John Clancy Sends the Invitation

August 28, 2008
John Clancy

John Clancy

You knew John Clancy was a busy guy, right? If not, then a brief recap of his recent exploits ought to set things straight.

In July, the workaholic writer-director mounted two (or three, depending on how you look at it) simultaneous productions at Collective: Unconscious’ 2nd Annual undergroundzero Festival: The Event, John’s solo performance piece written for and performed by actor Matt Oberg; and Nigromantia: A Slight Return, a program of two short plays by Don Nigro performed by John and his wife (and frequent artistic collaborator) Nancy Walsh.

By day, he’s the Executive Artistic Director of Clancy Productions, a theatrical touring and producing organization that consults theater companies and individual artists looking to mount shows both domestically and abroad, produces its own shows, and offers professional one-on-one coaching services for actors.  

John is also the Executive Director of the newly-formed League of Independent Theater, an advocacy group aiming to improve economic conditions, real estate opportunities, and public relations (among many other things) for the Off-Off Broadway and indie theater community.

And, in the last couple of years John also got his play Fatboy published by the New York York Theatre Experience, and won a 2006 OBIE Award for Sustained Excellence of Direction.

So, you know, he’s a busy guy.

Next up for this veteran downtown trailblazer is the world premiere of The Invitation, a new black comedy by playwright Brian Parks about a birthday dinner celebration gone horribly horribly wrong. The play begins performances next week at the Ohio Theater, and theatergoers can expect fireworks: the production reunites John with a great many of his longtime collaborators including Parks, whose works Americana Absurdum and Vomit and Roses John has previously directed.

As you’ll see in a moment, there was plenty to talk about when John dropped by the ol’ blog recently to tell us about The Invitation. Check it out…

Once again, you’re working with a lot of your frequent collaborators, namely playwright Brian Parks and actors David Calvitto, Paul Urcioli, and Eva von Dok. What keeps you coming back to these folks time and time again?

I owe most of them money. Stupid bet years ago. I thought jet-packs were a sure thing, they all knew better. And I’ve worked with Leslie Farrell since 1994 as well. That’s different, that’s blackmail. She’s got photos that will never see the light of day, not while I’m alive, anyway.

Luckily, they’re all quite talented. The talent is the first thing, obviously. You want to work with the best; it makes your game better. But after that, there’s a courage and a generosity to these people. They don’t think of themselves as just actors, they’re theater artists, they see the whole board, so they work very mindfully of what the entire production is trying to do or be.

And along the way, we’ve also grown quite close and there’s something remarkable about working with people that you also hang out with, people that you’ve known and laughed with for years . I’ve been on three continents with some of these people, doing the same damned thing. So there’s a shorthand and a built-in trust that you start with, which allows you to work a lot faster and with any luck get to a depth that’s hard to achieve with strangers.

Has the way you all work together changed over time or has it stayed more or less the same?

I think we still work pretty much the same. I’m usually the lead artist in the room, especially if I’ve written the show. So I’m the one saying “OK, we’re back” and “Let’s take ten.” But I know that if Paul and Dave have an idea for a bit, it’s going to be much funnier than anything I can direct and I know that if Leslie isn’t comfortable with what I’ve asked her to do she’ll address it, so there’s always that open dialogue. And we try to keep the writer in the room as much as possible, so there’s a sense of a group of focused artists in the room all working towards the same thing, rather than your traditional rehearsal hierarchy. I think Shaw had it right when he said “The theater is a democracy in which the strongest man rules.”

Tell us a brief little something about the play. What are audiences going to see when they come see The Invitation?

Here’s my tag: If A.R. Gurney started writing a play and then Antonin Artaud rose from the dead, broke into Gurney’s house, killed him and finished the play, you’d get something very close to The Invitation. It’s also Parks, so you’re going to hear more brilliant one-liners than should ever comfortably fit into one evening.

How’d you first meet Brian Parks and what drew you to his writing?

Aaron Beall from Nada hooked us up back in 1994. Brian had given Aaron a play called Vomit and Roses and I was doing a lot of work in the old Piano Store across the street from Nada, so Aaron gave me the script and suggested we do the show at his theater. I read it and just instantly saw how it could work. It was darker, quicker and stronger than any script I had ever read. It was just extraordinary language and it felt like America, not a depiction of America or a take on America, but America. It was crazy and funny and passionate and rude and quick and in the middle of it were these gorgeous, sentimental moments and then it took off again. I was blown away. Brian and I met at some coffee shop and I gave him a few notes and he took them, which also surprised the hell out of me.

It seems like we’re seeing quite a bit of you and your colleagues recently, what with your recent one-two punch at this year’s undergroundzero Festival and now The Invitation. Why the sudden flurry of activity?

I believe in intentional over-load. Jim Steinman said it on Bat Out of Hell II: “Everything louder than everything else.”

But bottom line, this is how I pay my bills. No play, no pay. The fall is going to be crazy, we’re doing one night at Barrow Street Theater of The Event, September 14, flying out to L.A. to look in on Fatboy rehearsals, a reading of C.J. Hopkins’ America the Beautiful up in Hudson Valley, a brief gig in Belfast in late October and then into rehearsals for Greg Kotis’ The Truth About Santa, which opens at The Kraine on December 3rd. And we may have something up at Williams College and something else in Basque, still waiting to hear on those.

