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Jules Feiffer

Jules Feiffer is an award-winning cartoonist, playwright, screenwriter and children’s book author, and illustrator. From his Village Voice editorial cartoons to his plays and screenplays (including "Little Murders" and "Carnal[…]
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Question: As you wrote your memoirs, which moment in yourrnlife was most fun to look back on?

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Jules Feiffer: Well, look, I’m 81 years old.  It’s got to be more than one.  And it’s harder to define what funrnwas.  I mean, there’s fun inrnprivate life, which is all sorts of things, including making out and sex.  But this is a book that centersrnprimarily on career, although it does involve some of that other stuff.  In terms of career, it was getting tornthe Village Voice and getting printed for the first time because I had beenrntrying, without success; to get into print for something like 4 ½ nearly fivernyears and nobody would touch me. rnSo, that of course was very exciting.  And then after that, discovering that I was going to writernfor the theater and the trajectory that moved me into that area and how thatrndeveloped, and also how the excitement and euphoria that went with writing myrnfirst play.

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Question: Which moment in your life was most challenging tornwrite about?

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Jules Feiffer: Oh well, when you do this kind of work,rneverything is challenging, but probably the most challenging thing is gettingrnup in the morning and getting on with it because it’s so easy to stay in bedrnand not get on with it. 

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Question: How did you persist through rejection to get yourrnstart at The Village Voice?

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Jules Feiffer: Well I had been trying to sell my stuff,rnwhich were books of satire, cartoon satire, which now would be called graphicrnnovels or graphic novellas, there was no such term at that time.  And I wasn’t interested in labels.  There were things I wanted to talkrnabout and write about in a satiric form and cartoons.  This was at the height of the Cold War, the height of a formrnof domestic suppression where, in the days of Joe McCarthy, Senator JoernMcCarthy, and the Eisenhower Administration, liberals and left-wing people inrngeneral were basically driven from the debate.  They had no place in the national dialogue, or if they did,rnthey were very, very cautious and careful about it and I had nothing to berncautious or careful about because my elders were afraid of losing theirrnjobs.  I didn’t have a job.  They were afraid of losing theirrnreputations.  I didn’t have arnreputation.  I had zilch.  So, I had the freedom, whichrnunemployment gives you, and that was to behave as badly as I believed I shouldrnunder the circumstances.  And therncircumstances were quite awful. 

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At the time, liberals didn’t understand that they had FirstrnAmendment rights.  So, I was doingrncartoons in this narrative cartoon form about subject surrounding that and as Irnwas turned down by editor after editor at each publishing house, I began tornnotice on their desks this new newspaper called The Village Voice, which I thenrnwent and picked up and thought, well my god, these editors that were turning merndown all, whom tell me how much they like my stuff, but they don’t know how tornmarket it because nobody knows who I am. rnIf I got into this paper, they would know who I am.  And when editors say, “nobody knows,”rnwhat they really mean is, “I don’t know.” rnAnd once they got to know I thought something might happen, and that’srnexactly what happened.  I went tornthe Voice, I showed them my work, they loved it, they put it in the paper, itrngot on the editor’s desk, the editor’s say, “oh my god, he’s famous,” and theyrnpublish me. 

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So, it was a strategic decision that I made at the age ofrn26, or 27, that actually turned out well.

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Question: Which of your Village Voice cartoons stirred thernmost controversy?

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Jules Feiffer: Well, in the beginning, it was the form ofrnthem.  I mean, it’s hard for me tornanswer that question because at the start of it, and for that matter to thisrnday when I look back at the work, I really don’t understand what the fuss wasrnabout.  So, I can’t say it’s aboutrnthis or that.  When people startedrnreading me and talking to me about the work, they didn’t say how funny, or howrnsatiric, or how brilliant, or how this or how that, they said, how’d you getrnaway with it?  How’d you get thatrninto print?  And apparently,rnaddressing what I had said before, that liberals didn’t have First Amendmentrnrights, that saying the sort of things that I said that my friends and I saidrnin coffeehouses and bars to each other, these things were not generally said inrnpublic any more and hadn’t been in some years.  So, I was saying it in a form that simply wasn’t familiar tornanybody who was liberal, or on the left. rnAnd these people would read it and say, “Oh my god, this is the way Irntalk, how come it’s getting into print? rnWhy isn’t he arrested?” 

