FRIGID Festival Preview: Are We Freaks?

February 25, 2009
Bricken Sparacino and Uma Incrocci in "Are We Freaks?"

Bricken Sparacino and Uma Incrocci in "Are We Freaks?"

Writer-director-comedienne Bricken Sparacino had a busy 2008. She directed several acclaimed solo shows, including Chris Harcum’s American Badass, and co-created the monthly comedy/variety cabaret Until Midnight. For her multiple achievements last year, Bricken was deservedly named one of nytheatre.com’s 2008 People of the Year.

But she’s not resting on her laurels. Instead, Bricken has hit the ground running in 2009, as evidenced by her new show, Are We Freaks?, which opens at this year’s FRIGID Festival this week. Written and co-directed by Bricken, the show features the talents of Comedy Period, the all-female comedy group Bricken started, and bills itself as a “sci-fi comedy adventure.”

With opening night fast approaching, Bricken spared a few minutes for a visit to the ol’ blog to provide some background on the show and illustrate the advantages of being married to another comic. Enjoy…

First things first: who and what is Comedy Period?

Comedy Period is an all female sketch comedy group founded by myself with a rotating crew of wonderful women who I have been working with for several years now, including Lizz Furtado, Lori Kee, Jenn Hyjack and Jennie Inchausti. I had been working with a co-ed group of funny people back in the early part of this century called The 10:17 Comedy Troupe, which had a weekly comedy show at the Gershwin Hotel. I hosted this show with my husband Michael [Birch]. We had great fun and some success and then the space decided they wanted to have a restaurant not a theatre and our show got cancelled. Anyway, at the cross roads of “what to do next,” I thought to my self, “There are a lot of shows that have a lot of male stand-up comics, I want a show that focuses on women comics and performers” and the idea for Comedy Period was born.

Tell us a little bit about your latest show, Are We Freaks? What’s it about and what should people expect from it?

Are We Freaks? is a science fiction comedy adventure story. It’s most like the movie Crash, where you meet several groups of people and then find out that their stories all interconnect, only its not about racism and its funny. But other then that it’s just like Crash. Seriously, the audience will meet four groups of women who for one reason or another are “abnormal.” With some it is obvious (the Lobster Girl from a side show) and some seem “normal” on the outside but hold their freakishness on the inside. The stories are told by the “wonder-full twins” who are the head barkers at a circus sideshow. And all the stories tie in together in a pretty awesome way by the end. Its about friends and enemies and why people have to expect everyone to be normal. But mostly its fun and crazy.

You directed Chris Harcum’s solo show, American Badass, in last year’s FRIGID Festival, and now you’re back again this year. What do you like about doing the FRIGID Festival?

The FRIGID has a really great atmosphere and a lot of fun to be apart of. It still has an intimate feel to it that FringeNYC has lost. I love the way the plays are picked and it seems to really work. Last year was a great range of plays done by loads of interesting talented artists. And this year seems to be turning out the same way. The people from Horse Trade are awesome. Also, they really help out the “one-man show” type producers, making it really easy for a play with a small budget and not a lot of producer help to put on their show. No hidden rules, lots of friendly help and opportunities. When we finished American Badass I went home and made a note on my calendar to have something to submit for next year (at the time I had nothing) and here we are. I should write down in my calendar other things and see if it makes them happen.

What led you to pursue a career in comedy in the first place? I would imagine it’s a specialized calling.

I believe in saying yes and following were that takes you. So a series of yeses have lead me here. But If we take the way back machine to figure out how this all started I would say at the Renaissance Fair. I did one year after acting school at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Fair, we had  a three-week intensive training program where from sun up till sun down we improvised. We did every kind of improv possible. And I met a lot of funny people that summer and started to jot funny ideas down. A little later I thought about putting some of those funny ideas into sketches, and put them together with sketches Michael had kicking around from his old group 10:17. We decided to become The New 10:17 Comedy Troupe. I enjoy making people laugh and think.

Your husband is also a comedy performer. What’s that like at home?

A lot of “Bricken, do I look good in this hat?” and “Bricken, do these shoes match this top?” I think most performers all have a touch of insecurity problems.  So we are always helping each other out. Trying new characters out on each other or ideas. We are each other’s toughest critics, but in a good way. I think both of our “crafts” are better because of the other’s help. Sometimes Michael has to remind me to take a break and sometimes I have to remind him to do something, so we complement each other.

You and fellow comedienne Samantha Jones are the creators of the variety show, Until Midnight, which was in residence at The Zipper Factory. What’s the future of Until Midnight now that The Zipper has closed its doors?

Oh, its so sad. I’m starting to get a complex that places I work close their doors. But for us, if I think selfishly, it is an okay time to be on hiatus. Samantha just finished taping a TV show for the Home and Garden Network and if that takes off she will be too busy to do a show for a few months, and I have Are We Freaks? and am really too busy to do another show until March is over. That said, I love The Zipper, it was such a fun, eclectic venue, and the staff there were very easy to work with and supportive. It will be a shame for the city if it stays closed. We need more places like The Zipper, not less. Once we make it through this busy period we will see what Until Midnight has in store for itself. Fingers crossed.


FRIGID Festival Preview: Jet of Blood

February 24, 2009
"Jet of Blood or the Ball of Glass"

"Jet of Blood or the Ball of Glass"

No. 11 Productions hasn’t wasted any time leaving their mark on the Indie Theater world. This intrepid group of undergraduate theater majors from Skidmore College arrived in New York last summer and hit the ground running with their Big Apple debut, We Three, at FringeNYC 2008. They quickly followed it up with the original shadow play, Claire and the Ornithological Shadow, this past December. In between, they paid tribute to the 10th anniversary of The New York Theatre Experience’s Plays and Playwrights anthologies with a series of commemorative play readings all over town.

And all of that was just the tip of the iceberg. Now, the group is poised to tackle their biggest challenge yet: a new revival of Antonin Artaud‘s experimental play, Jet of Blood or the Ball of Glass, which opens this week at Horse Trade’s 2009 FRIGID Festival. In the midst of pre-opening preparations, No. 11 company member Julie Congress made a pit stop at the ol’ blog to talk about the show, the company, and life in the big bad city. Take a read…

Considering the title and who the author is, dare I ask: what is Jet of Blood about?

