Go Deeper

Hermitage: The Strange Story of the Ghost Men of Harlem: Q&A with Fred Andersen

Posted September 2nd, 2009

The back stories to plays tend to pique my interest, and man, is the back story to Hermitage a doozy. I emailed writer-director Frederick Andersen to find out more about this Philly Fringe production.

Who were the Collyer brothers?
The Collyer brothers were two men born in the 1880’s, well-off, well-educated, who apparently were very close to their parents, particularly their mother. They were by all accounts really intelligent and talented (Langley was supposedly a prodigy at the piano), but only one of them held a real job for two years. No one knows just why they ended up as they did: if you watch “Hoarders” on A&E you might get an idea. It’s clearly a mental problem, OCD, however you want to put it. Since they lived in Harlem and they were always eccentric, I suspect part of their hoarding instinct came from a sense that they were protecting themselves from the changing neighborhood. Also at some point their father moved out of the house and set up his own house full of stuff, and when he died it all went BACK to Harlem to the mother’s house, so that could have been the start: two houses full of stuff in one house.

How are you accessing the humorous side of their lives? Do you worry that you might be seen as exploiting them for laughs?
The humor comes just naturally from the characters themselves, the ironic statements: when someone suggests Langley gives a piano recital he refuses, saying “Oh, no, I’d have to dust the house!” Also there are a couple of cousins I’ve created, women who lend a little humor to the piece, as well as another character, Miss Miriam, a Harlem neighbor (there really was a Miriam in the neighborhood) who brings a little attitude to the proceedings as a kind of narrator/guide. But I don’t make “jokes” per se, at anyone’s expense. There are no cheap laughs. People at the preview at Plays and Players were surprised at the humor in the ten minutes they saw.

What are the challenges of staging a play based around hoarders?
The main challenge was trying to figure out how to put all that JUNK on a stage. I’ve been working on this project for two years, and at one point I had thought about using puppets so I could make the scenery smaller. But that presented its own set of problems, so ultimately I decided to have no set at all, and to have the actors define the space with their physicality, how they walk and move, and where. Also there are no props in the play; everything people handle (with one exception which is sort of a costume thing anyway) is mimed. I think the actors have done a remarkable job with this, with the help of Dave Jadico (1812 Productions) who’s a brilliant mime and has helped tremendously.

How did they manage to fit over 100 tons of junk into their house?

Langley was an engineer and he constructed elaborate tunnels and booby traps, (to answer the next question) so a lot of the stuff was carefully stacked, packed, whatever.

What’s the deal with their booby traps—why did they put them up? What kinds of traps did they set?
They were afraid of break-ins so that explains the traps. They were mostly designed to be set off with trip wires, though Langley also nailed cans to the floor so people would trip and fall in the dark and alert them. People thought the Collyers had millions of dollars in the house, all kinds of treasure, and several times people did try to break in, so it was mostly a protective thing. As to the rest, it’s just a miracle the house didn’t collapse. They never took care of it, the roof leaked, the floors were rotten, etc. Seems it should have fallen down around them long before they died.

Hermitage: The Strange Story of the Ghost Men of Harlem opens Saturday, September 5 at Plays & Players for five performances during Philly Fringe. For more on the play, visit its website.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Image credit: Frederick Andersen