Playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger Tells a Father-Daughter Storyby Pat Launer June 5, 2019
Many plays focus on fathers and sons, and some concern mothers and daughters. But there are far fewer dramatic works that confront the father-daughter dynamic. Shakespeare, himself the father of two daughters, created a number of them; think King Lear and Cordelia, Capulet and Juliet; Polonius and Ophelia (“Hamlet”), Prospero and Miranda (“The Tempest”).
Playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger was teaching her playwriting students about the tragic Greek daughter, Electra. As that classic and influential story goes, Electra’s mother (Clytemnestra) murdered her husband (Agamemnon) and hid his body from Electra. The oldest daughter’s duty is to bury the body. Without a body to bury, Electra spent years mourning her father’s death.
“It’s an intimate story of epic scope,” says Jackie, “About how far this daughter would go to have her father recognized. It shows the depth of her relationship to him, and her devotion. I was thinking about what might be mythic in our culture.”
Her first thought was the Everglades in Florida, a wetland of eerie swamps near where she grew up.
“The Everglades definitely has mythic places,” she says. “It has epic potential, with its wonderful, haunting ghost stories.”
A number of years ago, she read an article about a Midwest family that had a long tradition of deliberately setting fires. The story stayed with her.
Then, a few later, her father had a health scare with cancer.
“He’s in his 70s,” she says. “And it made me think what would happen if he passed. It really shook me up, and got me thinking about the things I never expressed, and all the things I’m grateful for. And so I wrote this play, and I dedicated it to him.”
The play, written in 2015, is “The Arsonists,” a two-person drama focused on the relationship between a father and daughter.
Jackie says it isn’t autobiographical. For one thing, her father is an environmentalist, not an arsonist.
“He was not thrilled with the arson idea,” she admits. “He asked if the fire in the story was a ‘controlled burn.’ ‘Dad, it’s a play,’ I said.
“But I do admit that there are some familiar personality traits in the play. I’m very stubborn, like the daughter, and the father is very loving and nurturing. For sure, that is my dad.”
Jackie’s father, who came through his treatment successfully, was direct and practical about the realities of life and death.
“When he was ill, he was very clear that, though he didn’t want to leave us, if he did, it’s just the circle of life, and he wants us to move on.”
The father in “The Arsonists” is the same.
“This father and daughter are a team,” Jackie explains. “He’s been teaching her a trade, and they’ve been working together. But then, something goes wrong, and he dies. She plays a song and conjures him from the grave. They relive their relationship. There are moments of drama and sorrow, and also much joy and release. At the end, she realizes she has to let him go. This play reminds us of our mortality in a lovely and loving way. A lot of fathers and daughters have come to see it together.”
Intriguingly, the two characters have no names; they’re just H and M.
“It can be interpreted multiple ways,” says Jackie (privately, she tends to think of them as Him and Me).
“I think non-specific names help capture that mythic feeling. Contemporary names don’t do that. It’s something for the audience to ponder.”
“The Arsonist” has been mounted 12 times, across the country. Jackie thinks the play is getting so much attention (a production opens next year in New Zealand, and there’s interest from Germany and the UK) “because it’s a very specific story, but with elements of an epic Greek myth.
“There’s a reason the Greek plays are still around,” she explains. “They leave a lot open to interpretation. This is a living art-form, and I left openness in the writing. Never in the history of theater was a play meant to be just one thing. To me, that’s one of the wonderful challenges of writing for theater: you have to create a text that allows for individual interpretation.”
Her writing has been both popular and well-regarded. She has won numerous
awards, including the Yale Drama Prize for an Emerging Playwright, a Generations New Play Award, The Horton Foote Prize, Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play, and the Smith Prize for Political Theatre. Her play, “Bottle Fly,” was a finalist for the International Book Awards and “Babel” earned her the coveted Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.
The San Diego Years
Shortly after her marriage in 2000, she came to San Diego, where she lived for five years. She moved here because her husband, a biologist, earned a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer research at the Scripps Research Institute.
Her scientist husband, Larry Goldfinger, also happens to be a clarinetist who played in klezmer bands in San Diego, and traveled with them to Germany and Eastern Europe.
He still plays klezmer in Philadelphia, where they currently make their home.
“He looks like he’s right out of the shtetl,” Jackie says with a laugh. “He could’ve walked right out of ‘Fiddler.’”
