Rising Phoenix Repertory is not a company to rest on its laurels. Coming off the success of their Off-Broadway run of Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson’s Too Much Memory last December, one wouldn’t blame them for taking the rest of the winter off and fielding future commercial offers. Instead, they immediately set up shop once again at the Seventh Street Small Stage (a back room at the East Village hotspot Jimmy’s No. 43 which serves as RPR’s permanent theatrical home) and hit the ground running with a pair of new plays by Crystal Skillman. The first, Nobody, garnered rave reviews and sellout crowds in February. The second, Birthday, now playing until April 10th, is poised to follow in their footsteps of its predecessor: at least half of the show’s run is already sold out.
Birthday showcases the talents of RPR mainstays Denis Butkus and Julie Kline, both of whom are also Artistic Associates with the company. They have appeared together previously in RPR’s productions of Don’t Pet the Zookeeper by Napoleon Ellsworth and Skillman’s short play, The Ride, and are quickly establishing themselves as the company’s resident power duo.
In the midst of preparing for Birthday‘s opening, Denis and Julie visited the ol’ blog to talk about the play, the joys of working together, and their ongoing gig with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Check it out…
Let’s start with the basics: what can you tell us about the characters each of you are playing in Birthday?
Julie: My character is Leila – she’s an open-hearted, very sensitive, kinda hilarious girl reaching the end of her twenties and having just about the worst day of her life when she meets Kyle. What I admire about her is although she’s been pounded emotionally, she deals with her pain by making fun of herself and reaching out to connect. She’s like all of us – lonely, looking for love (sometimes in all the wrong places) but never gives up, and risks sharing the silly, intimate parts of herself with just about anybody who will listen. Thankfully, Kyle is really good at listening.
Denis: My character’s name is Kyle. He’s a quiet guy who has retreated to the back room of a bar to find some solitude after a really bad day. It’s here that he meets Leila, a complete stranger and has an immediate connection with her. What I love about these two people is how they deal with the circumstances that have been dealt. They are both experiencing horrible things in their lives and are fighting to overcome them with hope, laughter and joy. Daniel [Talbott, the director of Birthday] put it best, in rehearsal, when he said, “Most characters are trying to avoid falling in the pit. These two are already in the pit and are using each other to climb out of it”
I understand these parts were written specifically for both of you by playwright Crystal Skillman. Does that information change how you approach and rehearse the role, or does your preparation remain the same regardless?
Julie: I think Leila and I are definitely similar, undoubtedly due to Crystal capturing some things about me and putting it in the play, which is a really wonderful gift. It definitely makes it easier to find ways into the character, but I also have to remember that Leila is not me, and to make her simply me would be reductive. I want to give her the full space she deserves.
Denis: Crystal really knows how to write for Jimmy’s. I’m always excited to read what she comes up with because she always uses the real Jimmy’s in her plays and because of that authenticity, they are always uniquely grounded in the space. I think I always approach the work we do at Jimmy’s in much the same way. It usually starts with lots of questions for Daniel and Crystal. From the answers and thoughts that they have, I start to form the character and we all get more specific about the story. We are always looking to tell the story in the most essential, human way. Sometimes that means cutting some text, other times adding a word here and there for clarity. When we started rehearsals my instinct was that Kyle should say a lot less then Crystal had originally written, especially at the beginning of the play. So we cut a few of his lines at the very beginning and at other moments throughout to add to the sense that these are two strangers who have never had a conversation, which infuses Kyle and Leila’s relationship with a really interesting sense of awkwardness. Overall, any work we do at Jimmy’s demands simplicity and hyper-naturalistic, almost cinematic, acting. We call it the “truth-box” and I think that really says everything about how we work there from the writing to the acting. If you are telling a lie, the audience is going to be the first to see through you as a faker. So we have to be really truthful with our imaginations and relaxed in our acting to pull it off. Most importantly, Julie and I we have to be really in tune with each other and respond in the moment. When we succeed in that, it is absolutely thrilling storytelling.
This is the third time you two have appeared in a two-hander together. What do you like about working with each other? And how do you two specifically work together in rehearsals?
Julie: Denis and Daniel both are the brothers I never had. So it’s basically a big family love/teasing fest when we’re together. With a lotta chai lattes thrown in. I feel so lucky to work with them. Denis and I have gotten to know each other on and off stage for the past four years or so, and I’d say we have a definite understanding of each other as actors. There’s a real support there on stage, I know D’s gonna catch me regardless of what happens. (And at Jimmy’s, some crazy stuff can happen!) This is also exemplified by how Denis stepped into the main role in Don’t Pet the Zookeeper last summer three days before we opened and I never felt a second of fear! He’s just solid.
Denis: Jules is such an open actress. Her ability to give herself over to a role is an amazing thing to watch in rehearsal and in performance. She’s also tenaciously intelligent and her questions often spur my own questions about whatever we are working on and give me a deeper understanding about the story we are trying to tell. I feel really lucky to be working with her, Daniel and Crystal. They are not only amazing artists but also very dear friends. We have a lot of fun in rehearsals. There is always a lot of swearing, teasing, dirty jokes, slacking off and overall debauchery. But there is also a lot of focused, hard work. We are very much like siblings and share the kind of shorthand communication that people who have spent a lot of time working and playing together have. Sometimes that is scary because we know each other so well and can get right to the root of things if we are off track. But that is often out of a deep care and concern for each other, which gives me the power to trust them and take to hart their thoughts. These two help me take risks in my work and that is what working at Jimmy’s is all about. Feeling the fear and using it to be better, rather then letting it shut you down.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that Samuel Beckett quote, “No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” And I think it encapsulates what we do as actors beautifully but it also applies to Rising Phoenix’s work at Jimmy’s. I have always felt that Jimmy’s is our home and if you can’t fail in your home, then where can you fail? As long as we are together we will keep picking ourselves up and trying to get it right again, the very next night.
