Amy Herzog wrote her first play sitting on the floor of a laundromat waiting for her clothes to dry. At the time, as a recent college graduate, she thought she wanted to be an actor. That’s precisely why she found herself traveling city to city stuffed inside a van with the cast of a children’s theater production (and doing her laundry on the fly). A 10-minute play festival got her writing mind spinning, and gave her an excuse to try something new. By the time her wash cycle had lurched to a halt, she was completely engrossed in the endeavor that’s brought her plenty of success already at age 36.
Herzog’s acclaimed “After the Revolution” (2010) and her 2011 Obie-winning play, “4000 Miles,” will be produced at Center Stage this spring as two halves of what’s been billed as the Amy Herzog Festival (March 18 to May 24). Though Herzog hasn’t spent much time in Charm City, she says she’s especially excited about collaborating with Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah.
“I think Amy’s at the vanguard of young, energetic and—this word may seem weird—butsoulfulwriters in America today,” says Kwei-Armah. “I also wanted to send a message out to the Jewish community in Baltimore that they, too, are part of the family, and that their story is part of the quintessential American story that I find myself fascinated by. The immigrants who did well, whose kids went to college. I also love the political nature of Amy’s work, and how that links to the Jewish story in America. That’s worthy of investigation.”
Both fest plays borrow significant autobiographical subject matter. Vera Joseph, based on Herzog’s real-life grandmother, Leepee Joseph—a radical, dedicated Communist—bridges the two works. “4000 Miles” imagines 91-year-old Vera’s nighttime dialogue with her grief-stricken, 21-year-old grandson Leo, while in “After the Revolution,” Vera contends with her granddaughter Emma’s solemn political doubts. Each play’s lens watches two generations genuinely interact, without sentimentality or condescension, just as Herzog says she could with her own grandmother who died a few years ago at 96.
“I think my grandmother stopped playing tennis when she was 91,” Herzog says. “She was a force to be reckoned with. She saw Vera Joseph onstage.
She saw ‘After the Revolution’ at Williamstown Theatre Festival, where it premiered, and all the incarnations of ‘4000 Miles.’ She had political qualms [about ‘Revolution’]. It was not positive enough about the legacy—much the same way Emma disagrees with the protagonist. My grandmother said to me, ‘You’re very talented but you’re a reactionary.’”
Maybe you could call Herzog a reactionary—at least a reactionary artist. She adores the experimental Louis C.K. sitcom “Louie,” calling it “better than most theater,” because it’s unpredictable and ignores conventional plot restrictions. And, as noted, she’s a writer who often takes the hottest realities of her life, questions them and transforms them into textured and nuanced dialogue.
“I guess my answers are largely about family,” Herzog says. “I grew up with these politics. Communist was a friendly word. It described a lot of people in my family and a certain utopian vision. But in 1999, we learned [my grandfather] was a spy for the Soviet Union, and blacklisting him maybe not such an injustice.”
While the subjective complexity of family lore keeps Herzog riveted, the repetition of memorized lines left her cold. Back in her collegiate acting days—she studied at Yale as an undergrad and a graduate playwright—she realized she found it tedious to say the same thing, the same lines, over and over again, performance after performance.
“Having acted and finding it so difficult, I have huge respect for actors,” Herzog explains. “The idea that they find a way to repeat their lines every night for months. I think about that when I write: People have to say this a lot.”
Perhaps it’s this admiration—or empathy—that reminds Herzog to keep her actors’ talk on the script page as lively as possible, as real. As surprising.
Husband Sam Gold, an in-demand young director who’ll helm the stage version of “Fun Home,” Alison Bechdel’s beloved graphic novel, this year on Broadway at Circle in the Square, contributes to the process now and then.
“He brings a good dramaturge and leader whenever I need one,” Herzog says. “He reads my early drafts. And I understand better the director’s process. I go to his dress rehearsal. It’s immersive. I love having that level of shorthand.”
Herzog pauses for a beat and adds this disclaimer: “But you have to make sure that your marriage exists out of the professional sphere, too,” she says.
What’s been Gold’s most helpful influence?
“One of the biggest is thinking about design,” she says. “It’s a major weakness. I didn’t think of the physical stage and designing it as I began writing. Now it’s an early thought. What is the physical environment?”
Perhaps the couple’s most important collaboration would be their two daughters, Franny, 2, and Josephine, 6 months —and Herzog wouldn’t disagree, though she admits she sometimes pines for the pre-baby writing days.
“Having the two is pretty brutal,” she says. “Things kind of get done. I have a baby sitter some days of the week. With kids, you write as you can.”
Does she expect her kids will be theater people, too?
“We joke that we hope they’ll be neuroscientists,” she says, a laugh waiting at the back of her throat.