I’ve read somewhere before that you hate going to the theater. Is that really true?

Yeah, I got into some trouble with that with a League of Independent Theater member. He pointed out that as the Executive Director of LIT maybe that wasn’t such a smart public statement. His point is a good one, and honestly it’s just a lazy way of saying that the potential of the theater is so present and overwhelming to me that it’s hard when I see that potential untapped. I’m like some backwoods, snake-handling Baptist who sits in an Anglican church and wonders why no one’s hollering. Now I’m going to have the Anglicans on me.

But no, of course I don’t hate going to the theater. It’s the only place that makes sense to me, it’s where I can focus and breathe. It’s how I understand the world.

It seems as if you’ve got your hand in lots of pies. What else have you got going on right now?

Well, besides all of the gigs above, I’m honored to be the first Executive Director of The League of Independent Theater, the new advocacy group for Off-Off Broadway. The League was formed to promote the artistic and economic interests of theater professionals working in New York City in theaters of up to 99 seats; organize and protect its members to ensure that independent theater is economically viable for all of its practitioners; and  advocate on behalf of the decades-old tradition of off-off Broadway theater to ensure that it remains, and grows, as a thriving artistic and economic sector in New York City.

So that’s going to take some time during the week. Also, I’m writing my ass off these days, on the sixth draft of Captain Overlord’s Folly, starting some early work on a Woyzeck project, and trying to finish this TV project I’m hoping to sell.


Gyda Arber Delivers a Suspicious Package

August 22, 2008
Heath Kelts (on screen) and Gyda Arber in "Suspicious Package"

Heath Kelts and Gyda Arber in "Suspicious Package"

If the term “interactive theater” scares the bejesus out of you and conjurs images of what actor Gyda Arber calls “cheesy, overacted dreck,” then she’s got the show for you – a new “interactive noir” called Suspicious Package. Created and co-written by multi-talent Arber and her mother, Wendy Coyle, this film noir-ish entertainment plays out simultaneously on four separate Zune MP3 players operated by four separate audience members (each of whom assume a role in the show, as it were). Each audience/cast member spreads out across the Williamsburg neighborhood where Suspicious Package takes place following instructions on the handheld video screen, kind of like a theatrical scavenger hunt.

Not sure yet what this all means? Allow Arber to explain it to you in her own words. She recently dropped by the ol’ blog to talk more about the show, which is currently enjoying an open-ended run on Saturdays and Sundays at The Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and has garnered rave reviews from several high profile media outlets including The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Read on for more…

What exactly is Suspicious Package?

Yikes, this is hard to explain! A lot of our reviews do it better than I can, but to start with, it’s an ipod noir. A what? Yes, exactly. We have an audience of four that serve as both the audience as well as the lead actors. Voiceovers, video flashbacks, maps, and lines on the screen reveal everything you need to know!

It’s interactive, but does it have a plot and a story?

The word interactive seems to throw people off – it’s not interactive theater as such. The show isn’t cheesy (at least in my opinion!) or populated with over-the-top actors, and doesn’t put anyone on the spot – it’s like if one of those murder mystery things were actually fun. But yes, there’s quite an important plot that doesn’t come together till the very end (if even then!)

This doesn’t sound like your everyday theater performance. How’d you come up with the idea for it?

I’ve always been fascinated by interactive theater – and have been to more than my fair share – Tony and Tina’s Wedding, Shear Madness, Ladies & Gents – you name it, I’ve probably seen it. Accomplice NY was always a personal favorite, as it was probably the most fun, and I enjoyed Etiquette earlier this year. I was thinking about Improv Everywhere (they do an MP3-based group happening every year) and thought to myself, “What if the pictures they made (part of the event is a lot of group images) told a story?” and the picture of a noir detective, standing on a corner, hat and trench coat and all, popped into my head. And I thought about incorporating other characters and really give each audience member a character, instead of being a nameless group as in most interactive events, and Suspicious Package was born.

Once you had the idea in place, how did you go about putting the show together?

I called my mom (she’s a writer) and outlined the basic plot to her, and said I needed help with the dialogue. So we met one to two times a week, in cafes, and wrote the script together. Then I called a friend, a great actor and film director Jason Godbey, and got him on board to help me film all the flashback sequences (and he even wrote all of the Producer’s flashbacks). Aaron Baker was on standby to record all the male voiceovers (he’s the voice of both the Producer and the Detective) and I’m the voice of the Showgirl and Heiress. Then it was just a matter of editing it all together – which I thought would be fairly straight-forward, but, alas, was a far more difficult task than I thought it would be – all four characters have synchronized ipods, so timing is EVERYTHING, which played a big part in the editing process.

Audience members at a recent performance

Audience members at a recent performance of "Suspicious Package"

Suspicious Package relies on handheld Zune MP3 players that the audience carries all over the neighborhood. How do you make sure they don’t get broken or stolen?

