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!