The Funny Thing About Grief
Sarah Gancher believes it is a spiritual act to make someone laugh. But this idea was born out of grief.
Sarah Gancher is an much-produced contemporary playwright whose accolades include a Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre, a New York Stage and Film Founder’s Award, and the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award.
Born in 1979 and raised in the Bay Area of California, Gancher attended Bennington College and New York University. She moved to Budapest, Hungary, in 2006, and has used the city’s historic Jewish quarter as the setting for several of her plays, including Klauzál Square (2012), Seder (2010), and The Place We Built (2013). All three earned an honorable mention on the Kilroys List, a survey of plays by underrepresented playwrights.
Gancher frequently collaborates with devising ensembles, including popular performance company the Blue Man Group. She has written the book for several musicals, earning Drama Desk nominations for Hundred Days (2017) and The Lucky Ones (2018) , collaborations with rock group The Bengsons.
She teaches playwriting at NYU and the New School.
Sarah Gancher is something of an enigma. She gets people to laugh and to grieve, and often in the same breath.
Sarah Gancher: When I was very, very, very, very little and people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had two answers. One was a squirrel and the other one was a writer. Writer turned out to be slightly more achievable.
And as a writer she’s contributed to the comedy series The Colbert Report, created study guides for the Metropolitan Opera, composed two musicals with the rock band, The Bengsons, and written several highly acclaimed plays. Along the way, she has also worked with circuses. One in Norway would become pivotal in her journey. Gancher’s life has never felt linear and she’s been fearless with each change in direction. This stems, at least in part from her early home life in Oakland, California. Mom and dad, she says, were unadulterated hippies.
Gancher: Parents literally met at a commune on the Haight-Ashbury during the summer of love at a Buddhist, like, meditation. And my dad’s friends told him, you’ve got to go see this cute little redhead that is translating for this monk. I think you’ll really like her.
The two fell in love and eventually had a daughter Sarah, who became enchanted by her father’s gift for spinning a yarn.
Gancher: He would tell me these bedtime stories that like lasted for like years, you know, that that would sort of change and grow and evolve and you know, bring on new characters and go to different planets and all this kind of stuff. He was also a musician. So I grew up playing with his band. They practiced every Wednesday night in our garage and I would usually go to bed, when I was little I would go to bed listening to them. And then when I was older, I would play with them. And I learned to improvise that way.
Gancher: Fiddle. Yeah.
Sarah Gancher’s father was also an environmentalist and a writer. He was a senior editor at the Sierra Club magazine, and later the editor of a technology magazine, and a much loved local character.
Gancher: He was really at the center of this big, amazing group of friends that had all become friends during the sixties. They all sort of loved music. They all loved laughing. He was very, very funny.
Gancher adored him. People often told her, “You’re so much like your dad.” But when she was in high school, her father became ill. It was colon cancer. He was given just months to live. He would survive for two years. Then when she was 17, Sarah Gancher’s beloved father, the most important man in her life, died. Her world was riven apart. Her heart broken. Sarah knew that he had been writing an unfinished novel. This would become for her a living embodiment of her dad.
Gancher: When I first read it, it was something very private that I was scared to even read, you know, I just sort of thought it would be too painful. And then I read it and got obsessed with the ideas in it. And it was his voice. You know, that this voice I had been so starved for. And then also that reflected so much of him, so much of what I knew of him and missed of him.
The book was a comedy about The Three Stooges. It imagined they were members of a cult in Azerbaijan, a Jewish, Taoist, and Buddhist cult that sought enlightenment through laughter. The fourth Stooge lived in New York where he did vaudeville. They would proselytize through comedy, and eventually they headed for Hollywood.
Gancher: I just thought to myself, I would like to try to finish this someday and to try to, you know, complete it and complete kind of in a way his life’s work. And I thought to myself to do that, I’m going to need to know a lot more about comedy.
So in college she threw herself into the study of humor. She wrote shows for stand-up comedians, directed acts for avant-garde circuses, and, managing her own grief, she became addicted to making others laugh.
