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A Lover’s Guide to American Playwrights: Ellen Maddow and Paul Zimet

We’ve made a life – our whole life – in the theater. Raised our children. Toured the world. Inventing our own way.

The plays are made entirely of snow.
Turn to water.
Then to ice.
Stay a little while longer.
Then gone.

        —The Following Evening, Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone
 

My faith in the theatre is inconstant. It requires regular refreshment, renewal of belief that this thing, on which I have staked hope and energy, is worth hope and energy. I’ll search anywhere for reasons to believe: among the never-ending parade of new artists who take nothing for granted about the way things are; among those who keep keeping on through the trials of mid-career; among those who have endured. This is a story of two writers who have endured beyond all probability and continued, in late life, to remain ever-new. More, it’s a set of love stories, nesting inside one another like Matryoshka dolls.

The first love story: Paul Zimet and Ellen Maddow met in 1970 when he was a member of Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater and she signed on as an intern with a talent for keeping a beat on a drum. Together with Tina Shepherd, Paul and Ellen have been the core artists of an ensemble called Talking Band (TB) for the past fifty years. (You read that right.) Over that half century they’ve written, directed, performed in, and co-created nearly sixty original theatrical works with modest means. As if that math weren’t miracle enough, this winter and spring, the couple has offered up three back-to-back new pieces of theatre that would challenge the most Olympian of artists, each of which might stand as the accomplishment of several years. Speaking of years: Paul is eighty-one; Ellen merely seventy-five.

The couple romances a theatre that’s pure, poor, idealistic, and searching. 

The first of these works, The Following Evening, which premiered in February at the new Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center, is itself a nested love story, their story: Paul and Ellen, married parents of two and grandparents of three, still crazily creative after all these years. Their Soho loft is their home and often their theatre; they’ve raised their family, rehearsed, presented in-process work there. They write (separately) and Ellen composes there, while caring for neighbors and keeping the dog fed. 

A man guides a woman's arm during a performance.

Ellen Maddow and Paul Zimet in The Following Evening created by 600 Highwaymen for Talking Band. Written and directed by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone. Sound design by Avi Amon and Ryan Gamblin. Original music by Avi Amon. Scenic and costume design by Jian Jung. Lighting design by Eric Southern. Dramaturgy and script development by Andrew Kircher and Lucia Sheckner. Assistant direction by Olivia Facini. Produced in partnership with ArKtype. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Another love story nests inside theirs: love of the theatre. The couple romances a theatre that’s pure, poor, idealistic, and searching, the kind that can happen in just such a loft or anywhere, really, with floor space, a spinet, assorted chairs or benches, lamps, and a paper bag to put over your head for no particular reason. Inside of that lies a New York love story. Paul spent his childhood on the Upper West Side in the 1940s and 50s. Talking Band, one of a handful of companies that grew out of the Open Theater, was incubated in Manhattan’s there’s-an-idea-in-my-head-and-a-song-in-my-throat-and-a-rat-on-my-mattress Bohemia—SOHO and the East Village circa the 1970s. They heart present-day New York too, because despite the evil corporate shopping mall it’s become, the pentimenti (and ghosts) of those previous eras bleed through.

…When I arrived in New York, I was not prepared for this parade of people who announced with great victory and also real sadness that the city was over, the party was gone and I had just missed it. But boy was it a party, they told me. Boy, was it ever.

So I cried for a few weeks because I thought I had missed the thing I had come to get.

But you stay because you wanted so badly to be here and you do something in it and it does something to you. And then, the following year, a new crop of people will arrive, new people who’ve come to find something they heard, or read about, or heard in a song, or saw on tv. And that city they came to find is already gone. And you’ll be the one to tell them.

Those lines aren’t spoken by Paul or Ellen, and herein lies The Following Evening’s meta-love story, its outer Matryoshka. It’s spoken by Abigail Browde who, with her husband Michael Silverstone, collectively known as 600 Highwaymen, wrote and directed the play for Paul and Ellen, from stories of their shared life. Abigail and Michael also make a life and gorgeous, deceptively simple theatre experiments together with quiet consistency, though they are (collectively) about seventy-five years younger than Paul and Ellen, who have grandchildren the age of Abby and Michael’s toddler son. It’s a Dorian Gray doubling, a twinning across time, their anxieties and arguments different only in the details. In spare dances and a concrete poetic dialogue that calls to mind William Carlos Williams, the couples precede and follow each other—onstage as in life, art, the city. The linguistic, gestural purity of The Following Evening is breathtaking. It’s heart over-full.

A group of four people embrace onstage.

Michael Silverstone, Ellen Maddow, Paul Zimet, and Abigail Browde in The Following Evening created by 600 Highwaymen for Talking Band. Written and directed by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone. Sound design by Avi Amon and Ryan Gamblin. Original music by Avi Amon. Scenic and costume design by Jian Jung. Lighting design by Eric Southern. Dramaturgy and script development by Andrew Kircher and Lucia Sheckner. Assistant direction by Olivia Facini. Produced in partnership with ArKtype. Photo by Maria Baranova. 

