Q&A With Seth Rozin

Today's column is an interview with playwright and director Seth Rozin about his play Missing Link, which will be the third and final play in InterAct's Season of Science and Religion. The play opened March 29 and will run through April 28, 2002. Once again the Philadelphia Center, the educational, regional outreach program of the Metanexus Institute will provide a panel to discuss the play after the April 9, 2002 performance. The panelists will be the Rev. Ralph Ciampa, chaplain and director of the Department of Pastoral Careat at the University of Pennsylvania Health System; Dr. Dan Gottlieb, psychologist and host of Voices in the Family; and Rabbi Barry Schwartz of Congregation M'koor Shalom, Cherry Hill, NJ. The curtain rises at 7:00 PM followed by coffee and discussion. The playwright, director Harriet Power, and actors will also join in the conversation

Missing Link, written by Producing Artistic Director Seth Rozin, was developed at InterAct's 2000 Showcase of New Plays. It is a deeply human drama centering around a couple, Nathan and Gloria Berman, who lose their only child in a tragic plane crash and are catapulted into conflicting crises of faith. The play explores the nature of faith and grief in our volatile contemporary world and examines the journeys we make when we're forced to face the inexplicable. Missing Link is ultimately a hopeful play about grief, faith, and evolution. A reading of the play was part of the November 2001 Becoming Human Conference in Chicago sponsored by the DoSER (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion) Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The panel/performance collaboration between the InterAct Theatre and Metanexus has provoked challenging and enlightening discussions. Metanexus has selected panelists particularly knowledgeable about the subjects of the plays. It has been wonderful having the science and religion dialogue in such a different arena, said Susan Jones, audience member. What is so appealing about this series is that these plays put a human face and feeling to these provocative and complicated issues.

InterAct Theatre Company, located at 2030 Sansom Street in Philadelphia, produces new and contemporary plays that explore contemporary social, political, and cultural issues. InterAct is the recipient of numerous awards for its more than 35 critically acclaimed productions and innovative educational outreach program, InterAction. 

--Julia Loving and Stacey E. Ake

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Larry Loebell: What were you trying to explore when you started writing Missing Link?

Seth Rozin: I set out to pose the question, What do you believe in when the inexplicable and the unthinkable happens? To me, the most inexplicable and unthinkable thing imaginable is if your child dies before you. It so violates our understanding of natural law and cosmic purpose that we have nothing to hold onto. And I am particularly interested in exploring this conflict at the intersection of science and religion. In the play, Nathan and Gloria Berman lose their only child to a plane crash, and amid speculation of terrorism, they are propelled into conflicting crises of faith. Nathan is an assimilated Jew and physical anthropologist who becomes obsessed with finding a rational explanation for this unnatural tragedy. Gloria is a social worker. She responds quite differently, seeking spiritual comfort and returning to the solace of her Catholic upbringing. In a sense, Nathan searches for an answer to the elusive how and Gloria searches for an answer to the elusive why.

LL: Yet you are decidedly not forthcoming with answers to how and why.

SR: I didn't write the play because I had an answer, and if I did, I'd be the richest man in the world! I imagine that people who experience these tragedies in real life do not find satisfying answers. That's the conundrum. What do you turn to for meaning and purpose when there are no answers from our usual sources? I do have strong feelings about that, but you'll have to come to the play to find out what they are.

LL: What were your sources of inspiration for Missing Link?

SR: The first thread of inspiration was during the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in May 1995. For the first time in my life I witnessed the way community attitudes shifted dramatically as speculation on the perpetrators of the terrorism evolved during the investigation. I recall that our collective first instinct was that the act was masterminded by anti-American or anti-Israeli Muslim extremists, hoping to derail progress in the Middle East peace negotiations. Nothing new there. But as a result, there was apparently a subtle surge in anti-Semitism, with some Americans feeling that if it weren't for those stubborn Israelis—and, by extension, Jews—these acts of terrorism would not occur. Only when the investigation determined that the bombing was perpetrated by a white U.S. citizen did most Americans quickly shift their hostilities toward extremists in their own communities. I was intrigued and disturbed by two things: the power of the media to influence large scale shifts in national attitudes before the facts were in, and the discomfort many Americans felt having to acknowledge that one of their neighbors—not some distant evil Arab villain—was capable of such extreme acts of terrorism.

Another influence on the play is my visceral response to plane crashes. I have always been strangely moved by plane crashes; not that it is strange that I would be moved, but I am not nearly as compelled or devastated by other tragedies of the same scale—earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. I can't tell you why this is so. In 1989, when Pan Am flight 103 was shot down over Lockerbie, Scotland, I was mesmerized by television and newspaper reports; seeing the relatives of the victims collapse with such overwhelming emotion was absolutely horrifying. In fact, I did an oil painting based on a newspaper photo of a man whose daughter was on flight 103. The photo captured him collapsed in agony at JFK airport after hearing of the crash over the loudspeaker. But it wasn't until 1996, after the crash of TWA flight 800, that I began writing Missing Link. In that instance, I was (and remain) compelled by the notion of a community losing an entire class of schoolchildren.