It’s about 5 pages.

To us, it’s a study in violence, how violence starts small and can turn into something huge. At the beginning of the play, the Young Man grabs the Young Girl’s wrist. The violence keeps escalating, until you ultimately have the destruction of God and the apocalypse. As humans, we always have a choice. We can act in a selfish or violent way, because that’s the culture we’ve been raised in, or we can make a choice (and a sacrifice) and make the cycle end.

Hopefully, ever audience member will get something different out of this production. There are an infinite number of ways to interpret Artaud’s ambiguous (yet highly charged) script. But as artists working on this project, our through-line has been the idea of violence starting small and growing.

We are also embracing the Artaudian idea that theatre is the collaboration of all art forms. Acting meets song, dance, original music, puppets, visual art, and even smell. This is an extremely visceral production that engages all five senses.

What made No. 11 decide to do Artaud?

We read this play in our Theatre and Culture class at Skidmore College and just thought it was hysterical. The play, as written, is completely unstageable. The stage directions are priceless:

“A silence. A noise like that of an immense wheel turning and creating wind can be heard. A hurricane separates them. At this moment, two stars falling into each other can be seen and a series of legs of flesh fall as well as feet, hands, scalps, masks, colonnades, porticos, temples and stills fall but slower and slower as if they were falling into empty space. Then three scorpions one after the other and finally a frog and a scarab beetle that fall at a desperately slow speed, a slowness that could make you vomit.”

So it’s been this running joke with us, whenever we’re trying to choose a play to do, to suggest Jet of Blood and then we all laugh. Except this time we all thought – let’s try it. And Ryan Emmons was up for the challenge of directing it, so we decided to dive in head first and go for it.

You directed the last No. 11 show, but you’re in this one – and you co-produce all of them. What interests you in wearing so many hats? And is there one you prefer over the others?

When I direct, I learn about acting and when I act I learn about directing. I’m also designing the costumes for this production, which I’ve never done before. Part of what I love about being a member of a company is the opportunity to take on so many different roles, to get to experiment and to grow as an artist. I love theatre and telling stories, and I am so lucky to get to approach it from so many angles. I couldn’t tell you what I prefer the most – when I’m acting all I want to do is direct and vice-versa.

You’ve said before that No. 11 has no defined style or aesthetic. Why did you all decide to do things that way, and what are the benefits of that approach?

Our goal at No. 11 Productions is to do a production and follow it by another show that is the polar opposite. In theory, by continually pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, we’ll also be continually learning and growing. Just because we’ve graduated, we don’t want to stop learning and experimenting. In order to prevent stagnating as a company we have to keep challenging ourselves. I also think it is more interesting for our audiences this way. Ideally, you’ll never know what to expect when you go to a No. 11 show and there’s something fun and surprising about that.

You only just moved to New York in the last year or so, right after graduating from college. How’s the big bad city treating you so far?

It’s great! I’ve always liked to keep busy, and I certainly am in the city right now between my day job at the National Yiddish Theatre–Folksbiene, trying to break into voiceovers, reviewing for nytheatre.com, and, of course No. 11 Productions. A product of the suburbs, I love being able to walk everywhere! My only complaint is that, despite the size of the city, I have found it harder to meet new people and make new friends than I had anticipated.

How did you first become interested in the theater?

Despite being a very shy, reserved child, I always loved theatre. I had played a beaver, a witch, and Oedipus all by the time I reached 4th grade. I have always loved getting into the mind and body of another person and getting to use my imagination. When I began directing in high school, the thrill of getting to imagine and create a whole new world was irresistible. And I was very lucky to come from a family that loves the arts, particularly theatre.

What are No. 11’s plans after this?

We’re going to have our first fundraiser (something classy with live entertainment), and perhaps do a one-man show. Then we go to Saratoga Springs in June with a new Greek-inspired outdoor play Ryan Emmons and I are writing called Mythunderstood. And we’ve applied to four other summer festivals, and are just waiting to hear if we’ve been accepted. We’re also going to become a non-profit fairly soon, so there’s lots of grant-writing in our future.


Bryan Enk Wraps Up Penny Dreadful

February 20, 2009
Bryan Enk

Bryan Enk

When last we checked in with Bryan Enk, co-creator of the wildly popular late night theatrical series, Penny Dreadful, he was three or four episodes into what was originally intended to be a year-long monthly serial that concluded in November 2008. Since then, Bryan and Matt Gray have altered the plan considerably, dividing Penny into two six-episode mini-seasons. Doing so gave them the luxury of taking last summer off and planning the rest of the series. It also means, as of this writing, they are still doing the show.

On the eve of the penultimate episode of their cult smash, Bryan stopped the ol’ blog to give us an update on life in Penny Dreadful and a sneak preview of how he and Matt are going to wrap things up. Enjoy…

Since I last interviewed you, Penny Dreadful has undergone a bit of a transformation: it morphed into two six-episode seasons instead of one continuous twelve-episode season. Why the switch?

By Episode 6 (April 2008), Penny had become something of a runaway train. Money was flying out the window with every episode and we weren’t quite sure where we were going creatively, so we pulled the emergency brake. It ended up being a blessing on many levels – it allowed Matt to get married and go on his honeymoon in the beginning of June, it allowed The Brick to concentrate on its summer festivals without juggling Penny with an already crazy schedule, and it allowed Matt and I the time to figure out what we wanted to do, where we were going and what needed fixing.

We threw a fundraiser and Season Two party in mid-September. I thought we had been away too long and that interest in Penny had fizzled out, but over 75 people showed up on a Monday night and we raised enough money for the first three episodes. I’ve been very happy with Season Two so far – and, much more importantly, I think the audiences have, too.

By the time the series finishes up its run, taking into consideration breaks and time off, you and Matt will have been working on it for something like a year and a half – unheard of in Indie Theater terms. What has it been like working on something for that amount of time?

