Corrections or additions?
This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 24, 2002
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Public & Private Ghosts
Do you remember the old movie ads that used to
"Two years in the making!" to describe the latest epic
story? Well, the same can be said for the smaller-scaled but equally
ambitious new play, "Public Ghosts, Private Stories," inspired
by tales of New Brunswick’s residents past and present.
"Public Ghosts, Private Stories," a world premiere at the
George Street Playhouse, opens Friday, April 26, and runs to May 19.
The epic began two years ago when artistic director David Saint
he wanted to give a dramatic structure to the history of New
one that would emphasize the "Hub City’s" multi-cultural mix
that includes Hispanic, Hungarian, African-American and Irish
He initiated a coast-to-coast partnership with Bill Rausch, artistic
director of the Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles, a
ensemble known for building bridges between and within diverse
"Public Ghosts, Private Stories" was soon underway. After
a year of workshops and theater exercises, and videotaped interviews
with members of the various New Brunswick communities, Cornerstone
decided to commission a playwright to write an original play based
on the material.
"They handed me 28 videotapes and told me to write a play,"
says playwright Ain Gordon, in a phone interview from New York. Gordon
won the 1996 Obie for his play "Wally’s Ghost." Although it
was Gordon’s work with L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum that brought him to
the attention of Cornerstone, he’s actually a 39-year-old native New
Yorker who had already garnered a reputation as a writer who liked
to work with multiple story lines. Saint was also convinced that
interest in dramatizing smaller urban histories and how they reflect
on the life we are now living was just what the project needed.
After listening and watching tapes for four months, Gordon admits
that he was "daunted and tortured trying to figure out how to
give the play a dramatic arc and at the same time represent as many
of the communities as possible."
"Who was I to try and reflect these peoples’ lives back to
he says. "I don’t live in New Brunswick." Interestingly, the
end result turned out to be neither a docu-drama, a group of short
vignettes, nor a dramatic collage, but functions, instead as he says,
"as a play with four story lines that have a beginning, middle
and end." If he is presumptuous enough to draw an analogy between
his play and such classics as "Our Town" and "Spoon River
Anthology," it is because "Public Ghosts, Private Stories"
is, as he describes it, "a play, as in story-theater, in which
the actors in the play are consciously making it theater without any
An instructive and creative part of Ain Gordon’s life was his
as co-writer, co-director, and performer with his
father David Gordon, and his dancer mother Valda Setterfield on
Family Business" (which also received an Obie Award) and
in a run at the Mark Taper.
Gordon’s parents, both associated with the 1960s avant-garde movement
centered at New York’s Judson Church, have long presented dances with
the David Gordon/Pick Up Company. Gordon also directed
for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project that was seen on tour
at McCarter Theater in 2000.
Ain Gordon has been an active collaborator with his
father on the text for "Punch and Judy Get Divorced," a
commissioned by the American Music Theater Festival and American
Theater. Their most recent collaboration, "The First Picture
of 1999, was also commissioned by the Forum and ART. Gordon won 1992
and 1998 playwriting fellowships from the New York Foundation for
the Arts) and a 1998 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.
Gordon found that none of these collaborations quite prepared him
for this assignment. "I’d never done anything like this before
and was making it up as I went along," he says. "I had to
find a personal way in to the material because I was so daunted by
the videotapes. I didn’t know how to start."
Gordon talks about the innumerable stories, testimonies,
and recollections of ordinary people that he had received. At the
Alexander collection of the New Brunswick Public Library, Gordon began
to look for things that might reflect some of the stories through
people who were long gone. He chose several real-life figures to
his story lines ("they could speak to me and I could own
including poet Joyce Kilmer, prominent African-American citizen John
Barley, and 19th-century murderer Bridget Deergan.
Two of the four story lines are historic and come from Gordon’s
and are pertinent to what he saw in the videotapes because "they
supplied the dramatic sweep dealing with extreme circumstances."
This, he allows, gave him the creative push to make a play that
the documentary needs of the project and was also a drama.
Recalling how he had previously juggled two and three story lines
in his plays, Gordon says four is a lot to distill out of hundreds
of hours of videotape. Although there are many communities
it was clearly the diverse Hispanic community and the city’s "huge
and old" Hungarian community that, for Gordon, are in the
The imprint of the Hungarians, whose immigration, from the 1880s into
the 1950s, made New Brunswick one of the largest American Hungarian
centers in the U.S., manifest in its churches, factories, and
These, as well as the city’s many African-American communities, were
seen by Gordon as having a key part in the city’s history.
As it is a piece of fiction, inspired by stories, he says, "no
one interviewed will be able to identify himself." He also wishes
he could have included more groups and individuals in his story line,
such as Native-Americans, who, although they are no longer represented
in significant numbers, played an important part in the area’s
Eventually, Gordon says, themes began to emerge and he had to attach
the stories to these themes, many of which came to fruition at a
of local workshops.
Knowing he had to write for a company of 14, consisting of both
and non-professionals (residents of New Brunswick and the surrounding
community), Gordon says that he did shape certain roles that would
need the extra resonance provided by a professional. While there are
principal roles, it is basically an ensemble piece. The professional
company includes Shawn Elliott, who appeared on Broadway in "Marie
Christine" and "City of Angels"; Helen Gallagher, who
was last seen at the George Street Playhouse as Dr. Ashford in
Anne O’Sullivan; Victor Love; Socorro Santiago; Cherene Snow, and
Mara Stephens. The set design is by R. Michael Miller, who previously
designed the set for "The Sisters Rosensweig."
Gordon disagrees with my preconception that the play may not have
much of a resonance beyond the New Brunswick area. "Although the
stories emanate from New Brunswick, the play’s themes — how we
deal with our history and our culture — are universal," he
says. "Yet there is a very American tendency not to take our
with us and to deny our cultural heritage."
That Gordon wears more hats than one, including directing and on
occasions" acting, he attributes his love of theater in all its
forms to his parents. About Valda Setterfield, a tall, ballet-trained
British dancer who was a member of the Merce Cunningham company for
10 years: "I remember sitting in the pit as a child of 12 with
John Cage playing the music as my mother danced. She is also an
who has appeared in two of my plays, but I couldn’t find a role for
her in this."
In 1984, after attending the Tisch School at NYU for two years, Gordon
decided that being an actor was a big mistake and he switched his
major to art history. Instead of graduating, he left NYU when he was
offered a job as an electrician at an Off-Broadway theater. His
career was launched soon afterwards when he initiated a short play
series presented at the Dance Theater Workshop (DTW).
Gordon, whose work is produced regularly Off-Off Broadway and in
theaters, is currently at work on a new play, "93 Acres of
commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum. His most recent play —
Bundles" — premiered in New York at the DTW in 2000.
"Public Ghosts, Private Stories," a multi-colored tapestry
of family traditions and common ground, is also unique in having two
directors, Michael Rohd and Eric Ruffin. Rohd, who is founding
director of Sojourn Theater in Portland, Oregon, and an associate
artist with Cornerstone, directed the earliest stages of the project.
Ruffin, who holds an MFA from Rutgers and has numerous directing
is the show’s New Brunswick-based director.
I asked Gordon why certain themes, in this case personal and family
histories, are particularly meaningful to him. "I think of history
as the present and how it is shaping the world we live in," he
replies. Touted as a heartfelt, universal tale of the struggles and
triumphs as experienced by immigrant families and communities in
"Public Ghosts, Private Stories" has, indeed, been two years
in the making. As the ads would also urge: See it now at the George
— Simon Saltzman
9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717.Opening for the play
that runs to May 19. $18 to $45. Friday, April 26, 8 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.