awareness but I couldn’t really figure out how to even walk up to it. After one of the shootings, I read an Op-Ed personal essay in The New York Times. It was written by a woman who had been a teacher at a college. She had a student who scared her, and she actually had a conference with him. I immediately grabbed onto it, because the essay described my own experience of being a grad student instructor at several different institutions. That relationship between professor/instructor and student was very familiar to me, and I thought, this is how I can approach this, with a very specific encounter between teacher and student.
But sitting down to write the play was really difficult. I thought I would write a play that’s just an hour and a half of two people talking—just one conference, with a beginning, middle, and end. That seemed to be the most logical way to write the play. But as soon I sat down to write that play, the sort of linear two-hander, I couldn’t get past page one. I literally had no idea what they would say to each other, and simultaneously it felt like as soon as they both sat down, I knew where it would end: the office hour would start, and then it would end. It just didn’t spark my curiosity, and I never felt like “Oh what’s going to happen next?” I also felt like I was making them talk to each other, which is always a bad sign because it feels forced, like I’m consciously creating the dialogue and the characters aren’t alive or real.
I kept banging my head against its structure, and then I happened to get one of the recent volumes of Caryl Churchill’s plays. I love Caryl Churchill; so many of her plays are about play structure. They’re very exposed; you can see all the wiring underneath. And they’re also really experimental and challenging and mess with classifications. It wasn’t that I was consciously trying to emulate her, but I thought, why am I trying to write a linear play about something so jarring, fracturing, and complicated? So I sat down and asked myself, “What is the elephant in the room? What are we worried will happen?” It’s very simple and it happens in the play almost immediately. If that’s not what the play is about, then what is? After I wrote that, I truly did not know what was going to happen next. Something really cracked open, and the play took over and could have its own drive. Finding that structure enabled the play to be written at all.
Q: What made you want to focus on this school shooter character? What came up for you and what surprised you as you sat with Dennis?
A: I think it wasn’t so much about creating somebody out of complete imagination. Instead, it was really saying, what if you could take a normally troubled person—we’ve all had people in our lives who are depressed or angry or lost—and then take that to the extreme? What I found in writing Office Hour was that I have a very large sense of what fits within the circle of humanity. With Dennis it was about trying to make him so he wasn’t an “other,” so that he wasn’t inexplicable; to say if I start off with a person who is in pain, where is that pain going to lead?
After writing the first draft of the play, I read a book about the mass shooting in Norway called One of Us by Åsne Seierstad. The title is so great because basically it says that the shooter was one of us. In some ways, that’s a part of the American dialogue on mass shooting that I was interested in. What if we could say that they’re still part of us? Not everyone’s willing to go there, which is fair enough. But where do we draw the line, and how do we define who could become that kind of person and who couldn’t? That’s where the play lives, in that ambiguity.
Q: How does Dennis’ experience as a first generation American inform his character?
A: I think the experiences that Dennis has of marginalization and disempowerment are not limited to the immigrant experience. That said, I picked a huge mountain of a topic in writing this play, and it was hard to approach, so I felt the more I could ground it in something I knew, the better. I can only write from my own perspective, and it felt to me like the kind of shooter I could get inside of was a first generation immigrant like me. I was trying to create as real and grounded a person as possible.
Even though it sounds naïve nowadays, I am still a believer in the American Dream. The American dream has taken a lot of blows. But I’m so grateful to be here, and to be able to be a writer. As a child of immigrants, I’m so grateful to have the English language, this beautiful language that gets to be my language—the language I write in, dream in, think in. But also, I know that being an immigrant can be a very difficult experience. You can experience feelings of alienation, of thinking maybe I’ll never make it in, maybe I’ll never be allowed in. And that seems to me like a place where Dennis’ pain could start. Being an immigrant is being given amazing opportunities, but there’s also a lot of heartbreak. I think Dennis’ character is located on the heartbroken side of it. That’s not to justify or suggest that anyone coming out of those experiences would turn out the way Dennis does, but it helped me understand him as someone whose way of being in the world was rooted in something real, as opposed to someone who’s just crazy or a sociopath.