It’s been a lot of hard work, and it’s been so much fun to see this story unfold month by month in its episodic structure, work with a group of recurring characters and work in one-shot historical characters, like Nikola Tesla and Aleister Crowley. Each episode is part of one big story, but each individual episode is a unique experience in and of itself. It’s been a joy to see it build such a fan base to the point that we’re selling out every Saturday night performance and playing to a very full house on the Sunday matinees. Of course, that means we’ve had to up the ante with every episode, keep the audience on their toes and try to make the next episode even better than the one before it. Penny really is a full-time gig – there hasn’t been the time or the resources for any other projects while it’s been going on.

When we spoke last winter, Penny Dreadful was just three or four episodes in. Now you’re quickly approaching the last two installments. Do you and Matt have the conclusion all mapped out? If so, what can audiences expect to see?

I would say we have most of the conclusion mapped out. You always want to leave some room to allow for audience reaction to the previous episode before locking down the next one completely. We have some surprises in store, including one HUGE surprise that I hope will throw everyone for a loop. Every plot point will (hopefully!) be wrapped up – some nice and neat, some a little more sloppy, but this story will end completely with Episode 12.

Matt Gray as Leslie Caldwell in "Penny Dreadful"

Matt Gray as Leslie Caldwell in "Penny Dreadful"

Penny Dreadful has built up quite a large and loyal audience, one that will even brave subzero temperatures at 11pm on a Saturday night to come see it. What’s your secret for luring them in and making sure they come back?

I got the most amazing compliment from someone who became a fan of Penny with Episode 8. He says he looks forward to the next Penny episode with the same baited breath with which he waits to see what’s going to happen next on Lost and Battlestar Galactica. I’m personally not very familiar with either series (though I know Matt considers both of them an inspiration to Penny, at least in terms of structure), but I certainly know their popularity and the size and passion of their fan base, so to be compared to them is very flattering.

I would like to think Matt and I have written an interesting story set during an exciting time in American history that’s always moving forward with its many twists, turns and subplots, filled with interesting characters, always changing and evolving. I think the fans are very much attached to these characters – you could feel everyone’s heart break when we killed off The Amazing Viernik (Fred Backus), who had been the heart and soul – and something of the Shakespearean fool – of Penny, in Episode 10. But with the deaths of both Viernik and Etta Place (Dina Rose Rivera), I think we set up an “all bets are off” kind of vibe for the last two episodes that makes it even more exciting. And there are still many questions left to be answered.

How tired are you and Matt at this point?

Not at all! Do we look tired? It’s funny you should ask that – we took a photo together after the matinee performance of Episode 10, and looking at it I can only think about how tired we look. Amused, but tired.

Are you both going to take a nice long vacation after the run finishes, or are you guys going to jump right into another project?

Definitely the former. We’ll see where the day takes us after that. A lot of projects have been put on hold after Penny proved itself to be an all-encompassing creative endeavor, so we’ll see what gets taken off the shelf first.


Crystal Skillman Talks About Nobody

February 18, 2009
Crystal Skillman

Crystal Skillman

Crystal Skillman knows a thing or two about collaboration. Ask her about Daniel Talbott, Artistic Director of Rising Phoenix Repertory and director of her new play, Nobody, and she gets going. Crystal and Daniel have a longstanding artistic collaboration that has so far resulted in the three short plays that make up Crystal’s Telling Trilogy, and to hear her tell it that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With the opening night of RPR’s new production of Nobody just around the corner, Crystal dropped by the ol’ blog to give us the lowdown on the play, her partnership with Daniel, and where things are going from here. Check it out…

Tell us a little bit about Nobody. What’s it about?

Nobody gets into the heads of these six New Yorkers – a proofreader, a chef, a beer guy, a waitress, a widow and a poet – each facing their own personal crises as they obsessively go over their day, which for one reason or another, has brought them to a restaurant on the Lower East Side. In this one room, which has become a waiting room of sorts, they grasp at trying to come to terms with their disjointed lives and their singular, unsettling dream.

Where’d you get the idea for this one?

This summer I was actually writing another play for Rising Phoenix Rep called Birthday when Daniel left me a message, about an idea for a new play at Jimmy’s. I met him there a few nights later (closing night of the FringeNYC show of Too Much Memory I believe). We drifted away from the party at some point, checking out the backroom space and talked about what event connected these people in his idea, which I can’t say too much about without giving away the play, but I found it really exciting. The idea of a monologue play was exciting as well. I took some time and came up with three characters, which expanded to six, and their stories. The thing I was most excited to discover after reading several powerful monologue plays (like Conner McPherson’s Port Authority), and seeing some great recent ones, like The Amish Project by Jessica Dickey, who is actually in our cast, was how much power there was in choosing to use the present tense to capture these characters in these moments. I was interested in capturing that character’s day in detail, using the drive to try to understand all these little moments as the tension of the piece, so that all the action was in the language itself.

You’re once again writing specifically for Jimmy’s No. 43. How much does the performance space influence the story when you’re writing?

Although there is a small stage in the corner, we’ve never used it, staging our work in the backroom itself. What’s amazing about Jimmy’s is that space has like a kind of naked theatrical power – it can transform into so many things, as long as they are truthful to the experience you’re trying to capture. This goes not only for the writing, but the acting and directing. If you do things “too big” in that space, or if it’s just kinda real, it just doesn’t work. Rising Phoenix Rep member Samantha Soule (who played Ty/Kay in The Telling Trilogy) actually calls it a “Truth Box”. And it really is. Daniel has embraced that in his direction, and he brings this truthfulness into the other theatres where he’s directed at as well (such as The Umbrella Plays in the FringeNYC last year). I’ve brought it into the writing of my new plays like The Sleeping World, which takes place in one room. Jimmy’s No. 43 is a space that can pull great work out of you and working in it has taught us all a lot as well. Not to mention the awesome beer and food!

You’ve once again teamed up with director Daniel Talbott and Rising Phoenix Repertory. You two can’t seem to stay away from each other. What’s up with that?

