Tina Howe Taking Pride and Visiting Museum

Tina Howe Taking Pride and Visiting Museum It's almost an idealized stereotype of the New York writer's life, but that's the impression one gets when visiting with Tina Howe, playwright of Painting Churches, Museum and Pride's Crossing (headed for Off-Broadway in November).
Tina Howe

Tina Howe

(Photo by Photo by Cori Wells Braun)

It's almost an idealized stereotype of the New York writer's life, but that's the impression one gets when visiting with Tina Howe, playwright of Painting Churches, Museum and Pride's Crossing (headed for Off-Broadway in November).

Howe shares a bright, book-filled, upper West Side apartment with her husband, a historian. The furnishings include a piano, framed posters of Howe's plays, a kitchen nook with an antique typewriter (that still works) and a clean computer workspace by the kitchen window, which looks out past the Hudson River onto the Garden State.

Howe, an adjunct professor of playwriting at Hunter College and a visiting professor at New York University, has been at the writing game for more than 25 years, starting with The Nest and continuing on through the play currently in her Macintosh, tentatively titled, Miss Havisham's Revenge. Pages of scene breakdowns from the work are taped to the walls and windows of Howe's writing space, a testament to her work ethic: 10 AM-2 PM, seven days a week.

Asked about her newest play, Howe told Playbill On-Line that it's a kind of "reverse-Cyrano, with a homely, middle-aged woman who has a way with words, trying to win a blindingly handsome actor. Plus it's a play within-a-play; we see the Great Expectations character as a young woman."

Howe says she wrote the play last year but is now redoing it. "The toughest part of the rewrite is construction. There are lots of scenes, which makes it a tricky structure. I keep sliding off the structure and then having to go back and rework it. Basically, the reason for the rewrite was I made the heroine kind of dizzy and giddy and at a loss, with everyone around her more stable. Kind of a typical `Tina' character. But then I chose to switch it around and make her the more together one." `Tina characters' -- that is, characters with elements of Howe's own personality -- still appear in her works, including Pride's Crossing, due for Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, beginning Nov. 6 for a Dec. 7 opening, and Museum previewing Oct. 15 for a Nov. 15 opening at Vector Theater Company in San Francisco.

Says Howe, "The Tina character in Pride is 90-year-old swimmer, Mabel Tidings, who's really an amalgam of me and my 90-year-old aunt Maddy. I am a would-be swimmer who loves the water and loves to plunge into the ocean. But I'm not a very good swimmer. I'm kind of an appalling swimmer, actually, and I injured my knee because I kicked too violently. I've been doing the wrong stroke all these years, so I had to go back and take lessons. My form is a disaster and my stroke is weak and I look like an idiot as I plow through the waves. But in my heart of hearts, I see myself as an enormously elegant, strong swimmer."

"Swimming seems a wonderful metaphor to fool around with," Howe said. "I've written plays set at the beach {Coastal Disturbances] and have written a lot about women and water. For Pride, I did want to write about an older woman who had lived through most of the century as this century comes to a close. I thought of Aunt Maddy, though she never married, never left home and never did swim a stroke -- she's even phobic about the water. But she's always been a model to me of what one might become as an elderly woman. There's a radiance and honesty about her that I find moving and compelling. If I could take my own yearning and put it in the body of a 90-year-old looking back on her life and remembering the moments when she defied her family and the elements to do this extraordinary Channel swim.

"Like any play, Pride's Crossing is an elaboration of a fantasy. The [English] Channel was conquered by a woman in 1926, Gertrude Edderly. She was 19 years old when she swam from France to England in 14 hours and 39 minutes. I'm not veering that far from historical fact; I had my character do the swim two years later, when, in fact, another woman did the same thing, though the character isn't based on her."

As for the play's action, Howe explains, "Mabel is 90 years old. Her granddaughter, Julia, is visiting from France where she lives with a French doctor. Julia's mother was a not-very-good absent mother, and Mabel has more-or-less raised her. Julia's bringing her 10-year-old daughter, Minty, with her. To celebrate the arrival, Mabel is giving a croquet party, but the problem is she's in bad health and starting to lose her bearings. It's clear from the moment the play starts there's almost no way she can pull this off. She has a hard time even making out the guest list. The line of action in the present is: is Mabel going to pull this party off?

"In the week preceding the party, though, come a serious of minor catastrophes, each of which sets off a memory in Mabel. The first scene we see her in bed planning her party with her old friend, Chandler, who's appalled at the idea. An argument ensues, and during that, she's reminded of an argument with her mother and father 80 years earlier. It's one of the periodic memories and benchmark moments of defiance in Mabel's life.

"The play keeps moving back and forth between present and past," continued Howe. "The very last scene in the present is when Mabel actually pulls the party off. We see an entire croquet lawn rolled out on the stage with these doddering old New Englanders whacking their mallets at the ball. And that scene inspires a memory of the moment when Mabel's getting ready to cross the Channel, and her English lover is greasing her up before she leaps into the water to swim to Calais."