Talking Band seems to me the perfect name for a company whose unadorned language and household instrumentation allow the musicality of words, spoken and sung, to reverberate. This homespun ensemble alternates leads. Paul and Ellen are both playwrights plus. And while the company’s canon has a recognizable stamp, as writers they each conjure worlds that both incorporate the other’s sensibilities and remain distinctly their own.

As a performer and director, Paul has honed his work to its essence—utterly natural, though never “naturalistic” or behavioral in the way of much American acting. No movement or mannerism wasted. Paul the playwright has created his own particular style of music-theatre—mythic and contemporary, lush and quotidian, literate and accessible. A master of theatrical epiphany, he stands in anguished wonder at the world, finding moments of rare beauty in the everyday—watering a garden, opening a refrigerator, sugaring tea. It’s not a sentimental pose; it’s an active one, mixing curiosity, affection, and horror, the way characters in his Fata Morgana, on a pleasure cruise to inevitable disaster, intuit the world’s majesty at the instant their death looms.

SOPHIA: Look how beautiful it is. So clean and clear. The sea is transformed—tremendous diamonds refracting rainbows of light. How beautiful it is to be alive here. How terrible it is that we will die here. It’s like a diorama of ice floes and sea lions at the Natural History Museum […]And the painted water is moving all around us[…]and perhaps in the distance there is the smoke of a ship coming to rescue us.

A rough theatre magician, Paul targets the infinite with raw historical materials: a nineteenth-century theatre troupe portraying the Lewis and Clark expedition in Bitterroot or, in Star Messengers, daffy commedia dell ‘arte entr’actes about Renaissance scientists Galileo, Kepler, and Brahe. In search of mystery, he investigates science, divinity, the supernatural, and the hokey. Like romantic polymath William Blake, whom he portrays (stark) nakedly in Belize, Paul sees “the world in a grain of sand…” and strives to “hold infinity in the palm of your hands...”

The sublime, revelatory quality of his writing feels continuous with nineteenth century romanticism and transcendentalism. His language, though, like his acting style, is that of a late-modern, Beckettian world—concentrated, stripped clean. Even pared down, however, his phrases yearn toward awe, the fertile paradise encountered by explorers/despoilers Lewis and Clark in Bitterroot:

Some seek it in the poppy’s seed

Some in the nectar of the vine

Some in work, some in good deed

Some in bodies close entwined

So all seek Paradise

As with his early mentor Joe Chaikin, death has haunted much of Paul’s work from the beginning. He is a scientist and was training at Harvard Medical School before amour de théâtre. In his theatre lab he studies the poisons of the world: colonialism, racism, economic enslavement, political betrayal. He is a political writer in a lyric poet’s clothing.

The first time I saw Ellen Maddow in a play by Ellen Maddow, circa 1986, she was playing music on kitchen appliances. The play was Betty and the Blenders. Ellen was the aforementioned Betty, an avant-garde hausfrau as Smokey Robinson, backed not by the Miracles, but the Miracle Whips. Find a fork and a mixing bowl, play the wooden spoons, or line up the classic Oster beehive blenders, and you’ve got yourself an orchestra. In her oeuvre, people make music with mops in buckets or to the 6/8 rhythm of a bus’s windshield wipers. However strange this might sound to, say, your family in Ohio, it works every time. Einstein on the Hamilton Beach.

If Paul’s simple prose yearns toward the poetic, Ellen’s finds a poetry that is precisely prose. She knows, for example, the lyricism of the list. Her plays are full of them. Panic! Euphoria! Blackout is structured around lists. Based on a series of sixteenth-century Belgian paintings of money lenders, three clearly Jewish traders swap goods and then pack those goods away to make a diasporic escape. One of the traders, Rubin, prepares for the day’s business by moving objects as he names them, traversing time as he goes.

Rubin

A pair of shoes for a loaf of bread

Two sewing needles for a bowl of soup

A bail of hay for a gallon of cider

A bottle of beer for a ride into town

5 brown eggs for 3 cigarettes

12 silver coins for a week of work

A truckload of gravel for a Border Collie

60 goats for a teenage bride

Next year’s corn crop for a bar of gold

16 bucks for a sweater from Bangladesh

2,000 dollars for a Kate Spade handbag

As in her loft, where art, love, and family are inseparable, in the topsy-turvy Maddow-lands of Ellen’s plays, colleagues, friends, and family form a single circle. In Painted Snake in a Painted Chair, she dubs that group “our fuzzy cliquey cluster.” A doctor named Walter describes the magic of walking into a house belonging to a member of this friend-family:

How we show up like peach pits left on a plate and sprout and spread and intertwine. How our hair turns to leaves, how our mouths become fruit, how the furniture rumbles, the air turns electric […] when I come over here to meet my friends […] the roof pops off, the wind blows in, and I tumble and plunge, out of control, head over heels in the sweet unknown.

The Sanskrit word “sutra” comes from the root that means to sew, the line that holds things together. Ellen is a secret sew-er, unspooling the line that ties characters (us) to each other, in ways we don’t even notice. She is a tailor with the magical needle and thread, a Mama Sutra. 

