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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 24, 2002

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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

Street Playhouse.

— Simon Saltzman

Public Ghosts, Private Stories, George Street

Playhouse ,

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.

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