The Secretaries of Stage

The audiences who check out Touch , which begins previews Sept. 30 at the Women’s Project on West 55th Street, will see the story of a sentimental, widowed astronomer grappling with the mysteries of the universe. They will hear dialogue about exploding stars, supernovas and how a man puts his life back together after the sudden, violent death of his wife.

What the audiences won’t hear is the story of how the play’s Off Broadway run resulted from the work of two women who understand a different kind of star power: Robin Chambers, the longtime gal Friday to actor Robert De Niro, and RoseMarie Terenzio, who worked as John F. Kennedy Jr.’s personal assistant from 1993 until his death in July 1999. Though their names won’t be found anywhere in the show’s Playbill , these celebrity assistants, and a third partner, actress Michele Ammon, have been working for five years to mount a New York production of Touch .

“We’re the mommies!” said Ms. Terenzio, 34, a bubbly brunette who has the verve and bop of an affable sorority sister. She was smoking an American Spirit cigarette at an outside table at L’Orange Bleue in Soho. Ms. Chambers, 56, wearing a prim white blouse, was by her side. Across the table, in a pink camisole and leather jacket, sat the third member of the troika, Ms. Ammon, 33, who is perhaps best known for the Downy Fabric Softener commercial currently airing, in which she plays a mother in a suit of armor.

Celebrity assistants are like mothers in armor, too. They must coddle, cajole and facilitate, as well as absorb the blows that come with being the buffer between a celebrity and the rest of the world. What’s more, they must do it anonymously.

When Ms. Ammon brought Touch to their attention, the celebrity assistants used those same talents to bring it to the theater world’s attention. But-Lauren Weisbergers of the world, take note!-Ms. Terenzio and Ms. Chambers also said that the late John Kennedy Jr. and Mr. De Niro deserved credit for helping them cultivate the business savvy and passion that they used to get Touch on the boards.

“There are a lot of similarities in the roles of the assistant and producer. They’re both about bringing a bunch of things together to make one thing happen,” Ms. Terenzio said. “It’s about something you believe in coming to life. When you have the seed of an idea and can watch it grow, it can benefit more people than just yourself-and that, ultimately, for me, is more gratifying than anything else.”

Hoping to bring more such projects to fruition, Ms. Terenzio, Ms. Chambers and Ms. Ammon have now created a production company that they’ve named GreenFlash, a term that refers to an astronomical phenomenon mentioned in the play, in which a rare and beautiful emerald light can sometimes be observed on the horizon at sunset.

Dismissing Dick Blow

Ms. Terenzio, a 34-year-old Bronx native who is now the communications director at Me and Ro Jewelry, was asked to become the executive assistant to Kennedy while she was working in the public-relations offices of George magazine co-founder Michael Berman. Kennedy had just left the District Attorney’s office, and Ms. Terenzio soon became his confidante, gatekeeper and sometime kid sister.

“He’d come from behind and, like, stick gum in my hair,” she said. “He thought that sort of thing was really, really funny.”

The first thing that pops up on a Google search of Ms. Terenzio is Kennedy biographer Richard Blow’s assertion that her employer valued her as an assistant because she wasn’t “model-beautiful” and therefore would never be linked to him romantically by the press. The wound still smarts. Considering the statement, Ms. Terenzio’s long lips turned down. “Whatever,” she said. “It’s a comment made by a man whose parents didn’t even like him. I mean, why else call a child Dick Blow?”

Ms. Chambers and Ms. Ammon looked at their partner and guffawed.

Ms. Chambers, who just returned from a trip to Iraq with her boss, looks 20 years younger than her age. Her olive skin is perfectly smooth; her side-parted bob is black without a hint of gray. The mother of two children in their 30’s, she’s the most maternal of the three, nodding with quiet approval while Ms. Terenzio and Ms. Ammon rush to finish each other’s sentences.

Mr. De Niro has relied on Ms. Chambers to run the bulk of his life since 1988. He never made the transition to computers or e-mail, so neither did she. She’s the rememberer of birthdays, the booker of hotels, the purchaser of plane tickets. She’s even been known to make restaurant reservations for her boss when he’s in a hotel a continent or two away. Ten years ago, The Times reported that she wrote the checks for his kids’ tuition and that the “home” number Mr. De Niro gave out was really her own. Although Ms. Chambers said she can’t recall if these facts were once true, she said she wouldn’t be surprised. “I do anything and everything,” she said.

The two women became pals at George magazine in 1995 as they were running around preparing to shoot Mr. De Niro for the cover of the publication’s second issue.