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So it was the shock of recognition, probably, rather thanrnthe quality of the work.  I mean,rnthe quality may have been fine, but there’s a lot of fine work out there.  It was the fact that I was doingrnsomething that at that time, nobody else was doing, except for say, Mort Saulrnout in San Francisco on The Hungry Eye, and “Second City” was emerging out inrnChicago. Nothing in print.  It wasrnbasically happening in cabaret and nothing in fiction.   And certainly nothing in New Yorkrnin cartoons.

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Question: What has changed the most about U.S. politics inrnthe time that you’ve been cartooning?

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Jules Feiffer: Well, cartoons were very conservative.  The country was very conservative.  Although the liberals were allegedly inrncharge for a long time, there was a very acceptable balance what people wouldrntalk about in public.  And I wantedrnto stretch those and move further out. rnAnd as the civil rights movement began, I started doing cartoons on thatrnand on sit-ins and I was, along with Bill Mauldin, a great cartoonist out ofrnWorld War II, arguably one of two white cartoonists doing this kind of work,rnBill and me.  And that was excitingrnto be able to comment on civil rights. rnI mean, the civil rights movement that young people don’t know aboutrntoday, but Martin Luther King was considered by the establishment press in thernearly years of the sit-in movement as a dangerous man, and he was thernequivalent at that time as Malcolm X. rnAnd he was told to stop his demonstrations; they were against the lawrnand all of that.  Now that he’srnsainted and sanctified we’ve forgotten.

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But I was doing cartoons and mocking white liberals, mockingrnthe attitude of government who said to go slow, while intending to dornabsolutely nothing for black people, then called Negroes.  And I had a lot of fun and I expressedrna lot of anger.  That was anotherrnthing that was important to know at that time.  As I was emerging into more and more into politics that Irnwas angry.  I was enraged all therntime.  We were moving into Viet Namrnand it was clear that the Kennedy Administration was turning its back onrnEisenhower’s wisdom, having been a general and not going into Viet Nam.  He kept us out.  And Kennedy was moving in as he movedrninto Cuba with the Bay of Pigs. rnAnd all these things I thought were mistakes and I did cartoons onrnthem.  And then I think I was thernfirst cartoonist in the country to attack the war in Viet Nam and that helpedrninfluence a whole generation of young cartoonists who later on took up thernbattle.  And that was exciting to knowrnthat I had helped influence work of young people who were moving this forumrninto a better and more exciting area, out of the more by the state thatrnpolitical cartooning had been in. 

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The other cartoonist that should be mentioned at the time,rnbeside Malden, doing brilliant work in these very areas I was working in, wasrnPaul Conrad in the L.A. Times, who was extraordinary, and is to this day.

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Question: How did the sexual revolution contribute to yourrnwork?

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Jules Feiffer: rnI just happened to be around when the sexual revolution wasrnhappening.  There was PlayboyrnMagazine on the scene, and shortly after I had been to work in the Voice, Irnheard from Hugh Hefner, who asked me to start doing work for Playboy, and HughrnHefner was the first one to pay me for my work because The Voice did not pay inrnthose years.  It thought thatrncontributing space to people who wanted to say what they thought was all itrncould do, and that was quite enough for me because it was the only newspaperrnthat didn’t tell you how to think and how to write and what form to write.  All the other newspapers, all the otherrnmagazines basically guide you, including the words you used, including thernstyle, including your personal voice. rnIt rewrote that voice.  Andrnwhether these were liberal publications or conservative publications, whetherrnthey were mainstream or slightly to the side of the mainstream; out of thernmainstream, they all believed that they had the right to tell you how tornstylize yourself.  And from the NewrnYork Times to the much more left-winged nation.  And The Voice said, no, whatever you want to.  You drew whatever you want to, we’llrnpublish it.  Nobody was doingrnthat.  Nobody does it today.  The Voice is no longer that paper, andrneditorializing is now in the hands of editors, with few exceptions.

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Question: What materials do you use as a cartoonist?

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Jules Feiffer: Well it’s fluctuated over the years.  And it’s changed a lot when I switchedrnfrom the comic strip to doing ****. rnIt’s a whole new way of working that I’ve never tried before and it wasrngreat fun to try and play with an experiment.  But in the beginning, when I was at The Voice, I had arnwriting style down pat and I knew what I wanted to say, I just didn’t like thernway it looked in print and so I fiddled around week after week, and if you seernin the book Backing into Forward, the memoir, It shows the first four or fiverncartoons, all of which are done in different styles because I was floundering,rnand it took more than a month before I could settle on a line, the way I wantedrnit to look.  And the way I camernabout that is, I had picked up some – I was living alone, I was a bachelor, andrnI picked up some meat from the meat market, and they had these round littlerndowels sticking in the steak with a pointed tip.  And I thought, I wonder what that would be like if I dippedrnit in some ink.  So, after I had myrnsteak, I dipped it in some ink and I got a line that was both dry and in fullrncharacter and quality and far better than any pen line that I was able to putrnon paper. 

