Thursday, September 27, 2012

3 New Awards Presented at IT Ceremony

This year at our awards ceremony we introduced 3 new awards.

The Doric Wilson Independent Playwright Award

This award was named in honor of a true Off-Off-Broadway pioneer and a dear friend. Doric Wilson was a radical, pioneering, innovative, and unflinching playwright and New York theater artist. He was one of the original playwrights of the Caffe Cino, the author of many extraordinary plays, and the creator and artistic director of TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence). The success of his plays at Caffe Cino helped, in the words of playwright Robert Patrick, to "establish the Cino as a venue for new plays, and materially contributed to the then-emerging concept of Off-Off-Broadway." His Now She Dances!, a fantasia on the trial of Oscar Wilde, was the first Off-Off-Broadway play to deal positively with gay people. Under the mentorship of producer Richard Barr, Wilson became a pioneer of the alternative theatre movement, dedicating his career to writing, directing, producing, and/or designing hundreds of productions. Through his work with TOSOS, and because of his unwavering love and belief in playwrights and the theater, he was a mentor and friend to many young writers and helped foster the future of their plays.

The award named in Doric’s honor will be given to a playwright whose writing and work ethic honors the innovation, uncompromising vision, heart, and spirit that was Doric Wilson and his work. Writers working in the five boroughs of New York City who have not received an Off-Broadway, Broadway, or prominent regional theater production are all eligible.

The 2012 Doric Wilson Independent Playwright Award Committee includes: Jennifer Conley Darling, Mark Finley, Julie Kline, Daniel Talbott and Kathleen Warnock.

The inaugural recipient of this award is Donnetta Lavinia Grays a playwright that Doric knew well; someone who Doric supported and mentored. She is a writer of singular vision, and unparalleled ability.

Congratulations Donnetta!

Outstanding Revival of a Play and Outstanding Premiere Production of a Play

Just after last Thanksgiving, we asked you, the community at large, to discuss a series of questions we’d been facing, to get your feedback, and give you the opportunity to share your ideas.

We asked about our rules and requirements such as ticket prices and budget caps (all good reads), but the topic that got the most traction by far was the discussion about award categories.  Specifically many members of the community championed the idea of there being a category for revivals. It wasn’t a completely cut-and-dried issue:  there were many voices, backing the many angles of the topic, and there were aspects to adding such a category that are complicated to be sure.  But ultimately, it was clear that the community wanted the new award and perhaps most importantly it gave us the opportunity to recognize more artists and more outstanding work.

So, in direct response to your input, we created 2 awards; Outstanding Revival of a Play and Outstanding Premiere Production of a Play. These two awards replace “Outstanding Production of a Play.”

The Revival category includes classics, established plays, or the production of any script that has previously received a full production (this excludes workshops or readings).

The Premiere category includes plays that are, as the title indicates, receiving their premiere production.

This season Ajax in Iraq produced by Flux Theatre Ensemble received the Revival award and Advance Man produced by Gideon Productions received the award for Premiere Production. Both are worthy recipients and we are happy that we are able to recognize both of these outstanding productions and exceptional companies.

Congratulations to both.

And congratulations to all of the nominees this year. There is so much inspirational, engaging and innovative work happening in our community - we could not be more proud.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Hard Sparks

Hard Sparks is an inspirational company that works in intimate spaces. They choose productions that promote positive change and they strive to worthy community organizations.

We caught up with Artistic Director J. Stephen Brantley to find out more about this community minded company.

What are the origins of Hard Sparks and what is the significance of the company name?
Hard Sparks takes its name from The Zohar, which is the scared text of Kabbalah. It refers to the idea that we are here to elevate the sparks of creation. I think that’s what theatre does, at its best. It’s about transformative sharing, which sounds very heart-and-flowers but trust me, nothing kicks your ass harder than striving to serve a higher purpose.

Hard Sparks chooses to work with playwrights and actors who are "early-to mid-career" Why this specific group of artists?
We don’t have anything against established artists – in fact we’ve worked with quite a few this year. But when Robert Lohman and I launched Hard Sparks, it was partly to showcase actors and writers who weren’t being seen as much, or treated as well, as we thought they deserved. It’s a long list. We’ve barely made a dent.

