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.
May 31, 2019
My first visit finds Terrence O’Brien – Terry, in the room – and a group of actors around a table, deep in discussion. There are collisions between unexpected pieces. One actor questions the direction of the conversation of the work, saying, “I’ll just put my bias on the table.” What is the impact of the work? “Let’s turn over the rock and see what’s under there.” Terry says.
Nail on the head versus opening the question. Unpacking materials without fully unpacking. Examining the difference between killing and fucking. Free range conversations veer across politics. Is it an exchange? Is it a space to advocate for a point of view? Are we just going to be animals, or are we going to evolve?
“What I like…” Terrence posits from the point of view that there are certain things in the text that he likes and wants to maintain. “I don’t want to ‘sort of.’ That’s me, though.”
Actors attempt to paraphrase the intention of characters. One performer feels strongly about adding certain ideas (such as evolution). Solutions versus not solving but still moving forward.
Of this time and particular place – how do the female voices in the work exist within the context of the current moment and modality? Is the future better than the present?
You can have two people looking at one thing with two completely different points of view, so, as Terry asks, “How do we make that work?” Upon suggestion, the men attempt to share a speaking role using Organic Intuitive Consensus.
My second visit: the table is now in the middle of the room, chairs on either side. The crew is a bit larger, a few new faces amid the recognizable ones. Terry, from the table in the corner, leans towards the action, stops it, stands up and joins the actors at the table for a few adjustments and comments, and returns to his table. There is general experimentation coupled with fine tuning. “If it doesn’t work, you’ll probably know right away,” Terry says.
There are women in masks. Some of the masks are wrong. They use them anyway to get used to the added element. Back and forth staging – incremental pieces put in place, then solidified. “That seemed a little cluttered. Let’s try it again.” The complexity of five men standing and escorting three women to sit with them at a table.
Means by which to interject a directorial voice: “Maybe – I’m wondering if – Let’s try – See what that does – Any thoughts about this? – Let’s get some other opinions on this.”
Tell, don't tell.
After a break, they lie in a circle and play storytelling games. Ways to create a shared thought environment, to listen, to participate fully in something while thinking on one’s feet (or back, as it were). The assignment: you’re the pirate. A preacher has told you that you’re behaving obscenely. One sentence per person. Sentence by sentence, the actors, using variations on pirate voices (one seems Irish), end up telling a surprisingly coherent tale as the pirate recruits the preacher to join the ship’s crew. “I’ve got quite a few positions other than missionary that you can fill.”
The work continues, now with an intermingling of gender, the three women taking over male roles at times, other times standing outside of the action. It’s somewhat of a challenge to understand what is an interjection and what is source text. “Okay, okay, let’s back up a bit.” Solving for source versus interjection – “Try addressing it to someone specific when you’re one of the supernaturals.” General versus particular. “On the other hand, it’s going really well. Let’s go back.”
Dan O’Neil is an NYC-based writer who grew up on a farm in northwestern Minnesota, where he learned to drive a tractor, use a chainsaw, and identify various star constellations. Notable recent projects include: Librettist on The House of Influence, an experimental opera composed by Alec Hall and performed in a parking garage in Harlem in 2018, Oblivion Falls, an in-process dance with text composition with Designated Movement Co., and Bear Slayer, developed through a 2016 Project Residency by Ars Nova and also presented as part of ANT Fest 2015. Leadership roles include Theater Editor of Culturebot and co-artistic director for Designated Movement Co. Education: B.A. in performance from the University of Minnesota and an M.F.A in dramatic writing from Carnegie Mellon University.
January 9, 2018
Every day in courthouses across the country, thousands of potential jurors are asked a similar litany of questions. Transcriptions of the process pass from court stenographer to an online database, and into the hands of Morgan Green and Milo Cramer, two Brooklyn-based theater artists.
Green and Cramer spend three weeks in a rehearsal studio collaging those words and recording their own performances of the transformed texts. On one November afternoon in that same studio, those recordings are played into the ears of actors, who speak the text in front of an audience. Performance. Transmission. Transformation. Performance.
In the American justice system, voir dire (French for “to see to speak”) is the process by which a judge interrogates a jury pool in order to learn of their potential biases. Green was fascinated by the process when she was called for jury duty and sat for voir dire, watching a room full of strangers share some version of themselves in an experience that is mandatory, coldly bureaucratic, and intimate all at once. Though she wasn’t selected for the jury, she describes the experience as life-affirming: “I felt like an individual. I felt like a citizen.”
Cramer was similarly excited by the inherent drama of voir dire. He describes it as like striking “formal gold,” providing the pair with a compelling, prefabricated structure through which to interrogate both the ideals of the American judicial system and its failings. What’s remarkable about their work thus far is how much voir dire rhymes with the act of making theater: a process of truth-seeking in which individuals perform themselves in miniature in a high stakes environment.
In their workshop presentation, Robert Johanson stands at a table, speaking the text of the judge: “No one is here to judge anyone as a person,” he says directly to the audience, arousing that often-divisive dread that this might be one of those Audience Participation Shows. Eventually, LaToya Lewis, who sits in the front row while her face is live-streamed onto a television, begins to speak the collaged text of all the potential jurors, preserving the inaccuracies and failures of the transcription process: “I think that the inaudible. I think it all comes down to high inaudible.” Though the presentation is simple, faithful to the voir dire process, whatever truth was revealed in the original courtroom may be just out of reach.
On the other side of their residency, Green and Cramer point to the balance of audience participation as their most pressing decision point. They both admit that they tend to hate audience participation: “Your defense mechanisms go up,” says Cramer. In one of their presentations, Green describes watching an audience member sitting behind Lewis who saw his face appear in the live video feed and slowly shifted in his seat until he moved out of frame.
And yet the questions they’re asking about how audience participation works its way into their piece also most clearly parallel the questions they’re asking about the justice system: To what extent is participation mandatory? What is at stake when one participates? What are we honest about and what do we hide when we perform ourselves to a room full of strangers? “Maybe what my preferences and tastes are in theater go against what this piece needs to be,” says Green. “We’re open to that.”
