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Between Intention and Action

by Dassia Posner

DASSIA N. POSNER: Grand Concourse, the largest street in the Bronx, was originally designed to be even grander than Paris’s ChampsÉlysées—yet it runs through what is now our country’s poorest urban county. Why this setting for the play? HEIDI SCHRECK: I didn’t have a lot of grand designs when I named it. I worked at a soup kitchen in the Bronx called POTS (Part Of The Solution), which was started by a group of Catholic nuns and priests but has evolved into a secular community service organization. It’s right near Grand Concourse. I put that on as a temporary name and then I liked it. One definition of “Concourse” is a coming together of people. And then of course it’s a huge avenue, something you can move from one place to another on. But its original meaning is a sort of grand meeting. YASEN PEYANKOV: I love how deceiving the title is. It has something very large in scope about it. When I first read the play, I didn’t know it was connected to this huge boulevard. It just felt like an intimate play with grand emotions inside. DP: And within this grandness there’s a soup kitchen. Can you tell us about this setting? HS: I grew up working in soup kitchens with my parents. It was a big part of my childhood, and I thought it would be an interesting place to set a play. I also worked for social justice organizations when I first moved to New York, and I found it fascinating that the people who came to volunteer, including me, were looking for nourishment as much as the people who were coming to receive the services. And they can be kind of crazy, screwed up environments. People have very complicated motives for doing good. And I wanted to explore that. YP: I grew up in a Socialist country, where I never encountered the kind of need I found when I came to the U.S., the richest country in the world. Then for a few years, I had a theater company in residence at 615 West Wellington, United Church of Christ. There was a homeless shelter downstairs where the kitchen was, so it functioned as a soup kitchen as well. There’s something about the soup kitchen being in the “belly” of the church, you know? This manifests in our design: the outline of a church with stunning mural windows and then, in the belly, the lower depths. HS: I love that! DP: The play’s soup kitchen is run by Shelley, a nun who was inspired in part by Catholic activist Dorothy Day, who famously said, “The Gospel has taken away our right forever to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” For Day, giving is something we just ought to do. Should we choose who deserves help? Or should giving be truly generous? HS: I find it a very profound statement to say that it’s not our job to decide who is deserving and who is not. Part of Shelley’s struggle is just learning whether what she’s offering, for example, to Emma is actually help or not. That’s a question that’s alive in the play for Shelley, that maybe there are other ways of doing good in the world than the one she’s committed her life to. YP: I was stunned by that quote. Nobody makes a choice to be poor. But if we’re talking about need, some people have desperate needs and you try to help, but sometimes it makes things worse. So how do you make that call? DP: And how do you balance looking after yourself with the kind of altruism that is at the heart of this play? HS: There is certainly value in questioning the most effective way to do good for others and for ourselves. There is true generosity, and there is altruism that comes out of avoiding a reckoning with ourselves. In Day’s book it’s clear that she also struggled with this and was constantly questioning her own motives for devoting her life to others less fortunate than she was. DP: Day also wrote, “We must talk about poverty because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.” This reminds me of something Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, recently wrote: the 53 wealthiest New Yorkers have as much money as 17 million minimum wage workers. Does this kind of wealth blind people to the needs of others? HS: The wealth gap is the largest it’s been since the Great Depression. Absolutely that insulation happens. There have been lots of studies about how the more you have, the more protected you are, the greater effort you have to make to experience empathy for other people. It’s in our nature to believe that we have the things we have because we earned them, overlooking a lot of what has been given to us. YP: This brings us back to the social context of the play, about the haves and have-nots. The line that sticks in my head, after Emma has served her first meal, “So much need,” puts into context the times we are living in. DP: The play deals in an unusual, but provocative and exciting way, with the question of what it means to forgive. HS: That’s the biggest question of the play for me. I’m an agnostic now, but I grew up in a Presbyterian household with loving, generous parents who taught me forgiveness as a default setting. It was only when I got older that I realized I didn't know, when I was forgiving people or attempting to forgive myself, if I was actually doing it. I understood that I was supposed to, but I realized I didn't understand exactly what it meant. YP: That’s what really fascinated me about the play. It’s about the boundaries of forgiveness, and how flexible and stretchable those boundaries are. HS: I think there's something to acknowledging that it's a much harder, thornier process than it might seem. Forgiveness is a process. And it's actually a very rigorous, difficult, painful one. DP: How do the questions this play raises connect with larger things you're asking as an artist? HS: I’m interested, here and in my other plays, in the gulf between the desire to live a “good life” and the practicality of what that actually means, in that space between intention and action. I'm interested in how hard it is to even figure out how to live an ethical life and then how complicated it is to enact. DP: Yasen, how does this play resonate with your interests? YP: There's always one defining factor when I decide to do a play. It's the humanity of the piece. And this one's oozing with humanity. And it’s the first play I've read that has almost no punctuation. It has such a freedom about it; you start to create your own music. And it has conflict and secrets and betrayals and a really unexpected turn at the end. So what's not to like?