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.
Amanda Szeglowski and her company, cakeface, was in residence at BAC June 6 - July 2, 2022, rehearsing a new-and-yet-untitled work exploring the realm of the supernatural. This virtual interview between Amanda and myself took place during this time.
Ivan Talijancic: I’d like to start by asking you about your artistic lineage. I have been following your work for some time now and always felt that you occupy a deeply idiosyncratic place in the sphere of American contemporary performance in the US, making work that truly is unlike any other. I feel like being a “writer/director” or a “performer/choreographer” are all-too-familiar tropes, but I think of you as a writer/choreographer, where both dimensions have equal potency, which is a rare find. What was your path to finding this unique approach?
Amanda Szeglowski: I've been drawn to storytelling since childhood. I started begging for dance class when I was three and at eleven I wrote my first play. I cast all of the neighborhood kids and scheduled rehearsals in the garage, but I never actually produced it. I was having too much fun rewriting the script day after day. (Ironically that's still a big part of my process). I chose to center my education on dance, but writing always remained part of my practice. At my arts high school, I learned about the possibilities that arise when I combine the two, and that fascinated me. When I got to NYC, I worked with choreographers extensively. Though non-verbal, much of the work was using narrative in a way that I hadn't really seen before and it impacted me greatly. Then when I launched cakeface in 2008, my personal style began to crystallize.
IT: Much of the work coming out of the New York “downtown” scene takes a rather irreverent, DIY approach. Personally, one of the things that really stands out in your work is just how meticulously crafted your pieces are, which gives them a sort of a European flair. Any thoughts you could share about where this artistic rigor and discipline derive from?
AS: I've always been a detail-oriented person, but the seed, in a creative respect, was probably planted during my earliest days as a dancer. For most of my childhood I trained at a Cuban dance studio in Florida, where every costume was incredibly ornate; every detail was considered. That definitely made an impression on me. Much later, when I began making my own work in NYC, I would strategize ways in which I could pull off something that appeared to have a high production value despite a virtually nonexistent budget. I've always cared not only about the work itself, but also how it is presented. What is the world that the piece lives in, and how can I manifest it? And I try to eliminate distractions in my work as much as possible, so the message is central. This is where rigor and discipline come in. If I am hoping to make some sort of a statement, I am generally trying to do it in a subtle or exploratory manner, so the path for that kind of messaging has to be clear. My goal with everything I make is for it to be relatable. My discipline and craft work to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, any noise that might get in the way of that.
IT: You have a knack for tapping into highly idiosyncratic subject matter. The project that you are developing here at BAC delves into a mysterious, even metaphysical territory. What drew you to this material?
AS: I’m all too familiar with existential angst. It's just my personality to always be asking impossible questions and obsessing over/dreading the unknowns. The pandemic, of course, magnified things exponentially and went right for the jugular - forcing us to face the reality of our own mortality. Personally, I've found that I combat my constant fear of death and destruction by consuming media related to psychic mediums, paranormal encounters, near death experiences, children who recall past lives, etc. The more anxious and stressed out I get, the further down the Reddit rabbithole I go. It's wonderful down there.
So the inception of the project was a combination of this moment in time, with all of these anxious feelings top of mind, my "paranormal therapy" if you will, and then a spark of nostalgia, which is the foundation for all of my work. In the 70s and 80s there was a friend of the family who had "the gift" and would read my family members. She died before I was able to get to know her, but as a creative kid, I'd hear the stories and always had grand images of her in my mind. She never really left me. Then there was this perfect storm and all of the disparate pieces just came together. That happens a lot. I always have several ideas just percolating in the recesses of my mind for years and then new components reveal themselves bit by bit and suddenly the path is clear and the piece needs to be made, now.
IT: Marvelous! Having tackled this material head-on during BAC residency, what do you feel you have been able to accomplish during this time? What are some new discoveries that have emerged, and are you already thinking about what’s next for this new work?