I know! Daniel is an amazing director. What’s been incredible is not only his work with the actors but with playwrights. He’s been able to translate to me in a “writer-friendly-way” what rockstar actors, like the ones that work with Rising Phoenix Rep, are looking for from a script in order to process it. So at this point, I’m now able to create a more solid blueprint – even how I write the work down on the page is more deliberate – which has created a clearer picture of each play. My work is becoming more simple and personal. But what’s exciting is that I’ve done so while still keeping my unique voice. Daniel has been a big part of that transition for me and I think my work pushes him as a director in ways he really loves to figure out. Not to mention that we just have a great time working together and are close friends. Artistically, I think his work on this play with these actors is stellar. It’s deeply moving work that really brings the play to life in a clear, honest but surprising way as well. I’m really proud of this creative team. As for Rising Phoenix Rep, it’s thrilling to see the company consistently choose smart, edgy, emotionally engaging and really different plays! The spirit of Rising Phoenix is the spirit of true indie theatre – keeping the focus on creating strong work and sharing it with the community at large. I’m honored to be a part of the company.

How do you two work together on a production? Is it usually the same or does it change from project to project?

Although the projects are all really different, the process is usually the same. Sometimes Daniel comes up with an idea (like Nobody), sometimes I do (like Birthday), and then we chat about the basic idea and what excites both of us. We talk a lot about what is powerful, interesting and what we’d each like to see. Then I go away and write a first draft or a section to share. We then go from there – Daniel will have notes and we’ll talk about if it’s going in the right direction for both of us. We often end up having these meetings over walks or chais at Starbucks or while shopping! I’ve gotten some of my best notes from Daniel as he snagged me an MZ Wallace bag on sale that has now become my script bag. It’s always fun. We now have a real language and vocabulary for working on plays together that is a kind of short hand, allowing us also to work quickly. The lovely Kathryn Kates, who is in the show, was watching us rework her monologue in about two minutes in rehearsal and loving it, and also loving that we were excited to get her thoughts too. We both really respect our actors and listen to them when a moment isn’t working. It’s not always that the script has to be changed, but I’ve learned that when the script is right, certain “bumps” or questions don’t arise. So when they do arise, we really listen.

When are you going to get Daniel to be in a show of yours?

Tomorrow should be the answer! This is long overdue and I hope it happens soon. Daniel is incredible as an actor and has inspired a lot of theatre folks and audiences with his performances. He blows me away in every play I see him in. I also look forward to continuing to work with Daniel as a director in all sorts of theatres as well.

What kind of experience can audiences expect from Nobody?

You will really get into these character’s lives as though you are intimately a part of their choices – listening in on the secrets sometimes they themselves don’t realize they’re keeping. The play is about loss but also these personal moments each have gained. Beautiful but very funny too. I hope it’s a play that makes you feel connected and not so alone in the unpredictable world we live in. I hope it will help the audience find some comfort in these little moments in our lives that seem so insignificant but where we can find real truth and perhaps even change.

What else have you got going on these days?

My play The Sleeping World, about four estranged playwrights who come together to read their recently deceased friend’s play only to realize it’s about them, is currently a finalist for the Yale Drama Series and will be read at Rattlestick in early March. Sleeping World will also be read at the Side Project Theatre in Chicago, which will be producing my short play Kiss in their Cut to the Quick Spring Festival April 15th – May 17th. 4 Edges, about an American photographer in a strange land, will be directed by Larissa Lury in the The Unknown Production’s New Play Reading Series on March 29th at 1 PM @ Seaport! (210 Front Street). Women’s Project Theatre Lab has got a site specific show, Global Chilling, planned for June 3 – 7th at the World Financial Center which I’ll be a part of. And of course, I’ve got to finish up my revisions of Birthday for Rising Phoenix Rep – I’ll be picking up right where I left off when I got that phone call from Daniel about what has now become Nobody – opening this week!


Qui Nguyen is a Bad Mutha- (Shut Yo Mouth!)

February 13, 2009
Qui Nguyen and friend

Qui Nguyen and friend

You know who Qui Nguyen is: renowned fight director, acclaimed playwright, and Giants fan extraordinaire. You’ve seen his plays: action-packed, combat-filled geekfests like Fight Girl Battle World, Men of Steel, and Living Dead in Denmark. And you know his theater company: the genre-busting (and increasingly imitated) Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company.

So what else is there to know about this multi-faceted and hugely influential theater artist? You’d be surprised. On the eve of the world premiere of his newest soon-to-be-smash opus, Soul Samurai, Qui dropped by the ol’ blog for a marathon session that proves once and for all what a bad mofo he is. Check it, people…

I’d like to start on a non-theater related note. I know you are a New York Giants fan. Any post-season thoughts on their seemingly early playoff exit?

I’ll keep my answer concise since this is a theatre blog and I have been known to “long talk” when it comes to the football. Bottom line: We need Plaxico. We were unstoppable when he was out there catching the pigskin, now we look pedestrian without him. I really hope the Jints decide to keep him if they can. Every great QB had a great receiver. Montana had Rice. Big Brother Peyton has Harrison. Bradshaw had Swann. And, hell, even Brady was barely more than Clark Kent before he met Moss. Eli has Plax. He needs #17. Nuff said.

Okay, thanks for getting that out of the way. Now, on to the matter-at-hand: your new play, Soul Samurai. You recently wrote a hilarious blog post in which you revealed that two of the cinematic influences for Soul Samurai were the blaxpoitation film Blacula and Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. For real? And could you tell us more about that, please?

Well, yeah. These two flicks are two of my all-time favs. Blacula because it was the first movie that I ever experienced and was like “Holy crap, the bad guy in this film is completely justified in messing some shit up!” If you have never seen it, the movie goes a little something like this – Prince Mamuwalde – a.k.a. Blacula – goes to a certain Transylvanian Count to get help in stopping the slave trade. The count, being evil and all, does some backstabbing, turns Mamuwalde into a vampire, and then sticks him in a coffin for all eternity to suffer “in hunger.” However, Mamuwalde gets accidentally released from his coffin onto 1970’s NYC and then . . . well, you get the picture. The big thing for me in all this was that Blacula was actually out to save the world before he got cursed. His motivations were for good. And that really impacted my adolescent mind when seeing it. Blacula wasn’t just a monster, he was also a man.