Elliot B. Quick is a dramaturg, producer, director, and educator who received an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from the Yale School of Drama. He has worked as a Literary Associate with Playwrights Horizons, Yale Rep, and Page 73, and as an Editorial Associate for The Civilians’ Extended Play. As a freelance dramaturg and director, his work has been seen at the Sharon Playhouse, the Under the Radar Festival, the Invisible Dog, Ojai Playwrights Conference, The Access Theater, The Fisher Center at Bard College, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He currently teaches at the Maggie Flanigan Studio and at SUNY Purchase College.
Jun 21, 2018
Someone I once dated introduced “tabanca” into my lexicon. It is an affective state referenced in many soca songs, mourning the end of carnival time before it’s even begun—that lovesick feeling you get when you desire someone or something that has yet to be lost.
When I meet Sacha in her studio for the first time, she hands me a photography book about the Borscht Belt while recounting what she’s been able to patch together about Shirley, her maternal grandmother. It was the 1950s, and Shirley would throw off the thick blanket of New York City humidity and make her way up north to The Concord, one of the many Jewish-owned and operated resorts in the Catskills. The Borscht Belt was a repository of the American Dream for Jewish folks, a post-war survival strategy. The promise of security and affirmation of resilience could be found at the nightly kosher dinner buffet lit by a cluster of chandeliers.
In the mind’s eye of her granddaughter, Shirley was a housewife seeking a clarifying mountain breeze for a brain humming with McCarthy-era paranoia. She was also Cherie Dre, an elusive showgirl who spent her summers at The Concord’s Imperial Room entertaining dinner guests with sensual cabaret acts. According to secondhand accounts from family members, Shirley was likely living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder or paranoid schizophrenia, with Cherie Dre being her alter ego.
Sacha’s studio showing at BAC was the first time I met Shirley and Cherie Dre. With fine manipulations of the brow, slight shifts of weight in the feet, and carriage of the shoulders, Sacha is an embodied dimmer switch who fluidly oscillates between the physicalities and timbres of two women she knows so deeply yet incompletely. One moment, she is Shirley, who gives a glowing review of The Concord’s five-star amenities as if you’re sitting across from her at the dining room table. In the next instant, Cherie Dre trails in like a feather boa: “Come on in, meet the girls,” she announces in a husky, flirtatious drawl as she leans her back against an invisible vanity table.
Sacha, Shirley, and Cherie Dre are knitted together like fascia.
As I flip through the pages of the Borscht Belt book, I notice the stark contrasts in landscape documented by the photographs: A 1950’s advertisement, in its highly saturated optimism, features smiling tan people leisurely congregating by the poolside. A photograph taken in the 2000’s depicts that same pool abandoned and crumbling at its edges, covered in carpets of moss. Sacha wonders out loud what Shirley may have been up to during those luxurious summers at The Concord, as if placing a transparency of the ad over the image of contemporary decay. Together, we process the phenomenon of vacation as it relates to trauma, the false dichotomy between reality and delusion, past and present, grief and closure.
Sacha’s tetherdness to Shirley and Cherie Dre is tabanca as I understand it: the practice of learning to love through the prism of loss. It is a lesson passed down like a matrilineal heirloom. A hasty distillation of Cherie Dre could cast her existence as the manifestation of Shirley’s undiagnosed mental illness. I think a more tender interpretation can acknowledge this narrative while holding space for contradicting truths, more expansive interpretations of reality. After all, what is a delusion if it is someone you know by their first name?
As Director of Programming at Abrons Arts Center/Henry Street Settlement, Ali Rosa-Salas develops the Center’s live programming and exhibitions with Artistic Director Craig Peterson. As an independent curator, she has produced visual art exhibitions, performances, and public programs with AFROPUNK, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Danspace Project, Knockdown Center, MoCADA, Weeksville Heritage Center, and more. She has also organized discursive events as an Alumnae Fellow at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and as the Associate Curator of the 2017 American Realness Festival. She graduated from Barnard with a B.A. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, with interdisciplinary concentrations in Dance and Race/Ethnic Studies and has an M.A. from the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University. In addition to her role at Abrons, Ali supports electronic music DJs and producers through her work with Discwoman.
Mar 1, 2018
Since its formation in 2009, The Mad Ones has developed a rigorous, idiosyncratic process for conceiving, generating, and shaping its plays, one that blurs the rigid lines of definition between contributing artists and privileges collaboration and consensus over traditional notions of hierarchical work structures and individual authorship.
We are an ensemble of hybrid play-makers. Performer-writers Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, and Stephanie Wright Thompson and director-writer Lila Neugebauer collectively serve as co-artistic directors. The company also includes designers Ásta Bennie Hostetter (costumes), Mike Inwood (lights), Laura Jellinek (sets), and Stowe Nelson (sound), and me, the house dramaturg. Together, we create richly detailed, character-driven play-worlds that playfully appropriate and reinterpret genre, delight in moments of theatrical surprise, and examine and illuminate American nostalgia.
(As an aside, I often find myself toggling between pronoun-orientations when talking about the company and its work - we/us, they/them - and these reflections on the BAC residency will probably reflect that.)
The Mad Ones used their November BAC residency to do early conceptual development work on a new commission for Ars Nova. Prior to arriving at BAC, they had winnowed down a shortlist of potential play-kernels (among the discarded contenders: a forensic lab procedural, an emergency room blood farce, a backstage drama about the Booth brothers performing Hamlet) to identify the organizing principle for our latest play: a focus group. Marc, Joe, Michael, Stephanie, and Lila arrived at BAC with scores of questions. Some were essentially dramatic in nature: What is being studied, tested, or examined? Who commissioned and organized the focus group? Is this a slick, polished, professional operation, or more makeshift, shaggy, ragtag? Where and when and who might these characters be? Other questions engaged the realm of the theatrical: What shape, ultimately, might this play take? Will it unfold in a succession of scenes or seamlessly in real time? Will the set encompass a single location or many? What moments of surprising athleticism, magic, or theatrical disruption might the play contain? Others were more conceptual and thematic: what anxieties, preoccupations, values, or assumptions about American life might the focus group illuminate, engage, critique, subvert?
