Each season, BAC invites writers into the studio to interview our Resident Artists. The resulting BAC Story essays offer an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the creative process.
Monica Bill Barnes & Company
We started the same way every day, at the barre. Not for stretches, not for squats, not for rond de jambes, and not to offend, but that's not who we are. The ballet barre is where we hung our coats, stared out the window, and caught up on one of the things that took up some constant corner of our minds every day in the Rudolf Nureyev studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center–the progress of the water towers.
"They just took down the last piece of the old one."
"Do you see that guy? Does he even have a harness on?"
"I'm pretty sure they use cedar. Maybe redwood. But that looks like cedar."
"How does it not leak?"
"He's inside of it now!"
"They're closing him in!"
"They do the roof in slices, like a pie."
The barre is our back of the mezzanine seat to the work of an icon of New York City being created across 10th avenue, at least six stories up1 on a rooftop above Bella Abzug Park. And like anyone who sits in the back of the mezz, we have a lot to say about the work and the people performing it2. Part of our fascination is the thrill. Watching the water tower come together was unnerving and energizing, like an action sequence, Mission Impossible: But Practical. But I can't put down the feeling that the water tower meant more to us than a high wire act. Over our residency weeks it became a kind of totem, representing the three spirits we ram3 ourselves into the wall for in our own work–the real, the necessary, the purposeful.
But wait. Who are we and what are we doing besides ogling this tangible work in progress? In dance language we are Monica Bill Barnes. In any other language we are Monica Bill Barnes and Robbie Saenz de Viteri (me) and a group of performers and collaborators–Elizabeth Furman, Flannery Gregg, Mykel Marai Nairne, Indah Mariana, Elisa Clark, and special guest Anne Kauffman. We are BAC Open resident artists. We are in the last phase of making a show called Many Happy Returns. Monica and I play the same character, she's the body and I'm the voice. The character is a woman who has been calling herself a woman for long enough that she remembers when it felt like planting a flag to call yourself a woman. She moves through the tension of her desire to celebrate this special occasion of gathering the audience together and her self-conscious insufficiencies that creep in along the way. It's an event that becomes our version of a theatrical memory play, if memory plays had a lot of dances and made us laugh more. That's the hope anyway. Which is why we're all hands-on deck for the beach ball.
"Is this ball too small?"
"If it is too small, is it too small and that's good? Or is it just too small?"
"Do they make other colors of beach balls?"
"Should we hide it? Then it like makes an entrance?"
"I think (hrrrf) we're going (hrrrf) to need (hrrrf) a pump (hrrrf)."
"Let's stick with the classic beach ball color actually."
"Is there a trick to deflating it that I don't know?"
The beach ball thing started about a year and a half ago. Monica had made this dance. We all called it "Round and Round" because she called it "Round and Round" which is because it's set to a song called "Round and Round." That's not always the case. We often name dances after something happening during them like "Lady In A Chair" or some phrase that pops up while dancing like "Like You Mean It." Or the name falls from that same unknown place the movement hits Monica from like "Rodeo Crab." Monica made "Round and Round" to the Perry Como song "Round and Round." There were some distinct physical ideas in it–a rambling skipping step, a repetitive breathing technique, and this quick twitch heel drop bouncing move. The dance would stay in one place, then tumble to a new place seemingly at random though usually traveling along some invisible circle's arc. There was no beach ball, but if it's ok to say, the dance felt like one.
Around the same time, I wrote something called "My Mantra." It wasn't my mantra, it was the character's mantra. She asked the audience if they wanted to hear her mantra and then she shared it, proudly. But we are interested in comedy, so her pride had to deflate as she defended why it was the perfect mantra until she eventually said she didn't want to talk about it anymore and maybe didn't want to talk to anyone anymore, except for the ladies in the audience because they would understand her and her mantra. This mantra is no longer in the show.
For a while, we liked the dance and the mantra together, so we shaped them together. You know–we moved this a bit, said this instead, did the arm thing when I said this and there you have it! We put them in relation to each other through hours and hours of trial and error and they grew together into a piece in the show. It never worked.
"I don't think it works," either Monica or I said first (probably me).
"I know, I don't think it works either."
"Let's cut all of the movement." I definitely did not say that.
"Let's cut all of the language."
Then we had nothing, for a few painful days. The show developed a sore spot. For a temporary salve, I offered "What if we told a joke?" Then we all4 tried out jokes. There was one with a Scottish accent, there was one that hinged on a near homophone with the word pianist. We talked many times over the course of many days about Christopher Hitchens' 2007 Vanity Fair piece "Why Women Aren't Funny." Monica offered she could have a beach ball. "I don't know what we would do with it," she added.
The problem with "Round and Round" and "My Mantra" was that as much as we tried to suture the dance and language together, they remained two different things happening at the same time. This is a very familiar wall that leaves a very familiar spot on our foreheads. We don't want two different things happening at the same time. We want one thing that uses the two things that we all use to make things happen all the time–our bodies and those little voices in our heads. We threw away the dance and the mantra. We were left with a beach ball, bad jokes, a lot of feelings about women doing comedy, and some real sense of doubt. That's when the piece started working again.
I wrote a joke.
I, the voice, set it up. Monica, the body, delivers the punchline.
Neither half can work on its own, the joke only works together.
It involves the beach ball.
It's a good joke.
Most people don't get it, so we do it twice now5.
We can't share it here because this is the realm of the voice only6.
Theater is the realm of the body and voice working together.
The beach ball is real. Monica blows it up on stage. We also drink real cokes (Coca Cola Classic) and put on real lipstick together (sorry Bella Abzug7). And these real objects have their own agendas, stories, and histories that hopefully lead us towards where we always want our work to go. It's not realism, at all. We're working to make something feel like it's really happening, an exchange that reminds the people watching it how dazzling our lives might really be. Especially how dazzling the details might be. Like where we get our water from. Which might be a tower, a tower that is now finished, serving its purpose on a roof, with no one astonishing over its existence anymore.
1 - In the 1880's buildings were getting taller and the water could only reach up five floors. So water was pumped into tanks on the roof, then distributed through gravity.
2 - There are only three companies that make them. Rosenwach Tank Company, Isseks Brothers, and American Pipe and Tank.
3 - We have an inordinate number of Aries on our team.
4 - Elizabeth Furman did not try out a joke.
5 - Thanks to Anne Kauffman! She joined us a year and half into the piece. At our first rehearsal with her she also asked if we had read the Christopher Hitchens piece.
6 - But we've got shows! Come see them -- www.monicabillbarnes.com
7 - This Bella Abzug quote played in my mind often at BAC. "Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over." In this show I play a woman. I'm often trying to speak softly and I do keep a lipstick with me.
Robbie Saenz de Viteri writes, creates, produces, and performs live theater. He has created performances and toured production throughout the world with the Obie Award winning Nature Theater of Oklahoma and worked with genre redefining artists such as Anna Deavere Smith, Stew, and Ira Glass. He has collaborated with Monica Bill Barnes to create Happy Hour, The Museum Workout, One Night Only (Lilly Award), Days Go By (Bessie Honoree), The Running Show, Keep Moving, It’s 3:07 Again, and Many Happy Returns. He grew up in New Jersey, holds a BA from Muhlenberg College, where he studied writing with David Rosenwasser, and lives in Greenpoint Brooklyn, which he believes is best reached by bicycle.