Note from author: I turned this piece in to American Theatre on Feb. 27, 2020, before I had ever heard of Zoom and before we were all using the word pandemic. The production I talk about here had just played in Bangalore and was about to play in Ahmedabad on Mar. 14—our last show before theatres shut down everywhere. Because my collaborators all lived 8,000 miles away from my home in the U.S., I had directed much of the production via Skype. Without meaning to, we developed skills that have become especially valuable during this international theatre shutdown.
The first day rehearsing a play is always an adventure, especially if the actors and director haven’t worked together before. At exactly 10:30 am on a Wednesday last September in New York, I opened my laptop to sit down for the first read-through of my play Visiting Mr. Green with Aakash Prabhakar and M.K. (Maharaj Krishna) Raina, the cast for the Indian premiere. I was directing.
M.K. was in his den in Delhi, Aakash was in his bedroom in Mumbai, and I was in my Manhattan apartment. It was the first of many three-way Skype sessions that I believe were the secret to the success of our production, which opened in December, toured India through March, and will continue as soon as the pandemic permits.
We worked this way every few days for six weeks. Our sessions lasted about two and a half hours each. It was morning for me, but 9 p.m. India time, and when M.K., who plays the 86-year old Mr. Green, started to yawn, I knew it was time to wrap things up for the day.
What we were able to accomplish on Skype was more or less what you’d call “table work” in a traditional rehearsal. But because we were doing my American play in a country and culture thousands of miles away from its original context, there was a lot to discuss.
Visiting Mr. Green is a play I wrote 25 years ago. In the New York production, Eli Wallach played Mr. Green, an 86-year old Jewish man who wanders into traffic on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he is almost killed by a car driven by Ross Gardiner, a corporate guy in his 20s. Charged with reckless driving, Ross is given a community service sentence: six months of weekly visits to the recently widowed Mr. Green in his fourth-floor walkup. The play starts as a comedy and morphs into something more intense. Both men have serious unfinished family business.
There are very few Jews in India. Community service is not generally part of the Indian penal code. A fourth-floor walkup is self-explanatory, but the story of how Mr. Green met his wife many years before, in their Lower East Side tenement—not so much, in a country where arranged marriages still take place. Midway through the play, we learn that Ross is gay. India only decriminalized homosexuality in 2018.
So it was fascinating to discuss the issues and cultural references in the play with M.K. and Aakash, Indian men of different generations. We had decided in advance to perform the play as I wrote it, leaving in Yiddish and Hebrew words like trayf (food that isn’t kosher), bar mitzvah (religious rite of passage), goy (non-Jew), faygele (negative slang for a gay man), and mein shayna maydele (my beautiful girl). M.K. and Aakash didn’t know any of these terms, so I made a recording with the correct pronunciations. My mom had helped Eli Wallach in this task for the original production.
For the Indian production, I could have changed Mr. Green’s religion from Jewish to Muslim or Hindu and set the play in Mumbai. In fact, in the six years prior to this production, two prominent Indian film directors (one Bollywood, one indie) and a prominent Indian theatre producer all wanted to license Visiting Mr. Green and adapt it into a movie or play set in India.
I would have been tempted—had I not had the experience of seeing this play and three of my others performed as originally written (usually in a literal translation) in 48 other countries. Visiting Mr. Green is being produced in 2020 in Kazakhstan, Austria, Italy, Romania, France, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands and Ukraine, Yiddish phrases intact. (See list below.) A lot of people who see this play in these countries have never met a Jewish person. And while the cultural specifics may be different, audiences in every country discover they know people just like Mr. Green and Ross. I think there’s value in that.
M.K. and Aakash, as we worked on the play, became more and more convinced that despite these unfamiliar details, Visiting Mr. Green would resonate strongly for Indian audiences. Meanwhile, the three of us were developing a nice bond and work rhythm. In a three-way Skype, your screen is divided in half, so on my screen, M.K. would be on the left and Aakash on the right. As they got off book, they played to each other more, and it began to feel as if I was watching the play.
