by Kara Westerman
Jules Feiffer’s work has always had the quality of immediacy, and at 88, he is still insisting his books should “look like the ink hasn’t dried.”
In his new theatrical adaptation of his graphic novel “The Main in the Ceiling,” opening the 2017 Main Stage season at Bay Street Theatre May 30, he wants the audience “to feel they’ve been dragged up onstage” and are part of the action.
“Yes! I want you to experience what I am doing in the present tense! That’s the way it’s always been in whatever medium I’m using,” he says. “It took over 50 years for me to learn to leave my work alone, and not to try and control everything. To be a lack of control freak. Or a loss of control freak.”
“The Man In The Ceiling” was first published as a graphic novel in 1993. Both the book and the play, directed by Jeffrey Seller, deal with failure, mostly creative failure, centered around two characters — Jimmy, a boy who only wants to draw cartoons whose father is displeased by his ambition, and his Uncle Lester who lives upstairs and writes “flop musicals.”
“Jimmy and his father are totally at loggerheads about what a boy should be, what a career should be,” says Mr. Feiffer. “His father is concerned about Jimmy having the foolish hobby of drawing pictures when he could be playing baseball. But Jimmy is lousy at baseball!”
At his home on Shelter Island, on an uncommon day of rest, I asked Mr. Feiffer to read a central passage of the book in his wonderful sonorous voice:
“ ‘As Jimmy saw it, he had no other choice but to grow up to be a great cartoonist. Only that would make up for the awful burden he bore in the present. Because, in every way that counted, Jimmy was a flop as a boy.’ ”
“This passage is completely autobiographical,” he tells me, “completely true of me as a kid! My eyes had different mis-matched sighting, so I couldn’t catch or throw a ball. All the skills you need as a kid growing up during the depression without any money are athletic.”
The hardest part of writing “The Man In The Ceiling” for him was the two levels of illustration going on simultaneously in the book, and now projected as the backdrop for the play. There are the sketches Jimmy draws as a twelve-year-old boy, jagged pencil lines depicting action scenes of his father as an Indiana Jones-type character battling bad men and savage animals, and the drawings of Jimmy by Mr. Feiffer of Jimmy doing the drawings – two very different styles.
“It was hard for me to get back into my identity as a kid and try to simulate the kind of drawing I did then,” he says. “But fortunately my mother saved everything I ever did, so I have drawings I did at that age, but it wasn’t easy.”
One week away from the opening, Mr. Feiffer is still re-drawing many of the images.
“So, I’m writing and illustrating the show,” he says.
When I tell him that I can’t wait to see how the drawings translate to the stage he laughs.
“The Man In The Ceiling” in its new form has been a long time in the works. Seventeen years ago, Andrew Lippa contacted Mr. Feiffer about writing music and lyrics and hopefully collaborating on turning the book into a musical. They had a brief encounter with Disney, who sponsored a reading of the first iteration of the play, but a film was never made.
A few years ago, Mr. Lippa brought Jeffrey Seller on board to direct. Mr. Feiffer says the chemistry has been magical.
“This is my first musical, and I couldn’t be happier being in such good company with such exciting and loving people,” he says. “The addition of Jeffrey to this combination has really made this work. And not just because now he’s known as the producer of “Hamilton.” When we started working together he had just done a little show called “Rent” – which I never saw – so what did I know? “
“We’ve been working relentlessly, but it really is a love fest between the three of us,” he said. “We adore working with each other and we balance each other out beautifully.”
Mr. Feiffer is very excited about the cast, which he says is terrific up and down the line.
“The actor playing Jimmy is a terrific kid, still very boyish. Thank God he’s got his voice,” he says. “But he’s 14 or so and I hope he still retains it for the length of the show! That’s about the age that voices change, so who knows.”
A central theme in the play is something that he remembers from his boyhood, and still notices: that most subjects are taught negatively.
“There are so many things about what they can’t and shouldn’t do — there are so may Dont’s!” he says. “It fascinated me as a parent to go to my child’s school and see the work of the students up on the walls. The early drawings from Kindergarten are free and inventive! But by the third or fourth grade, kids have started listening to other kids or teachers or parents, and whatever they have inside — I’m pointing to my head, but it’s never in the head, it’s in the gut — it’s modified and compromised fatally by all that good advice that kills you!”
