Category: Funny Thing

CitySpeaks: Cancer on the American Stage

October 13th, 2017

While cancer is not an easy topic to tackle, it’s certainly a relatable subject. How has City Theatre managed this issue while working with A Funny Thing Happened…?

By Emily Ernst, Literary Intern

What do these statistics mean for the cast, creative team, and staff at City Theatre for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City? Comedies such as Halley Feiffer’s play seem as though they’d be a laugh a minute in rehearsal, but the personal realities surrounding these topics can be challenging to a theatrical team. I spoke with a few of the staff members here at City Theatre, and this is what they say about how their individual experiences with cancer have influenced their relationship to the script:

On the closeness of cancer…

Have you or have you ever known anyone that has fought cancer? Have those experiences influenced your work on the production?

Leah Blackwood, Scenic Artist

“My father was treated at Sloan-Kettering from 1996-98. It was exciting for him to know the hospital was world renowned and his doctors were at the top in their field. Sadly, they could not save him and he died in 1998. Also, only two weeks ago, I lost my best friend to cancer. She had been in Sloan-Kettering’s care for seven years fighting colon and liver cancer, and eventually lung and bone cancer as it spread… Working on this play has made me very emotional, from building Tony Ferrieri’s model to seeing the completed set. When Patti Kelly took the actors onto the set at the first day of tech in costume, I was swept over with emotion.”

Christina Bordini, Company Manager

“I’ve unfortunately known too many loved ones to be stricken by cancer. Some have survived, some have not. But nothing hits you quite as hard as when you find out one of your parents has been diagnosed. When I was a freshman in high school, my family found out on the day before Christmas Eve that my mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Needless to say, that winter break was not the most fun of my adolescence. For the next few months that turned into years, my mom fought her hardest, and thankfully, came out on the other end with a clean bill of health. But every year when she goes for her check-up, we all hold our breath… The word “cancer” itself is very scary, and it shakes you to your core when it’s in association with a loved one. That’s why I love that this play is a comedy; when you go through a situation like that, a good sense of humor and optimism can make all the difference… I believe it’s important to make our audiences laugh, while also dealing with a heavy subject matter like cancer. It’s a universal issue. I believe our audiences will appreciate the humor, while also relating to the nitty gritty of the down moments. All we have is each other. If we can’t laugh at the little things in our unfortunate times, all we’ll do is cry.”

Taylor Meszaros, Properties Assistant

“I have known many people who fought cancer, but the one person whose struggle impacted me most was my best friend, Meghan. From ages 21-23 she battled with two forms of cancer, and her journey greatly influenced me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a young person accept their fate with such grace and strength as she did… I have not worked intricately with the script of A Funny Thing… but I do know that going through that experience of my best friend’s struggle and death has shaped the way I react to art. I cry more easily with heartfelt stories, especially those of a medical or illness-related nature. I can sympathize a bit more with people going through difficult situations.”

Clare Drobot, Director of New Play Development

“Table work for A Funny Thing… sort of caught me by surprise. My grandmother died of cancer when I was 17. It all happened very quickly; she was diagnosed in September and passed by December. It was one of my first real experiences with seeing death and caregiving up close. I remember driving home from rehearsal one night and feeling a little overwhelmed with all these memories. What it was like to go through that and not knowing how to be there for my parents at the time (or how to process what was happening myself). It really helped me to understand Karla’s character and appreciate how nuanced Halley’s portrayal of her journey and relationship to Marcie is.”

James McNeel, Managing Director

“During this production process, I keep harkening back that this play, and these characters, are given the much-needed voice of those that endure the disease. I salute Halley Feiffer for taking her own personal experience and making it universal. And, ironically, she has taken a singular word experience – cancer – and blown it up with a 22-word title. Those who are diagnosed, or have loved ones who are, deserve more than two syllables. Their journey needs to be told. And this is an example of that. With jokes. Because laughter can really be the best medicine.”

 

See A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at City Theatre now through Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017. Tickets are available here!

A Conversation with A FUNNY THING… Playwright Halley Feiffer

October 3rd, 2017

Halley Feiffer is a red-hot talent: she’s currently playing Karla in the Geffen’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit…, and her newest play Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow received its critically acclaimed world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer. In the middle of all that, she and Director of New Play Development, Clare Drobot, caught up by phone to talk about the real world and comedic inspirations behind her unique blend of humor and pathos.