During my three visits with The Mad Ones during their residency, the core company and intern Regan Moro were gathered around tables engaged in conversation ranging from nostalgic to speculative and from playfully imaginative to critically analytic. Michael Dalto gave a lengthy presentation on the political and cultural trajectory of the 1990s. Joe Curnutte talked us through the idiosyncratic filming of a movie called Timecode (Google it). The ensemble prepared and shared written responses to assignments designed to generate possibilities and alternatingly widen and tighten the focus on our collective imaginings. These opened up into long, digressive conversations touching on, among other things, the violence of late-stage capitalism, confirmation bias, the mingling in marriage of sexual and financial intimacy, and whether and how anxieties about personal safety on a large scale (related to, say, national security or climate change) express themselves in our relationships to consumer products like dish soap.
One challenge of a communal approach to play-making can be the risk of diffusion of the work. But over time The Mad Ones have built a practice that allows them to maintain a collaborative process without sacrificing conceptual or aesthetic rigor. Perhaps even more remarkably, they’ve done so while defining a distinct, unified voice. By filtering the developing work through a multiplicity of perspectives, ideas are tempered, tested, and refined. Dramatic worlds and theatrical canvasses are brought into sharper focus. Characters and relationships are conjured into vivid life. Through this iterative conversation, the work accumulates the detail, texture, and multivalence that have become the company’s signature.
It is a process that sacrifices efficiency in favor of the richness and multiplicity that arises from communal effort. This kind of collaboration requires patience, commitment, accountability, and a foundation of deep mutual respect for one another and for the process. It pays off in the fullness and dimension of the completed work, but it’s slow in the making; perhaps more than anything, it requires time. Workshops like the BAC residency become exercises in practicing democracy. The Mad Ones finished the residency, just as they began it, with questions. But new questions, different questions, more refined, more specific. (For instance: Does the play take place in 1999, or 2020? How directly or elliptically will the subject of the focus group reveal itself to an audience?) They have isolated particular fields for inquiry and exploration and have charted an agenda for their next workshop, coming up in the spring.
Visit The Mad Ones' Residency Page
Sarah Lunnie is the literary director at Playwrights Horizons and the house dramaturg with The Mad Ones. Production dramaturgy: The Mad Ones’ Miles for Mary (The Bushwick Starr, Playwrights Horizons), The Essential Straight and Narrow (New Ohio) and Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War (The Brick/Ars Nova/New Ohio); Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2 (Broadway), The Christians (Humana Festival, Playwrights), nightnight and Death Tax (Humana); and Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me (Clubbed Thumb), among others. She was previously the literary manager at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where she was involved with curating and developing new work for the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Jan 23, 2018
Slot machines make noise. Emit light. They can also wreck lives on a slower simmer than opiates, speed, or cards. The cheap trance they offer is both throwback and harbinger.
In Cold Enough To Levitate, Christina Masciotti—herself both American language wrangler in a long humanist tradition and forward-looking manipulator of material elements towards a naturalism of reverberation—brings her sniper-like attention to the effects of this cheap trance on Frankie, a war veteran, cop, and accused embezzler, as a window onto a vast societal ping pong of malady and self-medication.
At the beginning of her BAC residency process, Masciotti and her director Mallory Catlett, along with their light and sound designers, were experimenting with deconstructing the slot machine’s functions as a means of washing play and audience in its staccato rhythms as mood stabilizer and saboteur. By the time I visited the rehearsal room in mid November, a few days before their showings, her focus had shifted to Frankie—constructing in the sharpest of detail the human being in front of the machine, the man at the center of the play.
Walking into the rehearsal room mid-scene, I found Frankie facing a machine that would be made manifest in light and sound, talking to himself, through himself, his lawyer George behind him, shuttling between George’s questions and the machine’s lull.
One quick, quiet beat after the scene breaks Masciotti looks to the actor playing Frankie, and says simply “guiltish.” He nods, understanding. I am confused.
They work through a few scenes again. “I’d feel less guiltyish if it didn’t affect them so much,” Frankie says of his parents in response to a question from George. Suddenly I understand too. The actor had accidentally changed Masciotti’s phrasing with a “y” that belonged to the word in the wider world, but not in the vocabulary of the man who had presented himself in her mind as protagonist.
Again the scene breaks. A beat. Again Masciotti says “guiltish.” The actor takes a moment, nods. The next time through he gets it right.
What differentiates Masciotti from the majority of language-attuned American playwrights is that fundamentalist precision, underpinned by an unabashed attentiveness to particularity of place; what differentiates her from almost every playwright attentive to particularity of place is that she is most often focused on places (in this case her native Reading, Pennsylvania) that don’t frequently command art’s attention; what differentiates her from the few living playwrights sharing both of these attentions is that her attention to individuality is equally sharp. She writes people, not functions in plot, but discreet individual human beings shaped not only by the sounds of place, but by their own idiosyncratic circumstances, genetics, fascinations, and tics. Thick, textured American people who do boring, shitty, regular things. Masciotti’s characters don’t live in Brooklyn or Portland, or any of the vaguely interchangeable revitalized industrial districts or exurban clumps of capital threaded between them.
Roughly a century ago, in 1921, Luigi Pirandello had this audacious formalist idea to put six characters in search of an author onstage, to make the major conceit of an evening at the theater the suggestion that the characters themselves had lives, that all they really needed was a medium, a channeling ringmaster with an eye towards coherence to arrange them into circumstance. Pirandello raised the curtain on the playwright’s mind; in so doing he also exposed the confessional booth in which character and playwright had been communing secretly at least since Ibsen and Chekhov began attempting to put life as they saw it on stage.
Playwrights have been figuring out how to negotiate the demands of their characters and the awareness of their audiences ever since. In contemporary American theater, from the most radical formal experimentation to the tightest Broadway cause and effect dramas, we are for the most part awash in authors ignoring characters. For some, it is a point of pride; for others there is simply little recognition that characters are people too.
And then we have Christina Masciotti.