“This is a play about how you deal with yourself as a human and your self as an artist when the results aren’t what they’re supposed to be in the world you live in — where if it’s not a commercial success then it’s no good,” he says. “It’s putting together a life that is going to make your adult life livable, despite the fact that you’re not doing it by the rules of the people that seem to count, namely everyone else but you!”
Jules Feiffer continues to have an extraordinarily varied professional life in illustration, graphic novels, syndicated comic strips, screenplays and plays, and now his first musical – it is breathtaking.
I asked him about his beginnings as a professional cartoonist at The Village Voice with his comic strip, Feiffer, and he told me that he realized very early on that he needed to stay an amateur.
“As a young man in my twenties, after I got out of the Army, I was trying to make a living as a professional cartoonist doing crappy little advertising jobs,” he says. “After a while, I was getting up in the morning hating the idea of drawing, and all I ever wanted to do was to be a cartoonist. I suddenly had this lightbulb go off in my head, which told me ‘I can’t be a professional. I have to regain my amateur credentials. I can’t do what they want me to do!’ From that moment on I went into seriously not making a living, but enjoying my work again. That is what eventually led me to The Village Voice, because nobody would publish anything I did as long as I was doing what I wanted to do. It was only The Voice that saw something.”
After a career of more than 70 years, Jules Feiffer is busier than ever.
“As I’m getting older, I’m doing more work,” he says, “but it’s not because I feel time is running out — I mean time is obviously running out — but I’m just having more fun! One of the nice things about age is that you come to terms with how stupid you are. In your 20s and 30s and 40s, there’s the pride of hopefully being smarter than anyone else. But after a while, that stops being important and you gravitate toward the things that really count, or you should be able to. Not everyone can do that. I’m doing more because I’m having a better time!”
Mr. Feiffer is in love with his work, whatever it is at the moment — a play, a book, a film — he is genuinely smitten with the process. I asked him how he has the confidence not to have to figure it all out beforehand, or to know how it all ends up, and to trust his process.
“Whatever it is that guides me creatively has a better idea operating out of my gut than my head, and what my head is good at is housecleaning,” he says. “After I’ve gotten it all down, then my head is good at doing the cleaning up — this works, this doesn’t. I gotta fix this, and foreshadow that -—all of that head stuff.”
“With my graphic novels, after I write my screenplay with dialogue for the publishers and they give me my advance, then I start drawing it,” he says. “And as soon as I get to page one I realize I have to rewrite the whole f…ing thing! The director has a different idea, the actors don’t want to say those lines – and it’s totally schizophrenic cause I’m playing all of them. I’m all of those people!”
He saves his best piece of sage advice for last:
“I learned years ago – primarily as a playwright – but also in writing my memoirs – when you are a chapter or two away from the end and you feel like — here it goes! I know how to do it! — instead of speeding up, slow down. Don’t rush toward the finish, savor it, let it go,” he says. “Because there’s always something more and if you rush toward the end and your mind is only on finishing, you’re going to screw it up. There’s always something more you haven’t thought about and that something more may make the book, the play, whatever it is, infinitely better.”
At the end of our interview Mr. Feiffer confesses that the woman who bounded into his house announcing she was from the East End Beacon and asking to use the restroom was a bit of a puzzle to him.
“You forgot I was interviewing you?” I said.
“Either forgot or never knew…” he admitted.
“You thought I was one of those Watchtower Ladies giving away magazines about the Second Coming?”
“You mean – you’re not?”
We get a good laugh out of this.
“I’m now at the totally improvisatory part of my life where – Oh, a stranger’s at my door and I guess she’s an interviewer?…Unless she’s going to mug me…” he says.
“You just went with it.”
“I do the mugging at the end,” I tell him.
The Man In The Ceiling, book by Jules Feiffer, Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, and directed by Jeffrey Seller, producer of Hamilton, will run May 30-June 25 at The Bay Street Theater. Single tickets are now available by calling the box office at 631.725.9500, or online at www.baystreet.org.
Kara Westerman is a published fiction author, teacher, podcaster, oral history facilitator, and fearless leader of Amagansett Writer’s Collective. She received her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and also received the Edward Albee Foundation fiction residency fellowship. She produces and hosts the podcast Phantom Hampton: Stories From Where The Rest of Us Live, where you can hear most of her articles in extended form. She lives and works in East Hampton, New York.