Heather Woodbury in conversation with Ira Glass
Heather Woodbury is a performer, novelist, playwright, and/or a unique melange of all the above in various combinations and often all at once. She was interviewed by Ira Glass as a part of a performance of Tale of 2Cities: An American Joyride on Multiple Tracks for the Traffic Series at the Steppenwolf Theatre on June 3, 2002. In his introduction to the performance, Ira remarked that he’d first encountered Woodbury years ago when he received tapes of all 10 hours of her first performance-novel What Ever and “was stunned by its sheer ambition.”

Ira Glass: Heather, what was the genesis of this work? Were there particular characters you knew you wanted to do, or was it the history that was drawing you?

Heather Woodbury: First, it was the history, the feeling of displacement, the eradication of a life that you knew. After leaving New York City, I went back to visit only to see my favorite neighborhood utterly transformed from what it had been in the past. When I first moved to Southern California, I had this yearning for New York. And the neighborhood that I’d moved to in Los Angeles, Echo Park, just evoked this sense of loss.

Is Echo Park where your story takes place?

It’s right over the hill from the three barrios that were destroyed when they built Dodger Stadium. A whole neighborhood was simply wiped out. My mother grew up partly in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn with her Jewish relatives, near Ebbets Field, where the Brooklyn Dodgers stadium was replaced by the Ebbets Housing Projects. So, the character Miriam harkens to this Jewish, leftist part of my heritage.

And in the New York story, (when Miriam’s attacked by a gang of 13 year old girls) the Ebbets Field Case, is that a real case? Or is that completely fictional?

I made that up. And then, you know, strangely, I was planning in the plot for it to be this huge brouhaha that would just turn into a sensational, controversial case like the Central Park Jogger case, where the victim lost her memory or the Tawana Brawley case where a young woman said she was assaulted but it was ambiguous. But as I was creating the piece, September 11th happened, and that wiped out everything. I had to let my characters acknowledge that. The piece took this turn, after 9/11, where people stopped giving a damn about whether Angela did the crime or not.

Is that what happens in the third part?

Yeah, and the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth. (Laughs) Brevity is not my strong suit, as we all know.

How many parts are there to the show?

Originally I created eleven one-time-only, get up and do it in front of an audience, fifty-minute segments. And then my collaborator, dramaturg Dudley Saunders and I sat down with this eleven-hour thing and turned it into a five-and-a-half hour thing.

At what point does September 11th happen in the five-and-a-half hours?

In the third act. Which is interesting because the whole play is really about monumental loss to begin with.

One of the things that happens in your earlier piece, What Ever is that the ghost of Kurt Cobain keeps showing up for people. And I wonder now, does it feel a little odd even to be talking about it?

I worried about that before, but then it just really didn’t matter. What Ever is like a novel, in the sense that it took place in 1985, so it has those signifiers. And then, amazingly, Kurt Cobain just continues on; I keep hearing Nirvana on the radio, so he is haunting us.

When I watch you perform, I react to some characters with more fondness than others. I always wonder if you love them all equally, or if there are some that you are less fond of, or have negative feelings about?

In this piece, in Tale of 2Cities, I really did try to go further into the heart of darkness. People do bad, terrible, unkind things. But I don’t know, I still really feel for them. Like Richard the cop—he just kept coming back, talking about going to Dodgers’ games, and you started to really get fond of him, even though he’s a racist, horrible cop in lots of ways. Angela’s also an ambiguous character: you don’t know whether she did this horrible crime or not.

Are the characters based on actual people?

Not really. They tend to be amalgamations of people I overhear, or sometimes, literary people. The hobo scenes are based on this real Hobo Ridge, but they’re also inspired by Steinbeck and Twain.

Portnoy?

Portnoy? [both laugh]

Is that a hobo name?

Well, sure. Ed Portnoy. Why not? I don’t know. He’s from Texas.

Do you ever choose to study the way somebody talks and acts, or is everything more unconscious? Like, ‘I’m going to do a certain character, I’m going to listen to this kind of person, and hang out with this kind of person to get that sound in my head.’

