Conceived and developed by Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone
Written by Tony Taccone
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
A co-production with Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Main Season · Thrust Stage
January 6–February 19, 2012
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
When Jon was a boy, his father was shot—and suddenly their lives were part of history. Years later, when staging a production of Hamlet, the son must confront his buried feelings about a crime that shocked the nation. In this haunting new show, Artistic Director Tony Taccone conjures an imaginary world based on the historic assassination of Mayor George Moscone. The ghost of the king stalks the battlements of a boy’s mind—and speaks to all of us about love and loss. A poetic collage of fiction and memory, this world-premiere production is staged by none other than Jonathan Moscone.
Tony Taccone · Playwright
Jonathan Moscone · Director
Todd Rosenthal · Scenic Design
Meg Neville · Costume Design
Christopher Akerlind · Lighting Design
Andre Pluess · Sound Design
Maya Ciarrocchi · Video / Projection Design
Alison Carey · Dramaturg
Michael Suenkel · Production Stage Manager
Leslie M. Radin · Assistant Stage Manager
Nicole Arbusto / Joy Dickson · Casting
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Danforth Comins · Loverboy
Ted Deasy · Basil
Peter Frechette · Film Director
Bill Geisslinger · Prison Guard
Isaac Kosydar · Ensemble
Peter Macon · Mister
Christopher Liam Moore · Jon
Tyler James Myers · Boy
Sarita Ocón · Ensemble
Robynn Rodriguez · Louise
“Brave, evocative and surprisingly funny…an impressive and courageous project…an exercise in personal vulnerabilities, as a public exorcism of personal demons and as Taccone’s playwriting debut…Taccone’s sharp, acerbic humor keeps the show afloat. The historic material is enlightening and, in the end, the play’s emotional core comes through in some deeply moving images of the charming and elusive father.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“This is a brave piece of work and an artful demonstration of fact and fiction fusing into something authentic and undeniably powerful…I expected Ghost Light, a co-production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre (where Taccone is artistic director) and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where the play had the first leg of its world premiere last summer, to be about grief and the complicated relationship between fathers and sons. It is about those things. How could it not be, seeing as how it deals primarily with the effect of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone’s assassination in 1978, when his son Jon was 14 years old. But what struck me about the play—a strange, fascinating, complex and challenging drama—was how much it’s about art and the act of creativity.”—Theater Dogs
“Beautifully written…Undeniably powerful. Ghost Light burns with the need to burnish a father’s legacy…Fuses the personal and the political with explosive results. From cheeky inside jokes about the theatuh to penetrating insights about the nature of grief, Ghost Light is radiant indeed in its world premiere co-production at Berkeley Rep…All of this unfolds on a set dominated by the august facade of San Francisco City Hall (design by Todd Rosenthal), which is fitting, because it’s the weight of history that gives Ghost Light its intensity…The combination of Moscone’s bracing candor, Taccone’s lacerating wit and San Francisco’s legendary history imbues the play with a deeply cathartic sense of the tragicomedy of existence.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
“Haunting, insightful and often mordantly funny…Taccone’s cerebral script slips freely between anguished dreams, sexual advances and political discourse. At the heart of the play is Jon’s struggle to restore his father’s place in history…Moore is outstanding. Sarcastic, fiercely intelligent and deeply wounded, his Jon is a riveting portrait of a man at odds with himself. When, like Hamlet, he finally claims his birthright, it’s the stuff of great theater.”—San Francisco Examiner
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
On a wintry night some three years ago, in the confines of a crowded drinking establishment in the heart of downtown Berkeley, Jon Moscone confided in me that he wanted to create a piece about his father. “Nothing realistic,” he said, “more of a dream play about fathers and sons.” I nearly fell off my bar stool. Jon and I had known each other for a very long time. Decades before, he had served as my assistant before traipsing off to grad school to pursue a life as a professional theatre director. Over the years, I watched as he grew into a man, our relationship morphing into one of collegial and personal friendship. And in all that time, he had never spoken about his Dad. Never wanted to. And I knew better than to ask.
