Rising Phoenix Repertory, winners of the Caffe Cino Fellowship Award at the 2007 New York Innovative Theatre Awards, continues its commitment to presenting fresh new work with its latest endeavor, the world premiere of Napoleon Ellsworth’s play, Don’t Pet the Zookeeper. The story concerns an unemployed young woman who interviews for a job as a zookeeper and is immediately and deeply drawn to her prospective boss. Their bizarre and inappropriate interview hints at things to come once she accepts the job and discovers that things may not be what they appear to be at the zoo. The play runs for a week at Seventh Street Small Stage beginning on July 23rd, and stars Rising Phoenix regulars Denis Butkus and Julie Kline.
Napoleon and Zookeeper director Jessica Bauman took a break from rehearsals to stop by the ol’ blog and discuss the production. Here’s what they had to say…
Judging from the press release, it sounds like the play could be anything between an absurdist farce and a dark Pinter-esque comedy. Napoleon, please tell us about the play and what kind of tone you’ve chosen for it.
I suppose the situation in which the two main characters find themselves is a bit dark, a bit absurd. But considering the world in which we live, I call it realism. Perhaps, heightened realism. I mean, there are no extraordinary circumstances anymore. The extraordinary has become commonplace. The world is such a bizarre and cruel place. It’s also, ironically, a very comical place. In a play like this tone is everything. I mean, because the play’s head is in the clouds, its feet must be planted firmly on the ground.
Jessica, how are you approaching your work on the play from a thematic and directorial standpoint?
The world of the play and the characters’ situations are very theatrical and extreme. We’re trying to find the truth in those circumstances so that the audience can follow a very recognizable and human story of two people who find a meaningful connection where they least expect it. I want to make sure that people can laugh and enjoy the music, even when things get pretty dark for the characters.
How has it been working on the production so far? What’s your collaborative dynamic like?
Napoleon: It’s been a wonderful experience so far. We’ve been rehearsing at Seventh Street Small Stage at Jimmy’s No. 43 and it seems as though we’re either always locked in or always locked out. I suppose it’s only fitting considering the play. In addition, Julie and Denis [have] been a true inspiration.
Jessica: We’ve known each other for a long time and worked on a number of projects together (including a workshop of the first half of Zookeeper for RPR last fall). So we have a trust in each others’ work that allows for a very easy, comfortable collaboration in rehearsal. Because we’ve had a tight schedule on this, we often explore and discuss a moment for the first time in front of the actors. Everyone’s belief in each other and the play makes those moments exciting and juicy – we’re all discovering it together – rather than scary and chaotic.
The play has several songs in it, which has allowed each of us to wear hats we don’t often get to – Napoleon as musical director, Denis as musician, Julie as choreographer. I get to sit back and enjoy watching the musical pieces take shape.
So you two have worked together before?
Napoleon: We’ve worked together twice before, in fact, once when I was at Juilliard and once with Rising Phoenix. Jessica is absolutely wonderful to collaborate with, not only because she’s incredibly smart, but because she listens. She’s like the coach that all the players love to play for. She has this way of bringing out the best in others. I think it’s because she has a genuine respect for both actors and playwrights. I’ve never worked in an environment so relaxed and so free of egos.
Jessica: The first project that Napoleon and I did together was his play, Farewell Undertaker at Juilliard in 2001. Since then, we’ve done a number of readings and workshops of other plays, including a workshop of Hunting for Game with RPR.
How did you two get hooked up with Rising Phoenix Repertory in the first place?
Napoleon: I met Daniel when I was at Juilliard. This was in 2000. He was an acting student and he had already founded Rising Phoenix by then! He was just this incredibly nice guy who just so happened to also be an absolute force of nature.
Jessica: Daniel Talbott was in the group that did Undertaker at Juilliard, although he wasn’t in the cast. (Denis Butkus had the lead in Undertaker.) But Daniel makes it his business to connect with the people he’s excited about, and stay in touch with them. He chased us, OK? In addition to the work I’ve done with Nap at RPR, they also coproduced The Chinese Art of Placement that I directed at 78th Street Theatre Lab several years ago.
Napoleon, where’d you get the idea for this play?
I rarely have an idea for a play before I start writing. In fact, I try my best not to think at all while writing. Honestly. If I just let the characters appear, and stay out of their way, it isn’t long before things begin to get interesting. The characters invariably find themselves in trouble and I invariably get swept along for the ride. Every play, I suppose, breeds it’s own questions. The questions I find myself asking usually pertain more to life in general than to the actual play itself. In this instance, I started to obsessively wonder how a person could possibly maintain his humanity in a situation as dehumanizing, as say, Abu Ghraib. Or, how does love flourish in a place as bleak as, say, the West Bank? I mean, these are the times in which we live. It’s usually somewhere in the second draft when I begin to address such questions.
One last question for both of you: what will the audience learn about zookeepers that they didn’t know before?
Napoleon: That being a zookeeper is risky business. They will also learn, if they’re paying close attention, how to properly whip an animal, regardless of its size.
Jessica: Zookeeping is a surprising activity. You never know what you’ll be called on to do, or where you’ll wind up.