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Q&A with Pulitzer Prize winner and Island resident Jules Feiffer

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Jules Feiffer in his new Island home with piano and favorite drawings.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Jules Feiffer in his new Island home with piano and favorite drawings.

On Tuesday, May 30, Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor opens “The Man in the Ceiling,” a world premiere musical with book by Shelter Islander Jules Feiffer, music and lyrics by Broadway composer Andrew Lippa, and direction by Jeffrey Seller.

Based on a young adult novel by Mr. Feiffer, the musical tells the story of Jimmy Jibbett, a boy who struggles in sports and school, but excels at cartooning. All the adults in his family are less than encouraging about his passion for cartooning, except his Uncle Lester who yearns to be a Broadway composer and understands Jimmy and his dreams.

Recently, Mr. Feiffer sat down at his home for an interview with the Reporter share his thoughts on the play, his work, and his new life on the Island.

Q: What made you and J.Z. [Holden, Mr. Feiffer’s wife]  decide to move to Shelter Island from East Hampton?
JF: The motivation was East Hampton had become too jam packed and way too expensive for my declining income. If you’re making money on a graphic novel, and it takes three years, the advance comes out to about $50 a week. We had to find a place we could afford, and some place less busy and frantic. I came out here and I found this is America in the 1940s.

Q: You’ve written children’s books, young adult novels, graphic novels, plays, films and now, the book for a musical. Do you prefer one form of artistic expression over another?
JF: I find that the forms that attracted me and pulled me in up to the age of 10 or 12 are generally the forms I eventually worked in. With all of them, if I loved them as a kid I love them now, if not more so. I never thought of doing noir, but I loved Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and movies based on them. Now that’s one of the things I’m enjoying by doing the graphic novels.

Q: The graphic novel didn’t exist when you were a kid.
JF: The graphic novels are movies on paper. Now that I have to limit myself, I didn’t think I’d write any more plays because my hearing was shot. It’s hard to be at rehearsal and listen a lot. I started fooling around with this story about a hard-boiled private detective character and I turned it into a graphic novel. I started illustrating this thing after I moved out here. Because I had to limit my movements — age creates limitations — I can do it all here. It’s like a Hollywood movie studio at my desk.

Q: What makes you decide when it’s time to jump from one form to another?
JF: I always liked these other forms, but Americans don’t traditionally like anybody who leaves one field and goes to another. They think there’s an un-seriousness about it — arrogance or frivolousness. But it’s what I did. I used to call it my system of avoidances.

Q: “The Man in the Ceiling” is a musical based on your book for young adults. How are you enjoying the process?
JF: It’s enormous fun. There’s some wild stuff, but no camp. Everything has a reason for being there. It’s funny, because it’s true. It’s about relationships. Jimmy’s father will say something unconsciously parental and Jimmy will ask a key question that cuts through the parental pronouncement.

Q: Do you like the way the story is working on stage?
JF: We had a rehearsal reading in the city two weeks ago. I heard things in the last act I’d never heard before. It taught me something I didn’t know about my own play. It was moving and touched me deeply.

Q: What are you hoping this to accomplish with this production?
JF: When I went to the theater as a kid, I felt like a participant and the actors pulled me onto the stage. It was like I was in the cast of “Death of a Salesman,” I was up there. What discouraged me about commercial theater in general over the long period I was in it, somewhere along the line audiences stopped being up there and became as passive as if they were watching TV.