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Interview: Playwright Nathan Englander

It would be easy to wonder about the person who can write a show as funny, heartfelt, insightful, and contemplative as WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK. Yet when speaking with playwright Nathan Englander it becomes clear that the humor, the nimble turn of phrase and topic, and then somehow turning back to come together at the end is exactly how his mind works. Englander talks about his process of turning his short story of the same name into the quick-witted comedy now playing at The Old Globe through October 23rd.

Photo Credit: (from left) Nathan Salstone as Trevor, Rebecca Creskoff as Debbie, Joshua Malina as Phil, Sophie von Haselberg as Lauren, and Greg Hildreth as Mark in WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK, 2022. Photo by Jim Cox.
Photo Credit: (from left) Nathan Salstone as Trevor, Rebecca Creskoff as Debbie, Joshua Malina as Phil, Sophie von Haselberg as Lauren, and Greg Hildreth as Mark in WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK, 2022. Photo by Jim Cox.

Based on one of Nathan Englander‘s short stories, WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK looks at what happens when two women, who were very close friends throughout school until their lives took them in separate directions, reunite to catch up years later. As they reminisce, the women, along with their husbands talk about everything from family, religion, culture, and their beliefs for the future- the conversations show what has stayed the same and just how much has changed.

This play is Englander’s second time stepping into the theatre world, and the process of adapting the story into the play, and then working with the cast was one he says he found a fascinating challenge.

“I have long been obsessed with executing the un-executable. The story is a first-person narrator and we are in that person’s head. The ending of the story functions because it’s the teller’s point of view. On the stage, we are stripped of everything that makes the story function, which is what allowed the story to grow, and the characters to grow.”

As a novelist writing is a solitary endeavor, but Englander has enjoyed the collaboration of adapting the play, the rehearsal process, and even watching the behind-the-scenes artists like the carpenters build the set. Working with the cast; Rebecca Creskoff, Sophie von Haselberg, Greg Hildreth, Joshua Malina, and Nathan Salstone along with Globe’s Artistic Director Barry Edelstein and has been an exciting and collaborative process.

“Having a company of 5 actors is special, and everyone brought 110%. They’re all so wonderfully talented and being a part of this group has been a great love of my life.

“I love theatre, it’s like a whole new sport for me. I would sometimes ask ‘Is it the writing?’ because if it’s the writing, it’s my fault and I’ll fix it. The fact that they bring themselves and it creates something is such an extraordinary process. As a playwright, it’s so weird to think that my last day of work is their first day.”

The play talks about a lot of things, but at its core, it is about friendship, communication, and what lessons people take from impactful events. From silly to serious, one of the main tenets of the play is the conversation they are all having – even if they don’t agree.

“The friendship is the point of it to me. You have to be able to talk and sometimes its painful. The hatred that is spread is all about keeping people apart. That’s why it’s getting worse and not better because we mix less and less. I really wanted to look at that – it can be explosive but it’s both the same and totally different. That was the brutal part of reworking the end and rebuilt it for this kind of discovery.”

Playwright Nathan Englander
Playwright Nathan Englander

It was the combination of the creation of this show and what it explores, and the bringing of people together that made the opening night of the show even more meaningful to Nathan, which hit him as he looked around at the audience.

“I was there opening night with the audience, and I sat there thinking ‘this is an extraordinarily hard time on the planet and we’re all back together.’ To hear everyone laugh that night and I thought this hysterical cast, and I get to make this audience laugh for 90 minutes. People don’t have to change their views or their communication or think about friendship, or how we harness the Holocaust and use that memory – maybe people just come and laugh their heads off. That’s a dream for me, that’s also enough.”

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK is playing at The Old Globe through October 23rd. For ticket and showtime information please go to www.theoldglobe.org.

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