Bringing a classic text familiar to LS students in the classroom roaring to life on stage, these two faculty members have turned The Letters of Heloise and Abelard into an award-winning play, HELOISE (an offical 2019 Broadway Bound Theater Festival selection). Meet Mike Shenefelt and Heidi White, playwright, producer, and LS professors.
---Interview with Playwright, Mike Shenefelt---
What was your first dream job?
As for my dream job as a child, well, at the age of ten I wanted to be a fighter pilot, and I suspect this was true of many little boys growing up during the Cold War. But in college, I found myself wanting to be a newspaper reporter. The work turned out to be highly competitive, and I loved the excitement, but I did it only for a short time—in a small town. After that, I went back to school.
If you could have dinner with any philosopher, who would it be?
Thomas Hobbes—and probably because I hardly believe a single thing that Hobbes ever said, except, perhaps, if he said his name was Thomas Hobbes. But I’ve always enjoyed his wit, intelligence, daring, sense of humor, and willingness to challenge orthodoxy. Often, it’s the writers you most disagree with who turn out to be the most fun.
Favorite play: Far and away, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. But in English, I regard the Brian Hooker translation as the best ever, and for me, nothing else really works. Hooker had a great gift for lyricism and imagery. If I ever need to perk up a bit, I read a few pages.
Have you written a play before?
Bad plays? Yeah, lots of them. And I’m grateful to every gatekeeper at every theater company who has ever rejected one of my crumbier submissions. Nevertheless, with HELOISE I somehow got lucky—and I had a lot of help from people in the business.
What inspired the creation of the play HELOISE?
The letters of Heloise and Abelard are heartbreaking. And the relationship of the two lovers plays out against a background of intense political struggle, a struggle for power within the medieval Catholic Church. I think what drew me to their story were the conflicts of intimacy, in combination with a pitched battle of ideas, and a battle that was larger than any individual.
What was your process for taking such a historical text and turning it into a play?
A writing teacher once told me you start with chaos, then gradually figure out an order, then reduce it once more so that it looks like chaos—to anyone, that is, who hasn’t seen the play before. In a good script, everything must be a surprise, and yet when the audience looks back, they should see that this is how it had to be. Nevertheless, at the start, it’s truly a mess. You see particular things you like, but then you have to figure out if they can fit into a unified story. For me, it’s just a matter of experimenting and tinkering—and sometimes it’s a matter of deleting what you’ve done and starting over.
What makes writing a play different from other forms?
The crucial thing is action. The audience knows nothing about a character’s feelings or situation except from what the character actually does on stage, and this makes a play utterly unlike a novel. Exposition on the stage is deadly dull, and so any piece of extra information that the audience really needs has to be slipped in quickly, as part of an ongoing conflict, a vivid conflict, playing out at that very moment. The instant the audience stops feeling the conflict, that’s the instant you’ve lost them for good.
How do the themes of The Letters of Heloise and Abelard relate to today?
Heloise and Abelard are asking about the role of reason in a world governed by faith. And Heloise is trying to navigate a world utterly dominated by men. Beyond these conflicts, Heloise and Abelard also debate deep questions about the nature of the individual soul and about whether a just god really rules the universe when we see so much that is terrible and tragic. These issues haven’t gone away.
Did you encounter any challenges?
Constantly. Heidi and I had what we called the three-hour rule. On a typical day, we couldn’t go more than three hours without learning of some new crisis that had to be resolved for the production to survive. Everything from fixing holes in the script to finding parking space for a truck with all the costumes, to getting a new rehearsal room when the AC failed. And with medieval costumes, believe me, the actors needed the AC. At one point, Dean Mostov even intervened to help us to get invaluable rehearsal space from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and that really saved us. Without the space from Tisch, we would have been lost. Putting up a drama turned out to be pretty darn dramatic.
What advice would you give to aspiring playwrights?
I’m a strong believer in the theory of playwriting—meaning the kinds of lessons that you learn in classroom courses in dramatic writing. Great playwrights often depart from the orthodox theory, of course, but it’s still very valuable, and I’d strongly recommend studying it. In addition to studying theory and technique, you need to read widely and to think about the most vivid experiences of your own past. Of course, in the case of HELOISE, I was dealing with a story from an exotic time—12th-century France—but a lot of their story also involved academic philosophy, and that’s what I happen to teach in the classroom. So for me it was a combination of reading and personal experience. Whatever your subject, to make your work stand out, you need to find the parts of your experience and your reading that are different from other people’s.
---Interview with Producer, Heidi White---
Which classes from your academic career shaped the way you see the world Where do you go for inspiration?
It was my first philosophy class –the “Philosophy of Art.” I was simply amazed by my professor’s view of not just art, but of the world. Prof. McDermott inspired me to become a philosophy major, and he helped guide me throughout my studies. “Expand your experience,” he used to say. For inspiration, I have found that travel (whether as a visitor, a volunteer, or a student) expands my view of the world.
If you could have dinner with any philosopher, who would it be?
There are so many, but I think I would choose Heloise.
How did you come to be involved with the play HELOISE?
Both Michael and I teach the Letters of Heloise and Abelard, so I know the story well. Michael asked if I would read the play and offer any advice. (I’ve probably read the play at least 30 times.) When the Broadway Bound Theater Festival accepted the play, I wanted to produce it. I believe the story of this amazing woman of 12th-century France needs to be told.
Could you describe the overall process for producing the play?
It’s step-by-step process, and each step builds on the previous one. And you can’t skip a step! You really need to be able to quickly pitch the idea of the play to many different sorts of people. You are actually a sales person! You begin first with only a simple logline and a synopsis, and with these in hand, you try to hook a director, one who believes in the play. Then the process builds (like an inverted pyramid); there’s the poster design, the website, and the crowd-sourcing site, then auditions and readings, then publicity and marketing, social media postings every day, arranging interviews and photo shoots, rehearsals, tech rehearsals, meetings with all the designers (costume, set, sound, and light). You will be busy until the moment you take your seat in the audience on opening night.
What skills and knowledge did you pull from your pre-existing toolkit to put on a successful show, and what new things did you pick up?
Managing so many people while taking care of so many mundane details was not easy. I actually think my work as a waiter in college helped me a lot in handling both simultaneously. I learned that marketing, namely, social media, is key. Also meet in person with a publicist early on, one who wants to read the play before committing to it. Our publicist really cared about Heloise’s story and worked over-time to get the word out in numerous theater publications.
Are there any aspects of being a producer that people would be surprised to know about?
More work and stress than you imagine! There are so many moving parts – and every single one is essential. For about 6 weeks, it seemed there was an “emergency” every 3 hours!
What kind of characteristics should a good producer have?
This was the first time for me, and I would say that you need to be entirely
committed to the play and believe in its message. On the practical side, you need to be efficient and patient with all the artists (actors, set designer, lighting designer, sound designer). You will need to attend to hundreds of details, while inspiring others in the project. Remain respectful and cheerful. Always remember that everyone is working because they support the play’s mission. No one is in this for the money.
Learn more at heloisetheplay.com and on Facebook at Heloise the Play.