In crafting the baddies in the Soul Samurai, I want to make them all as equally sympathetic as my favorite blaxploitation vamp. Where in some shows we’ve done, it was fun having some Iago-like evil being the big bad on our stage. This time, we’re going with a less “Bad guys wearing black” motif. We want to make the audience, at times, feel uncomfortable when they see the good guy win. We want to make it a bit more complex, but in a fun way.

 

As for Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, this is my numero uno. If you haven’t seen it, go rent it. If you have and you’re familiar with Vampire Cowboys’ work, the correlations are clear. As a kid, it was a flick that made me run around karate chopping everything around me after each viewing. It was a flick that had me cheer anytime a fight occurred. And the characters were awesome. Shogun Sho’nuff. Bruce Leroy Green. The glow! It’s the kind of entertainment experience I want to bring my audience every time I make a Vampire Cowboys show. I want folks to cheer. I want to get them excited. And if I see them directly afterwards attempting to do some bad kung fu moves in the lobby, I know I’ve done my job well. Soul Samurai is gonna attempt to do all these things and more. It’s gonna be awesome.

Bonnie Sherman, Sheldon Best, and Maureen Sebastian in "Soul Samurai"

Bonnie Sherman, Sheldon Best, and Maureen Sebastian in "Soul Samurai"

Your theater company, Vampire Cowboys, is co-producing Soul Samurai with Ma-Yi Theater Company. Is this your first co-production with them, or anyone else? And how did it come about?

This is indeed our first co-pro we’ve ever done. How did it come about? Lots of beer and I think at some point there was perhaps some blackmail involved. And Ralph Peña (Ma-Yi’s Artistic Director) must have lost a bet during one of our infamous poker games. Yeah, Asians like to gamble. That definitely comes to my advantage since I got mad skillz when it comes to the cards.

But, no, seriously. This is clearly a huge move for both Ma-Yi and Vampire Cowboys. Ma-Yi Theater is the premier Asian American theater company of the country. They’ve won OBIEs, become a home for Asian American artists in the Off-Broadway arena, and championed new works by living playwrights. Vampire Cowboys makes shows that brings geeks to the theatre. On paper, it’s a very strange marriage. But I think that’s exactly why it happened. We have a lot to offer the other. They bring in the Off-Broadway crowd, we bring in the fanboy crowd. It’ll be interesting to see if our small Indie Theater will get any props from the big boys.

 

As for how it all started, Vampire Cowboys was involved in the National Asian American Theatre Festival, a festival that Ma-Yi helped produce a couple of years ago. Our show, Living Dead in Denmark was the festival’s sell-out hit. Ralp, who I know very well from being the Co-Director of Ma-Yi’s writers lab, said afterwards “Hey Qui, Ma-Yi should produce one of your Vampire Cowboys shows. It’s time to get you in a bigger theatre and your names out to a bigger audience”. As I’m sure most writers have heard time and again, folks promise stuff like this all the time, but rarely does it ever pan out. On this occasion, however, Ralph really meant it. So thusly, here we are.

 

It’s exciting, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s also all a bit scary. For Vampire Cowboys, we’re spending more money than we’ve ever spent before. And now we’re talking more seats to fill, more nights during the week to pull in an audience, and a longer run. This show could literally break us if we don’t pull off getting a crowd. And to top it off, the country is in a recession. So why go ahead with the biggest show of our lives? Well, cause as I said before, Asians do love to gamble. And as my wife loves to say “As artists, this is how we help the economy, by giving people reason to go out and live.” As silly as this show may sound, we really think what we’re doing is big time important.

 

By now everyone knows that you are a world class fight director, as well as playwright, and that your plays are loaded with stage combat. How and when did you first become interested in stage combat?

World class? Really? That’s really flattering of you to say. I’ve honestly never seen myself as such. Fighting has always just been part of who I am. As a youngster, it brought me a lotta trouble. Now as an adult, it puts food on my table.

Growing up as one of the only yella faced kids in an almost purely white and black town of El Dorado, Arkansas, I obviously did alotta throwing down. A great portion of my adolescent diplomacy came via smacking down redneck bullies. I was an angry kid who hated seeing people get picked on. Obviously, I knew what that was like. So I spent a lotta my public school years shutting up the shit-talkers. From necessity, I spoke in a language of fists and kicks long before I ever decided to translate any of it to the stage.

 

When I went off to college though, things had dramatically changed. By that point, the anger of my youth had long disappeared. Where I once was obsessed with being invincible, I now was possessed with trying to be unforgettable. I was an acting major at Louisiana Tech University and my fight skills had caught the eye of my then instructor, Mark Guinn. Mark is a very well-regarded and nationally-known fight director and stage combat teacher. He saw that I had some natural talent when it came to fight choreography and pushed me to pursue it. He showed me how to channel all the energy I once used to figure out how to beat up an opponent and turned it into a structure I could use into figuring out the best way to attack a story onstage. The same mind-frame I had when it came to breaking down someone’s defenses, I now was re-routing to figure out how to convey a story. It was an epiphany. By the time I graduated Louisiana Tech, I was part of one of the first sets of advanced actor/combatants with the Society of American Fight Directors recognized in all weapon forms. And since I moved to NYC seven years ago, I’ve managed to choreograph over a hundred shows and now teach stage combat at Columbia University. It’s been a pretty far journey from the teenager who once used to slug drunk truckers who picked on his brothers. But regardless of how different I’ve become, the essence is still the same. I enjoy creating fights cause it’s sort of in my blood.

Bonnie Sherman, Sheldon Best, and Maureen Sebastian in "Soul Samurai"

Bonnie Sherman, Sheldon Best, and Maureen Sebastian in "Soul Samurai"

As a writer, you’re heavily influenced by many non-theatrical sources, like movies, television, and comic books. But you choose to write for the theater. Why do you prefer to work in your chosen medium?

