Jack Feldstein, Playwright/Neon Animation Filmmaker, & Rivky Grossman, Singer-Songwriter/Artist
Jack Feldstein, prolific award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and neon animation filmmaker hailing from Australia, and Rivky Grossman, singer-songwriter, visual artist, and writer raised in Brooklyn, are the dynamic creative pair behind a “spirited” new musical, “The Kingdom of Vincent Grapelli,” about an actor who rediscovers what’s important in life. Call it serendipity, fate or divine intervention, but discovery reigns supreme both on stage and in their own creative lives, as Rivky’s previously composed songs magically, and quite perfectly, fit with Jack’s already written script.
Jack, whose artistic background spans countless staged plays and prizes globally, nearly 30 neon animated films, and collaborations with fashion designer Norma Kamali, actually began his professional career as (drumroll!) a pharmacist – only to later discover his talent, and a deeper joy, for artistic creation. A graduate of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in playwriting, and now living in New York City, Jack is a charming, witty, ever-smiling inspirational delight. His recent New York City stage offerings include “Carnival of Souls,” a modern take on a cult film with neon animation and live action, “Falling in Love with Mr Dellamort,” perhaps the world’s first Theremin musical, and “Three Months with Pook,” a memory piece with music that tells the story of a gay man and a lesbian who have a brief heterosexual love affair.
Rivky, whose bio describes her as “Jacques Brelian/Kurt Weill/Freddie Mercury nostalgia, living a schizophrenically sarcastic, sad, humorous lunacy on the hour, breaking stigma, fear, being quirky, funny,” has a riveting history in which her artistic gifts weren't particularly celebrated or nurtured. Today Rivky, who doesn’t relish being on stage but indeed is an utter joy to see and hear, has gone on to study at The Juilliard School and perform at Washington D.C.’s The Kennedy Center and well-known venues in New York City. Her paintings have been exhibited, and her essays and poetry published in various literary magazines including Harvard’s, "Coffin Bell," and "The Mighty."
With backgrounds in Orthodox Judaism (Jack calls his upbringing “Orthodox Lite,” and Rivky was raised in a Hasidic community) and strong creative and life impulses, their stories dovetail in intriguing ways – they even met at a local informal weekly gathering, Chulent, that draws Orthodox Jews and others questioning their religion. There were many reasons I chose to interview them together, from art to spirituality, and they were a true pleasure to talk to!
RG: I’m in Brooklyn with Jack Feldstein and Rivky Grossman, the creative team behind a new theater piece with music called, 'The Kingdom of Vincent Grapelli,' and with you two I'm also in the land of ultra hyphenates. Jack, you're a producer, digital animator, filmmaker, award-winning playwright, writer, script editor, series creator, and lecturer.
Jack: Yes, I've done all of those, that's correct!
RG: You’re originally from Australia, and for a long time now living in New York City. And Rivky, you are a composer, pianist, vocalist, artist, and chef extraordinaire! We have a lot to talk about. How did you two find each other, and how did you get connected artistically?
Rivky: A place called Chulent.
Jack: It's a unique group that meets in Brooklyn of very disparate people, Jewish and not Jewish, run by an Orthodox Jewish man who is, I would say, extremely spiritual. His name is Isaac (Schonfeld). They wrote about Chulent in The New York Times.
Rivky: People are coming in as well, people who are curious, converts. Non-Jews. A janitor meets a New York Times journalist...
Jack: Meets a reggae artist...
Rivky: Sitting all at the same table just schmoozing or chatting about absolute lunacy, like nothing really makes sense, sometimes it doesn't. Philosophizing, and spirituality, and mysticism.
Jack: Matzo ball soup, anything. It's all sorts of conversations going on but a lot of them are the meaning of things, whether there's any solution to that, obviously not. Isaac gets someone to speak on all sorts of topics. I showed one of my films there about how to write scripts. That was unusual. Whatever your expertise is, you'll give a little bit of a chat and then people maybe talk about it and ask questions and that can be the theme of the night, and sometimes not. How many years ago did we meet, Rivkeleh?
RG: I didn't know you'd known each other that long.
Rivky: Well there was a weird gap. I first met Jack, we never stayed in touch, and then six months went by.
RG: What drew you to each other?
Jack: Isaac introduced us. He said, 'Jack, you do this,' he knew that I was involved in theater and writing and stuff. Rivky is a brilliant musician and singer songwriter. So, 'Glad to meetcha!' As you do. I possibly gave her my card, which I give everyone, and I think six months later we connected.
Rivky: Brian Sanders, who plays the cello with me, says the same thing. ‘You waited six months, what's with you and six months!’ Maybe it's because I get shy, insecure, like this isn't going to work, I don't know what I'm doing, what am I doing? Then it's like, 'You know what? Let me give my music over to somebody else.'
Jack: So six months later I got a little message from you and I said, 'Please send me your stuff, I'm very curious to listen to what you do.' You sent me links to things and I fell in love with them immediately and said I'd like to hear everything that you've got. You sent me 20 things.
RG: What were you thinking at that point, Jack? Was this a potential new piece or were you already thinking about 'The Kingdom of Vincent Grapelli?'
Jack: I was thinking about Vincent Grapelli already. I had written something very rough, rough as guts. It was just the first outpouring. Listening to Rivky's music, I thought I would love to collaborate and incorporate her music in this. I was compelled to do it.
Rivky: I was thrilled, coming from the point of maybe somebody else can use my music for something other than me going on stage. It was always like, ‘I can't stand the stage, I don't want to be doing this, this is really too hard for me, I’m so overwhelmed. However, if somebody can take my work and do something with it...’ It was like, 'Ahhh, this is co cool! Yay!' Then when he met me, which was at Fountain House, that was the first time I was at the piano.