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So, I went out and bought a bunch of these wooden dowels,rnthese pointed wooden dowels and I began drawing with them.  And I must have used that as my style,rnas my tool of choice for, I don’t know 10 years or so, and it got to bernterribly laborious and slow moving because it’s not meant to be a pen.  And finally I got fed up with that andrnswitched to pen and ink, and never liked that very much and also, over thernyears, all I was trying to do in the artwork as it appeared in the paper,rnwhether in The Voice, or in Playboy, or in syndication; and syndication justrntook The voice cartoons and ran them around the country.  But all I wanted was a sense ofrnimmediacy.  A sense ofrnspontaneity.  And I realized thatrnthe more I penciled and then inked over it the spontaneity always had a ****rnthick, and so I began drawing straight on the paper without any penciling.  And by that time, photocopy machinesrnwere in, so I could just do them on any kind of paper, any size.  Reduce them or fiddle with them andrnthen cut them out and put them in a layout.  And this took two or three times as long a penciling to getrn– and to do them over and over again. rnBut I had finally a line that just jumped and that was vivid and alivernand basically I was looking for a line, not a professional line, but more of anrnamateurs line that had life and vitality to it.  And I was beginning to get that by not doing anyrnpredrawing. 

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So, from that day to this, and for more than 30 years Irnwould think by now, that’s the way I’ve been working.  And with the kid’s books, I layout this art on separaternsheets of paper just to figure out what the final drawing would look like, andrnwith that layout as a guide, I began the finished art and if it doesn’t workrnout well on this watercolor paper I’m drawing on, I tear it up and go on and gornon and sometimes I do it three or four or five times before it works.  And sometimes it comes out right thernfirst time. 

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And then there’s the excitement of adding color, which Irndidn’t know anything about until 1997 or so, when I did my first picturernbook.  So, the kid’s book inrnparticular have been exciting for me because it forced me to go back to thernwork I loved as a young boy reading Sunday’s supplements and comics in thernSunday papers when I was six, seven, eight, nine.  And number of which have been in wonderful collections,rnbeautifully reproduced.  And when Irnam working a book, I go through my library and take a look through some of therngreat cartoonists of the past, like Cliff Sterrett, who did “Polly and HerrnPals,” or Winsor McCay who did “A Little Nemo in Slumberland,” and Herriman –rnand I just looked through these guys and looked for somebody to steal.  You know, looked for who I could swipe,rnor turn into – who’s work I will turn into my work.  And I still use, after all these years, these artists asrninspirations. 

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So, here in my eighties, I go back to when I was eight forrnmy inspiration.

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Question: What was it like to work on “The PhantomrnTollbooth”?

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Jules Feiffer: rnWell, I had never done a children’s book.  Early on, shortly after I had gotten out of the Army inrn1953, I put some samples together hoping to get some children’s bookrnillustration, but I ran a **** of somebody named Sendak that was starting out,rnand his work was so devastatingly impressive that I thought I’d better get outrnof the way and let him have that field and find something on my own.  So, in a way, I gave up children’srnbooks because of Maurice and dedicated myself as a Cold War cartoonist tryingrnto overthrow the government.  So,rnit was by default.

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And with the Tollbooth, Norton Juster, who wrote it, wasrnfirst a young man who became a friend because we lived in the same building inrnBrooklyn Heights, and then we moved into a duplex apartment together with arnthird roommate, and that’s where he started writing the Phantom Tollbooth andrnhe would read to me sections and I’d start doing sketches.  So, it was all by accident, byrnproximity.  Norton was there, I wasrnthere, he loved early 19th and 20th century English line drawingrnillustration.  So, that’s what Irntried to give him, my version of it, because his whole writing style wasrnbasically geared to the early 20th century.  So, again, it was one of those things that I backedrninto.  And it was accidental and itrnwas great fun to do.  But, once itrnwas done, I had no intention of doing more children’s books.  This was in the ‘60’s, and it wasrnanother 30 years or so before I decided to write and illustrate my own.  And I’ve actually just completed, 50rnyears later, my second book with Norton Juster, called The Odious Ogre, whichrnwill be coming out in the fall of 2010. rnAnd that’s a big picture book in color, and very different in style fromrnThe Phantom Tollbooth.  

