FringeNYC 2008 Preview: Good Pictures

August 6, 2008
Jim Nugent and Will Harper in "Good Pictures"

Jim Nugent and Will Harper in "Good Pictures"

The New York International Fringe Festival is a place that many artists return to time and time again. Take playwright Ashlin Halfnight, for instance. After scoring Fringe successes with his plays God’s Waiting Room (FringeNYC 2005 Award for Outstanding Play) and Diving Normal (FringeNYC 2006 Award for Outstanding Ensemble), Ashlin is back for a third go-round with his latest offering, Good Pictures. The play – which opens Thursday, August 14th at The Studio at the Cherry Lane Theatre – focuses on two men who meet in an upstate town jail and forge an uneasy and desperate escape plan. Might Ashlin be taking home more Fringe honors at this year’s festival awards ceremony? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, Ashlin and Good Pictures director Dominc D’Andrea took time out from their rehearsal schedule to drop by the ol’ blog and tell us more about the show. Here’s what they had to say…

Unless I’m mistaken, this the first time you two have worked together. How’d you decide to team up for this project?

Dominic: Ashlin and I have actually had a relationship for two years. We met when I directed two readings of the same play at the Lark Play Development Center during the fall of 2006. We became quick friends, and have worked together on several small projects, including the One-Minute Play Festival. Good Pictures is, however, the first full-length production collaboration that Ashlin and I have been involved with together. Our collaborations have always been really easy and fun, so working together is production just seemed to be a good  fit. So far, it’s worked out very well.

Ashlin: It’s the first time we’ve worked together in a sustained, full-length format, but we met a few years ago at the Lark, where Dominic led a couple of round-tables of a play of mine called, The Stars Above Balaton… and he also directed (brilliantly, I might add) a couple of my offerings (including a piece about Penis-fish) for the One-Minute Play Festival that he curates. So… after batting a few ideas around, I threw Good Pictures at him and said, you know, “Hey, what about this?” It kind of went from there…

Ashlin, how is Good Pictures similar to and/or different from your previous work?

Hmm… I can’t really honestly draw a whole lot of concrete parallels between Good Pictures and many of my other plays. But to be fair, I can’t really draw parallels between any of my plays. I can’t control a sort of large-scale ADD when it comes to writing. I just stumble from one thing to another like an idiot. And, I remain constantly in awe of people like Shepard and LaBute and Gurney who mine incredible amounts from more confined emotional and situational spaces. I’m less apt to sit still – and less deep… and I blame it all on Sesame Street.

Anyway, let’s see… new things:this is not an issue-driven play at all – but the subject matter, the background issues, are unlike anything else I’ve explored (jail, immigration, the sex trade); and the fact that it’s a two-hander is new, and presents certain narrative and conflict problems – and there’s a gun that gets shot, so that’s different. Does that count? A gunshot? Well, there you go. There was sexual violence in Diving Normal, divine wrath in God’s Waiting Room, a knife in Mud Blossom, and a bomb in Baby Face. So, yeah… I’ve just been working my way up to a gun. There. Parallel. Weapons. Apparently, I’m exploring ways to hurt people. The theater of weaponry.

Dominic, what kind of themes and material do you gravitate towards as a director? And how does Good Pictures play towards those interests?

I have always been attracted to plays with gritty texture and characters with dark ethos. I like contained experiences: plays that either practice unity, or invite an experience that allows the actors and the audience to stay in one place for a given amount of time. I’m excited to learn “what happens” behaviorally, emotionally. In terms of basic storytelling, I appreciate writing that is nuanced, but not precious; and, plays that embrace simplicity and allows the risk-taking to have emotionally resonant strokes. I like plays that allow actors to do their best work. I think Ashlin has given us this kind of vehicle.

What kind of experience can the audience expect from your show?

Ashlin: This play will be a little claustrophobic, a little loud, a little mean, a little funny…and, frankly, the whole thing will be over before you know it. I can’t think of another play of mine where the pace is so relentless… there are some breaths in it, of course, but overall, it’s a pretty fast ride. It’s also tense as hell, right from the opening, and the two actors are super fierce… so there’s a sense of danger in every little move. I think the audience can expect a pretty visceral, raw experience… hopefully they’ll enjoy themselves…and hopefully they’ll give me a lot of money on the way out of the theater.

