A Playwright Called Vanda

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Colleen Lis and Francesca DiPaola at the Apr. 28 performance of Juliana. Photo credit: Chelsea Culverwell.
Colleen Lis and Francesca DiPaola at the Apr. 28 performance of Juliana. Photo credit: Chelsea Culverwell.
Colleen Lis, Francesca DiPaola at the Apr. 28 performance of Juliana. Photo: Chelsea Culverwell.

There’s a delicious saying in the theater whose history goes back many centuries: “Why wait around for someone to produce your play when you can do it yourself?”

All right, all right, we made that saying up. But the sentiment itself is undeniably true. And why not? Good, great, even merely interesting playwrights find themselves on the outside of the production process with little hope of getting in all the time, and for no other reason sometimes than the fact that producing is a numbers game. So you tilt the numbers in your favor by going DIY.

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Vanda is one of the most talented, ambitious and interesting playwrights you have probably never heard of. She is the recipient of an Edward Albee Fellowship and was a finalist for a National Lambda Award. Her play, Patient HM, later titled The Forgetting Curve, won the Pride Stage and Screen’s Women’s Playwriting Award, and another play, Why’d Ya Make Me Wear This, Joe, won Celebration Theater’s award for Best New LGBT Play. Her play Vile Affections was a hit in the New York International Fringe Festival. Most of her work centers on gay characters and especially on gay history.

She is also a noted psychologist as well as a prolific author of fiction, and here the story intensifies as well as intrigues. Her novel Juliana, as she puts it:

is Tales of the City set in 1940s Greenwich Village instead of 1970s San Francisco. Gays and Lesbians hide in plain sight among straights who rarely notice them.

But Juliana is actually considerably more than that. It’s…

Part novel, part 1940s radio show, part night club entertainment, part play.

Here’s the plot:

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It’s 1941 and Alice Huffman, “Al,” comes from the potato fields of Long Island with her childhood friends to make it on the Broadway stage, only to find she has no talent. On the kids’ first day in New York City, they meet Maxwell P. Hartwell III, a failed nightclub owner and Broadway producer, who, according to Al, looks a little like Clark Gable. He invites them to a nightclub where Al hears Juliana, the glamorous, perpetually-on-the-brink-of stardom singer, for the first time. Al is instantly drawn to her and seeks her out. Juliana is a sexual risk-taker who easily reels in the mesmerized Al.

Through Juliana and Max Al is thrust into a world of “deviates” and “perverts” that she never before knew existed. Cameo appearances are made by Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Lauren Bacall, Tallulah Bankhead and Walter Liberace.

And so a funny thing happened to Vanda on her way to the fiction forum: she discovered that Juliana really lent itself, in structure and style, to being re-set live, on stage. So at the legendary Greenwich Village boite called The Duplex, Vanda and director Ray Fritz have been meting out portions of Juliana in a bite-sized and serialized format, with monthly performances since 2014 that have built a loyal audience of people in their 20s through their 90s. Vanda and Fritz contextualize each performance in such a way that one needn’t have seen any prior “episode” in order to appreciate the one you’re viewing. And for those unaware that gay history did not begin with the Stonewall riots, Vanda offers audiences a remarkable respect for, and fidelity to, the World War II period in New York homosexual life.

Juliana’s final performance for the spring will be on Tues., June 23, at 9:30pm at The Duplex, and the series will continue in the fall. For tickets, click here.

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And now, 5 questions Vanda has never been asked: 

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
I guess the following isn’t really a question, but I do remember a very perceptive comment that occurred during a talkback for a workshop of my play, Why’d You Make Me Wear This, Joe?

This play is similar to Juliana and may have inspired the novel. Both the play and the novel involve a young woman discovering her sexuality by falling in love with a more sophisticated, more experienced woman. In the play, however, the older woman is confined to a wheelchair because she had polio as a child. She refuses to leave the house because she cannot tolerate being stared at. The two women form their own intimate world while their men are off in the South Pacific fighting in World War II. Of course, this world is shattered when the men return home.

During the talkback, a tough guy, obviously straight with a noticeable Brooklyn accent, became very thoughtful, almost sad, and said the play reminded him of the animated TV story, The Island of Misfit Toys. That animation happened be one of my favorites also, so I knew what he meant. There were titters in the background as he compared my characters to Hermey, the elf who wanted to be a dentist, and Rudolph, who had that red nose problem. He was completely serious and correct in saying my characters were living on an island of misfit toys and with that comparison he understood, I think, more than anyone else in that audience, that the wider circle of gays and lesbians, beyond my play, had been living on that island throughout much of history.

