After recently scoring six New York Innovative Theatre Award nominations for its production of The Night of Nosferatu, one might assume that Rabbit Hole Ensemble would be content to rest on its laurels. Not a chance. Hot on the heels of such critical recognition, the company is debuting a new production – Stanton Wood’s dark sex comedy, Big Thick Rod – at this year’s New York International Fringe Festival. The play is a comically caustic look at the exploitative nature of relationships that features an uptight attorney, his insatiable wood nymph bride, and their studly handyman (the title character).
Rabbit Hole artistic director Edward Elefterion, who also directs Big Thick Rod (which opens Sunday, August 10th at the New School for Drama Theater), stopped by the ol’ blog to talk about the production and his longtime collaborators, playwright Stanton Wood and actor Arthur Aulisi (who plays uptight attorney Elmer). Here’s what he had to say…
Okay, so with a name like Big Thick Rod, what kind of show should audiences expect to see?
Big Thick Rod is a wonderfully subversive dark comedy about how even the most loving relationships are exploitative by nature. The action takes place in a world of eunuchs, male prostitutes, three-armed gardeners, repressed lawyers, blow-up dolls, hot-dogs, and ritual peeing, where everything is negotiable and has a price. It’s a wild ride so audiences should expect to stay on their toes. Of course, sex is central to the action, it’s a form of currency that the playwright uses to explore why people do what they do to each other…or try to do. There’s plenty to laugh out loud about…and there’s plenty to provoke some serious thinking, too.
You’re working once again with playwright Stanton Wood. What do like about working on his stuff? And how do his plays suit your directing style?
Stan’s writing is direct and cuts to the heart of things without feeling labored. There’s a kind of effortlessness about it. As a director, I work hard on creating something that strikes audiences as both surprising yet inevitable, action that unfolds in the most mysterious and perfectly logical way. If I do it well, you won’t notice it. Stan’s writing is like that. You have to look very carefully at it to discover what he’s up to and at the same time, it seems to be just sitting right there in front of you. It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing only the surface (which is entertaining enough so why look any deeper, right?) and miss the rich substance underneath it. I love the challenge it presents. Not to mention that Stan writes plays. That is, he understands what makes a play a play and how the theatre is a totally different medium than film or television, and he’s always up for trying something new. All of which suits me fine. And…he’s a very funny, wise, considerate, gentle, patient man. Over the years, he’s helped me learn more than just how to make good theatre. He’s not only Rabbit Hole Ensemble’s resident playwright, he’s a great friend that I’m lucky to have in my life.
Big Thick Rod also features another frequent collaborator of yours, actor Arthur Aulisi. You guys have been working together for something like fifteen years now. What keeps your partnership going?
What keeps it going? Arthur’s fantastic, that’s what. The tough thing is scheduling him far enough in advance. He’s always working. I met Arthur in 1993, a year after I met Stan. We were all working on Stan’s play The Resurrectionists at the now defunct adobe theatre company [sic], which Arthur helped to found. And ever since then, whenever I initiate a project, one of my first phone calls is to Arthur. I’ve seen him grow and change over the years, personally as well as artistically, and through it all he’s always bringing something more to the process than “just” his wonderful acting. He brings humor and ideas about staging and writing and sound and rhythm and he presents it all in the most unassuming way. He’s a team player who’s all about making good work, even if it means cutting a piece of business that he fell in love with or a favorite speech…but he will go to the mat and make a great case for anything that he believes in. Personally, Arthur and I became fast friends fifteen years ago over theatre, drinking, smoking, and generally behaving as if there was no death. Lotta’ water under the bridge and he’s always been there. He’s one of those people that I want in the room, whether it’s a rehearsal hall or my home.
Long-term collaborative relationships seem to be a crucial component of your work. Why so?
You can do a lot with a scratch cast, one that you assemble anew for each production. But you can do infinitely more with artists who you have a long-term collaborative relationship with. And yes, it is a crucial component of my work precisely because the getting-to-know-you period is over, the trust has been earned, the habits revealed, the temperaments measured, the egos checked at the door for the most part (we are human after all). It takes weeks, sometimes months, sometimes longer to accomplish all of that…and that’s not even mentioning making art. When I work with someone brand new, there’s been rarely more than a recommendation and an audition process, which isn’t much. I’ve found that it helps to bring new people in slowly, that is, have a majority of the cast be long-term collaborators so that the new folks get a sense of the team dynamics and so that they can experience the level of trust and familiarity that we already have. It makes the transition from outsider to insider much quicker when most of the group is already “inside.” Inhibitions fall away quicker and the newer people loosen up. But even then, only a small amount of freedom can happen in four weeks. I always look at the time spent on a project with a new person as the beginning of a potentially longer process. It’s as much an investment for the future as it is for the present.