Dominic: Good acting. Deeply focused storytelling. A very intimate, almost claustrophobic experience Bare-bones production value. There is a no-bullshit kind of production: it’s stark, emotionally risky, and there is nothing to hide behind. The actors are navigating a lot of dangerous and beautiful terrain in the writing. We have totally embraced the technical limitations of the fringe, and we have made a really ghetto, and extremely well played little show. It’s totally a fringe experience in the true sense.


Shannon Thomason Reveals Her Inner Nudist

August 6, 2008
Shannon Thomason

Shannon Thomason

Ever since Urinetown rose from its humble beginnings at The New York International Fringe Festival nearly ten years ago and achieved unlikely Broadway success, the Fringe has become a breeding ground for new musicals looking to grab the brass ring and producers looking for the next big cult hit. One of this year’s possible contenders for a commercial transfer is Nudists in Love, a new musical comedy by composer Nirmal Chandraratna and playwright Shannon Thomason about an idyllic suburban town thrown into turmoil when a well-liked pillar of the community is outed as a nudist. As with many Fringe shows, Nudists in Love – which opens Friday, August 8th, at the Bleecker Street Theater – has a gimmick to hook audiences in: the production features no nudity, even though the actors take their clothes off. Huh? Theatergoers have to check out the show in person to see how the company pulls that one off (no pun intended).

Shannon – who co-wrote the FringeNYC 2006 hit, Grace, with Nudists in Love director Sara Thigpen – took a break from rehearsals and last minute script revisions to drop by the ol’ blog and talk about the show, her collaboration with composer Nirmal, and her long-standing friendship and partnership with Sara.

First of all, why a musical about nudists?

There are so many cool naked plays out there; we thought we’d try one with a twist, no nudity. Also, it’s a fun way to look at the larger themes at the heart of the show: we should be free to engage in activities we enjoy which don’t intrude on others, i.e. eating all the trans-fatty goodness we want, marrying who we want, not being spied on by our government- ooops, did I just get too political? It really is a fun show! Besides, when does everyone sing? In the shower, where we’re naked. Music and nudity go together like bacon and everything.

Where’d you come up with this idea?

I have to give credit for this little nugget to the wild wonderful mind of Nudists in Love‘s composer/lyricist Nirmal Chandraratna. Legend has it, one fateful day of yore, he and our producer, Melanie Ashley were bouncing ideas around. This one stuck to the wall and stayed. From there, they drafted an outline and he started writing songs. I joined a few months later when they asked me to write the book.

What have been some of the challenges of working on this show? I’m guessing the nudity was a big one.

Since the show isn’t so much about being naked as it is about your right to be naked, that hasn’t been such an obstacle. Then again, a big challenge is staging nudity in a way that the audience doesn’t feel like they’ve been cheated or that we copped out. Our director, Sara Thigpen, and costume designer, Todd Senson, have some great ideas that I am super-excited to see on stage.

This is the first musical you’ve written. What made you want to write one?

I was asked. I’m easy like that. Plus, I must admit, I simply LOVE musical theatre. My college roommate and I had the lyrics to “Do You Hear the People Sing” written on multi-colored construction paper and pasted around the crown molding of our dorm room. Wow, I had crown molding in my dorm room. Anyway, wouldn’t you rather sing your emotions if you could? Music can hit you so much deeper than words alone. That’s why Lloyd Dobler raised his boom box in the rain. That’s why we made mix tapes when we liked someone and didn’t know if they liked us back. I might walk out of a play or movie remembering a line or two, but I leave a musical with songs in my head and all the emotion they carry with them. If I can be a part of that in any way, sign me up.

What are the differences between writing a musical and a straight play?

The main difference for me has been the collaboration with Nirmal. My words have to get the characters to the right emotional state to start the songs and match what is happening musically. How it’s said (or sung) is as important as what is said. A scene is completely different if the song is sweet and melodic vs. atonal and agitated and the moments that drive into those musical options are different as well.