AS: The BAC residency has been truly invaluable; the generosity of time and space has allowed me to really be "in" the work. In the best scenarios, I follow my instincts and then let the piece lead me. And I was able to do that here. Specifically, I managed to get a handle on the performers' relationships to one another, establish the embodiment of Roxy (the inspirational psychic that I mentioned earlier) as a voiceover, perhaps eventually a hologram, and I laid the foundation for the tone and flow of the piece. As for new discoveries, I had a breakthrough idea for the scenic landscape that unlocked a lot of possibilities for me. Setting the "world" in which the piece lives is always a critical step in my creative process, and being able to determine that element while at BAC was a huge leap forward.
The composer that I am working with for this project, Christina Campanella, was simultaneously in another residency developing an opera, so my focus at BAC has been writing and choreography. The next step for this work is another intensive developmental period where we can start to integrate Christina's music. Sound design will be a key component of this piece, as there will be live songs, text, and music throughout.
I enjoy when work takes me on a journey of highs and lows and this project at the moment is heavy on the high side. Dark humor is a signature quality of my work and while this piece fully embraces that vibe, I also plan to add some more poignant moments, and a sliver of hope. So expanding the emotional range is something I look forward to working on in the next stage as well. Also hearing more stories. After our showing several people shared their own paranormal experiences and I’m loving that, bring it on!
Ivan Talijancic is a time-based artist and cultural producer, working at the intersection of theater, dance, film, installation art, new media, journalism, curatorial work and education in New York and around the globe. As a co-founder of the multidisciplinary art group WaxFactory, his work has been presented at numerous venues and festivals worldwide. Ivan is currently a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s John Wells Directing Program, the artistic director of CPP/Contemporary Performance Practice summer intensive in Croatia, and a member of The Bessies selection committee. He holds an MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts.
Sorry John Henry the song has no end
mace dent johnson
I'm not typically one for a Q&A or a talkback. I briefly worked for a director who turned to me after opening night of their show, moments before the talkback, and said “Shall we go?” Apparently, they rarely went to talkbacks or Q&As, not even for their own shows—and I took that permission gratefully.
Still, I was immensely grateful for the more-of-a-comment-than-a-question from Imani Uzuri, acclaimed genre-pushing contemporary vocalist and composer, who was in both the audience and the chorus of Sorry John Henry the song has no end. They said, and I paraphrase, “This was very avant,” and encouraged us to lean into the avant-garde-ness of the project. They said blackness is an avant-garde lived experience and that our performance expressed that, moved through it.
The term “avant-garde” came into vogue in artistic contexts during the first World War. The phrase became popular among a largely white populace of European artists who felt newly confronted by mortality, political immorality, the racial other, and hyper-industrialization. Modern artists sought out new ways to make art that more adequately reflected unprecedented times. “Avant-garde,” which translates to “advance guard,” had its pre-Modernism origins in the context of the battlefield as early as the 15th century. Broad swaths of artists across the political-ideological continuum found meaning in this repurposed military term. They felt their art was pushing up against a real danger, was right on the edge of something destructive, potent, entirely new. These artists felt that it could all come crashing down at any moment—"it” being many things, a construction of pure whiteness, the literal physical world, the state, a rain of missiles. At what felt like the end, artists became, somewhat paradoxically, obsessed with newness.
Uzuri’s comment rang true—we had, in a literal way, created something new, and we were drawing upon shared lived experiences of living through and against impossibilities to do so. But throughout the process of developing Sorry John Henry the song has no end, Ian Askew, the creator of the project and primary artist in residence at BAC, reminded us that we were actually doing something quite old. The project is thinking through, collaging from, and responding to John Henry, the 1940 Broadway musical based on a 1931 novel of the same name by Roark Bradford. Once a first lieutenant in the Coast Artillery during World War I, and later a Trainer in the Navy Reserves during World War II, Bradford was also a white writer who made a living writing stories in convoluted dialect about Black people in the American Southeast.
The Broadway adaptation of John Henry features Bradford’s bizarre, imagined “black” dialect alongside virtuosic performances by Paul Robeson (as John Henry), Ruby Elzy, Josh White, and Bayard Rustin, among others. For the most part, Bradford’s John Henry is a pretty typical John Henry story—perhaps with a bit more latent depression, body horror, and obligatory substance abuse. John Henry is a hard working roustabout, who brazenly goes up against a steam winch, loses, and dies trying. The story backstage was a bit less typical—the Broadway run ended abruptly, just five days after opening, due financial mismanagement and labor exploitation. Despite owing him wages for previous performances and travel, the show’s producers expected Robeson to continue working. Robeson, of course, left the show. This was right at the beginning of Robeson’s journey as a labor organizer, which would eventually land him on federal communism watchlists.