 


Playwright Halley Feiffer

Clare: What inspired the play? I know you have a personal connection to a family member with cancer.

Halley: The play is not inspired by true events. Nothing in the play ever happened. I wish I’d had a steamy sex scene in a bathroom. That has yet to happen to me, but it’s on the bucket list. Basically what happened was my mother, who is in wonderful health today, did have a hysterectomy to treat ovarian cancer a little over ten years ago. I was a college student at the time, and while I was in the hospital caring for her, I remember thinking, “I don’t know how to show up for my mother the way that I want to.” I was 20 years old, drinking really heavily, and just a profoundly selfish young person.

I remember looking at the curtain that separated her side of the room from her roommate’s and thinking, “God, wouldn’t it be great if there were some cute family member of her roommate, say her son, who I could flirt with and that would help make all this pain and fear go away.” And then because I’m not a 100% sociopath, I realized it was a very fucked up thought. But I filed it away to write about, because I did think it was a funny premise for a play.

In a way, that situation perfectly captured what that experience is like; that you at once want to show up and be useful for your loved one and, because we’re human beings, we’re filled with selfishness – we also want to escape.

There’s a wonderful dichotomy that exists in the script between dark, edgy comedic moments and moments of deeply human connection. How do you explore the relationship between laughter and grief?

It’s really interesting as you get older and meet more people and have more in-depth conversations, you realize that your way of going through the world might not be the way that everyone does. I’ve always chosen humor to cope with anything really. It just comes naturally to me; both my parents are incredibly funny people. That’s how I was raised and it’s in my blood. So I’ve found myself making jokes at the most inappropriate moments. I’ve also found it rather pleasantly surprising how healing it can be – and how responsive others may be to it too, in ways that you might not expect. Even in the most painful of circumstances, it really is, in my experience, the most effective tool to move through with compassion and lightness.

How did your parents influence your sense of humor? Do you have any favorite comics or things that shaped what you find funny?

Oooh I love that question. No one’s asked me that about this at all. Well, someone did just ask me if I have done stand-up comedy and the answer is heck no! My mom actually is a stand-up comedian and a solo performer. I was really inspired by watching her perform and seeing her just kill as a result of being 100% honest. She’s also a humor writer and that’s what she does in her humor pieces. She talks very honestly about her own struggles in life whether profound or something a little more trivial, like what to buy at the grocery store. I always find that kind of humor not only funny, but cathartic, because that’s how we identify with other people. I also love Louis C.K., for instance, because he’s so honest. It makes you feel less alone because you’re like, “Oh my god! I had that same profoundly uncomfortable thought the other day and I thought it meant that I was a serial killer, but I guess I’m not because I really like you, and you had it too apparently.”

I didn’t really get into comedy until—and I still don’t know that much about it— until I was older, but some of my favorite playwrights are really the funniest ones. The plays that shaped my life were things like the early plays of Chris Durang. A play that really changed my life is Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. I really don’t think I would be a playwright if it weren’t for that play. I read it and thought “Oh my god this is maybe the most dysfunctional family I’ve ever read, but it is inherently funny and there’s a talking fish.” But it’s also plays like Long Day’s Journey into Night to be totally honest – weirdly and surprisingly. There’s a lot of humor in that play which I think a lot of people don’t realize. I saw that play, a production starring Jessica Lange, with Trip Cullman—he directed the New York production of Funny Thing and he’s directing it right now in LA—and we were both cracking up at certain parts and like, “What are you laughing at?”  Both of us simultaneously independently were like “This is hilarious”. I think there’s a lot of humor to be mined in darkness and I love the writers who are warped and brave enough to explore that.


Playwright Halley Feiffer with her parents Jules Feiffer and Jenny Allen.

You’re about to go out and perform in Funny Thing… out west, how does your work as an actress influence your writing or do you see them as wholly separate?

You know, this is a great question for me right now because I’ve never had this experience before where I’m acting in a play I’ve written. I acted in a movie I co-wrote years ago, but that felt really different for whatever reason. Film and plays they might as well be two completely different mediums. They’re so incredibly different.

I was telling someone the other day, that it feels like I am exploring a territory I have explored so much before, but I’ve always been in a helicopter flying over it and now someone dropped me out of a helicopter and they’re like “go check it out on foot!” I don’t need to—I’ve already been in a helicopter— but I guess I’ll try and then I’m like “What are all these plants doing? Like I had no idea this was here!”