But on this night, it became blindingly clear that Jon was on a mission to liberate himself from his self-imposed silence. As he spoke, his words started to gather steam, cutting the air with the sweat and velocity of unbridled passion. He had no idea where he was going really, nor did he even have a clear idea about what he wanted. But he was definitely going somewhere. Somewhere he hadn’t been before. Somewhere he needed to go. And in the course of the evening, as our sobriety was pleasantly eroding, he asked me if I wanted to go on the journey with him. No road map. No guideposts. No idea what role we would each play. Just, “Do you want to come with me?”
The elements of that single conversation, filled as it was with surprise and risk and a disarming degree of trust, were present throughout the making of Ghost Light. We gravitated toward roles neither of us expected to take (me as the writer, Jon as the director), but which we intuitively sensed were the best roles to facilitate the work. Whenever our fears or our egos reared their ugly heads, which they did on occasion, we relied on each other to get us through. To keep our eyes on the prize. Of making a play that brokered the line between the personal and the political. That trafficked in histories both factual and fictitious. And that allowed us to talk about our Dads. Our amazing, unknowable, impossible Dads.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so engaged as an artist. The entire process, which began in the heavenly confines of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (guided by Bill “Bigheart” Rauch and Alison “Mamamia” Carey), and which brought together our great design team and a cast sent directly from our dreams…was spectacularly supportive.
Making Ghost Light was a gift. A rare one. I know that Jon feels the same way. We hope you will receive it in the spirit it is offered.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
Thank you. Yes, I mean you. Or if not you, I mean someone sitting very close to you. Because in Berkeley Rep’s audience, more than 4,000 households contributed nearly $2,000,000 to support our efforts in 2011. When we look at our demographics and realize that pretty much everyone who attends our shows is among the now-famous 99%, your support is a powerful statement.
Your commitment comes in the form of gifts both large and small. Every $25,000 donation is more than matched by dozens of $5, $50 and $150 contributions made by the people seated around you. I find this quite compelling: each gift is a choice. Every contribution means someone recognized that paying for a ticket does not actually come close to paying the costs of a show. In fact, whether you’re down center or in the back row, your ticket to this performance was subsidized by someone’s contribution to Berkeley Rep. If prices reflected the true cost of producing our season, every ticket would cost close to $150! Yet our average price is less than $40—because we donate hundreds of tickets to other nonprofits each year, schools pay only $10 to purchase seats for students, we offer discounts for youth and seniors and we introduced tiered pricing to ensure that tickets are affordable to theatre lovers on different budgets.
There was a time when foundations, corporations and the government made substantial contributions to support art and culture. Thankfully, many still do. Several important institutions understand that their continued generosity to cultural groups like Berkeley Rep preserves the vibrant quality of life that is the hallmark of the Bay Area. We’ve been blessed that Wells Fargo, the Hewlett Foundation, the Irvine Foundation and the Osher Foundation play leadership roles in local philanthropy. Their ongoing support has been essential to Berkeley Rep’s ability to provide its unique programming to you. But in the last decade, the portion of our operating budget covered by institutional giving has shrunk dramatically.
As this happens, our safety net is the extraordinary generosity of our audience. Members of our Donor Circle (the people who give $1,500 or more each season) have increased their collective gift in each of the last 10 years. And after a two-year decline caused by the Great Recession, the number of gifts below that grew 10% last year. Participation in the Michael Leibert Society has doubled, meaning more people are including Berkeley Rep in their wills to ensure that we can continue to provide this distinctive brand of theatre for generations to come.
So I extend my thanks to each and every one of you who made the choice to contribute to us in 2011. Consider the fact that your ticket only paid for half of the show…and then I encourage you to turn to the person next to you at intermission and say thank you. This show—and every show that we produce—is the result of an extraordinary community effort.
Wishing you the best for 2012,
By Philippa Kelly
Ghosts are part of the way in which we understand our brief time on this earth. Originating from the words “gast” and “geist” (breath, spirit), they have long been thought to beckon from the afterlife, disembodied entities seeking to reconcile unfinished business from the material world they’re no longer a part of. “A ghost…due to trauma, is stuck in our physical world and needs to be released to go on,” suggests veteran ghost-hunter Hans Holzer. He is referring to physical ghosts in “documented” haunting—but his words apply equally to those psychological ghosts that reach out and grasp us, dragging or luring us back into the past—sometimes temporarily, in the middle of the night, and sometimes almost permanently, finding their own places in our daily lives. Unintegrated experience, unfinished business—this is the stuff of ghosts.
