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Theater In Dialogue

The Power of Suggestion: David Greenspan


I am forever under the spell of Neil Gaiman’s exquisitely disturbing Coraline. I’m remembering how I tried reading it aloud to my children and that by Chapter 2, they literally made me close the book as it became too terrifying for them to let me go on. What was it that resonated so deeply with them? Was it the black button eyes of the Other Mother who Coraline discovers in the ‘other’ apartment, behind a door in her new house that was supposed to lead nowhere? Was it the fact that the Other Mother’s seduction with food and ever-attentiveness was so tempting to Coraline, as well as to my own children? Did Gaiman’s story deeply touch a raw nerve in me as well, because of the achingly familiar way that the real mother was incessantly distracted and annoyed? Or that the Other Mother couldn’t let go of her surrogate girl, her nails digging deeper?

Imagining a marriage of David Greenspan’s remarkably layered, theatrical sensibility to Neil Gaiman’s haunting tale of childhood desire and discovery drew me to wanting to find out more about the playwright’s upcoming musical adaptation of Coraline. I confess that writing any kind of non-fiction or critical piece is a process I find difficult, at best. I write plays because they don’t feel like writing. Instead, dialogue and character spring up out of their own (or perhaps, my own) living chaos. Writing any kind of essay or article is different. It’s the non-writer, the imposter in me that resists. But somehow because of the subject, I’m compelled to struggle with the form.

The subject is David Greenspan, who has gained a dedicated following for his extraordinary work as an actor, director and a playwright. Some of his plays include She Stoops to Comedy; Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All In Vain; and The Argument (based on Gerald Else’s book on Aristotle’s Poetics), the three of which I read before setting out to interview him. One could write pages of responsive criticism to these profoundly innovative plays, but as I set off to speak with him, I’m wanting to focus my questions on Coraline, his present collaboration with composer/lyricist Stephin Merritt (of indie-rock fame, The Magnetic Fields). I want to get a closer look at what it will mean to have these extraordinary artists enter that story’s particular world, and what of themselves they will bring to it.

 I have long admired David Greenspan’s work as an actor, having seen him in productions of his own plays, as well as in the work of others. His full embodiment of character is balanced against his own intelligent witnessing and subtle presence, allowing for surprising shifts and dislocating moments. His acting embraces the kind of contradictory tension found in the plays that continually inspire him—from Greek drama to Shakespeare to Shaw to English music hall—sources that intrinsically ask where the person who is the actor ends and the character begins? Greenspan’s work continually crosses boundaries, particularly the boundary of gender, performing his own version(s) of both male and female characters.

 The notion of theater and acting as a means of becoming another, and of the desire to create the Other from within oneself, is present in so much of Greenspan’s work and is also found at the core of Coraline. This frighteningly resonant story of a girl who enters an alternate world through a door in her apartment, complete with an Other Mother and Other Father, carries themes and stylistic concerns that seem well-matched to Greenspan’s own.

 I was able to have a conversation with David during a lunch break from a rehearsal for Coraline in a midtown rehearsal space, in the final weeks before the opening. Immediately warm and easygoing, yet with an aura of serious professionalism, he asks if he might finish his tuna sandwich that he brought from home before I record our conversation. He begins by drawing parallels between the things at work for him in the process of creating Coraline, and in some of his other plays. (In keeping with the spirit of duality, in person he will be “David”, and, when referred to as an author, “Greenspan”).

 “When I began thinking about translating Coraline from a novel to the stage, I wanted to restrict it in terms of its visual realization—minimal, low-tech props, cardboard cutouts, anything small and suggestive. I think sometimes that I’m a failed realistic playwright because I always imagine it like a film, almost fully realized and fully imagined. And then I see how I’m not doing that—I don’t need to do that...”

 As in his brilliant play Dead Mother, where a son impersonates and conjures the ghost of his dead mother, in Coraline we are brought into a world of the character’s own making. Here, people and things are transformed with nothing more than their desire to transform and the words they use to do it. Greenspan asks us to look at the way the actor and the audience together create the live theatrical moment through a shared act of imagining. A distilled, poetic economy is at the center of each of his layered, theatrical worlds. 

