Monday, October 31, 2011

The Zombies are Coming

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Stephanie Cox-Williams.

First off, thank you all of the Innovative Theater Foundation for asking me to come over to their sandbox and contribute.  It’s a real honor!

Second, I have not really written or blogged since about April of this year.  I have had a lot of great projects overt the summer Blood Brother’s Presents… and remounting one of my favorite Nosedive shows Infectious Opportunity while also getting to work with a lot of great new people as well.  Artist’s over at the newly formed Anit-matter Collective, a few brief meetings with Ars Nova and then two Fringe Shows.   Needless to say, I had a very busy summer.

Almost all of these shows had one thing in common – gore.  Some semblance of the use of blood and a little bit of gory bits thrown in for good measure. 

With the growing popularity of zombies in pop culture (I should say comeback as they have been very popular on and off for years), a request for services beyond just the use of a blood squib in theater has risen.  Also, with technology being like it is, a horror theatrical piece is now being asked to look like more of what we see in the movies. 

And, by the luck of draw (or may I say a huge thank you to Patrick Shearer and Pete Boisvert for the birth of their horror series), I started to turn my attention to gore effects design.  And, on a budget. 

Wait, I didn’t really mention that did I?

These pieces that are coming out constantly, the majority of them you will not find on Broadway, or even Off-Broadway, but the independent theater side of things.  And, they are expected to look at least as good as some of the first independent features of horror.  And with little to no money. 

As I tell many a collaborator, theater gore is live and has to work every single time it is performed, not just for that one perfect take.  It’s going to cost some money.  And, there are a lot of variables one needs to consider before going down this path of add gore to a show.

Now, I could go into the origins of this type of theater, but I would rather give the audience here what a lot of my collaborators have been asking for-how does one do this trick?   A few solutions to your blood problems….or I mean, theatrical, fake blood problems.   I am going to take the most asked questions I have gotten – starting out with “what is a squib” and deliver it to you. Also, a checklist of things to consider when producing a show with gore. I know, Halloween is soon over.  But, maybe there might be something in here to bring holiday cheer to your next passion play?  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Guest Blogger of the Week: Stephanie Cox-Williams

We would like to thank Christine O’Grady for blogging for us, especially right in the middle of rehearsals for her production of Iron Curtain

And we have a real treat for you this week as our guest blogger is Stephanie Cox-Williams.

Stephanie Cox-Williams is currently Company Manager of Nosedive Productions.  She is an Actress, Special/Gore FX Designer, Director and Fight Choreographer for Independent Theater.  Acting credits include: Actress B in in the great expanse of space, there is nothing to see but more, more, more (Matt Freeman/the Brick), Dolly in Final Girl-The Blood Brother’s Present…Freaks from the Morgue, Grandma Blood in The Blood Brother’s Present…Pulp, Flora and Mother in The Little One (Nosedive Productions), Gorman in Starboat (Nosedive/Vampire Cowboys-Saloon), Louisa in The Fantasticks; Film: Girl in Houseguests (Broken Windows Productions).  Special/Gore FX credits include: Theatre – Zombie Wedding (RC Staab/The NY Fringe), Death Valley (Antimatter Collective), The Blood Brother’s Present…Anthologies, The Little One (Nosedive Productions),  Neighborhood 3 (SPF); Film –Houseguests, evermore and Monday (part of Sinister Six Must Be Destroyed festival), named "Queen of Gore" by the NY Press in 2009 and the “Tom Savini of Off-Off-Broadway” by the NY Times.   Director credits include: Various Shorts for The Blood Brother’s Present…Anthologies, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Barefoot in the Park Fight Choreography: Senile Agitation (The Draft Festival), His Beauty (Planet Connections), Room With No View (The Blood Brother’s Present…The New Guignol), The Story of Icarus Phoenix (Fight Fest 2009). She has she received a BA in Theatre, a Musical Theatre Conservatory degree and a Masters of Art in Educational Theatre.  She has started and will hopefully someday complete her epic story of Icarus Phoenix and the Zombie War, cause, you know, there aren’t enough theater pieces about Zombies out there.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I Heart Week Three

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Christine O’Grady

I'm about to enter my favorite part of the rehearsal process: Week Three. I LOVE Week Three. 95% of my choreography is up on its feet, and now it's time to finesse, make funny with the actors, and clarify the storytelling. I always feel a huge sense of relief when I get to this point. For me, the rough draft is always the hardest part, and once I get past the first pass, the fun begins. If I remember correctly this is the opposite of how I used to feel. I used to love "making it up" but have trouble with being tough on myself and throwing old ideas away. Now I feel liberated when I cut that move that's been gumming up the works or giving the actors trouble.

I'm currently working with an ensemble that has been so super diligent about drilling sequences and nailing the details, and I have a feeling that this is going to make this week even more enjoyable. It's so useful for me to sit back and see a clean presentation of what I have given them so far, rather than say, maybe when it's cleaned it will be what I'm looking for. We're also at a point where Cara, the director, can watch a sequence and say, "you know, I think the point we're missing is this...", or "you know what would be funny to include here...?"

I find that week three is one of the most collaborative. We've all had some time with the material, we have a pretty good sense of the style we're going for, and we still have a little distance from the pressure of tech week looming over our heads. I'm really looking forward to deepening the work we've accomplished thus far and seeing what kind of personal touches continue coming from the actors, and other people in the room. LOTS more work to do, but rather than trying to choreograph every moment of every song, this week I can agonize (in a good, productive way) over those moments that aren't quite landing yet. To me Week Three is "make the play better week" and no matter what show I'm doing this is always my favorite part. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cossak Choreography a Click Away

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Christine O’Grady

Cossak dancing? Check. Russian soldiers' marching technique? Check. Busby Berkley? Cyd Charisse? Fred Astaire? Check. Check. Check. What did we do before YouTube? I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I circle back to a project that I first worked on back in 2006, before countless videos were a click away.