Said Howe of Pride's scope, "It's a big, rangy play with seven actors playing 21 roles, changing gender, age, nationality. It's a theatrical tour de force.

"I'll be there in the rehearsals, but the moment of truth comes in previews; an audience tells you what they're seeing. If the play is greeted by total silence, you know something's terribly wrong. Previews are for learning where the play flies and where it stumbles. I did about eight drafts of Pride's Crossing before it was done at the Old Globe [in California]. During rehearsal and preview I did a couple more. Then I did one definitive rewrite before I started rehearsal in New York. But I'm sure I'll learn other lessons about the play as well. Playwrights are so heroic saying `yes, yes, the play is written,' and then there we are, at the 11th hour, completely rewriting the whole thing."

On the differences between the Old Globe Pride and the upcoming Lincoln Center staging: "Except for Cherry Jones, it's been completely recast, because the people at Lincoln Center want to create their own production of the play, rather than move the Old Globe production. It's going into a different-shaped theatre, with the set needing to be re-thought. Plus I've worked on the text as well. I've added two new scenes, including one where a woman plays a male character."

Excited as she is about the Lincoln Center mounting, Howe has fond memories of the Old Globe production. "The reception was very warm in San Diego," she said. "I felt blessed and lucky that audiences and critics were as accepting and forgiving as they were, because with a play this big, there was a lot to figure out. I was aware of holes in script, but the more insightful critics forgave them. I've opened almost all my plays first in New York, so for this play, I wanted to get away from these shores to a place more forgiving and embracing."

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Sipping from iced tea freshened with orange juice, ginger ale and mint, Howe then spoke more generally about her career in the theatre. "I think it's very hard to write as a woman. My most successful plays are the ones that sort of celebrate my WASPy background. Whenever I write about blue-blood brahmins losing their sense of order and their sense of decorum, the public is intrigued and fascinated and the critics are delighted. But the minute I go into darker, murkier ground, I get into trouble.

"My first plays got disastrous reviews," Howe continued, "so I've always been used to that. But there was a period where my work was tolerated and even admired from time to time. My first play, The Nest, was about courtship and how women compete with each other to land a husband. That play closed in one night. My next, Birth And Afterbirth [1973], was about how women compete over their fertility. How women who have children look at those who don't and say, `You're not a woman until you have a child. You don't even know what it means to be a member of your sex.' I remember hearing that the first five years I was married, before I had children, and feeling there was something wildly intolerant and cruel about that point of view. I wanted to examine that battlefield. So I wrote a very dark, absurdist play about this battle and spent three years on it. Nobody would touch it. Every self-respecting theatre in the country turned it down. And my agent at the time fired me!"

["I don't want to say his name," added Howe, "because he's very respected and we're friends again, but I'm now with darling Flora Roberts and have been for the last 20 years."]

"What I learned from the Birth experience was that critics get very nervous when I take off my white gloves and start working with my bare hands. When I write about courtship or birth or women's mating rituals, it frightens people. The reason may be because we haven't seen many plays about that. So many plays by women are about familiar women characters or familiar sorts of issues. It's rare for women to rip off the mask and show what goes on in the heat of birthing or vying for the best man of the group."

Dining, Painting Churches, Coastal Disturbances are probably Howe's most commercially successful works, but it is one of her "disasters" that will be staged in Los Angeles starting Sept. 5. One Shoe Off, produced by The Lost World and directed by Crystal Brian, will have its West Coast premiere at the Gascon Center Theatre in Los Angeles. (The show was to open Aug. 22 but a cast change necessitated the delay. Shoe is now being worn by Dan Gerrity, Christine Burke, Alan Feinstein, Cameron Watson and Melissa Weber.)

Originally done by the Second Stage Theatre at the Public Theatre's Anspacher space, 1993's Shoe "was considered a disaster," said Howe. "Every paper wrote what a catastrophe the play was. I was very stung by that response. The play was sort of a landmark for me in that I was writing very close to my own experience. A comedy of despair about fidelity. When everybody in the theatre was writing about adultery, I was writing about a long-standing marriage, where the partners are faithful to each other. The play was something of a cry for a different kind of order, one I spent a long time on. The critics had trouble figuring it out, though the audiences seemed to enjoy it. It took me a long time to recover from the reaction.

"But that was my first successful run; it had a run at the Los Angeles Actors Theatre, directed by two people because of such traffic problems, Dana Elcar and Richard Jordan. Joseph Papp was interested in doing it, and it ended up at the Public Theatre, where I reconceived it for a cast of 18 who doubled and tripled roles. The play got mixed reviews -- confused but not hostile -- but it did better with audiences.

