nothing but the truth about nothing but the truth: an interview with playwright eve lederman
A playwright, monologist, essayist, and author of a memoir, Eve Lederman’s name is not familiar to the Windsor-Essex theatre audience – yet. With the premiere of her play, Nothing But The Truth, at The Shadowbox Theatre on April 19th, people are going to be talking and thinking and arguing about her work in 2019 – and hopefully for many years to come.
The play – produced by Post Productions and running for five performances from April 19th to 27th – already has quite a history. It was named a finalist and “highly commended play” in the BBC’s International Playwriting Competition, a finalist for the ScreenCraft Stage Play Competition, and was produced as a radio drama with The Radio Theatre Project. The play has been developed in New York City for several years: it appeared in Theatre for the New City’s Dream Up festival and the T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre’s New Work Project and was also a semi-finalist for Theatre Resources Unlimited’s TRU Voices series, the Urban Stages Development Program, and the Normal Ave Playwriting Series. Elsewhere it has been a semi-finalist in Geva Theatre’s Festival of New Theatre (Rochester, NY), The Phoenix Theatre Festival of New American Theatre, the Theatre Evolve New Works festival (Chicago, IL), and the Bridge Initiative/Women in Theatre contest (Mesa, AZ) – amongst others.
The production at The Shadowbox Theatre will mark the first time Nothing But The Truth has been produced as a stage play.
Recently, Eve Lederman chatted with Post Productions’ managing director Michael K. Potter about the play, her writing process, how to handle feedback – and in general, what it means to be an up-and-coming playwright in the competitive world of contemporary theatre.
MICHAEL K. POTTER: For those readers who are coming in cold, can you tell us, briefly, what Nothing But The Truth is about – in terms of story, but also in terms of theme?
EVE LEDERMAN: Nothing But The Truth depicts the volatile relationship between a patient and her therapist enmeshed in a malpractice case. Rachel is a vivacious yet distraught young woman exploring family secrets with her maternal doctor Marilyn. But when Marilyn faces questions in a lawsuit for abruptly terminating Rachel’s treatment, she paints her as violent and an explosive, life-altering battle ensues. The story is about therapy, betrayal and the blurry line between obsession and love as told through the warped lens of the court system.
Furthermore, in our current cultural climate, I think a play that portrays a struggle about what the truth means and how we dispute facts presents a timely and provocative topic.
POTTER: Tell us how Nothing But The Truth started for you. How did the idea for this play occur to you, how did it eventually become a radio play, and what has the process of developing it to this point involved for you?
EVE LEDERMAN: I’m fascinated by the idea of therapy – it’s the only relationship that exists where nobody else knows what takes place between the two. You don’t engage in the outside world; no one else will ever see you interact or be privy to your conversations.
I also think the dynamic of transference is remarkably fierce as well as potentially volatile – I went to therapy in my twenties to talk about boyfriend troubles and my career, and transference hit me like a truck. The power of “unconditional positive regard”—being seen, heard, understood and accepted—caries incredible power, one that a therapist must use wisely.
Finally, I’m also intrigued by the idea that therapists often pursue the field in relation to their own traumas, in the way that addicts become drug counselors. What if they’re not exactly healed?
During the development of the script, one of the early critiques was that the play was too talky and static – factors that are rather inherent to both therapy and depositions! There’s no dancing, screaming, choking, slapping or thumb-wrestling as in my other play To Life. So when I saw a submission opportunity for a radio play – where, of course, visual elements would fall flat – I thought Nothing But the Truth would be a perfect fit. The rewriting process was rather simple as very little dialogue needed altering. Often you just need to add the name of the person the character is addressing to clarify who the dialogue is directed to. The fun part was creating the sound design – every time a door opens or closes, or a character walks across the room, the audience hears that element, and there’s definitely an art to it. When Carmen walks in, do we hear the confident clickety-clack of high-heeled pumps or the shuffle of sensible shoes? And don’t get me started on the range of vomit sound effects . . .
POTTER: During its development, Nothing But the Truth has been a competitor in several contests. I can’t help but wonder how those experiences affected your choices while revising the script – were they helpful to you in some way? And if so, could you give us some insight into how?
EVE LEDERMAN: Several is an understatement – try 740 (over four years)! I believe in submitting to everything as you never know what door will open. The competitions themselves haven’t furthered the script, but sometimes they ask for a list of developmental goals which forces me think about what I still need to work on.
Overall it can be a frustrating process – you don’t want to submit too early when the script is rough around the edges. And by the time they get around to making a decision 8 months later you’ve already made revisions but can’t fire off a note saying, “Wait, read this one!” On the flip side, I had my script rejected recently as a finalist for a playwriting lab because I was told it was too developed and they wanted to see a script evolve.
The contests that lead to readings are the most beneficial—and it certainly helps when the theater foots the bill!
