Playwright Rinne Groff likes to get lost in the cracks of history. Her heavily researched plays focus on major cultural events—the invention of television, the Holocaust, union busting under President Reagan—but through unusual filters and at odd angles. Now her third piece at the Public Theater, Fire in Dreamland (through August 5), casts new light on a terrible disaster from more than a century ago. Dreamland was a circus attraction in Coney Island that included several trained animals, including a beloved lion named Black Prince. An accidental conflagration in 1911 killed many of the animals and sent others fleeing (they were eventually shot).
Groff’s play is a mystery wrapped in a romantic comedy. The hero, Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones), feels adrift in 2013 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. She becomes involved with the quirky and controlling Dutchman Jaap (Enver Gjokaj), who says he is making a film about the historic fire. Is Jaap really who he says he is? Can a movie truly capture the complexity and strangeness of the past? And how do we recover from great loss and destruction? What Should We Do?! chatted with Groff about Coney Island attractions, her own Hurricane Sandy story, and teaching tomorrow’s playwrights at New York University.
What Should We Do?!: Were you into Coney Island before you started Fire in Dreamland?
Rinne Groff: I got into Coney Island in a totally nerdy, academic way. There’s this book by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas called Delirious New York. He imagines that all of Manhattan was built according to an ideology he calls Manhattanism. It’s something like, the goal is to exist in a world totally fabricated by man, to live inside fantasy. He pulls Coney Island out as the apotheosis of Manhattanism. Because you travel all the way to the water, but then you swim in a manmade lagoon, or there’s horse land all around, and real horses, but instead you ride on mechanical horses that can only sort of jump over each other. It got me excited about this idea of Coney Island as America: We want something manmade more than the real thing, and it’s a place where fantasies can come true.
Groff: But let me just say that now in my life, I’m super into it because I have kids, and Coney Island has once again reinvented itself. It has been reborn as a family-friendly destination, so we go all the time.
WSWD: What’s your favorite ride?
Groff: Well, I’m partial to the Wonder Wheel. Partly because I’m a wimp about roller coasters, whereas my 8- and 11-year-old daughters will go on every insane ride. They’re tall enough now; they do the ones where you’re upside down and falling 1,000 feet.
It got me excited about this idea of Coney Island as America: We want something manmade more than the real thing, and it’s a place where fantasies can come true.
WSWD: Speaking of things that take your breath away. That long monologue, in which Kate is describing the 1911 fire that destroyed Dreamland—or imagining it—it’s just an amazing piece of writing.
Groff: Thank you! People asked me after that: “Everything in that story is true?” The only detail I changed was that the lion actually went up an indoor roller coaster, and I changed it to an outdoor roller coaster. But everything else that happens is totally true in that story.
WSWD: The play is set in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which hit Coney Island hard. You live in lower Manhattan. How did the storm affect you?
Groff: I have a very heroic Sandy story. At that time my three kids, my husband, and I were living on the 55th floor of a high-rise. My son had just been born six months earlier, and we’d moved into a very temporary three-bedroom. So we were on the 55th floor and the storm was hitting, and we saw the electrical substation explode in lower Manhattan from our window. We saw the lights go out on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge and stay on completely on the Brooklyn side. We saw that demarcation line. Next day, I had to walk in total darkness, because even the generators had given out. A babysitter arrived just before the generators broke. So the babysitter and I walked three kids down a completely darkened stairwell of 55 flights.
Groff: Then I had to walk back up to get the car seat. So I walked back up, got the car seat, and we drove and stayed with friends in Brooklyn, where everything was totally fine.
WSWD: That was quite a workout.
Groff: I understand that that’s not the great tragedy of Sandy. But it still was pretty macho when I went back up the stairs.
Tony Kushner had said to Oskar [Eustis], at a certain point “you need to pay more attention to the next generation of writers coming up,” and I was one of those writers.
WSWD: This is your third play at the Public?
Groff: Yes, after The Ruby Sunrise and Compulsion. It’s been a long time since I’ve been back, and it’s so, so sweet to be back. It’s all thanks to meeting Oskar Eustis when he was still at Trinity Rep. It happened behind the scenes, but I learned later that Tony Kushner had said to Oskar, at a certain point “you need to pay more attention to the next generation of writers coming up,” and he mentioned a bunch of people—and I was one of those writers. He ended up taking Oskar to see Jimmy Carter Was a Democrat when it was playing at HERE.
WSWD: You’re head of playwriting in the department of dramatic writing at New York University. How does teaching feed—or not feed—your playwriting?
Groff: Well, the “not feed” is easy to answer, because: time. Time is everything. I’m a mother of three. I teach. These are things that inform my artistic life, but they’re not writing. The “feed” is maybe just as easy, which is to be surrounded by young people who are thoroughly engaged—not just in the craft but also in the practice and in what’s happening in the world. Most of my students are far better theatergoers than I am because they have more time. So to be engaging in a weekly, or daily, way with young people who are fully invested in and integrated into the life of the theater is very invigorating.