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!
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.