Since last week’s assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, a leading figure in Islamist fundamentalist organization Hezbollah, Liz Dembrowsky, director of New York theatre company White Trash Intellectuals, does her day job with a police officer in the room, for security.
A speechwriter for United Jewish Communities, a non-governmental organization that raises funds for Israel’s poor, she also spent her 30th birthday last week writing a press release on a suicide bombing that occurred in Dimona, Israel. For Ms. Dembrowsky, it’s all good training.
“Until you see the day-to-day of things you can’t write it,” said the author and playwright by telephone this week. “It’s made me much more committed.”
She tested out her latest work on Martha’s Vineyard audiences Sunday at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven, as part of a four-play reading event entitled Salon: Working Progress and was happy with the results.
“It was so valuable,” she said, back in New York. “The comments were on point for all the pieces.” By bringing the work to wider audiences while still unfinished, Ms. Dembrowsky hoped to get the kind of independent opinion often missing in the cliquey theatre world. “Often working New York you end up preaching to the choir. What’s great is that the [Katharine Cornell] audience didn’t have any relationship with the creators and were probably not involved in theatre.”
The four works-in-progress were read by Chris Klaskin and Mara Sullivan, high school friends of Ms. Dembrowksy from Massachusetts, as well as Ms. Dembrowsky and fellow playwright Sally Jane Kerschen-Sheppard. The two short plays by absentee writers were Killer, a single act monologue about a country bumpkin moving to New York, and Ruby Films, the story of a 40-year-old woman vainly trying to juggle motherhood and life as an entrepreneur.
Ms. Kerschen-Sheppard played the narrator in a 45-minute reading of Worth, her play about a daughter’s emotional abandonment during the divorce of her self-centered parents, told shortly after the father’s death.
One member informed Ms. Dembrowsky that her piece, Love is the Proof — a several-act play centered on the imagined trial of a graduate student accused of putting the graffiti “love is the proof” at Ground Zero — did not go far enough.
“It was great to hear,” she said, shrugging off the idea that criticism can be hard to take.
“She gave me permission to be brave,” she said, adding that the very idea of the play has been enough to put off some potential reading audiences, and that at the Barnstormers Theatre in New Hampshire, she couldn’t get in the door. “I told them that it was important and timely and they said, ‘The audiences won’t support it,’” she said. “If you can’t alienate donors, you can’t question the truth.”
While Ms. Dembrowsky considers sensitive topics she tries to steer clear of injecting her opinion. “I’m not a humble person, but I like to think I’m humble enough to know I don’t have the answers,” she said. “Some theatre you see and it’s like, ‘That’s a political position not a play.’”
Sunday’s matinee audience consensus was that the family in the play was unnecessary and a bit like a script for Sgt. Bilko. But several in the evening audience preferred that aspect of the play and wanted to bring it center stage.
There are limits to how seriously you can take audience reaction, she says. “They could have just had breakfast, or broken up with their boyfriend or in the middle of some other issue. Nobody is God on this. But when an issue reappears you have to take notice.”
Inspired by 17th and 18th century salons, literary gatherings with a notable female host, typically involving dinner and readings, Ms. Dembrowsky has wanted to put an event on like this for years. And it’s a work-in-progress itself: she plans to return to the Vineyard in May in hopes of getting some of the same audiences back who can see how their suggestions have reshaped the work. “I didn’t have any food for people, but one step at a time,” she said.