So far so good! We usually collect credit cards from people at the beginning of the show, but so far, since everyone ends up at the same place, it hasn’t really been an issue – I just grab everything at the end of the performance.

You’re very interested in interactive theater, as evidenced by this and another project you recently spearheaded – Q & A: The Perception of Dawn. What interests you in these types of projects?

Though I’m a fan of all types of theater, and grew up on old musicals, I think movies really handle naturalistic straightforward things better, as a medium, than theater does. However what theater does have – and movies can never have – is that oh-so-important live element, which can really be magical when pulled off in the right way (I’m a big fan of Michael Gardner’s work in this respect). So I think that for theater to succeed, there needs to be some reason for a live audience to be there. I know for Q & A, when we had some light audiences, it was a little worrisome – that show requires a minimum of seven audience members to work, and Suspicious Package requires exactly four, no more, no less. But I think the audience is ultimately rewarded more when they’re involved in some way (however passively). Though I’m not a fan of the term “interactive theater” – I think it brings to mind cheesy, overacted dreck, and I don’t think that’s what I do.

What kind of experience should the audience expect when they come see Suspicious Package?

A fun one! Suspicious Package is a blast—it’s not scary at all, you don’t need to have any acting training (if you don’t, all the better!). If you can read aloud, walk, and follow directions, you should be just fine. This is interactive theater as you’ve never experienced it before. And fun! Did I say fun? It’s super fun – everyone who’s come has said so!

Sponsored By Nobody Searches for W.M.D.

August 12, 2008
The cast of "W.M.D. (just the low points)"

The cast of "W.M.D. (just the low points)"

Ice Factory, Soho Think Tank’s annual summer festival of new work, is currently in full swing and on the cutting edge as always. This venerable downtown institution, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, has already presented Lenora Champagne’s TRACES/fades, Undermain Theatre’s stage adaptation of the Neil Young song cycle Greendale, and Matthew Maher’s Heistman, starring Steven Rattazzi.

Next up is Sponsored By Nobody‘s mammoth multimedia project, W.M.D. (just the low points), a found-text deconstruction of America’s preoccupations and its relationship to the media in times of war. SBN artistic director Kevin Doyle – who returns to the festival after triumphing at Ice Factory ’05 with his absurdist corporate satire, The Position – helms a production collectively created by him and W.M.D.‘s cast, many of whom have been involved in the show’s development over the past two summers.

Two of those cast members, Scott Miller and Jessa Wildemeersch, were able to deviate from their relentless rehearsal schedule long enough to stop by the ol’ blog and talk more about W.M.D. – which opens Wednesday, August 13th at the Ohio Theatre – its development, and the challenges of performing an intentionally non-linear and sometimes illogical piece. Check it out…

You’ve both been involved with this project since last summer. What is the show about, and how has it evolved over the past year?

Scott: The show revolves around January 8th, 2004, when the first major report was released saying both that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and examining Administration Officials statements regarding W.M.D. The report itself got little press and so we wondered what was the news of the day if not that. The piece started as an exploration of the headlines, soundbites and imagery from news sources, entertainment and advertising from that day and an attempt to reconstruct the wall of data that Americans were faced with on January 8th, 2004. The piece has evolved to include the Iraqi civilian’s perspective from that day as well. So we have two narratives running parallel to each other and compare the details of an American civilian’s day (focusing on what news and imagery he is confronted with) with the details of an Iraqi civilian’s day. 

Jessa: The focus of the show is on the overload of information (internet, media, television, newspapers,) that an individual is exposed to on a daily basis, and what information we choose to pay attention to. W.M.D. (just the low points) is an expression of how easily we get distracted by the banal and how we loose track of the more important issues -like the war on Iraq and the consequences of a nation deciding to go to war.

The performance has developed (new cast members, additional material) but what has changed mostly over the course of the last year is my involvement in the material and research that we draw from. I had a chance to really get a better grasp on American history and I was able to learn more about Iraq and it’s history. The work on this performance has opened op my understanding of the phrase: “how history repeats itself.” Through this work I understand more the tendency of the individual (in western society) to loose grasp of the bigger picture as we get caught up in the minutiae of daily activities.

I know that W.M.D. has been heavily influenced by L.S.D. (just the high points), The Wooster Group’s classic deconstruction of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. How is W.M.D. different from its inspiration?

Jessa: I saw L.S.D (just the high points) on video at the Library of Performing Arts in New York. I think the structure of this piece (we use the same set up – a long table) has been a big influence for us. The immediacy with which the performers in L.S.D. share their research, and their ability to transform from one situation into another without a set logic. Kevin Doyle has encouraged us to think in this logic. To forget about the linear build of drama and character and to be inspired by a montage technique. I think part of that is derived from L.S.D. (just the high points) but also from writers like [Michel] Vinaver.

Scott: Structurally, we spend the majority of the piece following a day in the life of an American civilian, so the piece is more temporally driven, as opposed to L.S.D.‘s thematic connections from scene to scene. Needless to say, the current administration, W.M.D. and the war in Iraq are political issues as opposed to the impact of and various perspectives on L.S.D. (although I can’t say I know public sentiment toward L.S.D. at the time The Wooster group performed their piece). 