It’s really exciting and it’s really scary and it’s hard because I want to rewrite a lot of it. In some ways, I can’t tell if I want to rewrite because it needs a rewrite or I want to rewrite it because I just need to do more work as an actor to make it make sense. Having that freedom is really scary, because I started off as an actor, so I’m used to just making a text work even if I wish I could rewrite it. There’s sort of a freedom in not having that freedom because you’re like “Alright, I don’t have a choice. I can’t rewrite it. I’ve got to make it work!”, but now I can do whatever I want. That’s terrifying and overwhelming but also a really beautiful challenge.

It’s hard when you’re on stage too. City produced Sharon Washington’s Feeding the Dragon last year. She starred in the play, which drew heavily from personal experience. She would have these moments of like “I have to stop being a playwright. I have to be an actress now. Because otherwise I’ll drive myself insane and start second guessing every choice I make.”

Right! That’s what I’ve realized. It’s also really interesting in terms of how I interact with the other actors. As a playwright, I’m pretty hands on; I really voice my opinion. I give a lot of notes through the director. Now I can’t do that just because it’s literally impossible since I can’t be on stage and give [director Trip Cullman] notes. It’s an amazing—not to get too heady about it—but it’s a really beautiful lesson in letting go. I can’t control everyone. Maybe that’s really good. Maybe everyone will actually do much better work if I’m not micromanaging everything. So I think that it’s a beautiful, challenging lesson for me that’s really timely at this point in my life, where I’m working on letting go in so many areas.

It sort of epitomizes the collaborative nature of theatre, but I’m also curious to know, what you think of the relationship between a playwright and an audience, especially if you’re not present for rehearsals or performances?

This is like a new thing for me. My plays only started getting produced in places where I am not in the last couple years. First of all, I’m just profoundly humbled that there’s a group of people watching something that I wrote when I’m not there. For whatever reason, that’s very moving to me. Because it shows me that this is way bigger than me and it’s not about me—which is very soothing. I guess I feel like I know as an audience member I have been profoundly moved and changed by art. So I try to view the plays I write as in service of that audience. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious. I know that the play won’t serve anyone. There will be people who leave this play who feel changed by it and there are people who will wish that they’d spent the last 90 minutes doing something different; I’ve had both those experiences as an audience member. My plays tend to be pretty polarizing in that way and I’m sort of proud of that. So I guess I do it as just a way to be useful in the world and try to give people the kind of cathartic and hopefully eye-opening experience that I have had myself.

One of the things I love about this script is that Karla is this incredibly strong female character. I’m just curious to know, in mentioning that your plays can be polarizing and placing them in the context of an industry that still hasn’t reached anything close to gender parity, what inspires you to write strong female characters? Is it something you consider within the lens of the industry?

I never set out to write a strong female character. I’m always somewhat surprised when people mention that and then I realize that’s true. I guess that’s really accurate, but it’s never my intention because I just write what I know and I’m a woman so I write about being the kind of woman that I am in many ways. That’s just my experience. I have found that people often tend to have strong reactions to the female characters in my plays and that makes me happy and sad at once. This is just how women are in many ways. I think in our society and especially in pop culture and art, we tend to be sort of neutered versions of women, but those aren’t the women I know or the women who I care to hang out with to be 100% honest. So I’m writing women as I know them and as I find them to be interesting.

One last question, we’ve been working very hard as a staff to make sure that we’ve memorized the title properly and can repeat it at will. How do you come up with your titles?

It’s really different for each script. [For] my play I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, I wrote the whole play and then I looked at that line. Often, I’ll go through the text and I’ll try to find a line that I really like and I’ll make that the title. That’s one trick that I’ll share with everyone that tends to work well, I think. Everyone comments that my titles are long. I guess that’s true. I guess I just feel like as an audience member I kind of want to have an idea of what I’m watching.

 

You can see Halley’s unique blend of humor and pathos on City Theatre’s Main Stage in A Funny Thing Happened… through Oct. 15th. Get your tickets here!