I'm choreographing a musical for Prospect Theater Company called Iron Curtain, which is primarily set in Russia during the Golden Age of musicals in America. This is my second time mounting a production of it and the director (Cara Reichel) and I were really interested in doing it bigger and better than last time. As I was reviewing my old choreography, which, at the time, I remember being quite proud of, I realized how little Russian influence there was on the musical numbers that take place there. When I think back to why, I realize part of this had to do with the fact that the show was being completed while we were in rehearsals (you gotta love new work!), but video research of this magnitude was also far more daunting five and half years ago than it is now. Now I can spend an afternoon watching hundreds of sources, and because of this, hopefully, I can anchor my work more specifically.

There's not enough hours in the day to take classes in and become a trained expert on every kind of dance I may need to reference for a musical I'm choreographing, however with the explosion of available videos on YouTube I'm finding that referencing styles of dance that I have never trained in, for example Cossak, has become both manageable and thrilling. Sometimes these videos just jog my memory, but other times I find the perfect trick or traditional step to integrate--and that's when I love this the most. In the first big musical number in Iron Curtain, The Ministry of Musical Persuasion, five of my favorite parts have been inspired by videos of Russians dancing that I stumbled across. It goes without saying that I am not talking about plagiarizing someone else's work but when it comes to comedic historical and cultural references some help has been helpful, and for this, I'm very grateful to YouTube as of late.  

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Guest Blogger of the Week: Christine O’Grady

Thank you Jeff Lewonczyk for your super awesome posts last week.

We are very excited to welcome this week's Guest Blogger, Christine O’Grady.

Christine O’Grady is an NYC-based Director/Choreographer. She was the Associate Choreographer for the Tony Award-winning revival of HAIR and its First National Tour and was the SSDC Observer on Legally Blonde. Off-Broadway, she contributed choreography to The Glass Menagerie (Roundabout) and The Boys in the Band (Transport Group), and provided musical staging for Signs of Life (Amas). Recent NY: The Drowsy Chaperone (Gallery Players, IT Award: Outstanding Choreography), The Human Comedy and Children of Eden (APAC, IT Nom), and Once Upon a Time in New Jersey (Prospect). Regional: Mark Taper Forum, Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Festival. This fall she has been assisting Choreographer Denis Jones on the Broadway Boys’ appearances on "The Rosie Show." MFA: Theatre (Directing Concentration) from Arizona State University. Member: SDC.

Friday, October 21, 2011

An Open Letter to My Six-Month-Old Son

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Jeff Lewonczyk.

 Dear Dash,

By the time you are old enough to read and understand this, it will embarrass you terribly. I console myself with the fact that I’ll have embarrassed you many times by that point, and that there will still be much more embarrassment in store before this thing is over.

So I wanted to talk to you about the fact that you’re a theater child. We’re hoping against hope that, after a childhood playing with your toys and doing homework in the corner during rehearsals, surrounded by actors, props, costumes, giant puppets and forms of make-believe held together with spit, glue, tears and more glue, you’re going to rebel by joining the football team, heading to business school and becoming an investment banker. This would be great, as it would ensure us support during our twilight years, but I remain skeptical about this projection. 

Putting aside the fact that producing theater is more detrimental to your mental health than your most junked-up, home-cooked bootleg amphetamine derivative, thereby rendering one unfit for serious work, there’s always the possibility you might LIKE theater. Even though you’re barely six months old, you’ve already been to several plays, and you’ve cried about it less than many grownups I know. You’ve sat through readings and rehearsals, load-ins and load-outs, production meetings and cast parties. Maybe this is early exposure will prove to be a vaccination that will give you immunity; we can only hope.

However, there are also negative signs. You’re a “people baby,” thrilled to meet new people and spend time in crowds. You interact spontaneously and with great bravado, like a natural-born actor. You have a keen eye for whoever’s paying attention to your antics, and somehow you always manage to know when there’s a camera pointing at you. You throw yourself around like an acrobat, and you’re already displaying a penchant for verbal gibberish. This sets a poor precedent.

However, it’s the reaction you provoke in other people that bodes particularly dark tidings. No one has yet complained that we’ve dragged you into a theatrical context – on the contrary, our friends and collaborators seem to love having you around. You energize us all with your youth and promise – two things theater folk can’t seem to get enough of, regardless of the physical age of the person presenting them.  We’ve brought you to not one but TWO NYIT Award events – this year’s nomination party and awards ceremony – and all we got were smiles and goo-goo eyes, as if you somehow BELONGED there. Shirley Knight passed you in the lobby and said, “Welcome to the world, little one.” You’re doomed.

The fact is, since we’re talking about so-called “indie theater,” the circumstances are even worse than they would be if we were straight-up professionals. If we were jobbing gig to gig, or if we were working in a big theater with lots of bosses and stuff, we probably wouldn’t be able to drag you into all of our projects. But by self-producing, we call the shots, and if that means you’re not part of an art form – you’re part of a community. And community is way harder to wash out of your hair than a mere profession (or gum).

If you end up discovering as you grow older that you’re a theater person like your parents, don’t blame us entirely. Sure, there’s probably a genetic component – but the real culprit here is Society. Any perverse subculture that allows people like us to continuously mount fictional shams for the applause of deluded crowds and then drink excessively in celebration deserves to discover that its children have been corrupted by the same disease they can’t muster the willpower to overcome. Any group of people that doesn’t turn parents like us in to the government but rather encourages and coddles children with songs and stories and kisses rather than stern lectures about the world economy deserves to spawn dreamy-eyed fools who claim to see realities that may or may not actually be there, and to rave about these realities to their fellow man without any guarantee that they’ll be understood or even listened to. In a word, artists deserve to have artists.