Q: The play seems to deal with the connection between fear and violence, and specifically gun violence—that once you fear a threat, you can start to see it everywhere, and that the fear of violence can breed more violence. How can we break that cycle and choose humanity over fear of the other?
A: That’s a question I have too. All I know is that before any step can be taken towards progress, we have to sit with the difficult things. Gina chooses to go into a room and sit with the difficult thing. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean Dennis—but all of it. To say to an audience member, “Will you come and sit in the dark with a bunch of other people with this difficult thing?” And then there’s no answer, right? You don’t walk away thinking “Now I know what to do!” But, at least you’ve sat with the difficult thing. And in some weird way, I think maybe that’s at least a start. Looking at this thing and not tuning out, or doing something else, or distracting yourself, but just carving out this space and time to think about it—that’s all the play asks. And I think just that is a lot. It feels so small and yet so big. I don’t know how our goodness can outweigh our destructiveness. That is the question of our time. But, I think there’s a lot of hope in the play too. There’s certainly hope in me, that despite everything, I think connection is still possible.
Each person I brought to see “The Chosen” followed a different thread to the heart of the play: traditions tested by modern ideas; divisions not between but within faiths; tough love. But in a play so full of words and ideas, it was the silence that ended up speaking to me in the loudest voice. The lack of communication between Danny and his father may be the primary focus, but I found a bread-crumb trail of silence winding through the entire story and my juicy questions all explore it:
1. How do you sit with silence? Do you embrace it or avoid it? What comforts you in your silence?
2. Is there anyone close to you with whom you don’t share many words?
3. What silence have you borne in your life? What lighted your way through that silence?
In “The Chosen,” silence is alternately viewed as a terrible, lonely prison or a blank canvas full of possibility. In solitude, I often embrace silence, letting my thoughts fill the space with colors, allowing memories and dreams to comfort me. In the company of others, it takes more effort to welcome silence to the table. There’s that nagging voice telling us that that empty place ought to be filled. Sometimes, though, silence holds a subtle beauty. My wife’s family, for example, tends to be much quieter than my own. It took time to discover the nature of their silence and to find my place in it. Within that silence is a deep love not easily expressed through the spoken word.
Even after I came out to the rest of my family, I held the truth back from my grandmother, a very conservative person who had made clear her disapproval of gays and lesbians. I worried about upsetting our complicated and delicate relationship, both for my sake and, as her health worsened, for hers. And so, I remained silent. Lighting my way was the love of my family and the confidence I had in myself. My grandmother’s beliefs were largely relics of a bygone era, while the bright future shone on my path. Even so, I came to regret my silence, later made permanent by my grandmother’s passing.
The season began in silence with “Small Mouth Sounds,” and now the powerful theme once more graces the Long Wharf stage. The retreat attendees in “Small Mouth Sounds” chose silence for a few, finite days. “The Chosen,” true to its name, shows us what happens when silence chooses you. Despite this important difference, both plays show silence to be a crucible in which our mettle is tested and transformed. Silence can be the making of us, but the converse is also true: the choices we make in silence resonate in all parts of our lives, like expanding ripples in water.
I find myself changed after watching this play. It is a story that won’t easily leave me. For a long time to come, I think I will find my silent, blank canvas painted with the rich, complex colors of “The Chosen.”
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 Theatre. You can find her on Facebook: facebook.com/leahandelsmith and on her website: leahandelsmith.wixsite.com/website.
One of the most profound challenges inherent in the acting profession is one that might not be immediately noticeable. Steven Skybell faced it in the early days of rehearsal for The Chosen, the play adapted by Aaron Posner from the novel by Chaim Potok. “This play is about very deep, complex personal relationships,” Skybell said.
The challenge is creating those relationships with people they might have just met. “You show up on such and such a day and you say ‘hello, you are my son and have been for 16 years,’” Skybell said.
The key is to take enough time in rehearsal to explore the idiosyncrasies between people, moving past the surface appearances towards a more profound and truthful engagement with the material. Skybell, playing David Malter, is working closely and carefully with director Gordon Edelstein and performer Max Wolkowitz, playing his son Reuven, to do precisely that.