When I see her work I have the sense that she waits with ceaseless patience in bus stations and doctor’s offices and anterooms of bureaucracy for anyone with a sharp, particular voice, a small story not being told, a pay grade lower than the typical theatergoer, and too many mounting concerns to recognize their place in a larger system.
The way Frankie drew her back from sound and light is not surprising. It separates Masciotti as much from Pirandello as from her peers. Without full people along for the ride, audience has little to take away from formalist adventure. If the particular is the pathway to the universal, Christina Masciotti is the medium of which the contemporary American character is most in need.
Ben Gassman is a playwright from Queens. Sam's Tea Shack, a piece he co-created with Sam Soghor and Meghan Finn, was presented this past fall by The Tank in NYC and by Barker Room Rep in Los Angeles. Gassman, along with director Brandon Woolf, is a 2018 Artist-In-Residence at the Performance Project of University Settlement, where they will be launching their new collaborative endeavor, Culinary Theater. bengassman.com.
Dec 21, 2017
A conference room. Tables, chairs. People focused on their computers working in silence. One of them stares away from the table, the computer, the room, at an indefinite point. At the back of the stage, a projection: “What makes a human being? Dignity.”
To the spectator the answer is not only obvious, but reassuring. She recognizes herself in it. It is four hours until a group of coworkers give their presentation in the context of an international conference on human rights. While the characters struggle with nerves, personal situations, and surprising revelations, both characters and spectators become aware of practices with consequences that, inadvertently but blatantly, contradict what they think they believe.
The apparent simplicity of the theatricality on stage, like the apparent simplicity of the initial question, eases the spectator into sympathy with the characters who, involuntarily, trigger laughter. Laughter, skillfully used by Compañía Bonobo, wakes us up. With nothing changing on stage, the neutral space of a conference room emerges as a microcosm that condenses and confronts the spectator with all the layers of a central question: what is dignity?
In this piece, the members of Compañía Bonobo continue their inquiry into the complex phenomenon of violence and the difficulty of identifying it when it happens in a friendly environment where there is no apparent discrimination, injustice, or inequality. What is our role in the violence perpetrated upon another? And who is ‘the other’? How is ‘the other’ constructed? With these questions in the background (like the question that the spectator reads at the beginning of the play), Compañía Bonobo’s crew goes through a creative process in which improvisation plays a key role. What they do seems impossible: turning questions into actions, theory into practice. The bodies on stage enter a silent dialogue to explore relations that are beyond language: context, intentionality, and individual histories color human encounters that, once translated into a staged scene, appear to be simple daily situations. Making visible these invisible relations is Compañía Bonobo’s line of work.
By revealing the invisible in our daily interactions, Compañía Bonobo members explore the light and shadows of human beings and their communities. In the conference room where there is a sharp contrast between light and shadow, the coworkers move between the bright light of the projector and the dark, unilluminated areas of the room. We either see them clearly in bright light as they are, or we see only their silhouette in the shadows. Or is it the other way around? Do we see them as they are in the shadows, but only see their silhouettes when they present themselves in bright light? The question of who the characters are turns into the question of who we are, and who we would be in this situation. The just and fair one? The one with strong judgment? The one with a secret past? The good-hearted emotional one? There is no easy answer; the spectator refuses to identify with any of them and is simultaneously able to identify with all of them.
With simplicity, empathy, and fine humor, Compañía Bonobo turns our attention to the invisible meaningful details of our everyday lives that perpetuate violence. Perhaps, after all, laughter is the beginning to the end of violence.
Teresa Casas Hernández, originally from Manresa (Barcelona), is a New York based actress and PhD student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research for which she was awarded the fellowship La Caixa and The Onassis Foundation Fellowship in Ancient Greek Studies. With the image of “the world is theater” she is working on the intersection between philosophy and theater with the aim to bring into philosophical discussion elements that have been banned from philosophy since Plato banned the poets from the idea city—vividness, evanescence, co-presence. As a performer, she has worked with Beth Moysés and Tatsumi Orimot.
June 8, 2017
Kyoung H. Park had some new costumes for his actors: bright neon green tights, which he hands to actors Daniel K. Isaac and Raja Feather Kelly, both dressed in pajamas. “Why are we going now from pajamas to tights?” asked Isaac. Park paused before shrugging, “I don’t know yet.” It’s a rainy Tuesday and the three are developing a new work, PILLOWTALK, at the studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, as part of a three-week residency.
Pajamas to tights...it’s part of a larger question that the team is grappling with during this residency: how to best integrate the realism of the bedroom drama, with the surrealism of the dance sequences. “This process informed how we should actually choreograph the show when we premiere,” Park told me later, at the end of the residency.
Pillowtalk is a play for two men, about an interracial gay couple, navigating the ups and downs of marriage. It was inspired by Park’s own marriage, and the fight for marriage equality. During that time, Park was “really wondering what marriage meant and what would happen to the queer movement after the legalization of gay marriage.” And crucially, what do such institutions mean to queer communities of color, whose struggles go beyond that? Those musings became PILLOWTALK, what Park calls a “gay bedroom drama,” though the piece isn’t completely naturalistic; it also incorporates dance sequences modeled on a traditional pas de deux.
Like marriage, the pas de deux is a form that is traditionally between a man and a woman. In turning that form into a dance for two men, PILLOWTALK is also making a commentary on modern marriage itself. “Marriage has changed; what is that change and how can we theatricalize that?” Park explained.
For the PILLOWTALK team, the BAC Residency has been a time to learn the rules of a pas de deux, and then break it. “The male and female dancer tropes are so codified,” said Park. “The female version is always very helpless and always looking graceful...and male dancers always have to combat this idea that male dancers are gay or feminine, by doing various athletic, powerful movement.” So, having two men do a pas de deux becomes a way to “play around with those gender norms and gender roles,” he explained. “When you've got two men, and asking men to butch it up or femme it up or be more dommy or be more subby, it's kind of playful if we're intentional about.”
By the end of the BAC residency, the PILLOWTALK team created two different pas de deux: “one of it was adhering to the classical and iconic balletic movements,” recalled Park, “and then a second version that was a little more pedestrian and gestural, sort of anchored more into a body vernacular of the ordinary person.” Both were presented to an invited audience on the last day of the residency. Afterwards, the consensus was that the second version was more powerful (one person even said the traditional version made them “cringe”). This was bolstering for Park, who is currently doing one-more rewrite of PILLOWTALK before the piece world premieres in January.