So if you end up exhibiting a propensity to write down your conversations with your imaginary friends, well past the age when it’s considered normal to even have them – if every night at story time you insist on reading Goodnight Moon to us and asking for notes afterward – if, instead of simply playing with your action figures, you tell people you’re “blocking them” – well, we have no choice but to go along with it. As much as we’re hoping that you’ll turn out to be someone rich and powerful and important, we’re already resigned to the fact that you might turn out to be just like One of Us. But don’t worry, son – I promise we’ll love you anyway. No matter how embarrassing we are.

Your Papa

Thursday, October 20, 2011

If You Meet Shakespeare on the Road, Kill Him

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Jeff Lewonczyk.

No, this is not a Shakespeare truther post – I’m pretty sure the guy wrote his own plays, whatever the director of Independence Day and the Godzilla remake might think about it. And either way they’re brilliant plays, duh. No, my issue here is that we see too damn much of him – that he is, in fact, a crutch that needs to be kicked out from under our goldbricking world-historical/literary armpit so we can actually get on with the important work of walking for ourselves.

Ahem. Let me stress that the only reason I find his plays “overrated” is that NOTHING should be rated that highly. Many of them are great, and the ones that aren’t still have great stuff. He’s contributed mightily to the language, and he makes a fine reference point for all English-speaking people. But to elevate one man’s talent so high above so many others is to deify him, and that does no one any favors. There have been many other fascinating playwrights in history, but we get one production of one of their plays for every three Macbeths and five Midsummer Night’s Dreams.

Having lived in New York for 12 years and seen so many productions of As You Like It that the title no longer applies, I have a proposition: a five-year moratorium on productions of his work. By all means, teach him in high-school English classes and have students perform under the auspices of academia. But a reliance on his talent and reputation by practicing artists – especially though not exclusively those at the indie level – is doing him no favors, and, more importantly, it’s doing us no favors.

For Shakespeare himself, I feel that the constant flogging of his work has bled the spontaneity and freshness from it. When you go into a production saying, “This interpretation had better teach me something new about the play,” something has gone wrong. In the best art, experience comes first and analysis (a very likely distant) second. So many layers of received opinion and re-re-re-quoting have accrued on Shakespeare’s work that it’s hard to see what’s really there. A five-year break (which I only propose lest people scoff even more violently at 10) can allow them to breathe, wash up a bit and return to us refreshed.

In terms of ourselves, the problem even more stark. All I can think about is how much new stuff artists would be able to create if they spent less time bowing to the Bard. We’ve all done our requisite Shakespeare show: Piper McKenzie’s second production out of college was The Tempest (in which I enjoyed the youthful folly of directing myself as Prospero), and we did a show called Macbeth Without Words a few years back, which can’t exactly be said to exist outside of the original play’s shadow. But one could argue that these were closer to educational experiences than the creation of bold new work.

The cranky old man in me (who takes up about 72% of my body mass) thinks that this correlates with the overall addiction to nostalgia afflicting our culture at large. Take a look at what goes viral on that amazing enabler of communication the Internet, and you’ll see that a large majority consist of various pop-culture tropes and images from our childhoods that have been chewed up and spews back out like so many crumbs from Cookie Monster’s throatless mouth (see what I did there?). Most of our new bands sound like they were recorded in the ‘80s. Many new movies are remakes of movies from 30 years ago. Even in my own work, Theater of the Arcade: Five Classic Video Games Adapted for the Stage (which mashed up arcade games with famous playwrights, like Donkey Kong and Tennessee Williams – as backward-facing a concept as possible) got much more interest and attention than any of my other work to date.

There was a time, a century or so ago, when artists were obsessed with the future. “No more masterpieces!” bellowed a deranged Antonin Artaud, and the speed-loving (albeit Fascist-enabling) Futurists staged crazy cabarets of ultra-short plays that tried to stay a step ahead of a fast world they knew would only go faster. An unfair blanket statement I can make about my generation is that we’re fixated on the past – not simply the historical past (which artists have always proved can be fertile ground for talking about the present), but the recent past – our own pasts. Seriously, is there really that much left to say about Star Wars? And what about the example of Facebook – the most efficient tool to date for wallowing in our own prior experiences, where every format change gets us in a violent froth before it even has a chance to sink in? We obviously long for the stability and safety that society seems pretty hell-bent on denying us.

I’m not exempting myself here (as can be attested by my repeated listening to the retro-New Wave pleasures of the new Cut Copy album and my fierce anticipation of the re-released work of my childhood hero, Uncle Scrooge creator Carl Barks). And I’m not naïve enough to think we can escape the past. But let’s fight it. Let’s jump it, knock it sideways, steal its valuables and leave it to bleed in the alley. Let’s steal a car and drive off the road as far as it’ll take us. Who cares if we hit a tree? Who cares if we crash into a house? Let’s drive out where there aren’t any trees or houses, and see how we fare. Let’s strive to find not only new ways to talk but new things to talk about. If we go far enough, we’ll come back full circle and find the spot where the future meet s the past. Which is good – the past is still the future if we don’t know about it yet. Terra incognita exists in many directions. But something that other people have seen and read and hashed out to death for centuries – maybe it needs to be left behind for a little, to give it a chance to get overgrown and dangerous again.

Okay, so fine, I’ve clearly set up Billy Shakes a bit of a straw dog here – if anyone can handle it, he can. The same applies for plays where people sit in a living room talking about their lives, or the same old musicals, or whatever else. It’s just that, in our current culture, producing such plays – or anything that, regardless of its provenance, has “been done before” – isn’t as risky as putting our own voices and visions on the line for all the world to see and sneer at. As one educated, nostalgia-driven, artistically-inclined solipsist to the thousands of others out there: Let’s get a move on!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Theater Is Not a Gadget

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Jeff Lewonczyk.
Back in the 20th Century, when I was a freshman in college, young and bright-eyed and smarter than I’ll ever be again, I determined that the art of theater was facing one of two possible fates.

On the one hand, it could become the art of the decadent upper class, for whom the physical presence of actors and costumes and sets would be an expensive novelty unavailable to the teeming masses of the Information Economy, who would be basically plugged into computers all day as they languished, nearly lifeless, in fetid, windowless work-warrens while the owners of their “labor” made sport with fellow living creatures in astonishingly appointed pleasure-palaces, as if proximity to fellow humans was an unprecedented indulgence.

