UP Theater Reveals NYC Neighborhood in Transition

UP Theater
Jamie Saunders, Devin E. Haqq and Max Lebow in Kirby Fields' Lost/Not Found. Photos: Gerry Goodstein.

In a taped-off building in Washington Heights, a man stumbles into an apartment under the flickering light of a TV. He takes a swig from a bottle of liquor still in the bag. Somewhere in the background, there is a rustle: it could be a rat, or a bit of plastic taped to a broken window. In Kirby Fields’ new play Lost/Not Found, it is a 14-year-old girl tethered to a radiator.

Max Lebow and Jamie Saunders.

Vida — mute and missing for days — turns up alive near the George Washington Bridge. A trio of ne’er-do-wells “rescue” and play host to her as the monetary reward offered for her safe return grows. “They’re not exactly heroes,” explains UP Theater in their marketing material. Indeed, Fields seems less interested in the likability of his characters than in their humanity, and in Lost/Not Found, he explores how greed can prevail over honorable action under desperate circumstances.

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Alex Keegan directs the premiere of Kirby’s play, which runs through May 19 at The Garret at Fort Washington Collegiate (729 W. 181st St., NYC). The production features Devin Haqq, Max Lebow, Andrew Manning, Jamie Saunders and Mariette Strauss. Designers Frank Oliva (set), Janet Mervin (costumes), Duane Pagano (light), David Margolin Lawson (sound), and Ron Piretti (fight choreography) round out the creative team.

And now, five questions that playwright Kirby Fields has never been asked:

How did this play come about? Was there any particular inspiration for it?

A number of different factors led to the first draft of Lost/Not Found. The first was the real-life disappearance of Avonte Oquendo, an autistic 14-year-old boy who wandered away from his school in Queens in October 2013.

My younger son was two-and-a-half at the time, and during this period we realized that his expressive speech was delayed. He was able to receive and understand words that were spoken to him, and he knew what he wanted to say back, but he couldn’t make the thoughts in his head connect to the sounds coming out of his mouth.

I am not at all equating my toddler’s apraxia of speech with a teenager whose autism renders him incommunicative: my son is now a thriving five-year-old, albeit one who continues to receive speech therapy; Avonte Oquendo was found dead in January 2014 — a fate that, as a parent, I cannot even begin to imagine. However, the idea of striving to communicate with a person that I love, but who was unable to verbally communicate back, informed my reaction to the missing boy.

The final piece of the puzzle that would eventually become the first draft of the play was a dilapidated building that stood in a row of condemned houses on the north side of West 187th Street, between Broadway and Wadsworth Ave. The houses were clearly uninhabitable, yet there was evidence that people lived there. I would pass these rotting buildings every weekend when I took my kids to Ft. Tryon Park, and my mind would try to create a life for the people who would call such a place home.

I am unable to identify the exact moment that these three sparks became a flame, but they are, collectively, the inspiration for the play.

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Max Lebow, Andrew Manning and Jamie Saunders.

Was it important to you that this particular play be produced in Washington Heights?

I am from Joplin, MO (pop. 40,000, give or take), and I actually think that this play would connect with audiences there or any of the other countless places across the country that I have not been but that I know to suffer the same kind of opportunity gaps that drive the characters in the play to make the decisions that they make, even if they might not (hopefully wouldn’t) perform the same actions themselves.

That said, this is definitely a play that adheres to the adage of “write what you know,” and there is something special about the play being performed in the neighborhood where I have lived for the past 11 years.

UP Theater also produced your play K Comma Joseph back in 2012. Is there something this creative team brings to your work that a company located elsewhere in the city might not? How involved have you been with rehearsals?

UP’s mission is to serve Upper Manhattan with high-quality and thought-provoking new work. I honestly think that they are treating the play with the same respect and devotion that they have brought to their nine previous full productions. I like to think that it’s an extra sense of pride for them that the play is both produced and set up here, but they are going to be pros no matter what.

Director Alex Keegan and playwright Kirby Fields. Photo: Jacki Goldhammer.