Man, I wish I had a simple answer for this. But the truth is there’s no one big reason on why I decided to pursue theatre instead of film, comics, or television. Honestly, I definitely have ambitions in all those mediums as well. The ultimate vision for Vampire Cowboys is actually to, one day, be a production company that produces theatre, film, and comic books. But why theatre specifically? I guess because I honestly feel like I have something to offer the medium. If I didn’t truly believe that, I wouldn’t be doing it. Early on (and I guess currently as well), I had agents and other professionals tell me that I was wasting my time pursuing this craft since my voice seemed so much better suited for something like a Hollywood action flick over a Manhattan black box. They told me that no one would ever truly appreciate the work I do in this field, that creating what I create would only get ignored in theatre. That in this field I’d come off as being seen as a goof-ball oddity while in comics and film, I’d be a game player. And wouldn’t I prefer making money? Okay, so I do wish I was making more money and perhaps I do get dismissed by my fair share of “serious theatremakers and critics” thinking the shit I do is just silly, but I guess that’s part of why I do it. I think I bring what I bring to live performance because so often people think the genres of action, horror, superheroes, kung fu, sci-fi, and the like are just for film, that theatre can’t ever be as good at putting this sorta stuff up so why bother? And I’m a contrarian by nature. I hate being told I can’t do something. So I do it because I want to prove that it can be done. And not just done, but done brilliantly. I do theatre because teachers told me that I shoulda been doing something else. Theatre was the girl I wasn’t supposed to date so thusly I’m obsessed with her. Does that make sense?

Also, I just love the community. From my peeps at Ma-Yi and LAByrinth to my drinking buds at Youngblood, The Brick, Partial Comfort, and Nosedive, I can credit a lot of my current and future liver damage to those in the theatrical arts. My wife and my best friends in the world work in this medium. Sitting down to do a Vampire Cowboys show is like a nightly excuse to hang out with my buddies. From those on stage to those that come to our shows, it’s a big drunken lovefest of nerdy nerds geeking out. It’s the shit. Dig that.

 

You not only write for your own theater company, but for others as well. Is there a difference in the way you write for your company versus someone else’s, or do you approach all of those projects the same way?

It’s always different. Even within Vampire Cowboys. Sometimes the shit just hits. Sometimes it’s a trial of temper tantrums. I guess the big difference is when it comes to Vampire Cowboys, I know I have ultimate freedom to do what I want. With other companies, I’m working within their parameters. Sometimes freedom brings on genius, sometimes it just gets me even more loss. The same can be said for parameters.

I guess I’ve never really codified a specific process. With a show like Fight Girl Battle World, I practically pounded that out in a couple of weeks and then did some edits here and there throughout the rehearsal process. Soul Samurai took me years. It’s a play that I’ve written multiple versions to help figure out (not drafts mind you, but full-on different versions). I had one set in feudal Japan, another one that was more of a modern adaptation of The Three Musketeers, and finally the one that we’re now producing with a strong hip-hop vibe. The journey of creating the hero of this show wasn’t easy. Mainly because I wanted her to be perfect – my version of an Asian American Wonder Woman of sorts – a hero that could last. And no matter how much I wanted to make her right, it just didn’t seem to click. I could see how she moved, but never could picture her face. That is until I met and started working with actress Maureen Sebastian. She’s been with Vampire Cowboys since 2006 when she first appeared in our production of Living Dead in Denmark. She’s a strong, beautiful, and magnetic actress who I knew right away would be perfect as Dewdrop (the lead character in Soul Samurai). It was working with her that finally opened the story up for me. She broke it all open.

So the process of making shows is always different. I never know what it is that’s going to be my “in.” With Fight Girl, it was a staging trick that Robert Ross Parker (my director) thought up. With Soul Samurai, it was an actress. With something like “Quitters Inc.,” a show I wrote for Nosedive Productions, it was the base material itself. I think that’s what makes writing so exciting for me. It’s always a discovery on figuring out how to find my stories. It’s always an adventure.

 

Vampire Cowboys operates its own rehearsal space, The Battle Ranch, in Bushwick. What led the company in this direction? And how’d you pick the name?

I ain’t gonna lie – I wish I could say I was the one who thought of it, but all cred goes to my wife and our company’s producer, Abby Marcus. The Battle Ranch was her brain child. If you know my wife, you know that she’s a girlie with a lotta passion and a lotta heart. And that heart of hers truly beats for Indie Theater. Seriously, I’ve never met someone so relentless in wanting to promote Off-Off Broadway. And I only say this to help explain how The Battle Ranch came into being because it all goes hand in hand with her dedication to the Indie Theater movement.

When Vampire Cowboys first began, we had very little in the coffers just like any other small theatre starting out. And instead of trying to shell it out to tiny little holes out in Manhattan, Abby decided to bring us out to Williamsburg, Brooklyn to rehearse. There, we were able to work at Studio 111, a large beautifully maintained space that not only was available for only $10 an hour, it also gave us free storage so we didn’t have to tote our many weapons, props, and costumes back and forth at every rehearsal. It essentially gave us an affordable home. And it was here that Vampire Cowboys was able to grow and develop all our shows.

 

However two years ago, Tanya and Ken, the two curators of the space needed to let it go. And instead of letting it die, Abby corralled all of Vampire Cowboys together and announced that she wanted to take it over. Our response was a bit of a raised eyebrow. One, we could now easily afford rehearsal rental at any hall we wanted in the city. Two, this was a huge financial risk. And three, her plan involved keeping the rental price of the space down at $10 an hour, meaning that there was no way we would ever see any kind of profit from this venture, only potential loss. So why the risk? Why add the burden of running a space on top of our already busy schedules at producing shows? Because it was important, she insisted. Her mantra, “It’s not about the money, it’s about the community. Don’t you think it’s important that others have the same opportunities we had when we first started? We can’t let another affordable space disappear in NYC. It’s for the good of all. We have to do this. Cause if we don’t, we’re just making it harder for everyone else.”

