Alexis Zegerman. Photo by Mark Douet

Alexis Zegerman – a playwright
in conversation with Adi Ginat

Alexis Zegerman’s current play, Fever Syndrome, was staged at the Hampstead Theatre until April 2022.  This is the second show Zegerman has written that has been performed in the Hampstead Theatre. Since 2007, when her play Lucky Seven premiered, Zegerman feels she has grown as a playwright. The play was originally meant to premier in the Manhattan Theatre but due to both the pandemic and the passion of those in the Hampstead Theatre, the location changed.

How has the pandemic affected her writing process and the development of the play?

Zegrerman had wanted to write a play focusing on illness, specifically chronic, for some time, in fact the first draft had been written prior to the pandemic.  The pandemic has affected many aspects of life but one of the ways which doesn’t often come to the top of your mind is language.  Suddenly, words such as mutation and PCR which prior to the pandemic had a very scientific and specific meaning became part of the global lexicon and perhaps have lost their specialist focus. A more important concern was the very topic of the play. With one of the characters suffering from fevers, would audiences think the play is about Covid-19, and would they be interested in being immersed in a play about illness when the last two years have been dominated by it? Changing the title was considered but nothing else came close to encapsulating the theme of the play.  In terms of rehearsal around 7-10 days were missed due to the pandemic. It is the way the world is now unfortunately.

How has her writing style changed since 2007 with Lucky Seven, at the same theatre?

Zelgermen believes that her writing has become more layered and with more depth, which is something she hoped to achieve in Fever Syndrome. Additionally, while not having the same experiences, her own life and experience in the world has enabled her to explore a different perspective. Zelgerman adds that she enjoyed writing outside of her own experiences.

How does she feel as a female playwright in the theatre industry?

Zelgerman has witnessed her journey as a woman working in the theatre industry and remarks that women are not at 50-50 gender balance yet and that the battle for equality continues. Zelgermen states that it is important to not write plays that are expected for women to write . It’s an ongoing work-in-progress for the industry to make sure that there is parity in the industry. That includes female critics.

Does she sometimes recognise people she knows in her characters?

Zegerman states that people with successful fathers often have characteristics passed on to their children. Whether the field is entertainment, science or business there is a very similar fallout within a family of having to prove yourself as a progeny of that person. It is this that Zegermen was hoping to tap into with that sort of family dynamic. The play is not based on any one family. The characters are written to be well rounded in order to create the story. Zegermen starts with the story in order to ensure all elements work together.  The characters exist outside of the play and essentially it is their interaction and the different dynamics each person or couple has when they come into the house.

How has she researched in preparation for the play?

The Parkinson’s Disease research that Zegerman undertook included the Michael Jay Fox Foundation, which has amazing resources on their website along with Alan Alda’s podcasts on living with Parkinson’s. These include interviews with partners, children and carers which were very helpful. Most people have found themselves to be a carer for another individual, whether it an elderly parent or a partner or a child: they are the unsung heroes who are quietly helping. This was especially true during the lockdown, with enormous strain and hard circumstances which often prevented help coming in. So this play is in a way a love letter to them.  Although most caregivers are women in this play, it is Lily’s dad who is the caregiver to Lily. It’s about the frustrations of Dot and Nate’s relationship of having to look after a sick child. Audience members have stated that this hits a nerve because suddenly situations which no one really understands are manifested.

What is her favourite part of the process?

Zegerman loves seeing her play in the hands of actors and directors, and she really likes working alongside them; but her favourite part is observing an actor taking her words and performing it in a way that you’ve never imagined before. That’s organic magic that happens with turning something from words on a page into something that comes alive.

Have her acting and writing careers influenced each other?

Of course they have. I have a lot of empathy and understanding not just of character, but also what is possible to play and what is possible to play. No actor should have an underwritten part – Zegerman calls this lazy and there is no excuse for it. Not everything needs to be shown on stage, but it is important for actors to understand the full life of the character and as a writer it should be brought to every character written even if they are on stage for three minutes.

Do you have any advice for any aspiring writers, especially female ones?

Do it. Be big and be loud. The only way parity will be achieved in the industry is by creating a female canon where women playwrights are not constantly compared to men. Zegerman believes that when men look inside themselves, they write something different than when women look inside themselves because when women look inside themselves they are still looking out. This isn’t black and white, but we will only be able to understand and criticise work written by women when we have a substantial female canon around us. It’s important for women to have written more for main stages and for the shows to be programmed and put on because that is the only way to do it.