It’s almost the other way around. It’s like the accents lead to the story. I walk around a lot and I just hear my new neighborhood. I heard this very particular Mexican-American accent in Echo Park, and it turns out a lot of people are actually from El Paso, Texas. It’s very distinct, a slightly Native American flavored accent, with its own cadence and rhythm. I would walk down the street and just imitate bits of conversation I overheard. Repeating it just as I heard it. But then I want to find out more. I start off in the voice, and just ask the person to keep talking. The whole piece began with Manny the Deejay lying in bed, trying to decide what to do about his dead grandmother on the kitchen floor. His voice just came right out of me, a very angry, artistic young male voice and I said, ‘OK, I’ll follow this story.’

Was that before you had Ebbets Field?

No. I had the idea and the theme. I guess I start with a feeling, and then I figure out what it means on an intellectual, thematic level. From there I just start absorbing people and voices and images, and weaving those fragments into a story.

It’s interesting that in this play, the character Miriam actually goes around collecting people’s stories and their voices. But I get the feeling when you see Miriam writing down Gabriela’s stories, you are not exactly trusting her motives. It’s like, what’s in it for her?

Yeah, and then that’s me too! What does it mean to kind of be an anthropological appropriator of other peoples’ lives and stories? I had mixed feelings from the outset about not being Mexican, or a baseball fan either. Why was I saying I could tell their stories? A lot of my characters are ambiguous in that way, too.

I would expect that when you perform the show, certain scenes are completely fun to play, and others are like, ‘OK.’ Like tonight, what were the scenes you found yourself looking forward to, where as soon as the scene started, you’d think ‘Yes, yes, let’s go!’

Well, the hobo guys. I really enjoy them.

Is it just because they’re so, like, out there?

I like their language. I just relate to them. It’s like Violet in What Ever. I like these older people who are replete with histories within histories within histories. I feel like I can just luxuriate when I’m doing those.

Wentworth has that too. Like his beautiful, formal way of talking. How thoroughly do you imagine each of the characters in the hobo scene? Do you know what they’re wearing? How deep are you into them?

I do kind of know what Wentworth and Portnoy are wearing.

What’s Wentworth wearing?

An old suit with a vest.

And the other guy, Portnoy?

Well, Portnoy’s wearing a cowboy outfit from his movie. I see Wentworth wearing an old, little crusted, stained suit. I was very inspired by some photographs taken by this photographer, Don Normark, of Chavez Ravine in the forties. Really remarkable photographs. But then Normark left, and he never knew what had happened until he came back fifty years later, and found all these people who called themselves ‘Los Desterrados,’ the uprooted ones, who still meet and talk at a church in Solano Canyon. He got them to go through the photographs and write down their memories. I didn’t take anybody’s direct stories, but I was very inspired by them and the tone, and this strange sense of a village right next to downtown LA.

Let’s open this up to people in the audience and if you have a question, just raise your hand. [audience members ask questions] I’ll just repeat for the people upstairs, there was one polite question and one rude one.

[audience and Heather laugh] The polite one was ‘Talk about Pacifica Radio’s influence on you,’ and the rude one was ‘So how does this work out for you economically?’

I guess you’re referring to my New York lefty radio host Jan, of “Tawk Yur Head Off ”? Yes, well I grew up in Berkeley, which has the infamous KPFA and then New York has WBAI and this is just my fond homage to rambling leftist radio, which is the last redoubt of unfettered mass media. And in response to the rude question, I am making a living now, but I haven’t always and yeah, it’s a bitch, basically.

[audience question] The question was ‘Why not use a headphone-microphone as part of your act?’

Because I don’t really want to have something on my head. I like having my head and my face to use. But I do use a microphone because I can’t do all these different voices and keep my  voice, performing week after week. The male voices sound better on the mic. And also, I come from more of a punk-rock generation and I just like to run around with a microphone in my hand on stage. [laughs]

[audience question] The question is about structure, how you structure, and if we were to see it the show a week from now, would everything be structured the same way?

If you were to see this particular track? Yeah, it would be exactly the same. Unless I rewrote it …

Exactly the same, with all the dialogue and everything?

Yeah.

It’s completely set?

Yeah, I mean, when I create it, it isn’t. Basically what I do is I write it at the very, very last minute and without enough time to memorize it and when I get up on stage it’s almost like this second draft comes out on the tongue.

And do you record?

Yeah. And then when I rewrite it, I try to calibrate. ‘Oh, was it better when I kind of got off the subject and rambled around and improvised?’ It’s a long process, and I’m still basically in that process. So the play that I’ve written could change quite a bit, but it would probably change on the page, it wouldn’t change on the stage, if you understand the distinction. I would be sitting there, going ‘Oh, oh why don’t I rewrite it this way?’ I wouldn’t be getting up in front of an audience and changing it.

