Love All Alices: Interview with Playwright Lavinia Jones Wright

Lavinia Jones Wright
“Love All Alices” is a new play by Lavinia Jones Wright that was inspired by stories collected from the life of legendary New York City acting teacher Alice Spivak (1935–2020).

“Love All Alices” is a new play by Lavinia Jones Wright that was inspired by stories collected from the life of legendary New York City acting teacher Alice Spivak (1935–2020). A protegé of Uta Hagen, Spivak’s thousands of students include Carrie Fisher and Spike Lee, Tyra Banks (who featured her on America’s Next Top Model) and Courteney Cox. The cast is comprised of fifty of Alice Spivak’s students and members of her OnTheRoad Repertory Company. The show will run August 11 and 12 at The Connelly Theater in NYC.

Lavinia Jones Wright recently discussed this play via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your talent for writing and what was it about plays and the theater that most interested you?

Lavinia Jones Wright (LJW): I’ve been writing in some form or another since I was very young. But my entry point into plays and theater was through acting. I grew up in the Philadelphia area and got to see the Broadway touring companies and regional productions of musicals and plays at the Forrest and Walnut Street theaters. Sometimes we would even go to New York and see things on Broadway. We also had wonderful community theater companies where I saw plays as a child and eventually took acting classes and performed. The first play I wrote was when I was thirteen, it was a collaboration in a summer theater camp. I remember it having something to do with the assassination of a rubber duck. What I loved about theater was how absurd and wild it could be. I loved movies for their realism and immersion into worlds, but theater was about the imagination. Anything you could imagine, you could do.

MM: How did you find out about Alice Spivak and why did you decide to base a play about her?

LWJ: I was introduced to Alice Spivak in 2013. Her name was passed along to me by one of her longtime students. I think that’s how a great many people came to Alice. She was a secret weapon, and her phone number was spread from actor to actor by word of mouth. I joined her class and immediately felt she was the most interesting person I had ever met. She had this magical mixture of things. She was a legend, with incredible stories, fascinating philosophies and proven techniques and at the same time she was curious, engaged, very present with every student. She used her own life stories as teaching tools, which was a very unique trait. It got me thinking that her stories would make an amazing one-woman show and film. So, I started interviewing her, transcribing the interviews, and shaping them into monologues that she could perform. We worked on the material together in 2020 over Zoom and planned to begin filming the documentary in November. She would perform a full staged version when theaters reopened. She passed suddenly in November of 2020. That was when I reconceived the piece to be performed by her students, her living legacy.

MM: How much research did you do into her life and what most fascinated or surprises you about it?

LWJ: Before Alice passed, most of my research consisted of asking her questions. I had read her book, of course. But I wanted to tell her life story in her own words. So, I focused on her self-narrative. Sometimes what she told me would bring up more questions and clarifications, but mainly I worked exclusively with what she wanted to tell. The exciting part of hearing her speak was how she slipped seamlessly from fascinating philosophies about acting and creativity, to absurd and hilarious asides, to evocative and vivid memories, all in service of a point she was trying to make. She would circle back around after taking you on a wild journey, right back to the acting lesson or life lesson that started the story. When it was written down on paper, her way of speaking was clearly based on her years of reading plays. After she passed, and her theater company and I had access to her archives, I was stunned with the depth of it. It painted a much more illustrious picture of her own history than she had in the interviews. The archives gave me a much more detailed view of all of the seminal theater, film and television history that Alice had been a part of the amazing experiences she had.

MM: Her former students star in this play! What was it like bringing everyone together?

LWJ: Bringing this community together to work on this project has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The interesting thing about studying with Alice is that she really customized her teaching to each person. So, every actor she worked with had a close and unique relationship with Alice. But we all also share so many of the same memories of her. It was important to me that her actors felt this play was true to how they remember her, too. They are each unique and talented, and seeing them read her words as an ensemble paints an intricate portrait of the different facets of Alice. It’s emotional, particularly after being apart during the pandemic, to all be together doing this work. Remembering her. Because these actors come from different eras of Alice’s scene study class, some of them are close friends, and some are meeting for the first time on this project, so there is discovery and new growth as well.

MW: How did you start working with The Connelly Theater?

LWJ: The Connelly is s very special place on so many levels. It’s an old theater with a deep history, a beautiful space that just envelops you in magic when you walk in. It feels lost in time, in an era of New York City where so many things are being remade into cold, corporate spaces. The theater is managed by the talented and creative playwright and director Josh Luxenberg, who really goes out of his way to facilitate cool and experimental work. I came to the Connelly through him, and his support made it possible for us to get Love All Alices up.

Lavinia Jones WrightMM: What’s your favorite part of the play and why?

LWJ: It would be impossible to choose a favorite part! We’ve worked for so many years on this project, each story is precious to me. One life event that was huge for Alice was meeting Harry Belafonte in 1968 and beginning to work as his acting coach. That was the start of an 18-year working relationship that brought her into the Civil Rights movement and changed her teaching philosophy and her life. We turned that story into a big ensemble scene taking place on the set of a film, and we all love the scene because it is filled with energy and excitement.

MM: What have your past plays been about?

LWJ: “Love All Alices” is my first play as a writer in a long time. As a creator, I’ve been working in film and music primarily for the last fifteen years, and in the theater, I’ve been focused on my work as an actor. My sister Maris Jones and I write and perform a stage show called The Jones Family Retro Show – a rock and roll, drag, comedy extravaganza that we’ve been performing a few times a year at the knitting factory since 2018. We write an entire new show from scratch every time (about an hour of material per show) and collaborate with amazing local performance artists. So that’s been the most recent writing for stage writing project I’ve been involved with. The common thread of my work seems to always be collaboration. I love working with ensembles and communities and creating work that performers can infuse with their own ideas and personalities.

MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to explore in future works?

LWJ: I’m currently, with a fabulous group of people, helping to keep Alice’s theater company OnTheRoadRep moving, and we have an exciting season of plays coming up to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the company. We are always working on new material for The Jones Family Retro Show (watch out, we’ve got one in the pipeline!) The themes that are always present in my work are collaboration, creativity, performance and cultural legacy. And I will continue to explore those forever probably. I’m deeply curious about what informs our work as artists, the people who inspire us, the cultural history that influences us, and the processes that we use to reach artistic goals. Performance always seems to be something I’m drawn to. With the amazing director Alex Steyermark, I was fortunate to travel America cutting 78rpm records, producing and writing for the acclaimed The 78 Project Movie and The 78 Project web series beginning in 2012. Through that project I was able to work with incredible musicians, to witness and capture their process. I’m now enjoying working with actors and performance artists, exploring how they create beautiful performances.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

LWJ: My goal is always to make interesting work that is joyful. To create spaces where people can find inspiration, either as collaborators in it, or as our audience. Like everyone, I feel the pressure of the crises that we’re experiencing globally, as a country and as individuals. I am trying to offer thoughtful and deep work that connects us to something vital. I find relief in the work, and I hope others can find something in it, too. I worry that it’s not enough, but I try not to get discouraged. Art making is essential.