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The Intimate Conversation

CC: I have so many questions about how you chose your subject matter, because the story itself is so unique, yet compelling and universal. Where did this particular story come from? LN: The play was loosely inspired by my great-grandmother, who was a seamstress. She made intimate apparel at the turn of the 20th century. I wanted to write this play because I wanted to know my great-grandmother better, and in the process, I wanted to rediscover my own history. It all started when I was cleaning out my grandmother’s brownstone, which she had lived in for more than 50 years. I was just going through all of these things when I picked up an old issue of Family Circle magazine from the 1960s, and this picture fell out. It was a picture of my great-grandmother, whom I never knew, with my grandmother and her sister, and I thought “My god, this is the first time I’ve ever seen her.” It was shocking – I was a grown woman being introduced to my ancestor for the very first time while I was in the process of cleaning out my grandmother’s home. It was a wonderful experience that also made me very sad, because I thought “I don’t know who she is…I know nothing about her.” That’s what sent me on this journey, to discover who I am by rediscovering my personal history. CC: Did you know her name? LN: I know her name now, but, no, I didn’t even know that at the time. When I was going through all of my grandmother’s stuff, I found documents and other things that gave me clues about my great-grandmother’s life. I was then able to ask a couple of people in the older generation of my family who are still alive about her, and they gave me more tidbits about her. I learned that she was a seamstress who created and sold intimate apparel and that she began corresponding with a man who was working on the Panama Canal – which is another autobiographical element that made it into the play. I don’t know whether they ever fell in love, but they made some kind of connection, because the man came to America and very quickly thereafter they were married. I came to this play at a moment in my life after my mother had died and when my grandmother was senile, and I realized that there was a part of my personal history that would be completely lost if I didn’t write it down. So for me, this was a very personal journey. At the same time, I thought it was a wonderful theme to explore – a woman turning thirty-five, reflecting on her life, and resigned to the fact that she’s never going to find love. CC: The remarkable thing about Esther, the main character in the play, is just how passionate she is, in a world where people don’t view her as passionate because she is an unmarried woman. LN: I think it was a very repressed age at the turn of the last century, and the corset was emblematic of that repression. Women were asked to confine themselves, restrict their movement, and then create this false posture. I think that restricted form extended into their whole lives. CC: It’s interesting then, that Esther is creating these constructions as intimate apparel, and at the same time, the play is about her bursting through those restrictions. LN: For my process, it was helpful to know she was working on something that involved a great deal of detail. The making of these items, this “intimate apparel,” became the central image that gives shape to the action of the play. Was Esther working on a woman’s item, something she had sewn a hundred times? Or was it a man’s suit? And what was the difference between being in the process of making a man’s suit and being in the process of making a corset for a woman? CC: Another thing that I find interesting is that the story you’re telling is an immigrant story. LN: That’s true, but it’s also about how New York City was shaped in the early part of the 20th century. There are people who were coming from overseas, people who came from the South, and some older families who were long established in the City. Somehow, all of those people found a way to coexist– and it wasn’t necessarily always a happy coexistence –but that’s what makes New York unique. So, yes, it’s an immigrant story, but it’s also a story of a woman from the South. CC: The thing that I find remarkable about this play, Lynn, is that it is both naturalistic on a certain level and utterly poetic on another. LN: Well, it’s a character-driven play, but I think all of my plays are character-driven. By and large, the characters always dictate the way in which they want to tell their story, so the play takes the shape that tells their story best. I just follow where they take me. Also, because this play was very much inspired by my ancestors, I wanted to honor them in the best way that I could. In the end, I hope it does that most of all.