It’s Larry whose roots trace back to Eastern Europe. His great-grandparents were Polish beer-makers, and that trade, like many others, is represented in the family surname, Goldfinger.
Jackie’s upbringing, in rural north Florida, was “liberal Presbyterian.” But most of her friends at the large public schools she attended in nearby Tallahassee were Jewish.
“I went to a ton of bar and bat mitzvahs,” she says. “I felt like I fit in better there. When I walked in, I felt like I belonged. I studied about the religion in college, and after graduating, I studied with a Rabbi. I converted when I was 22.”
She met her husband two years later, through J-Date.
“Larry was finishing his Ph.D. research at Scripps, and between La Jolla Shores, Torrey Pines, and Balboa Park, Southern California was a beautiful place to fall in love.”
So San Diego launched both her marriage and her career.
“I came of age as an artist in San Diego. It was the early 2000s, and it was an exciting time of unbridled youthful energy, experimentation, discovery and love. Many of my ‘first’ experiences happened in San Diego, and without those, I would not be a working playwright today.
“My first workshop production of a full-length play was at San Diego Playwrights Collective. Titled ‘The Terrible Girls,’ it’s the Southern Gothic precursor to ‘The Arsonists.’ The Playwrights Collective, which has since disbanded, worked out of coffee houses and unused gallery spaces in the Hillcrest neighborhood.
“My first invitation to a major festival to show my work was also for ‘The Terrible Girls,’ which was accepted into the New York International Fringe Festival. After that, the play was picked up for productions around the country.
“My first commission was from North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, for whom I wrote an adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’. This would later become my first professional play publication, at Playscripts in New York.
“And my first professional reading and workshop was at New Village Arts in Carlsbad. ‘The Oath’ later went on to play Off-Off Broadway at Manhattan Theater Works, and other theaters regionally.”
During her time in San Diego, Jackie worked as the Assistant Dramaturg to dramaturg Scott Horstein and director Darko Tresnak at the Old Globe’s summer Shakespeare Festival.
“That was a master class in producing Shakespeare,” she says.
At the La Jolla Playhouse, she served as Artistic Assistant/Assistant Dramaturg and Literary Associate.
“That’s where I learned how to develop new plays. I was there during the ‘Jersey Boys’
to ‘Farnsworth Convention’ years under Des McAnuff [2004-2007]. It was a case of right place-right people-right time. It was a lot of hard work, but when you’re in your 20s, you can stay up all day working and most of the night writing.
“Between the small theaters, collectives, new work at La Jolla Playhouse and classics at the Old Globe–I always say that I got my MFA in Playwriting from the San Diego Theater Scene, because the city was bursting with life and culture.” (She earned her ‘real’ MFA from the University of Southern California).
While they were here, Jackie and her husband belonged to Tifereth Israel.
“It provided a very supportive Jewish community that made it possible for us to have a full Jewish life while balancing work, art, and my step-daughter, Rachel. We lived in Hillcrest, which gave us unfettered access to Balboa Park. I loved to take Rachel there for picnic tea parties, and she would play in the grass and fountains while I wrote the drafts of my first full-length plays. I had been writing shorts and one acts up to that point.”
The Goldfingers now keep a kosher home (as Larry’s family did when he was growing up) and belong to a conservative temple, Society Hill Synagogue (“one of the oldest in Philadelphia”). Their six year-old twins, Hava and Ezra, attended Jewish preschool; they’re now in kindergarten in a public school.
“We wanted them to get exposure to the diversity of the city we live in; as white kids, they’re the minority. They attend Hebrew school on weekends.”
Right now, Jackie is working on commissions from the Wilma Theatre in Missoula, Montana; the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia; the Madeleine L’Engle Estate/Stage Partners (plays for young artists and audiences); and the National New Play Network (the rolling world premiere of “Babel” is in 2020). She co-founded The Foundry @ PlayPenn.
Besides writing, she keeps busy teaching playwriting at the University of Pennsylvania and in the MFA Playwrights program at Temple University. She’s also a Mentor for the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival, and is the Writer-in-Residence for the Wilma HotHouse in Missoula, Montana, an incubator for new work.
Jackie likes her plays to make people think. She wants her father-daughter play, “The Arsonist,” to make them feel, too.
“After they see or read ‘The Arsonists,’ I want people to go home and give their loved ones an extra hug, and tell them what they love about them.”