OSKAR EUSTIS: What began your history with documentary theatre?
JESSICA BLANK: Erik and I started dating when I moved to New York to start acting school; he had been here for several years as an actor. I took him to a death-penalty conference as a date--he likes to joke that it was early enough in our relationship that he'd say yes to anything! There was a workshop about a group of cases called the "Death Row 10," who had all had confessions tortured out of them, and were all still in prison, though many of them had no other evidence against them besides these "confessions." The organizer set up a speaker-phone conversation between us and one of the guys in prison. He didn't say anything much more complicated than "I miss my family and I want to go home," but by the end of the call we were crying.
ERIK JENSEN: It was at this conference that Jess and I started talking about documentary theatre. I had seen Emily Mann's Execution of Justice at the Guthrie when I was maybe 15--
BLANK: --and starting about the same age, Anna Deavere Smith became a big influence on my thinking.
JENSEN: The problem we wanted to solve was how to avoid creating bad, beret-wearing, fist-in-the-air political theatre.
BLANK: The experience of hearing that phone call inspired the idea for The Exonerated: to go around the country and interview people who had been on Death Row and who were innocent. The ethical debate about the death penalty gets so polarized. We were looking for an opening to talk to people from all different points of view.
BLANK: We were a couple of actors who taught ourselves to write a play in order to write that play. Neither of us imagined when we started out that it would have the life it's had.
JENSEN: We began to call it the Exon-and-on-and-on-erated. (Laughter.)
Where did the idea for Aftermath come from?
JENSEN: Jessica and I consciously decided to take a pause after The Exonerated. We didn't want to capitalize in a cheap way on the play's success.
BLANK: I think it would have been easy for us at that point to just apply the same methodology to another weighty subject. We wanted to find something that was equally important in terms of subject matter, but that would also give us the opportunity to evolve the form we were working with. I was talking to Jim Nicola of New York Theatre Workshop and he said, "You know, there really hasn't been any work made in theatre about civilians in. either of the conflicts that our country is engaged in." Erik and I have a friend, Maria, who works for Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, and we had talked a lot with her about the issue of Iraqi and Afghan civilians and how we don't hear those stories at all.
JENSEN: There is such a massive filter between us and the people whose personal tragedies we have a hand in--personal victories too, perhaps, but after talking to these people I think it's mostly tragedies. The media is afraid to cover these stories because it humanizes them too much. If images of Arabs don't fit the recycled model--women keening for someone who has died, angry Arabs shouting at cameras--then you don't see them on television.
BLANK: When Jim said, "We'd support it if you wanted to write a play about that," Erik and I realized that here was an opportunity to sidestep the endless ideological divisions and speak to people on a human level about something that's going on politically. And it allowed us to take another step formally with documentary theatre because of the whole language issue. We didn't speak any Arabic--how the hell are we going to do this? It was such an interesting process, working with a translator to conduct interviews in which you're looking for people to open up the most intimate parts of their lives.
The way you use Arabic in the play is different than I've ever seen on stage before. You're using it both for what we understand and for what we don't understand. It is a constant reminder of the distance.
JENSEN: I'm so thrilled that somebody got that! Early on I knew I wanted the start of the play to be disarming and as much in Arabic as possible. We played with: Should we do it for 30 seconds? A minute? Three minutes?
BLANK: How long can the audience stand it before they start leaving the theatre?
JENSEN: This long extended monologue turns into, "What is this guy saying? Did we walk into the wrong play?" And that captures our relationship with Arab countries--there is this gap. Then the translator comes in and says, "He just wants to know if you want tea or coffee," and with that moment of humor, people realize the play is a safe place for them to be.
Still, the play doesn't soft-pedal the fact that a leap has to be made. Somehow you manage to deliver in these very personal stories without having packaged them too easily. How difficult was it to set up the trip to Jordan?
BLANK: New York Theatre Workshop got us a grant from the Ford Foundation to cover the plane ticket, hotel, translator. And our friend Maria from CIVIC, who does a lot of interview-based work with civilians in war zones, came with us. Her NGO has a network of people in Jordan, so the interviewees had already been vetted.
You write your plays together. What's that like?
JENSEN: There are times when all of our hands are on the keyboard at once. But we have a good marriage, because we work out most of our bullshit by writing together.
BLANK: We may struggle about some detail in the script, but we get over it quickly because we're trying to accomplish something bigger than our egos. With The Exonerated, we did what we knew how to do, which was call all of our actor friends and say, "Will you sit in a room with us and read these transcripts out loud?" We both had a copy of the transcripts and edited by ear. Early on we found that we were crossing-out the same stuff, that we could both hear what was theatrical and what wasn't. We'd bring a condensed version to the actors the next day and go through this process over and over until eventually monologues or dialogues started emerging.
JENSEN: Mostly, we don't allow ourselves to create anything outside the interviews. And those are tight fence posts. What creative thing can I do in this very tight room? If you give yourself that restriction it leads to a lot of creativity. Just like if you live in a totalitarian culture, you have to go to great lengths to make the statement you want to make.
BLANK: We used the same methodology for Aftermath. Actors are involved in the process almost from the very beginning.
JENSEN: And the actors we end up hiring are usually with us from the start.
For you, what: is the most important thing that came out of Aftermath?
BLANK: I came out of those interviews with a tangible sense of how blessed we are--how lucky we are to be in a position to able to write plays, tell stories without being thrown in jail--and that our basic survival needs are secure enough that we can focus on that.