“I’d never been friends with another celebrity assistant before!” said Ms. Terenzio.

It didn’t escape their notice that the celebrities they were assisting had some things in common. Though both had achieved a kind of iconic celebrity, both fought to live urban lives as free as possible from media scrutiny.

“The way they conduct-or rather, conducted-their lives was very similar,” said Ms. Terenzio, trying to decide which tense was best. She settled on the past tense. “They seemed to have the same sort of sensibility, the same integrity. They were public people but managed to strike a balance, living in their celebrity while also being graceful and private.”

‘A Total Crush’

Two years later, the relationship solidified when Mr. De Niro shot yet another George cover.

“I think [Robert De Niro] and John kind of had a crush on each other,” Ms. Terenzio said.

“A total crush. They really admired each other,” said Ms. Chambers.

The script for Touch first came Ms. Terenzio’s way in late summer 1999, just weeks after the plane crash that had claimed the lives of Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren Bessette. After helping to organize the funeral and learning that she had been named as a beneficiary in Mr. Kennedy’s will, Ms. Terenzio took a vacation in Vermont with Ms. Ammon, whom she’d befriended three years earlier. Ms. Ammon had just participated in a reading of Touch at the not-for-profit Chelsea theater Cap21 and had brought the script with her on holiday to study further. The play, which is narrated by the widowed astronomer Kyle, is written for four people. It begins with a half-hour monologue in which Kyle describes his bookish adolescence, his closeted love of Keats and his high-school romance with Zoe, a flame-haired eccentric whom he woos with astrology-talk. They marry after graduation. Then Kyle narrates how, six years of happy marriage later, Zoe goes out to buy whipping cream on Thanksgiving and never comes back. She’s later found buried on a Navajo reservation.

Ms. Ammon, who has high cheekbones and short, feathered blond hair, had played the part of Kathleen, a sympathetic prostitute whom Kyle hires as a sort of therapist after his wife is murdered. They have regular meetings in which he shows her pictures of Jupiter and then the two have quiet, sad sex.

“So we’re sitting there and [Michele]’s crying, and I’m like, ‘What’s the matter?’ And she’s like, ‘It’s this script. You have to read it,'” Ms. Terenzio said. “So then I read it, and I’m bawling and crying. Then I thought my friend Robin should read it, and so then she reads it and she’s bawling and crying.”

At some point, the women caught their breath long enough to decide that they wanted to get the play produced in Manhattan.

“I just never had felt so invested in something, so I said, ‘You know what? Why don’t we make this happen?'” Ms. Ammon recalled.

Ms. Chambers, who met Ms. Ammon through this initial Touch love fest, nodded. “I’ve been in this business a long, long time, and it was the first time ever that I wanted to help something and put my name next to it,” Ms. Chambers said. “I’d never felt like this before.”

‘What’s the Goal?’

For her part, Ms. Terenzio said that the play helped her revisit emotions she’d set aside in order to do her job in the aftermath of Kennedy’s death. “It very much reflects the way John dealt with his life. He had this one line he’d repeat: ‘Nothing is as good or as bad as the current situation would have you believe.’ And I think that speaks to the whole thing. You do go on, and ultimately life is for the living … but it’s a huge struggle to find the light at the end of the tunnel and to know that you’ll come out the other side,” she said, tearing up slightly as she fiddled with a straw wrapper. “The whole process of going through the grief and then finally getting to the point where you realize you’re going to survive can take a really long time, and that’s dealt with in the play. Kyle doesn’t really want to go on. He just wants to bury himself in something and not move. I felt that way, too.”

Ms. Terenzio fiddled with the straw wrapper some more. “I think the most amazing line in the play is when [Kyle] says, ‘What’s the goal?’ That line really spoke to me. It’s something I had to ask myself: What is the goal? To forget? No, the goal is to go on-which is an amazing discovery to make, because initially you don’t know what the hell you’re going to do.”

The triumvirate called Touch’ s Arizona-based playwright, Toni Press-Coffman. Ms. Press-Coffman, who also works as a professional grant writer, has written 20 plays, including Vera with Kate , which was produced Off Off Broadway in the early 1980’s. Touch was written in 1997 with a grant from the Arizona Commission for the Arts, and since then has been performed half a dozen times around the country, including in Kentucky, where it won the top prize at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival in 2000.

The three women asked the playwright for permission to let them perform the tedious job of sending the play into the slush piles of theater groups citywide. “It was flattering to have them approach me like that,” said Ms. Press-Coffman. “They really, truly adored the play and wanted to commit to it in a very profound way.”

