ALLA NAZIMOVA | The Provocative Hedonist Actress Comes to Life Again in Romy Nordlinger’s Play Places
Sometimes we are so taken by a person in history that we feel the need to go back in time to further explore his or her life and then even take on attributes of that person that can lead to life-changing ways and actions. Modern-day actress Romy Nordlinger and 19th century born theater and film star Alla Nazimova, two empowering women born in vastly different eras, but somehow very much alike are the subjects of the question of how being strongly influenced by a person one admires can ultimately change our personality to the point that people wonder if this could be a reincarnation.
“We are all the stories we tell, and an artist is only dead
when the last person to remember them dies.”
Dubbed “the greatest star you’ve never heard of,” Russian-born Alla Nazimova, an actress, writer, director, and filmmaker rose to dazzling heights in America after fleeing from Tsarist Russia in 1905. This Jewish immigrant ultimately became Broadway’s biggest star with even a theater on West 39th Street named after her, which, sadly, is gone now.
In a heterosexual marriage from 1899 to 1923, Nazimova later on openly engaged in relationships with women and her mansion on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard was believed to be the scene of outlandish parties. The phrase “sewing circle” was a discreet code for the get-togethers of lesbian or bisexual actresses she originated, a depiction that German-born mega film star Marlene Dietrich had also been known for using.
In 1916, Nazimova became the highest paid movie star in Hollywood and the first female director/producer. In financial and critical ruin after her unsuccessful film production of Salome, the press and the studios destroyed her. However, her contributions to the film industry have been rewarded with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Mention the name Alla Nazimova today and hardly anyone seems to know who she was, but that’s about to change. Romy Nordlinger’s provocative play Places wants to bring this iconic trailblazer back into memory or introduce her to those who have never heard of her.
Places is a must-see one-person multi-media play about what happens when a woman dares to be different and asserts her right to be accepted in a male-dominated environment. Nordlinger not only wrote the play but also plays the title character. Nazimova would be proud of her.
Places sold out all six New York shows and played 25 critically acclaimed shows at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was recently presented as part of the famed Dixon Place’s Curated Mainstage Series as well as the landmark Players Club for a one night only show where Nordlinger expertly portrayed Nazimova, Russian accent and all occasionally. To make it even more entertaining, the actress impersonates a few other characters interacting with Nazimova in her true-life story play. That’s how real acting talent is defined when an actress can put on a live one-person performance without losing the attention of the audience in the process. Enhancing the Nazimova storytelling further are the intriguing visuals of this multi-media play created and projected on the stage wall in perfect sync with the developing storyline by art designer, screenwriter and author Adam Burns who happens to be Nordlinger’s real-life husband. Also part of the creative team and worth mentioning is 7-time Award-nominated theatre & film composer Nick T. Moore who is the creator of the sound design for Places.
In June, the play can be seen at the HERE theatre’s Mainstage as part of their curated Co-Op series and in August in conjunction with the Tonic Theatre Company in Washington D.C., it will be part of the Kennedy Center’s festival of new spaces. Future plans include finding/securing an Off-Broadway home for the play.
Get to know the captivating Romy Nordlinger in the following up close and personal interview and find out what compelled her to bring the beguiling iconic Alla Nazimova back to life.
- Please introduce yourself briefly. Who, in your own words, is Romy Nordlinger?
A great question and thanks so much for your interview. I admire The Hedonist greatly! The short answer as to who I am is: An actor, a playwright, a lover of literature and art, a humanist, a non-native New Yorker (who very much found herself at home in NYC), a Scorpio (who does believe in all that astrology hoopla), a feminist, an animal lover and a Francophile. Maybe that wasn’t the shortest answer actually. Most of all, I grapple every day to discover ‘who I am’ and it is through the arts that I imbue my life with meaning. My writing and performing is a constant exploration to express the unspoken yearnings, questions, fears, triumphs, insecurities and absolute wonder and bafflement as to what it is to be human, to be alive, that we all share. When I’m able to share in this discussion, out loud and on the stage or on the page, I feel most alive! I’d say that the guiding principle I truly live in my life is that of empathy. Empathy, appreciation, and kindness (while knowing your own boundaries) are the most important attributes a human can have, and ones I’m always grappling with to achieve. Theatre is my only religion.
