Jeff Lewonczyk Goes Babylonian

Jeff Lewonczyk

Last month, I wrote the following blog post about my current theatrical endeavor, Babylon Babylon, the latest extravaganza from Piper McKenzie Productions. Writer, director, and co-star, Jeff Lewonczyk, responded on the show’s official blog with tongue firmly in cheek. With the show’s opening weekend firmly under his belt, Jeff finally dropped by the ol’ blog to talk about his much-talked-about  opus and to refute those salacious claims he talked about.

Okay, let’s get the basics out of the way: what the hell is this show?

To state it in layman’s terms, it’s 31 actors onstage recreating events in the Babylonian Temple of Ishtar in the year 539 B. C. as the Persians prepare to invade the city. To put it in a more technical vein, it’s f%#$-ing nuts.

You’ve apparently been wanting to do this show for years. How’d you come up with the idea and what took you so long?

The original idea came from Herodotus – I was fascinated by his description of the practice of ritual prostitution in the Temple of Ishtar , and how pervasive he claimed it was. According to The Histories, every woman in Babylon had to visit there at one point in their lives and have sex with a stranger. This claim seems to be pretty well debunked (Herodotus is called both the Father of History and the Father of Lies, after all), but it set my mind in motion imagining a world in which such an activity would be seen as normal. Of course, I was reading Herodotus on the subway during the weeks leading up to 9/11, and so his description of the Persian sneak attack on the oblivious city of Babylon carried great resonance, and allowed me to sort of expand the vision into a meditation on the joys and dangers of the urban experience. As time went on, I drew from sources as diverse as The Bible, D. W. Griffith ’s Intolerance, Robert Altman’s Nashville, and the oeuvre of Kenneth Anger for inspiration and material.

You’ve used a lot of improvisation to help develop and write the script. Tell us a little bit more about that process and what it means exactly.

Well, I had always conceived of this is as a large-scale show with a sizable cast. I’ve never written a play for 30-plus characters before, and so I never actually sat down to write a script during the whole time I was thinking about it – the prospect was just too daunting. Piper McKenzie’s work in recent years on the Bizarre Science Fantasy dance-theater series helped to pave the way, because the pieces were wordless, and so it taught me a lot about how a piece can be developed in the absence of a written text with actors in the room. Of course, I’d never worked with 30-plus actors, and never used dialogue in those projects, so needless to say there was a bevy of novel challenges when we started work on Babylon Babylon. But the gist was that I had a long list of characters and incidents that I wanted to see. I wrote down character descriptions on index cards and passed them to the group – randomly at first, but with more careful selectivity as we proceeded – and then had everyone get up and do improv exercises as these characters, with a few simple rules to try to keep chaos at bay (the jury’s out on how well we succeeded at that last part). This led directly to casting, after which we did more exercises in character and made recordings, some of which became the basis for certain scenes in the script. Between and around all this work I was also building other scenes and text, and we ended up combining everything into a huge script that got whittled down throughout rehearsals to its current state.

The show is being done with a cast of 30-plus and environmental staging. What made you go with both?

Well, in the first place, I don’t think 30-plus actors would even have fit in The Brick’s proscenium setup, so it was partly practical. More than anything, though, for me the visual hook of the show had always been a grid of mats, or “stations” as we call them, on which the women in the show wait for their co-worshipers to choose them and take them out to the Holy Ground where, well, you know. To me the grid was a symbol of our own city – I’ve always been inspired by the variation and creativity that occurs within the tight geometric frame of Manhattan . And like Manhattan , you can never see the whole thing at once – you have a section, a home territory, that you call your own, and even if it changes (by the day, hour, minute, whatever) you look out at the rest of the city from that vantage. That’s the audience experience I wanted to provide – I wanted the audience to feel that they were somehow part of this world, implicated in it, rather than holding it off at arm’s length.

How did you initially go about casting such a large group?

At first, back in November, I sent out an APB to a large group of actor friends describing the project and asking who wanted to get involved. We had a preliminary rehearsal/meeting in November, and most of the people who attended are still with us. When I realized I wanted the cast to top 30 I started reaching further afield, to people I had barely met or whose work I had enjoyed in a show. I received a few personal recommendations from friends along the way, and trusted them even when I didn’t know the person’s work. In general, my rule was no auditioning – I wanted to meet and talk with people and make sure there was a personal connection at all times. Despite the various places everyone came from, a project like this would never work if everyone didn’t have some sort of common ground, no matter how tenuous.

In addition to writing and directing Babylon Babylon, you’re also in it. Are you nuts?

You’re in the show too, you tell me.

So far, so good. Now tell everyone who you’re playing.

My character is named Logios – he’s sort of the narrator/storyteller who sets the whole thing in motion.  He’s based on Herodotus, but a young Herodotus, who’s still trying to earn his chops regaling audiences with outlandish stories. The depiction is in no way autobiographical.

Your wife, Hope Cartelli, is also in the show. You two have worked together frequently for a long time now. How have you both managed to successfully balance your lives together on stage and off?

Well, if she wasn’t my partner I wouldn’t even HAVE a life on stage – she’s essential to everything that I do, and without her support, imagination, talent, and madness I’d be lurching around half empty. As for the offstage life, well, doing shows together means that we never run out of anything to talk about. Casting her as the High Priestess of Ishtar was no accident – she holds the action together much the way she holds the show and our lives together.

Do you mind telling us a little bit about the history of your theater company, Piper McKenzie Productions – for instance, where’d you get that name?

When we graduated from Bard in winter 1998 we stuck around to put together a show with some friends during the break. It was actually our first – and for many years last – attempt at creating something improvisationally with a group, and as such we were still figuring out what the hell the show was about when the producer of the space asked us to come up with a title for the press release. We sat around for fifteen minutes trying to devise the dumbest name we could come up with, which ended up being Piper McKenzie Presents the Tinklepack Kids in the Great Yo-Yo Caper. When we did a production of The Tempest in the same theatre that fall, we decided, what the hell, let’s keep the “Piper McKenzie Presents,” and after that it just stuck. We moved to the city in 1999 and have been churning out a show or two every year since then, getting ever more hubristic as time goes on.

How the hell can you possibly follow this show up?

I’m hoping to do our next show on a Russian space ship, for a select audience of thrill-seeking millionaires. It will integrate most of the major works of the Western Canon and run for forty-seven hours straight, with a full orchestra and live animals (bears, mostly, but also a shark), all performed in zero gravity.

Are you already thinking about the next show or are you going on a long vacation after this?

Oh, I’m thinking. Always thinking. If I stopped thinking my molecules would unravel. We have The Film Festival: A Theater Festival coming up at The Brick in June (for which I’ll be directing a staged reading of William Peter Blatty’s new play, Demons Five Exorcists Nothing, which is quite possibly more insane than Babylon Babylon), and in December we’re hoping to mount something called The Granduncle Cycle, a series of linked short plays that take place in a mythical Arctic society. If theatre offered benefits I would be happy to take some vacation, but Piper McKenzie is a cruel taskmaster.


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