Jack: I wanted to hear you live.
Rivky: Fountain House has a piano, and I was pretty heavily involved there.
Jack: We got to know each other a little bit after that and I saw that Rivky was funny, even though she didn't know she was funny. She didn't know she was funny!
RG: You didn't recognize it? Or have you gotten funnier?
Rivky: It's possible that Jack definitely brought out the funny in me. I had it, but I'm in a darker place often on the inside so I never thought that funny was the way to bring things out, and then I realized, 'Oh, wait a second, don't comics do that? Aren't they all depressed or something?' And then it all made sense to me.
Jack: That's right, and I've pushed her. I'm pushy!
Rivky: Totally. I find it all fascinating, the creativity and the acting and the comedy. It does seem to help creatives, especially those who are born sensitive and stuff. Kind of cliché, but…
RG: It's an unusual situation to have a show and even the bare bones of it, and to have music almost so seamlessly fit into it, and yet that's what happened with this show. Was there some divine intervention going on here with this play?
Jack: Absolutely! My writing has always got two levels. There is funny, and there is an underlying sadness as well. That's what I write, and I know that.
RG: There's a lot of death in what you do, too.
Jack: Death, all sorts of difficult issues, challenging issues. I absolutely feel at ease writing about them and presenting them in a lighter way. In other words, you can look at death in a Greek tragic way, or you can do it in a lighter way accepting the absurdity of life, which is my style. Rivky has that as well in her music. There's a great beauty in her music, the beauty and lightness and lyricism, and underneath there is a great depth of emotion. I saw that immediately. In the play it can be hidden under the humor, but I know it's there without anything underneath. Humor without anything underneath is superficial icing on a cake. So I saw it immediately, the combination, I recognized where it could fit and I loved the music. It was as simple as that. I think you're talented! End of story!
RG: You're very talented. Your music, Rivky, from what I've heard, is very haunting in a certain way.
Rivky: I hear that a lot. Just recently, again, another response, my work was selected for the New York Music Theater Festival. One of the directors, the first thing he said was, 'It's just so haunting!'
RG: Do you know the music of either Diane Birch or Melody Gardot? I hear a lot of similarities.
Rivky: I'd love to hear that.
RG: I want to hear about the show, and then I also want to hear about each of you and how you got started on a creative path. I know your stories are very different but you both kind of came about them in perhaps a shocking way and have that as a similarity.
Jack: Shocking is another word for surprising, I suppose. You go first, Rivky, because I'm good at talking, I can talk a leg off an iron pot.
Rivky: I'm terrible at talking! If I get a little disorganized or fall off attention Jack can take over. So how did it all start for me? I'd say it was probably through Fountain House because they helped me get outside of my bedroom.
RG: Will you explain what Fountain House is and why you were there?
Rivky: Fountain House is a clubhouse, they help people who struggle with various forms of mental illness like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. They're not really like a hospital setting or a group home kind of thing, they don't focus very much on mental illness. They kind of say, 'All right, we know what you've got, what are your strengths, what are you good at?’ It's kind of like a mini university in a way and there are different departments where they have horticulture and flower arranging if you want to do that, making cards, an education center if you're interested in trying to get back into school. There's an employment center.
Jack: They integrate people back into the community.
Rivky: When I first got there I couldn’t really move, I couldn't really get from my bedroom, even, to the space there.
RG: How old were you then?
Rivky: In my 20s, like 24, 23.
RG: And there's no music really happening for you before that, composition or songwriting?
Rivky: Not really. I dabbled in it on and off for years. I had access sometimes to a piano growing up, but there were gaps of 10, 15 years of not doing much. Occasional writing, but for me it was more poetry. A lot of poetry. Free association, writing, painting. I was painting before I even did any music. That was primary for me because it helped me get out of my shell, and Fountain House has an affiliated gallery next door. Again, just reaching out and socializing with other people and doing it in a creative way really got me outside of my shell. Also being able to speak to people because I was mostly kind of mute. Painting was a way to really connect first, and then the music and the melody just kind of spewed forth from that, I guess.
RG: With painting, you can still stay quiet. Music, too, although at some point you want people to hear it and then there's engagement. At some point something had to be OK for you to take that next step.
Rivky: Again, connecting with other human beings more and just getting used to that. Fountain House had a piano. It wasn't just Fountain House, it was also an art therapy studio and another creative space where they had a piano as well. It happened to be where there was a piano and where there was a safe space. A safe space, and the music and painting combined together and led me to a much more confident place to be free.
RG: Is this where those songs came from? Where did you write them?
Rivky: Mostly in my bedroom! Well no, some of them. Through the process, through those two years. I love to walk in the cemetery, actually. It was this beautiful place that was a mixture of Prospect Park and Central Park.
Jack: Is this Green-Wood Cemetery?
Rivky: Yeah. As crazy as it sounds, my family lived a few streets away and I never knew it existed. Again, probably because of the insular community bubble that I lived inside of. I never really tapped into any of that stuff. Even walking to the quote unquote artsy neighborhoods to me was just shocking. Like Park Slope, near where I live. How did I live inside of this little space? So yes, Green-Wood was one space that inspired a little bit of 'Lonely Bird,' which is one song that you're familiar with.
Jack: Did 'Beneath the Greenless Garden' come from that?
Rivky: A little bit. ‘Greenless Garden’ was the first song and for some reason I started it but never finished it and it was because, again, a random producer who was looking to do some Off-Broadway piece about homelessness sort of multilayered inside of mental illness. Mostly about homelessness. That was one of the first songs, and also with Brian, my cellist.
RG: Do you write the music and lyrics together? Do they happen at the same time or do you find yourself setting what you've written to music?