One of the things I was wondering about watching you is it seems like there are two, three different ways you could be staging this story. One is when a character just tells somebody’s story: like while the two women are doing the hair, one of them tells the story about being up on the hill. You set up a context where one person tells, and the other reacts. But at other times, the story actually unfolds in front of us, like the interrogation scene at the beginning. One seems inherently more active, but harder to pull off because you have to get all the characters in motion. Do you think, sometimes, ‘OK, this shouldn’t be a story that people tell each other, it should be a story I’m just going to act out for people?’

Yeah, I play with that a lot. I guess usually when I’m writing something, I start with images. For instance, I went to Coney Island on Easter and I saw all these things and I took notes. I had a feeling
about the place, on Coney Island, Easter. I kept trying to write it and then as my story came to me, I thought ‘Ah! I know! She’ll tell this whole story during an interrogation. I’ll have Angela tell this
whole story.’

What about something like Miriam’s niece Hannah, who’s typing on the computer? And why does it seem more natural to type up here than
down here?

Well, it’s not more natural. It’s less natural and more expressionistic and weird and funny.

The story she tells to Josh over the computer is a story you could just stage. She could be at Starbucks and Rabbi Dave could walk over.

Yeah, that’s why I call it a performance novel. Hannah’s scene is more novelistic. I do have a lot of stuff that’s playing with different written forms. But things tend to get more propulsive as the story continues. Later on, you actually do meet the Rabbi. It’s kind of like Violet in What Ever: she sits around for the first half just telling stories and then she kind of gets into the mix.

And moves across country.

Right.

If Hannah’s typing, she can also comment on the action.

Right, but some of her e-mails are more active than others. In the first act, she’s emailing, crying and saying, ‘Josh, our aunt has been attacked and she’s in a coma.’ There’s the absurdity of having to say that in an e-mail, just hating the computer and then it disconnects her in the middle. I’m interested in all the different ways that we communicate and how those ways have changed. We live oftentimes in isolated, little bubbles. So Ira, do we?

I do, God knows…yes?

[audience question] The question is do you discover where you’re going while you’re writing?

I start with sort of an itch and an ache. And I keep scratching and trying to find what is that feeling. And I do a lot of boring diary entries about ‘The theme is…’ [laughs] So yeah, I do come up with a kind of intellectual construct, but I’m always happy if the piece disproves my intellectual construct, or questions it, or expands it.

[audience question] Could you see somebody else performing it?

Somebody elses have already performed it. I did it at the Public Theater. I got a Kennedy Center grant and a NEA fellowship, which enabled me to earn a living this year. And I chose not to act in it at all. It was done with an ensemble of seven actors and I was very pleased with it. It was wonderful to see my own work without putting it across myself. I think every artist wants to be disseminated, they don’t want to have to be there and do it all just to be heard, so that was very satisfying to me. And the people embodying the parts – it was so good to see the guys played by guys. [laughs]

They can make their voices just so deep sometimes.

I can see that.

[audience question] Do you forget or get lost up there?

Yeah, I do, and I just try to stay in the place that the people are in. I get lost when I start thinking ‘Oh, I’m in the theater and people are watching me and I’m going to forget my next line,’ instead of thinking ‘Oh, I’m doing hair and I’m thinking about….’ If I just get back into to the place that I’m in, then I’ll say what comes naturally. A lot of the lines that I originally performed got totally lost, and good things happened. More interesting, natural speech happened, little additions cropped up, so those are now incorporated into the script.

Did you lose your place at all out here tonight?

Yes.

You did? Where?

I’m not going to tell, that’s bad luck. Because then it’ll screw me up the next time I perform: ‘This is the place where I told everybody in Chicago that I lost my place.’

[audience question] That was a really eloquently stated question that I won’t be able to repeat. What she said is that some of the characters, if I have this right, they express many different world views, some of them more about the physical world, some about cultures, some about religious things. So, do you have one that you’re trying to express? I feel like I’m translating from English to English and so badly.

I never want to just specifically say one thing. I always say that if I could say it, then I would write an essay rather than a performance. I have a specific feeling and specific ideas that I’m trying to illustrate.
The piece should move or provoke people on their own terms.