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The State of Israel

Israel Horovitz prepares for the Off-Broadway production of his new play, The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath.

By New York City
Israel Horovitz(© Peter Lindburgh)
Israel Horovitz
(© Peter Lindburgh)
At 67, Israel Horovitz has a new lease on life. The Obie- and Drama Desk Award-winning playwright, who has written more than 50 works that have seen the light of stage, recently resigned as artistic director of the Gloucester Stage Company in Massachusetts, but he hasn't completely cut his ties to them. Now, he's in Manhattan to revive The New York Playwrights Lab, which will produce his new play The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath, starring John Shea, at the Kirk Theatre at Theatre Row this month.

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THEATERMANIA: So goodbye, Gloucester; hello, New York?

ISRAEL HOROVITZ: Well, I'll do a play up there this summer, but I don't want to choose the seasons or do the board meetings any more. I was unpaid, which I didn't mind; but I felt that if I left the company, which had teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for so many years, it would end. In the early days, the place would lose $1,200 a year and I'd write a check. Then it got to the point where it could lose $300,000 a year, and that's a check I couldn't write. But in the last five years or so, it turned the corner; we bought the building, renovated and air-conditioned it, and that did it.

TM: Did you have to change programming at all?

IH: That never works. When you think you're doing something commercial is when you actually go bankrupt. You have to do what you do best. We developed an audience for new plays, and they responded. Training your audience and what you come to represent -- and how you're branded -- makes the difference. Now that's Eric Engel's job.

TM: Are you going to have an emeritus title?

IH: Yes, my actual title will be "The Old Guy."

TM: I liked the musical Calvin Berger, which Gloucester Stage did last fall. But I was surprised you did it, because I've heard you don't like musicals.

IH: Right. I like Threepenny Opera and Jacques Brel, but that's pretty much it.

TM: But I'll bet people have asked you to write musicals.

IH: All the time -- and I might yet. Henry Krieger and I are talking about doing something together, and my son Adam (Horovitz, of the Beastie Boys) has talked with me about it, too.

TM: Did you think Adam had musical talent from what you heard when he was growing up?

IH: Oh, absolutely. Directing and raising kids are similar art forms. You have to know when to get out of the way of the talented ones. You can encourage, but you don't boss them around. I found that out, too when I started The New York Playwright Lab almost 35 years ago now. We were a secret society of 15 playwrights -- not emerging playwrights; there's plenty out there for them -- but mid-career to late-career playwrights, people who were starting to write for TV and movies, whom I wanted to keep interested in plays. After I did a film called The Strawberry Statement, I got movie offers every five minutes, but what I really love is theater.

TM: Do the writers bring in finished plays?

IH: Hardly. I had been teaching playwriting and realized that when a kid writes a play and reads it to a class, he doesn't want to hear any criticism. So I told the playwrights to bring in five pages a week, and 20 weeks later, they'd have a draft. See, we could criticize five pages, and they'd listen, and nobody's feelings would get hurt.

TM: And the criticism would sometimes apply to the entire play?

IH: Yes. It gave us a social circle, too, where bragging and complaining and career issues and good stories could go on. And, maybe best of all, in 35 years, every single play written in the New York Playwrights Lab has been produced professionally, without a single exception. So I can tell you this process works.

TM: What are some of those plays?

IH: Side Man, This Is Our Youth. Plays by Wendy Wasserstein, too. We kept it a secret society because it was a work group, and we did no publicity. I didn't want any competitiveness, it didn't seem necessary. But about 15 years ago, things started to change in the New York theater. 99-seat theaters appeared while the days of giving a play to a producer and getting it on were gone.

John Shea and Michael Bakkensen inThe Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath(© Lilly Charles)
John Shea and Michael Bakkensen in
The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath
(© Lilly Charles)
TM: Why did you choose the Kirk Theatre for this production?

IH: Fred Papert -- who is president of the 42nd Street Redevelopment Corporation, which built Theatre Row -- was my first boss when I came to New York. I wrote and directed TV commercials. Fred then invested $1,000 of the $17,500 budget for The Indian Wants the Bronx, which had gotten off to a shaky start. Back in the '60s, someone I knew had a place in the Hamptons and offered it to us. Well, it turned out to have 3,000 seats, and we had an audience of three women in big hats -- and, halfway through the show, they left. Al Pacino (who was the star) said, "What are we going to do, Israel?" We stopped, and as I drove back, I had a blinding headache. As the stage manager was rubbing the back of my neck, I thought, "We're gonna perish." But somehow we got a producer, and Fred chipped in. Now, all these years later, when he told me I could start a company here at Theatre Row, I said, "I'm going to call your bluff."

TM: I'm not looking for figures here, but I am curious: Have you made a lot of money, a little money, or somewhere in between from the 33-year-run of Line at the 13th Street Playhouse?

IH: Not a penny. There are some things you don't do for money. That little theater is a birthing center for non-Equity kids who come to New York and don't know where to go. Edith O'Hara is like a mother hen. I will say that, when I said 'Go ahead and do it,' I didn't expect that kind of run. The fact that she hasn't had to pay anything in royalties has helped keep it alive; but that's okay, because it's fed and clothed a lot of kids.

TM: Tell me about this new play.

IH: Three years ago, when I was directing a play of mine in Paris, I heard some actors talking about Pierre Bonnard, who is one of my favorite painters. It seemed that a guard at a museum was sleeping, and when he woke up, he saw an old man painting over a Bonnard. He yelled, "What are you doing?" and the old man said, "I am Pierre Bonnard, and I had a fresh idea for my painting." I thought this was a good idea for a play about intellectual property. Who owns the painting: the artist, or the schmuck with the money?

TM: I have a feeling you think it's the artist.

IH: Come see and find out.


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