Rivky: There's no specific way. I mostly do writing and poetry but then when I had access to the piano there were times when I just kind of pressed down on two chords and then added two chords and then came an entire verse.
RG: Do you feel it coming when it happens? Is it like a download? I always talk about this Great Songwriting River running through the sky and every now and then you can just reach up and pull one out. Not every song, some you have to work at. But sometimes that happens for me and I'm curious if it happens for you.
Rivky: Sometimes it almost is like, I'd use the word vomit. It's kind of like I have no desire to write, I have no desire to play the piano. I want to be in bed for a month, leave me the hell alone, and then in those moments sometimes it'll just be like, 'Whew! Whew! Whew!' It will come out on paper and I have a song in less than a minute. Other times, especially if it's goal oriented, like Jack has asked me for a particular song, which is so new for me that’ll take a little bit more time. I guess if it's an outside force that’s molding the composition then yeah, a link happens between my own free association of whatever is flying around and I'm grabbing bits and pieces of a storyline and attaching it.
Jack: Successfully, let me add.
Rivky: Thank you. Yeah! Who knew?!
RG: How does that work with what you need, Jack, from a playwriting structure?
Jack: From my angle, my point of view, this is my secret trick of working with people: Don't get in their way! In other words maybe give them a goal, like this is what we need here, and then I'll suggest something. I’ll do very rough, bad lyrics, of a song. They're my version of a first draft of lyrics, and then I give it completely to Rivky. 'Change every word if you want, do whatever you want, but this is what we need here.' At the end she comes up with something wonderful. If it didn't work we say, 'Well that one didn't quite work, but...
Rivky: Like, 'What were you thinking about?! I have no idea what that has to do with the play!' I love that.
RG: Did you always work this way, Jack, or have you adapted depending on who the person is to get the best out of them?
Jack: It depends on the person and what the collaboration is about. But I'm always, 'Never get in the way of the person,' because that is the choice. You choose the person to work with. That's the creative choice.
RG: And trust.
Jack: And trust.
Rivky: I think this is the reason I've been so open to it because I met somebody who is like a life coach in a way. Tough love, but in a way that really increases your strength. That's so key, allowing somebody to just be able to explore.
Jack: I believe in things without any reservation, actually. I'm just there. I believe in it, you can do it, you're brilliant! I'm not going to get in your way!
RG: It's an extraordinary thing in this particular show because these songs were already written and for whatever reason they came together and fit seamlessly. I don't know how much editing you did or if you changed anything.
Jack: Some editing and mucking around, and there'll be more. There will be songs written specifically now for the piece. But we were doing an experiment.
RG: Experiments happen, but it doesn't necessarily happen that two people come together, one person has this, the other person has that, and the next thing you know the show comes together and you're on stage, which is a very uncomfortable place for you, Rivky.
Jack: She didn't want to do the part, and I was adamant that she could do it. And that she's funny, and that she understood everything. She understood immediately what I'd written.
Rivky: It almost felt like in this moment, how almost ironic, the first role that I decide to take is something that's almost like my, what is it called when you want it so badly to be who you are, your persona, but it's like the alter ego? I'm insecure, and I need to completely bring out this sort of sarcastic, confident, tough love...
Jack: It's a projection of what you could be.
Rivky: Yes! It's like, 'Oh my God, this is wonderful, I really think I can do this character!' I happen to fall into this character now all the time, and I've decided recently to do it at my upcoming show to experiment with the Narrator and weave it into my concert.
Jack: I wrote it without Rivky in mind. But when I met Rivky, I went, 'OK, you are the Narrator.' There's all this stuff you've got to get through, obstacles, but at the end of all the obstacles, that is who you are, there is a part of you that's that. I saw it immediately.
RG: Tell me briefly what this show is about so people have an idea.
Jack: It's the story of discovering what's important in life. That's pretty much it!
Rivky: Would it help to say 'Alice in Wonderland' meets 'Willy Wonky’ meets 'It's a Wonderful Life?'
Jack: Yeah, it's that! Vincent Grapelli is an actor who is not getting a role. He's an artist who is not being recognized. Very common to many artists, actually, and he's taking that particularly badly. He's taking it badly because his attitude toward life is not a particularly positive one and what happens is life gets even tougher when his wife announces that she's pregnant so he's going to be a father as well. Vincent Grapelli has to learn what is really important in life and that's the journey that he goes on. Once you learn that and you have that clarity, you actually can get through anything.
RG: A subject that artists everywhere understand, anybody anywhere would understand, wanting something and not being able to get it. You can see it and you don't know how to get there.
Jack: Yes, and you have to accept it because once you accept your situation then you can deal with it and you can actually succeed. It's like you said before, wanting something too much can actually get in the way. You get in the way of yourself. That's actually the problem. You either have it or you haven't. Every artist has much inside them to offer. You just have to allow it.
RG: How did you figure it out, from being a pharmacist to figuring out that you have a lot to offer in theater?
Jack: That's another story! My life comes from the fact that I was scientifically trained. I'm going to now boast – I was top of the class in science, math and science, that was my thing. I loved it! I loved the concepts of math, they were very clear. I could have been the purist, to live in that abstract world of clarity. I was perfectly at home and hosed, as you say in Australia. Home and hosed.
RG: Home and hosed?
Jack: Yes! Like an elephant in a circus, hose them down. Home and hosed! Australia has a lot of these things. You get me talking and they come out occasionally. I try to stop them.
Rivky: Don't stop! Don't ever stop!
Jack: They confuse Americans.
RG: Look at Rivky, it's giving her song ideas.
Rivky: Oh my God, I love it! Sometimes you would say, 'Hey Rivky, can I get you a coffee? I'll shout you one!' I'd never heard that before.
