News & Articles

From Zero to a Hundred

by Dassia Posner

Dassia Posner: Erika, how did you come to write this play?
Erika Sheffer: I was an actor for a while. When I started writing, I got to a point where I wanted to write something more personal. My parents and my brother moved here from the Soviet Union a couple years before I was born, and then I was born here. My uncle stayed with us later when he came from the Ukraine and got on his feet. As a playwright, for me it’s important to talk about things that I care about and that I think are going to translate to a wider audience. For me, this has always been the question of how people are able to do terrible things and justify it. So the play became about those two things.
DP: How did the play come to Steppenwolf?
Yasen Peyankov: Martha Lavey gave me the play to read, and I loved it. I recognized the experience of my own family. The way these people communicate. The way they love each other. The way they get on each other’s nerves. It also reminded me of many other families of Eastern European descent. There is something about the language that’s so real. It’s like you overheard it. It reminds me of how Tracy Letts writes. To someone who might not be familiar with the culture, some of the scenes might look borderline abusive, but I find them hilarious. It is a play that really looks like it was written by an actor. There are strong, focused characters who want particular things in life. And they couldn’t be more different from each other. So when all of these wants get in the middle, they clash.
DP: Erika, you said something once about being interested in people who are on the edge of doing the right thing. That’s so central to this play. These characters are between cultures, between life paths. They’re struggling to define what it means to survive, what it means to be happy. How has this shaped this play?
ES: I understand the appeal of abhorrent characters. But for me to really empathize with that person, I want to believe they’re a good person in bad circumstances doing terrible things. Because I could be that terrible, too, if under the same circumstances. I want to see characters who, even if they might be doing things that are awful, have love in them and are capable of goodness.
DP: Each of us has Eastern European roots. I had a Russian grandmother. Erika, you were born here, but your family is from Ukraine. Yasen, you were born in Bulgaria. What are some of the differences from American culture?
YP: I know I’m home when I can’t finish my sentences, because I’m being interrupted constantly. You start talking, and then, literally, a half-sentence into it, “Yeah, yeah, that happened to me too,” and you end up doing a lot of listening.
One of the first things I noticed when I moved to the States is that here you say, “How are you doing?” But it really means hello. But if you say this in Europe, you might get, “Well, I haven’t been so well the last couple weeks...” There’s the need to say what is important to you and how you feel. And there’s just a certain kind of politeness that doesn’t exist.
Also the emotions. I remember a few years ago, I was celebrating something with my friend Max, and he’d had quite a bit of vodka, and as he was smiling and laughing, he just started weeping. It was just a little story that we remembered from our childhood, and the joy of the occasion, and the sadness of old times that were probably much better for him, and that mix of emotions…
I’ve directed quite a few Russian plays, including Chekhov. The trick is to explain to the actors that the range from zero to a hundred is very short and sometimes happens in three seconds. The acceleration from joy and laughter to tears and utter despair.
ES: What’s crazy, too, is that from a hundred to zero is the same. It’s just as fast. The fight is over, and then you’re done.
DP: This play deals very smartly with the perspectives of different generations of immigrants. A few years one way or another in a new culture can make a profound difference in somebody’s world outlook.
ES: One of the big things is that when you’re raised under that kind of totalitarian regime, it seeps into who you are and into the way you look at the world. Even here, my parents still have an internalized paranoia that anything bad could happen. My grandparents, they were even worse. They were Holocaust survivors, so for them, really, anything bad could happen.
DP: Also, if you were trying to get daily needs in the late Soviet period, you got it where you could. You went around your obstacles, and sometimes an obstacle might be the law.
ES: Absolutely. My grandfather was in prison for selling jewelry on the black market. When they arrested him, they interrogated my grandmother and my mom, who was eight. They interrogated my grandmother because she knew about it, but she didn’t report him. She went to prison for ten months. It’s not like they were gangsters or anything. They were working class people—but that was the only way you could have enough.
YP: In a way, I am grateful that I spent my first 25 years in that kind of society, because I feel I learned a lot and created a system of survival for myself. Even though nothing horrible has happened to me personally, everybody had somebody affected by that system.
ES: And there’s this trickle-down effect. You think, “No one takes care of me, why should I take care of anyone else?”
YP: You learn to take care of your own, your family.
DP: In this play, there’s a dance between cultures, between generations, and between negotiating how to define one’s own ethical system. There’s also a dance between languages. What prompted this?
ES: I don’t speak Russian, actually. My family is from Western Ukraine, so they speak Russian, Hungarian and Yiddish. I speak Hungarian. When I was growing up, we would have birthday parties and dinners where there would be a lot of different languages. Sometimes I would understand, when people were speaking English or Hungarian. Some people would only understand if they were speaking Russian, and some understood all three. I learned from an early age that you can really understand what’s going on, even if you don’t know what’s being said.
That was an important part of the play for me: getting it to a point where an American audience understood everything that is happening. And showing them that you can follow the action without literally understanding the words.
YP: And it’s up to us, the theatre artists, to tell the story in a way where you understand even if you don’t speak the language.