Aaron Baker Feckles the Barnstrum

January 29, 2008

Aaron Baker

SONJA: …I just wanted to say that I’m sorry that I wasn’t around when your dad died.

AJ: Don’t worry about it….Sometimes…no, forget it.

SONJA: No, what is it?

AJ: Well, it sounds crazy, but sometimes it’s like I…I still see him, you know?

SONJA: No, that’s not crazy.

AJ: And he says “feckle the barnstrum.” And I say, “what?” And he puts his hand on my shoulder and he says again, “feckle the barnstrum.” Then he takes one of his legs off and tries to hit me with it, but he loses his balance and turns into a bunch of owls…

That’s just a sample of Aaron Baker and Frank Padellaro’s 3800 Elizabeth, a dry and irreverent new stage sitcom that follows the everyday trevails of three thirtysomethings in New York City. The Welding Club presents their 6-episode comedy in weekly installments at The Battle Ranch in Williamsburg starting on Sunday, February 3rd. Co-writer and director Aaron Baker (pictured above) answers some questions about the production, which stars Peter Handy, Iracel Rivero, and yours truly.

Let’s start by talking about what this show actually is. Because it isn’t your everyday, run-of-the-mill theater production, is it?

It’s a sitcom for the stage. We want it to be as much like a television sitcom as possible, but to have that immediacy and interaction between performer and audience that one can only get from live theatre.

Why did you decide to do the show in an episodic serial format instead of the usual full-length, one-time-only format?

Well, that’s the way sitcoms are. I was thinking about the old action serials, when people would go out to the movie theatres regularly to catch the next episode, and I was wishing that one could still do that. And the closest thing we have to that now is what people call appointment television. So I wanted to bring those two concepts together.

Why a sitcom instead of a drama?

Because I’m better at it.

Okay, let’s get more specific: what is 3800 Elizabeth about and who are the main characters?

It’s not – at least in terms of plot – really about anything. It’s just three people who happen to be very funny interacting with each other and sometimes other people in ways that I think are funny. You have AJ, the Germanophile bartender, his hypochondriac ex-girlfriend Sonja, and his childhood friend Mike, who has just moved to the big city from a slightly smaller city.

What does the title refer to, by the way?

It could be the address where Sonja and Mike (and formerly AJ) live; it could be the address of the bar where AJ works and they all hang out; it could be the name of the bar. I leave it up to the audience to draw its own conclusions. Really we just took the name from the title of the theme song, so you’d have to ask Luke Cavagnac, who wrote it.

Do you have any favorite sitcoms?

There was a show called Lookwell that ran once, I believe, that starred Adam West and was written by Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel; that was brilliant. The first season of What I Like about You (I love Amanda). Sports Night.

So, what are the logistics of producing a show like this? Is each episode standard sitcom length? And will there be a new episode every week?

They are theoretically standard sitcom length (22 minutes, 30 with commercials), but I haven’t timed them at all, and I’m not terribly concerned about making them come out to exactly the right length. There will be new episodes almost every week. I decided to do one rerun for two reasons: A) That’s what TV sitcoms do, and B) I thought that people who missed the pilot might feel like they had missed some important plot element, so we’re doing a rerun of the pilot episode in week four – February 24 – so people can see that they didn’t really miss anything.

Dare I ask if other sitcom conventions – like commercials or opening credits – will be observed?

Yes, all of those things and more. Some of it is probably better as a surprise, so I won’t go into any more detail, but if it’s
something that TV sitcoms do, there’s a good chance that we do as well.

Do people need to come see 3800 Elizabeth from the very first episode to enjoy it fully, or can they drop in at any time?

No. Drop in any time.

What other projects have you got on the horizon after this one?

As a writer-director-producer, I’m trying to focus on 3800 Elizabeth, but I do have some acting gigs, including the next couple of episodes of Third Lows’ Penny Dreadful and Piper McKenzie‘s upcoming Babylon Babylon, both at The Brick.