 

And so, she won. And after two years of seeing all the good it has produced, I thank God she did. Countless numbers of small companies regularly rehearse there and the work that has come out of The Battle Ranch has been awesome. It’s also the home of “The Saturday Night Saloon,” our monthly show we produce during the fall and winter of serialized plays. And the sense of Indie Theater comrade we’ve been able to help promote has been incredible. As most know, since opening the space, we have had to move The Battle Ranch once (since our landlord decided to gut the original building and turn it into apartments), but the spirit and community still thrives in the new Battle Ranch. Again, it was a gamble, but one that has thoroughly paid off.

 

As for the name . . . you have to ask Abby. I think it just made her laugh.

What does the future hold for you and the Vampire Cowboys after Soul Samurai?

 

For me, it’s always hard to look beyond the show I’m currently making. Soul Samurai is so much a focus right now. I mean even beyond it being the biggest and riskiest production Vampire Cowboys has ever undertaken, it’s also perhaps the single most personal show I’ve ever written. Yeah, I know that might sound weird saying a show about jive-talking Samurai and hip-hop ninjas is one coming from the heart, but as blatantly entertaining as it may be, it really is inspired from a place of true sincerity. I grew up watching kung fu flicks and blaxploitation films. Being an Asian sensation getting raised in the deep south and living on the “rougher” side of town, it woulda been easy for me to feel bad about what I looked like or where I lived. But, as a kid, seeing characters like Bruce Lee and Richard Roundtree on the screen made me be able to raise my head up high and believe I truly could be the baddest mamma jamma in my hood regardless of my skin color. It was about heroes. Movies like Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon and Bruce Lee’s The Chinese Connection were flicks that made being a yella fella living up in the projects not so bad. Soul Samurai is my play honoring those films and hopefully adding another yella heroine to the bunch. This, as they say, is my verse.

But as for the future of Vampire Cowboys? Well, I can safely say we’ll be doing more shows, more films, and more comics. We got a remount of Fight Girl Battle World happening this summer and next year we’re planning on doing a show tentatively titled Alice in Slasherland. As for me personally, I’m gonna keep writing, keep making fights, and hope that anyone who’s read this comes out to see Soul Samurai. It’s gonna be fun. Easily, it’s the best show I’ve ever done.


Tom Wojtunik Takes Astoria by Storm

February 5, 2009
Tom Wojtunik

Tom Wojtunik

Last year, when director Tom Wojtunik landed the job as the Astoria Performing Arts Center‘s new Artistic Director, his first task was to program their upcoming season. How did he decide to kick things off? By scheduling the biggest show APAC has ever produced and the biggest one he’s ever directed. The show, of course, is Ragtime, Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty’s 1998 musical adaptation of the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow. Ragtime tells the stories of three different New York families affected by the coming social, economic, and political changes in the years leading up to World War I.

In the midst of opening this bear-of-a-show, Tom took some time to visit the ol’ blog and to talk more about Ragtime and APAC. Check it out…

So, why revive Ragtime now? What is topical about this show now, as far as you’re concerned?

When I came aboard APAC last summer, one of my first tasks was to program this season. Although I could have chosen a smaller, more “sensible” musical for my first season, Ragtime kept coming back into my head as a story that needed to be told again now. I think it’s more relevant today than when it first premiered on Broadway in 1998. Here we are at the turn of another century and our country is once again in the midst of major social, political and economic change. As scary as that can be, it’s also an exciting and intoxicating time to be alive. The characters in Ragtime experience a similar set of circumstances, and I think we stand to learn from them. Those who are able to adapt in the face of change are the ones that succeed—those who don’t pay a price.

It’s also fun to see people’s reactions when they hear APAC is doing Ragtime—it’s such a big show compared to what people are used to from APAC. The challenge of it is addicting.

As a director, how do you approach such a well-known show? Do you borrow directorial ideas from the Broadway productions (and any others you may have seen), or do you rely solely on your own ideas?

As a rule I look for my own approach to material. I think it’s vital that directors respect the integrity of each other’s work, acknowledging that someone’s staging is a form of intellectual property.

For this production in particular, our design is also so different from the original production, that there is very little of the original staging that would even make sense. Michael P. Kramer, the set designer, came up with very smart concept for the set that really involves the audience. I thought the original production was so grand in scope that it was actually hard to connect emotionally with the story—it was overpowered by the design.

Ragtime is also a big show as far as size and scale go. You’ve got nearly 25 people in the cast, and a slew of costumes and set pieces to go along with them, I assume. As a director, how do you prepare to work on a show this massive?

Heavy drinking.

But seriously, the way to prepare for a show this big is to surround yourself with the most talented, hard-working and creative people you can find. The most important work I did on this show happened last fall when I chose the production team and auditioned the cast. Since rehearsals have started, my job has essentially been to step back and let those talented people do what they do best. I’ve also assembled my “dream team” of designers—I’ve worked with all of them before and trust them immensely.

Our production of Ragtime has a cast of 27, a 5-person band, a 5-person crew, and a 20-person production team. It’s the biggest show APAC has ever produced, and the biggest I’ve ever directed.

Alright…there’s also an unbelievable new wine bar near our venue, Vesta Trattoria & Winebar, and regular visits after rehearsal are definitely in order.

The cast of "Ragtime"

The cast of "Ragtime"

You were recently appointed as the new Artistic Director of the Astoria Performing Arts Center. For those who don’t know, what exactly is the APAC? And what made you want to take the job?

APAC is Astoria’s premier producing theatre company, now in its eighth season. Originally founded in 2001 by TV and film actress Susan Scannell, the community of Astoria has embraced APAC from the very beginning, and the company has a rich history of celebrated and award-nominated revivals and community programming.

I had a wonderful experience directing David Auburn’s Proof for APAC last season, and when Executive Director Taryn Drongowski asked me to interview for the A.D. job, I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve been living in Astoria for six years and commuting all over Manhattan and Brooklyn for directing opportunities—honestly, it’s just sort of amazing to walk to work.

As a freelance director looking for whatever jobs I could find, there’s something very attractive about the responsibility of programming APAC’s season. Choice of material is a vital element of connecting any theatre to the community, and I look forward to engaging in a dialogue with Astoria through our work.