One of the most joyful theatre experiences I had tiptoeing back into theatres as Covid waned in 2022 was TB’s production of Ellen’s Lemon Girls, directed by Paul at La Mama. The show centers on five women in their seventies, friends from Lemon Elementary school, who get roped into a performance art workshop “at the rec center! In the basement of the Mazuma Houses! Sponsored by Art for the Artless! Underwritten by the mayor! Snacks provided by the city council!” The friends begin cranky and dyspeptic, literally displaced by crowds of young professionals who’ve overrun their world. Their life together infiltrates their art until it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. And of course, this friend-family emerges fabulous—rocking their dances, interlocking stories, and songs. “Art for the Artless” (the play’s subtitle) indeed!

A group of actors dance onstage.

Lizzie Olesker, Jack Wetherall, Patrena Murray, Louise Smith in Lemon Girls or Art for the Artless by Ellen Maddow produced by Talking Band at La Mama. Directed by Paul Zimet. Choreographed by Sean Donovan. Set and video design by Anna Kiraly. Costume design by Kiki Smith. Assistant costume design by Jill St. Coeur. Lighting design by Mary Ellen Stebbins. Sound design by Tyler Kieffer. Production stage management by Kristin Rose Kelly. Photo by Andrew Bisdale. 

The experiment goes on. In 2008 Ellen wrote Flip-Side to fill a set designed by Anna Kiraly, a flip of the usual play/design process. You can hear their upside-down process in the play itself. Co-workers Frank and Daisy imagine a home in the dreary office they share.

Frank

If only there were a table.

Daisy

Yes, a table by the window.

Frank

Yes, and a checkered cloth on the table.

Daisy

And a small red bowl full of seashells.

Frank

And a shaft of light from the morning sun piercing the window.

Daisy

A bright hot square

Frank

On the ice cold linoleum,

Daisy

Grey and worn

Frank

By the endless restless feet

Daisy

Of Grandma Sarah in her boiled wool slippers

Frank

Grandma Sonya in her worsted socks

Daisy

Grandma Gretchen in her cracked leather boots

Frank

Grandma Carla in her goatskin scuffs

The third offering of Talking Band’s 2024 theatrical hat trick follows a similar prompting. This time Paul and Ellen have co-written the script inspired by Olivera Gajica’s costume designs. A farce about the hope for new clothes that will bring new selves, Shimmer and Herringbone, is aptly set in a clothing store by the same name. It features music by Ellen for a string trio. Paul directs and Ellen performs, reunited with Tina Shepard and several members of the longtime TB theatre family.

They finish each other’s sentences, thoughts, philosophies. They shut each other out and let each other absolutely in. In other words, a love story.

I’ll close with the second leg of the couple’s six-month marathon, created with director Anne Bogart. A joyfully brainy and off-kilter piece of theatre, Existentialism celebrates creative/romantic partnership over time. It was inspired by the intimate collaboration of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (though their names are never uttered) as well as, presumably, that of Ellen and Paul, the only people in the play. The character couple lives side-by-side in tiny cutout houses (designed by Kiraly) at the edge of an ocean. They move in and out of each other’s “homes,” keep each other at bay, and pound away on matching typewriters—occasionally in miraculous synchronicity. Their ideas float in and out of the pages they tear from their manual machines. She, Ellen’s character, who sometimes seems to want nothing to do with He (Paul’s), regularly tries to seduce him through the wall that separates their spaces. They finish each other’s sentences, thoughts, philosophies. They shut each other out and let each other absolutely in. In other words, a love story.

Two people type on typewriters separated by a wall.

Ellen Maddow and Paul Zimet in Existentialism, created and directed by Anne Bogart in collaboration with Ellen Maddow and Paul Zimet, produced by Talking Band. Set design by Anna Kiraly. Lighting design by Brian Scott. Costume design by Gabriel Berry. Sound design by Darron West. Production stage management by Patrick Dunning. Assistant stage management by Hanna Yurfest. Photo by Maria Baranova. 

True to TB fashion, Existentialism distills all that’s lyrical from the concrete. Try repeating “It’s a table” twenty-one times in a trance like He does, and you’ll find yourself in an undiscovered country of emotion and poetry, a country called “the present,” where theatre lives and the Talking Band continually locates us. The present, over an impossible number of years.

“The novelty of the world blows me away,” She sings. It could be a mantra for these conjoined artists, one they’ve repeated again and again since 1974, during which time meals were made, children raised, roofs repaired, and plays written. During which a regular ensemble of actors, some who have performed together since the Open Theater’s founding six decades ago, reconvene to frolic, investigate their common codes of language, beat bowls with spoons, shake cereal boxes like maracas, and pound out simple profundities in the kind of effortless group choreography of artists who have shared, shaped, and opened space for longer than most people spend at anything. It’s a dedication—to each other and to this theatre thing—that makes beauty seem easy and the company of others extraordinary. It is refreshment and renewal, faith with a question nested inside, like Ellen’s cry of the heart in The Following Evening: “ALL I’VE EVER DONE IS THIS ONE THING IN MY LIFE. I’D LIKE TO THINK IT WAS NOBLE, NOT FOOLISH.”

 

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Thoughts from the curator

An ongoing series of tributes to contemporary playwrights.

A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights

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