JENSEN: After The Exonerated I was left with a tremendous amount of unresolved anger, because despite the amount of work we did there were still people who were like, "Once you're convicted, you're guilty no matter what." I'd like to say something noble carried me though The Exonerated, but it was my absolute yelling-at-the-television anger, my powerlessness. With Aftermath, maybe it's due to six years of therapy, but I am left with a more hopeful outlook. These people came through horrible experiences without turning into monsters.
BLANK: It was moving how easily people were able to welcome us into their homes. We went to Jordan with a lot of nervousness about what people's attitudes toward us would be. We would have been unsurprised if they had said, "Screw you!" But that didn't happen at all. We realized that living under Saddam for 20 years, they understood viscerally that there is a difference between a government and a people. According to our mass media these are folks that, culturally, we are supposed to be divided from--yet how quickly that division fell apart when we were sitting in a room with them!
JENSEN: You have to wonder who has a vested interest in continuing that division. That may be the topic of the next play we write.
Oskar Eustis is the artistic director of New York City's Public Theater.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHTS Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen are writers, actors and directors. They are co-authors of The Exonerated, which won the Ovation, Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics' Circle, Drama Desk, Fringe First and Herald Angel Awards, as well as awards from Amnesty international, the American Bar Association, the NACDL, Death Penalty Focus and Court TV. ft was listed by the New York Times as "the number-one play of 2002." It has been translated into four languages and was made into an award-winning movie for Court TV (starring Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover, Brian Dennehy, Aidan Quinn and Delroy Lindo). Living Justice, their book on the making of The Exonerated, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2005.
As an actor, Jessica's TV credits include "Rescue Me," "Bored to Death," "The Bronx Is Burning," "Law and Order: Criminal Intent," "One Life to Live" and "Guiding Light"; film credits include The Namesake, The Exonerated, You're Nobody Till Somebody Kills You, On the Road with Judas and Undermind. She has acted in theatres throughout New York City, at the Sundance Film Lab, and internationally at the Dublin Theatre Festival. She also co-wrote (with April Yvette Thompson) and directed Liberty City (New York Theatre Workshop, 2008), which was nominated for Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics' Circle awards. Jessica's first novel, Almost Home (Hyperion, 2007), was optioned by Jon Bon Jovi's production company and the film (adapted by Jessica and Erik) is slated for production in 2010. Her second novel, Karma for Beginners, was published by Hyperion in 2009.
Erik Jensen has co-starred in more than 20 feature films, including Black Knight and The Love Letter. He recently starred in "Virtuality" (by "Battlestar Galactica" creator, Ron Moore), and played Yankee legend Thurman Munson in "The Bronx is Burning." Other TV credits include "CSI," "Law and Order," "Love Monkey," "Alias," "Gravity" and the TBS pilot "The Dark." He was a member of the acting ensemble for the 2006 Sundance Film Lab and the 2007 Sundance Theater Lab. Notable stage appearances include Y2K (MTC), Corpus Christi (MTC), The Good Negro (Public Theater) and Schmucks (Wilma Theater). His graphic novel Reconcilers (cover by comics legend Neal Adams) is forthcoming in 2010.
Currently, Blank and Jensen are developing a play based on the writings of rock critic Lester Bangs, in conjunction with the Lester Bangs estate. They live in Brooklyn with their daughter, Sadie, and their dogs, Zooey and Yoda.
ABOUT THE PLAY Aftermath made its world professional premiere at New York Theatre Workshop in New York City (James C. Nicola, artistic director) and opened on Sept. 1, 2009. The production was directed by Jessica Blank; set design was by Richard Hoover, costume design was by Gabriel Berry, lighting design was by David lander, music and sound design was by David Robbins; the production stage manager was Larry K. Ash and the assistant stage manager was Annette Adamska. cast included Fajer Al-Kaisi (Shahid), Amir Arison (Yassar), Leila Buck (Basima), Maha Chehlaoui (Fadilah), Demosthenes Chrysan (Abdul-Aliyy), Daoud Heidami (Asad),Omar Koury (Fouad), Laith Nakli (Rafiq) and Rasha Zamamiri (Naimah). The NYTW production of Aftermath was made possible by the generous support of the MAP and Fund (a program of Creative Capital supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation), the Ford Foundation and residency support from the theatre department at Dartmouth College in collaboration with Dartmouth's Hopkins Center for the Arts. The playwrights wish to thank Sinan Antoon and Fajer Al-Kaisi for translation assistance. They also wish to thank Maria Keenan, CIVIC, the IRC and New York Theatre Workshop.
Aftermath, copyright [c] 2010 by South Holler LLC. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. All inquiries regarding rights should be addressed to John Buzzetti, William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019, (212) 903-1166, email@example.com. Professionals and amateurs are hereby warned that performances of Aftermath are subject to a royalty. It is fully protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America, and of all countries covered by the International Copyright union (including the Dominion of Canada and the rest of the British Commonwealth), and of all countries covered by the Pan--American Copyright Convention and the Universal Copyright Convention, and of all countries with which the United States has reciprocal copyright relations. All rights, eluding professional, amateur, motion picture, recitation, lecturing, public reading, radio broadcasting, TV, video or sound taping, all other forms of mechanical or electronic reproductions, such as information storage and retrieval systems and photocopying, and the rights of translation into foreign languages, are strictly served, Particular emphasis is laid upon the question of readings, permission for which must be secured from the authors' aqent in writing.…