Ghosts could be said to live in the shadowy place that lies between rational thoughts and emotions, partaking of both. No matter how we struggle with ghosts through the workings of reason, they keep coming back, tugging from unreachable places in the psyche. This is the beauty and complexity of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Tony Taccone’s Ghost Light has its roots. Hamlet concerns a physical ghost; but the play also involves a psychological haunting, an internal drama that’s played out within the young prince’s troubled mind. There is the information given to Hamlet by the physical ghost (while others have seen the ghost and can verify its existence, it speaks to Hamlet alone); and there is the haunting of the prince’s mind by doubts. These doubts paralyze Hamlet, and he must struggle with this paralysis in order to act. The more Hamlet broods, the more he calls everything into question: the reliability of the ghost itself; what awaits us when we shuffle off this mortal coil; the meaning of duty and obligation; the futility of revenge; and, indeed, the futility of life without revenge.
Since Sigmund Freud gave his famous reading of Hamlet at the end of the 19th century, Shakespeare’s prince has become synonymous not so much with revenge as with contemporary psychological anguish—with the emotional imprisonment experienced when ghosts from the past interrupt the forward motion of our lives. (In the wake of Freud, the propensity for brooding and indecision has become known as the Hamlet complex.) Just as Hollywood ghosts slip through walls, unimpeded by the solidity of wood or masonry, so too do psychological ghosts resist all efforts to rationally deal with them. Shut the door on ghosts and they’ll just re-emerge. No rational thought process can totally suppress a ghost that has unfinished business with a psyche.
While the ghostly silhouette of Hamlet’s predicament haunts Tony Taccone’s play, Ghost Light is premised by a real-life event that most people in the audience will either remember or know of. In 1978 George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco, was assassinated by a man who blamed his crime on a temporary insanity caused by an excessive consumption of Hostess Twinkies. In Ghost Light, set many years after the elder Moscone’s murder, we encounter his son (in this play named Jon) who is staging a production of Hamlet. Everyone associated with Jon’s production—the actors, the crew, the costume designer—is constrained by the turmoil of a director who can’t banish or come to terms with his own history. He struggles to move forward with the play and with his life.
Ghost Light is filled with its own host of imaginary characters of the phantasmagoric variety: from family ghosts living in the recesses of long-term memory, to fantasies designed to distract and entertain us, to people we momentarily encounter in a time of trauma who somehow stay lodged within our being to sustain and communicate with us in ever-mysterious ways. There is the past we are haunted by and the future we yearn for, or the past we yearn for and the future we are daunted by. The ghosts that each of us lives with are as varied and unpredictable as human nature itself. None of us can escape these ghosts, and we may even find that we don’t want to banish them completely. They are, indeed, what make us who we are.
George Moscone in brief
By Julie McCormick
George Moscone was born in San Francisco in 1929. He was raised by his Italian-American parents: George Joseph, a prison guard, and his mother Lena. In 1954 he married Gina Bondanza. They eventually had four children: Jenifer, Rebecca, Christopher and Jonathan. After a brief stint in the Navy, Moscone opened his own private legal practice.
It was his college friend, John Burton (later a member of the U.S. House of Representatives), who first got Moscone to run for political office. At his urging, Moscone ran as a Democrat for a seat in the California State Assembly in 1960. He did not secure the position, but in 1963 he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In 1966, he was elected to the State Senate, and quickly was tapped by the Democratic Party to serve as majority leader. While in the Senate, Moscone gained a reputation for charisma and making decisions that could be considered controversial: he passed a bill to reduce the penalty for simple marijuana possession, spearheaded the creation of a school-lunch program and also got the legislature to repeal California’s anti-sodomy laws, an early and major victory in the battle for gay rights.