In the other scenario, more post-apocalyptic than dystopian, theater was the last art form accessible to these same teeming masses as they scrambled to squeeze the last few precious resources from the blighted environment around them. Theater’s the only medium, after all, that doesn’t require any materials – all you need is one or more people, and a location. (Okay, fine, oral storytelling and poetry also fit that bill, but once they’re performed aloud, aren’t they theater?) It would be the only form of community and distraction available to these godforsaken wanderers as they tried to rebuild civilization from the junk of its wreckage.

Well, here we are, in the 21st Century. I’m older and dumber and less optimistic, and it turns out I was completely wrong about my eschatological daydreams – because apparently they’re BOTH right.

I’m sorry, but no matter how crowd-friendly and tourist-courting it is, any medium whose most “accessible” exponent charges more than $100 a pop for a couple brief hours of manufactured experience is approximately as populist as a diamond-encrusted foie-gras spoon. The intellectually humble corn-pone musical is equally as elitist as the most esoteric grand opera at this point.

And yet theater-making has, by all accounts, grown exponentially. There are more productions, performers and companies than ever before. In a city as unrealistic as New York real estate is always going to be an issue, but there are all these legends of artists retreating to the once-unthinkable horizons of Buffalo and Detroit and the like, where the authorities will apparently pay you to take the land away from them provided you promise to put out the green-glowing radioactive chemical fires at your own expense. You may not be able to attract a mass audience out there, but theater’s not a mass medium – if you want to use this brave frontier as a stage for telling stories through performance, then goddammit, who’s going to stop you? Or, to stretch the issue, take a look at Occupy Wall Street: people actually putting their physical presence on the line in order to create a narrative with resonance among all the people who observe it – sounds pretty theatrical to me.

I think the reason for this simultaneous decay and abundance (which is just another way of describing life, in the end) is that, at its core, theater is one of the most humanistic things you can do with your time. And I say this as someone who thinks the Internet is really, really cool and promises to change the way we live even further than it already has.

The thing is, I sit around all day on a computer looking at things and writing things, and, most nights, I go home to sit around in front of a different computer looking at and writing different things. I often whine, inwardly or externally, when I have to drag myself out to go see a play or a performance of some sort – even one featuring my closest friends and loved ones. And you know what? It’s a damn good thing I make the effort. I’m not going to go so far as to say that theater saves your soul, but yeah, it probably does. It forces you to be with other people, watching people do people things. It’s sort of like this bounded-off liminal space where people get together to be human. Which means that it’s often boring, embarrassing and infuriating, but also funny, surprising, inspiring and balls-out weird, no matter how hard it tries to pretend otherwise. Like (natch) you and me.

And the best thing is that it’s still available to all of us, any day of the week, without having to pawn our future for it. And it may be expensive to make on one level, but on another level, all you need is a street corner, an audience of one and a will to do it.

[POSTSCRIPT – Here are a couple of books you should read: You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier, and The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian. They’re fascinating looks at what it means to be human in a world of technological ascendancy, and they’re great resources for people chained to this most analog of art forms.]

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Unfashionable Middle

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Jeff Lewonczyk.

Today I’m going to start with a few bold, indefensible statements on the nature of American life that I feel relate to the theater, in order to indulge my prejudices, provide a moment or two of entertainment in the midst of your hectic day, and maybe – just maybe – learn a little something along the way.

So, America hates the middle. Of anything. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the founding of our nation was so recent, and remains so vivid, and that this in turn allows us to imagine our various apocalyptic scenarios with the same tender clarity. Everything in the middle’s just crap, a long downward slide – not good enough to be mythic, but still failing to earn the nobility of tragedy.

Or, to cast it in economic instead of historic terms, just look at the current plight of the middle class. Singularly unloved.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are no second acts in American lives,” he was speaking at a time when most plays had a three-act structure. It’s not that there’s no ending or second chance – it’s that there’s no middle. We prefer to skyrocket from origin to demise without slogging through the sticky, clingy day-to-day stuff that constitutes, you know, life.

And then you have the theater. On the one hand you have the (mostly mythical) successful commercial theater. Sure, everyone’s struggling there too, but they call it LEGIT for a reason. People are getting paid! To dance around and sew things and turn on lights and stuff! And occasionally someone makes real money from it! And in America, we all know that, unless you’re making money from something, it’s not worth taking seriously.

Then you have the other end of things. The world of codified rebellion, of Art That Is Important. There’s some money here, too – not nearly as much, and it doesn’t come directly from consumers but indirectly, through taxes and contributions from rich folks who see fit to funnel 0.01 percent of their wealth into the arts. In terms of content, we see work here that is bolder and riskier, that doesn’t feel the need to cater to an audience’s desires or expectations. This is a world that hinges upon Who You’ve Studied With, Who You’ve Worked With, Who Your Influences Are. The work can be broadly defined as “experimental,” but, even though it exists on the other end of the scale as commercial theater, it has its own conventions and precedents and hierarchies. Because it is Serious, it is also defensible. (It is also, in practice, about exactly as mythical as successful commercial theater.)

And finally, you have the rest of us. Over the past few years working as an associate director for The Brick, I’ve taken to referring to the world where many of us live, work and play as the Unfashionable Middle. We have neither the pedigree nor the profit to regularly captivate the attention of, oh, say, the New York Times. We’re too edgy for the audiences that seek brand-name escapism, yet we’re not difficult or self-referential enough for progressive minds to pat themselves on the back for understanding our work. Even when we’re doing bang-up, peer-approved work, we still struggle to get other people interested in what we do. We can be snidely derided as “community theater,” but what a horrible state of affairs it is when those two words together have such negative connotations! But the truth is, we’re also halfway between the “community theater” stereotype and the other stereotypes here. We’re hard to categorize, neither fish nor fowl.

