Erik Jensen is making his Broadway debut the same year he suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm that almost killed him. The two are not unrelated, as he explains in the interview below.
In “The Collaboration,” a play by Anthony McCarten that’s scheduled to open on December 20 at MTC’s Samuel J Friedman Theater, Jensen portrays Bruno Bischofberger, the Swiss art dealer who brought together Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Jensen’s Broadway debut feels less like a peak than a new path, for those of us who have followed his decades-long career as the creator with his wife Jessica Blank of such acclaimed, influential documentary theater as “The Exonerated” (about innocent men on Death Row) “The Line” (about medical first responders in the pandemic) and “Coal Country” (survivors of a mining explosion.) His work as a writer, actor and director also has included regular forays into movies and TV (The Walking Dead, The Bronx is Burning, Mr. Robot.)
In the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Jensen talks about the three events that changed his life in 2022 – yes, there’s a third event, a surprising one — and about the aftermath of some of his best-known plays, as well as his take both on “The Collaboration” and on his lifelong collaboration with Jessica Blank and now with another member of the family.
Brain Injury: “A lot of people struggle with this….”
Jonathan Mandell: It seems like quite a year for you – the Broadway debut and the hemorrhage. Could you tell me the story of the two events?
Erik Jensen: My wife Jessica Blank and I wrote a play that was put up by the Public Theater called “Coal Country,” with Steve Earle, the country musician, writing music for it and my wife directing it; she directs all our plays. She was in the middle of a tech rehearsal in February when she got a call from our assistant that I’d had a seizure and was being rushed to the hospital. My wife of course left the rehearsal and joined me in the hospital, where it took her four hours to get the doctors to take a CAT Scan. They immediately got me into an MRI and discovered I had a subarachnoid hemorrhage.
This kind of a thing kills about half of the people that it hits, and 80 percent that it doesn’t kill have some kind of permanent damage. I was very, very, very fortunate just to survive it. And I completely dodged the bullet. I just did another MRI recently and I’m a completely, 100 percent healthy human being.
You just told the story of your seizure from your wife’s point of view rather than yours. Is that because you didn’t have any memory of it?
I remember talking with my therapist online and I said ‘oh, I have a headache,’ and then I blacked out. My wife carefully explained to me what happened.
How long did it take you to recover?
It took me a month or so. It’s funny because “Coal Country” opened in March and one of our actors got COVID, and I had to go on stage for him. I did four shows and then handed it over to the understudy.
Did you watch a certain Senate race in Pennsylvania with a distinct perspective?
I was so impressed that John Fetterman gave it a shot, especially in that debate. The way Dr. Oz treated him I found disgusting. A lot of people probably thought that, which may be why he won.
A lot of people struggle with this kind of thing. It’s just some of us have to struggle with it publicly.
When did you go public with it?
Today, with you.
I’m luckier than most people, but there’s some stigma attached to this as we learned from the Fetterman campaign, and I was very cautious at first. I did tell the casting director and a couple of weeks ago the artistic director.
I was struck at how different Fetterman’s victory speech was from his debate performance. He was clearly recovering, but in phases. Did you go through phases?
I had to accept what had happened; I guess I went through the five stages of grief to get there. It was a scary time. The most important part of my recovery was realizing how many people loved me, for real, and how many people showed up for my wife. We have a whole community here in New York.
This sounds like a psychological issue. Were there no physical or cognitive problems?
I did have some problems with short term memory.
No physical problems?
I got really, really lucky. But the other thing that happened is my friend Steve Earle swept in and said, “You know, I think you need to quit drinking.” And so I also got my act together and stopped drinking and stopped smoking pot and stopped eating bad food. The doctors also told me that if I continued to do those things, I would be putting myself in danger.
Recovery Leads to Broadway: “it was time for me to take bigger risks”
And now you’re making your Broadway debut. How did that come about?
We took a vacation to Europe and I ended up going to London to see my friend Indira Varma in “The Seagull,” which also had Emilia Clarke in the cast, quite a well-known actress who was in Game of Thrones. My friend told me that Emilia had actually had two hemorrhages. So I’m sitting here watching Emilia, this amazing actress, on stage and I got very inspired: If she can do it I can do it. So I asked my agents to start putting me out there for some larger stage things and eventually “The Collaboration” came along. And I’m supporting an organization that Emilia founded, SameYou to raise awareness about brain injury.
So it was your medical issue that made you try for Broadway?
I really decided that it was time for me to take bigger risks as a performer. You know, when you almost die, you immediately understand the value of everybody around you, and the value of what you have, and of what you do.
Had you not thought of performing on Broadway previously? Was it that it just didn’t interest you, or you were intimidated by the idea, or what?