Sorry John Henry the song has no end opens and speaks back to this strange time capsule. At the start of each day at BAC, three of the project’s musicians (Dyani Douze, Eden Girma, and Khari Lucas,) set up their many devices at the center of the room—a sort of altar/machine that grew and adapted over our time in residence and will continue to grow as we build out the project. They plugged in laptops, microphones, and MIDI controllers, and, together with Jasmine Wilson and Joshuah Campbell, warmed up on an impressive assortment of instruments, like mbira, bass, electric guitar, clarinet, saxophone, and an eclectic mix of percussion.
Then, under the direction of Ian Askew, with musical direction from Joshuah Campbell, visits from dancer and choreographer Kiara Benn, and writing and dramaturgical consultation from me, we set out to make music, to sing stories, to find resonances across the long story of John Henry. Ian would say, “Can you take as much time as you need to electronically render a moving steamboat?” and soon we’d be underwater, caught in the work and the waves. From an archive of images, songs, spaces, and figures (collected by Ian in digital and physical archives, like the Harvard University and New York Public Library Theater Collections,) we made a living collage through homage and interrogation of John Henry and John Henry, and the black folks in orbit of both of those stories.
We took an archival-musical approach, working with songs the stars of John Henry were known for performing, like Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” and Ruby Elzy’s rendition of “My Man’s Gone Now.” The latter came right at the end of the BAC showing of Sorry John Henry. Vocalist Jasmine Wilson sang the song as two sampled versions of Elzy’s voice, mixed by Khari Lucas and Dyani Douze, echoed in the background. We also took a textual-archival approach. My initial and primary role on the show was the creation of erasure poems from the text of the stage directions of the Broadway musical. These erasure poems became a performance score and a script for monologue, dialogue, and lyrics. We took the words Bradford had written to direct (see: control) black actors on stage, and made something else—something more appropriately absurd, abstract, haunting, haunted.
Everyone on the team, all from different lineages and backgrounds, grew up with John Henry, the American folk hero (and steel driving fool) at the center of stories traced back to the early 20th century in Black America. Maybe there was a flesh and blood John Henry, and maybe there wasn’t, but black people (and others, eventually, of course) have been telling stories about him for a hundred years regardless. The stories have taken countless forms—a cautionary story about overworking, a valiant story about overworking, a story about the body’s limits, a story about the mighty mighty union, a story about union busting, a story about the collective, a story about the individual. A patriotic Disney movie, an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants where SpongeBob, as John Henry, actually wins. Bradford’s tale of jive-talking, adulterating, coke-sniffing black life and work. And now us. As Black Americans, especially those descended from enslaved Africans, how do we make sense of our relationship to work in this country? How do we sing about work in our songs? How do we sing when singing is work, how do we make our work sound like song?
Our howling, lilting, laughing rendition of this story that’s been being told for so long. As I sat on our strange and inverted stage, doing way more singing and performing than I thought I would be doing, (I’m just a writer, I insisted all month, How do I even plug in this mic?,) I crooked my neck to see the audience sitting behind me. They looked, as far as I could tell, pretty unsettled and confused.
During the post-showing Q&A, folks in the audience asked questions about the Broadway musical, struggling to understand how all that could have happened if they had never heard of it. Others wondered about the musical machine we had built in the center of the room before them. What’s with all the chords? Are we supposed to sing too? Bubbling beneath the questions, I sensed a more latent uncertainty—what was that? What is it that I am feeling right now? And I get it—as with much of what is avant-garde, the usual frameworks for engaging with, relating to, and making sense of a thing fall short. It is an uncomfortable feeling.
Many in the room were right there with us, finding their place in or near the thing, finding a way to listen and respond. Others found themselves closer, still, to the story: Early on, Ian had the idea to invite friends, acquaintances, and mentors, to meet with us a bit before the showing and learn some of our call and response songs so that they could sing with us, a revised version of the chorus from Bradford’s text. Members of the chorus spoke of the meditative, immersive, salve-like quality of the thing, washing over them like steam.