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Question: How did you transition from cartooning to thernworld of the theater? 

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Jules Feiffer: Well, I found it was my good fortune tornsomehow be able to work in these forms that I loved when I was a kid.  I love movies and I could writernscreenplays.  I love theater and Irncould write plays.  I mean, theyrnwould be my own, I could never write what was used to be called the well-madernplay.  But my first play, “LittlernMurders,” turned out to be a great success and a great influence on plays atrnthat time.  “Carnal Knowledge,”rnwhich was originally written as a play, still resonates and people still talkrnabout it.  And Mike Nichols’rnproduction of the film is the best collaborative work I’ve ever done withrnanybody.  So, I’ve had enormous luckrnand enormous pleasure in working in these forums and I just – because I couldrnalways write dialogue, because I always had a sense of how people spoke.  And because I had a strong narrativernsense; growing up and loving stories, loving novels, I just seem to know how torntell a story and I read a lot, I went to a lot of movies, I went to a lot ofrnplays, and it rubbed off on me. rnAnd that’s all.  It justrnrubbed off on me. 

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If Edward Albee had not been writing in the ‘50’s, just whenrnI was coming along and getting interested in theater, I might never havernwritten a play, but Albee suddenly opened these doors because he was doingrnstuff in a form that I found terribly inviting, and god knows I wouldn’t havernever thought of it on my own.

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Question: What changes has the cartooning business undergonernduring your career?

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Jules Feiffer: Well for one thing, commercially, it’srnundergone vast change and not all of it to the good.  I mean, when I was a kid, the newspaper comic strip wasrndominant and sexy and glamorous, and cartoonists made a lot of money, and theyrnwere famous.  Milton Caniff who didrnTerry and the Pirates, Al Capp, who did “Li’l Abner,”  I mean, there were – Chester Gould who did Dick Tracy, thesernthen had household names.  And thernnewspaper strips got smaller and smaller and smaller for newspapers tornmisguidedly save space, and the quality went out of the work, the quality wentrnout of the art, and certainly out of the writing.  And whatever quality there was disappeared for a long periodrnof time until underground comics, Crumb and company, and Spiegelman andrncompany, gave birth to something new which was alternative comics, and suddenlyrnwe have Chris Ware, and Dan Klaus, and Craig Thompson, and a whole new varietyrnof artists, many of them every bit as good as the best during the golden age ofrnthe newspaper comic strip.  Butrnhere doing work wildly original, very different from one another and impossiblernto conceive of in mainstream public press. 

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So, this is very exciting now.  It ain’t a living. rnI mean, these guys work very, very hard and put in the sort of work andrnhours that I would never try to do. rnAnd I don’t know how they feed their families, if they do.  But it’s a fascinating form and so Irnthink that after a long period of nothing happening and work, nothing veryrnimpressive, we are into another golden age of comics.  Unfortunately, it’s not a golden age for the artistsrnthemselves economically.  I don’trnknow how they get along.

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Question: What is the political cartoonist’s role in thernmodern era?

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Jules Feiffer: Well, I’m not sure about that role anyrnlonger.  The role used to be to mixrnthings up and I think to a great extent it still is, but the quality of thernwork of the political cartoon has been succeeded by the wisecrack, the gagrncartoon, so that the cartoonist becomes more of the equivalent of the Jay Lenornmonologues, or David Letterman monologues.  And there is not much – that digs much deeper, the mostrnmeaningful work on politics in terms of political humor that one can possiblyrnfind on the air is in the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Colbert Show andrnoccasionally on those opening monologues on Saturday Night Live.  But particularly with Stewart andrnColbert, that satire, often very pointed, very barbed with a real point of viewrnand at its best.  And there aren’trnmany cartoonists working that. rnThere’s still **** syndication is wonderful; there’s Jeff Danzinger,rnalso in syndication, who is brilliant. rnThere’s Tony Austin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Signe Wilkinson ofrnPhiladelphia Daily News, there’s Tom Toles who is extraordinary in thernWashington Post.  But to myrnknowledge the L.A. Times, which for many, many years had one of the greatrncartoonists of our time, Paul Conrad, doesn’t have anybody anymore, or runsrnthem in syndication, which is sinful, shameful. 