In all honesty, I had had a disappointing experience about a decade ago. I originated the role in a play that ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize [Although he doesn’t name it, the play was “Disgraced.’] This was when the big hurricane had shut down public transportation, so I had to ride my bike to work eight miles each way from Brooklyn. When it came time for the play to go to Broadway, I wasn’t invited. We’d gotten great reviews. I’d gotten good notices. So I just decided at that point to concentrate on my own work on stage, and act in television and on film. I was not convinced that Broadway would make me happy – until my aneurysm. So you know, there are blessings behind having this medical event happen.
His Real Life Collaboration: “It’s like a quaint mom and pop writing business.”
The play you’re in is called The Collaboration, and the title has some reverberations in your own life. How did you meet Jessica Blank?
Jessica was on a date with one of my best friends, and I kind of crashed the date. My friend was like ‘hey dude, I’m trying to impress this girl and you really should go.” But before I left, I was so struck by her intelligence and beauty and depth that I managed to slip her my phone number and told her that I could get her free to see me in the Arthur Kopit play at MTC [“Y2K,” at the same theater company 23 years later that’s doing “The Collaboration”]
Arthur and his wife Leslie went out with us on the first date so I didn’t have to do any talking hardly at all, and it was endlessly entertaining and interesting. About a year after that we were married.
When did the collaboration start?
About three months after our first date, we came up with the idea for “The Exonerated.” [a play based on verbatim interviews with innocent inmates who had been on Death Row.]
I’d been friends with some of the people in The Laramie Project, I’d worked with Moises Kaufman a little bit, and was very inspired by them, and I was a big fan of Studs Terkel. I took that and put Jessica’s writing skills and organization skills into the mix; we just started calling people up and finding organizations that could hook us up with people. That kind of launched our careers.
Some theater couples I know make a point of not working with one another in order to keep their marriage intact. Was there any hesitation or discussion or did it just seem natural?
I run into a lot of couples like that: “Oh, I would never work with my wife.” I don’t know, there’s something kind of small townish about it. Jessica and I literally live above the store. We live above our production office. It’s like a quaint mom and pop writing business. And we have a 12-year-old daughter now, who’s started pitching us documentary theater ideas. So I guess we’re a family business now.
This doesn’t mean we don’t get into healthy artistic disagreements. We do. We get in a bunch. But that’s where we get rid of the bullshit. Working it out artistically makes the marriage much more profound and fulfilling.
It’s just a natural fit. And when we’re interviewing people as a married couple, it makes it easier because it’s more of a conversation and less of a formal interview. I think that brings a certain intimacy to our work.
I know this is probably impossible to answer but had you not met your wife, or not married her, do you think you still would have been doing documentary theater?
I’ve always liked to interview people, I’ve been very curious about other people, and that curiosity leads me to research a lot for the roles that I play. But I didn’t realize that I had ambitions beyond my own work until I met my wife.
What kind of research have you done for the role of Bruno Bischofberger
Bischofberger was instrumental in two incredible art movements — he brought a lot of Warhol’s work to the world and then later brought neo-expressionists like Basquiat to the New York art world — and everybody was filming and photographing everybody. He’s given lots and lots and lots of interviews. So very early, well before I started memorizing lines for the script, I dove into his dialect and the way he presented himself, and picked up on his energy, and made some guesses at what his philosophy is and how he dealt with his artists. Then I put that work away, and just started reading, reading, reading. But in a weird way it feels like I’ve been doing this research forever. I was deeply ensconced in the New York art world from afar growing up in Minneapolis. My Uncle Walter was a professional illustrator and painter and he would take me to the museums. I read a book by Tama Janowitz called “Slaves of New York”; that and the movie “Next Stop Greenwich Village” made me want to move to New York. My first job in the city was as a cartoonist for High Times Magazine.
I understand that Bischofberger is still alive. Did you attempt to talk to him directly?
As a rule, I give people their privacy. I would be honored if he were to come to the show and would love to sit down and talk with him. But no, I don’t do that. I don’t reach out to people. At the end of the day, what the writer writes in the text and what the director suggests have got to be my guide
So that’s a contrast with documentary theater?
Yes, there’s a distinction. For Chekhov, Shakespeare, Sam Shepard, Samuel Beckett, you can do all the research that you want but ultimately you have to throw it out because the real secrets of the piece are in the language.
Theater by Jensen and Blank
So let’s talk about the play for which you’re probably still best known, “The Exonerated.” It’s now twenty years later, and I was wondering what thoughts you have about it. Do you view it differently? Has it made a difference?