Jessa Wildemeersch in "W.M.D. (just the low points)"

Jessa Wildemeersch in "W.M.D. (just the low points)"

The creation of the script has been very collaborative, from what I understand, with the cast contributing a lot of the show’s content. How has that experience been thus far, and what kind of material has each of you contributed?

Scott: This type of collaboration for me is new and exciting. Doing research myself and falling in love with certain bits of information or imagery or ideas on how to bring something into the piece has given me a great sense of ownership and made me passionate about where the piece goes and how it gets there. We spent months reviewing newspapers, magazines and watching documentaries and films and sat around talking about what we liked, why and how things could find their way into the piece. It’s been wonderful to bounce ideas off of one another and see people become passionate about material and the piece. A drawback of course is that it takes a lot of time to parse through everyone’s ideas and everyone has watched at least of few of their darlings go by the wayside. 

Jessa: A lot of the research had already been done before I came on board last year. I contributed mostly to flesh out the Iraqi perspective of that day in history – January 8, 2004. Over the last months I have build a correspondence with the young Iraqi artist Mokhallad Rasem. I had met him at an Iraqi Arts Festival in Antwerp before I came to New York. He had to leave Baghdad because he was teaching theatre to young adults for Unicef. His story as a young artist trying to create under the devastating circumstances of dictatorship and war is very compelling. He writes his letters to me in Dutch and then I translate his work in English, so we can use this material in our research and performance.

Scott, you’re a company member of Sponsored By Nobody. How’d you first get involved with the group?

I came to SBN in the summer of 2005. The company was mounting what I guess was it’s first official production as a company, The Position at the Ice Factory Festival, and then taking the piece up to the Berkshire Fringe. I saw the audition post on Backstage, submitted and was asked to come in. The post mentioned that the piece had been performed previously so I Googled it and found a description. Everyone in the piece wore suits, so I figured I’d show up in one. I was the only guy in a fairly crowded waiting room wearing a suit. I walked into the audition and saw that the director was pleased I had taken the time to find something out about the piece. The audition went well enough to warrant a callback and I received new sides a couple days later. I worked them over quite a bit and came into the callback off book. A couple days after the audition, I was offered the part. I’m writing all this because Kevin and I have worked together on six or seven productions since and have become close over the last few years and he told me not too long ago over a beer that after my callback, the assistant director and other actors said that I didn’t fit the original mold for the part.  Kevin acknowledged that but said he was gonna throw his hat in the ring with the guy who did his homework and came in prepared. All of this may be cheesy, but I find it inspirational.

Cem Baza, Scott Miller, and McKenna Kerrigan in "W.M.D. (just the low points)"

Cem Baza, Scott Miller, and McKenna Kerrigan in "W.M.D. (just the low points)"

Jessa, you live most of the year in Belgium, where you are quite a well-known and renowned actor. And yet you’ve spent both of the last two summers here in New York working on W.M.D. How did you get involved with Sponsored By Nobody?

I met Kevin Doyle at The Martin E. Segal Theatre in New York in 2006, where I had organized and performed an evening on Belgian theatre. A year later I contacted Kevin and he invited me to join one of his rehearsals of W.M.D (just the low points) in Harlem. One hot Sunday afternoon, when I walked into their rehearsal space, I realized that I wanted to be part of this group. Since then we have been working closely together.

Next year we have a Belgian tour scheduled for W.M.D (just the low points) in Belgium. It has always been my dream to work in both countries and bring work from New York to Belgium and vice versa. I used to do this on my own for two years, but I always wanted to be part of a group as well. A group is stronger and more effective, especially in times like these. I feel Sponsored By Nobody has a good mix of guts, talent, attitude and insanity and I like to be part of that.

What kind of acting challenges does a piece like this pose for its cast?

Jessa: Let go of all pre-conceived ideas and logic; accept change and STOP MAKING SENSE!

Scott: While on stage, the actors go from sharing research material, to abstracting office work, to participating in a tea party, etc. So unlike most plays I’ve done, you not only jump from character to character, but place to place all while staying within an absurdist aesthetic. The fourth wall is broken from the first moment of the show and I definitely find it challenging to acknowledge, interact with and enjoy the audience while on stage. I myself have a prop list that’s gotta be at least 25 items deep at this point, and I need to be both committed to each moment and aware of what I’ll need for a scene or character change in 20 seconds. Also, the piece thrives on new takes on things and new physicality from rehearsal to rehearsal and so you must constantly be listening, present and courageous enough to throw out new movement, abstractions and ideas. 

What’s up next for each of you once this edition of W.M.D. winds down?

Scott: I refuse to give up the idea I had in elementary school that August is for traveling and visiting people, so with the two weeks left, I’ll be getting out of the city and seeing family and friends. After that, I’ll spend time focusing on film and television work, namely trying my best to audition for the appropriate casting directors and trying to land a commercial agent. 

