When it comes to solo performance these days, actor-writer Chris Harcum is about as experienced as they come. In the past several years, he has written and performed ten original solo shows including the FringeNYC 2006 hit, Some Kind of Pink Breakfast, and 2007’s Anhedonia Road, which was presented by Metropolitan Playhouse as part of their Twainathon festival.
Chris debuts his newest solo work, American Badass (or 12 Characters in Search of a National Identity), at this year’s FRIGID Festival. The show runs downtown at The Kraine Theater until March 9th. Chris stopped by the ol’ blog to tell us more about it, as well as to talk about how he builds his pieces and his ongoing creative partnership with director Bricken Sparacino. Check it out:
You describe your newest solo piece, American Badass, as different from your previous ones, in that it’s more political than what you usually do. Can you elaborate on that?
My work has tended to be more centered on human stuff. There has been a focus on spirituality and I used magic realism a lot in the how the story was told. Since 9/11 I have been using my work as a way to become a better person or a more developed person. Frequently, I find I fail, fail, fail at it and it is that struggle that makes the contours of the work. My work has tended towards revealing the parts of us that we try to avoid thinking about or that we must cover up to get through most of our days. I found it very daunting because I was putting myself out there.
Sometimes my work is autobiographical but more frequently it’s universal. I always work to make my pieces equally be about what the person watching may have experienced. I never want the audience to feel punished, preached at, or sorry for me. I also tend to go to dark and scary places but we always come out the other side like going to a professional haunted house.
This piece is largely political or at least looking at where we are as a nation. The full title is American Badass (or 12 Characters in Search of a National Identity). I think the “Never Forget” signs we’ve tattooed in our brains say more about how we’re going to kick everyone’s ass until we either run so far out of money we become some other country’s bitch or we bully the crap out of everyone so they know we still hold the distinction of biggest global bully. In general, I think Americans are fine with that until it affects their bank account.
Because we are in such a weird and scary time I wanted to create a piece that looks at how that action film morality affects us personally and publicly. I only have an hour max in the Frigid Festival so I could only cover so much ground but there’s a lot. The big thing is that I think we need to be aware of our loss of civil liberties and the bastard birth of Blackwater from Momma Neo-Conservative and Poppa Capitalism. I have an old-school Republican in the play. He doesn’t say it but he’s the guy who identifies most with Ron Paul. That is very different than what we have going on with the outsourced government stuff. If Blackwater is not reigned in soon we could be in big trouble.
With this piece, I think I will be pushing different people’s buttons at different times. There may be a few people who learn a few things and there might be some who think it’s a bit elementary. My friend, Lisa Barnes, who is super-talented actress calls what I do “wake up” theatre. I kept that in the back of my mind as I created this one. I was brought up believing America was one thing but now it is something different to me. This piece is about that difference.
American Badass also differs from your previous work in that it’s a multi-character piece. Why’d you go with that format over your usual one (i.e. playing yourself)?
This is kind of a tough question in that I don’t have a usual one. Fans of my work will know that each piece is very different from the last. Most of my work has been character-based work and largely like watching one person do an entire play. Sometimes I will play myself or a version of myself as part of it but most of my work is character-based. My director, Bricken Sparacino, always points out when I write a character who is being totally nasty to Chris Harcum because it is kind of funny. My last few pieces have been structured like a multiple character play. The trick is to not come off like the guy auditioning with Taxi Driver in Waiting for Guffman. This format is similar to classic Bogosian where one character does five minutes and then goes away. I did that in Gotham Standards but in other stuff I’ve done, characters return or change. This is that kind of Bogosian character work with some multimedia things in between to keep the audience entertained while I do a quick change.
People ask, “What’s your show like?” I start to answer but it takes much longer than the usual elevator ride speech. It’s part Bogosian, Gray, Dario Fo, Bill Irwin, Mike Myers, Monty Python, Van Halen, Mamet, Pirandello, Chekhov, and Garrison Keillor. It’s not improv, clown, mime, narrative, stand-up, or non-linear performance art. “Chris Harcum” only appears in this one in a slide show and a short documentary film made by Evan Stulberger. I do have a couple of characters talking to me, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it.
How do you go about writing and constructing your pieces?
This is my 10th and it changes but some things are consistent. I’ll get a title and theme long before I set pen to paper. Usually, I do things in scribbles and bursts in longhand before getting on the computer. Sometimes there’s some improvisation thrown in but usually I write it the way I write plays. It takes longer to get it going than I normally expect. I don’t have a problem with judging myself when I write, thank God. Once I catch the wave, I can ride it pretty far. The longer I’ve written the pickier I’ve become about which wave to ride though. I’ve also become better at editing things and taking out the boring, the cringe-inducing, and (this is the hardest) good stuff that doesn’t fit in with everything else in the piece. There is usually a time when the cast argues with the playwright. Since they are all me, it’s not too fun. Working on a new piece is wacky. I develop it, write it, workshop it, rehearse it, rewrite it, re-rehearse it, get it through tech, and in front of people in the same or even less time than many use for doing a straight play. Also, there’s all the marketing, producing, and coordinating that actually take up close to 65% of your time when you are doing one of these. That’s the most difficult part of this. I’m not naturally a business man but I’ve been improving over time. It’s tough to say, “Hey come see this show I made that features just me.” Unless you have nice breasts and sex or something about a celebrity in the title. I wish I were kidding. I think people are generally lazy about seeking out new or different things. We are now used to having food and entertainment delivered to us at home, at our desks, on the device we carry on the subway (I expect Apple to create something with a feeding tube soon.) I work in an area somewhere between high art and low art and there’s less people swimming around in that pool than one would expect. I am coming to a place also where the marketing and producing doesn’t infect the writing or performing.