Vanda
Vanda

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
Why my play about a cloistered nun was set in a convent.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked your about your work?
A question I get all the time, which is not objectively weird — meaning strange or bizarre, but only weird through my own perceptional lens — is “How do you choose the stories you want to write about?” The word “choose” to me connotes a certain amount of “conscious awareness,” and my conscious mind is never a primary factor in my work. I write from my gut. Every day I see potential stories that could be written into plays or novels. Other people are always pointing out, “That would make a good play,” and often they are right. However, a story being “good” does not mean it will become the one out of the hundreds of possible stories that I commit four or five years of my life to. The stories that I do end up making that commitment to have some kind of underlying psychological pull for me. Without that, the event or circumstance, no matter how terrific, will not get written, at least not by me. Generally, I do not know what the psychological pull is until I am well into the story or have even completed it. I don’t choose the story; the story chooses me. So from my vantage point the question, “How do you choose your story?” seems weird.

Why is gay life in the 1940s of special interest to you — as compared to, say the ’20s or the ’60s?
This is one of those questions I get asked a lot and never feel I have a good answer for. As I said before, I write from my gut. The gut is what chooses the characters, the plot, the internal dynamics, and, I guess, also the time period. It’s actually shocking to my system when I’m asked a question that requires me to shift to my head, but I’ve had to do this a number of times.

First, for clarity, the novel Juliana is really The Juliana Project — meaning I am working on a series of novels and a performance piece. The series begins with Volume 1 (1941-44). There will be more books in the series exploring later decades using the same characters.

But why did I begin the series in the 1940s? The gut-level, psychological answer, I think, is that it was my attempt to understand the attitudes and prejudices I grew up with, the attitudes and prejudices my parents, my neighborhood and my country sincerely held. I think I needed to know why these people hated us — me — so much. The extensive research I have been doing into this time period has given me a few answers, which I have attempted to write up in the preliminary pages of my novel. Here’s one of those answers.

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My parents and their friends were just entering adulthood in the early 1940s. It was a time of idolization of American values: Mom, country and apple pie. Anyone who was apparently on the outside of those values caused too much confusion to be brought into the circle. Homosexuals, as extreme outsiders, were perhaps more threatening to this wholesome world than the faraway Nazis. So threatening and beyond the pale that these wholesome Americans barely knew that “those kind” existed. Anyone they liked could not be one of “them.” My parents called Liberace “sensitive” and never entertained the thought that he could be one of “them.” Those types were spooky, far-off people you didn’t know. They were dangerous to children and certainly didn’t go to church or live next door to you. (See my blog for the experience of a straight in relation to the invisibility of gays in the late 1940s.)

In a world like the 1940s, where there were actual good guys (Americans) fighting against actual bad guys (Nazis), there was little room for contradiction. This evil had to be conquered or the world was pretty much doomed. Queers represented one big threatening contradiction. And I was one big threatening contradiction in the world my relatives inhabited.

Jason Pintar, in an early incarnation of Juliana. Photo: Lori Wark.
Jason Pintar, in an early incarnation of Juliana. Photo: Lori Wark.

Why explore your interest through the medium of a novel as opposed to, say, a book of social history or interviews with people still alive from that time?
I love writing fiction. It’s the way my mind works. I wrote my first novel when I was 14. There are many wonderful books on gay history. I’ve assiduously studied these while researching my novel, but the average person isn’t going to do that.

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I think by writing a novel rather than a book of social history or a book of interviews I can reach a wider audience. We perform our show at the Duplex for audiences whose ages have ranged from early 20s to 95. Our audiences have also been a mix of straight and queer. I think the same will happen when the book is published (in September or October). Fiction is personal, not objective. Readers and audience members get to know the characters and to care what happens to them. The history impacts the characters and becomes a living, breathing thing affecting the reader and/or audience member. The reality of the LGBT struggle toward equality can then become more personal. It is happening to the reader/audience member, no matter what their age or sexual orientation.

How did Juliana become a novel-turned-miniseries for a cabaret stage?
I spent many years exclusively as a playwright, hence, when I went back to working on a novel, I used a great deal of dialogue. My two writers groups that I counted on for feedback were playwriting groups. I was feeling lonely out there, just my novel and me. I needed some trusted writers to tell me when I was on the right track and when I wasn’t. I asked one of my writing groups, Manhattan Oracles, a brilliant group of playwrights, if I could cast my novel with actors and bring it to the group for feedback. They said, “Yes!”

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I began having chapters read at the group and I kept getting comments like, “You should read this in a public venue.” Finally, one of the group members suggested we perform the novel in a bar. We approached the Duplex and Thomas Honeck, the general manager, was very receptive. We now are booked for the fourth Tuesday of every month through December at 7pm. No one should worry if they haven’t seen it from the beginning. For Gay Pride we have a special time slot on June 23 at 9:30pm instead of 7pm.