Our first play is a young play, and I see a lot of our youth in it. We did a command performance of the play when it was still running Off-Broadway for Illinois Governor George Ryan, and in a book he wrote, he said The Exonerated was a prime mover for him in deciding to end the death penalty in Illinois.
Have you been following where we are now with the death penalty in the U.S.?
I haven’t been an active death penalty activist for a while. The play is still occasionally produced. We’re living in a crueler atmosphere now than when we wrote The Exonerated. We’re living in an age when the cruelty is the point for a lot of politicians. I pray for our better natures to come forward.
“The Exonerated” came out in 2001. Next was “Aftermath,” 2009, in which you interviewed Iraqi refugees in Jordan after the U.S. invasion of 2003. How does that inform your views now about world events, and specifically about Ukraine?
There’d been plays about the Iraq experience, but they were always from the soldiers point of view. The voices of refugees were not being heard — the voices of a relatively apolitical people on the ground, who are the ones who always suffer from these wars. I ultimately hoped it would become less relevant as we became more civilized, but world events like the war in Ukraine bear a striking and unfortunate similarity. No one should be subjected to that kind of violence ever. If the play had any “message,” it was that.
The next show I saw of yours was your solo show in Under the Radar, “How to be a Rock Critic”
Oh my God you saw it?
Yes. Your character Lester Bangs, based on the real-life rock critic, is now being portrayed in “Almost Famous” on Broadway. Have you seen the musical?
I’ve been in rehearsal since the musical opened, but I am an acquaintance of Cameron Crows, who’s been very supportive of our work. I’m hoping they’ll have a Monday night performance where I can go see it.
With “How To Be A Rock Critic,” you seemed to be taking a break from the theater of consequence.
I’m a big fan of rock and roll and when I was a kid in 1982, my parents got divorced and sent me to my cousin’s house in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and my cousin had an electric guitar, and he had copies of Cream magazine and Rolling Stone. I believe that was my first encounter with Lester Bangs….And then Philip Seymour Hoffman [who portrayed Lester Bangs in the movie “Almost Famous”] was the greatest actor of my generation; I’d always admired his performance. So I always wanted to know more about this Lester Bangs character. Now we’re working on adapting the show into a movie. I’m not playing Lester this time; Jess and I are going to direct it together.
Lester Bangs makes a comeback!
It’s time. I mean, he believed in the power of music and the power of it to bring us together. And you know, I think the country needs a little bit of that right now.
The next was “The Line” about medical personnel on the frontlines of the fight against COVID. which I thought was one of the best digital theater I saw during the lockdown. How did it get started?
One day we had a play up and running at the Public after garnering really generous reviews. And the next day we were gone and had to lock down back at home. We’re washing off our groceries and stuff because nobody knew how it was transmitted. So our reasons for doing The Line were that I was in a state of fear, of extreme fear. Our house in Williamsburg is right next to an ambulance dispatch area. And so there were sirens going off 24/7. And there was this talk about it being a hoax, and it started happening around the country. And we were like, do people not understand what is happening in New York? We are terrified here. We don’t need your hoax theories. We need help and we need nurses and we need doctors.
We had been in regular touch with Oskar Eustis, because we were trying to figure out whether we were going to reopen “Coal Country.” And we all decided it would be a good time to do a first responder play.
I don’t think anybody would dispute that it was the right thing to do at the time. But now that in-person theater has returned, I think some theater artists would now say: “It’s time to get back to what we do.” Does digital theater continue to be viable?
Absolutely. I can’t tell you the number of people who watched “The Line” who couldn’t get out of the house or wouldn’t have been able to afford it if it weren’t free. I can’t tell you how wonderful it would have been had I been a 12 year old in Minnesota able to watch any Guthrie play from the safety and quiet of my own home. I think [digital theater] should be an essential part of the live experience.
Did your experience with “The Line” inform the decision to have “Coal Country” be both onstage but also as an Audible audiobook?
How much of a landmark is this year for you? How much will it change your work or your life? Do you have the Broadway bug now? Will you still be doing documentary theater?
This is a year where everything pivots, starting with almost dying, and seeing Hamilton and being so incredibly inspired by it that we decided we needed to do a musical..
Wait, what? You didn’t see Hamilton until this year?
I was late to see Hamilton. Oskar procured some tickets for my daughter, who had bribed him with Girl Scout cookies to get. It completely upended my idea of what the possibilities are, so now we’ve been commissioned to do a musical for the Public…
What’s it about?
I can’t tell you yet.
But everything pivots. I’m also directing a film starring me with my daughter. It’s all about family, about bringing people together and collaborating. And yes I do have the Broadway bug. I think it’s no mistake that the first show that I do on Broadway is called The Collaboration you know, because that’s what I love.