Talking with playwright Stephanie Fleischmann about her 9/11 play
Stephanie Fleischmann's new play “What the Moon Saw, or 'I Only Appear to Be Dead'” transplants Hans Christian Andersen tales to a post-9/11 world. The production opens at Son of Semele this weekend, which marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Fleischmann and Times theater critic Charles McNulty began this conversation about the play over late afternoon tea in West Hollywood and continued it via email the following day.
What inspired the connection between fairy tale and grim reality?
As a writer, I’m interested in the intersection between the impossible and the everyday, the magical in the most mundane of details, the theatrical power of objects. I wrote the last piece of the play first, before 9/11. Riffing on Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” setting it on top of a Manhattan skyscraper and on a Brooklyn stoop, allowed me to play with language and theatricality in a way that felt incredibly liberating to me.
Then came 9/11: Life felt strangely larger than life; death felt very present. Fairy tales are all about life and death and transformation. So I kept writing — a play inspired by “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” set in Hell’s Kitchen, and one inspired by “The Little Match Girl.” Andersen’s story “What the Moon Saw,” in which the moon travels the world, looking down on a civilization in decline (the civilization in this play is one in which everyone thinks the moon has fallen) provided the through line. I began dreaming about Hans Christian Andersen. I wondered what he might find if he were to arrive in New York only three days after the event. How might he help us to see?
As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we’re all reflecting on how our lives have changed. Has 9/11 been a watershed in your life as an artist?
In a word, yes. It was a galvanizing moment. After 9/11, my work became more about the world and of it. If I look back on everything I’ve written since then, it has some sort of political undertone, no matter how subtle or sideways, even when that wasn’t necessarily what I set out to do.
How to grapple with making our way through — and articulating — the truth of this changed world? Andersen’s frequent use of humor to tackle the most painful layers and moments of being alive, his use of archetype and metaphor alongside an acute attention to the tiny details of our physical world, compounded with my experience of walking through the streets of New York on the days following 9/11, taking in the street corners like shrines cluttered with momentous tiny artifacts, relics, detritus, debris, have fueled my writing ever since.
Your father, Ernest Fleischmann, who died last year, was such a galvanizing figure in the Los Angeles music scene, having been a leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for such a long and productive tenure. I imagine your childhood here in L.A. was bursting with music. In addition to being a playwright, you’re also a librettist (“Red Fly/Blue Bottle”). Your work certainly incorporates music in interesting dramatic ways. Do you attribute any of this to your upbringing?
Growing up steeped in music hugely influenced who I am as an artist. My writing tends to be lyrical and layered, often structured like music even when there is no actual music in it. (There are a handful of songs in "What the Moon Saw" — an accordion-playing moon, a chorus of firemen and ghouls … .) I grew up immersed in L.A. culture, there’s no doubt about it — whether it was seeing the original production of "Zoot Suit" at the Mark Taper Forum as a kid or being lucky enough to be present at any one of hundreds of great performances by the L.A. Philharmonic or as sort of a fly on the wall at after-concert dinners with artists such as Pierre Boulez and Esa-Pekka Salonen.
In many ways, the osmosis of those experiences informs who I am today. Ironically, although my father was always incredibly perceptive about my writing and the plays we saw together, I only learned after he died, reading through some of his early notes and proposals (for revamping the Paris Opera in the early '60s, for instance), that not only was he a visionary when it came to music, but his innate theatrical sensibility was a big part of that vision.
How does it feel to be returning to your hometown for this production?
It’s been a terrific experience in so many ways, above all, seeing the play come alive, the myriad worlds director Matt McCray and Son of Semele have conjured within their pocket-handkerchief-sized space. And of course, bittersweet — my first full production in L.A., and my dad’s not here to see it. But it’s been a great opportunity to develop an epic and a wonderfully impossible-to-stage (!) piece of work with a hugely game and beautifully eclectic company: I actually wrote the first part, “The Little Mermaid in Shanghai,” which is set in L.A., and inspired of course by Andersen’s “Little Mermaid,” expressly for Son of Semele only last spring. It’s the first play I’ve written since my father’s death.
Working with Matt to develop the play in response to how this new piece of the puzzle changed what was already there has been an invaluable part of the process. Writing the first part last, 10 years after 9/11 and one year after losing my father, it feels like something has come full circle. The play spans the full spectrum of loss and how we move through it. Even as death is, to me, realer than ever, now that 10 years have passed, this play is not just about the unfathomable magnitude of loss we experienced as a result of 9/11. It’s about that which is found in moments of loss.
-- Charles McNulty
"What The Moon Saw, or 'I Only Appear To Be Dead,'" Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A. Check theater for schedule. Ends Oct. 9. (213) 351-3507 or www.sonofsemele.org
Photos: Top: Stephanie Fleischmann. Credit: Jessica Fleischmann. Middle: Brandon McCluskey in “What the Moon Saw, or 'I Only Appear to Be Dead,'” at Son of Semele. Credit: Stephanie Fleischmann