Remove the location from Amanda Stern’s description of where and when she grew up and you could almost imagine it was on a kibbutz in Israel.
“All told, there were around 20 kids, spanning in ages from infant to 18, and we had absolute and total freedom,” said Stern, American author and event producer. “Together, we wrote, directed and performed plays, made films, put on musicals and were generally very project-oriented. Childhood was a real collaboration.”
But Stern, who will arrive in Israel for the first time this week in advance of the Jerusalem Writer’s Festival, grew up in New York City — and the enclave she describes was located in the city’s Greenwich Village, in what was known as the MacDougal Sullivan garden.
In a recent interview, Stern connected growing up in a tight community in the early 1980s with her desire to launch Happy Ending, the extremely successful performing arts series she hosts in New York and is now bringing to Israel.
“I realized, not long after I launched Happy Ending,” said Stern, “that I was simply recreating my childhood, trying in some way to rebuild the collaborative community that’s disappeared with time and gentrification.”
In the Happy Ending series, the collaboration is between literary and musical talents, Stern herself, and — in what the makes the event series extraordinary — the audience.
As part of the program, the guest author (Stern’s requirement is at least one published book) gives a public reading and the musical guest performs live on stage.
Additionally, however, the musical guest must try to get the audience to sing along to one song, and the author must take a “risk” on stage.
“My experience has been that the risk aspect of the night is where the connection between audience and author truly takes place,” Stern explained. “It allows for a relationship. The audience becomes a safety net, wanting the authors to succeed, prepared to support them if they don’t.”
Past risks have included karate-chopping wooden boards, prank calling one’s mother, and getting a pie to the face.
In 2012, however, Israeli writer Etgar Keret took Stern’s dare to a whole new level when he read in English from one of his works, while at the same time smoking a joint.
Keret, who will return to Happy Ending at one of two events scheduled, also worked with Stern and festival director Liran Golod to curate the Israel series.
On Thursday, May 26, Keret will appear along with Anthony Marra, Colum McCann, and Nell Zink. The musical guest will be Tamar Eisenman. On Saturday, May 28, Stern will host authors Alex Epstein, Shelly Oria, and Gary Shteyngart, as well as musician Yali Sobol.
Not all the risks end up taking a comedic turn.
“I was very moved by Paul Rudnick’s risk,” Stern said. “He’s a well-known humor writer and everyone expected his risk to be hilarious. His mother died a few weeks before the show, however, and he decided that he’d talk about her for the very first time since her death.
“He told a hilarious and poignant story about his mother in her last days, and the depth and sadness coupled with the humor was unexpected, deeply effective, and utterly moving,” said Stern.
When asked if there would be anything uniquely Israeli about these Happy Ending events, Stern replied she thought the “Israeli flavor would come out organically” and that she might learn how to say a couple Hebrew words in the process. (The events will be in English.)
‘I enjoy the moments I’m actively bombing onstage because existing inside my worst-case scenario without dying feels like an achievement’
Stern launched the series in 2003 out of a small Chinatown bar. Since then, the show has significantly grown in scale, from an 80-person audience to upwards of 800.
Guests have included authors Zadie Smith, Lena Dunham, and Joshua Ferris, as well as musicians Aimee Mann, Lisa Loeb, and Vampire Weekend.
While critics credit Happy Ending’s success to Stern’s reputation as a skilled curator and engaging host, Stern herself has been forthcoming that it hasn’t always been easy to get up on stage, as she suffers from anxiety — once even talking herself down from a panic attack while introducing a Happy Ending event.
“I got over my stage fright by repeatedly facing my fear,” Stern revealed. “I still get anxious, but it’s not as severe. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where I enjoy the moments I’m actively bombing onstage because existing inside my worst-case scenario without dying feels like an achievement. Each time I don’t die, it’s a win.”
Stern also is currently working on a book about anxiety.
When asked if she’s ever had to coach a nervous author in advance of a show, Stern said no, but she did indicate that part of the reason she has authors take risks is to “give them something outside their reading to worry about.”
“Reading your own work on stage can be harrowing,” Stern said, “but when you are focused on something else, the reading takes on less importance and allows the author to do their best without even realizing it.”
And what about Shteyngart, an author who has spoken publicly of his own anxiety — notably in an essay series in The New Yorker in which he writes about needing “forty-six Ativan tablets to battle stage fright” while on book tour: Would Stern take it easy on the author of Little Failure?
“Forty-six Ativan? That’s it?” she said, dryly. “What an amateur.”