Another difference is simply pulling it off. The production, I mean. Putting up a musical is almost like doing two shows at once. You have the actors and crew as a straight play would, then you add another “cast and crew” with the music director, musicians, choreographer, etc. It can be a logistical nightmare if you don’t have people who are dedicated to the show. Luckily we have a whole team who gets more and more excited at every turn. It’s thrilling to see it all come together.

Adam J. MacDonald and Kristin Maloney in "Nudists in Love"

Adam J. MacDonald and Kristin Maloney in "Nudists in Love"

How do you and Nirmal work together? For instance, how did you two decide that the book and lyric writing duties would be separate?

That was totally easy. He writes songs, I don’t. He’s been studying and writing music forever, I just listen and sing off key. However, I must admit, when we first started this project I secretly tried to write some lyrics. But they all turned into limericks so I quietly folder that piece of paper and put it away in a safe, dark place.

You’re collaborating once again with your Grace co-writer Sara Thigpen, only this time she’s directing. You two have been friends and colleagues for a long time. What do you like about working together?

Sara and I share a brain, which is pretty handy when creating something that is as precious and dynamic as a play. When two people have a common language, when they know how the other person thinks and feels, they never have to worry that their opinions or goals will be dismissed or disregarded without all due examination. Plus, she’s a smart cookie. Everything I’ve done with her has been the better for it. With all our similarities, we still have different experiences and ways of doing things that help fill the gaps we couldn’t complete on our own.

How did you get your first start as a writer? What sparked your interest in the theater?

I have a very dear friend who kept saying, “Write that shit” when I’d tell her stories. Finally, I did. I wrote a 10min play that was accepted into a festival and since then, I’ve just kept at it. As for my interest in theatre, please allow me to theatre-geek out a bit (but you asked!). I’ve always loved theatre. The story telling. The emotional investment by the actors and the audience. The here and now of live performances. At the very heart of it, the ability to have an emotional impact on another person. I love sitting in the dark and not watching, but being on the ride. When I saw August: Osage County, at the end of the second act, I needed to laugh and cry and throw up all at the same time, the emotional trifecta. Now that’s entertainment.

What have you learned about nudists while working on this show that the audience should know beforehand?

Oh, what I have learned. The inter-web is a wonderful thing, you know. But there really isn’t any kind of primer that the audience will need to enjoy the show. I’ve peppered some terminology and myth-busting in, here and there, but there is little “code” involved. We have been asked if our audience could be “clothing optional” but we do live in a city where you can’t dance in bars, so you can appreciate the limitations we have there. Bottom line: nudists are gentle folk, with little to hide. Come, let’s watch them play…

FringeNYC 2008 Preview: Too Much Memory

August 2, 2008
Laura Heisler in "Too Much Memory"

Laura Heisler in "Too Much Memory"

Who said the New York International Fringe Festival is just for up-and-comers? New York theater veterans Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson might beg to differ. Even though they’ve both forged long and varied show business careers – Keith, as a highly-esteemed playwright and actor; Meg, as a recognizable character actor both on stage and screen – that doesn’t mean they can’t have some fun in Fringe-land, too. Their new play, Too Much Memory, premieres at this year’s festival and promises to show the young’uns a thing or two. Teaming up with indie theater stalwarts Rising Phoenix Repertory, Keith and Meg’s mash-up adaptation of the classic tragedy Antigone promises plenty of post-modern attitude as it moves the story to late 20th century America and throws in aspects of both the contemporary domestic drama and political thriller genres. Meg directs the production, which opens at walkerspace on Saturday, August 9th and features New York theater mainstays Louis Cancelmi, Peter Jay Fernandez, Laura Heisler, Martin Moran, and Ray Anthony Thomas in the cast.

Keith and Meg – who are also a real life husband-and-wife duo – recently paid a visit to the ol’ blog for a brief chat about the show and its origins. Check it out…

Too Much Memory is adapted from Jean Anouilh’s classic drama, Antigone. Does that mean it’s a brand new version of the play itself, or more of a new work inspired by an older work?

Keith: Too Much Memory has gone through a lot of versions, further and further from the original Sopohocles and Anouilh, and now it’s more something new, so it feels organic and current for the actors. Its a kind of collage, using all sorts of texts, poems, interviews, portions of Richard Nixon’s memoirs, that sort of thing.

