Production Notes:
Familiar is scheduled as part of The Riant Theatre's Strawberry One-Act (Summer 2002) Festival in July 2002.

Biographical Notes:
Eric Alter, author of 55 plays to date and the author of Familiar, has published in PLAYS! The Drama Magazine For Young People, and is a producer of more than 40 plays staged throughout NYC and NJ. Lamia Ink, Brooklyn Lyceum, American Theater of Actors, Playwrights Theater of NJ, Theater Studio Inc, The Riant Theater, The Chatham Playhouse and Ocean County College have produced his dramatic works.

The director, Gerard F. Mawn, collaborated with Alter on three other plays, including Somewhere in the Moonlight, presented at the Brooklyn Lyceum, First Kiss, staged at TSI; and Nice Guys Finish... at ATA. Mawn also directed Chris Weikel's Dansport for EATFest at INTAR53 in 2001. He is best known for directing playwright Mark Weston's Audelco Award-Winning play, Jim Beckwourth. Mawn is currently collaborating on a musical based on the myth of Orpheus.


LISA STRUM: Let us first establish the work. Give us some background information about Familiar.

ERIC ALTER: Familiar was first presented as a staged reading in Montclair, NJ, as a benefit performance to [assist] the families of the [September 11, 2001] terrorist attacks. Money raised was sent to the Red Cross.

GERARD F. MAWN: June was the first time for Familiar. I believe Eric wrote it in 2001. I read it last fall when we were considering work for the June 2002 production of Love Among Squirrels at the Sanford Meisner Theater.

ALTER: The basic premise of Familiar is the story of two people who meet on a subway. Both are married and both are very busy with their own lives -- so busy that they don't even know the last time they have been home. All they do is work. They begin to talk and realize they have many things in common. [They are] attracted to one another, [and] married to each other...but so caught up in work that they don't even know it...until the end. It's a play that [comments] on how busy we all are.

MAWN: It is a play about ambitious people who are over-achievers except in their personal relationships. Both are married and yet not satisfied with what has happened with their marriages. Maybe they turn to work as a way of avoiding the problems. The lead characters are on a subway ride home from a business trip. They connect on a level that both have been missing in their respective marriages, yet it's getting too familiar. Should they stop, or is there something more going on behind the scenes that they both want to know before calling it a night?

STRUM: How did you two connect?

MAWN: Actually, we connected after I read some potential plays for the ATA Theater in NYC. One of them was Nice Guys Finish..., which I eventually directed. It was one of the plays that were presented to me for production.

ALTER: The American Theater of Actors assigned [Gerard] to produce my play, and he did a fine job with it. I selected Gerard to direct Familiar, as well as other plays I have done in the past. We have a nice working relationship, and he has directed many plays for me, most recently directing Familiar as (part of) an evening of one-act plays entitled "Love Among Squirrels", which ran for twp weeks in NYC.

STRUM: What are your common visions for Familiar?

MAWN: We both see it as a play about discovery of something familiar.

ALTER: Gerard and I both try to hide from the audience that the couple is married until the last two lines of the plays...and it works.

STRUM: Why did Eric select you as his director for Familiar, Gerard?

MAWN: Of all the plays we had selected, I like Familiar best. Eric's original idea was to have me direct all the plays in [the] Love Among Squirrels [repertoire], but my schedule wouldn't allow all of that.

STRUM: What do you think constitutes a successful partnership between playwright and director?

MAWN: A good play, the perfect performance space and an appreciative audience.

ALTER: [Partnership] is a very tough thing. Unfortunately, egos get in the way. But when you have a very good director who listens to the writer and understands (the playwright's) vision -- it can make for a very successful partnership. Problems always happen, but communication is a vital part of it. Most people in theater don't realize that it's the writer who has the final artistic say over the integrity of his piece -- so as a playwright you have to be strong and communicate your vision. As a playwright, I feel I own my play -- and when I see something wrong with it -- or something I don't like -- I will discuss it with the director. Usually the director is open to my vision and willing to talk about it, but if he or she is not -- then I look for another director. Collaboration is important but should only be done between the director and the playwright. I allow the director to take over once I am satisfied we have communicated well enough and (that) he or she understands my vision. I allow my directors a lot of freedom, because I have been lucky enough to work with good people. This is so important as a playwright/producer -- you have got to work with good people. I have the final word on my plays, but I rarely use that word unless the director and I are way off base.