“It’s just like in Noh Drama,” he relates, “where a character will say, ‘Now I’m outside. Now I’ve gone fifty miles. Now I am here. Now I will take a journey.’ And they do, and I love that. We spoke with Jayne [Houdyshell] who is playing Coraline, about the quality of this self-narration. How when she says, ‘Now I’m outside,’ it’s almost like a walk in a dream. Not quite a question—almost a query—it asks, how did I get here? And also says, I’m here…It’s like one of my favorite lines in Shakespeare, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Oberon needs to be invisible and all he says is, ‘I’m invisible.’”

The power to suggest is all that’s necessary.

 “We’re always interested in the pretend aspect of theater and how it is a more artificial medium,” he elaborates. “I wanted to capitalize on that as we began to tackle this very fantastical story. I’m always inspired by Peter Brook’s (seminal) early 1970’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the way a flower was a spinning plate. Similar to the way Stephin [Merritt] has orchestrated our musical for toy piano and prepared piano. One of the pianos is almost like a gamelon—the piano itself has been transformed.” (The origin of the “prepared piano”, David explains, is from the work of John Cage, who altered the instrument by placing found objects inside the soundboard.)

Far from a typical broadway musical, this Coraline is about the making of itself. Just like a child’s game, it is the act of creating the story that is also the story.

“We suggest things. Not like a large animated musical. There’s no amplification of our voices. We wanted something that was more direct and immediate as opposed to something coming out of a wall of sound.”

Another dimension springs from the mind of its central character, Coraline, who is able to weave her desires from the “real” world into the characters and physical space of her new and invented one. In traveling through an old door (the “portal”), Coraline meets her Other Mother, who offers her the attention that she’s always longed for—unlike her real mother who continually works, bathed in the glow of her computer screen.

In this production of Coraline, Greenspan is taking on the role of the Other Mother, who he feels should be “a gruesome entity” rather than some projection of Coraline’s desire. The Other Mother speaks of her own desire, which is itself a play on the convention of the monologue and revelation of character. By stating it so clearly, presenting it in such obvious relief, what’s said is brought into subtle question:

(The Other Mother opens the mirror,
puts Coraline in, shuts it.)

What want?
What could it be?
What do I need, you wonder?
In what pleasure would I bask persistent-
Like a pleasant distant thunder?

 What do I want?
What do I need?
What is it I desire?
This is the rhyme of ambiguity—
what else do you require?

 I don’t give a fig if I am ambig-
uous—hiss if you care.
What do I want when all is said and done?
Do I know?
Fun! (A dragon hiss.) There!

How does the minimalist, suggestive approach work in terms of creating the Other character? Having employed similar techniques in his other plays and for other characters, Greenspan finds a simple gesture, a heightened specificity, in order to perform the female persona: “I transform myself without a dress, without even the long nails– I can suggest them with just my fingers. The way I move them…”

In his author’s note for a male actor, Character 1, who plays the son who impersonates the ghost of his mother in Dead Mother, Greenspan writes: “Character 1 should never dress as a woman!...he should remain in his own clothes throughout the entire escapade. A single strand of pearls may be added when he disguises himself as his mother, but no more.”

 This sense of possibility, of transmutability and minimalist change is suggested in all of Greenspan’s work. I’m struck by the startlingly clear yet complex ways characters are able to shift and re-invent themselves. This clarity enables them to slip in and out of wherever they need to go—mercurial and always made apparent. There’s no illusion in the creation of the illusion—the fundamental, subversive artificiality is embraced rather than concealed.

Dark corridor and into the flat on the other side of the house.

The carpet, the wallpaper, the picture hanging in the hall- they are all the same in our flat. I thought I went through the door. But I must still be in my own flat, I haven’t left.

 (A woman’s voice)


That sounds like my mother.

 Coraline? Is that you?

(Music. Revealed: the Other Mother. Her eyes are big
 black shiny buttons.)

Lunch time, Coraline.