Gancher: Like overnight, I was like, this is it. I am devoting my life to comedy, that’s what I’m doing now. You know, I’m going to study Commedia dell’arte, and I’m gonna study clowning and I’m gonna study like the great silent comedians. I got a job as the props master for Big Apple Circus so that I could watch the clowns every day. You know? And I think that I was really was like, I believe it is a spiritual act to make somebody laugh. And, you know, I want to be able to move people to this point where that happens with humor and with comedy where it’s like, I have this idea about the world, and then I have another one, they directly conflict, but they are both true. And that clash releases laughter, it releases joy. It changes your body.
Around that time, Gancher began studying jazz, the music her father had played and loved. It was different from what she knew as a classically trained violinist. It freed her, it taught her to improvise, and it helped her to grieve her father’s death.
Gancher: I had a great deal of emotion. I had a huge ocean of grief inside of me that I was not ready to put into words in any way, shape or form. And it had to get out somehow. And the classical pieces that I knew how to play were just not cutting it. But you know, when I started to improvise in jazz, it was a huge relief that I felt like I could finally say what it was that I actually wanted to say without having to like filter it through somebody else’s words.
Later in her twenties, Gancher moved to Budapest, Hungary, where several of her well-known plays are set. Many who know her work assume it was some kind of pilgrimage, but Gancher has no family or roots there.
Gancher: It was, it was slightly random.
When she traveled with the Norwegian Circus troops Stella Polaris, she fell in love with the Balkan brass music that played on the bus. And when she and her then-boyfriend Rick Stinson took a trip to check out a brass band festival in Serbia, they stopped over in Budapest to visit friends. They fell in love with the city. Years later, the couple was married and living in New York and Gancher had moved on from comedy. She was writing program notes for the Metropolitan Opera. Stinson was in publishing. They also had other side gigs as freelance writers. But life in New York was intense and expensive. They grew tired of trying to make ends meet.
Gancher: We were both, like working crazy hours and not making very much money. And one day we were walking down the streets at our apartment after like a really long day, we were both exhausted and he turned to me and said, “Do you want to just move to Budapest?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.”
So they did. There they soon became immersed in the local arts and music scene, with Gancher playing the fiddle in a local bluegrass and American roots band.
Gancher: The band that I joined, which, I love them so much, they could like sing with a perfect American accent, but then we would end the song and they’d be like, “What does it mean ‘big wheel, keep on rolling?’”
Gancher made friends in the seventh district, a historically Jewish ghetto. It was by then a gentrifying community of artists. She and her friends would gather at a club and performance space.
Gancher: I would just sort of sit for hours and have long, intense, interesting conversations about every kind of thing. And it became sort of like my home base while I was there. It was sort of like my Cheers. And then slowly one by one, as I started talking to other Hungarian friends, I started finding out that like many of them actually were Jewish, but it was, it was not for public knowledge. It was not something that people, that they were going to advertise to people or even reveal unless they knew that it was safe.
Many of them didn’t even know they were Jewish until they were in their teens. For some, it was even later. Now as young adults, they wanted to understand this part of their identity, but they didn’t yet know how.
Gancher: Sometimes it was a family secret. Sometimes they had family members that were kind of like actively hostile to them, trying to find out about their identity. And they really weren’t necessarily raised with it.
And Gancher could relate to them. She had Jewish roots too, and was looking for ways to express them. It’s the theme she’d come to explore in her play The Place We Built, which is about a group of young Bohemians who build a bar in Budapest as they tried to connect with the Jewishness they used to hide.
Gancher: They were sort of in this really interesting, like a really fascinating space where they’re like, this is a part of me, it’s like, maybe I feel drawn to this culturally, but not, not religiously. Or maybe I want to pray, but I don’t know how I feel about Israel. And they were sort of creating this really, in Hungary, very unique community of young Jews that were sort of creating a-la-carte Jewish identity, sort of like each one deciding for themselves what that meant for them.
