Al Silber is confronting grief and adversity through art

Alexandra Silber is an actress and singer with multiple Broadway and West End credits, and even a Grammy nomination. Now she can add accomplished writer to that list. Al recently published, not one, but two books which are both heartfelt and insightful. In her memoir White Hot Grief Parade, she reflects on the loss of her father and dealing with pain at a young age. After Anatevka is her sequel to Fiddler on the Roof and it offers us a glimpse at what might have happened to Hodel and the other characters that we know so well. We spoke to Al about her inspiration for these books and how they are so intertwined.

What inspired you to get started in theater?
I have always been drawn to the theater, even as a kid. My experience as a young person in the theater were mostly community theater and school plays. I had a really wonderful and rich childhood but I also had a childhood where very early in my life my father was diagnosed with cancer. I don’t even think I realized that I was sitting on a lot of big thoughts and a lot of big emotions that were much bigger than my nine‑year‑old self could process or had any skills or capacity to process, and the theater felt like a place where I could take all of these big thoughts and big feelings and channel them in a really productive and beautiful way and do it with other people. I could create a community outside my home. I think in that way it was a very emotionally productive thing and I also had a really big imagination. It was ticking a lot of boxes for me. As I started to develop, I also started to realize that I had a knack for it, that I was talented. What initially drew me there from a place of need was then fueled by my desire to become better at it, and an interest became a passion.

Did you start writing White Hot Grief Parade while the events in the book were happening or is it all from memory?
It’s a memory book. I started writing White Hot Grief Parade almost sort of by accident, if you will. My father died in 2001, and on the ten‑year anniversary I wrote a blog post called Ten Years, I had been running my blog at that point for about five years and at no point in the blog – I had mentioned that my father had died the way you would discuss a plot point. You know, my father died, I am from Detroit, I went to school here. It wasn’t an emotional exploration of that event. It was more like a book report. I decided to honor what felt like a milestone anniversary, decided to open it up and really discuss the nature of what I had experienced, how I had endured, how I had failed, how I had succeeded and really just look back on it with the lessons I had learned at that moment. I have always had very good numbers on my blog, and was fortunate to reach a lot of people. This was viral. There was absolutely no comparison to anything else that I had written, and what was clear was this post had touched a nerve. That it wasn’t just about my experience of grief and grieving my father. It somehow touched a nerve about the universality of discussing adversity, that we don’t really do in society. All I have read or even seen in films is long, drawn‑out explanations about how bad something is, followed by a reflection post. Here is what I learned – I never read anything about the day, what it takes to stand day by day by day, unglamorous victory, the three‑step forward/ten‑step back of a grieving process. It was very, very clear to me from that blog post that this was not only something that I needed to write about at length, but it was something that in a funny way, clearly the world was craving. I tried to basically write the grief manual, the grief book that I wished I had when it happened to me. Sort of this dialogue between my contemporary and 18‑year‑old self.

Were you writing this at the same time that you were writing After Anatevka?
Yes. Interestingly, the books are in a lot of ways cousins, in the sense that they were being written around the same time. After Anatevka was a much longer form project for me, and obviously writing historical fiction is very different because you have to do an unbelievable amount of research and fact‑checking. You are creating characters, you are not recalling them. After Anatevka was something I started writing probably in 2009, about a year after I finished playing Hodel in London in Fiddler On The Roof. I finished writing the first draft of After Anatevka, probably the summer of 2013. After Anatevka is written in three parts, kind of like a three‑act play, and the first two parts came very easily to me. The flow was very consistent, and then right as I was about to start part three, I got horrible writer’s block. Like the kind that almost felt like physical pain. I knew what the plot was; I just couldn’t write and interestingly, it coincided with the ten‑year anniversary of my dad and I was still writing my blog. I had this realization with the ten years post that I needed to write a grief memoir. So I pressed pause on After Anatevka and I wrote White Hot Grief Parade. The first draft tumbled out of me like a tsunami wave, galloped out of my chest probably in about three months. It was just this thing that came out of me, and I was just chugging Gatorade in the corner ring recovering from it. The second I finished White Hot Grief Parade, my writer’s block for After Anatevka was released. It was almost as if – no spoilers, but in the third act of After Anatevka, there are a lot of difficult things that I as a writer and creator had to face with my characters and I couldn’t do it if I hadn’t done it in my own life. I hadn’t really thought about and processed my own biggest adversity so I couldn’t realistically write about it. The second I did, I was able to finish After Anatevka.