And, considering how few people are spending money on theater at the first place, we’re at a double disadvantage. We’re like a sock-puppet sideshow in the parking lot outside the Zeitgeist, begging people’s pennies to share a few minutes in a darkened tent with us when they’d rather be standing in line outside staring at the manufactured dreams flashing from the Jumbotrons or smoking in the corner reflecting with bitter knowningness that it’s all a sham and the only thing waiting for them when they cash in their ticket is… nothing.

Wow, I just wrote that. Sorry. Anyway, the point here is: the extremes are mythical. And, more importantly, they’re boring. The Unfashionable Middle – that dark, dusty tent between the believers and the non-believers, the haves and the have-nots, the professionals and the amateurs, the past and the future, the easy and the difficult, the known and the unknown – that’s where we live. The extremes don’t contain room for experimentation or surprise – anything you add to an extreme automatically mitigates it and reduces its extremity. Whereas the middle is infinitely accommodating. The middle isn’t a dull, boring puree – it’s a thriving place where unexpected combinations occur in unprecedented amounts, where fish and fowl combine to create a new genus. It’s where things are actually what they are, instead of being inferior versions of other things.

And, as I don’t need to tell anyone reading this particular blog, in the theater it’s where the most interesting things are happening. Some of us will creep along the continuum towards one end or the other, and that’s fine. But I don’t think we should fight the Unfashionable Middle - I think we should embrace it. I also don’t think we should institutionalize it – I think we should acknowledge it.

We’re not inadequate to the needs of the extremes: the extremes are inadequate to OUR needs. We don’t need pedigree, and we don’t need profit. We just need to keep doing what we’re doing – creating work that doesn’t fit in the boxes, and conducting our live and business in ways that don’t have easy precedent. America’s never going to care anyway. It’s just another abstraction. And who needs an abstraction when we have us? 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Guest Blogger of the Week: Jeff Lewonczyk

Thanks so much to Clay McLeod Chapman for his great posts last week.

We are so very happy that this week's guest blogger is Jeff Lewonczyk.

Jeff Lewonczyk (writer) is Co-Artistic Director of Piper McKenzie and Associate Director of The Brick. Recent creations for The Brick include The Bubble of Solace (for the Comic Book Theater Festival, which he also executive-produced); the collaborative exquisite-corpse style playwriting project Piper McKenzie’s Dainty Cadaver; the children’s holiday action comedy Bethlehem or Bust (which is published by Playscripts); Theater of the Arcade: five Classic Video Games Adapted for the Stage, a hit at both The Brick and FringeNYC 2011; and the mythic fight comedy Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury. A graduate of Bard College, he is married to his partner and collaborator Hope Cartelli, and is most proud of their most recent creation, Dashiell Carter Lewonczyk.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Trapped in a Closet: Living within the Fringe

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Clay McLeod Chapman

There’s a 3 ½ floor in the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center. It’s buried at the back of the building, large enough to hold only one room. It was a janitor’s closet back when the CSV used to be Public School 160—but during the sweltering summer of 1997, in the thick of the 1st Annual New York International Fringe Festival, I called that crawlspace home. 


As in—I lived in a janitor’s closet all through the Fringe. 

Most theatre artists living in New York have their own personal war story over the Fringe at this point. Whether it’s performing in a cramped black boxer or slogging through an air-conditionless afternoon as an audience member, we’ve all earned our Off-Off-Broadway red badge of courage from the Fringe. But in true you-just-had-to-be-there fashion, there really was something exceptional about that inaugural year of the fest. Pre-Urinetown, the Fringe attached as many off’s to its Broadway with reckless abandon by rooting itself within every closet, every attic, every below-the-code and foreclosed storefront in the Lower East Side. 
That included the Clemente. 

Built by the Board of Education of the City of New York in 1898, this neo-Gothic school building has since had its classrooms converted into four theaters, two gallery spaces and over fifty different artist studios. The Fringe took it further that first year, transforming the entire building into a bunker of batshit-independent, no-fi, devil-may-care theater. No classroom went unoccupied without some one-man show exorcising itself before the blackboard. Even the library was renovated into a fifty-seater. Some overworked techie threw up a few bed-sheets over the bookshelves and clamped down a couple clip-lights onto the sprinkler system—and voilà

A new venue was born, aptly christened—The Library

Through some fortuitous venue-programing on the Fringe’s part, this was the theater me and my friends were assigned to herald the NYC-debut of our own production—The Pumpkin Pie Show.  

I was eighteen. I was a wet-behind-the-ears freshman. On a whim, I applied to the Fringe, never believing I’d ever get in—but lord almighty, suddenly I was responsible for thirteen performances on the boards in the Big Apple. 

And I lived in Virginia.

With no money.

Total budget for metropolis-lodging for the month of August: $180.00.

Here we were—three kids, right off the bus from the Ol’ Dominion. My friends and I had taken the Greyhound, packing our props in the bus’s underbelly. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed really doesn’t cut it. Chalk us up to dim-witted and dumb-assed, because we’d just arrived in New York without a place to stay, under the assumption that it would be a cinch to simply check in to the nearest performing arts hostel with only the change rattling about our pockets.

No such luck. Everything was booked. Everything. And the places that weren’t weren’t exactly spots we’d feel safe falling asleep in without someone standing watch.

 It’s pretty amazing how swift this city can crush a kid coming from Virginia. We hadn’t been here for more than a couple hours, hefting our set—and already, we felt like we’d lost.

And we still had a show to put on.

And fill butts in seats.

And eat.

Closing night felt a long, long ways away.

Ed Vega, head of the CSV back then, just-so-happened to be within earshot of our sob story.

You guys are really stupid, he said, shaking his head. 

Yes, we agreed.

Wanna live here?


I got a broom closet upstairs that’s empty right now, he said. Paint the walls before you leave and it’s all yours.