In the script for Coraline, Greenspan stays very close to the original text, unlike other work which he has adapted with tremendous freedom and range. He spoke briefly about his recent adaptations of obscure Renaissance plays: “One was called The Master of the Horse. My version is called The Horse’s Ass, the central character is gay and it’s a comedy. I think I’ve written my very own play with only the plot belonging to the original.” The earlier Dead Mother was “not really based on anything, but rather inspired—by Charley’s Aunt, Man & Superman and Don Juan in Hell.” He refers to his process as working with theatrical resonators and references. But for Coraline, Greenspan’s work is much more indebted to its source material, to Neil Gaiman’s story. It was a collaboration from its inception, when the composer Stephin Merritt invited Greenspan to work with him on it.

 How did he find his way into the theatrical form of a musical? Had he ever done that before?

 “No, but I love to sing. And I grew up listening to musicals and was constantly taking them out of the library. My father recorded cast albums off the radio…there was a program called Broadway Showtime. I listened to these tapes and got to know many of the famous musicals. I eagerly anticipated the yearly broadcasts of Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz…they made a strong impression on me. And I was an understudy for Hairspray, from rehearsal and six months into the run. I saw them putting it together.”

 The relationship between the song and the word, speech and singing, is an essential part of the realization of a musical, involving Greenspan in what seems to be a joyful though complex process. His well-trusted director, Leigh Silverman, also plays a crucial role in the collaborative, creative effort of “compressing the text and finding theatrical solutions.” One such “solution” was the very unexpected, now highly anticipated casting of the brilliantly understated Jayne Houdyshell, a true character actress who is well into her middle age, as the girl, Coraline. What will this bring to the production, what might it suggest? New layers are immediately added because of the way the story’s being theatrically told, while the sense of duality inherent to this unusual casting will surely step boldly closer towards bringing actuality to a conceptual idea.

 Each new work of David Greenspan’s seems to be an exploration into how metaphor can become something concrete through theatrical form. He spoke of his other upcoming work which includes adapting a lecture on theater by Gertrude Stein, for the Foundry Theatre. There is one segment of Stein’s work that holds particular resonance, where Stein describes in specific detail what led to the writing of her play 4 Saints in 3 Acts and how she developed this play from the “inside” (feeling) as well as the “outside” (image).

 “Gertrude Stein talks about this moment of walking along a boulevard in Paris where she saw a shop that had a group of photographs which always captured her attention. They were of a young girl who went through a series of changes, becoming a nun. This photographic series was done for the family after the nun had died, in memorium. Stein realized how the life of St. Therese went from being a young lady to that of a nun, and she actually came to use those lines in her play. She wanted to make everything actual—her whole thinking process. I understand her point very well. You have to see it as well as feel it. I suppose every writer works that way, to some extent.”

 To be inside of the play feeling it, while at the same time outside of it, seeing it as a visual image, creates a dialectical tension markedly present in Greenspan’s plays.

 When we finish our interview, David invites me into the rehearsal room to “see the set.” The break just over, the actors are beginning to re-enter the space. There are a series of toy pianos, stacked around several full-scale pianos, some partially taken apart, along with the prepared grand piano that David had described to me earlier. I look into the piano’s body to the strings where various objects—screws, pieces of metal, a playing card—are placed at different intervals. I imagine that the altered sounds from this prepared piano, along with the other upright and toy pianos, will create an ever-changing physical and aural landscape for the characters to move through. The music itself and its means of production will create the place where the story unfolds.

 It is this very unfolding that magically occurs in all of the work of David Greenspan. It is the unwrapping of each story, each source, each character and theme, which seems to reveal yet another layer of material, both real and imagined. Once again, he will continually evolve his process of building through stripping down, never diminishing the weight of the ancient and complex. His work confirms the starkly suggestive powers of his simple yet richly deepening theatrical vision.

Coraline, book by David Greenspan, music & lyrics by Stephin Merritt, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, is directed by Leigh Silverman, is presented by MCC Theater and runs May 7–June 20 at the Lucille Lortelle Theatre. Tickets: or call (212) 279-4200. For further info, visit


Lizzie Olesker

Lizzie Olesker resides in Brooklyn, with her family, near the Gowanus. She will perform her new play SHRINK, with another actor and a series of small objects. Other plays have been developed/presented by Clubbed Thumb, New Georges, the Cherry Lane, and the Public Theater, among others. She also teaches playwriting at NYU and Swarthmore College.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

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