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Interview

Sister Act

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Sister Act
The first time Nora Ephron and her sister Delia Ephron collaborated on a project, it was the 1993 film "This Is My Life," which Delia wrote and Nora directed. "It's the perfect match: director and older sister," Delia notes. "So it worked beautifully." Indeed, the two seem to share a harmonious personal and working relationship that has now spawned their current project, the hit play "Love, Loss and What I Wore." Described by Nora as "sort of like 'The Vagina Monologues' without the vaginas," the play is based on the book of the same name by Ilene Beckerman and features female actors holding court on topics ranging from prom dresses and bra shopping to the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters.

The Ephrons are the daughters of screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who together wrote such classics as "The Desk Set" and "Carousel." Nora is the Oscar-nominated writer-director of the films "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Julie & Julia," among others, and the writer of the books "Heartburn" and "I Feel Bad About My Neck." Delia co-wrote "You've Got Mail" and "Bewitched" with Nora and authored books such as "Hanging Up"—which she and Nora adapted into a film—and the young adult novel "Frannie in Pieces."

The New York production of "Love, Loss" is still playing at the Westside Theatre Downstairs in New York, and a production recently opened at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, featuring a cast that includes Carol Kane, Natasha Lyonne, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Rita Wilson. For more information on these and upcoming shows (including stagings in Toronto and Paris) visit
www.lovelossonstage.com.

Back Stage: What drew you to this project?

Nora Ephron: I read this book in manuscript. It was sent to me by Elizabeth Charlotte, the editor of the book. It came with a little note saying, "Would you do an introduction for this, because I don't know if anyone's going to understand this book?" I started reading it and got to about page 12, where Ilene throws away the fact that her mother died when she was 13 and shortly thereafter her father vanished from her life. I was just overwhelmed by it. I called Elizabeth, and I said, "You don't need anyone to write an introduction to this; this is going to work."

Delia Ephron
: It was just a book that made you think about your own life.

Nora: And then you bought it for 10 girlfriends for Christmas. Then, a little while after that, I wrote the piece called "I Hate My Purse" for Harper's Bazaar. And Bette Midler performed it at a benefit, and it killed. So I said to Delia, "I think we could do a kind of show along the lines of 'Vagina Monologues' where we take Ilene's story and weave it into a whole thing about women and their clothes."

Delia: Then we just emailed all our friends and friends of friends and did some interviewing.

Nora: We had a questionnaire that we asked people.

Delia: A lot of stuff about your mother: What was your relationship with your mother and clothes? What was your favorite piece of clothing? Do you remember your prom dress? Just things to trigger memories. And everybody began to write the story that was the most important story to them. And we got a lot of fun stuff. Then we just began to construct a play, with ensemble pieces and monologues.

Back Stage
: As the children of writers, was it a foregone conclusion you would also be writers?

Delia: It was a foregone conclusion that Nora would be a writer.

Nora: And I rebelled against it by becoming a journalist. That was my idea of rebellion.

Delia: Was that rebellion?

Nora: Well, I certainly wasn't going to live here and be a screenwriter.

Delia: That was the other mixed message from our parents: They wanted us to go to New York. We were raised with the idea that we would be New Yorkers, that we were New Yorkers mysteriously planted here like aliens, and we should eventually discover black.

Nora: Well, black hadn't been discovered yet.

Delia: No, but we would eventually discover all things New York and become New Yorkers. That was our mother's point of view. I think we were all destined to be writers, all four [sisters], but we all did it slightly delayed. Nora did it very young, and then I did it in my late 20s, Amy did it in her late 30s, and Hallie did it in her late 40s. So everyone eventually conceded to destiny.

Back Stage: Writing together, did you ever have disagreements? And how do you resolve those?

Delia: We don't really have those issues anymore, do we? Part of it was we could just have an actor try it, and if it works, it stays; if it doesn't, it doesn't. I remember we had a short piece that we didn't think would work, but we said, "Let's just have Katie Finneran read it."

Nora: That was a piece about a woman who loses her favorite shirt. And it was weird because I thought it was a sad piece, and then Katie read it, and it was hilarious. And then I called the woman who sent it in to me and had her come see the show, and she emailed me and said, "I had no idea this was funny!"

Back Stage
: How often does that happen, where an actor transforms a piece?

Delia: A lot. Every time actors do things, you go, "Oh my God." Part of what's so exciting about working with actors is that they're very magical. There are some pieces where you think, "No one's ever going to really, really nail this." And then someone walks in and they do it, and you see things that weren't there before. It's really exciting.

Nora: Yesterday in rehearsal, Tracee Ross did a piece about a sweater. None of the other women had worked with her, and basically she does something so amazing with it, I watched the other three women just watch her in awe. Same with Rita, who tells the story of the woman who got her period at a dinner party. Rita is so hysterical; it's a masterpiece.

Delia: It also helps when an actor complains. Rita was doing a piece, and she kept saying, "This piece doesn't have an end." And she was absolutely right. And Nora came up with an amazing ending for it. That was all because Rita just kept on it.

Back Stage: Is it typical to give actors that much say, or is that something special to theater?

Nora: It depends on the actor and the director. My experience is that you listen to the actors. If you cast the movie or play correctly, your work is in their hands, and if they're saying, "I can't make this work; fix it," you fix it. It's very hard in comedy not to work that way. You would be making a terrible mistake to cast a group of hilarious people and then not listen to them when they say, "I can't make a joke work."

Back Stage: Was there anything that didn't make it in that you wish you could have included? As a writer, is it frustrating when parts you're fond of have to get cut?

Nora: I think we got everything we wanted into this one. But I can tell you, I had a joke in one of my first screenplays that I moved from movie to movie to movie until it was finally in a movie. And it wasn't very good. But I was very attached to it.

Delia: One of my mottoes is "All you have is process." That is all you can count on: the pleasure of the writing. Because you don't know if it will be made or, if it is, if it will be well-received. You have no control over that, so you have to be able to get joy in the process.

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