Jack: It means I'll treat you one. So I thought science and math was going to be my life because I'd done very well and was very good at this sort of stuff. I was perfectly happy living in that universe. Then after finishing studying I got into the real world and I thought, 'Well, there has to be something more than this,' because in vitro and in vivo, do you know those terms? In vitro is like in a test tube. In vivo means in life. So in vitro is one thing, in vivo, it's a whole other kettle of fish. Life comes up with its own challenges and I said, 'OK, there's got to be more.' Now, in Australia, if you are good enough, if you excel in math and science, you are pushed into that stream immediately and that is pretty much all you do. So I'd done very little literature, very little of the humanities. Now, I knew that I loved plays, I loved going to them, and I loved going to films and I loved watching TV, but who doesn't? That is not an unusual thing.
Rivky: I didn't watch TV for years!
Jack: That's because of your particular background. I come from more secular.
Rivky: Well, it was also just sensory stuff.
RG: You had multiple reasons.
Rivky: Yeah, layered.
Jack: So we come from the opposite.
RG: But you were raised Orthodox, right?
Jack: ‘Orthodox Lite,’ compared with her. But Orthodox.
Rivky: In our world it's probably more Conservative, I'd say.
Jack: It's called Orthodox in Australia.
Rivky: But here, the way I grew up, it would be Conservative.
RG: Is Australian Orthodox different than American Orthodox?
Jack: Yes, it's much stricter here. We're kind of looser there in Australia, we don't take things so seriously.
RG: How many sets of dishes did you have?
Jack: OK, two sets, but you made a lot of mistakes!
Rivky: But you never mixed cheese and meat together.
Jack: No, you wouldn't do that there. But I did because it wasn't so... It was Australia, you don't take these things so seriously. I had a pretty much open secular sort of upbringing. Orthodox, but open. So I was working one evening and the next day I had off, which was a Wednesday, and I thought, 'What am I going to do on these Wednesdays that I’ve got off once a week?' I was working at night until midnight. Wednesdays, I could go to the beach, because in Australia that's what people do, go to the beach. I got a brochure in the mail from an adult education college and I see creative writing as one of the classes, 10 classes for a hundred bucks or something. I said, 'I've never done that. What is it? I've heard of it, but what exactly is it?’ So I went at 2 o'clock on Wednesday.
RG: You remember it was 2 o'clock?
Jack: Oh, absolutely! The second floor, and it was 12 housewives and me! The teacher gave us a couple of ideas, a couple of rules, and said, 'Go home and write a short story.' So I went home and wrote a short story, and then you had to read it in class to each other. When I read my short story the teacher said to me, 'Why don't you send your short story somewhere?' And I said I wouldn't have a clue, first of all, where to send it, how to send it, who to send it to
Jack Feldstein's neon animation film,
"The Adventures of James Joyce" (click to play)
RG: It spoke to the teacher.
Jack: Clearly, and at the time there was a publication that was kind of like The Village Voice in Australia, in Sydney, except it had a literary supplement as well. They published poems. It was glossy and fancy, so it wasn't like The Village Voice, which was newsprint. It was a very expensive kind of a thing, but we didn't pay for it, it was free. She said, 'Look, you know the Billy Blue? Send it to them.’ I sent it and, long story short, they published it. It's the first thing I wrote and they published it.
RG: What was it about?
Jack: It was about losing my virginity. My virginity has been taken away from me!
RG: The first story that you write is about that, there was no sneaking up on some other subject?!
Jack: No, no hiding or anything, went right to traumatic events in my life!
Rivky: It was traumatic? Oh no!
Jack: Well, traumatic, I think sex is always a little traumatic, isn't it, at the beginning?
Rivky: Well, I don't know...
Jack: Anyway, it's interesting if not traumatic. It's always something, it's an occasion!
Rivky: It's surprising.
Jack: And it's also universal. Usually, except for aesthetics and whatever, it's pretty much a universal experience. I got paid and everything.
RG: You got paid to lose your virginity on paper.
Jack: And I thought, 'Wow, that was easy!' As if!
RG: But was it easy to write?
Jack: It was easy to write but at the beginning, when things are easy, you think this stuff is easy. But the business is so not easy, of getting published and putting things out there into the world.
RG: It had to show you so you would keep going.
Jack: It had to show me so that I even thought about it, because it didn't even enter into my consciousness. I was thinking science! I thought, 'OK, what do I want to do next?' I really like plays, I said I want to write a play. So I went to the library to look at how plays were written, because they're not written like short stories.
Jack's neon animation film,
"The Ecstasy of Gary Green" (click to play)
RG: Who did you read?
Jack: It was a local library so I took out Tennessee Williams, American playwrights for some reason. There aren't that many Australian ones. There's some, but I liked American plays. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon was one of them. I took out whatever they had, mostly to see how they were written, how they were set out physically. I loved reading them. I started reading the American 'Best of' play series from the beginning to the end. I got every volume. I fell in love with plays, American plays in particular, and I was obsessed so I had to keep reading them and reading them. I really loved them. I can't explain it. I still do, actually. Then I said I'll write a play, and I wrote a play.
RG: What was it about?
Jack: Do you know 'Grey Gardens,' the documentary? My grandmother and my aunt were in a similar situation to that, in a way. My aunt was also schizophrenic, which is why I know about Fountain House and everything. We're a very close family and I was very close to my grandmother and my aunt. My aunt was the first person who took me to the theater when I was a little boy. She would take me to the matinees. I wrote about their situation. My grandmother and my aunt were living together and I wondered what would happen if my aunt fell in love and left that situation. As in ‘Grey Gardens,’ what would happen if the daughter leaves, right? They were so intertwined somehow, codependent in this situation. I loved them both but I saw that there was something that was dramatic there keeping them together, and yet the daughter was dying for her freedom as well. Just like in 'Grey Gardens.' It was exactly that dynamic so that was the play I wrote. The play was funny, because I write funny, but underneath it it had truth.