A Pair of Current Happenings

January 29, 2008

The Main(e) PlayThe Ted Haggard Monologues

There are a pair of shows that opened last week that I meant to mention earlier here on the blog. They both sound cool so I thought I’d give ’em a little shout-out:

  • The Main(e) Play: This is the latest from playwright Chad Beckim (‘nami, Lights Rise on Grace) and the rest of the crew at Partial Comfort Productions (Nelson, …a matter of choice), about a pair of brothers who come to blows during a Thanksgiving holiday visit. Chad is a wonderfully talented writer who specializes in what he calls “bare-knuckle theater.” If you’ve seen anything by him or Partial Comfort, you’ll know what he means. Michael Gladis (from TV’s Mad Men) and Alexander Alioto star. The play runs at Theater Row’s Lion Theatre until February 9th.
  • The Ted Haggard Monologues: This is a new solo show written and performed by Michael Yates Crowley in which he portrays nine different characters in an hour-long fictionalization of the Ted Haggard gay sex scandal. Talk about topical. Talk about chutzpah! But it seems Crowley has what takes to pull this off, as evidenced by my buddy Martin Denton’s glowing review. For me, Martin’s word is golden, so I have no doubt this show is worth checking out. It runs until February 9th at Collective Unconscious.

Introducing New Talent to the World

January 28, 2008

Martin Denton Plays and Playwrights 2008

Since 2000, The New York Theatre Experience, Inc. (a.k.a. NYTE) – parent company to nytheatre.com – has published the Plays and Playwrights series, an annual anthology highlighting the work of new and emerging indie theater playwrights. The series, spearheaded by nytheatre.com founder, editor, and chief reviewer Martin Denton, has regularly been ahead of the curve in spotting new talent and boasts an impressive alumni list that includes such indie luminaries as Taylor Mac, Qui Nguyen, Chad Beckim, Kirk Wood Bromley, Trav S.D., Matthew Freeman, Chiori Miyagawa, Ken Urban, Marc Spitz, Kelly McAllister, Frank Cwiklik, John Jahnke, Josh Fox, Kevin Doyle, Saviana Stanescu, James Comtois, Ashlin Halfnight, and dozens more.

On the eve of the publication of NYTE’s newest installment, Plays and Playwrights 2008, I asked Martin (who is pictured above) to talk with me a bit about the new anthology, the Plays and Playwrights series, NYTE’s Play Publishing Program, and how he goes about doing it every year. Here’s what he had to say:

First of all, let’s start by talking about how you first thought up and started the Plays and Playwrights series.

I have told this story a lot, but here it is again. Sometime in 1999, Rochelle [Denton, NYTE’s Managing Director] and I saw a show called Are We There Yet? (it was at the old Synchronicity Space in SoHo, now home to The Culture Project). The playwright was Garth Wingfield. As we were leaving the show, I said to Rochelle, “This was a really terrific play, and it’s a shame that it will just disappear after its 16-performance run is over. Someone ought to publish it.” Or words to that effect. So, many months later, I suddenly remembered what I’d said, and I said to Rochelle, “We should publish a book.”

So the real impetus was, and remains, to try to capture permanently some of the great work that’s done in small theatres in NYC that would otherwise be lost.

How do you choose the plays each year? What qualities, if any, do you seek out for the book?

 

We did two non-series books during the last year and a half – Playing with Canons, which is a very big book of adaptations from classic literature and drama, and Unpredictable Plays, an anthology honoring Mario Fratti on his 80th birthday. Those two extra projects have kept us good and busy in the short term.

But we’re always thinking of new stuff. When something is firm, I will tell you!


Random Friday PP08 Blitz

January 25, 2008

In conjunction with NYTE‘s upcoming publication of Plays and Playwrights 2008, my interview with playwright Thomas Bradshaw has just been posted. He’s the author of Cleansed, in which a bi-racial teenage girl joins a white supremacist group. Rightly chosen by the Village Voice as their “Best Provocative Playwright of 2007.” Check out the interview.

In other news, I am once again getting my ass kicked at work – where they are actually making me work! – so I have to improvise this week’s Random Friday Top 10. If I were able to play music here at the office, and could play anything I wanted, this is what I would throw on right now:

  • “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” – The Rolling Stones (It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll)
  • “The Shape is in a Trance” – Thurston Moore (Trees Outside the Academy)
  • “For Those About to Rock, We Salute You” – AC/DC (Who Made Who)
  • “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” – Beastie Boys (Paul’s Boutique)
  • “The Kids Are Alright” – The Who (Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy)
  • “However Much I Booze” – The Who (The Who by Numbers)
  • “Don’t Do It” – The Band (Rock of Ages)
  • “The Empty Page” – Sonic Youth (Murray Street)
  • “Looking Around” – Yes (Yes)
  • “Pictures of Lily” – The Who (Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy)

As you can see, I’m in a Who mood today. Who knew?