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And over and over again, cartoonists are loosing their jobsrnand I don’t think there are 100 cartoonists in the country working on therneditorial pages today.  So, thernwhole form is in danger.  But I’vernbeen around a long time and I’ve found that these forms, whether it’s therncartoon, or whether it’s a play, or all these dying forms refuse to die.rnSomething happens to rejuvenate them and it will certainly happen to thernpolitical cartoon.  It will comernback.  But whether it’s on therninternet, or whether it’s in some other form, however that works, whether itrnlooks the way it looks now, or entirely different, I have no idea.  And thank God I don’t have to worryrnabout it.

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Question: Where should good satirists direct their satirerntoday?

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Jules Feiffer: Well, you know with Obama being elected, wernhad a wonderful opportunity.  Irnhope it’s not blown, and we have forms of government that don’t seem to be uprnto the level of the leaders who are around who will want to move this countryrnin a proper direction.  Where thatrngoes and how that goes, I mean, we seem determined to not move ahead, to stayrnin the same place.  And there are arnlot of nuts out there as well. rnIt’s a scary, but also wonderful country and I have no idea – I meanrnlook I’m the wrong generation to ask that question too, because I’m miredrncompletely in where I come out of. rnAnd I come out of a Cold War sensibility, a Cold War mentality, andrnduring those Cold War years, I used to know, I thought, the answers torneverything.  And since the end ofrnthe Cold War, I’m just a dumb as everyone else. 

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Question: How has New York City changed, and is it stillrnexciting?

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Jules Feiffer: Well, I’m the last guy to probably know howrnto answer that question because I live in the city, but I don’t really – I livernin my own little ghetto on the upper west side of Manhattan, which has changedrna lot over the years.  But New Yorkrnis a place of neighborhoods.  Andrnpeople who live uptown, as I do, seldom go downtown.  Or at a certain age you don’t go downtown.  I found it interesting when my nowrn40-year old daughter; I have three daughters, one in her 40’s, one in 20’s, andrnone in teens.  Well, my 40-yearrnold, when she lived downtown in the East Village, and I would meet her in thernlocal bar, it struck me how different in age everybody was in that local barrnfrom the bars that I went to uptown. rnAnd that she would never know or go to a bar that had anybody my age inrnit.  And except for this being myrndaughter, I wouldn’t have even know of the existence of the bar because it hadrnher age in it, and they thought, as did I, that this was the entirernuniverse.  This was the entirernworld.  That’s who they saw. That’srnwhere they felt – we lived that way then, we live that way now, and we continuernto live that way.  Everybody kindrnof hangs out with his or her own particular universe and you think thatrnrepresents everything.

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Question: Is New York becoming too gentrified and sterile?

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Jules Feiffer: Oh, we have lived through periods ofrnsterility over and over again. rnRobert Moses, written about brilliantly in Robert Caro’s book, destroyedrnneighborhoods with his super highways, and drove immigrant cultures, whetherrnfrom Eastern Europe or from the south, out of boroughs and sometimes out of therncity entirely.  And so that kind ofrnmix, which had been around since post World War I days, or even before thenrnchanged, and the city was changed, and the city was – and when I first startedrnhanging out in the village in the 1950’s, I was told over and over again aboutrnGreenwich Village, that you should have been here, it’s ruined now, it doesn’trnexist anymore.  And now the ‘50’srnis considered one of those golden ages. rnBut now when I was starting out, that was considered part of therncorruption.  You should have beenrnhere in the ‘30’s, or the ‘20’s. rnSo, I seemed to have missed everything.  Whenever I got there, it was always too late.  And that doesn’t change.  The city keeps reinventing itself.  And each generation thinks, as theyrnenter it, that they’ve missed the best of it, and then they become the authorsrnof the next “best.”  And so it goesrnon and on and on.  And New Yorkrnkeeps redefining itself and reinventing itself, and then you look at it andrnit’s pretty much the way it was back in the 1920’s., or in the 1930’s.  Something stylistically different inrnsome ways, but it’s still got the same vitality. 

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Whatever New York loses, if you go to other cities aroundrnthe world, or around the country, New York still has a kind of energy level yournfind nowhere else.  Paris doesn’trnhave it, London doesn’t have it, San Francisco, a great city, doesn’t havernit.  Chicago has many things betterrnthan New York.  I think Chicagorntheater is basically better than New York in terms of it’s more innovative,rnit’s more experimental, it’s not as bottom-line, it’s not asrnmarket-oriented.  But it doesn’trnhave that crazy anarchic spirit, which you only find in the city and you foundrnit back in the ‘20s, you found it in the teens, and you find it still today.

Recorded on February 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin rnAllen

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