We set out to make a thing about John Henry and about John Henry and about work. In appropriately avant-garde fashion, what we made together was also about alienation—the alienation of work, the alienation of the stage, of audience. The alienation of being the subject of a capsized empire, of being already always away from home. This collaboration was a way for us to translate and transform our fears, anxieties, and ecstasies around life and social death, selling labor and making love, being black and making art, and to trace our threads backward alongside autonomous black thought that has been happening forever.
The work-in-progress showing of Sorry John Henry the song has no end was created and performed by Ian Askew, mace dent johnson, Joshuah Brian Campbell, Dyani Douze, Eden Girma, Khari Lucas, and Jasmine Wilson, with additional material from Kiara Benn and Davóne Tines. Developed in collaboration with Morgan Johnson, Gabby Preston, and Lauren Nicholson, and with ongoing support from Wake Forest University.
mace dent johnson is a queer and trans black writer from the south. They grew up in Columbus, Georgia and currently live in St. Louis, Missouri. mace received their MFA in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis in 2021, where they currently serve as the Senior Poet in Residence, teaching poetry to undergraduates. They are a Cave Canem and Watering Hole fellow. mace writes about precious objects, heartbreak, blackness, and the natural world. They also work in collage, essay, and theater.
Writer, teacher, and “performance enabler” Aaron Landsman is currently curious about a particular set of hours: 2:50-5:10. While he attaches no modifier to these numbers in his performance text Night Keeper, audience members in attendance at his recent showing of the work in the Rudolf Nureyev Studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center quickly understood his preoccupation with the after-midnight as actor Jehan Young brought down the shades in the large studio. Two women fanning themselves to ward off the late-June heat seemed particularly grateful for this respite from the day’s sun. Situated in near-darkness, illuminated only by a clip light throwing brightness against a cool stone wall, Jehan began to read Landsman’s text to a crowd assembled against a long wall while some viewers chose to sit in chairs arranged in pairs throughout the massive room:
“Maybe you’re 9 years old? Maybe 8. Maybe 10. You can’t fall asleep.”
From this position the 9 or 8 or 10 year old is privy to their parents’ television set playing a late-night talk show. From this position, more acutely, the 9 or 8 or 10 year old learns how to use restlessness as an opportunity for oblique communion. It’s an inciting moment: the discovery of a very foundational intimacy with the self mediated by the comings-and-goings of close creatures who become mysterious by virtue of their present, yet hidden activities.
Over the course of the monologue, accompanied by guitarist Norm Westberg’s exquisite live loops—built through improvisation in the rehearsal room with a few pre-mixed samples at the ready—a child’s first brush with restlessness becomes an adult’s quiet battle with insomnia, heroically reclaimed as “night keeping.” And in the in-between space of this journey, the restless child and sleepless adult/parent become conversational companions (the dialogue performed with light characterization by Jehan) as the piece toggles between observations made between the aforementioned space of 2:50-5:10 by the lone adult and more playful episodes initiated by the precocious kid.
“What was it like when you were as young as me?”
“That’s actually a really long time ago.”
“It used to be that when we wanted to reach someone we had to be in the house, attached to a wall by an umbilical contraption called the telephone.”
Sleeplessness opens the floodgates of memories temporally near and far, often blurring the distinction. For anyone who has ever been haunted by a particularly searing experience, something that happened ten or twenty years ago can feel, as they say, like yesterday. But Aaron is not so interested in recounting traumas as he is in marveling at the changes he has witnessed in himself and the world. His memories live in the lovely banal, so plain they invite audience members to recall the nights they have spent in foreign beds, been kept awake by the sounds of garbage trucks, and tracked the revolving doors of their overpopulated apartment buildings. In that way, the piece is a love letter to the city dweller. And I am that.