- What was your path of consciously deciding to bring Alla Nazimova to life with your play Places?
I was approached by Mari Lyn Henry, brilliant theatre historian and the founder of The Society For The Preservation Of Theatrical History. She was developing a piece of theatre called Stage Struck based on the lives of what might otherwise remain unknown legendary women in theatre. She introduced me to Alla Nazimova and I was absolutely smitten after reading her biography of Nazimova by Gavin Lambert – and anything else I could about her that I could get my hands on as well as watching her films. I began developing and performing the piece about Nazimova which started as a 15-minute monologue. I was absolutely awestruck by Nazimova. She was at one time the highest paid actress in Hollywood’s silent movies and had a Broadway theatre named after her. Hollywood’s first female director and producer commanding 13,000 dollars a week ($300,000 today). She also had a mansion dubbed ‘The Garden of Alla’ where the wildest parties of Hollywood in the ‘20s and ‘30s took place where she entertained the best dressed and undressed in the sunset strip! The literati and stars that were part of the golden days of The Garden of Alla are exhaustive with names like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Chaplin – basically anybody who was anybody – or who just wanted to get lost in the liberating freedom and hedonism! Nazimova was a trailblazer who wouldn’t be silenced. She was one of the most daring and censored artists of the 20th century. Where did her story go? Why was she virtually erased from the history books and how could we forget such a giant? In writing my solo show about Nazimova, I was determined to set the record straight and to tell her magnificent story. We are all the stories we tell, and an artist is only dead when the last person to remember them dies.
- How long did it take to write the script for this play?
For me a play is never ‘finished’ and I continue writing the script, evolving the story, changing it as I think of more, learn more about her, or discover something else about her that resonates with where we are in time now – the play is post-modern and I want to make sure it is representative of our times now as well as the past not as a ‘museum’ piece. Nazimova comes back as an all-seeing ghost who’s able to view the world we are living in now – and offer her perspective. I have an exhaustive amount of material of this play that is not in the current production as I want to keep the play’s running time to one hour and fifteen minutes. In general, though, the first draft of the first 15 minutes came together very quickly (in one sitting as well as all the rest of it which was within a month or so). Once I feel that the subject matter is firmly entrenched inside of me the words spill out and take on their own life; lead the way. The editing though! That’s another matter completely. I’m constantly re-arranging order, omitting, adding, cutting, shaping – that’s the challenging part and one of the most difficult parts of writing (at least for me). And probably one of the most important.
- Has your experience portraying Alla Nazimova contributed in any way to or did it have an impact on your real life? If so, please tell us how.
Absolutely, yes and yes! There is always a part of yourself in any character you write and although Nazimova is very much a real person, my relationship with her, my view of her is very much a part of me and the lens from which I see her. I feel intertwined with her. When first reading her journals and her biography, I was most struck with Nazimova’s amazing propensity for ‘being her own person’ and standing up for herself – even amidst great character assassination. Also, for her rising above adversity and making the best of things – overcoming her struggles by the sheer force of her own will, her own mind and belief. I was blown away by all the things she was challenged with from her beginnings to the very end of her life, and her constant appreciation for the beauty in life throughout. This directly affects me as when I get up on stage, I am no longer me, I am Nazimova. I am one with her. It’s very daunting to face doing a solo show alone but I know she is on my back and I’m doing this for her and with her. When I face challenges I think ‘What would Nazimova do’? Interestingly enough, many people who have seen the show feel inspired by Nazimova’s story in the same way, and therefore less alone – that of the underdog having to face staggering obstacles. I think in some way we all feel like the underdog.
- Alexander Dinelaris, Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Birdman and book writer for the Broadway musical On Your Feet! and the West End musical The Bodyguard gave you the following testimonial: “Every so often the stars align. In this case those stars are Nordlinger and Nazimova.” How did you feel when you read his endorsement?