“Classical ballet is kind of an oppressive sort of cultural paradigm, why would you want to replicate it if you are anti-oppression?” he posited. “So, I think that was one of those things where it was like, ‘okay we need to learn it to know what it is and then we need to undo it.’ It was twice the work, but it’s important work.”
Diep Tran is currently the associate editor of American Theatre magazine. She has a monthly column with the magazine focused on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. She is also the founder and producer of American Theatre’s biweekly Offscript podcast. In 2014, Diep led the creation and launch of AmericanTheatre.org, the first official website for the magazine. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Playbill, Time Out New York, TDF Stages, Backstage, and Salon, among other publications. Her Twitter handle is @DiepThought.
May 12, 2017
A world that as a teenager, I could only imagine through queer memoir reminiscences, my mother’s secretly stashed pulp fan fiction, and my thumbed-through copy of Faggots by Larry Kramer -- all that was available to an Ohio boy’s searching. Ain’s first hand coming of age nostalgia is at once inviting and unfamiliar. I understand the period, the questioning, the wonderment, but the land is foreign.
Through the process of developing Radicals in Miniature, what I have connected with most is the “I was there” fascination with an era, a period, a first person anthropological romp. Ain as “Childe Harold” witness creates an homage to downtown sensationalism, fleeting celebrity, desperation, an insider’s guide to kitsch, hype, camp and everything in-between, where faux celebrity lives, a teenager’s hormonal night dream.
What was most significant about the first BAC residency in 2015 was that Ain, the king of minimal, was able to design the environment from the basic elements in the studio -- tables, monitors, sound equipment, Josh [Quillen]’s eclectic instrumentation, etc... The story was the thing, the tech trappings were there for mere amplification. The elements were immediate, subtle and simple -- a set of keys, a tax return, a pen, carried profound meaning as they were connected and reconnected to a time, a date, a memory. Thanks to BAC, the indelible stamp was discovered early, the environment never changed, it was only enhanced from residency to residency to premiere.
It is the way in which Ain navigates emotion that fascinates me the most. In the early workshops at BAC, he was carefully attentive to the dramaturgical impact of the emotional “reveal,” we discussed the aspect of when and where. Too soon and the entire journey becomes an emotional deluge, too late and the reverence is imbalanced. The key is to understand the depths and challenges of emotion and memory in public, the danger of the reveal. Memory is a tricky thing. Evoking memories in public is a trickier thing. Much of the time is spent mining an endless list of potential story-tellings…which ones to keep, which ones to let go? By the time we reach the end of the first residency, we have begun to experience the ritual, the ghosts join us. Even without lights and all the tech accoutrement, the ritual has arrived, we transcend the technology. There is an immediacy in the room, the dead will have their due.
After one of the first runs in the BAC studio there is a surprise, an unexpected flood of emotion in an unexpected place, it is a brilliant gem that Ain has been reserving. We laugh because almost any moment along the way could be an emotional slipstream for Ain, he must make choices about how he is navigating his feelings, just how revealing does he want to be? Lost in the sense of loss, the wave of nostalgia, the vulnerability…the bittersweet resonance of dashed dreams, memories of the ones who leave too soon, the ones who live long past longing. This is a reoccurrence at every residency along the way, the ghosts travel with us.
Through the experience of Radicals in Miniature we are invited to witness a special time and place and can fill in our own personal radicals. Through the navigation of one life, one street corner, one happenstance, one confluence of events, we remember multiple corners in multiple places, we make a history together.
Emotions creep in, memory is a bitch.
Feelings are not for the weak hearted.
Sentimentality be damned.
Along the way, I make my own discoveries. I add my names to the list. I summon my personal radicals as I watch and witness...the dead will have their due.
Talvin Wilks is the dramaturg for Radicals in Miniature, which was developed during a Spring 2015 BAC Space residency, and premieres at BAC May 16-24, 2017. Wilks is a director, playwright, and collaborative dramaturg based in both New York City and Minneapolis, where he is a professor of theater at the University of Minnesota. His work blurs the lines of many disciplines forming a unique composite of performative expression. This summer will find him in process with four grand choreographic divas - Camille A. Brown, Bebe Miller, Marlies Yearby, and Jawole Zollar/UBW. Look for his new play Jimmy and Lorraine at the Ko Festival in July 2017.
Jan 13, 2017
Before the first stumble-through of her work-in-progress, Manuela Infante pulls a chair to the center of the room, and asks actress Marcela Salinas and lighting designer Rocío Hernández to join her.
The three women and their producer Carmina Infante have been in residency here in the BAC’s Studio 4B for two weeks, and were six days away from their final showing. Sitting aside, I watch Infante calmly recite to her collaborators the piece’s order of events, adding reminders about particular blocking or transitions. Salinas, sitting on a table, follows along in her script, nodding as Infante talks and interrupting with occasional questions. Hernández interjects every now and then from her seat on the floor. I notice that the dark green of Salinas’s sweatshirt perfectly matches the green color of the large plant next to which she sits. Only after seeing the piece did I wonder if the plant had been a part of the meeting, too.
While it is perhaps extreme to suspect greenery of artistic collaboration, Aparato Radical [Radical Apparatus] indeed encourages us to consider a theater—and world—in which plants have as much agency as humans. It is Infante’s most recent work to challenge anthropocentrism, which has been her prime artistic interest since 2010. Although she initially became known for writing and staging bold re-interpretations of historical figures and narratives, Infante works in phases, investigating a central topic or concern over the course of several productions before moving to another. In her last four plays, Infante and her company Teatro de Chile have in various ways questioned modern man’s superiority and autonomy. Now, she imagines a scenario in which plants decide to reclaim their kingdom.