And it has plenty of rock and roll and film references, so we’ve got a sort of post-modern take on the classics. We have this Chorus character in the piece say in the play “it’s an adaptation of an adaptation of a retranslation, we don’t know exactly what to call that.” There it is.

What made you two decide to co-write the script together?

Keith: Meg approached me years ago about doing a new version of Antigone, given current events. Plus I’ve been wanting to work on a classic story. Those stories are truly timeless and lend themselves to infinite variations. And Meg is so smart and sexy, who wouldn’t want to work with her. And I ended up marrying her! Now we sort of have to make this happen.

Keith, you’ve had a multi-faceted career so far as both an actor and a writer. Now you’re Fringe-ing it up with indie theater stalwarts Rising Phoenix Repertory. How’d you first get involved with them?

I saw a number of readings at Rising Phoenix, then Meg did a workshop of Daniel Talbott’s play Slipping, and I thought, you guys rock! I make it a habit when I see something that blows me away, I go up to people after and say I want to work with you on whatever. I did that years ago with Keen Company and I’ve now done three projects with them.

Meg, you’ve carved out a steady acting career, both onstage and on-screen. Now you’re directing Too Much Memory. Are you interested in directing more in the future, or you are going to remain focused on acting?

I’ve always wanted to direct as well as act and did so when I was in college. And I’ve always loved the big guys – Beckett, Pinter. Cracking those guys is an excellent challenge. When I went to Juillard, my teachers very wisely said concentrate on just the acting. So I did for 20 years. It was my old friends from college, running a very maverick company in Salt Lake City that encouraged me to begin directing again. Miller, Terry Johnson, Charles Mee – that was the next list of challenges. I like to say I’m expanding into directing. James Bundy, the dean up there at Yale School of Drama, concurred. Some folks want, can, must do more than one aspect of this work. Daniel Talbott is a perfect example. And he’s way younger than me doing all this at the same time already! Add producing to his list! This idea that we should only do one thing is quickly fading. So, yes, I want to direct more, and still be acting. I just did a juicy small movie playing Sigmund Freud’s mother. Out there.

FringeNYC 2008 Preview: The Umbrella Plays

August 2, 2008
"The Umbrella Plays"

"The Umbrella Plays"

Stephanie Janssen and Daniel Talbott are both working actors. The former has recently appeared in Potomac Theatre Project’s production of Crave by Sarah Kane, EST Marathon 2007 – in Israel Horovitz’s one-act play, “Beirut Rocks” – and the New York premiere of Horovitz’s The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath. The latter has been seen both regionally – in the world premiere of Mark Saltzman’s Rocket City at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, McCarter Theatre’s recent revival of Tartuffe – and here in New York – in the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of Marat/Sade.

But, there’s more to both of them than just their acting resumes. Stephanie is a budding playwright, and Daniel frequently directs productions for his theater company, Rising Phoenix Repertory. This summer, these two longtime friends team up for the first time on Stephanie’s new work, The Umbrella Plays, which is premiering at this year’s New York International Fringe Festival. The production opens at walkerspace on Friday, August 8th, and features a cast of New York notables including Mark Setlock, Jan Leslie Harding, and the author herself.

Stephanie and Daniel took time out from their busy schedules to pay us a visit here at the ol’ blog and talk about their debut collaboration. Check it out below…

Stephanie, what exactly are The Umbrella Plays?

Well… The short version is that The Umbrella Plays are six short  plays – four scenes and two monologues – about an umbrella, but of course that’s not the whole story.  In truth it all started about two years ago when I was feeling like a bored out-of-work actress, and decided I should try and write something for my other bored out-of-work actor friends and I to work on. I’d always had this idea that i’d like to make a play one day with umbrellas, just because I like the look of them and for whatever reason I find them sort of romantic and theatrical and evocative. So, I played a little game with myself – how many stories can you tell about an umbrella, and how many different ways can you make an umbrella important in someone’s story?  And after a few months, I had these six stories – actually seven, though one of them has been axed for various reasons. The idea really became about taking this common, insignificant object and finding ways to make it essential, endow it with some meaning outside of itself, the way we do with all kinds of little things in our lives.  And of course, once I started thinking about what umbrellas functionally are – a way we protect ourselves from bad weather, I started thinking about this idea of bad weather more metaphorically, what that means in our lives, and about the ways we seek shelter from those things, and trying to find ways to tie the simple and functional to the emotional, personal counterpart.  So to me the plays are really about that searching for shelter from various storms. But that said, they’re also often quite light, quite playful, and ultimately optimistic.  And the result is these six snap-shots of life, which overlap and collide, these disparate people making their way through their lives,  getting drenched in it all and drying off again, as best they can.