Happy Friday, y’all – enjoy your weekend!


hotINK Festival 2008

January 24, 2008

There’s no rest for the wicked over here at the ol’ blog. This coming Sunday, immediately following the closing performance of Merry Mount, I’ll be doing a one-night-only staged reading of Joshua William Gelb’s play, The Tragedie of Bour IV. This is part of the hotINK Festival 2008, presented by NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (my alma mater). hotINK showcases new works from around the world: this year’s batch boasts selections from Romania, Australia, France, Canada, Belarus, the U.K., Lebanon, Guadaloupe, Sweden, and the good old U.S. of A.

The role I’m playing, Mr. Lightbulb, is described as “a theatricalized version of Thomas Edison, who’s running a sideshow on Coney Island at the turn of the century, exhibiting the dangers of Tesla’s AC current by electrocuting animals with it in front of the public. He’s part barker, part inventor, part business man, part sadist thug.” Yummy. Also featured in the cast are Alex Coppola, Akil Davis, Cherrye Davis, Kimberly Herbert Gregory, and Justin Nestor.

The reading is being directed by my old NYU chum, Tomi Tsunoda, whose work I’ve admired since back in the day. I’m glad we’re finally working together: I’ve been wanting to for about ten million years now, so I’m grateful to finally get the chance. Thanks, Tomi!

Tomi is also one of the curators of the festival. She and her colleagues have put together a good-looking program that includes new works by Mac Wellman, Eduardo Machado, Anna Ziegler, Crystal Skillman, Jason Grote, and Rob Ackerman, among others. The readings are free and take place at Tisch School of the Arts, located at 721 Broadway, between Waverly Place and Washington Place. Check out the festival’s official schedule and website for further details.

(By the by: The Tragedie of Bour IV goes up at 7:30pm on Sunday night, in the Abe Burrows Theatre at TSOA. If you’ve got a hankering for new work, or just want to see yours truly in action, then come on down.)


Writing in Restaurants

January 24, 2008

So, I was sitting in My Favorite Downtown Bistro (MFDB) last night, writing in my notebook, when a four-top sat down at the table next to mine. Two men, two women, all of them lively and a little tipsy. One of the women immediately looked at me and asked, “What are you writing?”

To which I replied, “A short story.” This happens frequently at MFDB: I sit quietly in a corner, or at the secluded end of the bar, scribbling with determined purpose into my cheap spiral notebook. Someone always wants to know what I’m writing. I have no idea why, aside from the fact that most people seem to be pleasantly surprised to see someone writing the old-fashioned way – i.e. with pen and paper – instead of with a laptop.

“What’s it about?” she continued. The woman was quickly forgetting about the rest of her party.

“Um, well…it’s about two people having an affair,” I said. True enough. I mean, I just started writing this thing, so I don’t really know what it’s about yet. But, that’s what was happening in the part I was writing last night.

The woman’s eyes lit up. “Really? Can I write part of your story?”

I’d never heard that one before, so I said, “Sure.” I handed the woman my pen and notebook, and she went to work in earnest.

After about ten minutes or so – ten minutes in which she had completely ignored her friends and dropped out of their conversation, mind you – she handed back my notebook. Double-spaced across two pages, she had written the following:

“On a night in January 2008 you meet 4 people who in your heart of hearts you could never tell who was having the affair! What defines love or an affair? An affair starts because people need an outlet to vent. They look for what they don’t have in their marriage. Many think they can find it in someone else! But the truth is people are exactly who they are. The world defines who people become – not marriage – not an affair – not a child. We live for our children – they are that matters – people live and stay together to try to make the world a better place – what defines better – if you live your life and you wake up happy in life and you touch someone everybody – whether within your own world or someone else – you win! If you have lived – you have smiled and touched a soul – you are complete – most people will never touch a soul because they care too much about others.

In other words – every day – smile or say hi someone will pass it on that defines happiness and if it takes having an affair then so be it!

XXXOOO SL”

Um…wow.

And if that weren’t enough, about two minutes later one of the two men looked at me and asked, “You mind if I take a look at that?”

I certainly didn’t, but I wondered if the lady did. So I asked her: “You mind if he looks at this?”

She smiled. “Aw, that’s nice of you. No, go ahead.”

So I handed him the pages she wrote. He looked them over, then gave them back to me without so much as a “Thank you” or a glance in my direction. He sat quietly for the rest of the time – he had previously been quite talkative – and did not speak to the lady in question again.