RG: 'Grey Gardens’ does too.
Jack: That's exactly right. Which is why I saw 'Grey Gardens' as something I really recognized. They didn't live in a home that had all fallen to pieces, you understand. It was the emotional connection between the two.
RG: What's happening with pharmacy then? Are you reaching an apex?
Jack: I'm writing this on weekends and nights and whenever, and then I saw in the newspaper there was a competition for young playwrights. I finished the play and sent it in, and it won the competition.
RG: Of course it did!
Jack: The prize for winning the competition was a production in quite a nice theater in Sydney called The Ensemble. It’s a lovely theater, about 250 it sat, and my play was put on there for two weeks or something. The judges of that particular competition were quite well known playwrights in the field. I didn't know any of these people, you understand. I was from the science world so this was like a foreign world. But I got letters from them. They all came, they saw it, it was well received. And I went, 'Wow! This is amazing!' It's like I didn't think twice in a way.
RG: You didn’t think twice that your very first short story gets published and your very first play wins a big prize?
Jack: I didn't think twice, no, because I didn't know the world and I didn't know the stakes.
RG: But you knew you were entering your piece and other people, by virtue of your winning, weren't winning.
Jack: Yes, but I didn't know those people. I only knew science people.
Jack Feldstein's neon animation,
"A Wondrous Film about Emma Brooks" (click to play)
RG: It didn't occur to you that this was still a hard thing and that you just accomplished something extraordinary?
Jack: No. You see, that's the interesting thing because when you don't know the universe you don't know the stakes. It didn't register that people all their lives aim for things but I had just stumbled into it somehow, from a parallel universe.
RG: Do you think you were led to it?
Jack: Yes, clearly. I either led myself or I was led to it. It came to me, all of the above.
RG: At what point does pharmacy take a back seat?
Jack: This is the next stage then. Someone saw the play and said to send it to the National Playwrights Conference. Now the National Playwrights Conference is like the (Eugene O'Neill Theater Center) in Australia, and I didn't know anything of this. This is not my universe, I don't know anything about it. I didn't know how to send it. But they got me an address and I sent it and it was chosen for the National Playwrights Conference. Now the National Playwrights Conference is all the professionals of Australia, because Australia is small, it's not like America. Most of the artistic directors of the major theater companies in Australia are there, and it's the whole industry. The directors, the actors, it's everybody in the Australian industry.
They saw my play. After the play there was a Q&A. Mine was not the first one on, it might have been the third, and I saw how the other writers were able to answer all the questions, which were really tough. These were professionals, you understand. They're not mollycoddling you. They are absolutely poison darts, I would say! And I went, 'Oh my God, I don't know the language.’ I didn't know the language, I didn't understand properly the questions, I didn't know where the writing came from, I couldn't explain it. It was something that just came so I wasn't able to explain it in any sort of analytical or deconstructing way at all. I had never been trained that way.
RG: Was there any sort of thoughtful process when you were writing the play?
RG: When you were writing the script, did it just kind of free flow through you?
Jack: I think it comes from emotion. That's my feeling. It comes totally from emotion.
RG: But there's something about this that spoke to all of those other people. Because if it comes from emotion, you've got other writers who are writing and it's coming from their emotion as well, but they're not getting to where you got.
Jack: It's how the emotion is processed, then, by me. How I process these emotions, how I express these emotions, how I show these emotions, how I construct these emotions myself. It's very hard to talk about emotions. I can talk about them, obviously, because I am. But emotions don't have words. It's when you translate emotions into words. That's a paradigm shift, and it's in that paradigm shift, possibly, that things get lost.
RG: Is there any sort of mystical component to it?
Jack: The mystical component is that I can do it. In other words, it's not me doing it. Well it's obviously me doing it, what am I saying?!
Rivky: I understand what you mean.
Jack: I don't think so much about it. I think people should just let it happen, not get in the way of it. Maybe I just don't get in the way of it as much. Occasionally I do. I make something that's no good.
RG: Is there an expectation on your part?
RG: It's just always going to be available to you?
RG: So it's a little bit like what you were talking about in working with another artist. You give them the freedom to say, 'Here's where we'd like to get to, and now go do what you do best. You do it for yourself.
Jack: That's why I can do it for others.
RG: It's happening internally.
Jack: That's correct. You've analyzed it well. It’s because I do that for other people. That's how I work with everybody because that's how I work with myself. I try not to get in the way of myself, and I know that when I get in the way of myself it's no good.
RG: What do you do when you get stuck? Do you ever get stuck?
Jack: What do you mean by stuck?
Rivky: Is that what you mean, getting in the way of yourself? Is that the same thing?
Jack: No, getting in the way is forcing something. You're forcing it to be, ‘I've got to make this,’ I'm in the way of myself.
RG: It's kind of the round peg in a square hole and you just keep pushing it to try to make it happen. You're forcing it instead of allowing. Perhaps you've had this with working on a song, Rivky. Maybe yours come kind of fully formed. I know when I'm working on a song, all of a sudden I can get to a certain place and then it shuts down. Or a short story. All of a sudden it's, 'Now what needs to happen?'
Jack: You know what that means? That means that you don't know what to say next. That means you have to work out what you want to say.
RG: How do you do that?
Jack: I look inside myself and work out what I really want to say. In other words, even if it's something I shouldn't say.
RG: Is it often something you shouldn't say?