How did you two come to work together on this production?

Daniel: Stephanie and I have known each other and been really good buds for a long time, and just recently had gotten close to being cast in a play together, and at the callback were talking about how much we’d love to work together on something. I really thought it’d probably be as actors first, but then Steph brought up that she had this play that she’d written that had just gotten into the Fringe and she needed a director and I was like, “Hire me, yo!”

Daniel Talbott & Stephanie Janssen

Daniel Talbott & Stephanie Janssen

Stephanie: Daniel and I finished school (him Juilliard, me NYU) in the same year, and have known each other for ages the way people do, through friends and work, but have never had the chance to work together. When I submitted this project to the Fringe, I was the only person attached to it and truthfully had no idea what I was doing.  I contacted Daniel after the piece was accepted, to see if he had any recommendations for directors,  knowing how savvy and plugged in he is (which I have always envied and admired about him). It never occurred to me to ask him to do it, only because I know he’s always busy with a million things of his own, and I couldn’t imagine he’d have the time or possibly the interest. He responded to my email right away, and said he’d like to suggest himself for the project. I was shocked and thrilled, and leapt at the chance to work with him. So, in a way it was a happy accident, but my goodness, I couldn’t be happier to be working with him. I tell him all the time, though I’m sure not enough, that I’d be utterly lost without him, and I’m not being hyperbolic. Now, of course, the thing is to see if we can survive each other! (Kidding of course. We’re very happy, though he teases me mercilessly, but probably I deserve it).

Daniel, you usually direct for your own company, the prolific and ubiquitous Rising Phoenix Repertory. This time you’re jobbing out. Why so?

It’s actually weird that I’ve directed so much for RPR in the last couple years, not because I don’t love it or want to do it, but because when we all started out I tried to make a really active choice to only be the artistic director for a long time and to try not to act or direct for the company cause I wanted to make sure everything else was taken care of, and we have such wonderful other folks and I never wanted it to be the crazy “me” show. Since we all make our living as actors and directors and playwrights and stuff outside the company, and have been lucky enough to be working and gone a lot, our schedule is a tad chaotic and I wanted to make sure that we all kept the company going in between jobs so it’s just kind of worked out that way. Pretty much it’s been whenever there’s at least a few of us around in between other jobs or something we all try to bust our butts and do something, and we all love working together so much that whatever it takes for us to do that, and whoever’s doing it, that’s what we do.

I consider myself first and foremost an actor and artistic director but I really love directing too and want to work with as many different companies and on as many different projects as possible, so hopefully I’ll get a lot more chances to job it out and do that with a bunch of other folks in the future while always having RPR as my home base.

What would you each like audiences to experience and take away from The Umbrella Plays?

Daniel: I love how intimate and detailed these plays are and I really dig the people and couples that are moving around inside Steph’s play. She brings so much of herself and her humor to her work and my hope is that we’ll all embody these people enough that the audience will want to listen and get involved with what they’re all working on and saying and going through. I hope they see people who they share the city with onstage – people who they may not know but who they’ve definitely given second looks to when they see them on the street, or in the park, or on the train.

Stephanie: Oooh, this is a hard one. I guess I just hope people can see a little of their lives in the stories on the stage,  can see some of their own struggles and joys in the tiny but rich moments of life we’re sharing. And I guess I hope too that people might leave thinking a little differently about the very small things in their lives, the seemingly ignorable things in their lives, and think that it’s possible that the small things, the umbrellas and what not, aren’t so small after all. There are real, human stories in almost all the little nothings filling up our lives, I think, if we’re bothering to look for them.  And of course, it wouldn’t kill me if people had a few good laughs and enjoyed themselves for 75 minutes or so. I mean really, isn’t that what we’re all hoping for anyway? A few hours here and there with something to make us think a little, feel a little, laugh a little?  Well, it’s a start, if nothing else, we could do a lot worse, couldn’t we?