I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me weeks to realize that what they were seeing on their split screen was the other actor on the left, and me on the right, reacting to whatever they were doing. I offered to to turn off my camera, but by then M.K. and Aakash were used to my smiles and grimaces, and wanted me to leave it on.
All three of us enjoyed these sessions. We’d occasionally hear the barks of M.K.’s dog, Fordo, and we speculated how he would react when the fireworks of Diwali started. Aakash’s mom would sometimes come in while we working, to bring him dinner. It was sweet to see her excitement when she first met M.K., an award-winning Indian theatre and film star whose work she knew and loved.
As weeks passed, the actors were eager to get on their feet and really rehearse the play. We had arranged to spend two weeks working face to face at TCT, an artists’ retreat in Kamshet, three hours outside of Mumbai, before launching the production in India. I planned to bring some possible wardrobe items for Mr. Green, and I realized I had to ask M.K. how tall he was and what size he wore. I had only seen him from the shoulders up.
While rehearsals were going on, I was interviewing Indian theatre artists to design the set and the lights, write the original score, and serve as stage manager and assistant director. This all happened on Skype or WhatsApp, and once I found people I liked, we began our work, using these video tools
Finally, I flew to Mumbai. It was my first visit to India, but it didn’t feel that way, having spent so much time working with the team on our production. I went straight to the theatre to see where we’d be working, and to meet with Vivek Jadhav, our set designer, to make some final decisions.
The next morning, an Uber dropped me off on the side of a highway in Mumbai, and in the next few minutes, two other Ubers arrived with Jaymin Thakkar, our stage manager, and Mallika Shah, our assistant director. We were all coming from different parts of the city. We stood there with our luggage getting acquainted as cars whizzed by, until Aakash pulled over in his car to pick us up.
Over the past three months, Aakash and I had Skyped or WhatsApped about 50 times, and now we were finally face to face. It was emotional, but only for a moment, since we already knew each other so well. We quickly got into the car and headed for Kamshet. M.K. flew in from Delhi and joined us later that day. We had our first delicious Indian meal together and got right to work.
In the past 20 years, I’ve worked on productions of my plays all over the world, with world premieres in Peru, Australia, and France. Theatre traditions and ways of working are largely the same everywhere, and this was true in India too. The difference in this case was the work we had already done and the familiarity we had developed by satellite before actually being together. We were all somewhat amazed at how quickly we blocked the play and could focus on the constantly changing physical and emotional dynamic between these two characters.
I’ve lived with this play for 25 years, and I’ve seen about 60 of the 500-plus productions around the world (yes, Mr. Green, who never leaves his apartment, has managed to send me on a tour of the world). But the experience in India was very different. For one thing, I’m not usually the director. The character of Ross was based on me, but now I’m 25 years closer to Mr. Green’s age, which gave me a lot of new insights. The set that Vivek designed, cleverly portable for traveling the long distances in India, was like no other that I had seen, and brought new challenges and opportunities. What’s more, Indian-accented English has its own unique rhythms, and M.K. and Aakash brought their own distinct qualities as actors and people to the characters. I will confess to occasionally nudging them in the direction of Jewish comic timing.
Living in New York, it sometimes feels as if the only theatre that matters to people happens either here or in London. Having had the good fortune to work with some of the world’s great actors, directors, and designers, I know this isn’t true. I encourage other playwrights to think globally. Audience reactions to my work really don’t differ that much from country to country.
Some people think comedy doesn’t translate, but as long as the humor doesn’t rely on wordplay, people everywhere do the same funny stuff. I’m told that I’m unusual among playwrights in that I carefully review every line of every translation, and offer many pages of questions and suggestions. Translators rarely ask the original authors any questions, which leaves them to guess the meaning or simply leave out lines they don’t understand. Three different translators of my play Mr. & Mrs. God thought the Mile High Club was a frequent flyer program.