If you’re interested in contemporary philosophy, these ideas may ring a bell. Such source material has always motivated Infante’s theater—for Aparato Radical, she and her collaborators drew heavily on the work of plant philosophers Michael Marder and Stefano Mancuso. Infante has often declared that she uses theater in service of philosophical inquiry: in order to build fictions, she dissects the construction of reality itself. While Chilean theater has a long, ongoing history of directly political theater, Infante’s theater is better described as ontological. Moreover, as her career has gone on, her work reveals growing investment in what she calls the “contemplative dimension” of theater. She celebrates art’s resistance to utility or consumption; rather than clarifying what is unclear, she says, it should make mysterious what is mundane.
The rehearsal I visited, however, had no air of enigma or high scholarship. Everyone wore loungewear; no one wore shoes. The group had an air of comfortable familiarity: Infante has worked on recent shows with both Salinas and Hernández, and longtime producer Carmina, also present, is her younger sister and Teatro de Chile’s archivist. Infante tends to collaborate over long periods: Teatro de Chile, which just disbanded recently, had been together since 2001. Her extended creative processes for each show, which involve intense group research and devising, also necessarily bring her fellow artists close.
Aparato Radical is no different in its long development process. Before the run-through, Infante tells me that the group had already done much work on Aparato Radical in Chile and have planned for three other work-in-progress showings before the June 2017 premiere. While they had already created the show’s characters before coming to BAC, here they co-wrote the texts and integrated a looper pedal into the staging, in order to live record and replay sound onstage. (Infante, a musician, also designs and operates the sound for her shows.) They also worked on the interaction between Salinas and the lighting, and Infante has been grateful for the excellent tech equipment BAC has provided, given the importance of sound and light to the piece. For Infante, an artist whose process is rigorous and lengthy, the opportunity to concentrate fully on the project, with excellent staff support, has been invaluable. The cultural offerings of New York City itself, she notes, have also been a constant source of inspiration.
The stumble-through begins. Salinas takes off her green sweatshirt, as if distinguishing herself from several plants in the room. Yet in the opening sequence, as “Only Fools Rush In” plays, Salinas seems to become a flower, following with her body and gaze the moving wash of light as if seeking out the sun. Over the course of the one-woman show, she would transform many times, into various characters somehow connected to a teenager’s motorcycle crash against a huge tree. The dramaturgy itself is arboreal: the individuals’ stories branch out from the central “trunk” that is the accident and then from one tale to another. Even within each character, Salinas, thanks to the looper pedal, can have multiple voices, mirroring the philosophical concept that a single plant contains multitudes. Despite the non-anthropomorphic theme, the actress’s performance nonetheless confirms the power of human presence.
But Aparato Radical is not just about whether humans or plants matter more. Since we are humans, we are naturally anthropocentric. Yet Infante suggests that we still might benefit from better understanding plants: “If we accept that plants have other ways of thinking, feeling, communicating, defending themselves, other ways of being intelligent, other forms of consciousness and survival, maybe we can see how to transform our own notions of what it is to think, to feel, to communicate, and to be conscious.” This may sound like a daunting task, but Infante has always been able to translate such weighty, intricate ideas into accessible, visceral theater experiences that reveal the world anew. You don’t need to be able to talk to your Christmas tree, but you may now look at it as something other than seasonal decor—maybe even something you can learn from.
Alexandra Ripp is a DFA candidate in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at the Yale School of Drama, where she is completing her dissertation on contemporary Chilean theater and politics. She has published writing in Performing Arts Journal, Theater Journal, and Theater, in which her translation of and introduction to Manuela Infante’s Zoo is forthcoming. She has translated plays by Chilean theater artists Guillermo Calderón, Trinidad González, and Teatrocinema to subtitle their U.S. tours. She is the former Ideas Program Manager at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, CT.
Dec 9, 2016
There’s an exigency to Sibyl Kempson’s very weird, very wild work that makes me hesitant to describe her as an experimentalist (except maybe insofar as experimentation and trial are continuous conditions of life).
Like many powerful thinkers, Sibyl has no time for the existing valuations of what is high or low in our culture, and a real love of intelligent abundance wherever it occurs. My sense is that her interests are not formally experimental (in the sense of staking out a critical space external to the normative in order to speak to the normative) but rather tend toward the deep-time values of theater: getting in the room, experiencing collective energy as an act of repair. I once asked Sibyl about her approach to singing and she told me her job was “to put the song in the people.” It struck me as a figure for a blood transfusion, apposite in that somehow what I get when I experience the sheer performative force of Sibyl’s plays is counterpart to iron, to potassium, to the basic fact of immunity – something that allows our bodies to act on their own behalf, but is also a record and recollection of a communal, social-physical gift inheritance.
That sense of mission to be a spelunker of our various forms of inherited knowledge about how to live is evident in Sibyl’s new, in-progress play with songs, The Securely Conferred Vouchsafed Keepsakes of Maery S. Sibyl’s plays have always engaged with excess and often with the gleeful ventriloquism of existing forms of dramatic literature (the semi-unintelligible old English curse, the expressionistic Bergman film, the collected Springsteen ballads), but Maery S., like another recent play, Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, possesses an anti-(non?- skew?)-chronological sense of direction I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It seems to move in multiple, simultaneous pathways along its timelines as well as its latitudinal ones. This has something to do with a perception of confluence and transmission that flows across minor literatures and commonly dismissed forms of speech (like, say, a comment stream on a Bigfoot site). Merging the life of Mary Shelley, Shelley’s Frankenstein, years of Bigfoot research, stages of the Gothic, the figure of Doris Duke, river landscapes of Germany and America (with their campingplatzes and rest stops), the play asks, “Why shouldn’t I write of monsters?” (And what kind of truck stop ballad would the monster sing, after finding some hinge of redirection?)
