BWW Interviews: MARY JANE SCHAEFER
June 11, 2015
👤by Sherry Shameer Cohen
Actress and playwright Mary Jane Schaefer explores the relationship between Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald in her play, Scott and Zelda: Happy Forever, which was performed at the Theatre Artists Workshop in Norwalk in June. Schaefer is best known for her work in Shakespeare. She performed with Shakespeare On The Sound and has written two parts of a trilogy on the Bard -- Shakespeare Rising and Judith Shakespeare Has Her Say.
BWW: Tell us first about Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. Why did you choose them? Why do you think they still resonate so much among audiences?
MJS: I originally wrote this piece on spec for a show called Forbidden Westport. I hadn't realized that broad comedy was what they were looking for, so it didn't really fit into their show. But I knew I had stumbled onto something special [because] the tone, the mood seemed so right. When Theatre Artists Workshop announced it was doing a show themed Love and Marriage: And Everything in Between, I realized I was sitting on something really good that had never done before. I went back to it and changed the ending, having seen, to my amazement, that I had been working towards the different ending all along. That happens sometimes. You write something and then you realize what you were really getting at.
I have always loved The Great Gatsby, and found it amazing that someone so self-destructive as F. Scott Fitzgerald could write with such a clear eye about a romantic figure with an imagination that led to his destruction. I think the current Hollywood scene is filled with stories of celebrities who think they have found Great Romance, only to end up with disaster, scandal and betrayal, and the need to re-invent the rest of their lives. (Robert Pattinson anyone?)
Mark Graham directed the piece, and it was performed with great sensitivity by Miles Everett and Emilie Roberts. The weekend run was sold out.
BWW: What makes your play about them different?
MJS: Any works that I know of about Scott and Zelda seem to focus on their mutual and self-destruction. Even Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris shows Scott trying to deal with Zelda's moods, her jealousy, with Zelda teetering on the edge of the Seine, tempted to drown herself. I didn't want to go there.
I wanted to show them early in their marriage, their Eden of a honeymoon, when the entire world seemed to be stretched out before them as their own little Paradise. The play is ironic, of course, because the audience knows they're heading for a monumental disaster. And yet, as my husband
remarked, it's nice to have this reminder of how happy they were once, and how much they fulfilled each other's longings.
This play, Scott and Zelda: Happy Forever is short and a two-person play, but there is definitely room for expansion. Several people have approached me and urged me to develop it into a full-length play. I've put it down on my list of projects, along with the third play of my Shakespeare trilogy, and a piece I've been working on that is about Byron and Keats. I like literary projects. A certain amount of research--and then my imagination takes over, wherever I see a chance to interpret and bring to life previously ignored aspects of very interesting subjects.
BWW: How do you come up with your inspirations?
MJS: There are certain authors that resonate with me, both emotionally and intellectually. Shakespeare, especially. And when I read their works and read about them, my imagination starts going full blast. I spend a long time reading up on the figures I have in mind, and then the first draft of each play comes pouring out. Of course, the first draft is only the starting point, if you want to have a focused and powerful play. Shakespeare Rising, the first play of the trilogy, has gone through fourteen drafts.
BWW: What is like working with Theatre Artists Workshop? Is it very competitive to get a show produced there?
MJS: Theatre Artists Workshop is an amazing group of gifted people -- professional actors, playwrights, directors. The whole point of TAW is to have a place to hone one's work and then take it out into the world. The two plays about Shakespeare that are already completed have been presented at The National Arts Club in New York, and the first one was also part of The New American Playwrights Project of The Utah Shakespeare Festival in August of 2014. My director at the Utah Shakespeare Festival was the renowned Henry Woronicz. The distinguished theater figure Mark Graham has been my creative partner on these plays and instrumental in their development. (Graham is working with Schaefer on her third play in her Shakespeare trilogy.) The actors of the Workshop have given me two gifts: their performances, which let me see and hear what needs to be rewritten, and their insights into the characters themselves or what rings false to them in a scene. I give some examples of this in my blog on my website, www.schaeferonshakespeare.squarespace.com, in which I write about Mia Dillon and her influence on Judith Shakespeare Has Her Say and on the characterization of Anne Hathaway as influenced by Katie Sparer and Nadine Willig.
