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Interview with Playwright Israel Horovitz

Cherry Lane Theater presents the world premiere of Out the Mouths of Babes by Israel Horovitz, directed by Barnet Kellman, with Francesca Choy-KeeAngelina FiordellisiJudith Ivey, and Estelle Parsons from June 7 to July 17, 2016. In his latest play, Horovitz has four women gathered in a Parisian apartment on the occasion of the funeral of a 100 years old man.

Israel Horovitz is the most-produced American playwright in French theatre history and has been awarded the insignia of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2012.

Nicole Birmann Bloom met with Israel Horovitz after a rehearsal at Cherry Lane Theater in May.

Nicole Birmann Bloom (N.B.B.):  Could you tell us more about the four characters, these four women in the play?

Israel Horovitz (I.H.):  The four women are Evelyn, age 88; Evvie, age 68; Janice, age 58, and Marie-Belle, age 38. All of these women were, at one time in their lives, romantically attached to the recently-deceased 100-year-old man. Out the Mouths of Babes is the second play of a trilogy I’m creating dealing with Americans in Paris. The first play is entitled My Old Lady, which was translated into French by the brilliant French writer Michèle Fitoussi. Under it’s French title, Très Chère Mathilde played at the Théâtre Marigny in Paris in 2009 starring Line Renaud as Mathilde, and was directed by Ladislas Chollat. Hopefully, Michèle Fitoussi will be translating Out of the Mouths of Babes, as well.

Out of the Mouths of Babes is a much lighter comedy than My Old Lady. Both plays are confrontations between two cultures: American attitude toward love and marriage versus French attitude towards love and marriage.

N.B.B.: Describe the extent of your collaboration with director Barnet Kellman. Did the text undergo any changes as it was being staged? Were you involved in the casting for the play? 

I.H.: Barnet Kellman is very old friend and a very old collaborator of mine. We have done lots and lots of plays together over the years. We started to working together way back in the 1970s. A young actress who became his wife was also a close friend of mine and had acted in many plays. After a long career as a stage director in New York, Barnet moved to California and had a long and marvelous career in television, creating such shows as Murphy Brown and ER. I wanted to bring him back to NYC to direct Out of the Mouths of Babes. I sent him an early draft of the play, and, obviously, he agreed.

The play has not undergone a lot of change in rehearsals, although we did workshop the play, twice – it has been a very long and luxurious and creative work process. We work-shopped the play in Connecticut in Westport Country Playhouse this winter, and again at The Cherry Lane Theatre. As you’ve probably noticed, we are actually rehearsing with the set on stage. It is a very well produced show.

I was deeply involved in the casting, because long before Barnet was involved, I was asked by The Cherry Lane Theater if I would be interested in writing a play for Estelle Parsons and Judith Ivey who are the two main stars of the play. Although I had written more than 75 produced plays in my lifetime, I had never written for specific actors prior to this play. I had done a few of my plays in past years with Estelle Parsons - including a wonderfully successful production of My Old Lady at Palm Beach Dramaworks, Florida, last winter. And I had also done a few plays with Judith Ivey – most notably Park Your Car In Harvard Yard on Broadway, starring Judith Ivey and Jason Robards. This play is known in France as “Quelque part dans cette vie.” It was created in France by Pierre Dux and Jane Birkin at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens. There have been many reprises in France – one with Jacques Duffilo, and has been recently re-adapted under the title Opus Coeur created by Astrid Veillon and Pierre Vaneck, and more recently, reprised with Marcel Maréchal at Festival d'Avignon, and in Paris, at Théâtre du Petit Hébertot.

Simply said, when I was asked if I would like to write a play for these two actresses, I immediately answered “YES, absolutely YES!”

I knew I wanted to write a play that was set in Paris and I thought Estelle and Judith would be the perfect Americans in Paris. In real life, Estelle is actually 88 years old. She does yoga every day, swims every day, runs every day; she is a force of nature – quite a miracle. Estelle and Judith are really brilliant comic actresses, so this entire experience working on Out of the Mouths of Babes has been a great pleasure!

Estelle and Judith were precast by me, as was Angelina Fiordellisi who is also artistic director of The Cherry Lane Theatre.

N.B.B.:  How would you say your work has been influenced by France, French writers and playwrights? Which figures or contemporary authors have most impressed you? What are you working on next?

I.H.:  I have been most influenced by Beckett and Ionesco – who aren’t really French – and I wasn’t really influenced so much by their work as I was by the men. I knew both of them personally. Ionesco had a great humor and Beckett had the most wonderful integrity. Both men were profoundly impressive to me.

My relation to France is a kind of miracle. I was not born in a privileged milieu – my father was a truck driver. We lived in a small, undistinguished New England town. My first visit to Paris was in the early 1960s. For me, it was a coup de foudre.

I’m working on a play called Man in Snow. France Culture presented an audio recording of this play last year starring Patrick Chesnais (the French title is Homme de neige). I adapted the radio play for the stage during the past two years. It will be directed by Andrea Paciotto (with whom I have a theatre company in Italy called, not surprisingly, Compagnia Horovitz-Paciotto) and performed this coming September at Gloucester Stage Company, a theatre I founded in Massachusetts 37 years ago. Man in Snow will then be reprised in New York at La Mama, in November-December. 

N.B.B.: In Paris, you have a long-term collaboration with the School, La Fémis (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Métiers de l’Image et du Son) in Paris. Could you tell us more about your work there?

I.H.: For the past dozen or so years, I have been directing a workshop in screenwriting for Columbia University's graduate film program in collaboration with La Fémis, France's national Film School. Each spring, I choose six young screenwriters from Columbia University's graduate film program along with six third-year screenwriters from La Fėmis. The French students come to New York and work with me for approximately one month. We meet for writing-sessions three times weekly, usually at my house in Greenwich Village. Each of the 12 screenwriters writes a short-form screenplay on a chosen subject. This year's theme was immigration. The final session of the workshop is a public showcase of the screenplays written by my students. The showcase is normally held in a theater for a public audience. For the past 5 years our showcases have been a project of The Cherry Lane Theatre in the Greenwich Village where, coincidentally, my play Out of the Mouths of Babes is now rehearsing for its June 7th opening.

N.B.B.: Thank you, dear Israel. We are looking forward to seeing Out of the Mouths of Babes.

Israel Horovitz, playwright, screenwriter, director, has written over 70 plays, several of which have been translated into as many as 30 languages and performed worldwide. His play Line is now in it’s 39th year of continuous performance off-Broadway. He is Founding Artistic Director of Gloucester Stage Company, and of the New York Playwrights Lab. Horovitz teaches a bilingual screenwriting workshop with writers from la Fémis, France's national film school, and Columbia University's graduate film program. He visits France, frequently, where he often directs French-language productions of his plays. He is the most-produced American playwright in French theatre history.