Jack: Taboo. Mostly it's what people don't want you to say, right?! Them, or society, most people, parents or whatever. Usually it's a super ego issue. The trick I use, if I ever have that problem because obviously I'm human, is I say I'm going to write this only for me and that I'm never going to show it to anyone. Once I do that, I'm liberated again.
Jack: Freedom, and then it's too late, once I've done it! I've fooled myself into it, because once you've got through that it's no longer such a problem.
RG: Do you hear the characters talking to you?
RG: Do those characters ever want to take you somewhere other than where you think you want to go with them?
Jack: Always! Always! I don't know if they're smarter but they're wilder than I am.
RG: They know what they want to do.
Jack: Yeah. They always do, 100 percent of the time.
Rivky Grossman's "Glen Gould" pencil sketch
RG: Do you have the same situation, Rivky, that you hear a song coming?
Rivky: Only recently, because of the scriptwriting and acting elements with the last three songs that I've been working on. I almost got so much inside of the head of Vincent and the other characters while I was writing the script, and in some ways it was very helpful to get completely lost. I was able to completely forget who I was while I started to write or sing the song. I'm trying to think about it now as I'm articulating it. I finally finished one or two pieces and I was able to get into that weird ‘characters’ zone.
RG: That has to be a trickier thing for you, though, because of the added layer. Is it schizophrenia you have or something else?
Rivky: Schizo-affective, schizophrenia, these labels are sort of loose for me but it’s the spectrum I deal with. I find that also can overlap inside of sensory stuff, and maybe even on the autistic spectrum, or different things that get muddled up like words and language and things that kind of look like they're disintegrating.
Jack: Do you have synesthesia?
Rivky: Yeah. Communication, in some ways it's a curse and a blessing, I guess.
RG: Are you able to use it at all, to mold or shape it to help you do what you want to do creatively?
Rivky: It's possible that's happening just by default of who I am. It's hard for me to respond, like, ‘Oh yeah, I can create that,’ or ‘I'm doing that because of it.’ But it seems to happen. I just think that it's not so separate for me. It's who I am, it's not something that I make a distinction, like, 'Oh, because of this, I'm taking it into my work and sort of utilizing it or something.’ I'm trying to think of an example. So like I'm told I'm disorganized, I have disorganized thinking. I'll go off on a tangent and not figure out how to come back, or whatever it is. But in the same breath that that happens, there's also free association, or poetry, or the place where creatives go. In that way I suppose you could say there's an element of maybe bridging that world together inside of my work.
RG: Do each of you think about a connection between your creative ability and any sense of spirituality, either from how you were raised, the religious aspect of it, or from some other definition of spirituality?
Jack: My feeling is that art is my 'religion,' I'm putting quotes now. Making things like art. I think that that is a type of spirituality. Art in all its forms is a type of spirituality. That's very general, but that's really my feeling towards art and making things.
RG: You always strike me, Jack, as being very deeply soulful.
Jack: When you say soulful you mean reflective?
RG: In every sense of the word. I think of you as having a universal view of life.
Jack: Yes, and that's what I do. Everything is a part of me, all of life, every person, all of every person. Rivky's shticks are a part of me, if you know what I mean. Anything that anyone has is a part of me. That's how I truly feel. You, for instance, I understand, because a part of you is a part of me. I kind of get you, and that's true whoever it is.
RG: It's a sense of oneness.
RG: I'm also looking at it from the creative side to see where it's coming from. It could be people using it for a subject that has more of a spiritual bent, which you often do. ‘Vincent Grapelli’ has a spiritual component to it. 'Carnival of Souls,' which you animated and is a whole other side of what you do, neon animation, has a spiritual side to it. There are others, too.
Jack: Otherworldly, that's right.
RG: Your Theremin musical, there is an otherworldly sense to it. There are thematic things that happen in your work that I’ve noticed though I certainly don't know all of your work. How many plays have you written by now?
RG: It's a big number. I don't know how many of them have a spiritual or otherworldly side but the ones I know about, they all have it.
Jack: Yes, and that's an interesting point. Often they do have that. Occasionally I do write naturalistic plays as well, which do not have that otherworldly element in it. But the otherworldly element is a delight to me, what can I say?!
RG: Your whole face lights up when you say it!
Jack: I kind of love it. It's like an escape.
RG: There's a joy coming through you just in talking about it.
Jack: There is, and it's great to be in that. I've never thought about it! It's so funny when you talk about these things because it's like analyzing how you breathe or something. It's kind of like I breathe myself! I just love it, I enjoy it, I play with it, it's whimsical and I love going in and presenting it. It’s an escape from one plane to another.
RG: Some of that possibly came from being raised the way you were, being Orthodox and Australian.
Jack: Yes, or also how I see the world. We write from how we see things, what we have to say. When someone tells me that they have a block, I just think they don't know what they're saying anymore. They have to work out what they want to say and not be scared to say it. So actually I don't put up with that very well. Do you understand?
RG: I do. Fear, out the window! It's just an excuse?
Jack: That's right! Of not going and finding out what the real thing is. If you're ashamed of it or have all sorts of negative connotations toward it then you've got to get through it because that's the job.
Rivky Grossman's "Moonless Night" painting
RG: Do you feel the same way, Rivky? And if so, did you already feel that way or did you come to that from working with Jack?
Rivky: I feel like it was probably happening around the same time I met Jack. I also felt to go against the fear, or just go out there and be vulnerable. The last year or so I’ve been going out to some of the open mics, Birdland Jazz Club and others, and seeing how some of the other artists get up on the stage and then seeing myself do what I do. I've learned that sometimes I get told off in a nice way, that I’m more vulnerable, or ‘Don't talk so much about yourself.’ Or that there's a certain kind of etiquette.