PREVIEW: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City

September 26th, 2017

NEXTpittsburgh | By Jennifer Baron
Sept. 26, 2017

“Equal parts rom-com and fearless reality check, the smart play marks the first time that [Halley] Feiffer — the daughter of renowned cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and writer and performer Jenny Allen — has teamed up with City Theatre.”

 

<Read the full article at NEXTpittsburgh>

Play mines the humor and pathos in a romance between cancer patients’ children

September 21st, 2017

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | By Sharon Eberson
Sept. 21, 2017

“I wrote this play because I’ve experienced a lot of joy in my life, and a lot of pain. Who hasn’t experienced both those poles of emotion?…I wanted to explore, how do I move through pain with some degree of elegance and even a mighty dose of humor? And I think that’s an experiment that can benefit all of us.” – Halley Feiffer

<Read the full article at Pittsburgh Post-Gazette>

Pittsburgh premieres of two notable plays

September 20th, 2017

Pittsburgh City Paper | By Bill O’Driscoll
Sept. 20, 2017

Halley Feiffer offers a romantic comedy where the couple, aspiring stand-up comic Karla (Jenni Putney) and nerdy Don (Tim McGeever), meet in a cancer ward where their mothers are both being treated. Dark, yes, but [Managing Director James] McNeel says, “At its core, it’s this play about people coming together.”

<Read the full article at Pittsburgh City Paper>

Comedy set in a cancer center opens new season at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre

September 7th, 2017

PennLive | By Lisa Wardle
Sept. 7, 2017

The South Side theater is known for its bold plays, and a quirky love story set in a cancer center fits right into the theater’s repertoire. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City” debuted off-Broadway last year to rave reviews.

<Read the full article at PennLive.com>

City Theatre to begin 43rd season with “irresistible” comedy: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED…

August 29th, 2017

City Theatre to begin 43rd season with “irresistible” comedy:

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE GYNECOLOGIC ONCOLOGY UNIT AT MEMORIAL SLOAN-KETTERING CANCER CENTER OF NEW YORK CITY

By Halley Feiffer

September 23 – October 15, 2017
City Theatre Main Stage

“Raunchy and fearless.” – TheaterMania

Pittsburgh, PA (August 29, 2017) – City Theatre dives into a fresh season of new plays with an off-Broadway hit comedy by playwright Halley Feiffer, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City. Directed by City Theatre newcomer Joshua Kahan Brody, the production runs on the Main Stage September 23 – October 15, 2017. Tickets are on sale now.

“We’re excited to kick off another season of bold storytelling and fresh perspectives with Halley Feiffer’s poignant, wild ride of a play,” said City Theatre Artistic Producer, Reginald L. Douglas. “I think everyone can agree that laughter is the best medicine, and boy, could we use some laughs right now. I’m sure audiences will find Halley’s unique gift for finding comedy and romance in spite of the awkward setting, to be a pitch-perfect and hilarious way to usher in the fall.”

About A Funny Thing Happened Sparks fly when struggling stand-up Karla meets super-nerd Don after their mothers are assigned to the same room in the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. A wickedly funny tale of finding love—and lust—in the strangest of places, A Funny Thing Happened… is a meet-cute for the modern era that The New York Times called “irresistible.” Rated R for dark humor and dirty mouths.

“It’s really interesting as you get older and meet more people and have more in-depth conversations, you realize that your way of going through the world might not be the way that everyone does,” said playwright Halley Feiffer. “I’ve always chosen humor to cope with anything really. It just comes naturally to me. Both of my parents are incredibly funny people; that’s how I was raised and it’s in my blood. So I’ve found myself making jokes at the most inappropriate moments. I’ve also found it rather pleasantly surprising how healing it can be—and how responsive others may be to it, too—in ways that you might not expect. Even in the most painful of circumstances it really is, in my experience, the most effective tool to move through them with compassion and lightness.”

City Theatre’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City is directed by Joshua Kahan Brody. The cast includes Jenni Putney in her City Theatre debut as Karla, Tim McGeever (Hand to God, City Theatre, 2016) as Don, Kendra McLaughlin as Geena, and Helena Ruoti (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, City Theatre, 2013) as Marcie. Tony Ferrieri is scenic designer, Michael Montgomery is costume designer, Andrew David Ostrowski is lighting designer, Zachary Beattie Brown is sound designer, and Patti Kelly is stage manager. The production is sponsored by City Theatre Board President Beth W. Newbold and Patrick Winkler.

