Q&A Session with the Original Crew of Runaways
Reading Time: 9 minutes
Sam Pinkleton, the director of the 2016 New York City Center production of “Runaways,” choreographers Ani Taj and nicHi Douglas, and Roz Lichter, the late Elizabeth Swados’s life partner, visited Stuyvesant on Saturday, November 2 to watch the Stuyvesant Theater Community’s performance of “Runaways.”
What is your relationship with Runaways, as a show?
Roz Lichter: Miss Swados was a remarkable woman, playwright, and composer. She was a woman that was challenged by depression and anxiety and thrill and love. Her work, Runaways, is one of the most remarkable pieces about young people and their struggles, which [are still] ongoing. We have Public House, [a theater program] all over the country that works so hard, and we’re proud that Sam [Pinkleton] has taken leadership in getting the Broadway and Off-Broadway community to support Public House. [Liz] was a cartoonist, and she was a great wife. We were together for 28 years. She would be thrilled to know that you guys did a fabulous show and really felt it from the heart.
“What advice would you give to young people in theater who may one day want to pursue theater professionally?” —Zeynep Bromberg
nicHi douglas: My advice is to always love what you’re doing. I have that advice for anyone going into [not only] the theater profession, but also anything else. Just check in with yourself, always, and ask yourself, “Do I love this?” today. The next day, ask yourself, “Do I still love it?” As long as the answer is “yes,” just keep going for it. Keep trying. Keep pushing. As far as how to do that, find the people you love. Find your tribe.
Ani Taj: The three of us met in high school. Some of us met a year after high school. What nicHi is saying is very real for this particular team. We vibe with each others’ sensibilities. We like making silly things with each other, finding ways to laugh. We also like finding ways to get at the heart of what we care about. That’s how we’re still working together 15 years later.
Sam Pinkleton: One of the things that I learned from Liz was that the things that are weird about me and the things that I’m ashamed of or embarrassed about—the things that make me different than somebody else, or the things that make me not “Mister Broadway,” are the things that are the most interesting. That was a radical lesson.
Anything good that I’ve ever done as a human or as an artist can be traced back to that. It was that I was true to myself. It’s why we work the way we do. It leads to good things. I don’t care that much about what I have to say about Runaways. I care about what you have to say about Runaways. Plus, it’s yours—and it has each of you in it.
“How do you stay true to your character even when you have bad days in real life?” —Morgan Hesse
douglas: When it’s super hard, it really has to do with that thing of, “Do I love it?” If you don’t love the thing you’re doing, change. Get something else. Get away from it. Continually checking in with yourself is part of how I get through it, day today. It’s part of it all.
Lichter: At the end of the day, Liz would say, “What you need to do is focus,” and “Be the character.” Keep coming back to the character that you are engaged with. As you [do that], you’ll find this unity in all those little other dispersions that are trying to take you away.
Taz: For me, it’s funny. I work mostly in the dance world. I do theater things, too. I put different hats on. For me, responding to the other people in the room is a big part of it. It’s trying to check in with all the other people here who also might have had bad days. Maybe I had a bad day, but there are people who came to the theater looking to me to have a nice time. When can I set aside the things that aren’t really right with me and remember them? It depends on the kind of theater or show that you’re doing, but for me, a lot of it is trying to remember what people came here for. It’s true that it doesn’t get any easier. It’s consistent practice over the course of one’s life.
The original script for Runaways could have been cast for any number of actors. How did that shape the way you worked with the show?
Pinkleton: This weird thing happens with musicals where they do a production, and then it turns into a book. And then everybody else, whoever does that musical, is like, “I have the precious book,” which is not how it works. Musical theater is a living, breathing thing. This goes to show that this was made when she was 25 to 26.
She went into the Public Theater. She said, “We have a crisis. It’s the ‘70s. It’s New York. There [are] homeless kids all over the city, and no one is talking about it. What can we do?” She spent a year working with kids, actual runaways that she went out in the street and met, and she listened. She listened to them, and she turned their words into this thing. It’s created as a living document. It’s created as a marker of its time. So our job and your job is not to “Crack The Masterpiece of 1976.” Liz did that. It’s to say, “How does this thing breathe?” What are we doing in 2018? It’s a crazy year. So if you’re going to do a musical about a bunch of runaway kids that was 40 years ago, the first thing you have to say is, “Why do you guys care about it?” Why do we care about it? Why do you think that these people should care about it, besides the fact that they are your parents?
We all knew Liz not to be like, “Please do my masterpiece,” but to be like, “Oh! You should sing this today! And you should sing this today! And can you make a dance there?” That never stopped. It was like that until her last days. It just never stopped changing because that’s how the world is. If theater is going to continue to be something that’s worth spending time with in a time where we can access anything from a hand computer like pizza, then you have to know what can change about it for us. It was so exciting for us to see the things that we had never seen before and made us think in a totally different way, or that were nothing like how we would do Runaways. I hope that that’s how everybody thinks of Runaways.