A closet might’ve been a bit of an understatement, but it was ours. All ours.

There was a shower within the room, no curtain attached. We’d give each other the courtesy of turning a blind eye to whomever was bathing, for modesty’s sake.

There was a toilet in the corner with no enclosure—so whenever one of us needed to use the facilities, the rest would evacuate the premises.

There was no air-conditioning.

Hell—there was no air.

We found a cot, which the three of us would alternate sleeping on throughout the month. Sometimes, I’d sneak into the Library and sleep onstage.

We didn’t have keys. Each night, we had to make sure we were in the building by the time the venue director locked the front doors. Sure enough, there were a few nights when one particular member of our trio would inevitably stumble back from the bar a little too late for curfew, finding himself locked out—sleeping on the fire escape until the venue director returned the following morning to let him back in.

I was convinced the school was haunted with the ghosts of dead school children.

Or Lower East Side bohemians.

Or a little bit of both.

But the fact of the matter was—this sleepless, sore-muscled existence was one of the purest inductions into downtown theater that I was ever going to get. We came to NYC with nothing but our show strapped to our backs—and yet, through it all, somehow, it miraculously made its way onto the stage. Sure, only five people saw it—but that’s (almost) besides the point.

We made it.

We got here.

And we put on a show.

An awful show, of course—but trial by fire, right? We burned through thirteen performances, making fools out ourselves in front of our poor, poor paying audience. But as far as inauspicious beginnings go, ours was a glorious failure. One that’s hard to not feel a little sentimental about.

There’s a space within this city. Nothing but a room. It’s probably no longer a theater anymore, having been renovated into a yoga studio or something else by now—that will forever possess the first Pumpkin Pie Show.

I snuck back into the CSV once, a few years back—just to peak my head inside the janitor’s closet on the 3 ½ floor.

The door was locked. Whatever was in there now, the maudlin-in-me imagined three squatting teens, curled up in their sleeping bags like newborn pups in a shoebox. Sometimes the closest thing to ghosts that haunt a theater are the shows performed within them. If that’s actually the case, then the Clemente is haunted by a bunch of ripe smelling Virginians waiting for their 30-minute turnaround between shows to set up and perform. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Horny Goat Weed

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Clay McLeod Chapman

So the horny goat weed was probably a bad idea. 

Lord only knows how many times I’d passed up the opportunity to purchase the herbal supplement from the corner deli. I’d never paid them much mind before, their tin-foil packets dangling off the rack just next to the cash register, right alongside the “rough riders” and French ticklers and other male potency placebos for sale. But for some unknown, utterly asinine reason—on this particular night, during this particular production of my own personal long-running performance piece The Pumpkin Pie Show—with hardly one hour left on the clock before show-time, this impulse-buy for “restoring a man’s inner fire” seemed like a viable option on helping me get in the mood for tonight’s show. 

Horny goat weed is, after all, a performance enhancer.

That’s exactly what it said on the front of the packet: Performance enhancer.

We hold these pre-show rituals to be sacred.

All performers do.

For me, the time before the curtain rises has always been holy—completely sacrosanct. My personal pre-show ritual borders on those disorders most definitely obsessive-compulsive, beginning hours before even reaching the theater:

The pre-show nap. The pre-show shower. The pre-show subway ride. The pre-show line-through. The pre-show coffee. The pre-show settling into the space sixty minutes before actors are actually called. The pre-show walking around the stage… 

Any minor divergence from my rigidly systematic warm-up risks ruining that evening’s show. Every last facet must be followed to the ‘T,’ no matter how innocuous—or else gamble the chance of wrecking an entire performance. 

But on this night, waiting in line at the deli, I made the cavalier call of integrating a new, last-minute component into my pre-show procedural:

I would pop some horny goat weed.

Bad call on my part.

For years, I had laced my extra-large cup of coffee with a packet of Emergen-C Energy Booster mix for that extra kick. Just a little more oomph for tonight’s show, I had rationalized to myself. I’d stir the powder straight in and watch it fizz up into a clumpy froth of vitamin C and half-and-half, creating some caffeinated cocktail that I speculated would rocket my energy right on into the stratosphere—thereby taking The Pumpkin Pie Show to higher, Laurence Olivier-like levels of performance.

It didn’t.

The drink was, in fact, disgusting. It tasted awful. God awful. Turns out that lemon/lime-flavored vitamin C powder and milky coffee do not mix—literally. Rather, this flotsam of citrus-foam formed along the surface of my coffee—that I would still dutifully drink, no matter how disgusting it truly was. For over five years, five years, I believed in my pre-show ritual so badly, that I was willing to wreck my liver with this battery acid brew. I only stopped after the first signs of jaundice kicked in.

I realize I’m talking about juicing up with over-the-counter dietary supplements here. This all must make me sound like some kind of pre-K steroid-abuser. An Off-Off-Broadway Barry Bonds. But we subject ourselves to these awful, rituals de los habituals because we believe they make our performances better.

By their very nature, practitioners of all-things theatrical tend to be a superstitious lot. We won’t mutter Macbeth onstage, we leave the ghost-light burning to ward off evil spirits. If you told an actor that their performance would improve ten-fold by licking the ass-crack of their stage manager ten minutes before she called "places" every night, I’m of the mind that they would seriously consider it. We performers will commit any number of delusory follies, no matter how irrational they seem to the outside eye, if we believe they perfect the performance itself. Because—what if? What if tonight you didn’t lick your stage manager’s dimpled seat cushions? Are you willing to take that risk? Once these systems have integrated themselves into our hallowed pre-show ritual, there is just no deviating from them.

They have become law. Holy writ.

Increased libido. Improved erectile function. Hours of long-lasting energy.

Horn-dog snake oil.