After 10 years in the State Senate, he successfully ran for Mayor of San Francisco, and was sworn in on January 8, 1976. During his time in office, he prevented the San Francisco Giants from moving to Toronto and appointed large numbers of people previously denied a political voice—women, members of the LGBT community and people of color—to positions within the local government. Moscone actively supported the city’s agreement to integrate the police and fire departments after a lawsuit was brought against them for discrimination in their hiring practices. Through creating a broad base coalition of local leaders to meet with the community and ensure voter consensus, he gained public approval of the construction of the Yerba Buena Center downtown.
These moves, however, were not popular with everyone. In 1977, John Barbagelata, the conservative candidate for mayor who narrowly lost to Moscone in the ‘76 election, attempted to have Moscone recalled. Though he easily retained his post, Moscone had to continually battle opposition from all sides, including the city’s Board of Supervisors. Conservative Supervisor Dan White resigned from the board in 1978, which meant that Moscone could appoint another supervisor whose views were more in line with his own, and thus have more of his agenda approved. This worried anti-Moscone conservatives, and to prevent this from happening, White went to City Hall to meet with George Moscone and ask for his job back. When Moscone refused, Dan White shot him four times, then went across the hall and killed Harvey Milk, an openly gay supervisor who had discouraged Moscone from reappointing White. Their deaths shocked the nation and threw the city into mourning; individuals and communities continue to process their loss and reflect upon their legacy.
A conversation with Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone
By Madeleine Oldham
Madeleine Oldham, Berkeley Rep’s resident dramaturg, sat down with Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone to talk about the trials and triumphs of collaborating on Ghost Light.
Can you start by talking about how this project came about? Cause it’s sort of a weird project…
Jonathan Moscone: It is. Everyone assumes that I wrote it and Tony directed it.
JM: I think it’s just an assumption people make because it’s “my story.” The subversion of that assumption is actually the DNA of this entire project.
I heard about American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle [an Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) project that is commissioning 37 new plays that have sprung from a moment of change, inspiration or conflict] through OSF’s Artistic Director Bill Rauch. I decided that I might be interested in looking at this moment in history from my perspective. I threw this little idea at him in an email and he replied within seconds saying, “Okay, great.” I called Tony wanting to collaborate, because I knew that my fear around going into this alone would abort the project.
Was there something particular about this moment where you said, “Okay, now is the time for me to tell this story?”
JM: There’s a whole long, chronic feeling that became acute with the filming of Milk. I went to see a day shoot at City Hall. Everyone was extremely welcoming and very nice. I watched a scene being filmed from the sideline just next to Gus Van Sant [the director], who asked me if this is what it looked like, and instead of saying, “I have no idea—I was 10 years old and wasn’t even at Harvey Milk’s inauguration,” I turned to him and said something like, “It wouldn’t be so fancy.” He [Harvey Milk] was a supervisor—it wasn’t a big deal. And so they pulled the red carpet away. I thought, “Oooh, this is fun!”
Tony Taccone: Influence!
JM: But then I watched a moment when Victor [Garber], who was playing George, swears Sean [Penn, who was playing Harvey Milk] in, and he flubbed the line. He said “the City and Country of San Francisco,” and then he said, “Oh, I’m so sorry Gus,” and Gus said, “Don’t worry, it’s part of a montage. We won’t hear what you’re saying.” In that moment Victor looked at me, and I thought, “Oh good, thanks for screwing up the one line that George has in the movie, that didn’t even make it into the movie!” It wasn’t such a dramatic event as it was maybe just that little click. I wouldn’t say it was the straw that broke the camel’s back because that makes it sound like an explosive moment, but it was just that it all added up. And when I put that together with contacting Bill, I think those were connected.
I thought: If Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn can respond as artists to this experience, why can’t I? I am an artist. And I have a lot of the dramaturgical information already in me. Why not? As opposed to approaching from the perspective, “I’m going to set the record straight and screw them,” it was, “Why not join in this conversation and do it in a way that felt authentic?”
When I talked to Bill very early on, before I even talked to Tony, I said this wouldn’t be a historical or realistic piece. The things in my head that I’ve never shared might resonate with more people than just my therapist. Bill really bought into that idea, and then I realized I needed someone to help me get it out of my head. And I didn’t even think too hard, I just went right to Tony.
And when you did that, were you thinking of Tony as the writer or as a kind of co-collaborator?
JM: A person in the room whom I could share this journey with in complete trust.
