In Love with New York, an Interview with Noah Diamond
Noah Diamond is best known for his performances as Groucho Marx, including in the acclaimed 2016 revival of “I’ll Say She Is.” But before he ever appeared on a New York stage, he performed before international crowds on double decker tour buses. His experiences as a New York City tour guide informed his solo show “400 Years in Manhattan,” which combines the city’s panoramic history with Diamond’s recollections of the double decker life. Produced and directed by Amanda Sisk, “400 Years in Manhattan” was first seen in a 2007 workshop. A revamped version recently won the award for Best Educational Show at the 2019 United Solo Theatre Festival. Diamond and Sisk have also published a book based on the show, also titled “400 Years in Manhattan” and available at noahdiamond.com. Lauren Wiener: What inspired you to write “400 Years in Manhattan?”
Noah Diamond: For many years, I was a New York City tour guide. That was my principal day job in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and I’ve returned to it occasionally since then. And whenever I narrated a tour, I always thought, “Well, what I’m really doing here is developing material for a solo show.” I started working on this idea with Amanda Sisk, my partner and collaborator, and “400 Years in Manhattan” first emerged in a workshop production at HERE Arts Center in 2007. It was a more primitive version of what the show is now: a chronological history of Manhattan, interwoven with a personal history about my experiences as a tour guide, and accompanied by a multimedia presentation that shows the city changing over four centuries. That workshop went well, and we always hoped the show would go on to a longer run. But it never quite happened, and we moved on to other projects. Then, in 2018, I did some tour guide work for the first time in several years, and it all came back to me. The city had changed, as it always does, but so had my perspective, and my approach as a storyteller. In addition to that, the ongoing digital revolution has dramatically increased the amount of readily available historical material. In 2016, when the New York Public Library released its vast archive of public domain materials, I immediately thought of the visual part of “400 Years in Manhattan,” and how much better and more spectacular it could be now. So, all of this made me think it was time for a new version of “400 Years in Manhattan,” and Amanda suggested submitting it to the United Solo Theatre Festival. A historical show could very easily feel like a college lecture. How did you find a balance so that did not happen? That liability is built into the concept, but in performance, I don’t think it feels like a lecture ‑ because of the narrative style, the comedy and entertainment value, and the use of music, film, and photography. I think this is more of a promotional concern: how to describe and market the show in a way that doesn’t make people fear that they are in for a dry or academic evening. A few moments into the show, I think it’s clear that’s not what it’s going to be. Though I suppose it would also be valid to lean into the liability, and just concede that in some ways, maybe the show is a lecture ‑ a highly entertaining, poignant, hilarious lecture, done in a performative, theatrical style. Since “400 Years in Manhattan” is about your own past as much as New York’s, did you learn anything about yourself through writing and performing this show? If so, what did you learn? Did it change you in any way? This time around, I learned that I don’t have to strain for gravitas. When I first started speaking publicly about New York City, I was in my early twenties ‑ a kid sharing his enthusiasm. Then in the 400 Years workshop, I was thirty ‑ an adult who still felt like a kid. It always felt slightly presumptuous to speak in grandiose terms about history and culture, like I hadn’t quite earned the privilege. But now, in my forties, I find that narrative authority is not such a reach. I think it seems more plausible that I might actually know what I’m talking about! Initially, “400 Years in Manhattan” was just a way to canonize some of my tour guide patter‑like, I put in all those hours on the double deckers, I might as well get a show out of it! But it’s become much more important to me, not just as a history of New York, but as a record of my feelings, about the meaning of home, what it means to be an artist, how to define progress, our responsibilities to other people ‑ everything, life itself. I assume your acting training helped you as a tour guide, but did your experience as a tour guide also help you as an actor? How so? When I was working full‑time as a tour guide, I was up in front of a crowd for hours every day, trying to hold their attention and convey information in novel and entertaining ways. It’s good for any kind of performer to keep those skills as sharp as possible. As always, you reach the level of art only by working hard at the craft. A lot of that is about holding the attention of the room, whether the room is a theatre or a double decker bus, and directing that attention toward whatever is interesting and important. You have a history of playing Groucho Marx of the Marx Brothers, while in “400 Years in Manhattan” you play yourself. Is it harder to play a character or to play yourself, and why? For the most part, it doesn’t feel notably different. I think this is because even when I’m playing myself, I’m really still playing a character ‑ a scripted, stylized version of myself. I feel more of a contrast between characters who address the audience, and characters who stay behind a fourth wall. Groucho in “I’ll Say She Is” and Noah in “400 Years in Manhattan” are both in almost constant contact with the audience, and for me that’s a little easier and a little more fun, a metatheatrical evening. Among characters who are not me, Groucho is exceptional ‑ in addition to