It was the boost to the libido that sold me. This all-natural “Phyto-Aphrodesiac” (what does that even mean?), with its recipe based around an undisclosed ancient Chinese medicinal text, was just the thing downtown theater artists have been searching high-and-low for for centuries. Its key ingredient is the leafy epimedium plant, commonly found in the mountainous Asiatic wild—not the Lower East Side. With its potent cocktail of flavonoids, polysaccharides, sterols and magnalforine alkaloids, I had visions of the coming hour-and-a-half onstage as something quasi-shamanistic. The Pumpkin Pie Show has always been a bit of a ceremonial experience in my mind, anyhow—imagine ghost stories told around the campfire by Sid Vicious. This seemed to fall right in line with our mission statement. This would be as close to a peyote ritual as I was ever going to get with an audience, guiding ticket-buyers through a metaphysical experience unlike any other evening at the theatre they—or myself—had ever encountered before. This would be the performance of a lifetime.

Obie-awards, here I come…

Not Richard Burton’s preferred pre-show warm-up, I’m sure. Nor Peter O’Toole for that matter. Or Richard Harris. But in my off-off-off-off-off-off Broadway black box world, within the realm of my thirty seat eco-system, you take what you can get.

And so I got some horny goat weed.

Down the hatch.

Nothing happened for the first fifteen minutes of the show. What a waste, I remember thinking. I’ve totally been shammed.

But then the fever kicked in. The heat seeped into my chest, flushing up my neck. I started sweating. Not simply sweating in the pits, mind you. Pores had opened that I highly doubt had ever opened before, flooding the base of my neck, my scalp, everywhere. Suddenly I looked sunburned. No amount of water could quench the brushfire that had spread out through my limbs. I couldn’t breathe.

I felt as if I was in the midst of my first and only hot flash.

I’m going to die, I thought to myself onstage. I won’t be stepping off this stage tonight…

I could sense the audience in the front row were no longer paying attention to my performance, no matter how enhanced—but to my pants.

A 30-seat black box theater has its drawbacks—one of which, I have since learned, is the unavoidable distraction of a perpetual erection onstage while performing a ten-to-fifteen minute character monologue.

And yet the show goes on…

For up to four hours.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Guest Blogger of the Week: Clay McLeod Chapman

We are excited to announce that this week's guest blogger is Clay McLeod Chapman.

Clay McLeod Chapman is the creator of the rigorous storytelling session The Pumpkin Pie Show. He is the author of Rest Area, a collection of short stories, and Miss corpus, a novel. Currently, he is writing a trilogy of children's novels titled The Tribe—book one, Homeroom Headhunters, is slated to hit the shelves in 2013. He teaches writing at The Actors Studio MFA Program at Pace University. Visit him at:

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What is your comment policy?

We implemented a comment policy for our blog and wanted to hear from others in the community about your comment policies.

Here's ours:

We reserve the right to delete comments if they are:
   - spam
   - hate-filled or abusive
   - off topic, especially if their intent is to derail the conversation for the poster's own purposes.

Basically if you come to our house and shit on our floor, we have a right to ask you to leave.

Please do not shit on our floor.

 Do you have a comments policy?  What is it?  What are your thoughts on this topic?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Staff's Faves

Every year our staff sees lots of OOB shows. We were excited to share some of our favorites from the 2010-2011 season.

Christopher Borg:
One of my favorites shows of the year was Radio Purgatory by the TheatreTHE at Dixon Place. It is so refreshing to see an indie theatre company that is doing TRULY INNOVATIVE and experimental work. Their use of the space, lighting, sound (live and recorded) and projection was incredible. It was like you were transported to an alternate universe while you were in the theatre and taken on a bizzare musical journey.  Their skills as musicians and their mastery of physical comedy raises the bar for the whole community.  Everyone should see them and know them.

Hillary Cohen:
The Walk Across America For Mother Earth, produced by Talking Band in association with LaMaMa Experimental Theater Club, was without question one of the most exciting shows I saw this past season. It was funny, touching, slyly observant, and – perhaps most importantly: innovative. While I already knew writer and actor Taylor Mac’s is a sharp-witted solo performer, I was really blown away by the deeper story and more nuanced characters he created in this full-length narrative script. He sincerely wrote a unique coming of age story with relevant social commentary and even a couple of cute songs. Designers Machine Dazzle (costumes), Anna Kiraly (sets), and Darrell Thorne
(make up) rock! The whole look and feel of the production was downright charming in a Sad Clown way that, in my opinion, perfectly matched the Quixotic, physically and spiritually “off the beaten path” subject matter. The talented ensemble, under Paul Zimet’s experienced direction, clearly gelled as a troupe and the chemistry amongst them was electric. Damn. Good. Show.

I have a long and storied English class history with Edgar Lee Masters’ 1915 cycle of 246 free-verse epitaph poems, Spoon River Anthology. So I didn’t expect to like it when Tom Andolora brought his edited and staged version, titled The Spoon River Project, to my new hometown in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. What a pleasant surprise! Masters’ text is a series of challenging but worthwhile cameos about the emotionally crippling social hierarchy of small town America. This show really got it right. They gathered an eloquent cast, beautiful period costumes, and gracefully unfussy production elements in an impeccably lush patch of Green-Wood Cemetery. I was riveted all over again and would say that it was one of those theater-going experiences that will stick with me long after this season.

Diánna Martin:
One of my favorite productions I saw this year was the Belarus Free Theatre's production of Being Harold Pinter at the LaMaMa Experimental Theatre Club. I was blown away by the passion, creativity, and design of the show, which was an incredible experience that lies somewhere between political theatre and performance art. Performed in Russian with supertitles, I was amazed at the actors' ability to manifest work that moved me so much while not understanding their language at all. Half the time I didn't look at the supertitles, I was so engaged with what was going on onstage. Moments of general design on the incredible minimalist set that made this even more compelling were the use of monologues staged with the actors running towards the audience encapsulated within a clear parachute; the effect was as if they were running towards a wall, only to be thrown back into the crowd. It was eerie, compelling, and important theatre brought to us by a theatre company that has been outlawed in its own country for giving a voice to those who have none.