In Aaron’s project those memories become sites on a map, replacing chronology with association. In Night Keeper, he physically realizes this idea by creating a movement score in collaboration with Jehan that travels through the audience. During the showing that I’ve been describing, I served as Jehan’s assistant—a fellow night keeper, albeit a quiet, lurking one— bringing her chairs and striking a light to build and collapse Aaron’s short scenes. The performance ended with a short commiserating exchange between the two of us—man, this job, am I right?—preceded by a dance of smartphones constructed by choreographer Hilary Clark with the assistance of David Guzman, who taught me and Jehan the sequence the day before the work was presented to the public.
I performed this text myself in 2020 at the Chocolate Factory in an earlier work-in-progress showing, so I am familiar with Aaron’s thinking and writing. But the better verb might be whittling, as Aaron continues to sculpt the text in small fits of subtraction, generating bursts of text to be cut, cut, cut as he listens to their resonance in the room. At the top of my script, I made a little note, eavesdropping on Aaron in conversation with Norm as they discussed a contrapuntal relationship that had begun to emerge between Jehan’s delivery and the musician’s guitar. I heard Aaron say: “It brings out a sentimental quality that I think is kinda scary-good.” In the dimmed lights of the Nureyev, designed by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, I liked contemplating what makes sentimentality scary and good. In the final moments of Night Keeper, opening her gaze out to a rapt crowd of fellow night keepers (spoiler: we all keep the night), Jehan reports in tones even and poignant: “We sag with moisture. Our arms are hoops. Regrets lullaby us.” I cannot say I understand the steps of her logic, but there are traces of tears and shapes of holes in her prosaic musings. And no one’s pillow is a stranger to those marks.
In the Space, On Its Feet
I was a little scared of meeting Peter and Julia. Or, uneasy. Or, something. It turns out, if you choose to meet someone through the mainstream media portrayal of them, you may find yourself confused or, at least, apprehensive. I formed this unfounded fear after reading the coverage of their previous show, [50/50] old school animation.
Julia, especially, is portrayed as a sociopathic, unfeeling millennial, who deadpans ominous stories about harming close friends.
Of course, that’s a performance. This is real life. But, if I’ve learned anything about Peter and Julia in our short time together, it’s that those modes steep together in ways that are hilarious and biting, in the same breath. They tread steadily along a path, shaken by nature, that’s been blurred and blundered by autobiography and theatricality. They keep circling the cul-de-sac of houses situated between reality and hyperbole. They don’t necessarily meet in the middle or towards any point: they keep circling.
I think a different kind of writer would use this as the moment to dispel the frank mythologies and monolithic understandings of them and their work: Playwrights! They have feelings, too! But, I am not interested in upholding any single image of them or treating my peek into their process as fully able to magnify their unique prism. Part of that is because they have been working on this new piece, while you were partying, for two years and, in some ways, have barely cracked the surface. Part of that is because — though they gave me a glimpse into their rehearsal process, sent me videos, and a script to read — I don’t know if it’s a worthy exercise to attempt to synthesize it here. Perhaps, (I think) it’s beyond synthesis. Part of that is because it’s so boring and unoriginal to reduce artists, these artists, to the sum of their parts. I won’t do it.
At a certain point in our initial conversation, Peter remarks that the best version of Hamlet he could ever see would be someone who has lived Hamlet’s exact life: a melancholy prince with an unsparing, violent uncle who is visited by ghosts in Elsinore and is plagued by his own inability to act. Well, literalness aside, it works better as conceptual conceit: we have to believe that the nature and nurture and happenstance of life make a difference. Not to say that other versions can’t be as compelling or magical, but there is something underlying there that would feed the work beyond the premise of talent or practice or the politics of representation, which, we agree, are important, too. Maybe, he suggests, another example is the recent performance of actor Emily Davis in Half Straddle’s Is This A Room (which, I brag to them, I’ve seen twice). For the record, Emily is an incredible actor, but: “Did you know Emily grew up near where Reality [Winner, the real-life whistleblower the play is based on] grew up?,” Peter says. “It feeds it. It has to.”
while you were partying is a stinging, disarming series of dialogues and monologues. It is structured, essentially, as a table read. This is due, in part, to the fact that Peter and Julia don’t really fuck with sets, props, or costumes too much. There is enough to deal with in the language and movement; they don’t really need a lighting change. In fact, anything more here carries the danger of distracting (or allowing an audience a respite) from this enclosed world, situated at a table, that feels both real and outlandish.