Jessa: The day I arrive in Belgium, I start a workshop with a sculpture friend of mine at a bluegrass music festival. I am performing a new piece at a festival in Ostend (a city by the Belgian coast) at the end of August for which Kevin Doyle will write the text. I continue touring with the monologue Margaret’s Awakening, which I have performed over the last two years in Belgium and America. There is also a whole lot of work to do to prepare our Belgian tour of W.M.D (just the low points) in the spring of 2009.

FringeNYC 2008 Preview: Kansas City or Along the Way

August 12, 2008
Rebecca Benhayon and Adam Groves in "Kansas City or Along the Way"

Rebecca Benhayon and Adam Groves in "Kansas City or Along the Way"

2008 has definitely been playwright-director Robert Attenweiler‘s year so far. This past winter his play, …and we all wore leather pants, was published in The New York Theatre Experience‘s latest anthology of new work, Plays and Playwrights 2008. In the spring, Barracuda Theatre Club debuted his play, Torrents. Robert followed that production with the summer premiere of another new play, All Kinds of Shifty Villains, produced by his own theater company, Disgraced Productions.

As if all of that hasn’t been enough, Robert now has yet another production running, this time at the New York International Fringe Festival. The play is Kansas City or Along the Way, a Depression-era drama set against a backdrop of Woody Guthrie-style folk music and alternating monologues, starring two of the author’s frequent collaborators, Rebecca Benhayon and Adam Groves. In a slight deviation from the Fringe norm this current production – which opens on Thursday, August 14th at the CSV Cultural and Educational Center’s Milagro Theater – is a revival, having first debuted in the fall of 2006.

Robert took a break from Fringe-mania to visit the ol’ blog and talk about the play, his decision to revive it, and his neverending string of upcoming projects. Take a read…

This production is actually a revival, if I’m not mistaken. Why revive a previous work of yours instead of doing a new one?

Well, we did put it up back in October 2006. It was only my second fully independent production (third overall, counting my first show in the Fringe in 2005) and we’d just had an unexpectedly successful run of [Sam] Shepard’s Cowboy Mouth and my one-act Thick Like Piano Legs, selling out and extending.

Of course, I assumed things would just build off that – which they did not. Too few people saw our first run of Kansas City or Along the Way – but we were all very proud of the work we’d done on it. It’s a script I care about a great deal and both Rebecca and Adam are so amazing. So, I figured, why not treat the first run more like a workshop process – where we all got to learn things about the play and the characters and the production possibilities – and give the show another go with a more broadly cast net.

Besides, as people have pointed out to me, I don’t often return to my plays after I’ve done them. This is not by design, but since I’ve been producing my shows, I’ve always been looking for the next project. By no means does this mean I think my shows are perfect when they go up. I just get excited by new ideas and new stories.

I remember at NYU, you’d have a situation where you’d been in a workshop class with a bunch of people – and you’d read a bunch of drafts of a play, read the first-draft in class, read another draft, then see a staged reading. In the best cases, then you’d be invited to a production of that play somewhere down the line and it’d be like, “Really? I feel like I’ve already seen this play, like, 50 times.” Since I’m still in a place where I know many of the people I’m getting in the seats, I, at least, want to keep my entertainment fresh.

But, it was great to get to go back to this show and make it fresh, as well. And it is. I think we tap a lot more of what makes this show work and I’ve tried to keep to my motto after I saw the original production: 15-minutes shorter and 10% more clear.

The show’s press release suggests that it’s a monologue play in the vein of Molly Sweeney or Faith Healer. What made you choose that format for this particular story?

Well, it’s a little bit of that – and a little bit of some other things. The first half of the show is a monologue play – alternating longer monologues between the play’s two characters. One of the characters, Louise, is telling the story starting in 1932 and the second character, Joseph, is telling the story from 1939. As Louise’s story progresses, Joseph keeps feeling someone pulling him back from the past and, ultimately, the two characters wind up together in a scene. The scene is the crux of what has them telling all of these monologues – so it was fun to mix the genre of a monologue play with a traditional play … I guess a more accurate comparison would be a much, much shorter Homebody/Kabul.

"Kansas City or Along the Way"

"Kansas City or Along the Way"

But, as for why I chose the form, I love monologues. I really like dialogue and story and don’t like to feel like I skimp on those aspects, but I’ve said for a while that what I’m looking for in my stories is a place where I can, kind of, “lose my head” – just hit a point with a character where I can ride a rush of images and rhythm and find out what kind of cool ideas and sounds can come out of that moment.

At the same time, I’m mindful of how difficult it is to make a satisfying show with monologues. Monologue plays are tempting, but they are so hard to make work. That’s why I mixed in the scene between the two characters and the songs – to give the audience different storytelling elements that keeps them engaged and, in the end, makes a really rich theater experience.

Kansas City or Along the Way also utilizes Woody Guthrie-style folk music. Did you always have that element in mind for the play when you were writing it, or did it come along later?

It came later. Well, sort of. I solve a lot of problems in writing by listening to music. I find that – whether on the surface or a little more buried – there’s always some relationship to music in my plays because of how rhythm-oriented my characters’ speech patterns are.