TT: The fact that there were no clearly defined roles turned out to be an advantage for us. I once asked Ariane Mnouchkine, the famous French director, about how she casts her plays, and she said that everybody in the company plays everything for six months and then it becomes extremely clear who should do what. To everybody. I think we kind of in our own way did the same thing. We talked and talked, and after six months or so it became pretty clear that I was going to write it and that Jon was going to direct. It didn’t start that way—it came out of our creative dialogue about it, and that was really cool.
So then during that dialogue, how did you finally settle your roles and begin creating something?
JM: Just over time, the mise-en-scène of our visits started to morph into my lying on the couch in Tony’s loft space.
TT: He would start out sitting, and I would be sitting across from him with my laptop, and I’d ask him stuff, and he would gradually just lie down, like, list to the left. [He demonstrates.] He would also grab his head a lot. Grab his temples, trying to channel what he was thinking. I kept trying to get him to go farther. What happened on the day your father was killed? I asked him about his dream life. I asked him about his waking life. I asked him about his brothers and sisters. I was really interested in the boy. The boy Jon Moscone. I was really interested in him talking about just the evocative sensation, the emotional sensation of what was going through that 14-year-old boy’s body.
Because I was connecting to that for myself. Look, I was born with a major stutter, which I wasn’t able to overcome until I got to college. So when Jon talked about the silence that surrounded him, I was all over that. Yeah. I completely get that.
I also had an intense relationship with my own dad, who I idolized but who was far away. He was always at work, he was always someplace else. And then he’d be there. So when Jon described his father, one of the things that surprised me was when he said, “My dad was a really good dad. When he was there he was totally there, but he was also gone a lot.” So in this little prism, I was sort of transmuting my own experience through his.
This story is so public, and so many people have so many opinions and ideas about it, and think they know what happened or what the story is. You sort of circumvented all of that by just finding the points of connection.
JM: It’s just that the last name translates to a generation of people. There are so many people who have a personal connection to George that is all theirs. I remember seeing the last performance of the show at OSF and a man sat next to me. He was an assemblyman at the time my dad was head of the State Senate, and he told me he was a pallbearer at my dad’s funeral. In my head I added that up to about 40 pallbearers hoisting that coffin. It reminded me of a story I had told Tony, that over the years so many people have told me that they were the last person to see my dad alive in his office. In which case I joked, “Well, if his day is so busy…”
TT: Then he wouldn’t have had time to get shot!
JM: “Yeah, his day would’ve been so jam-packed and fun-filled!”
TT , JM , MO: [Inappropriately raucous laughter.]
JM: So people impose their own stories on this story because it’s so important to them. People have become closer and closer and closer to my dad in their memories. So they have this extraordinary sense of ownership through memory. That is playwriting. They’ve written their own play over time.
And I think I did that too, in a way. The process of talking to Tony was constantly swimming between fact and fiction: “That’s what it was like—well, I think that’s what it was like…” And that’s when I’d grab my head.
That’s when Tony started to get interested in the repetition of that behavior where I would say, “That happened—wait, I’m not sure—maybe it did. I’m not sure if it happened that day, or if it happened at all, or maybe it happened a couple of months prior…” You could see Tony just start buzzing away at his laptop. In my head I thought, well, that’s not very interesting. It was like he was digging a tunnel.
TT: I only interviewed two people: Jon’s mom and Corey Busch [who was Mayor Moscone’s press secretary], in part because I had already worked on a play called Execution of Justice that was a docudrama about the assassination of Moscone and Milk and the many events that led up to it. [The play was presented by Berkeley Rep in 1985.] So I knew a bit about the history. But I did interview Jon’s mom, who told me a story that corroborated in a more painful way what Jon just told you about—people coming up and saying to him, “I was the last person to see your dad alive.” She told me a story about meeting a guy at some event where he comes up to her and says, “I so wanted to meet you. I went to college with George.” And she said, “Oh really? Great.” And this guy named this college that George never went to. And she said, “Gee that’s funny. I don’t think George went there.” And he said, “No no no, you’re wrong.”
So she’s having this bizarre experience where she tries a couple of times to tell him the facts, but after 20 minutes she actually gives up. Because, as Jon said, she realized that that guy’s need to own that memory of going to school with George Moscone was deeper than any set of facts.