I love rehearsal and attend as much as I can. The first time I hear [my plays] read by others, it sounds (not wrong but) different than I expected. And then I hear it again and again and I realize that there is no one way that it is supposed to be played and that [the actors] are influencing the work with their own interpretations and choices and personalities and that this thing that started as mine now becomes ours. This work that is now shared equally among the writer, the actors, the director, the stage managers, the various designers, and anyone who hammered a nail into the set or handed out a program.

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Gentrification in northern Manhattan is a hot topic. There are plans to tear down the Inwood branch of the New York Public Library and replace it with a new library and affordable housing. There were protests last summer against rezoning for the Sherman Plaza project, where developers argued that they would bring in affordable housing, while locals were concerned about displacement and a changing neighborhood. You have these characters — lifelong residents of Washington Heights who are scraping by — living in a ramshackle building. How does this play contribute to the larger conversation on uptown socio-economics, gentrification and the need for affordable housing in northern Manhattan?

The epigraph for Lost/Not Found was originally from Lou Reed’s “Dirty Blvd.” off of his New York album. It read: “This room costs 2,000 a month / You can believe it man it’s true / Somewhere a landlord’s laughing ’til he wets his pants.” The newscast that opens the play references the “mayor’s initiative to create 10,000 new units of affordable housing.” And for all practical purposes every character in the play is homeless. I absolutely believe that the play can be interpreted as a commentary on the need for affordable housing in Upper Manhattan and elsewhere.

But while I recognize that affordable housing is a significant enough theme that it stands on its own, I also believe that the housing challenge represents the degree to which these characters are displaced by society as a whole. They are committed to shitty jobs that are not committed to them. They seek shortcuts when hard work isn’t enough. And, most damningly of all, they apply the kinds of values that are rewarded in corporate America to a scenario that demands more compassion: they are selfish entrepreneurs who monetize a tragic situation for their own gain, consequence be damned. Their instincts are not the problem. In fact, if they wore suit jackets rather than hoodies, their instincts would be rewarded. The problem is that they are not the kinds of people who we want to think of when we think of these quintessentially American values.

Mariette Strauss and Max Lebow.

Regarding the gentrification of Upper Manhattan, the play does include a reference to “all that development creeping up the west side faster than you can say Whole Foods,” but I am inspired less by the various neighborhood rallies that you mention and more by the families living in my building. We have an odd combination over here, one block east of Broadway. An apartment on the ground floor was recently renovated and is running for $3,000 a month (if our online sleuthing can be trusted), but the woman who lives across the hall from us grew up in that apartment and is now raising her own daughter there. I think, though, that she is going to be the exception. The lifers in the building — and there are a lot of them — are not young, and when they’re gone those apartments are not going to be handed down. They are going to be gut renos. It might not happen immediately, but changes to the neighborhood seem inevitable.

Full disclosure: while my wife and I have lived in this apartment for 11 years and my sons have known no other home, we would probably be considered by many to be the gentrifiers. I am, essentially, squeezing my own characters out of their homes.

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How has your uptown environment shaped your writing process and your work? Do you have any additional upcoming projects?

I’ve moved around enough that I don’t know where I’m “from,” exactly. Being immersed in various locations has enabled me to move pretty fluidly from location to location in my writing, depending on what the play needs.

Max Lebow, Mariette Strauss, Andrew Manning.

Some of [my] plays I would have written no matter where I lived, if maybe some of the details would have changed. Lost/Not Found, however, could not have been written without the experience of living in a large urban environment, and I think part of its appeal is that it is calibrated to the neighborhood with an almost GPS-like specificity. These are characters that are products of their environment, and, for the most part, their environment extends from 187th, down Audubon [Ave], across to Broadway, and then back up.

Next up is a collaboration with Other Informed Creatives on a new musical. I don’t want to say too much about it as I’m still in the early stages of the writing process, but it is tentatively set in a refugee camp in an unnamed part of the world and is equal parts love- and activist-origin story. While I have explored music in my plays — Lost/Not Found includes a rap! — I have never written a straight-up musical before, and I am enjoying the opportunity to develop new work with producers whose only notes so far have been “do whatever feels right.”