An Interview With Shoshana Greenberg

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Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals and plays, fights for gender equality in theatre, runs a podcast, and is a general superstar. Check out her writing (for The Interval!) and her fabulous podcast

When did you first realize your passion for writing could be applied to theatre?

I saw a lot of shows growing up, so I knew writing theater was something people did, but I think I didn’t really see it as something I would do until I attended the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU. It was there that I first felt like I had the tools to write for theater.

What was your experience like in a program focused specifically on Musical Theatre Writing?

It was wonderful to be so immersed in a subject I love and also to have an experience that’s so focused on craft as opposed to lecture. I had a very liberal arts undergraduate experience with tests and papers that I would never use again, so I wanted my graduate experience to be about the actual creation of art and writing. It was also very collaborative, which is different from other graduate experiences I’ve heard of, which sound isolating. Aside from some individual writing and composing exercises, you are always working with another person, which meant that I was very close with my classmates and built a community and support system for the future.

What is the industry environment like for you as a female playwright?

It’s rough out there for every writer, unfortunately, but I do think it’s harder for women to break in, especially if they write with multiple collaborators and aren’t like, a known “brand.” Men still like to hire men, and going after opportunities and being ambitious is still seen differently in men vs. women.

What is one story you fiercely want to share with the world through the avenue of theatre?

Well I hope all the stories I’ve already started writing eventually get produced so that they are shared with a wider audience. Generally, I love stories about historical figures that people may not have heard of, even recent figures. There are a few I’d love to work on, but I’d rather not give one away now :).

What inspired you to create The Story No One Knows?

Well, my collaborator Hyeyoung Kim first wrote The Story No One Knows in Korean and then asked me if I wanted to collaborate on writing the lyrics to the English version. So it was her creation, but I was inspired to come on board immediately upon hearing the story, which is about the people who clean up after and identify a person who dies with no known next of kin. I was very much attracted to the ideas of what we leave behind after death and our legacies, and also how objects are so important to who we are. We are living in an increasingly minimalist world thanks to our devices, but I love objects.

Being a Jewish woman in theatre, how do you feel your voice and culture are represented in your art form?

I feel lucky because I think the Jewish culture is represented very well. Fiddler on the Roof is one of the most popular musicals, and there are many Jewish musical theater writers historically and in the present day. Less so, however, Jewish women, but there are a good amount. I’d love to see more stories of Jewish women, though. Even Fiddler on the Roof is more about Tevye than the daughters.

What is a piece of theatre that deeply spoke to you as a Jewish woman?

Wendy Wasserstein’s work really speaks to me--The Heidi Chronicles, yes, but also her play Isn’t It Romantic, which I remember loving when I read it but I’ve never seen it. Also, the play Significant Other spoke to me on many levels, but Sas Goldberg’s character definitely spoke to me as a Jewish woman, even though I’m nothing like her. Oh, and the musical It Shoulda Been You. It was so refreshing to see a show that had a Jewish female character that wasn’t the Jewish mother (the show ALSO had a Jewish mother). Usually, when I see a show about an interfaith marriage or couple, it’s usually the man who is Jewish and the woman who isn’t. In this show, the Jewish women are the ones getting married, not giving their Jewish brother best wishes. That was very important to me.

Who or what is your biggest inspiration when it comes to your work in theatre writing?

There are the writers I admire, like Sheldon Harnick, Stephen Sondheim, Wendy Wasserstein, and Thornton Wilder, among many others. And there are also the writers who were my teachers at NYU who inspire me both with their work but also directly: Kirsten Childs, Sarah Schlesinger, Mindi Dickstein, Sybille Pearson, Robert Lee, Fred Carl, William Finn, Michael John LaChiusa, Mel Marvin, Deborah Brevoort, Randall Eng, Donna DiNovelli, and Rachel Sheinkin. Lastly, all my fellow musical theater writers inspire me because we’re all just out there trying to do it, but I want to give particular shout-outs to Gordon Leary, Julia Meinwald, Sukari Jones, and Maggie-Kate Coleman, and of course my collaborators Russell Stern, Jeffrey Dennis Smith, and Hyeyoung Kim.

Are there any assumptions you face, based on your gender and religion, that impact your experiences in theater?

I think I’m generally assumed to be a “nice Jewish girl.” And I AM generally nice, Jewish, and a girl, but that is a stereotype I think people may see me as and may make me less interesting as a writer to them. This is speculative, of course. I hope my gender and religion don’t have any impact, but it’s hard to say.

What is a lesson you believe is important for all Jewish women in theatre to learn and understand?

Well, I think we need to see more stories that center Jewish women. There aren’t a lot. I think it’s also important to see Jewish women playing Jewish female characters. It’s not required, of course, but for me it does make a difference. I feel a much deeper connection to the show, and it decreasing the chances of the actor “playing Jewish.” For many Jews, Judaism is something that exists in your heart from a very young age. I think it’s hard to understand that and fully embody a character like that if you are not Jewish. These aren’t lessons but just things to think about when looking at theater through the lense of Judaism and women.