I’ve been thinking about memory a lot the last 10 years or so, and I’ve come to understand it as a desire construct. Entirely. Even if it’s a negative construct. It reaffirms something. Whether it’s our worst fears—our worst part of ourselves or the best, it doesn’t matter. It’s a desire construct.
Another reaction we’ve had a lot is that when people come to the show, and they always say to me, “I can’t believe how well you captured Jon. It’s brilliant. It’s perfect.” I did not for one second while writing that character imagine Jon Moscone. I’ve stopped telling people this; it doesn’t make any difference. Now I just say thank you. But I imagined a guy, Jon, who talked a lot like me, thought a lot like him and just had some issues. And the issues he has are a total combination of mine and Jon’s.
JM: He’s more of a gay Tony.
TT: So there you go. But I’ve come to understand and respect people’s desire to own the story in some way—the desire to have it be about their dad, their mayor, their family—their pain is sometimes overwhelming.
JM: And beautiful. I don’t think every writer in the world knows exactly all the circuitry that’s happening underneath their words. I think you actually did write me. I just don’t think you intended to.
TT: Stuff happens unconsciously.
What was it like for you, Tony, showing Jon the first draft?
TT: Scary. Scary as hell. Before I actually said, “I think I’m writing this,” I remember for a couple weeks up to that being really scared.
I was in Montreal for about 15 days. I waited by the phone like an eighth-grader waiting for a girl I liked to call back about a date. It was kind of pathetic. And I got no response. Nothing. I thought, this is what it’s really like to be a writer. You’ve put something out there, no one’s responding. I went through a whole emotional cycle: he doesn’t like it, he’s trying to figure out how to tell me, it sucks, the project’s dead. He hasn’t read it yet, how could he not read it?
Then I got home and I called, and he said flat out, “I haven’t read it; I’m really scared.” As soon as he said it, it made spectacular sense. Of course. Of course he hasn’t read it. I was so wrapped up in my own worry that I couldn’t get past my own insecurity about it. I think there were times when we both stumbled into the magnitude of what we were actually trying to do. And were surprised by it, and thrown a little bit. But I think we did a good job of actually saying, “I’m scared.” He led the way with that. Because I was never a big fan of saying that. I’m more of a fan now, frankly, because it’s true. It’s helpful to have another person know that I’m scared.
JM: I think even though we fell into more divided, clearly defined roles, they weren’t really reflective of the shared experience that was happening. There were times when Tony would respond emotionally as a writer and then I would respond emotionally as a director, and we would claim that kind of identity. You know, “I don’t know how to do that scene,” or “I can’t hear that now.” We were creating the experience, thinking more as theatre makers, not strictly as a writer and a director.
So it makes sense to me that people are confused about whose role is whose. We did have to assign each other the roles, but those were almost like the buoys that we would hit that would guide us. We would hit these moments in the water where we would have to check in with each other about our individual fears around the project. Most of the time it was just checking in—sometimes it would be a little frenetic, but we would always work through it. There’s not a conversation you can’t have with Tony. He’s all about, “Sure, let’s talk about it.” Maybe that was somehow operating within my head when I thought of asking him to work with me on it. I chose him in my head because it made me comfortable. I imagined Tony and it felt good. There’s nothing dangerous.
TT: There’s kind of nothing off limits, which is a little scary.
JM: You’re right. There is danger, but there’s nothing off limits.
Once you got into rehearsal, did you ever have moments of thinking, “Oh my god, what did I get myself into?”
Can you say a little bit about what those looked like?
JM: I was asked so many questions and requested to talk about it so much, and do a huge presentation on the first day of rehearsal to an audience.
TT: This is in Ashland.
JM: The whole day was very surreal to me. And they were filming it for whatever reasons, and Tony just talked and talked and talked and talked, and I was thinking, “Well, he’s the more vulnerable person right at this moment. My job is actually to direct this play. I can talk about my dad until the cows come home, but in an hour and a half I have to start directing.” So I started to separate the two feelings of “This is huge, ridiculous, I can’t believe I’m doing this!” with “I just need to direct this play.”