Here is another place where technology has been my friend. I use a series of online tools to translate translations back to English. I would never use these tools to actually translate a play or even an email, but having learned their quirks, I’ve gotten good at finding lines that might have the wrong meaning or the wrong tone. Working with translators and directors, we can always find an equivalent. Translating funny stuff into German is an extra challenge, because the last word of a line is usually important for getting the laugh, and in German that’s often a verb. But it can be done.
When I’m not directing, I can use Skype to attend rehearsals, which I did for the premiere of This Is My Family: Mr. Green Part 2, the sequel, in France. It was hugely helpful to be able to talk to the director about issues early in the process, rather than when I arrived in Avignon for the opening, when it would be too late to make significant changes. I’m doing the same thing for the upcoming Dutch tour of Mr. Green: The Whole Story, which combines shorter versions of the original and the sequel into one evening.
With less than three weeks of face-to-face rehearsals, Visiting Mr. Green opened Dec. 13, 2019, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai to ecstatic press, and, more importantly, to extremely engaged and appreciative audiences. Virtually everyone I spoke to afterward had a story form their family that paralleled something in the play. A number of gay men told me they wanted to see it again with their families.
Unlike many playwrights, I was a screenwriter before I ever wrote a play. In making the move to theatre, I accepted that my work would probably be reach smaller audiences. But to my surprise (and delight), more people have seen Visiting Mr. Green than any of the TV series I wrote for. Of the many awards the play has won over the years, the one I’m proudest of is the Kulturpreis Europa, given for promoting tolerance across national and societal borders.
As our tour continues throughout India, we have plans to bring this production to the U.S. in places with large groups of Indian Americans. In short, working on this production with this particular group of people has been one of the best creative experiences of my life. Indeed, I’m already thinking of new projects I can work on with my new friends and collaborators in India, using my newfound knowledge of another country and culture.
Final note: Now, as of this publication, it is July, and as I predicted when I wrote this back in February, I’m directing Aakash Prabhakar, Gillian Pinto, and Aiman Mukhtiar in a production of my series of hour-long plays, What Goes Around… We’re rehearsing on Zoom and Streamyard, and we’re creating a production that can work online, in person with the actors socially distanced, and as traditional theatre.
Upcoming productions of Visiting Mr. Green include:
- Austria’s Theater Lechthaler-Belic, Graz. to open Oct. 2, with Ernst Prassel as Mr. Green and Nikolas Lechthaler as Ross
- Belgium’s Théâtre Le Public, Brussels, to open Nov. 13, with Benoit Van Dorslaer as Mr. Green and Thibault Packeu as Ross
- Czech Republic’s Miniscéna Bez Podia, Ostrova, to open Oct. 13, with Tomáš Vodvářka as Mr. Green and Jan Sieber as Ross
- Germany’s Thalia Theater, Hamburg, where it’s been running since January 2016; performances scheduled to resume in 2021, though Peter Maertens, who played Mr. Green, died on July 14 at the age of 88; Steffen Siegmund will play Ross
- Greece’s Theatre Mousouri, Athens, to open October 2020, with Petros Filippidis as Mr. Green, Ross TBA
- India tour, scheduled to resume when theatres reopen, with M.K. Raina as Mr. Green, Aakash Prabhakar as Ross
- Kazakhstan’s Theatre Lermontov, Almaty, to reopen this fall, with Yuri Pomerantsev as Mr. Green and Vladislav Butkatkin as Ross
- The Netherlands’ Hummelinck Stuurman Theatreproducties, Amsterdam, a 58-city national tour of Mr. Green: The Whole Story, to open November 2020, with Bram van der Vlugt as Mr. Green, Thomas Cammaert as Ross, Thijs Prein as Chris, Luka Kluskens as Chana
- Romania’s Teatrul Evereiesc de Stat , Bucharest, to reopen in the fall with Virgil Ogăşanu as Mr. Green, and Tudor Istodor as Ross
- Ukraine’s Theatre Actor, Kiev, an unlicensed production that opened in April, 2018 and plans to reopen on July 29, with Aleksey Vertinsky as Mr. Green, Artem Umstov as Ross