RG: Who's telling you that?
Rivky: The host of the show, who has a particular way in which things need to be presented.
RG: They have an agenda.
Rivky: People like to keep things a little bit more...
Rivky: Superficial and a little veiled. I could understand and appreciate it. Because I need things, like the safe space scenario of, 'This is me! Let me try to open myself up because if I do that then I can be more me and the less perfect, then the more perfect it really is! C'mon, everybody knows that already. Can't they all see it?!’ I'm so tired, I have so much going on in here already, anyway, that there's just no room for anything anymore. It's like, ‘Ah…!!’ and trying to let it out as much as possible. It's not just that I'm afraid every day or every hour, it's constant.
RG: Do you think some of it is because you were raised in such an insular environment that this concept of freedom, once you taste it and open the door to it, it's 'I'll have more of that, please!'
Rivky: Sure! Why not!
RG: Was there a moment for you when the door flung open?
Rivky: Yes. I don't know if it was just by default that because I'm creative and creatives are outside the box that things are a little bit different, and they can't quite conform to particular rituals or disciplines regardless of what religious background they're in. Just by that default I'd say, ‘Sure.’ I left in my 20s because I started doing it more.
RG: Tell me what your life was like before that.
Rivky: My life. Even the word life, to me, surrounding that word was death. It felt like mostly death.
Jack: I would say depression.
Rivky: Depression. I didn't understand myself. Well I still don't understand myself. But then it was like this whole other stifling…
RG: Being raised in a Hasidic home?
Rivky: Orthodox Jewish.
RG: It’s a very different experience than most people would understand.
Jack: I'd say you weren’t encouraged.
Rivky: In my school I wasn't encouraged for sure. I went to an all girl's school and I wasn’t encouraged to do any kind of Western mainstream activity, but there were some things that were still artistic. There were bits and pieces of it but it was certainly stifling for somebody who's super creative.
Rivky Grossman's "Tree Grows Chocolate"
RG: My favorite book growing up, and it may still be my all-time favorite book, is 'My Name is Asher Lev,' by Chaim Potok.
Jack: Oh yeah, that's a lovely book.
RG: There was something about it that really spoke to me. Asher is a Hasidic Jewish boy in Brooklyn, an only child, being raised by parents who are very active in the world, it’s the 1950s and there’s the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. Asher discovers he's an artist, he wants to be an artist, and it's not really allowed. He’s a painter and ultimately paints something that is found to be particularly blasphemous because there are Christian cross elements to it. I was absolutely fascinated by this book and what this boy's inner and outer life must have looked like.
Rivky: That's interesting.
RG: Of wanting something so much and yet you can't have it, and you don't get praise for it, you don't get respect for it. He still does it, but you can imagine the confluence of emotions and events.
Rivky: Yeah, it can be very painful, very stinging. I actually have a painting, I wouldn't say it's blasphemous. It has a little bit of the concept of something called tefillin, which is the prayer that men wear, and the painting is based after a series of different dreams that I had in which there was this nude female and she's sort of bound by the tefillin on her arms, and her body. It's forbidden for women, it's prohibited. It's strictly for men.
RG: But you have her doing it.
Rivky: Yeah. It's a whole bunch of dreams. It's my first piece from about seven or eight years ago. That was the first time I did something a little bit more risqué.
RG: Did you have resistance growing up to your becoming an artist?
Rivky: For me it's like there are two or three different layers that happened to me at the same time. One is I struggled mentally so I closed off in that way, and then there was the religious Orthodox space I was in that sort of cut me off in a way.
Jack: Then your mother passed away as well.
Rivky: My mother passed away and then my father passed away so there were a lot of different elements that shaped my heart through the years.
RG: Those perfect storms of life. How old were you when they passed away?
Rivky: I was 27, and then, two years ago. Sort of the perfect storm.
RG: I’m really sorry. Do you find that you use anything in your art directly from your upbringing?
Rivky: Yeah, sure.
RG: That you're actively aware of?
Rivky: Not always. When it comes to performing it's always the audience feedback. They kind of let you know what you sound like and then it's, 'Oh, wow, I didn't realize I was doing any of that, that sounded like my Yiddish world,' or like some cantorial thing. Like 'Cello Soul' which seems to be a popular crowd pleaser. The elements of that song, it's totally like Yiddish-y, cantorial, schmaltzy a little bit. Apparently folks want more of that and I, speaking about resistance, never felt so deeply connected to any of that. The religious parts never came out in my songs. I never directly wanted to write any of that stuff. My music sort of took on this natural folky rock jazzy swingy kind of spin, and that was it.
Jack: The haunting quality is quite Yiddish-y.
RG: It's who you are. It's just there whether you're using it or not.
Jack: I think one is formed by one's background and it comes in unconsciously in everything you do. You don't think about it, it's just part of your DNA.
RG: Some people do think about I and try to use it. People who get stuck tend to think about it a lot!
Jack: I see!
RG: They try to look for something to get them unstuck, or not even just to get unstuck, but to make it better. To add a different layer to it.
Jack: This is interesting, that layer that they're adding. I'm very curious. They're adding another layer from their religiosity, is that right? Their spirituality?
RG: You can call it spirit. It’s tapping into whatever that is to inform the work.
Jack: That happens unconsciously.
RG: Right, but I think for some people it doesn't.
Jack: It will if they allow it!
Rivky: Like they're seeking it out?
Jack: I think instead of seeking so much, allowing is the correct word.
Rivky: It could be interesting imagining, say, a Buddhist monk writing music, so therefore their entire realm is really spiritual. I guess if they're seeking it and pulling it out simultaneously it makes sense.
Jack: But the Buddhist monk doesn't seek, he accepts.
