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Home > Columnists > Doug Strassler
April 03, 2018

Checking In With Sara Farrington


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The director-playwright discusses her new work Leisure, Labor, Lust

by Doug Strassler

Sara Farrington, the creator of last year’s CasablancaBOX, has now directed and written Leisure, Labor, Lust. This triptych of plays, inspired by the work of Edith Wharton and Jacob Riis, spans turn-of-the-century New York from the horrors of mental illness to the paralysis of the immigrant to the impossibility of being closeted to a gothic romance and runs at The Tank through April 22. Garden State Journal spoke with Farrington about the new show.

Garden State Journal: How did this idea come to you?

Sara Farrington: I was reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton and remember thinking, “I wish I was as good as her.” And then I remember thinking, “I’m gonna try to write a play in her voice.” I kind of dared myself to do it, to mimic that Gilded Age romantic tone, but her specifically, her ability to deconstruct the human heart, to question it, attempt to translate it. So I started this marinating process I always do where I read everything I could by her and about her.

The true Eureka happened when I read in her biography by Hermione Lee of a love affair she had when she was married and 47 to a 30-year-old bisexual man named Morton Fullerton. It was such a sad story, one so passionate and oddly commonplace for the grounded and brilliant woman I perceived her to be. I understood her falling so deeply in love with Fullerton, I loved that he was such a brash and unapologetically sexual progressive, that he was a mystery to everyone he met, including her. I found the whole thing completely irresistible. But lately, now that my play is in a state of completion, I realize that the true protagonist in Leisure, Labor, Lust is Harry Hunter, my character inspired by Teddy Wharton, Edith’s mentally ill husband during the time of the affair. He was such a tragic figure too, one who gets forgotten. All that’s where the spark of the play started, but most of it—the characters, story, details, language – is my own invention.

GSJ: Were you a fan of either Edith Wharton or Jacob Riis prior to this play? Both?

SF: Oh yes, definitely. I have always loved Wharton; one novel is more intoxicating than the next. There is really nothing quite like getting lost in The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth as an adult woman having been tossed around in the world. And Jacob Riis is one of my heroes. His work is so monumental, important and difficult to look at. There’s an image of his of these three boys, maybe five or six years old, huddled over a grate, barefoot, holding each other in some bleak subterranean corner of a tenement building. They seem to be in a contorted, miserable sleep. Just thinking of the image makes me sick, makes me think of my two sons, makes me wonder how people could have walked right by that. Riis couldn’t, though, and he was brave enough to expose that New York, something many had no idea about. It was important to me that if I was going to marinate in Wharton’s affluence I had to drag her through Riis’ underworld.

GSJ: Did you learn anything more about either of them?

SF: Oh yeah. Diving into How the Other Half Lives is an almost impossible task for anyone with an imagination. There are many other Riis books too that I discovered. There’s one called Children of The Tenements, which, if you’re a mom, will ruin your day. The everyday horrors of New York were unspeakable. I also spent a lot of time at The Tenement Museum, which was wildly inspirational. But of course the biggest learning experience has been my ongoing residency at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she lived and wrote. The artistic team at The Mount gave us free reign to perform Leisure, Labor, Lust in her rooms, for an intimately close audience; it was incredible. There were times where I was really overcome and caught up in Wharton’s spirit, privileged as I was to be listening to my play through her walls.

GSJ: How much of this play is invented vs based on research and real events?

SF: Most of it is invented. The things based in fact are Wharton’s affair with Fullerton, Fullerton’s bisexuality and social climbing, Teddy Wharton’s lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder, and Edith’s tortuous marriage to him. My Grace Hunter is not Edith Wharton, Delancey Morris is not Morton Fullerton and Harry Hunter is in no way Teddy Wharton. They are reflections of me as a playwright. I am certainly not a writer who likes to write bio-plays; I think for the most part those are cheap and read like a Wikipedia entry.

What I do love to do is using shades of real people from my palate of reading, research, experience and imagination to create my own characters, which is a dramatist’s playground. I can also hide myself in there, like an actor. I started off as an actor, so to me writing like this feels like a Stella Adler exercise in given circumstances, pure imagination, envisioning what something must have felt like and then infusing myself into it. That’s very much how I write all my plays. I would warn people never to view me as an expert in anything, or someone who cares about historical accuracy.

GSJ: I was wondering if you could discuss further any of the contemporary issues you think this play hits on.

SF: Yes definitely! This has been a struggle for me because my plays are actually enormously political, but because I am only ever interested in people, characters, human behavior, motivations, psychology, emotional experiences – it’s the actor instinct in me – my plays sometimes come off as “play plays” upon first reading, which I regret. They are so, so, so not. It strikes me as platitudinous to push a play as addressing issues, or being “about” something, having a message, etc… If I had a message I definitely wouldn’t bother producing theater; it’s too f***ing hard.

The contemporary issues in Leisure, Labor, Lust are there: repressed homosexuality, society’s vice-grip, a female artist’s historical place in the world, the paralysis of the immigrant. But I’d rather infuse them into Harry Hunter’s specific choices and psychology and behavior. That excites me, that’s what theater is about for me. Like, how does a lifetime in the closet feel day to day, year to year? How does it affect dinner with his wife, Grace? Or a sexual encounter with his male lover? What specifically are the million tiny life choices that lead to his suicide? When people gossip, even today, that’s what people ask, what’s excites them. So the current and historical zeitgeist is deeply embedded in this play, but the entertaining bit comes through the personal, emotional, daily experience of it.

GSJ: Could you speak to this play’s new media elements?

SF: Although I hid this play in New York in 1907, it has a distinct new media feel to it. Having worked in new media in the theater for the past few years, I think one of the most fun things about this piece is how it has a “live edit” aesthetic. There is no doubt this is a play with jump cuts. It’s astonishing, especially because that aesthetic comes entirely out of the storytelling technique. It is told in a wonderfully twisted and revealing way. That, and also that I couldn’t have made all this beauty without my team: Gabriella Rhodeen, Stephanie Regina, Christopher Tocco, Kyle Stockburger, Alex B. West, Brian Aldous, Sam Schloegel, Meghan Finn and Rosalind Grush.

For tickets to Love, Labor,Lust, go to http://www.thetanknyc.org/theater/962-leisure-labor-lust/.

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