Um, can you say, “Draw your own conclusions”?

Only in New York, people. Only in New York.


Nice Try, Wanton!

January 23, 2008

Lots going on over here at the ol’ blog this past weekend, beginning with the opening of Merry Mount on Friday night. Boy, was that rough. An absent prop, a malfunctioning costume piece, a last-minute understudy, and some poor pre-show preparation on my part all conspired to throw opening night off. Things had gone swimmingly at our final rehearsal the night before, so I wasn’t worried about anything. Ah, such brash confidence – how presumptuous of me! I forgot to take into consideration that I’d missed our tech rehearsal (on Wednesday afternoon, while I was at work) and would need to adjust to all the design elements on the fly. Yeesh. Basically, opening night was my tech rehearsal, and I felt like it showed.

To begin with, there was a prop I’d rehearsed with all throughout that I suddenly learned I wouldn’t be getting. A little thing, but it made a big difference. By doing something new in the first scene, my focus was diverted from the matter at hand (my performance) and siphoned into making sure this novel activity looked convincing. A surefire recipe for disaster, as I almost immediately blanked about three lines in and never fully recovered. I felt so sure that the audience had detected my near-miss that, for the rest of the show, I overcompensated by rushing my lines and the overall pace, and watched myself to make sure I didn’t blank again. Which, of course, only led to a couple of more almost-fluffs. Nice.

Then, there was one of my costume pieces – a top coat with a tear in the lining of one of the sleeves so huge that if you didn’t finesse it properly your arm would go straight into the lining instead of the sleeve. This, of course, happened to me onstage, despite having rehearsed with the coat numerous times before curtain that night in anticipation of such an event, and took me right out of the scene. Trying to draw as little attention to the fact that my upstage hand (the one facing away from the audience) was jutting comfortably out of one sleeve while my downstage hand (the one right in everyone’s face) was lost somewhere in the lining of my coat. Kill me now. I couldn’t get offstage fast enough.

Also, one of the lead actors (the one I play opposite the most) was absent Friday night, so our fearless director, Mr. Ian W. Hill, stepped in for one night only and did an admirable job. Despite that, he and I only had the luxury of rehearsing together as scene partners the night before, and it threw me. Like I said, Ian did a great job, but he played the part somewhat differently from my regular co-star, and I did not adjust well to the new stimuli.

So, I was not feeling too good after this performance. But, as we all know, actors are not always the best judges of their own work. Ian, Trav, and my fellow castmates were quite complimentary afterwards, as was my old friend Cathy McNelis (whom I spied in the front row at curtain call), and that was nice. It’s always great to hear good feedback, especially in circumstances like these, where it appears as if I came off looking good regardless of how I felt about it. A lesson every actor should learn.

Needless to say, I didn’t make any of those mistakes the following night. I showed up focused and ready to go, having run the script aloud once or twice on my way to the theater (that’s right, folks: more of the infamous running-my-lines-in-public). I kept all non-show related interactions to a minimum (as in: no small talk about anything), and concentrated on working those opening beats in my head and coming out of the gate strong. I refined my new activity (sans prop) in the first scene, and safety pinned the lining of my coat sleeve so my arm wouldn’t do another disappearing act.

And it all worked. I was much sharper all-around on the second night, and felt much better about my performance. Good thing, too, because there were even more people there to see me: two friends and colleagues – fellow Hawthornucopian Chris Harcum and soon-to-be-published Plays and Playwrights 2008 scribe Carolyn Raship – as well as The Companion herself, who, for all intents and purposes, was seeing me perform for the very first time. Thankfully, she was impressed, so I went home on cloud nine.

Last night’s performance (our third) also went well. I felt like we were finally out of the woods, and could relax and have some fun. I tried a couple of new things, none of which threw me off (thank God!), but none of which were a significant improvement over what I already had. Best to stick to what I’ve got and to just refine it. We’ve got one more show left, on Sunday afternoon, and I want to make sure it’s a good one.

The last several days have been a valuable reminder to never get too comfortable with what I’ve got, performance-wise, until I’ve done it in front of the crowd a couple of times. What plays well in the rehearsal room may turn into something completely different in front of a paying audience. I should never take my level of preparation for granted because it can all easily fall apart (or at least feel like it’s doing so) in a matter of moments. (Can you tell yet how much opening night spooked me?)

By the way: the title of this post is one of my lines from the show – an appropriate heading, I thought, considering the circumstances.