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).
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 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.at the Ice Factory Festival, and then taking the piece up to
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.