"After that, since I'd written Museum, about how art is consumed, I then wanted to write a play about how art is created. In The Art Of Dining, you actually see the chef preparing the meals and what she goes through to do an honest day's work. I also had Elizabeth [the play's `Tina character'], who staggered into the play and had so much trouble eating and told long stories about dinner time with her parents and how painful it was for her to get the food down. My next play I wanted to show Elizabeth with those parents -- that's where Painting Churches came from. Elizabeth is the more neurotic side of Mags in Painting Churches."

Added Howe, "There's a real continuum that nobody but the most fevered of my fans would be interested in, but I could bore you to death with the whole construct of how each play connects with the next one."

Asked where the whole neurosis about food came from, Howe readily admitted an eating disorder in her own background. "I think it came from being a picky, fussy eater when I was a child, and yet being enormous -- I've always been this height. By the time I was eleven I was six feet tall, so there was a real engine to feed. Mealtime was very difficult in my house because, as in The Art of Dining, at dinnertime you were supposed to entertain. It wasn't about enjoying the food; it was about making everybody roar with laughter. There was this tremendous pressure to give everyone a good time. My parents were very smart, funny, quick people and very hard to keep up with. I just sweated and lost a lot of weight trying to keep them amused. I couldn't eat and entertain at the same time, so the food aspect was the one that had to go. To this day, I don't particularly enjoy eating. I need to eat to stay alive, and I get hungry if I skip meals, but I don't give food a great deal of thought. It may also be a New England thing to deprive the needs of the body. I'm a terrible cook also, which doesn't help, and my children are fussy eaters."

Dining, Painting Churches, Coastal Disturbances are probably Howe's most commercially successful works, but it is one of her "disasters" that will be staged in Los Angeles starting Aug. 22. One Shoe Off, produced by The Lost World and directed by Crystal Brian, will have its West Coast premiere at the Gascon Center Theatre in Los Angeles. Originally done by the Second Stage Theatre at the Public Theatre's Anspacher space, Shoe "was considered a disaster," said Howe. "Every paper wrote what a catastrophe the play was. I was very stung by that response. The play was sort of a landmark for me in that I was writing very close to my own experience. A comedy of despair about fidelity. When everybody in the theatre was writing about adultery, I was writing about a long-standing marriage, where the partners are faithful to each other. The play was something of a cry for a different kind of order, one I spent a long time on. The critics had trouble figuring it out, though the audiences seemed to enjoy it. It took me a long time to recover from the reaction."

Reaction is still important to Howe, who often regrets that her plays have to hew to an accessible, narrative line in order to reach a large audience. "I think my early work is more absurdist and adventuresome," Howe said. "Over the years, one thing I've learned is how much leeway I'm granted as a playwright. When I get too baroque or too scary, critics get alarmed and frightened. I often think if I had my druthers, I'd be more daring than I really am... that I don't belong in the commercial theatre at all; I belong in the fringe festivals. My heart of hearts is with the avant-garde. Ionesco's people circling and talking gibberish changed my life. I love the more challenging art forms.

"During the minimalist periods of art, I'd go to shows where artists would throw a handful of ball-bearings on the floor. And wherever they stopped, that was the show. And every two weeks he'd go back and re-throw the ball bearings. I find that sort of randomness thrilling. I'd love to write a play where I can throw the language on the floor in random designs and have the actors perform them, and then re-scramble them. I'd really love to test the form.

"But I think because we depend on a paying audience every night, there's only so far we can take them before they resist and say, `no no no, you can't fool around this much with my theatre dollar. I want to be entertained; I don't want to be made crazy.' I think I've learned to control my wilder side. I think my plays are better shaped, and more controlled, elegant and safer, more accessible. I'm not quite as frantic or explosive as I used to be. I used to love to explode wedding cakes on the stage and have characters rip off their clothes. I did more daring, x-rated moves when I was a younger writer. I don't do that anymore. I think it's knowing what the traffic will bear."

Concluded Howe, "When you look at modern art or dance or performing art, those forms are so much further ahead than theatre. My son is a hip-hop rapper with a group called "Chucklehead," and I think that's wonderful. Theatre isn't a healthy place for young people nowadays, because we're still writing 19th century realistic plays and haven't kept up with other art forms. There's a part of me that wants to scramble language and mix in other art forms with the theatre, but I don't think you can make a living and do that, so it's sort of a trap.

"I have this fantasy that when I'm a very old lady, I'll write really original plays, some that maybe last five minutes, some lasting for a week. People would come and sleep in the theatre, and sometimes the audience would become the players, and we'd all exchange clothes and exchange identities. There'd be this great merging and confusion and beating of wings. And all sorts of truths would be learned. That's a dream of mine for when I get very old and my membranes become very transparent and stretch to the point of breaking. In that wonderful twang something hilarious will be released."

--By David Lefkowitz