What are your goals for the APAC?

Ultimately I hope to shift APAC’s focus exclusively to new work—I think Astoria has the potential to become a great development ground for writers. We’re close enough to the city that we provide high quality productions in terms of talent, but because we’re in a borough, APAC is “safe” from the scrutiny of a Manhattan premiere. New work production hasn’t been a major part of APAC’s mission in the past, so that change will take a while. In the meantime we will continue to present revivals of plays and musicals, but with an eye towards choosing material that is relevant and worthy of revisiting.


Rick Burkhardt Talks Nonsense

February 4, 2009
The Nonsense Company

The Nonsense Company

It’s been a good year for The Nonsense Company. Last winter, they brought their show Conversation Storm to New York’s FRIGID Festival, where it attracted a lot of attention and critical acclaim. So much so, in fact, that Martin Denton, nytheatre.com‘s Grand Poobah, selected it for his latest annual anthology of new plays, Plays and Playwrights 2009.  

This month, The Nonsense Company brings Conversation Storm back to The Big Apple, where it will play in tandem with another piece of theirs called Great Hymn of Thanksgiving. Co-founding member Rick Burkhardt dropped by the ol’ blog to talk more about the shows and what else The Nonsense Company has up their collective sleeves. Here’s what he had to say…

First of all, what made you decide to bring Conversation Storm back to New York a year after its FRIGID Festival debut?

We were invited by Andy Horwitz and Vallejo Gantner, both of whom saw the piece at FRIGID, to do a longer run of the piece at the IRT space, performing at night, while using the space during the daytime to develop a new piece, to be premiered this Fall at P.S. 122. Who could resist an invitation like that?

This time around Conversation Storm is paired-up with another piece called Great Hymn of Thanksgiving. Tell us some more about it and why you thought it would be a good companion piece.

Actually, we nearly always perform Great Hymn of Thanksgiving and Conversation Storm together. Great Hymn was written first (in 2003), and Conversation Storm was written in 2006 as a companion piece to Great Hymn. Great Hymn is a piece for three people sitting around a dinner table, making all the sounds you’d associate with the table setting (squeaking forks, clinking glasses, scooting chairs, smacking lips, etc.) and a few sounds you wouldn’t (a steel drum, a toy piano, an autoharp). At the same time, they speak, pray, sing, recite the news, and generally sound more like a multimedia audio collage than a conversation — or you could say that the audio collage is their conversation. The performers read the piece off of sheet music as the performance occurs, and that also becomes part of the theater of the piece: we could perform the piece from memory, but it’s important for the audience to see that the performers are following instructions. I think it’s an interesting pairing because it sets up an intriguing way of understanding Conversation Storm. In that play, three characters have an argument about their beliefs on an important subject, but like most beliefs, their beliefs are also collaged together from words they’ve heard elsewhere (words we’ve all heard elsewhere), and the way the characters adopt, assign, and reassign roles in the argument shows how easy it is for the mechanics of the conversation itself to ultimately brutalize their beliefs and even negate their identities.

"Great Hymn of Thanksgiving"

The Nonsense Company in "Great Hymn of Thanksgiving"

According the shows’ press release, both pieces blur “the boundary between experimental theater and avant-garde music.” What does that mean exactly? And what interests you about blurring that line?

We want to combine the skill sets of contemporary music and theater. Imagine seeing a play where all the actors were constantly coordinating in split second timings like musicians do, or a string quartet where the musicians were all directing the audience’s focus around the room like actors do. There’s a subtle but important difference between the way we watch a performer in a string quartet and the way we watch a performer in a play: they’re both following instructions they’ve received and practiced beforehand (one is performing a score, the other is performing a script) — but we treat the performer in the play as if s/he is deciding what to do in the moment according to what his/her character wants to do in that moment, whereas nobody would ever ask the string quartet performer “why did you play a G sharp? That doesn’t seem like something your character would do.” Imagine a performance where those types of roles were constantly getting mixed up. For me, that kind of mix-up can say a lot about the social world and about human experience.

While you’re all in town this time, I understand that you’ll be developing a new piece inspired by King Lear. What’s that all about?

We were invited last year to participate in a performance of King Lear in which each act would be interpreted by a different company, with no communication between the companies beforehand. We took on Act Three, which is the one where King Lear goes insane and imagines that he’s putting his daughters on trial. In researching the play, we discovered a lot of fascinating stuff about the history of insanity and the history of political trials, so we wanted to expand our version of act three into a broader meditation on those subjects. It’s a fun, theatrical way to examine the distinction (another blurry distinction! I seem to love blurry distinctions) between the internal world of mental processes and the external world of social arrangements — both of them worlds whose logic can flip upside down at any moment.

Obviously, the work you guys do is very politically charged. Any closing thoughts or remarks about the recent inauguration of President Obama?

Well, I see life as being pretty politically charged — that’s the reason politics keep bursting into my writing. I want to write about life as a complex experience, including as many aspects of that experience as I can, and so I find it impossible to sit down at my desk and write as if political events aren’t happening. I think we’re moving into a period where economic issues are going to seem contentious and frightening, in the way that political issues have seemed contentious and frightening for the last eight years — so frightening that even avant garde artists have started talking about them! — and these issues won’t go away just because many of the most powerful politicians in the country suddenly appear strangely sane and competent. It’s tempting to believe that everything that’s happened in the last eight years can be laid at the feet of Bush (and Cheney, et al), and therefore it can all be reversed. But it can’t. I’m extremely impressed by Obama’s first days in office, especially his rapid moves to illegalize torture (of course, officially it was always illegal). But Obama by himself can’t make torture, or the effects of torture, go away, and more importantly he can’t erase the part of our national imagination which still finds torture legitimate. I mean, the show 24 still exists. So we all still have a role to play in helping to do what art does best, which is to intervene in the imagination, and ultimately to expand the national imagination, to make it include things which it can’t imagine now. The worst thing artists could do right now is to close down their imaginations of the political sphere, assuming that someone else has got it covered.