In addition to Julia (“Julia”) and Peter (“Mom”), they are joined by Brian (“Brian”) and Brett (“Todd”). Brian and Brett both come from comedy backgrounds, in real life, and Julia and Peter met them both by going to stand up open mics around the city. They tell me that Brian sometimes has his mom Skype into his sets to effects both hilarious and uncomfortable. Brett used to host a public access television show which he was very devoted to and, in their telling, seemed like if Nathan For You came to the community center. It feeds it, it has to.
There’s already a “self-creation aspect" to their work, Peter says, that helps them devise in the room instead of pander to any prompts or scripts. In fact, they never usually enter the room with a script. The process becomes a layering of improvising, questioning, scripting, memorizing, improvising, forgetting, remembering, re-memorizing, doing it all, throwing it all away, and starting over, not necessarily in that order. They share a version of this during their final residency showing; three discrete sections that were once nearly memorized but, one day, in a hungover-weekend-rehearsal-haze, they rebelled against that instinct and enacted the entire work from memory. The result is this performance — right here, right now — which carries the knowledge that it could warp significantly the next time and the next time.
The centerpiece of this showing is an extended scene between Mom and Todd, wherein Todd comes to audition for the role of “Wizard” under Mom’s cold, perturbed direction: “Face front, Todd. Look at the audience, Todd.” Todd is committed and humiliated, all at once, a sensation that weighs on the room more and more as he goes. What starts out as a triumphant imitation of the kookiest Harry Potter World wizard you could imagine sees Todd shrinking more and more, tracing from an ebullient British accent to a slow, quiet, dude-drawl.
This is… really funny. Seeing the ways this man — a cis, white man named Todd — is totally betrayed by his own abilities is entirely satisfying. In some ways, this illustrates closely the questions around toxic aggression and violence that emerge in this work. Todd’s own self-betrayal is the ultimate antagonist, rendering a confident performance to shreds through a slow process that mimics a public shaming of sorts. We could name the underlying ruse something akin to toxic masculinity, though, Julia is quick to point out, anger is usually masculinized whether we like it or not. Toxic masculinity, the concept (or buzzword) as we know it, “doesn’t really need me to engage with it, because it’s been diagnosed,” she adds.
Where Todd is bumbling and dorky, Brian is sullen and stoic. He is before us as an agent of Julia’s body in death. In fact, he is brought before us to tell us the story of Julia’s body. He listens to lines fed to him from his iPhone headphones — a literal act of transmission from the afterlife — and informs us of her past trauma, involving a tight pelvis and her inability to enjoy sexual intercourse because of how much pain it causes her. So much so that she has to go to physical therapy but then has to stop going because her insurance runs out. She tells us of the drugs she needs to remain clear-headed, the ways she’s been shamed by men, confused as to why his penis doesn’t easily fit into her tight, unwelcome vagina. But, he/she tells us: “I am not interested in confession, I am interested in healing.”
Julia comes back as Julia towards the end of this sharing. She comes back to tell us things Brian couldn’t. She comes back to tell us that she is a “dangerous soul” and if we see her in real life we should kill her (“...if you can”). For some reason, we need to hear it directly from her, the source. It harkens back to the same, sociopathic Julia I was convinced of in [50/50] old school animation. It reminds me of the ways self-harm centers itself in this work and, with all the acknowledgement of masculinized aggression, it is Julia who is calling the shots, leading the construction, an imploding orbit placing her as its central planet. We are led to believe that, if she didn’t orchestrate everything, at least she is involved in determining its fate.
“While you were preparing to die, I was preparing to fight,” she says, riffing off the meme for which this work gets its title. Though the language is caustic, I have to believe her experiences are baked into the cake I am tasting here. I have to believe that this stems from a shred of truth, somewhere, somehow, circling the cul-de-sac over and over. I have to believe what she is telling me, because it’s too real not to be real. I have to believe that it makes a difference… It feeds it, it has to.