In past workshops on the piece, Sibyl was focused on expanding the text and the songs (written with Austin-based composer Graham Reynolds). At BAC, Sibyl spent her weeks in residence asking questions about how to get the play onto its feet – not just a question of where to be in space but more urgently of the right set of ways of being in the body that both kept the humor and music alive but also made room for something monstrous to be present, both in Maery and in the monster. When I asked her about what she felt herself drawing on in approaching staging, Sibyl unspooled a wide-ranging set of sources, all of which in some way forms that face terror as both an internal and external form of confrontation: “The psychothriller of the 1970’s… the idea of the empty house… something is in the house, and you don’t know what… films like Klute, Don’t Look Now, The Sentinel, The Wicker Man, The Changeling, and particularly The Driver’s Seat, based on Muriel Spark’s late-career short story… Television shows I was vaguely remembering from when I was growing up and watching a lot of weird TV in the late 70’s that basically scared the living crap out of me, permanently… The prologue to James Whale’s film The Bride of Frankenstein from 1935… a LOT of YouTube video footage of Bigfoot sightings, and other YouTube videos of guys analyzing those sightings, as well as more fully-produced documentaries on the subject… Tours that you get to go on sometimes of old homes that have been taxidermied and turned into stuffy museums. The LBJ library in Austin. The Crook House in Omaha. Edwin Booth’s room at the Players Club. Graceland! Stroud Mansion. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Duke Farms! Southfork Ranch! Places where I’ve hiked and camped in the Rheinsteig region of Germany. The style is in the topography there, gentle and severe at the same time, long-civilized but it hasn’t forgotten its pre-Christian wildness and still honors it by what has been preserved through time.”
The byproduct of these things is like Shelley’s monster: it’s stitched-together, but it’s alive, and it holds a surprisingly large mandate to tell us something about what humans do and are and think. Another thing that happened at BAC was an originally unintended doubling of Maery, played at first in alternating rehearsals and then in tandem by Amelia Workman and Zenzi Williams. “Both are in high demand at the moment and it had been a solution for their complicated schedules,” said Sibyl. “But I loved there being a multiplicity expressed as a multiplied physical embodiment. I was already positing several versions of Maery (one for each definition of the word “Gothic”), and both Amelia and Zenzi brought something very special and variously elemental to the table which worked together beautifully. We could suddenly cover way more narrative ground, and the inhabitation of the idea of Mary Shelley took on more force and immediacy. They became Hecate! There were only two of them, but I kept seeing the threefold Goddess of the Underworld. A trebled face, a populace.”
Karinne Keithley Syers is a multidisciplinary artist and writer who has been making performance in New York since 1997, next up at The Chocolate Factory, where her radio play and paper corridor installation of A Tunnel Year will take place this December. She won a New York Dance and Performance "Bessie" Award for Outstanding Production for her 2010 operetta and museum Montgomery Park, or Opulence. She is a member of New Dramatists, the founding editor of 53rd State Press, and for one glorious year cohosted a show on WFMU, the jewel of freeform radio. She currently teaches playwriting at Eugene Lang/The New School. Find streamable and downloadable treasures at fancystitchmachine.org.
Apr 8, 2016
I arrive in the middle of Dave Malloy’s third-to-last rehearsal in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio. Eight shoeless performers flip through new scripts, lean over each other to point out lines, pass pens and pages back and forth. “Gelsey, can you take on Ishmael?” Malloy asks.
Today’s rehearsal is the first with director Rachel Chavkin, and the day’s agenda is described as “a sharing of what everyone’s learned.” The read-through is freewheeling and rough and energized. The text is familiar. “I’m just a big literature buff,” says Malloy when asked about his continued interest in adapting the canon. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, opening on Broadway in the fall, is based on Book 8 of War & Peace, and Malloy’s resume also includes adaptations of Shakespeare, Beowulf, Shubert, and The Bible. “Especially giant epic novels I have a real affinity for. I love that amazing sense of reading something that was written two or three hundred years ago and thinking, ‘that’s a thought I had yesterday!’ Seeing how humanity doesn’t change that much. I am looking at these classics through a very contemporary lens with the hope of rescuing them from their bad reputations.” At first listen, the script is dense and Melville-forward, but seems to resist heaviness by not dwelling on the finer narrative points: “My challenge is to adapt the novel on its own terms rather than extracting story. The novel is a very bizarre beast of a thing; it has all of these tangents and digressions, a bunch of different forms, and I wanted to embrace all of that.”
Malloy plays one-handed piano, someone shakes a tambourine, electropop backtracks are started and stopped, everyone dances in their chairs. The lone upright bass sounds more like a whale than I expect it to; more eerie than on-the-nose. The group seems amused by the grandeur of the language and the energy of the music. “Dance like whirling dervishes, dance like sun-kissed Brazilians,” they sing, alongside offhand contemporary references (“She works for a thinktank,” something about Capri Sun). Tahiti, Nantucket, India, Africa, and Russia are mentioned; size and scale and scope are subjects in themselves and are referred to directly: “the ocean is so vast and history is endless.” The script does not apologize for its largeness.
Whiteness as a condition or idea seems to function as a vein from Melville’s original document to Malloy’s contemporary priorities. “One of the beautiful things about Moby Dick is that Melville paints the whaleship as this utopian democracy where all of the communities and people of earth have bonded together. He talks a lot about where everyone comes from; it’s a diverse world. That said, it is 1851 so there is of course some problematic language, all the main characters are white, only the harpooners are people of color. The book itself contains some pretty interesting stuff about race; Ahab is white and has a weird relationship with Pip, a young man of color, and there is an amazing chapter called The Whiteness of The Whale which is about how whiteness is terrifying. We have lots of actors of color and we have women playing Ahab and the three mates. What would a diverse all-inclusive whaleship look like today? All of that is bubbling up in a really exciting way.”
Malloy is building a “large-form communal music theater event” as opposed to an opera, but the generic boundary is inconsequential: “My intention is to have the majority happen as song. I’m really drawn to the sung-through form; the few things that are spoken can resonate all the more. Spoken text is good for language that we want to really pop and for cumbersome exposition. Sometimes we just need people to say the lines so we can get to the song.” Rather than storytelling and dramaturgy (which will be fore-fronted in future residencies), rehearsals at BAC were devoted to music. “I am leading it more as a band leader and less as an Actors Equity-style 29 hour workshop. We purposefully didn't hire a musical director or stage manager. I love that collaborative breaking down of barriers.”