There was a time when Kansas City was a solo show and was very concerned with the big band and jazz music of the 1930s. There’s still some of that left, but a change came when I had the opportunity to work with Adam Groves on this project. Adam, on top of being a fantastic actor, is an accomplished country singer/songwriter. So, I figured, why not play to that. I’d, by this point, become much more interested in Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie – and had solved some rewriting problems by listening to Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions album where he did all of these old Pete Seeger folk songs.

So much of the play is about storytelling – Louise and Joseph often break off one story and start up another one before getting back to the original. Folk songs are also stories. It gave another layer – but one that was very natural.

You’ve mentioned before that you’re always working on something – indeed, this will be the third play of yours produced within the last five months or something like that. So tell us: what’s up next for you after this?

Yes, I’ve named this stretch The Summer of Attenweiler. It’s kind of like The Summer of Love.

I think every time I’m asked this question I respond with, “I’m going to lie low for a while and work on this or that.” But that never really proves true.

I’m working on a couple of different scripts that I’m really excited about: a Bob Dylan inspired play (where I’m hoping to make it as obvious as I can who I’m writing about without getting my pants sued off) and an imagining of an American President in exile, based on J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.

I’m also working on one of a pair of rock n’ roll-related one-acts (the other one will be written by playwright Barton Bishop). So, the world will finally get its Lynyrd Skynyrd play.

I also just announced the formation of Disgraced TV – an offshoot of the theatrical wing of my company, Disgraced Productions. I’m working with some of my favorite actors on developing web-based programming that will be available on my website, Hopefully we’ll have a couple things up by the end of the year.

So, to answer your question, after this I think I’m going to lie low for a while. I could use a break.

FringeNYC 2008 Preview: Cruising to Croatia

August 8, 2008
Pamela Sabaugh

Pamela Sabaugh

Pamela Sabaugh is another theater artist who’s no stranger to the New York International Fringe Festival. At FringeNYC 2000 she won the Excellence in Performance Award for her performance in Woman in the Animal Kingdom (which she also wrote), and appeared in Frank Anthony Polito’s Another Day on Willow St. at FringeNYC 2007. In recent years she has also emerged as the leading lady for Theater Breaking Through Barriers, a New York-based company committed to providing opportunities for vision impaired actors and other artists with disabilities. Her numerous credits with the company include their recent revival of A.R. Gurney’s The Dining Room, the New York premiere of The Rules of Charity by the late John Belluso, and a turn as Ophelia in Hamlet.

At this year’s Fringe festival, Pamela tries on her directing hat with Cruising to Croatia, Peter Mikochik’s new musical comedy about two blind buddies who pose as musicians on a cruise ship in order to track down a seductive internet siren with a sexy voice. Danny Bowes and Robert Pinnock star in the production, which opens tonight at The Bleecker Street Theater.  

On the tail end of what she admitted was one of those when-it-rains-it-pours kind of weeks, Pamela took a breather and stopped by the ol’ blog to talk about Cruising to Croatia‘s origins and what kinds of drinking songs Croatians like best, among many other things. Take a read below…

The story of how Cruising to Croatia came to be is quite unique, from what I hear. Would you mind telling us a little bit about its origins?

There is a bi-annual, Blind In Theatre (BIT) festival which happens in of all places, Zagreb, Croatia. The company that hosts this event has been around doing high quality theatre for over 50 years. But because the actors are blind and vision impaired, they are not allowed into the academy, and therefore not considered “professional.” So in 1999, the New Life (Novi Jivot) Theater Company established the BIT festival, to seek out and connect with other blind companies from all over the world, to learn from each other, share and celebrate the work, while gaining recognition and legitimacy as theatre artists. Theater Breaking Through Barriers, formally Theater By The Blind, attended this festival for the first time in 2001, just after 9/11, and it was one of those life-changing experiences. Novi Jivot embraced us and our work. All the many theatrical styles, culture and languages coming together – with the added element of vision impairment being the norm – was wonderful and wild. The Croatians are a hearty lot, and they really appreciate imbibing in spirits and robust singing. Often a post-show dinner would end in impromptu music sessions where the cutlery on the table would become percussion, and the rest would be cleared, as we all sang, and the Croatians got up on the tables and danced. Some of their favorite “American Drinking Songs,” as they thought of them, were anything Beatles: “Yellow Submarine,” “Yesterday.” But by far, the favorite of the bunch, was John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

So in 2005 TBTB was gearing up to take Ted Hughes’s translation of Oedipus. But, knowing their appreciation for music, we also wanted to bring something to be presented as our cabaret performance. A few months before, Pete Mikochik, the writer, musician, producer of Cruising, had done a revue of his songs and short skits he’d written about these two blind buddies, Mark and Teddy, and all the crazy adventures they get themselves into: like when Teddy has to get a driver’s license, and Mark duct tapes himself to the roof of the car with his cane, using it to guide Teddy through the streets; or where they mistake a fish and tackle store for the music store, buying what they think are guitar strings. Anyway, Pete’s songs and these two characters seemed the perfect candidates to go to Zagreb. So Pete decided to write a longer play featuring the buddies and customize it to our cast and the festival. Hence, crash landing in West Virginia, giving us an excuse to use the Denver classic as our finale. And, well, hence the name! Pete retooled the show when he submitted it for the Fringe, taking out all the cover songs. The script didn’t end up changing all that much, and in a strange way it worked. Perhaps due to the already loose and silly nature of the plot, what had been an inside joke, simply morphed into more of the absurdity.