FringeNYC 2008 Preview: We Three

August 1, 2008
Julie Congress

Julie Congress

The New York International Fringe Festival is never at a loss for young upstarts, and this year’s festival is no different. Take, for instance, Will Goldberg’s new drama, We Three, which opens at The Barrow Street Theatre on Monday, August 11th, and is being produced by No. 11 Productions. This young company is made up of several recent Skidmore College graduates including actor-director-writer Julie Congress, who also appears in the production.

For Julie, who moved to New York earlier this summer, working on the show with her fellow Skidmore cohorts wasn’t enough – she wanted to make it more of a family affair. So, she enlisted her younger sister, Sarah Congress, a rising high school senior at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, VA, to be the production’s stage manager.

The Congress sisters were good enough to take a break from rehearsals and drop by the ol’ blog to talk about the show and their decision to work on it together. As you will see, they’re primed and ready to be part of indie theater’s next wave of emerging talent.

What made you two decide to work on a show together? And why this show?

Julie: When We Three was accepted into the Capital Fringe Festival, we knew we needed a stage manager in the DC area. Even though Sarah had never stage managed before, I knew that she’s reliable and would learn quickly and would probably have a good time doing it. It also seemed fitting that Sarah should be involved in our first major production as a company.

Sarah: When she asked me if I wanted to participate in We Three, I was secretly hoping that she was going to ask me to be an actor in it. But when she offered me the position of stage manager, I truly was intrigued. I’ve never been “behind the scenes” before, and I’d certainly never been part of a professional theatre production—except for that one night debut I had with Bill Irwin at the Kennedy Center in ‘97…

[Editor’s Note: Bill Irwin anecdote to be discussed further at a later date, space and time permitting.]

Julie, you’re a founding member of No. 11 Productions. What are the company’s origins and how and why did you get involved?

No. 11 Productions is a new company started by myself and four friends. We all just graduated from Skidmore College and we’re looking to do ensemble-based, challenging theatre. We want to bring theatre back into the community and not just to select audiences. No. 11 has no defined style or aesthetic, rather we strive to be constantly experimenting and pushing ourselves. I believe very strongly in working as a company. We are a group of people who know how to challenge each other and stimulate our imaginations. We want to keep learning and growing as artists, and we feel the best way to do that is by working together.

Our first production was this past June. We did an original adaptation of Lysistrata as part of the Saratoga ArtsFest. Then we went to the DC Fringe Festival with our current play, We Three.

"We Three"

"We Three"

Sarah, you’re stage managing We Three. Is that your primary focus in the theater or do you have other interests as well?

I really love theatre. I act in all the shows at my high school (except when we did Arsenic and Old Lace and my silly drama teacher didn’t cast me!), and I’m currently discovering a new passion, playwriting. I’ve never done anything like stage managing before, and I have truly grown respect for all the time and energy and dedication that happens backstage.

What should audiences expect from your show?

Julie: We Three is about a mentally ill young man who is losing his grip on reality (“like you wrote something on your arm and then you sweated, and pieces of it are gone”) as his brother and his ex-girlfriend do their best to hold on to him and help him. Audiences should expect an intimate and (mostly) realistic drama with complex characters and moral dilemmas. Audiences should also expect a very energetic and excited new company that cannot wait to share its love for theatre with NYC audiences.

Sarah: The show is really great. It’s kind of dark and deep, and it delves into really disturbing aspects of mental illness. The playwright, Will Goldberg, is truly a genius. He managed to create a complex storyline while keeping his characters true and genuinely interesting. And I’ve heard that this Julie is a great actress as well. I really enjoy hearing the show from backstage every night. Everybody should come see it!

FringeNYC 2008 Preview: Big Thick Rod

August 1, 2008
Arthur Aulisi and Tatiana Gomberg in "Big Thick Rod"

Arthur Aulisi and Tatiana Gomberg in "Big Thick Rod"

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.

Edward Elefterion

Edward Elefterion

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.