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By PATRICK LEE
TDF recently caught up with playwright and actress Claudia Shear, well-known to theatre audiences for Dirty Blonde and for the semi-autobiographical solo show Blown Sideways Through Life. Shear is currently in previews at New York Theatre Workshop with Restoration, about a Brooklyn art restorer who travels to Florence to restore Michelangelo’s David.
TDF: The program notes say that this play began in 2004 when you read an article about the restoration of The David. What about that article spoke to you?
CLAUDIA SHEAR: I don’t know, except that it said that at the unveiling, the woman who had restored The David was so overcome that she had to go behind a curtain. For some reason that stuck in my head like a barb. When I first talked with Christopher [Ashley, the director] about it, I had said that I wanted to write a play for someone else to do. He said no, he would like me to play it, too.
TDF: You’re playing the lead role of Giulia, an art restorer from Brooklyn. Why was your initial impulse to write it for someone else?
CS: I feel sometimes people are confused and think my work is not as serious, that it’s not a real play because I’m in it. I, of course, don’t feel that way. I always look forward to seeing what other actors do; my only sadness with Dirty Blonde is, due to family logistics with my mother being ill at the time, that I wasn’t able to travel and see many productions.
TDF: Given that, is your writing influenced once you start working with other actors?
CS: There’s no question. But I don’t think I can give you specific examples, because it all happens organically in the process. Once you’re home in that alone space, typing, it’s hard to remember and identify all the filaments: what the actor said, the director’s notes, what was going on in your head.
TDF: Were you always confident, after first reading about the restoration, that the material could be developed into a play?
CS: I always knew I’d be writing a play, but “confident” is the wrong word. Confidence is what other people have; I have obsessions. Everything I’ve ever written is about obsession, which is passion with focus. I knew the central character would be the woman who did the restoration.
TDF: That’s Giulia. What was the most important thing you wanted to be sure to convey about her?
CS: Competence. I felt very strongly about that, because I had done all this research. This may not be for me to say, but my research is crackin’! That’s because I love it, and that’s because it’s more fun than writing. I could spend the rest of my life in a library. I spent six months at the Fricke and the Met Museum, and then I went to Florence and did research there. I got interviews with the woman who restored The David—she’s wonderful and she’s coming to opening night. Everywhere in Florence they took me in back elevators and up staircases and let me look and touch. They let me be alone with The David at dawn. I wrote a whole play about it, but I can’t think of a single thing to say to you about that experience.
TDF: What prompted you to write the relationship with Giulia and Max, the museum security guard?
CS: I wanted to write something about friendship, because I’d written a love story in Dirty Blonde. I think the failsafe is to write a romantic relationship. I have found, because I’ve worked in so many different places with so many different kinds of people, that you have very intense relationships with people you will never see again. I could name you so many different people I’ve worked with in varying jobs who in some ways were closer even than family. With Giulia and Max, they are both away from their lives in a sense, he’s male and she’s female, and they’re both heterosexual, so there’s gonna be some things there. But it’s a friendship.
TDF: What are you most proud of in this play?
CS: The cleaning lady’s speech about what she thinks the most beautiful thing in the world is, the Professor’s speech about David in the Bible, Max’s speech about looking at his wife for the first time in years. Daphne’s speech about the smile of St. Ann in da Vinci’s painting. That was my mother’s favorite thing, that smile. For me, that moment is personally very affecting.
TDF: Several of your plays have premiered at New York Theatre Workshop. Do you think of it as an artistic home?
CS: James Nicola [Artistic Director of NYTW] was the person who told me that I should write. What theatre in this country today would look at some crazy waitress, which is what I was, and say “I want to hear what you have to say.” I was not from a program, not from a fabulous university, not sponsored by a fabulous playwright. So, you can imagine my opinion. I don’t know anybody in the theatre like me, do you? I can feel a little bit like Robert Mitchum at the tea party. Most of these people are more talented than I am, but he gave me an opportunity. For that, I would take a bullet for him.
TDF: Does playwriting make you feel validated?
CS: I felt validated after Blown Sideways Through Life. I was famous between a Tuesday and a Wednesday; I went from applying for waitering jobs to Paul Newman hanging out in my dressing room. Steven Spielberg was flying me to California; I had famous people buying me flowers; someone made a documentary about me. It was crazy; I had more validation than most people ever get in a career. But it was suddenly like more food than you could ever eat. I was the flavor of the week, which happens to people, and that’s validating. But I was also busy living my life – going to parties, travelling, getting married – and having belief in myself. If I didn’t have that, it would all be in a vacuum, and I wouldn’t have anything.
Patrick Lee is a regular contributor to Theatermania and has written for various other theatre sites including BroadwaySpace. He blogs at Show Showdown, which he co-founded, as well as at his own site, Just Shows To Go You.