Rivky: Right, right, because he's inside it, but yet he's wanting to escalate and get from the highest plane?
Jack: From our point of view, from the outside, from us looking at what the Buddhist monk is doing, it appears he has grabbed from the spiritual world. But for him, it's his world, so it’s natural.
RG: I think people also use the iconography of what they were raised with, too, because it's so familiar.
Jack: We do that naturally, though.
Rivky: The familiar spiritual elements. Brian, who plays the cello with me, he's so interesting. He's a born again Christian. He was actually raised in sort of an agnostic-slash-atheist space and somehow fell into this Christian space and he invited me a few years ago for the first time on Sundays. 'You might like it, it's really cool music and bands and stuff.'
Jack: Christian rock?
Rivky: Yeah, and you know even when I was a kid I used to turn on the radio to a gospel channel and I would actually feel more connected to the Jesus songs or whatever and tap into that over my own Jewish background.
Jack: Gospel is a great example of what you're talking about. But they do it very naturally.
RG: They do. But they're not writing it, they're performing it.
Jack: They're interpreting it. Their interpretation makes it far more spiritual than how it may have originally been written. I don't know. But they're not thinking about that at all.
RG: People will talk about how they feel the spirit moving through them.
Jack: That's the way they speak. But they're allowing all that. They're not forcing the spirit to move through them.
RG: It's what you're talking about, it's granting permission. Saying I'm going to do this and whatever happens happens, and then they get what they get.
Jack: That's right.
RG: Which is what you're doing naturally.
Jack: Yes. I believe in what they're doing, and I recognize what they do.
RG: Some artists I've spoken to over the years and in working on Radio Gabriel have talked about how they will meditate before they work, they will pray before they work, they will go for a mindful walk before they work. All sorts of things to get themselves in that receptive place to allow whatever is going to happen.
Jack: I do walk a lot. When you say stuck, like in other words what's next, I go for a walk. You need to move.
RG: How you tap into whatever that place is that can get you moving.
Jack: It's so interesting, and you know I'm not worried about it ever. I know it will come. Sometimes I have to sleep on it.
Jack Feldstein with the cast of another of his plays, "Happy Chrismukkah"
RG: You've got your system and it works – 'Let it flow!'
Jack: Let it flow. It's like a math problem. Sometimes I didn't have the answer immediately and I would go to sleep and in the morning I would wake up with the solution of how to get there.
RG: This is very interesting for somebody who has a science and math background, where things are very carefully drawn and there is a right answer.
RG: You did that on the science and math side but you don't do that on the creative side.
RG: It's the complete opposite that grabs you, and in fact you followed that road and you kind of put the other side to sleep, as a profession.
Jack: As a profession, definitely. I had to choose. It came to a point that I had to pick. When things went to the National Playwrights Conference and the head of NIDA, which is like the Juilliard of Australia, said to consider applying to us to learn because you know nothing, it's obvious you know nothing. I wasn't going to argue with him! He was absolutely correct, and the head of the film school of scriptwriting. They both came.
RG: And you chose film school.
Jack: I chose both. I did playwriting and then I did scriptwriting.
RG: You leave no stone unturned.
Jack: No, because I knew that if I had studied so much to do science that I had to equally study if I was going to do this.
RG: You do both of those things, and then one morning you wake up and say, 'Oh, neon sounds interesting,’ and you learn to do neon animation. What I'm getting at here, and you'll tell me the path, but you're living your life, you're a scientist, you're doing math, you're a pharmacist.
Jack: And having to find myself.
RG: One step, one step, one step, this creative world just kind of keeps knocking you on the head. Do you know Haruki Murakami, the novelist? He talks about this. He was at a baseball game in Japan, he's sitting out in the field and all of a sudden has this idea. 'Oh, I think I'm going to write a novel.' One step one step one step and he commits to writing it. He sells the jazz bar that he owned and ran because he knows he needs to commit to it, and of course the novel ends up doing incredibly well and launches his career. Out of nowhere.
Jack: It's like my story.
RG: The question is where does this come from? Kudos that you follow the breadcrumbs, right? Because you might not have. You might have said it was ridiculous.
Jack: Well I did say that's ridiculous.
RG: But you kept going.
Jack: I made the choice and it's clear. But let me tell you at the juncture of making the choice I was very neurotic, because everyone was advising me not to choose that career path because I had a perfectly solid, very safe career path, set for life, as I'd been taught. Everyone was truly advising me not to, all my peers were bourgeois professionals, if you know what I mean.
RG: Were your parents scared at the choice?
Jack: My parents were terrified, of course. They were business people and didn't understand that at all, any choice like that. I'd studied so much for it, I'd done college and everything. I went to therapy at that stage, to try to understand what was going on. I felt neurotic about it. It's a hard decision to change your life. I mean, now when I look back I don't think it's a hard decision.
Rivky: I think it's huge.
Jack: I don't know, because I made the right decision. I'm on the other side, and I made the right decision. I felt if I didn't I'd go toxic.
Rivky: Well that's easy, then!
Jack: I truly felt that, and I think people go toxic.
RG: How long did it take you to figure that out?
Jack: The process was a couple of years, but I was studying. I chose the path but I was always not 100 percent committed until I really committed. A year maybe, it took.
RG: Was your family on board with you when you made the decision?
Jack: No. No one was on board with me. Look, at the time, I was married. My ex wife wasn't on board with me. I married young and my ex-wife didn't want me to do this, she wanted me to continue because she had married a very solid bloke! Once this started creeping in, she wasn't standing for it and so I had to get out of that as well to choose it. Let me tell you, there was stuff going on that I really had to work through! But a person's character is their fate. I'm very stubborn by the looks of things. Clearly.