Due to sheer volume of the source material and his commitment to attend to all of it, Malloy’s Moby Dick welcomes unwieldiness. “My experience of seeing really long theater pieces is that you end up having a communal experience. You take breaks together, you feel like you’re in a process together. We’ll have a lunch break, a dinner break, lots of beer and rum. That’s what the whaling ship was like; they were stuck in a communal experience for three years; we want the audience to feel like they’re there on the ship, experiencing this giant epic thing.”
Lydia Mokdessi is a Brooklyn-based dance artist and writer from Chicago, Illinois. She has worked with choreographers Anthony Gongora, Heather McArdle, Alexandra Pinel, Emie Hughes, Stormy Budwig, Buck Wanner, and Maida Withers, and her work has been presented by Gibney Dance, Movement Research, Triskelion Arts, Fourth Arts Block, Dixon Place, and Brooklyn Arts Exchange. She currently works with choreographers Stormy Budwig and Buck Wanner and makes duets with performer/musician Benjamin Wagner. She is editor of Culturebot and her writing has appeared in New York Live Arts Context Notes, American Realness Reading, and Movement Research Critical Correspondence. She is a 2016 Guest Curator for the CURRENT SESSIONS and co-organizer of Community of Practice, an initiative for early-career artists and writers supported by University Settlement.
Dec 23, 2015
I arrive 1 day before the showing that will culminate Brokentalkers’ residency.
They are IN the theater in that long-haul-concentrated-frayed-edge-work-mode that often takes root in the final hours before making a private process public.
Gary Keegan (co-director) is onstage facing ¾ away from me hunkered at a console on which sits a laptop running projections. Feidlim Cannon (co-director) sits in the middle of the front row, legs crossed, his forehead in his right hand. To his left is a young man named Neimhin Robinson Gunning who (in the fragment I see) will voice a man throughout his entire life all in one moment. He wears a gold lamé jacket and sunglasses. Across the stage in the shadow with his back to me is the Sean Millar the composer. I never see Jessica Kennedy the choreographer.
Feidlim asks the young man in gold to stand in the spotlight (well, once there is a spot. They are in tech mode and lights are flipping on and off. Feidlim says maybe “it could just be him.” The lights settle, the young man rises.)
My paraphrasing memory recalls him asking and answering the following:
“Where’d you have your first kiss? On a boat.”
“What age were you? 25.”
The narrative timeline speeds up but not the pace of delivery:
“I’m 31.” (Sometimes the young man speaks in German with Gary projecting subtitles- I learn later this is their first go and all are relieved they work.) “I’m 38. I’m 42. I’m bald and have a potbelly, I’m 53. I’m 60. I’m 64, 68, 72…” I remember thinking, they have crossed right through my own age and that it does sometimes now feel that fast.
A break is called so Gary, Feidlim and I head toward coffee
I ask about the genesis of the pixelated aging material I just watched. Gary says it was happening all around them, his parents, himself, his children: that it is one of the few things that happens to every community. “…and we have assumptions about how kids should feel as they grow up….how parents should eventually maybe slow down a bit…”
Feidlim says, “We’ve been working on this idea in different ways for a couple of years.” First, we interviewed senior citizens on film asking their predictions for the world after they’re gone - that became Future Forecasts. That project led to another called Frequency 783. Gary: “from these different shapes we started thinking about assisted suicide – about ‘Body Autonomy’ – and we decided to get more focused on telling a story.
About a year ago they began work in Dublin via a process “that didn’t really work for us…” “This is a second chance, a lot of material didn’t make it over here…” But it always focused on some version of an “18 year old man (Neimhin) and a “woman in her 40’s (Adrienne Truscott, the other performer, who apparently was being interviewed by Sandra Bernhard that morning). “They are the two onstage playing the two onstage or playing two who talk about the two who are onstage – both narrating and being. They play instruments but are not ‘professional’ but they are being ‘a band.’”
The residency fortuitously kicked off at a book launch party for St Mark’s Is Dead by Ada Calhoun - at which former members of the Beastie Boys and Bikini Kill played together. Feidlim describes how redolent the whole event was of an 80’s “punk” scene in New York that has now been paved over. “…it brought a tone that New York could bring to this work – we are here because it is offered by BAC, an opportunity to work on this, but this also allowed us to have a taste of New York as a starting place for the work– Adrienne led us to that event and we had made our way to Adrienne (who is New York based) for what she could authentically bring… this rubbed off on us very early in this residency and seeped into the work.”
I know the piling up imperatives the day before a showing, so I ask if there is anything else they would like said before we stop?
They both say: this time has been crucial, “…very supportive but also the people at BAC just let us get on with it.” Feidlim smiles and says, “we’ll see how we feel tomorrow.
Ain Gordon is a three-time Obie Award-winning writer/director/actor, a two-time NYFA recipient and a Guggenheim Fellow in Playwriting. Gordon’s work has been seen at BAM Next Wave, New York Theatre Workshop, Soho Rep., Public Theatre, 651 ARTS, Dance Theater Workshop, PS 122, Baryshnikov Arts Center, and HERE (all NY); Mark Taper Forum (CA), George Street Playhouse (NJ), Vermont Performance Lab, Flynn Center (VT), Krannert Center (IL), OnStage at Connecticut College, MASS MoCA, Baltimore Museum of Art (MD), DiverseWorks (TX), VSA North Fourth Arts Center (NM), Jacob’s Pillow (MA), LexArts (KY), Dance Space (DC), and others. Gordon’s Art Life & Show-Biz; A Non-Fiction Play is published in Palgrave’s “Dramaturgy Of The Real.” Gordon has collaborated with Sō Percussion at the Walker (MN), BAM Next Wave (NY), River To River (NY), Philadelphia Fringe, and more; with Bebe Miller at Wexner (OH), Helena Presents (MT), and others; with David Gordon at American Repertory Theatre (MA), American Conservatory Theater (CA) and American Music Theatre Festival (PA). Gordon was an original Off-Broadway cast member of Spalding Gray: Stories Left To Tell and toured with it to UCLA, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (OR), ICA Boston (Elliot Norton Award nom), the Walker (MN), and New Territories (UK), and more. Gordon has been a co-Director of the Pick Up Performance Co(s) since 1992.