So what kind of show can audiences expect when they come to see it?

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road trip movies meets slapstick and commedia dell’arte meets radio play and Prairie Home Companion!

All the sound effects are created live on stage. Our band is part of the show. It is shamelessly silly. But within this little romp, there are real elements of blind life which are not always known to the world at large. For instance, the voice of the computer screen reading software we hear in Mark and Teddy’s apartment. The show has a definite soundscape, which, though exaggerated, is an elemental thread in the fabric of a world with limited or no sight. And Pete, aside from all of his creative endeavors, is also a carpenter, and computer technician. Much like the character Mark, who can fix anything, even the ships engine. Some might try to write Pete off as not being able to build a new wing on to his bed and breakfast home, or rebuild a hard drive, but he’s done it, and he uses his sense of hearing along with everything else at his disposal. Including his twisted imagination which conceived of this show!

"Cruising to Croatia"

"Cruising to Croatia"

The ensemble consists of blind, vision impaired and sighted actors. George Ashiotis and Pete Mikochik as the on stage musicians and back up vocals are the real life, blind counterparts to Mark and Teddy. These two lead blind characters are played by sighted actors, Danny Bowes and Robert Pinnock. And some of the sighted characters are played by blind and vision impaired performers. This may upset some purists, who think a blind actor should be playing a blind role. But, I like the fact that we are able to mix it up. So often it is the case that, either like with the Croatian company a troop is segregated and becomes an exclusively blind company, or blind artists are given the chance to perform in roles created and or cast by sighted professionals. What makes this production unique, is that it is the blind and vision impaired who are affording the opportunities to actors of all sight types.

You’ve carved out a notable acting career for yourself, particularly with Theater Breaking Through Barriers, but this time you’re directing. Why the switch? And how’s it going so far?

I love to problem solve, to craft moments, and to think about how all elements can come together as a unified whole. I very much appreciate a vibrant style and interesting design, but for me it is the living breathing actor that ultimately brings the story home. So how to best help the actor do their job, while fulfilling the wishes of the playwright, finding the best style through which to channel it all, without compromising truth, has always been an intriguing challenge to me. Also, as it may be apparent in my previous comments, I do have strong beliefs about including the voices of all artists. One reality made clear when we were casting the show is that there are not that many trained, experienced blind actors out there to choose from. When this opportunity came my way, I felt it was time to finally put some of my ideas into practice.

It has not been easy. There are many nuts-and-bolts aspects to the job which have nothing to do with all that artistic philosophy. But that’s exactly why I wanted to take the plunge. I have learned a great deal, and am extremely grateful for the trust, talents, and commitments of all those who are involved in this project.

You’re a Fringe veteran, having appeared in the festival a couple of times before. What keeps you coming back to it?

Good question! Sometimes, even when I think, okay, this year I’m getting the hell out of New York for the summer, instead of scoring that great regional theatre gig in New England, I once again am lugging props through the streets of New York in the August heat!

But in truth, there is a lot of talented people in this town doing theater, vital, exciting new stuff, and I’m lucky enough to have established relationships with some of these folks. And, as it has been since my first Fringe experience, I am continually enriched and delighted by all the great stuff that goes down. I’m thankful for The Present Company and it’s history, the idea of the Fringe and independent, downtown theater, even if it keeps marching more and more uptown and across the river. Like punk rock, or any risk takers and breakthrough movements, it may eventually get co-opted into the mainstream. But it is the Idea, (or ideals) that I believe in, and as long as there are artists still operating with those in mind, I will always keep coming back.

FringeNYC 2008 Preview: Not Dark Yet

August 7, 2008
Jake Suffian, Kyle Knauf, and Elizabeth Bell in "Not Dark Yet"

Jake Suffian, Kyle Knauf, and Elizabeth Bell in "Not Dark Yet"

Playwright Timothy Nolan is no stranger to the New York International Fringe Festival, having participated thrice before with his plays The Way Out (FringeNYC 2002), Acts of Contrition (FringeNYC 2003 Award for Best Playwriting), and Wrong Barbarians (FringeNYC 2004). If history is any indicator he may very well be on his way to more Fringe glory. Timothy’s latest endeavor, Not Dark Yet – which opens at this year’s festival on Wednesday, August 13th – tells the story of a writer at war with his muse (who appears in the form of a big hairy bruiser wearing a skirt) and his wife (who’s falling out of love with him). Christine Simpson directs the production, which runs at walkerspace.

During a momentary break from the final week of rehearsals, Timothy visited the ol’ blog to give us some more insight into his play, talk about Christine’s strengths as a director, and his previous Fringe experiences. Read on, Macduff…

Your play borrows its title from a Bob Dylan song and is about a writer who is terrorized by his subconscious. Did you draw any inspiration from either the Dylan song or your own life for this one?

Funny, when I wrote a play about a wrongly imprisoned black man (The Way Out) or a pedophilic priest (Acts of Contrition) nobody said, “That’s really you, right?” Whereas, in fact, they all were me.