With a thumbs-up from the writer, the three women began copying and stapling and stamping and sending the script out to nonprofit theaters throughout the city. “We’d never done anything at all like this, so we just started calling places and saying, ‘You know what? We have this amazing play!'” Ms. Terenzio said. “We thought people would be banging down our doors.”

Alas, no one banged. “I felt like everyone else must be crazy for not wanting to do it,” Ms. Terenzio continued. “When something is that under your skin, you can’t imagine that someone else wouldn’t love it as much as you. Actually, I kind of felt that way with George , too. Why would anyone not want to read that magazine? It’s something I still don’t understand.”

For women who possessed the skeleton key to celebrity, such rejection was humbling. But at the same time, there was something new and thrilling in having to work for attention. Calling their celebrity connections, they said, felt like it would be selling out.

“It became so special, because it was our little baby that we were going to nurture without outside help-a total girl thing,” Ms. Terenzio said. “It was about moving on and doing things on your own.”

Notes From De Niro

So, the women went back and copied and stapled and stamped some more, occasionally checking in with Mr. De Niro for advice. “He read the script and loved it too, and would say, ‘Yeah, yeah, you’re doing the right thing.’ Except every once in a while he’d say, ‘Nyah, don’t do that, do this.’ For instance, there briefly was talk about making it into a film, and he advised against that,” Ms. Chambers said. For the most part, she added, she felt that she’d been trained by him to make such decisions without his help. “When you work with someone for that long, you kind of have the same instincts.”

For Mr. Terenzio, going at this project without using celebrity connections was also something of a nod to her former boss.

“The thing I always found most impressive about John was the honor and integrity with which he did every single thing in his life, when he didn’t need to,” she said. “He could’ve gotten away with almost anything, but he didn’t … and I wanted to be like him.”

Last winter, the phone finally rang. It was the Women’s Project, the 25-year-old all-female theater company founded by Julia Miles, the wife of agent Sam Cohn. This year, their daughter Marya Cohn took over as artistic director. The theater group asked the three ladies if they could include the play in a reading.

“It was a full year after we’d first sent them the script,” Ms. Ammon said. “We were just so excited. In retrospect, we realized that it was only a reading, but for us it was a major milestone.”

Subsequently, Ms. Miles told the women that it was one of the most moving, well-received readings she’d ever seen at her theater. Plans were quickly made to mount the show. Ms. Ammon was asked to participate again in the role of Kathleen, playing opposite Tom Everett Scott, star of the Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do . “He’s so gorgeous and adorable!” Ms. Ammon gushed. The other women tittered in agreement.

A group hug seemed imminent.

‘Love,’ ‘Beautiful,’ ‘Babe’

“They’re three such outspoken, energetic women-they’re quite a presence to have around. Lots of energy,” said Ms. Cohn. At a recent rehearsal, with the actresses onstage and the female crew members in the audience, women outnumbered the men present by about four to one. The run-through started and director Loretta Greco manipulated the actors onstage, repeating certain fuzzy words again and again: “love,” “beautiful,” “babe.”

“You know, you work with a lot of men in this business-and not that that’s not enriching or rewarding, but it’s just that it’s rare to be in a room with so many eclectic, vivacious, intelligent women,” said Ms. Greco, a longtime friend of the Women’s Project and a frequent director for the Public Theater. She’s worked extensively to polish the script with Ms. Press-Coffman and to stay true to the vision of the three women; they often dine together at Pastis.

Herself a former assistant to Emily Mann, the acclaimed playwright and director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, Ms. Greco added that the assistant bond very much helped the collaborative spirit that brought the play to life. “As assistants, we bring similar skill sets to the table, but in different industries,” Ms. Greco said. “Having collaborated with these high-powered, innovative people in different fields, we each know how an idea can be launched, and we’ve watched these ideas come to fruition.”

“It feels so good. I feel like I can do anything in the whole world,” Ms. Terenzio said. Since they began working on this project five years ago, the three women have become compulsive about making time for dinners and lunches together several times a week. “The phone calls to each other, the whole ‘Oh my God, guess what, guess who called!’ There were so many of those great moments. So many highs. Of course there were lows, too, but when one of us would get real down, we’d get on the phone to her and say, ‘We’re going to do this!’ We’d sit at Tower Copy East waiting forever for the copies to be done and look at each other and say, ‘We’re still here. This is going to happen!'”

The Secretaries of Stage