How and when did you first meet each other? And how did you become involved with Rising Phoenix Rep?
Julie: Denis and I met through Daniel, and I met Daniel as a teenager back in the San Francisco Bay Area – I was 14, Daniel was 17. We acted together in a community theater production of The Diary of Anne Frank – I was Anne, he was Peter. And we’ve been friends with a shared theatre obsession ever since!
Denis: Julie and I first meet when she assistant directed Gift, a Mark Schultz play Rising Phoenix produced in the Fringe Festival a few summers ago. She had just moved to the city from Chicago and was childhood friends with Daniel in the Bay Area. My fiancée Sammy, Daniel and I all went to school together and since we graduated, we’ve been a part of Rising Phoenix along with a host of other fabulous artists.
The two of you, along with Birthday director Daniel Talbott, make up the literary department for Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. How did the three of you land that gig, and what are your specific duties for Rattlestick?
Denis: I did a show at Rattlestick called St. Crispin’s Day in June of 2003. It was an important moment for me because I got my Equity card out of that gig. Since then, I have always had a special place in my heart for Rattlestick. David van Asselt, the Artistic Director, has always been very supportive of us and I see being a member of the Literary Department as a way to give back to him and his theater and as an extension of our work with Rising Phoenix. David is one of the most courageous producers of theater in the country. He takes a risk every time he produces a play. No matter if it is a young, unproduced playwright or a well-established heavy hitter, there is always the feeling that he is pushing the boundaries of what new work can be and I admire him for that.
We came into Rattlestick in the fall of 2008 and since then have spent the bulk of our time programming our two reading series and reading plays. Rattlestick still accepts unsolicited submissions so we are always up to our neck in reading. We do a private, developmental reading series where we work with playwrights eager to hear new work out loud in a private setting and we also have an Evening Reading Series where we give playwrights the chance to hear their work out loud for an invited audience. We act as a sounding board for David as he plans his season and keep up a correspondence with playwrights interested in working with the theater. It has given me much respect and admiration for the art of playwrighting. Not a playwright myself, I see now how incredibly competitive it can be trying to get a play produced and how often they have to deal with rejection head on. Actors get rejected all the time, usually silently. Playwrights have to deal with a steady stream of form rejection letters and groups of people scrutinizing their work. I think they have it a lot harder and that makes them all the more courageous for doing what they do.
Julie: Each of us had been connected to Rattlestick on our own – I was assistant director for Dexter Bullard on Lady this past fall, and Daniel’s play Slipping was part of the Dirty Works Series. It made sense for us to come on as a literary team together – we’ve been doing new play development together with RPR and that’s basically what we’re doing now at Rattlestick on a bit larger scale. We make connections to new playwrights, plan readings, and help David to plan his season. Rattlestick is an amazing place to be and family to be a part of. I deeply admire the way they conduct business and art, and the bold choices they make with the work they produce is something I think we aspire to at RPR. It’s a mentorship of sorts, and a wonderful one – we are learning so much and can apply this knowledge to our work with our company.
You both juggle busy careers in New York theater with your respective commitments to RPR. How do you each manage to balance the two?
Denis: I have always wanted to be a part of the theater and I find that wearing many hats (especially seemingly contradictory ones) helps me deepen my relationship to this very hard and incredibly rewarding art form. I don’t like to sit around doing nothing and I think that is a trap that a lot of actors fall into, I know I fell into it when I was first starting out, so I have learned to balance the commitments I make so that I can remaine an active participant in the community. I love new work and being a part of the developmental process with living artists as much as I love doing Shakespeare. I know it sounds cliché but for me everything is connected. If you want to survive in the theater and really thrive then you should put yourself in the producer’s shoes, the actor’s shoes, the playwright’s shoes and see what it takes, because it takes a tremendous amount of empathy, collaboration, tenacity and dedication to make it work. It is about being among a group of people, uniting around a story and finding a way to communicate that story to an audience. You have to put yourself out there and risk having your ego bruised when you make mistakes, that is the only way you learn where your strengths and weakness are and I think there is no better way to do this then by seeing as many perspectives as possible. It helps me be more open to the collaboration and practice my problem solving skills. Participating in the art of theater is really an act of giving; you have to be willing to give everything away (like your ego and your power) because what you gain in return is an invaluable lesson about human nature.
Julie: Since we’re all good friends within RPR, the company can be a flexible, changing thing. When one of us gets another theatre job, the rest of us just step in and take up the slack. We each do a bunch of different jobs within the company so everything gets covered, and we always support each other in our other ventures. In this way, RPR has become a source of real support for the work I do outside of the company. I personally want to do so many different things in the theatre, I can’t ever seem to pick just one, and RPR has allowed me the chance to work in all the different roles I love – actor, playwright, producer, director. For each project, I’m able to contribute in whichever role is needed to make the work happen. To me, that’s the definition of a company and is the kind of theatrical home I’ve always wanted.