acting like him, I can think like him, and I don’t think I’d say that about other fictional characters I’ve played. It feels more natural to play myself or Groucho than to play most other characters. What made you decide to write a book version of “400 Years in Manhattan?” Was it difficult to turn a live show into a book? I’m proud of the writing in “400 Years in Manhattan.” It’s a very personal show ‑ and I don’t just mean the autobiographical sections, because history is personal, too ‑ the stories I choose to tell and the way I choose to tell them. So it expresses lots of things I feel deeply, and that have been with me for a long time. It’s my most rewritten work ‑ there’s material in it that was first developed on tour buses over twenty years ago, and the show itself has been substantially reworked since the 2007 workshop (and subsequent first edition of the book). So, the current monologue is the most refined version of something I’ve worked on for decades, and I wanted it to be available in print. I think the show and the book make good companions. The book is missing the music, performance, and motion‑picture aspects of the show. On the other hand, the show is very dense, and although we worked hard to pace it properly so it wouldn’t be exhausting, it’s impossible to catch everything in one viewing. The book allows you to linger on the images, study the historical maps and photos, and ponder the ideas in the text at your own pace. Not every show makes a good book, but it can be a nice counterweight to the transitory nature of theatre. A show is over at the moment the lights go down, but a book stays on the shelf (hopefully to be taken down and read once in a while) until the end of the world. So I like to do both. If you could go back to a specific time in Manhattan, what time would it be, and why? Wow. I could easily list a hundred moments in New York history that I’d love to visit. But to pick one, it would have to be Manhattan in the Jazz Age ‑ specifically May 19, 1924, when my friends the Marx Brothers made their Broadway debut in I’ll Say She Is, the musical I’ve spent much of the last decade working on. That would be quite a thing to experience firsthand. It would also be the greatest opportunity for research: if I could actually see the Marx Brothers in “I’ll Say She Is at the Casino Theatre” (39th and Broadway, long since demolished), it would fill in lots of gaps and guesswork in my adaptation. I’d go to the Algonquin before the show and to Lindy’s after. What advice do you have for an artist trying to make it in New York? Do it! Just do it. Don’t wait for opportunities; create them. And don’t work in a vacuum, which is especially a liability for writers ‑ you have to get together with other artists, who are also creating opportunities, and you have to help each other. Don’t think of art as a career, but as a lifestyle. It’s a decision about what kind of person to be, how to function in the world. If you wind up among the lucky few who make a living from their art, that’s wonderful, because it means you’re more free and have more time to produce more art. But even successful artists often need another source of income to survive, something separate from their real work. This is an extremely difficult problem, but if you can solve it, a lot of things become possible. What do you hope New York will be like in the next 400 years? It would be a great relief to know that New York, and human life on Earth, will exist 400 years from now! I dearly hope so. A wide view of the world, at this moment, looks like a place in dire peril ‑ a kind of terrifying race, to see whether catastrophic climate change or the spread of authoritarianism will destroy us first. But okay ‑ for the sake of a hopeful answer, let’s say that human civilization has survived periods of severe crisis before, and it will survive this one, too. Manhattan and its neighboring coastlines, in 2420, will probably have been protected by a system of floodgates ‑ perhaps these will be seen as relics of a past conflict, like the remnants of Castle Clinton in Battery Park. I hope New York in the next 400 years continues to be the vanguard of civilization, the cultural capital of the world. But it also has to be a living tribute to democracy. The city generally improves as time goes by, but one of the biggest threats to its civic health is its income disparity, and the high cost of even very modest living. A thriving New York City in any era would be one that’s accessible to everybody, where anyone who chooses to can find opportunities to work and live comfortably, and to benefit from all the advantages of being at the center of the world. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned, about New York City, about art, about life: Don’t forget to enjoy it! “400 Years in Manhattan” Written and Performed by Noah Diamond Directed by Amanda Sisk Photo: courtesy of the production
October 1-2 Fredonia Marxonia 2020 State University of New York 280 Central Ave Fredonia, NY 14063
LAUREN WIENER is a NYC-based marketer, writer, director, and dramaturg. She is a 2018 graduate of Trinity College, where she received a dual Bachelor of Arts in Theater (concentration in writing and directing) and Film Studies. She received Trinity’s George E. Nichols III Prize in Theater Arts and the Frank W. Whitlock Prize in Drama. During her time at Trinity, Lauren wrote and directed an original play called, “Count To Ten and Repeat.” This memory play begs the question, “No matter how much we want it to, do things ever really change or will the cycle always repeat?”. Her senior thesis included an intensive research paper on Arthur Miller’s play, “After the Fall,” in which she analyzed the play through a Freudian and historical lens. She is a Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program alum, having written and performed an original piece at the acclaimed La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York City.