That was a helpful realization because that was the constant conflict for me. When the enormity of that realization would enter the room, I often would not know how to handle it. The way I know how to not to handle something isn’t to go into a corner, close the door and think about it; it’s more like I act out. I embrace it. Big time.
I remember this as a child. When the cameras were rolling in front of my dad, I would do things that would attract attention to myself. I was maybe the slightly cuter version of Rudy Guiliani’s son. But it was the same idea. That’s how I reacted to it. I think it revealed how discomforting the entire public experience was for me. And that’s what happened at times. I would be directing, and then I would talk about my dad and me while I was directing. Which is like saying, “Madeleine, I’d like you to go downstage left. When I was downstage left and my father and I were downstage left…,” you lose the actor, who’s going like, “Huh?”
The actors would love to hear it on one level, and on another they just wanted to know how to do the play. So every day I felt twice as exhausted and about half as satisfied as I should have, because I felt like I was failing at keeping clarity. But Chris Moore, who plays my character, said over drinks during the run of the show, “How would you have done it any other way? What model were you working from? Of course you fell into that.” They were very generous and lovely about accepting that in me.
There were times when I could separate, and I would give really good directing notes. Oddly, because of this tension, some of the clearest pieces of direction I ever gave came out of my mouth.
I’d like to ask Tony the same question. This is your second play. This is not a very straightforward situation by any means. Did you ever have a moment of “Oh my god what did I get myself into?”
JM: Please don’t lie because I know the answer.
TT: Never! Not a single time! Yeah, of course. There’s nothing quite like the first time you hear it read out loud. There’s nothing like the first run-through. I was a basket case. Pretending that I was totally on top of it. But Jon could feel me—feel my molecular structure virtually exploding.
JM: It was a painful, painful experience. [Laughs.] Plays develop over time. It’s all trust. The whole process is one big trust exercise. It’s a hard trust when you’re on the front line, which you were. I was too, but you were more so.
TT: It felt like the ghost of every playwright who would cause me anxiety or who I’d had a negative experience with was in my mind. Now I’m the writer and I’m trying to resist being that guy and failing. At that first run-through I was watching the actors and thinking to myself, “There is a melody line there that no one is singing. It’s a musical score, can’t they sing it?!” Of course, I’d had that experience many times as a director. But all I can tell you is that, as a writer, it felt different. A different level of despair.
But I have to say, if this project suffered from anything it was from people caring so much about it. About each other, themselves, the history of it…It’s fraught with caring. The caring is also great because when it works it’s spectacular, but when it doesn’t…Just have fun and get the jokes right!
[At this point, Jon had to leave for another interview. Tony and Madeleine continued talking for a bit longer.]
TT: You know, the stories that Jon and I tell in these interviews are a testament to what I’m interested in, because it changes over time. Our desire to tell the story in a particular way shifts every time.
That’s so funny, because that’s just like the play.
TT: Exactly, that’s what the play is trying to do.
I wrote one of my short stories about memory, where I went back to my house in Long Island, and it wasn’t the same house. The amazing thing was that the old memory came back again later, because my need to have it be that house was greater than whatever was really objectively true.
So there’s this interest in how memory works, and in the play this guy picks a scab off of a wound that he’s not on top of, and it releases something buried inside him. He can’t control what’s about to happen. And his dream life just…ruptures. What happens in his unconscious will no longer be contained by his conscious life. And it reveals itself in a panic attack—this major panic attack. And he has to deal with that, because it’s a physically threatening event.
There’s a whole theatrical genre of memory plays. Does Ghost Light fit in to that?
TT: No, I hope it doesn’t. Because my view of memory plays is that they’re all full of wistful monologues.
“Memory plays” are usually about the content of the dream memories rather than an investigation into those memories.
TT: Yeah, and the memories I’m interested in here are extremely active and dangerous. And they’re anthropomorphized into characters that are going to kill somebody. Kill the host! My view of the traditional memory play is where somebody has a long monologue about nostalgia, or the past, as is if the past is dead. My whole point is that the past is never dead. The past is more alive than we can possibly bear. And it only reveals itself in times of either great happiness or great pain. And it’s too obvious to ignore.
Ghost Light shines on
History is personal in this haunting show that draws from the assassination of George Moscone.