LL: You mentioned your interest in the intersection of science and religion.

SR: Since I was very young, I've had a strong interest in science. At different points in my life I wanted to be a zoologist, a neurologist, and an ethologist. And in my adult life I've become increasingly interested in evolution, bioethics, psychology, and religion. Science and religion have often been opposing forces in our search for meaning. Think of Galileo's battle with the Vatican over the earth's position in the solar system, or Darwin's battle with the creationists over human evolution. So much of what underpins our faith in the unknowable has been eroded by scientific discoveries. And yet, faith perseveres. This is one of the great human mysteries to me.

LL: In Missing Link, Nathan and Gloria are pulled apart by these opposing forces, but neither science nor religion provides ultimate fulfillment.

SR: I think that the capacity to posit an assumption about how something in the world works and then to set out to prove that that assumption is true is a uniquely human endeavor. And the capacity to conceive of a higher power and invest in its meaning with no hard evidence is also uniquely human. Science and religion are both very human attempts to make sense of the universe and our place in it. But we (humans) invented scientific and religious thinking, so the conclusions we draw through them are never completely objective. Ultimately, we see what we want, or perhaps what we need, to see.

LL: Playwriting teachers often tell their students to write what they know, implying that they should draw on personal experience. Is anything about Missing Link autobiographical?

SR: I've always believed that everything we write is informed by who we are and the experiences we have, but I try not to consciously write about myself. I am passionate about the people and the ideas in the play. It's probably fair to say I know the character of Nathan best, having grown up with an academic father (a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania), but I've never been married or had children, my upbringing was devoid of religion, and the most devastating thing I've ever experienced is unrequited love (knock on wood)—a far cry from the tragedy in the play. Truth be told, there are a few details from my life in the play, but the broad strokes sprung from my imagination. Interestingly, the character I had the easiest time writing is probably the one I am most different from—Jean Staley, a middle-aged Blessed Virgin Mary follower from Lubbock, Texas. Go figure!

Of course, I also believe that some of what we write is an attempt to work through some kind of mystery or dilemma in our own lives. I have to admit I'm continually fascinated by people who truly believe that things happen for a reason. It's so counter to my implicit understanding of how the world works, yet there are people I love and respect intellectually who live their lives with full confidence in some kind of cosmic purpose. I feel at once envious and suspicious of them. Envious because I see that having faith at such a deep level is extremely comforting, especially in times of upheaval; suspicious because I think people who attribute meaning to random events are hopelessly deluding themselves.

LL: What is the writing process like for you? How does it differ from the directing process?

SR: In one sense, writing and directing feel worlds apart to me. Writing is about the literal creation of a concrete, extant piece of art. I have ultimate control over it as such, and it has a kind of permanence which is very appealing. Whereas directing is all about interpretation and bringing to life that extant piece of art. As a director, I am always aware that my work is temporal, fleeting, impermanent; when the curtain comes down on the final performance, my direction vanishes. The rewards, therefore, are very different. Writing a play gives me the feeling of pride at having birthed a tangible new story and raised some new questions. Directing is about the immediacy of the collaboration, the coming together of a specific set of people and creative energies at a specific time and place. But in other ways, writing and directing are very closely related for me. For instance, when I think about my characters as a playwright I have to ask myself what they would say, while as a director I ask myself how they would say it. The combination of the two—the what and the how—is what makes theatre so exciting. I love both roles, but right now I have to work hard at just being the playwright and shutting up about directorial issues!

LL: How does Missing Link fit in your development as a writer?

SR: I'm still very young as a writer, but I've certainly grown a lot during the writing of Missing Link. My two earlier plays—Men of Stone and The Space Between Us—dealt with the plight of the artist in society. And even though I have been deeply involved in both the visual and performing arts my whole life, these plays were not nearly as personal to me as Missing Link. What that means is that the process of writing and rewriting has been more intense; I've had to dig a little deeper each time I've revisited the script, asking myself what each character would feel in every moment. That's kind of an exhausting process, but it's been a rewarding one as well. I feel like I have a deep, maybe even sacred friendship with all the people in the play; like I am the one person who will really listen to them. I've never had that experience before. Also, I find myself increasingly drawn to the juxtaposition of very personal stories against the backdrop of political events.

LL: InterAct's mission is to do political plays. How is Missing Link political?

SR: To me, political means that the stories, the themes, and the characters in a play are influenced by, or have influence on, forces and events in the larger world. In Missing Link, Nathan and Gloria experience a tragedy and go through deeply personal journeys. But their journeys are informed by outside forces: the media's overzealous speculation on the cause of the tragedy; and American attitudes about terrorism, extremism, fundamentalism, the Middle East, organized religion, and anti-Semitism. So, what begins as purely personal becomes increasingly political.

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