Halley Feiffer’s writing credits include I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, and How To Make Friends And Then Kill Them. Her plays have been produced around the country and in the UK, and have been developed by Second Stage, New York Theatre Workshop, Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and elsewhere; they are published by Dramatists Play Service and Overlook Press. Her work has been commissioned by Playwrights Horizons, Williamstown Theater Festival and three times by Manhattan Theater Club. She has written for the Starz series The One Percent (co-created by Alejandro Iñárritu), the upcoming Showtime series Purity (based on the novel by Jonathan Franzen), and is developing an original television project with Indigenous Media and two original series with Scott Rudin Productions. She teaches Playwriting at NYU. Acting credits include the Broadway revivals of The Front Page and The House of Blue Leaves, as well as numerous off-Broadway productions including Tigers Be Still. Television and film work includes HBO’s Mildred Piece and Bored to Death and the films The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and He’s Way More Famous than You, which she also co-wrote.

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE GYNECOLOGIC ONCOLOGY UNIT AT MEMORIAL SLOAN-KETTERING CANCER CENTER OF NEW YORK CITY

PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE
September 23 – October 15, 2017

Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m.

Wednesdays at 1:00 p.m. and/or 7:00 p.m.

Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m.

Saturdays at 1:00 p.m., 5:30 p.m., and/or 9:00 p.m.

Sundays at 2:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m.

For a complete listing of show times, please visit CityTheatreCompany.org or call 412-431-2489.

PRESS & OPENING NIGHT
Friday, September 29 at 8:00 p.m.

SPECIAL EVENTS

City Connects Happy Hour Wednesday, September 27 from 5:30 – 7:00 p.m.
Meet the City Connects partners for the 2017-18 season and learn more about how to get involved with your community by bridging art and activism. Enjoy drink specials and mingling in the Gordon Lounge beginning at 5:30 p.m. A brief introduction to the YWCA – featured City Connects partner for the evening – will take place on the stage immediately before the performance.

Post-Show Talkbacks Sundays October 1 and 8, following the 2:00 p.m. performances
Hosted by Director of New Play Development, Clare Drobot, post-show talkbacks encourage audiences to engage with the artists behind the performances.

Greenroom: Art & Afterparty Friday, October 6 at 8:00 p.m.
Join the cast and artistic team for a party in the Gordon Lounge following the performance, with a standup set by special guests Gab Bonesso and Zach Funk, presented in partnership with Comedy Arts Pittsburgh. Complimentary house wine, Penn Brewery beer, and light snacks will be provided. Tickets are just $25 for the evening with promocode GREENROOM.

Pay What You Want Saturday, October 7 at 1:00 p.m.
A block of tickets is reserved for audience members to name their own price at this performance. Walk up sales only, beginning two hours before curtain. Call the box office to check on availability.

ACCESSIBLE PERFORMANCES:
ASL Interpretation Tuesday, October 10 at 7:00 p.m.
Open Caption & Audio Description Sunday, October 15 at 2:00 p.m.

BOX OFFICE INFORMATION:
412.431.CITY (2489) or CityTheatreCompany.org
Tickets start at $38

DISCOUNTS:
Under 30: Reserve $15 tickets in advance for performances except Opening Night and Saturdays at 5:30 p.m.; rush tickets may be available at those performances. Must present ID to receive Under 30 pricing.
Seniors age 62 and older: $24 rush tickets may be purchased at the box office beginning two hours before curtain, based on availability.
Groups of ten or more: Contact Joel Ambrose at 412.431.4400 x286.

WHERE:
1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203 (South Side)
Port Authority bus routes: 48, 51, 54, 81, 83

PARKING:
Patron parking is available in the lot across from the City Theatre entrances for $8, subject to availability.
South Side Nite Rider: Friday and Saturday evenings only. Patrons may park for free at the Second Avenue Parking Plaza and use a shuttle with drop off at nearby Bedford Square. Details: ssniterider.com.

ABOUT CITY THEATRE:
City Theatre is Pittsburgh’s home for bold new plays. Located in the historic South Side, the company produces a season of regional and world premieres, including the upcoming Citizens Market by Cori Thomas and Nomad Motel by Carla Ching. City Theatre’s mission is to provide an artistic home for the development and production of contemporary plays of substance and ideas that engage and challenge a diverse audience.

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