INTERVIEW WITH JEFFREY LIEBER
Researched, interviewed, and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Honorary Board Member
CATF: Did you write Fever Dreams after having a fever dream?
JL: The original title was, The Other Side of the Wall which is a reference in the play to the relationship being hidden on the other side of the wall. After reading the play, Susan Booth, who is going to direct it, said that she didn’t think that the title was the right one.
In my nascent years, I was a playwright, then moved to Hollywood and became a screenwriter, but my whole history up until I was in my late twenties was of riding trains in Chicago and reading O’Neil and Williams and Shakespeare, and somewhere on the back side of the pandemic, I woke up and knew I had to write this play. So maybe it was a fever dream. I just didn’t know that it was the original title.
You have said that this play, “is really about our ability to live with real truth. These three characters are awash in lies and with each scene the lies get stripped away and at the end, they are left with all the truth out there.” The question is, what do they do now with all this truth?
I started this play thinking that it was about three people trying to figure out who ends up with who. Then I got into the middle of it and realized that it was about this fundamental human flaw: we can see over the wall. We can see our truth, and as we get older, it becomes possible to see everything totally clear: what we are here for, the length that we have, all these sorts of things. I became aware of how much easier it is to settle, to call things lies or justifications because it’s so hard to live on a daily basis with a full view of the whole truth of our existence.
Is it ever moral to tell a lie?
I’m not sure I believe in morality, but yes, we tell lies to people when telling the truth would be very painful for them. We tell lies when people are not old enough or don’t have the capacity to deal with the whole truth. We tell lies or half-truths for lots of reasons. Lies that are completely selfish are probably immoral lies. Morality has always been tied to God, and God has always been tied to a structure by which we control people.
There is an interesting back-and-forth between Adele and Zach about this very thing.
I fully believe that religion was created to curb our worst instincts like raping and pillaging. We make this horrifying construct and say, “If you stay on the right side of the line, you get all this great stuff, and if you stay on the wrong side of the line, you go to hell.” That’s why religion was created, but the actual underpinnings don’t make any sense.
I understand the comfort that comes from having that construct in place. At the end of the play, Zach begs Adele to look at everything exactly as they are now and to make some decisions based on that. She says that she doesn’t think she’s capable of it, “Believe me, if I could have God and forever and heaven, I would take it. I just don’t know if I’m built that way.”
You have said, “Redemption – even with consequences – we should be able to redeem ourselves.” Why and how?
We have come to a moment in our society when everything is moving so fast that when we fall down, we really aren’t allowed to pick ourselves up again. It’s been referred to as “cancel culture,” which I don’t believe is the right term, but I do think that there’s an inability for people to make honest mistakes and then recover from them. Redemption is hard. Redemption shouldn’t be hard – that’s the whole concept of it. There should be a path to redemption.
Is that self-made?
I think it should be a covenant between society and a person. Society says, “Here are the things you should do in order to prove to us that you can recover from this thing,” and the person should then be able to have the right to engage this. We have a penal system in America that is deeply on the side of punishment and not on the side of redemption.
Miller, using Adele’s words says, “Coming here is pure adaptation. Nature sees a problem and finds a solution.” Nature does indeed seem better at this than humans.
I think traditional marriage is deeply flawed as we are in deficit of an adaptation with regard to infidelity, etc. – all those things that were set up by religious institutions in order to control us. The relationship between these three people is an adaptation, and it is an adaptation that has mostly worked if you don’t fully see everything. Animals are really good at adapting over long periods of time. Humans take longer, and I wish we would be faster at it.
Do you believe in forgiveness?
Oh yes, deeply. I believe we should err on the side of forgiving ourselves and forgiving each other of our humanness. We live – again, as we are getting older – more and more in an existence where we are fully aware of what is happening to us and around us. So, of course, we are going to act out in ways that are not neat and codifiable. The more we can forgive ourselves for those behaviors and also those around us for those behaviors, the better off we are. I also think that it’s necessary to decode the difference between things that happen to us that are intentional and things that happen to us that are not intentional. Mostly we suffer the slings and arrows of things that are not intentional. If you decode those two things, it becomes a lot easier to forgive.
How do your characters change throughout the play?
They start the play with Zachary as the optimist, Adele as the fabulist, and Miller is the realist. They change in the play in that they say things to each other that they should have said a long time ago.
What’s it like when your characters talk to you?
I have this experience where I go back years later and read something I’ve written, but I don’t remember ever having the thoughts, I don’t remember having the revelation. It is a little like driving a car on the freeway and realizing that you’ve gone ten miles and you don’t remember any of it. That’s as close to God in a non-religious sense that I can get my head around.
I believe that organized religion has done us much damage. I want to say this strongly: I don’t want to hold people with any disdain or derision. To each their own. I just think that the powers that created those things have caused us to battle and injure each other.
Does love save your characters?
Recognition is what really saves them. The connected moments in the play are about Miller recognizing Zach, Zach recognizing Miller, and Adele recognizing Miller. Thematically, that’s the thing I keep coming back to: recognizing each other and understanding, but also the ability to live in our truth, which is just super hard.
The writing process is so delicate, isn’t it?
The black stuff on the page is concrete, and it’s my job to lay down a foundation in the ink that is structurally sound, that is interesting, that has tools in it, and then I hand it off to the director and the actors who get all the white space. That’s all theirs.
Doing TV is very different in that way. The black space is less sacrosanct, the white space is controlled ultimately by the director and the writer because we get the footage back and we can cut it any way we want. In film, there’s a mess between the black space and the white space. But the theater still has this wonderful thing whereby if the cast and the director will fight to make the text work, and the playwright will stay out of their way and allow them to interpret it – then the white space and the black space will have their functionality and everyone will have the best of it.
You call yourself a “good writer, but a really good empower-er of people.”
I have become good at taking groups of people and meeting them where they are and not where I need them to be and giving them a feeling of safety so I can extract from them what gifts they have to give. My experience in the theater has taught me to simply lean back enough and not try to apply my vision until absolutely necessary and I’m totally sure that it’s right.
What is your greatest strength?
I feel things deeply, and I allow those things to end up on the page.
What is your greatest weakness?
I can’t leave it alone, so I keep going back and moving commas around.