Lease is the Word

Playwright Brooke Berman on finding her voice and an NYC apartment, which inspired Hunting and Gathering, opening this week at Amphibian Stage Productions.

published Sunday, April 6, 2014

Photo: Daylon Walton
Sam Swanson, Lydia Mackay and Garret Storms star in Hunting and Gathering at Amphibian Stage Productions

Fort Worth — An old riddle—Who carries his house on his back? A snail.—has a new answer in Brooke Berman’s comedy Hunting and Gathering, having a regional premiere at Amphibian Stage Productions in collaboration with Theatre TCU, directed by Harry Parker. The characters in the play don’t have a house, or even an apartment, to carry on their backs, but they take what bits and pieces they can as they move—again and again—in search of a place to call home.

They are the new “hunters and gatherers”; urban nomads in their twenties and thirties, trying to make a life—and find a little love—in the Big City, where rents are sky-high and wages flat as a pancake.

Photo: Courtesy
Brooke Berman

It’s a life Berman used to know well, though she’s quick to tell us “the play is make-believe, a meditation about characters who are searching for home, and how complicated that is in this day and age, and what happens to us as people when we don’t have physical stability and don’t know where we’re going next.”

The one truly autobiographical part of the script, she adds, is her character Ruth’s “list of [about 15] apartments. That’s an actual list of the places I lived, written for a theater group in 2001. At the time, I was happily settled in lower Manhattan, and thought it would be funny to list them. Then September 11 happened, and I was homeless again for a while.”

Fifteen apartments? At that point, though she couldn’t know it, Berman wasn’t even halfway home. In her real life, chronicled in the 2010 book No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments, Berman spent about 20 years couch-surfing, house sitting and otherwise trying to make other people’s homes into hers…for a night, for a week, for a month or two.

“Transience wasn’t something I aspired to,” she laughs. “It was a necessary evil. I didn’t have a place to live because I was really pursuing a life in theater (she’s a Juilliard grad), and that means giving up many of the things a middle-class life usually has. I didn’t have health insurance for 10 years.” A lot of younger theatergoers relate to the characters in Hunting and Gathering with an “OMG, that’s my life!” fervor, Berman adds—but surely plenty of older Americans, whose plans have been overturned by the economy or whose children are finding it hard to make their way, will relate to the comedy and the underlying pain, too.

These days, Berman says with a laugh that sounds a bit astonished, things have changed “quite a bit” for her.

“I’m married [to writer Gordon Haber], I have a child, I live in a fancy high-rise with a doorman.” She and her husband are “mostly settled” in New York City, but “there’s also work in Los Angeles, and we have communities in both cities.” Her plays have been produced around the country and abroad, at theaters including Steppenwolf, Primary Stages, Williamstown Theater Festival, and the National Theatre Studio in London. She teaches playwriting and screenwriting in New York, and has a short film, Uggs for Gaza, showing at this year’s Aspen international short-film festival.

Quite a transformation for a writer who in a 2008 New York Times feature (when Hunting and Gathering premiered in New York) was still a nomad, living free for a few months in a room at New Dramatists, a nonprofit center for playwrights housed in an old church in Manhattan. And for her, “home” is clearly not just a place. “I think having a partner, having a child grounds you in a really specific and intense way.”

Hunting and Gathering, says Berman, is an essentially “redemptive” take on a kind of life that might not seem as fun while you’re living it as it does in her play. But we wonder: might all that schlepping and wandering actually be good for you?

For part of the answer, look to Berman’s play. But she’s willing to venture an opinion.

“You used to be able to get out of college, find a job you stayed with, rent an apartment, buy a house and settle into your life,” she adds. “I don’t think that’s true for most Americans any more. This isn’t only a New York story: it’s Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston—wherever there are creative people and not enough real estate, this is what happens.

“I met another mom on the subway this week,” she says, “and we started talking about schools and real estate, and it came up that very few of us feel that we’re able to get away with a ‘long-range plan’ the way our parents did. I think contemporary people are getting a master’s degree in ‘going with the flow.’

“Ruth in the play has a monologue about becoming a butterfly—going into the cocoon and liquefying and becoming this new creature. I think those times when we can’t seem to attach to a physical space to call home—I think those draw out of us a specific kind of strength, an adaptability that’s an amazing skill set to have. But I think crisis in general has a way of showing you what you’re made of, who you are, don’t you think?”

» Here’s a fun 2008 video of Brooke Berman visiting—and telling stories about—some of the many places she temporarily called home in New York City:

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Lease is the Word
Playwright Brooke Berman on finding her voice and an NYC apartment, which inspired Hunting and Gathering, opening this week at Amphibian Stage Productions.
by Jan Farrington

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