Her neighborhood in Budapest reminded her of the lower east side in New York. It made her feel like she belonged and had roots, even though it wasn’t home.
Gancher: I would sort of walk around this neighborhood and sort of feel like there, there is some relationship here between me and this place, but I don’t know what it is, I don’t understand it. I don’t understand who I am as an American, as a Jew in Hungary.
AJC: What were the things about Hungarian culture that you think you adapted and what made them attractive and what were the things you almost subliminally took on board?
Gancher: I, I feel like just, I think that when I had been in New York before that there had been sort of an experience of like being a little bit like on a hamster wheel. Meeting and talking with people in Hungary that I sort of came to have this value of like slowing down and, you know, taking time to like, to go out, to be in conversation with a big group of friends, to sort of spend all night talking and debating and wondering, and dreaming.
Being in Budapest also helped Gancher to see just how much of an American she was. And she soon began to realize that the American lens wasn’t the only way to see things.
Gancher: Of course, as happens for so many Americans, right? That you go to another place, you start to learn more about the specifics of that place and then you understand how much you were shaped by the specifics of the world that you come from. Right?
AJC: That’s the big lesson, right?
Gancher: Yeah, right. That’s the big lesson, is that we’re all just like, that there is no default, there’s no given.
This would become an important part of Gancher’s plays. She sees theater as a means of bringing people together and transporting them to places where you linger and experience the world from a new perspective, with the characters on stage. For those few hours, you see things from their point of view.
Gancher: But of course, there’s just, I mean, it’s such a reminder this year of how, how special and unique it is to go and sit in the dark with other bodies and have your heartbeats synchronize with them and to get still at the same time and to sniffle at the same time and to laugh at the same time and the way in which a play’s ideas change you physically along with a community.
AJC: The community part’s the most, I mean, maybe the most important.
Gancher: I think so too.
AJC: Experiencing something with other people, absolute strangers, and having similar emotional responses. That brings us closer, that helps us understand each other.
Eventually Gancher and her husband returned to New York. Their son Isaac was born and she began to come into her own as a playwright. Over time, she thought less about finishing the book her father had started. Amongst other works, she produced Seder, an intimate epic about a Hungarian woman who survives Stalinism and the fall of the Soviet Union; Mission Drift, a musical which travels west through space and time in pursuit of the soul of American capitalism; and a folk rock semi-autobiographical musical called The Lucky Ones. Her 2020 play Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy made the New York Times Best Theater of 2020 list. It tells the story of Russian writers who create fake news for social media.
(Excerpt from Sarah Gancher’s Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy)
JennaAbrams: There have been 200 kids abducted by strangers in LA province in the first month of 2016.
NowOnTheBorder: Actually it’s 1,265 kids. Hashtag inmemorium, hashtag livesattheborder, hashtag migrantsmatter.
And while writing, Gancher found some peace with the grief that had been with her for so long.
Gancher: There were a lot of feelings that did not go away, but calmed down when, when they were, when they were spoken out loud, you know? So that grief is still with me. It will always be with me, but it’s not quite as loud anymore. And to be honest, I actually don’t want it to go away. I mean, it’s like really become one of my engines. If you have a really big feeling, and if you work really hard on making a worthy vessel for it you know, part of the hugeness of that can live inside that vessel and still be there for you, but you don’t have to carry it as much.
Sarah Gancher has not finished her father’s book, but she doesn’t feel the need to anymore. Her son, it turns out, is quite the comedian himself. And she feels that she has found her father’s spirit alive in him.
Gancher: He’s like, from the time that my son started to walk, he’s been trying to make people laugh, you know? And his name is Isaac, which means laughter. And like that’s very important to him somehow. He loves nothing more—he’s seven now—he loves nothing more than to just fall down and do a pratfall to make somebody laugh.
Sarah Gancher is obsessed with questions of how history shapes us and how where we live is critical of making us who we are. She’s constantly weaving laughter with music, with grief, and in doing so transporting herself and us back to places we’ve been, physically and emotionally in search of something elusive.