For example, David Malter is a visionary thinker and an activist who advocates for the creation of a Jewish state, Skybell said. In many ways, Malter could be seen as the perfect father, always ready with the right lesson, always supportive of his son Reuven. However, even that level of support could be hard for a kid growing up and trying to find his own way. “There is no perfect way to be raised. Every parent-child relationship is going to have its own possible flaws,” Skybell said.
Such is the complexity of The Chosen, one that the actors – who now know each other extremely well – have fully engaged. “One of the beautiful challenges about this script is that it is so subtle and nuanced,” Skybell said. “It is wonderful for an actor to embody a life that is so simply and delicately put forward on the stage … my sense is that the message (of the play) is timely and timeless.”
Above: Steven Skybell and Max Wolkowitz in THE CHOSEN. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Raising two now grown daughters has given George Guidall quite a bit of personal experience to mine for his role as Reb Saunders in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of The Chosen.
“Watching their process of growing up and becoming more independent and realizing that what you say might not always be right for them,” he said. “It’s similar to this play.”
Guidall plays the leader of the local Hasidic and a man of considerable importance in his community. “He expects that his son will take over for him when he dies. That implies a lot of responsibilities, holiness in life, religiosity, and certain firm boundaries,” Guidall said.
Without giving away too much of the story, Guidall’s character’s wish doesn’t necessarily come true. “The process I can easily identify with is seeing my son break away from me,” Guidall said. “Little by little I began to realize that he’s a man and he makes his own decisions and I can’t control it. I tried.”
Over the course of the play, Saunders and his son Danny try to reconcile their rapidly diverging beliefs. The fact they – and the other characters in the play – even attempt to do so has become a major focal point of the work in rehearsal. “The play deals with the idea that two opposing beliefs can exist at the same time,” Guidall said. “That’s an important point in today’s world especially. Democrats and Republicans. Israelis and Arabs. Nationalists and pan-globalists. All kinds of things that seem to be totally unable to live under a compromise. The idea that there is some kind of middle ground so that both can exist at the same time is what this play is about,” he said.
Above: George Guidall, Ben Edelman, and Max Wolkowitz in THE CHOSEN. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Tech rehearsal can be, for many actors, the most tedious part of the rehearsal process. There is a lot of standing around, waiting for the show’s technical elements to come together. Run crews are being put through their paces. Tech can be a lot of hurry up and wait. Necessary, certainly, but jarring nonetheless. All the careful work an actor has done in the cloistered rehearsal hall can come apart quickly the first time the lights are turned on.
Max Wolkowitz, playing Reuven Malter in The Chosen, loves it. “It’s my favorite part of rehearsal,” he said.
The actors and the director have built something in the rehearsal room that is just an idea. “We’ve really delved into the emotional lives of the characters and the story. But it isn’t until you get into tech that everything comes together,” he said.
Wolkowitz knows that many actors find tech boring or challenging – the antithesis of a place for them to craft character. But Max is looking for any chance to continue shaping Reuven, a thoughtful and compassionate young man who is trying to approach the world in a deep and meaningful way. “For me it is a real opportunity to do another kind of work outside the scrutiny of the director because their focus is elsewhere. I can really start to refine during tech what you are building in the rehearsal room,” he said.
Above: Max Wolkowitz as Reuven in THE CHOSEN Photo: T. Charles Erickson
First published in 1967, Chaim Potok’s coming-of-age novel The Chosen has become a beloved literary classic. The story of an unlikely friendship between two boys from different worlds growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the 1940s evokes universal truths about the power of friendship, the importance of relationships between fathers and sons, and the difficulty of holding on to faith and cultural traditions in a rapidly changing modern world. And indeed, the themes in the novel have stood the test of time—it’s a perennial best seller, over three million copies have been sold, and it’s landed on high school reading lists for generations.
Playwright Aaron Posner first adapted The Chosen for the stage in 1999. Posner, a prolific playwright, has written a number of plays inspired by literary classics including adaptations of Chekhov’s The Seagull (Stupid Fucking Bird), Uncle Vanya (Life Sucks) and Three Sisters (No Sisters), in addition to an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (District Merchants) and a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s unpublished short story A Murder, A Mystery, and a Marriage. And Posner is no stranger to Long Wharf’s stage—his adaptation of Potok’s later work, My Name is Asher Lev, appeared at Long Wharf in 2012 also directed by Gordon Edelstein. Literary Manager Christine Scarfuto recently sat down with Posner to ask him a few questions about The Chosen.