I treasure those words by Alex! Not only because they’re wonderfully high praise but because they are from him. Alex Dinelaris has long been one of my favorite writers and directors of ‘Birdman’, for which he won the Academy Award for his writing, one of my all-time favorite films. Since getting to know him, I can also say he’s one of the most giving, funny, smart and honest people you could ever meet. I’m grateful for his belief in Places (he’s seen it twice) and my performance as Nazimova, his guidance and his friendship. He is a huge inspiration in my life and I’m so damn lucky to learn from him both artistically and as a human.
- Are you involved in any charity organization or humanitarian cause you would like to talk about?
I spent 15 years of my life (up until recently) working as a teaching artist with an amazing organization helmed by Lisa Dennett called IDEAS (Interactive Education for Education and Awareness in the schools). I brought all aspects of theatre and literacy as an interactive learning tool to underserved communities and children with disabilities in every borough of Manhattan. It has been one of the greatest passions of my life and continues to be so. Sadly, IDEAS closed but my work and passion continue.
- What has been one of your favorite moments in life?
As traditional as it sounds one of the best moments of my life was marrying my husband Adam. Both of us are artists and we got married in the Shakespeare garden in NYC’s Central Park (the license to be there was something like 25 dollars). Our friends recited poetry, Shakespeare, played Bob Dylan’s ‘Wedding Song’ and then we went to a bar in Williamsburg (open at that time in 2004) where we had the back room to ourselves and our friends. Everyone brought food and we brought the most amazing compilation of our favorite music (starting from Sinatra and ending with The Sex Pistols) and we all danced all night until our feet were black. It was the greatest party of my life! The other great moments, any moment I’m with Adam, snuggling with my cat Ziggy, going to Paris (I love that city), playing Nazimova and being with great friends.
- If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be, and what would you talk about with this person?
I would have to choose David Bowie as he is my all-time favorite artist and one of the biggest inspirations in my life. I’m afraid that I’d be tongue-tied if I actually got to sit down with him, I admire him so much. I think I’d like to know what he’d say about the times we’re in now, what does he think of them. I’d like to know if there was anything that ever made him feel afraid – and how did he conquer that.
- What is your favorite quote, and why?
So many quotes, it’s hard to choose – so many by Tennessee Williams – my all-time favorite playwright.
“What else can we do on this earth but catch at whatever we can with both our hands until our fingers are broken?” (This from the character Carol Cutrere in Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams and, “We live in a constantly burning building and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”
Tennessee Williams from a book about him by James Grissom.
They both say a similar thing. LIVE! Catch it in your hands NOW. He captures a sense of yearning for life sweet life, that inexplicable force of wonder and joy at what it is to be ALIVE amidst the fragility of life, and the knowledge that it’s fleeting, every moment is a gift, every moment bringing us closer and closer also to the end of our life – those things together inspire me to stay in the moment.
- The spirit of The Hedonist Magazine is “The Essence of a Joyful Living.” How does Joy during the creative process affect your own experience and in consequence the final manifestation of your actions?
I love that spirit expressed by The Hedonist! It reminds me of another of my favorite quotes, “We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong, the amount of work is the same,” by Carlos Castaneda. Joy during the creative process is the same as joy in your life – both are inextricably bound together in choice. It is the joy within yourself, the manifestation of it by the choices you make, the awareness of the value of a moment that is the heart of the creative process – and the essence of freedom to be yourself, to not define yourself by others’ opinion of you. You can be anywhere in the world, rich, poor, working or not working, successful or ‘not’ but if you don’t appreciate what you have, yourself, the moment you’re in, then you will never find joyful moments. It is a choice.
- When you hear: “You can be, do and have anything you want,” words from the teachings by Abraham – Hicks, what is your take on such a statement?
I agree with that attitude one hundred percent! I know Nazimova, who created herself out of a rags-to-riches story would heartily agree as well! I would have to add that we are all born with our own unique sets of talents and challenges. An athlete who is only born with one leg or a person who is a painter but is blind will have their own challenges and their own roads to achieving their goals. But their successes are defined by themselves! Beethoven composed his 9th Symphony when he was almost totally deaf. We are the creator of our definition of our success and within that, we can have anything we want. A quote by Forest Church comes to mind. He wrote this to his young daughter to remember him by as he was dying, “Want what you have, have what you want, and be who you are!”