Melanie Moore, Alexandra Silber and Samantha Massell in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway
Melanie Moore, Alexandra Silber and Samantha Massell in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway

What was the best part about performing Fiddler in London and then playing a different character on Broadway?
There are a couple of aspects: They were such different productions in a lot of ways. It was very interesting to do Fiddler On The Roof in Europe versus doing it in America. There is ownerships that Europeans feel about the Sholom Aleichem story, and yet the piece itself was written by secular American Jews in the 1960s. So there is a lot of very American sensibilities in the musical, so very interesting how we navigated that in London and didn’t have to navigate that on Broadway. But in my experience, I felt slightly disconnected from the European experience and European audience. I think the most fascinating thing was personal, which was Hodel for me and that production was a lot like falling in love for the first time. It was at that point in my life the most special role, the most special cast, the most special experience I ever had in the theater, and so nothing in a way will ever compare with it because it’s like your first love. You can’t replicate the first time your heart opens up. When I was tasked with playing a different character, my initial response was how could I ever play anybody other than Hodel? She is so precious to me. I wrote a frigging book about her. It was eight years later and I realized I could not have more thoroughly told this woman’s story. I did it for over two years. I wrote this book. Hodel and I are done. And now I am at an age where I am not a girl anymore; I am a woman. I am at the stage of my life where I am thinking about marriage and partnership and children and my relationship to my faith and my relationship to the world as a woman and not as a girl. Interestingly, that makes me ideally suited to serve Tzeitel’s storyline, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to tell Hodel’s story anymore. It felt like almost the ultimate Sunrise Sunset in a way, and also sort of felt like a dialogue between my older and younger self. I mean, standing inside another sibling in the same family, experiencing the same story, but having a totally different experience.

What inspired your Instagram account, Dressing Room 51?
Well, funnily enough, we kept posting our little videos that we would make in our dressing room on our personal account and our friends were like, guys, you have got to cool it. Like, there is so much content. For ourselves, we were like, “but these videos are so brilliant.” So we basically created a place where we could post it and collected almost like a yearbook for ourselves, never thinking anyone would be interested in it. And I just remember the very first day we put it up, Samantha came to me, like 40 people are following it. And I was like who are those 40 people? It was absolutely crazy. So the fact that it grew to over 3,000 people was bizarre to us, but we had a great time. Samantha and I, we are good girls having a good, clean time and I think it was really nice to attract that audience and just be silly together and show a little bit about what it’s like, to be demystifying the backstage of Broadway a little bit.

It’s some of the best things about the theater. The onstage work is always rewarding. Sometimes it’s very challenging, but it’s these backstage moments that really make it. It’s just a very, very unique work environment.

What is your favorite thing about New York, besides being on Broadway?
You could go around the entire world in New York City. Every culture, language, face, food, you could have a completely immersive cultural experience just in that one place. And it’s definitely the culture. You feel like you are exposed to so many things that you would never be exposed to anywhere else in so quick a time and just feeling like you are at this heartbeat of the cultural world. Very, very exciting.

Why do you want people to read White Hot Grief Parade?
One of the things that I love about the Me Too movement is the phrase itself, “Me Too,” which is about empathy and compassion. I have used the phrase for years completely divorced from the movement in teaching that. That is what art is, is that it gives an individual the opportunity to look at a story, look at a film, a play, a work of art, and say I recognize myself in that. That’s my life too. That’s me too. And I hope that my book evokes recognition in other people about adversity. It’s awesome that if an 18‑year‑old girl can face some really difficult things and the loss of her parents and a bunch of other things and turn out okay, then you can too. I am not remarkable. I want to really create a dialogue about the human capacity to endure.

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