How was this show meant to be understood?
Adam Elsayed: It’s a collection of different stories that really speak to different people, because life itself is complex. I don’t think everybody can really understand the complexity of what everybody goes through at a certain time. That show was made with this philosophy in mind. You might find some people in the same place, but you don’t know how they got there.
There’s diversity [in] the stories being told and the way of telling the story. We have people who tell their stories in Spanish. People are able to take away something different from the same material.
Bromberg: One of the things that struck me about this show the first time I saw it, which was this past summer in [Central] Park, was the use of different kinds of language, and that language can be a way for us to connect with each other but doesn’t have to be understood by everyone, like [Elsayed] said.
I also found that the people around me still understood the entire show because of the way that Liz used language in the show, in ASL and English and Spanish. It really had the goal of making everyone come together and agree. That’s what theater means to me. It’s a space where we can all tell our stories. We can listen to each other, and participate in it together. That’s my favorite part of Runaways.
At its core, Runaways is about community. With every show that I’ve done here at Stuy, though a lot of the cast members and directors are the same people, at the end of the day, it’s a different family formed because we are able to connect differently through the works that we do. Runaways is different from anything we have ever done here before. It’s not even the method through which the story was told, but the content of all the different stories told. There’s this huge variety of stories we get, and at the end of the day, everyone can be a runaway. We’ve all, throughout our rehearsals, talked about what would make you run away, [and] why you [thought] your character ran away.
It’s about community with the fact that there are all these different stories being told, and people can connect to them in different ways. It goes to show that we are all human beings. We all have things that make us feel a certain way, and if the audience can connect to one person’s story more so than to another [so] that they can feel that emotion of what’s going on, that’s what’s so beautiful.
Stebbins: I always found it so cool that the first words of the first song are “eeny meeny sicaleeny oo ahh humbaliny achy gotchy liberachy I love you,” and we all understand it because we’ve grown up hearing it. We know what it’s meant to symbolize: childhood. If aliens were to come down and see the show, though, even if they understood English, they would not know what that part necessarily meant. But in the reverse, if aliens came to see the show and not speak English at all, I hope that they would kind of understand what it was about.
“How do you think Runaways has changed since its original conception?” —Jonathan Schneiderman
Stebbins: I saw Runaways with Clara [Yuste], and I walked away thinking, “We have to do this.” We had just done 1776 the year before, and that was interesting because I remember telling everyone the night before our opening show that they needed to remember what it was about. We had just been present in a wild act of horrible violence happening just outside our school’s door. We needed to think about what that experience meant for us as Stuy students and as Americans, and how our founding fathers framed everything.
What was so wonderful about 1776 was that we casted, out of necessity and for creative [reasons], gender-blind and race-blind. Unintentionally, we ended up having the least white production of 1776 ever made, especially in every leading role. I told them to go home and think about why we’re doing 1776, just like why we’re doing Runaways. I walked away thinking, “That’s great, but Runaways is the polar opposite in that any of these people could be us.” We’re not playing very iconic, historical figures we all study in our history classes. It was interesting to do something that was the polar opposite of what we did the year before.
“How do you go about with choreography?” —Emily Rubenstein
douglas: As a person who’s been doing choreography, I’m in awe that you’re doing it for a little while. We should get a coffee and talk about it. How did you start?
Rubenstein: I used to be really bad at dancing as a little kid, and then I went to Sleepaway Camp. I was in a musical over there. I’ve been in musicals all my life, but I’ve always been in the back because I was really bad at dancing. I took tap for a [couple of] years and some musical theater at SHUFFLES. I came here and I directed tap my freshman year. We did some tap in Urinetown, and then we did 1776. The director asked, “You dance, right? Can you choreograph something?” I’ve been choreographing a lot of the [songs].
Taj: It’s very clear that all of you can answer your questions better than any of us can.
Lichter: Liz found a lot of inspiration from people your age, younger, and older. What she would say is, “Make sure you get to the ballot by Tuesday and get your parents and your grandparents and everybody that can vote.” It’s probably the most important election in your time because if you want to see parents together with their children, if you want to see same-sex marriage, if you want to see a balance of power in this country whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, [and] if you want to see your future, this is the election to get your friends who are 18 to vote. Call your parents. Call your grandparents.
Pinkleton: All you have to do to be a choreographer is say you are a choreographer. All you have to do to be a writer is say you are a writer. We learned that from Liz. Make sure you’re making your own stuff, because you have more energy now than you ever will.