POTTER: Which stories and storytellers – in whatever genre, format, or media – influenced your approach to Nothing But the Truth? What inspired you – and continues to inspire you?
EVE LEDERMAN: I try to just stay open to a variety of media when I’m in the groove, and things serendipitously jump out that speak to me and fuel my creativity. For instance, I read an op-ed in the NY Times about whether pedophilia might fall along the OCD spectrum and I took that debate, gave it to my characters and let them hash it out. Likewise, I saw the film The Tale, which affected me deeply; I introduced it to my character Rachel and let her wrestle with my own questions in her therapy.
Early on in the writing I watched Oleanna and Collected Stories to see power plays in action, and a monologue in the latter inspired me to add one in my play. I loved a review of one Oleanna performance which noted that audience members broke out into a fist fight after the show, and another said that for Mamet, “conversation is a blood sport and words are lethal weapons” – a sentiment that I hope to emulate!
I’m inspired by a wide range of storytellers. I relate to Paula Vogel’s ethos that “the more we tell our own truth, the more everyone can tell theirs.” Neil Simon wrote an essay that I love in which he describes himself as a two-headed beast – one part is the human involved in interactions, and the second is a writer- monster who’s simultaneously observing and taking notes. I live in this duality and find that when my heart gets crushed and says, “Oh my god, this is devastating; I can’t survive,” while my head is yelling at me to take notes because this experience is a gold mine, that’s the sweet spot where I find the most compelling material.
I think theater should make people uncomfortable, as Edward Albee said, challenging audiences to confront situations and ideas that lie outside their comfort zones. Plays aren’t meant to be pleasant and safe, but rather “constructed as correctives” to hold a mirror up to people. My goal, like Albee, is for “the audience to run out of the theater — but to come back and see the play again.” And Terrance McNally said that a woman approached him after Mothers and Sons and told him that the play moved her to reconnect with her child. I, too, hope to create work that reminds us that we’re not alone.
POTTER: Having read a couple of versions of this play, I know you made some changes over the last year to address contemporary events and developments – such as the rise of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The influence of this fascinating politician on the character of Carmen intrigues me. What changed once you decided to include that influence? How did her example change the character of Carmen?
EVE LEDERMAN: Early on, the two lawyers in the play were cardboard cutouts; they didn’t have personalities outside their legal wrangling; they didn’t have anything at stake beyond the case, and there was little relationship between them. Over time, I played with how to create tension and conflict between their characters. At first the female lawyer was very overweight in comparison to her virile male counterpart. I also toyed with a haggard, middle-aged female attorney. In one reading I reversed the roles with a wise, older male attorney patronizing his young ingénue opponent.
And then a few factors collided – I read an article in The Atlantic about how female trial attorneys are routinely harassed and demeaned and it also mentioned that minorities are sorely underrepresented in the industry. At the same time, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was beginning her meteoric rise and subsequently trounced her white male opponent. I heard that her campaign contributions came from across the country and she raised millions with donations that averaged twenty dollars. I thought perhaps I could tap into the zeitgeist with a Latina heroine (and there aren’t roles for many), which could also help build an audience and perhaps even fundraise for self-production.
From there I took a deep dive into research about female trial attorneys’ experiences to create an authentic character and started to incorporate those stories into the text – for instance, the Bar Association’s resolution preventing men from calling female attorneys by pet names like “honey” or “darling” in court!
POTTER: I now get the sense that the two lawyers, Carmen and Stan, have dealt with each other before, but that Carmen is still a little green – though on the ascent. Stan seems almost bewildered by her in the early scenes, not quite certain what to make of her growing confidence and clear ability. So the audience gets to experience this intriguing relationship between two professionals with very different points of view, different experiences, who also represent larger cultural forces and debates. What about your principal characters, Rachel and Marilyn? What inspired their characterizations, and what do they represent beyond themselves?
EVE LEDERMAN: I’ve seen – ahem – a few therapists (it’s as routine as getting your nails done in New York), and Marilyn is a compilation of many of them. In fact, I often find myself whipping my phone out during a session to make note of something I’m going to use. (Or, alternatively, sobbing while a voice in the back of my head says, “Damn girl, that’s good – write it down!”)
But on a larger scale, Marilyn represents the imbalance of power that medical professionals hold—both in terms of the relationship’s emotional dynamic (in a therapeutic setting) and the fact that the doctor holds the degree, training and expertise while the patient is deemed the weaker “sick one,” mentally or physically. Furthermore, the Hippocratic oath “do no harm” is accompanied by the unspoken oath “admit no harm.” Doctors are cautioned to never acknowledge wrongdoing or even to apologize because that opens to the door to a lawsuit. In fact, a woman I know sued a prominent hospital for malpractice after cancer surgery—the surgeon left a sponge in her which appeared on the x-ray and yet they refused to settle, deeming her pain as malingering. And I was moved by a man at one of my readings who spoke about a family member hospitalized for mental illness; he acknowledged feeling powerless as the doctors who discounted him.