Is there a difference, preparation and rehearsal-wise, between American Badass and your previous works?
I had a horrible case of writer’s block getting this one started. I had my antennae up for the longest time so I had a lot of material building up but something was in the way. Of course, that’s always your own personal resistance. I finally went to using an exercise I give my solo performance students and gave my inner critic a voice. Unfortunately, lots of people give you friendly and unfriendly advice when you are writing a piece. Sometimes it’s good not to tell anyone what you are doing to keep it pure for that reason. So I came up with a character who represents the people I’ve had in my audience who look miserable while I perform and let him tell me how I should write my show and what’s wrong with what I do. This became my opening piece. I also like to give the audience cues on what will happen in the evening. No one ever sits on the front row by choice at a solo performance, except people who have a bad case of “I want to be up there but I’m too scared so I’ll just try to ruin this however I can.” Most are afraid they will somehow be singled out. I don’t usually do that. If I do, I turn the joke on myself. Once “Hipster” started telling me things I could write everything else rather easily.
Everyone’s busier. Bricken went out of the country to perform twice. I took a trip to London and am shooting a movie for Jason Cusato called Two Toms. Bricken will be back from Dublin the day we open with her suitcase, as long as the plane arrives on time. We did get some great work done in a short amount of time. I also could do 10-15% less in one hour. This was structured with the multimedia breaks to give me a chance to change costumes and to trick the audience into thinking they are not hearing me but they are because I did all the voices. I get a chance to breathe a couple of deep breaths and take a good sip of water so I’m not burnt like a tater at the finish line.
Why did you choose the FRIGID Festival as the place to debut this show?
I killed myself doing FringeNYC in ’06. I did a revamped version of Anhedonia Road at Metropolitan Playhouse in January of ’07 and Alex Roe asked me to return my piece about Dr. Ores in Alphabet City. Other than that, I wanted to not do solo work. Too many people were saying things that said they only saw me as a solo performer. Ultimately, Harold Pinter’s career is my model. I’ve been writing a lot of short plays and performing with others. Finally, I gave in and started buying auditions for casting directors at a couple of places. They call them classes and a couple of them, like Maribeth Fox, actually do teach them like classes and they are useful. Others are just taking your money and spreading a sickness. To call what they do a class is to call rape flirting.
I wasn’t very happy about this and getting very caught up in the minutiae of what they coming up with to justify the cost of the experience and dying a little bit inside each time. My girlfriend suggested I submit to Frigid to finally make this piece. So I did it at 2am one night and promptly put it out of my mind. It’s a lottery festival so, lo and behold, my number was pulled from a hat and here I am. This is part of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals and I like their vibe. I decided not to use this as a platform to get industry to see the show and focused on making a good piece.
This is your fourth collaboration with director Bricken Sparacino. How did you two meet, and what do you like about working with her?
We’re both members of New Jersey Rep. Co. and they do a festival of short plays called Theatre Brut each year. Bricken was the director of the piece I did and we hit it off. I asked her to direct me in my next solo Mahamudra. I always liked that title because it sounds like a Led Zeppelin album to me. She’s a great director for actors. She gives me space to operate and solid guidance. We don’t agree 100% but that’s good. I tried giving in more quickly to her notes about cuts and changes. She doesn’t force a vision or agenda on my work but helps me to reveal what I am trying to say the best it can be said. I actually had to fire a director once for putting too much on me and throwing me way off course. She needed to write and perform her own piece. I think it’s tough to ask somebody to get between the cast and the playwright when they are the same person. I also now know when she thinks something’s off in rehearsal while I’m running something. The energy changes so I try to fix it. In that way, the actor/director telepathy is getting stronger. I’ve worked with a few other directors. A couple have been helpful and good to work with but most really are there to let the world know they’ve been there. I think that’s great for certain pieces, especially revivals or published works, but for this it’s trouble. Bricken knows when I’m being hard on myself and lets me work it out. I can trust her and relax.
I want to give a couple other shout-outs. Carolyn Raship did a bang-up job with the graphics and producing. Debby Schwartz wrote and recorded a sweet song called “Arise” about “the sins of the father” as well as some amazing work on the voice-overs I recorded at her home studio. She also made this creepy Pink Floyd-esque soundscape for one passage where I play a guy in a black cell in Iraq. Daniel McKleinfeld put all of it together with his masterful animation. Chris Foster helped out a lot with the costumes and Maryvel Bergen made art with the rep lighting plot at the Kraine Theater. You can see a couple of the clips on my youtube channel. (http://www.youtube.com/user/virgodog)
What first drew you to doing solo work, and what keeps you coming back to it?
I saw Danny Hoch do several characters in 10 minutes when I was a freshman at North Carolina School of the Arts. We both got kicked out of there. I also saw Angus McLachlan who wrote Dead Eye Boy and Junebug perform an unproduced screenplay as a solo in Winston-Salem, NC. That’s when it clicked for me that I wanted to make something like that. It’s a bit like being a serial monogamist. You have a deep relationship and then you move on. I don’t like doing things the easy way.
You don’t just do solo work, however – you also do “regular acting,” as it were. What are the rewards of doing that versus your solo work?
Comraderie, bigger email/MySpace/Facebook list, and more laughs in the dressing room. I’m not always running around muttering an hour of text to myself without coming up for air. Someone else says lines to me. I am trying to only do projects that are rewarding for me as an artist and I know will bring joy.
Have you got any upcoming stuff in the works?
Yes. I am going to be writing a full length play based on an autobiography of an infamous persona that is yet to be published. I’m filming Two Toms and am talking with Alex Beech about working up something in the fall. This is also the time when I do a lot of teaching artist work in the Bronx and in Queens so I am helping turn out a lot of little actor/playwrights.