Lanford Wilson's
Balm In Gilead, produced by the T. Schreiber Studio, took a piece that I have found usually to be very difficult to digest, and mounted it on the stage with such success that I was amazed. One thing that I enjoyed very much was the life given to each character, each actor, no matter how small their part or what was going on on stage at the time. The actors were in the moment at all times, and it was incredibly engaging. Another wonderful aspect of this production was the set design. I was delighted with the set changes, which allowed the audience three different points of view of the same set, so in essence, giving a three-quarter thrust the effect of a rotating stage. The costumes were incredible, and being at the production was like a step back to another time. Great work.

Desmond Dutcher:
One of the most exciting theatre experiences I've seen in a while is actually something that I had the pleasure of being a part of.  A burgeoning Off-Off-Broadway company called Artistic New Directions (AND) hosted a project called Without A Net which dove right to the core of pure theatre and at the same time served as an unprecedented thread sewing together many different NYC indie-theatre companies. The idea was to give the same one-act play to 5 different theatre companies and have them rehearse the complete secrecy from each other!...resulting in 5 different interpretations of the same play!  None of the theatre companies knew which other companies were in the game; none of the actors/directors knew who else was participating; and the actors were not allowed to see the final set prior to performance. There were 25 performances of the play, each with an ensemble cast comprised of one actor from each of the 5 different companies. (Math was never my strong point, but trust me: it works out -- you never saw the same exact production twice!)  Each of the 25 performances was unique, made different by each new combination of collaborators.  Every performance was an opening and a closing all at once, 'cause you'd never see that exact line-up again.

To inaugurate this ingenious idea, AND commissioned playwrights Gary Garrison & Roland Tec to come up with a one-act in which none of the characters had ever met each other prior to their entrances on stage, but who have a reason to be in the same place.  Their result was the powerful piece, The Rubber Room, which deals with a collage of characters meeting each other for the first time in one of NYC's infamous voids where public school teachers await disciplinary review.  The one-act is a wonderful mix of character development with a powerful plot-driven purpose, resulting in a play that is both funny and intense but above all intriguing and exciting.

Having been one of the lucky 25 actors I can confess that it was one of the most exhilarating theatrical experiences I've ever had!!  Imagine being ushered into your dressing room at staggered call-times with the secrecy of a spy by an extremely efficient crew from AND, all the while being kept secluded from the other actors with whom you are about to share the stage in 20 minutes.  The mounting anticipation focuses you on your craft in a way I've never experienced before and when you finally walk on stage and see your scene partners for the very first time...well, lemme tell ya: there's almost no acting required.  You take them in, size them up, and suss them out in ways that are so natural and un-affected that they make the technique of your craft feel smooth and effortless.  For an actor like me who can't get enough of feeling "in the moment", I was in pure heaven!  What a joy to have that experience -- it has stayed with me and informed much of my art since.

Bravo to Artistic New Directions for taking a simple idea and turning it into stage magic!  Here's to many more trips flying "Without A Net"!

Shay Gines:
I thought Dog Act by Flux Theatre Ensemble was an amazing production; one of the best I’ve seen Off-Off-Broadway. The play is such an intriguing tale of a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has divided into tribes each with their own characteristics, moral compass and aspirations. The relationship that Lori Parquet and Chris Wight created as the wondering bard and her man/dog, was the hub of the entire production. They did such a beautiful job. Becky Byers’ performance was sublime, but really the entire cast was so fantastic and cohesive. You could tell that they all knew they were working on something special. The set…. The set was to die for; so clever and beautifully constructed. And the props where thoughtful and whimsical and added such a rich layer to the production. Kelly O’Donnell pulled it all together gorgeously.

I really enjoyed Theatre of the Arcade at the Brick. Jeff Lewonczyk took something so iconic (classic arcade video games) and twisted it, giving it an entirely new perspective. It was beautifully directed by Gyda Arber. The entire evening was so fun because not only did you enjoy watching the production, but the production was a game in and of itself. The audience was engaged in trying to figure out which arcade game and which genre each of the pieces were based on. Incredibly fun.

Locker #4173b by the New York Neo-Futurists is a production that I had heard about long before it opened. Christopher Borg and Joey Rizzolo literally spent years researching and working on this project. I was so proud of both of them that the final product was so honest and intimate and raw. It wasn’t always an easy production to sit through. It brought up a lot of uncomfortable thoughts and the audience left with a lot of new questions and an overwhelming desire to purge accumulated “stuff”.

I loved… LOVED… the Vampire Cowboys production of The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G. After we saw the production I simply could not shut up about it. I really liked the set. It was modern and striking and elevated the production. Likewise the costumes, projections, lighting and sound were all cohesive and fully integrated. The acting was top notch across the board. But the two super stars were the play and the directing. Qui Nguyen created a piece that reveals itself as it goes along. Initially I was a little mad at Qui because I felt that he was using too many devises and it was distracting from the story. But then I realized that YES! he was using too many devises IN ORDER to distract from the story. This was a play, not about the “story,” but about Qui’s creative process of talking about something that is too big and too personal for him. In his process of trying to tell this story, he was distracting himself from focusing on the reality of the story. And in a lesser director’s hands, this complex, heart rending production could have been confusing, but Robert Ross Parker has such a strong and skilled approach that it was funny and entertaining and moving. Bravo.

Let’s talk about The Family Shakespeare, produced by MTWorks. What a beautiful production this was. This was not an easy piece; it was a period piece,  there were fantasy elements, it dealt with challenging issues including mental illness and ethical questions that can leave an audience unnerved if it’s done right. And oh boy did they do it right. David Stallings wrote an intricate piece that leads the audience subtly through the nuances. Antonio Minino masterfully guided the production through the complicated turns. The costumes were gorgeous. And Cotton Wright’s performance was hauntingly breathtaking; one of my favorite performances of the season.

Of course there were so many amazing Off-Off-Broadway and Indie Theatre productions this year. These are just a few. What were your favorites and why?