Rachel represents the deep, pervasive and lifelong ramifications of sexual abuse. I think the statistics bandied about – one in four women are victims – as well as the rather generic descriptions of the consequences of sexual abuse (who doesn’t suffer from depression or low self-esteem?) belie the true devastation and destruction.
POTTER: The play asks audiences to consider two very different points of view on an intense relationship that didn’t work out as either party intended or wished. This isn’t easy, but as a producer it’s something I appreciate, as most of the plays I’ve produced feature just this sort of ambiguity, seeking to create ambivalence in the audience – for instance, Oleanna, True West, Equus, and Doubt. How did you try to ensure that each character was heard on her own terms, without undue judgment on your part, and without pushing the audience to favour one side over the other?
EVE LEDERMAN: It was a long evolution and a delicate balance to get to that point. In my first draft, I had a clear villain and heroine; one character had clearly wronged the other. Then I read something that said both characters in an argument must be right and after a reading, a producer told me to consider the Rashomon effect – which takes every character’s point of view into account. I started rewriting with that in mind (more than 30 drafts!), also considering timing: Reveal something too soon and the character is waving a big red flag; too late, and the audience may have forgotten the previous bread crumb I dropped. However, it was primarily feedback that helped to shape the balance over numerous readings – mainly from audiences, but also from actors, directors, producers, therapists and lawyers. I got the play into anyone’s hands who was willing to look at it with a new perspective and a fresh eye and I always walked away with useful critique.
Initially, the therapist was too unprofessional and clearly at fault; then I swung too far and the patient was crazy and manipulative. Reading and talkbacks were critical to hearing what worked and I was lucky to have passionate audiences who engaged in vigorous conversation, illuminating points I wasn’t able to see from the inside.
POTTER: What an amazing opportunity it is to get feedback on your work. We can so easily become lost in our own perspectives, assumptions, and histories when writing. Often what’s necessary is to find out what sort of meaning others are making from our work so we can ask ourselves questions like, Are people interpreting this story in the way I intended – and if not, is that all right? Yet, many writers worry that they’ll lose their unique voices and their intentions by listening to and trying to incorporate feedback. How do you handle the task of attending to feedback while maintaining your authorial voice and intentions?
EVE LEDERMAN: It is a very delicate balance, no doubt! There is no roadmap in deciding what to incorporate and what to discard in terms of feedback, plus I find that can also change over time. Actually, I was a bit misleading in my previous mention of rewriting with the Rashomon effect in mind; I did do so...but not for a year. I initially discounted the idea because I couldn’t envision how to incorporate it. Also, early on, someone suggested I open the play with the ending and I junked that. Then a few years later after other elements had evolved, it suddenly made sense. I think one red flag to look out for is when someone’s feedback aims to alter the essence of your story. I had an agent interested in the play, but she thought the therapist should have her children taken away from her for neglect. “When I go to the playground, you wouldn’t believe how many parents ignore their kids,” she mused. That was her story to tell, not mine, even it if meant losing out on an agent.
Also realize that you can’t please everyone. That sounds simplistic but I read a great quote that said to have a hit play, people have to love it and others have to hate it. Otherwise it’s just mediocre. In fact, one close friend whose opinion I trust loved the first iteration of the play, which revolved around only the patient and therapist, good and evil, and has stated that I’ve since “destroyed it!”
The antidote, I believe, is to have one trusted producer or director who is your rock during years of development and I’m so grateful to have found that in Frank Calo of FMC Productions. I knew him casually from my neighborhood and pulled him into the festival production four years ago to assist with contracts. Our creative partnership blossomed from there and we’ve spent countless hours poring over scripts together. I bounce ideas off him, send him new writing, and discuss feedback and he guides me with direction that takes my work to another level. Writers can spend a lifetime in search of this partnership, but if you find a director who gets you and believes in your work (and devotes years of unpaid hours!), nurture the relationship and cherish it!
POTTER: Why did you end up sending your play to Post Productions? And what has that experience been like – having your play produced by a little theatre company in a small city far from where you live?
EVE LEDERMAN: In the United States, competition for readings and festivals with the faint hope of production is fierce. Theaters get many many hundreds of submissions for a single slot so I decided to branch out to Canada and contacted theaters that had produced plays with similar themes.
I was utterly shocked (and thrilled!) to get an email back from Post Productions quickly with interest in reading the play and indicating a decision would be made in a couple weeks, and I found other Canadian theaters were equally approachable. In New York, a theater can take 8 to 12 months to respond to an email. One took 18 months to reply to my 10-page sample and request the full script. I’m waiting another 8 months and counting to get a response to that.
I will concede that is hard to hand over my first production without being involved in casting and rehearsals, and even more so because I simply love the process of making the play come alive. Ultimately, I have to trust that my vision on the page will guide the way.
POTTER: It’s a strong vision, and I promise we’ll do our best! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.
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