TAW is not a production company, although the group invites audiences in from time to time to see what's cooking! We're non-profit, so those shows also help us to make our rent! My play Scott and Zelda: Happy Forever is the first of my short pieces to be presented as part of a TAW production. The competition for those spots is pretty fierce, yes.
BWW: Tell us more about your Shakespeare trilogy. How did that develop?
MJS: Shakespeare has been a part of my life for a long time. I've performed in many of his plays, from college productions to Shakespeare on the Sound. But how I began writing about Shakespeare began with the SquareWrights of Stratford, Ct. Vanessa David had urged me and my husband to join as playwrights, and this proved to be an invaluable experience. In the spring of 2007, the prompt for all of the playwrights for the April show was Shakespeare. Phil wrote a very funny comedy called Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth, but I wrote a monologue, "The Great Will Shakespeare Speaks." Will Rogers performed the monologue beautifully at the Stratford Library, and then it was picked up for the Outdoor Shakespeare Festival in Stratford and performed by another experienced Shakespearean, Mark Frattaroli. It was also done successfully at St. Andrew's College in Canada. A long story there. J. Sibley Law, one of the founders of SquareWrights, had not been able to come to the show at the library. The other performance took place the following year. But he kept hearing about how the monologue really brought Shakespeare to life. So, when I took part in the 24-hour play-writing festival months later, Sib, as the producer of this festival, gave me as my topic "Shakespeare in the Dark."
He also gave me two wonderful Shakespearean actors, Mark Frattaroli (who later did the monologue for me) and Lucy Babbitt. There was also a young man from New York named Jason Basso who had never done Shakespeare but was eager to learn. The director was a very gifted and dedicated man named Christopher Caltigirone. I wrote the play overnight, emailed the script to the actors and director at 4 a.m., tried to get a little sleep, and the following night I saw a FULL production of the play at the SquareOne Theater in Stratford. That was a jolt, let me tell you, a wonderful one. It was costumed, staged, memorized, even had intro music. They had lavished a tremendous amount of attention on it. And, to me, it felt as if I had had a dream the night before, and now I was watching it on the stage! An amazing sensation.
I decided to write a full-length version of it. My friend, Jo Anne Parady, is a member of The Theatre Artists Workshop, and I had come to see her in several productions at TAW. I thought, how wonderful if they would do a reading of this play for me. I approached her, and she said, "You would need to apply for membership first." So, I did, and joined in 2009. The following year, I asked Mark Graham if he would work with me on developing it. He read the first draft, in all its excess, and said if I would be willing to listen to him, to cut and focus, we might make something really good out of it. All the rest that followed has been the result of his vision, the workshop process, and a lot of hard work. I love the whole process. Now, to get the plays professionally produced, is the final goal.
Learn more about Mary Jane Schaefer at http://www.schaeferonshakespeare.com and about the Theatre Artists Workshop at http://www.taworkshop.org.
Photo credit: Annalise F. Schaefer
Sherry Shameer Cohen is an award winning parachute journalist and blogger who is always looking for more challenging work. Her articles and photos have appeared in Connecticut Magazine, Greenwich Magazine, Stamford Plus, The Advocate, Greenwich Time, The Minuteman, Connecticut Jewish Ledger, The Jewish Chronicle, The Jewish Press, The New Jewish Voice, and various daytime magazines. She has stage managed, designed flyers, programs and props for community theatre and reviewed theatre for the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, Theater Inform and New England Entertainment Digest. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, Ken, and her two little drama kings, Alexander Seth Cohen and Jonathan Ross Cohen.