Norman Mailer once told me – and the hundred other people at the reading – “You should take it as matter of faith that your unconscious is smarter than you.” You take in everything you see and hear and feel and process it. It’s a little limiting to say, “oh, he’s just writing about his life.” No matter what you’re writing about, it’s a much bigger process than that.

In the case of Not Dark Yet, I was taken with watching my friends who start leave their art behind, or have to redouble their struggle to hold on to it. People underestimate the power of youthful naiveté. You can really draw strength from it that has no connection to logic, but can lead you to great things others would think are impossible. When that burns off, it leaves a lot of open holes. That’s when the real test comes. Life gets complicated, and complications create strange situations, which actually make for good plays.

As for Bob [Dylan], what can one say? The song has a beautiful melody that holds lyrics that you want to slit your wrists to. 

“Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer,
it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…”

It’s heartbreaking, but you can dance to it, sort of.

Anyone who’s ever tried to create something doesn’t have the luxury to stop. They go to bed realizing it’s hopeless, then get up in the morning and find another reason to push on. Artists, creative people in all walks of life, are the strongest, toughest people in the world.

People should listen to Dylan more.

You tapped director Christine Simpson to work on the production. What does she bring to the table as a director that fits this play?

The biggest thing Christine brought was an appreciation for the humor of the play and the ability to bring that out in the staging. It really is a very funny play, and Christine found laughs that I didn’t even know were in there. It’s been great to discover just how strong the connection between truth and humor is and in many ways Christine has brought that to us.

Christine also shares a belief in the power of live presentation. You can write all the magic into your script that you want, but at some point someone has to figure out how to get the rabbit into the hat so the characters can pull it out. It requires a very literal head, but at the same time a strong belief in the magic in order to figure out how to pull it off.

You’re a repeat visitor to the Fringe. How has your previous experience (or experiences) with the festival been, and what made you want to do it again?

The Fringe gave my work a home, and not just for three weeks in August. In the play, Tom, the lead character, talks about how before he met his wife and found a support system he was “writing in his basement.” Our group, Present Tense Productions, which was founded by myself and my wife and fellow playwright Susannah Nolan, felt that way when we first found the Fringe. We’d sort of knocked around wondering if we fell in the forest would anyone hear us. You need three things for a play: the words, the actors, and the audience. I knew we could take care of the first and work to find the second, the Fringe gave us the third and a bonus: a community. It’s at the point where the camaraderie and safe environment of the Fringe Festival is just another part of my process.

The first Fringe Festival I was in, in 2002, I used to say it felt like Christmas in August. I still feel that way. Except Santa was in fishnets. It all got very strange. But we had fun.

FringeNYC 2008 Preview: Exodus

August 7, 2008
The cast of "Exodus"


The New York International Fringe Festival never lacks for productions with social relevance, and this year is no different. One such offering at this year’s festival is Exodus, Daren Taylor’s political drama set in a fictional dystopian America where famine is commonplace, child labor has been legalized, and religion is the law. The story follows a group of friends in a small Kansas town who begin to question the oppressive status quo and ponder doing something about it.

The production – which opens Sunday, August 10th at The Connelly Theater – is directed by up-and-comer Jessica McVea, who stopped by the ol’ blog to tell us a little bit more about it and her aesthetic. Check it out…

This sounds like a big project in terms of both scale and big picture ideas. How did you get involved with it?

I was actually one of the actors during the development process of the show and for a staged reading of it. Daren Taylor (the writer) and I spent a lot of time fleshing out the world of Exodus and what it meant to be a part of it. I think because of those conversations, he turned to me because he knew I saw Exodus the way he did. I think it also helped that Daren knew I was organized enough to make sure none of the pieces in this extremely large show got lost!

Exodus sports a cast of fourteen, which is large for a straight play. How do you manage a group that big over the course of rehearsals?

With lots and lots of planning and flexibilty. It helped that our rehearsals took place in a very artistic building (we rehearsed at NYU), so the focus needed for acting was already in the air. I commend my cast for their commitment to a show that is truly an ensemble piece. Sometimes those are hard to wade through, because the actors don’t feel like they’re getting their share of the limelight in the show or even in rehearsal. But my cast has really been great in helping me sculpt such a large world in which everyone is a part.

Jessica McVea

Jessica McVea

As far as your directorial style/aesthetic goes, who or what has influenced you? And how do those influences find their way into this production, if at all?

I come out of Atlantic Theater Company, which, for those who don’t know, is extremely direct, simple, and professional. I find that influences me more than anything. What story am I trying to tell, and am I really telling it? What is the simplest and most straightforward way to tell it? What do I want the audience to take away when they leave? These are the questions I always go back to – paring down something to its simplest and most important element and then building it back up again layer by layer – that’s really how I work. 

Other than Atlantic, I find the playwrights influence me more than other directors and their styles. The language in Odets, the pacing in Pinter, the subtext in Williams – I love these things, and fall back on them again and again to use in other stories. The great playwrights captured something in their words that I always attempt to use. I’m a big fan of the sound of a play as well as the look of it.