Do you ever worry that adding musical performances and similar adornments that could never exist in the medium of a novel distract from your writing?
I have enough ego invested in my work to have had some concern about this in the very beginning, but no more. First, I feel miraculously blessed — and I’m not referring to any particular religious experience — I’m just plain and simple wowed by the caliber of performers that this project has attracted. I don’t worry at all anymore about my novel being overshadowed because my director, Ray Fritz, and the actors are enormously respectful of the text, always attempting to say everything as written. I often get compliments from the audience and the actors about how detailed the manuscript is, that it helps them to feel like they are really in the 1940s. And after all, I wrote the plot, which is the life my characters walk through. The show wouldn’t exist without that. The songs and sometimes dancing add to the fun, but take nothing away from my novel. I’m proud that we can present this highly entertaining piece of theater that is part novel, part old-time radio program, part play, part nightclub entertainment.

Matt Antar (foreground). Photo: Chelsea Culverwell.
Matt Antar (foreground). Photo: Chelsea Culverwell.

What have you, as a writer, learned about your own material from this experience and did it inspire to edit or revise or reimagine your novel?
Every time we prepare chapters for a forthcoming performance I learn something new about my material. That doesn’t necessarily mean I revise anything. You have to keep in mind that the director and actors are entering this manuscript after I have spent nearly five years working on it. It has been reviewed by my writers group, Manhattan Oracles, and has been edited by an independent editor. This is not a rough draft and we are not doing a workshop reading. This manuscript is ready. Still, in my own mind I have found things I want to change, cut or add from listening to the actors rehearse. If it is some vital change I will tell the actors about it during rehearsal. However, I usually don’t bother them with every detail that disturbs me. I make the change after the performance.

Can you touch on the roots of your single-name identity?
I don’t know how long ago I started with that, but I’ve only used one name for quite some time. Edward Albee calls me “the playwright with one name.” I just don’t feel that any last name suits me. I guess I feel self-created and therefore I feel that Vanda describes me just fine and I don’t need anything more.

It gives me lots of trouble, though. I’m always amazed at how many uncreative, inflexible people there are in the theater. Once I wrote to a director who I’d never met. I may have been commenting on a book he wrote. I don’t think I was asking him to read my work, but he wrote back to say that he would never work with anyone who used only one name. I found that hysterically funny, but also sad. Computers won’t accept my one name approach to life, but I guess I expect more from a human being, especially one who purports to be in a field requiring imagination and flights of fancy. I never wrote back to him, but in truth, I would never work with him either. I couldn’t work with a rigid rule monger masquerading as a director. I wonder if Sapphire has these problems. Or Mo’nique. What about the British writer Saki? Madonna? Cher?

That brings me to the problems of being a one-name writer confronting the computer. A computer wants you to fill in all the little boxes; it won’t accept a form with the last name left out. I finally found a way around this dilemma. In the box where it says “Last Name” I now write “Neveruseit.” I’ve actually gone to writers’ conferences where the organizers have printed “Vanda Neveruseit” on my name-tag. They attempt some really strange pronunciations and want to know if it’s German. Or perhaps French?

Vanda Neveruseit.
Vanda Neveruseit.

We’re curious to know more of your background: where you’re from originally, how you became a writer, how you identify socially and professionally. What does Vanda, the writer, know about writing that she didn’t know 10, 20, 30 years ago?
I come from a working class family and I grew up in Huntington Station, Long Island. References are frequently made in my work to Huntington or Huntington Station (a big difference between these two). Alice (Al) Huffman, the main character in Juliana, comes to the city from Huntington, near the potato fields of Long Island.

I wrote my first poem in eighth grade, inspired by a special teacher. I woke up in the middle of the night and started writing it down. I don’t really know why I did that, but it wasn’t long before I wrote my first novel. I began a second novel in ninth grade, but I never finished that. I sporadically wrote short pieces through high school and college, but I was always conflicted about my writing since my family didn’t approve and were not supportive (except for my little sister) Finally, after college I stopped writing completely and didn’t start again for another 15 years. While I was working on my psychology doctorate at Columbia, I got stuck with my dissertation. My sponsor kept having me write it over and I was bored. I decided the only way I could get unstuck was to write a novel. I began a massive novel that I never finished, but it did unstick me. (That novel became another play that never got finished and then it became a different play that actually did get finished and became my first produced full-length play. See how the unconscious can haunt an author with a topic they need to write?)

I spent a good portion of my early adult life with a man pretending to myself that I was heterosexual. When I finally left him, I left so that I could write. It was through my writing that I finally began the journey toward accepting my queer self. I’m still on that journey, but wow, have things changed and how magnificent those changes are!