Tara Sheena is a dancer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. As a performer, she has collaborated on recent projects with Catherine Galasso, Ivy Baldwin. Gillian Walsh, Leyya Tawil, Nadia Tykulsker, Ursula Eagly, Lindsey Dietz Marchant, stormy budwig, and Faye Driscoll for the forthcoming film, Shirley. Her latest writing, Capital-D Dance, is a chapbook collaboration with artist Katie Dean, which you can purchase on Etsy! She was born in Detroit and graduated from the University of Michigan with a BFA in Dance and BA in English in 2011.
Certain stories demand to be told as operas. Their drama or tragedy is so poignant as to be inherently operatic. Such is the case with Janet Frame’s 1968 novel Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, which director Mallory Catlett and composer Aaron Siegel are adapting for the stage as an opera called Rainbird, taking its title from the lead family’s poetic last name.
I spoke with Catlett and Siegel towards the end of their BAC Space Residency. They are rigorous and thoughtful artists who are telling, according to them, a story that starts out dark and gets darker. And yet, the iterative process of collaboration they describe appears to maintain spaciousness.
Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room is a story of life and death (mostly death), trauma, anxieties, erasure, and difference. A man, Godfrey Rainbird, is pronounced dead from an accident, and then comes alive three days later in the morgue. This indigestible rewind infects his family, a wife and two children; his place of business, a tourism agency; and society at large by way of the media. No one in his life is able to process his death experience. It forces everyone to confront their own mortality, which pushes their psyches and behavior to the edge. Godfrey becomes a liability and a pariah. His difference is intolerable.
Sharing her deep familiarity with and affinity for Frame, Catlett articulates exactly why this novel begs to be an opera: these characters are mundane, but this is a mythic experience; how we deal with life and death is how we are connected to the gods.
Catlett came to Frame in graduate school; Siegel came to Frame through Catlett. Award-winning, reclusive, and prolific, she has a cult following for her poetic approach to prose and her unabashed writing on mental illness and death, some stemming from her own experiences coming of age in New Zealand. Catlett and Siegel have collaborated once before, with Catlett directing an opera Siegel had composed and written. For Rainbird, they wanted to develop something together from the beginning. Siegel is still composing and Catlett directing, but they are writing, or as they say more accurately, assembling, the libretto together, heavily inspired by the novel. It is also Frame’s agility with language that lends her text to song.
As for the music, a self-professed romantic, Siegel described finding ways to juxtapose sound to the tone or mood of a scene. He talked about creating additional meaning through sound, having the most impact on the storytelling at that moment, commenting on, and creating from, the language at the same time.
With three instrumentalists and four vocalists, Catlett and Siegel shared a searing excerpt from the opera in progress in November at the residency’s culmination. For the two years they have been developing Rainbird, they have integrally included the instrumentalists and vocalists in the process. Atypical for opera, these fellow collaborators have participated in creative decision-making, rendering ideas musically, and improvising; they therefore know the text and music intimately. As Siegel promised it would, the music aptly, viscerally echoed the narrative’s anxieties with moaning violin and plinking toy piano. The singers’ voices were achingly ethereal and transporting. The excerpt took us through Godfrey’s death and resurrection, his wife Beatrice’s confusion, his sister’s futile attempt to aim her towards religion as a salve, and his boss’ letting him go with a (paltry) “tidy sum” as recompense. It was heartbreaking.
On display was exactly what Catlett had described in Frame’s work: the characters’ (humanity’s) paralyzing inability to deal with the unknown–foremost death–and the related tendency to destroy those things we cannot explain. Also on display was Catlett and Siegel’s sonic, visual, and emotional capacity for operatic storytelling and their powerful ability to shine light on the darkness.
Melissa Levin is an arts administrator and curator committed to innovative, inclusive, and comprehensive approaches to supporting artists and initiating programs. She is currently the VP of Artists, Estates and Foundations at Art Agency Partners, where she advises artists and their families on legacy planning. Previously, Levin worked at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for more than 12 years, where as VP of Cultural Programs she led the program design and artistic direction of LMCC's Artist Residency programs, the Arts Center at Governors Island, and the River To River Festival. Together with Alex Fialho, Levin has curated multiple, critically-acclaimed exhibitions dedicated to the late Michael Richards’s art, life, and legacy. Levin proudly serves on the boards of the Alliance of Artists Communities and Danspace Project. She received a B.A. with honors in Visual Art and Art History from Barnard College.
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.