STRUM: What about the players? Do the actors ever have a voice about the vision, or are they there to interpret the vision of the writer/director team?

ALTER: The actors should not have a say in the vision, for if they do, then it just can make for more turmoil in the process.

STRUM: So then, how do the actors relate to the process you two establish?

MAWN: Our process in rehearsal (of FAMILIAR) was very simple. I saw the play as a fable about not knowing what's in front of you when it's there in front of you. There are some wonderful moments where the characters are distracted by happenstance. There is also the physical momentum of being in a moving vehicle [a subway] and later on a busy street in Manhattan. We created an environment in rehearsal to provide the characters environment. The rehearsal process is vital in creating a character and to prepare the actors for performance. Unlike my early career work, I usually don't know what is going to happen in the process. I'm not thinking about results. I do my research weeks before we start rehearsal, but it is the chemistry created by the actors that guides me to making decisions about the play in total. Theater is not about the actors, the directors or the playwright. It's about the process. I mean no disrespect to our celebrated theater professionals, but the process is supreme. Now, I'm working from the point of process. Early in my career, I was working for results.

STRUM: How does the playwright know when to step out of the arena and let the director take over?

MAWN: Eric is really good at that. You will need to ask him how he knows when to step back.

STRUM: What feelings are/were involved when that happens? How does the playwright step back into the arena if it is appropriate? In other words, how do you two blend or demarcate your "authority" and "voice" over production decisions and the work itself? Who has the final word?

MAWN: Eric had the final word. I gave him the production he wanted to see, as there were seven other plays involved, and I was not involved in those plays or the production requirements for each. Eric gave me advice on what we could and could not do with Familiar.

STRUM: What is your system for going in and out of that process so that it is collaboration?

MAWN: Familiar was complete when I received the script. We may have changed a few words in rehearsal, but the collaboration you are referring to did not happen with this play. When we work on a full-length play this fall, I imagine there will be more collaboration between us, as it will be wholly original, and the characters will have a longer stage life.

STRUM: Okay. Let us assume then that the partnership between both members of the writer/director team has been established. When do the writer and the director both step out and just let the actors take over? Or doesn't that happen here? Or if it does, how does it happen? Who owns the work?

MAWN: I step out after we have opened to the public. We need to have a few performances in front of an audience and then freeze our production so that the actors can "take over." With a short run, the "take over" usually never happens.

ALTER: My system for collaboration is to make sure when I choose a director that he or she talks to me about the vision of the play... about the overall message of the piece. I don't just give the director carte blanche to do with it what they please. That's foolish. As a playwright, you must of course learn to trust, but that trust only comes after much communication. Gerard has directed for me in the past, and for the most part we're on the same page -- so I can trust him and know he has the play's best interest at heart. This makes the partnership easy.

STRUM: Are there any problems you have in collaboration? If so, how are they circumvented such that the show is enhanced?

MAWN: Everybody has problems. I think Eric trusts that I have a strong vision for the show and confidence.

STRUM: Process is an important part of the production of any play, from conception to rehearsal, from writing to rewrite. From both perspectives -- writer and director -- how does process relate to production in general for each of you? How did process for Familiar contribute to the actual production of the one-act while in its anthology state, and how did that production bear influence on the process that may occur at rehearsals for a future production (i.e., will you as director or Eric as playwright make any changes for future performances based on your last performances of the play?)

MAWN: There will be minor changes for the next production of Familiar. In June we had an amazing subway set that rolled onto the stage. That will not be possible at PCII. This is a black box production. I also had the entire cast of all other (acts in) Love Among Squirrels filling out the passengers in the subway car in Familiar, entering and exiting, as we went from station stop to station stop, giving us a real human verve to the play. At PCII actors will be replaced by an audio effect. The audience will have to use its imagination.

STRUM: What do you like about Familiar? What would you change? Why?