Q: You’ve adapted two of Chaim Potok’s novels, The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev, both produced here at Long Wharf. What has drawn you to his work?
A: I love literature of all kinds, but I am most drawn to stories that are deeply personal to the author, and speak to the core questions of what it is to be human. Chaim was writing about a very particular, very Jewish world, but because he was generous and courageous enough to tell deep, difficult truths about his own life and perspectives, his stories have the capacity to cross all kinds of boundaries and reach all kinds of people in really powerful ways.
Chaim was not a stylist, per se. His writing is not flashy or pyrotechnic. He wrote passionately about deep core conflicts between people and cultures. And like all of my favorite authors, there are rarely any villains in his stories…only complicated, problematic, passionate people trying to do their best in the world. Unfortunately, this brings them into deep conflicts with those they love and care about most. That is the emotional territory of most of his works. Stories like this have the capacity to go deep for people and even change lives. That is why I love them.
Q: When did you first read The Chosen, and what was its impact on you? Why did you choose to adapt it for the stage?
A: I first read The Chosen as a teenager and while I remember liking it, I hardly remembered it. In my 30’s I was trying to find a way to explore questions I had about my own Jewish identity. I started reading a lot of Jewish literature. I read a lot that I loved and respected, but as soon as I re-read The Chosen, I instantly fell completely in love with it. I found it very smart, deeply moving, and wonderfully inspiring. It opens a window into a world many people know very little about, and it is a complex and complicated world worth knowing. It speaks with true insight and genuine complexity about finding ways to bridge almost insurmountable differences. I think that is something that is always worth considering… and more important and worthwhile now than ever. Chaim was able to tell a very particular story that had the power to connect with people of all faiths, nationalities, ages and perspectives. That is an amazing achievement.
Q: It’s been almost 20 years since The Chosen premiered at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia, and you’ve done a new revision of the script for our Long Wharf production. What have you discovered in revisiting the script after so many years?
A: It has been fascinating to re-explore. While we have made many changes—including eliminating a character—the core of the experience remains the same. Chaim wrote an amazing, moving, worthwhile story, well worth sharing with as many people in as many ways as possible. The core of his story—and my adaptation—are unchanged. It is still a relatively simple story of two fathers, two sons, and their remarkable friendship coming of age at a very complicated time.
Q: There is an idea that repeats throughout the play, “Both These, and These, are the words of the living God,” that raises the question of how two contradictory opinions can both be the words of God. It’s an idea that feels difficult—and important, particularly in these divisive times—to really understand. How is it possible to reconcile and live with two opposing ideas that both reflect truth and righteousness?
A: An excellent, and, as you say, important question. The Talmud says it is possible. I pretend to no particular wisdom on this issue. I certainly know that contradictory emotions are common. I know that beliefs and thoughts and feelings are often contradictory and hard to reconcile in all kinds of complicated ways. I do believe that there are often things that at least seem or feel contradictory, but they can be reconciled. I do believe that we allow all kinds of things to divide us based on a belief that different beliefs or perspectives make us different kinds of people. I believe there is more commonality to be found than sometimes seems apparent. I guess I also think that there is little more important in the world these days than bridging differences and finding ways to come together across real boundaries of damage, mistrust and even hatred.
Q: The play is about two young men from very different backgrounds coming together—over baseball, literature, philosophy, and religion. What facilitates the deep sharing of values in these two young men? What makes their friendship so transformative?
A: I believe some people are powerful for each other. I believe we find our friends, lovers, artistic partners, collaborators and soul-mates of all kinds because we find people that push our buttons, that make us feel more ourselves, that inspire and annoy and stimulate us. I have found this in my life over and over and over again. These boys are incredibly similar and incredibly different. If you want to follow psychology, you would say their issues call out to each other and trigger powerful responses in each other. From a more spiritual perspective, their souls, perhaps, are connected in powerful ways. Whatever the cause, they are connected. They push each other. They learn from each other. They are lucky to know each other.