The Imperial House, Nathan Siegel ’15’s Honors Dramaturgy Thesis, was performed at Swarthmore and in Philadelphia this weekend. A group of Philadelphia actors, ranging from their 40s to their 70s, performed in the reading.
The Imperial House centers on eight residents of an apartment building of the same name, most of whom are elderly or retired. Much of play consists of scenes between one or two residents (an unhappy husband and wife, an uptight board member and a new tenant, an immigrant and her visiting grandson), before the finale brings its cast together for a Shabbat meal.
Siegel first conceived of Imperial House while visiting his grandmother – Granny, he calls her – who lives in the real Imperial House in Pittsburgh. Siegel was searching for an interesting topic for a dramaturgy thesis (one he would enjoy spending two semesters writing) and the building, he said, was the perfect fit. “Well, I already think about the Imperial House as a great thing for a TV show, or a play, or a movie anyways,” he said. “So I was like, what if I just did that? What if I just made the Imperial House a play about the Imperial House people?”
Siegel began the first round of interviews with eight residents (set up by Granny) with Imperial House residents last February. Siegel said he was unsure where to begin writing, so he “just started writing scenes” based on stories told to him by residents. He began with the play’s first scene (where a resident is reprimanded for trying to add some color to the lobby). The five or six scenes he ended up with, he says, “were not a plot,” but his advisor encouraged Siegel to, as he puts it in the program, “just blah all over the paper and see what happens.”
The final eight residents of Siegel’s Imperial House were all in some way based on interviewees. Some are very close to their inspiration, while others are more heavily adapted. However, there is one appearance in the show who was not directly inspired by an interviewee: a resident’s grandson, David (Nate Cheek ‘15, the youngest member of the cast by several decades). “I actively didn’t want me to be a character,” Siegel said, but he saw an opportunity to draw on his own experiences as an 18 year old in the Imperial House after a resident talked extensively about her grandchildren.
It’s hard to nail down a tone for The Imperial House. There are moments of straightforward comedy (a meandering speech about the rules about requiring an official request for putting flowers in the lobby) to very emotionally affecting (a resident discussing the day she died). I suppose the most apt descriptor for the play is quiet. This show is not life and death, heaven and hell. It’s a group of people living together, and negotiating a shared space and possibly shared lives.
I was struck by the similarities The Imperial House bore to the experiences I have had in Swarthmore dorms. Residents of both spaces are close in age and proximity, but not much else. What does it mean to have friends, or to be alone, in a building full of people you know and see everyday? Are you a part of a community simply by virtue of living in the same building with these people?
Of course, the starkest difference between a dorm and the Imperial House is why people leave. Growing old naturally means losing those around you, and the play touches on that experience twice. An early scene follows two newer residents after they attend Shiva for an older one. The scene is later echoed on when another resident, one we’ve come to know, passes away. The second loss is tragic, but there is also a note of mundanity to it. Most of the people in the Imperial House have already lost people they loved: a spouse, a sibling, a friend.
At the end of our interview, Siegel explained that he didn’t want the show to mock The Imperial House or its residents. “I want it to be funny, but actually speak to their experience of living there,” he said. “I would want an Imperial House person to see it, or read it, and be like ‘Oh, this is reflective of my life in some way.’” The Imperial House succeeds with an honest portrayal of their experience.
Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore Theater Department.