MAWN: I love the surprises that come up as we take the journey with the characters. The only thing I would change is to give the actors a treadmill for the walking as they travel a few blocks and must do it without moving any distance at all. As the cost is prohibitive in the environment it's produced, we had to find a creative way to work around budget.

ALTER: I am not a big rewrite guy. I am a bit lazy when it comes to rewriting, but I usually know once I have written a play whether or not it needs a rewrite. Don't get me wrong, I do rewrites, but I just don't do them because people say you have to rewrite. Sometimes rewriting kills the original piece...and you have got to learn to listen to yourself and trust yourself. Familiar was a first draft, and then it went to production. I changed a few things along the way -- a couple of words here and there, but for the most part it went up as is, and I have been lucky that it works.
I like the mystery Familiar holds, and I like the subtext of people being so busy with their lives they forget about the people they love. I really wouldn't change anything about it.

STRUM: What drives you as a writer, Eric?

ALTER: My writing is driven by a passion and need to understand human behavior and tell stories. I love telling stories and I love eliciting emotion from the audience. Writing is like a release for me -- it's an amazing thing because I become the master of my own world -- in which I can create happy endings...and such...

STRUM: Likewise, Gerard, what drives you as a director, and what has been the evolution of your directorial style over the years, especially as it relates to your current production?

MAWN: I think I have a fairly simple answer for that one: story and character. With some plays I've read, I feel a kindred spirit with the characters that is so strong I know I am the right director for that play. That happened last year when I read Eric's play Nice Guys Finish. The characters are not I, but they each said or thought about ideas that I have always wanted to say. As a director my style has evolved 360 degrees. My original focus was on the staging. I was an artist in my youth, a painter. I studied staging and techniques - - blocking for strength and position of the dominant characters. But my style was based on composition. Naturally my mentor was Sondheim, and Sunday in the Park with George was my textbook. I, too, was directing mostly musicals.
Last year, I took a Viewpoints workshop with Mary Overlie. Mary created theories, seven of them, for actors and was asked by SSDC to develop a lecture/workshop for directors. Now, this is not the forum to discuss the theories, but while I was in the workshop, my options became clear and my directing style changed. Essentially, I'm working closer with the actors to discover opportunities for them to develop a stage life as requisite by the vocabulary of the character.

STRUM: Does Familiar stand alone well without its other companion one-acts? Also, why does it work well in this form, and what makes Familiar a strong statement?

MAWN: Familiar has a beginning, middle and end. The statement, answered in a previous question, is made even stronger because I have a very strong cast.

STRUM: Any other reflections on your relationship as director and playwright that you or Eric feel is important to highlight are welcome. This can be generic or specific to Familiar.

MAWN: As an early career writer, Eric has the talent to create multi-lateral characters that are so real that you just want to applaud his efforts. As a director, I want to give him the best possible platform.

STRUM: Eric, what is next for you?

ALTER: My next project is called Something About You and the Fourth. It's a romantic comedy about a guy who falls in love with a girl who is blind. It seems that everyone disapproves of the struggling artist who works as a stockbroker. He hates his job...and he just had his heart broken by a girl. It's a cute full-length play I hope to be able to put on this November.

STRUM: Anything to add to that, Gerard?

MAWN: We are also working on a play called Tomorrow, a relationship play. [The other play], Something About You, has a strong back-story with the characters. I don't think (Eric) would want me to give away the plot, but it's very powerful material about whom we love. By the way, Eric's plays are all about love and connecting with other people. Something About Love is possibly the most challenging play for Eric, as it's written in a unique style. Honestly, I think he's afraid of it and may never complete it. I hope that's not true, as it has the potential to be that first great play to define its author.


Key Subjects: 
Alter, Eric; Gerard F. Mawn; Familiar, Love Among the Squirrels.
Lisa Strum
Writer Bio: 
Lisa Strum has written reviews and features for THIS MONTH On Stage, The Winthrop-Sun Transcript and the Lynn Item. She was a New England Theater Conference Award recipient (for direction, production and design) and is a member of the HTML Writers Guild.
July 2002
Eric Alter & Gerard F. Mawn on Collaboration and Vision