Eightythree Down is a pretty intense work. Was any of it based on personal experiences? What was the inspiration for this play?
It’s actually not on my personal experiences. Because I’ve been very open about my own addiction, and three of the four characters in Eightythree Down are users, there’s been an assumption that it’s based on my actual life experience. To be clear, my drug of choice was heroin not cocaine, and in 1983 I was twelve years old and living in Plano Texas, nowhere near the East Village. My party days came much later, and it was dope and grunge, not coke and new wave. What is familiar to me is Martin’s loneliness, his protective little nest and the way it is ultimately destroyed. I spent my teenage years listening to The Smiths and living vicariously through others, and I know how that kind of pain catches up to you later. Other than that? My dad really did work for the mobile communications industry in 1983 and we really did have a phone in our car!

The ensemble received a nomination and each actor has praised the tremendous trust and care that was required in the rehearsal process. How did you achieve that sense of safety and what was the result in your opinion?
Our fearless foursome – Melody Bates, Ian Holcomb, Bryan Kaplan and Brian Miskell – turned in some of the bravest performances I’ve ever seen. This has everything to do with director Daniel Talbott’s way of working with actors. He’s not ensconced behind some table or buried in the script. He’s up there, in there, with them. He’s an actor himself, and actors can sense that. They know he’s not asking them to go anywhere he wouldn’t venture himself. For my part, I just tried to remind them that what they do is extraordinary. I believe it’s sacred. And they should honor and trust the full force of the abilities. Plus I brought them snacks.

What was the most satisfying part of working on this production?
Daniel pushed me to develop the script in the room. It came along leaps and bounds, thanks to him. But I think what was most satisfying to me was watching those actors connect to one another, and work all together. Their individual IT Award nominations are well-deserved, but it’s their Ensemble nod that really thrills me. The way they collaborated was so inspiring and deeply meaningful for me. Hard Sparks is about giving artists the opportunity to do that, and I’m incredibly grateful to them for responding with such passion and generosity.

What is next for Hard Sparks?
No idea really. My goal was to fuse edgy theatre with social issues, and to partner with other non-for-profits to improve people’s lives. What I’ve found in the two short years since we launched is that just getting a show funded and on its feet is tough enough, even without trying to save the world. So we’re weighing some options and looking at different ways of doing things. As soon as we’ve worked it all out, we’ll gladly share the secret formula!

Congratulations to the cast and crew of Eightythree Down!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

FullStop Collective

Since 2007 the FullStop Collective has been producing new and innovative work. This last season they took on a musical set in a landfill in the future.

Producing Director, Leta Tremblay shares a little about their company and working on Unville Brazil.

What were the origins of the FullStop Collective?
FullStop Collective was originally formed in 2007 by a group of students who studied together at the Eugene O'Neill National Institute. After we graduated from our respective colleges, a contingent of us moved to New York City where we knew that we wanted to continue to work together and support each others artistic endeavors. That first year included a workshop of new plays in Upstate New York, a world premier production in the New York International Fringe Festival, and site-specific stagings of one week of Suzan-Lori Parks' 365 Days/365 Plays. Since then, we've continued to expand our artistic community and to heighten the production value of our shows which led us to our first ever musical, Unville Brrazil!  

What inspired Unville Brazil?
Playwright Patrick Shaw and director Brian Hashimoto began cooking up the idea of what would become Unville Brazil back in 2008. I recently asked Brian this question to refresh my memory and this is what he said: "Two guys, a bar, a rhyming dictionary, and something to do with garbage. That was literally the impetus. It was originally imagined as a serial musical radio drama." The story developed from there. Pat began writing songs on his guitar, Brian incorporated his love for puppets in the staging, and we added actors in a public reading to flush out the characters. Each new added element inspired the further gestation of the project.

What are the challenges of producing a new musical?

The music! Music added an entirely new set of challenges to producing a new play. Originally we hoped to have live musicians on stage throughout the performance but it quickly became apparent that this was not feasible for us for this production. Our backup plan was to prerecord all of the music and incorporate it into the sound design. This actually turned out to be a great solution because the actors were able to rehearse with the recordings (they still sang live) and we had more control over the volume and balance of the music in performance.

Did you incorporate green practices into the production?

Absolutely. This was a huge initiative for us. Nearly the entirety of our set was constructed out of recycled materials. The play takes place in a landfill so it was actually easy for us to collect recycling from the cast, crew, and community to build our set. We also chose to go almost entirely paperless with our programs. Cast bios were posted on the lobby walls and on our website along with other pertinent information. Water and wine was served during intermission in reusable mugs that were returned after use and washed at the end of each show. We sold FullStop branded tote bags to encourage our audience to use reusable bags when shopping rather than constantly bringing home plastic.

What was your favorite line in the production?

This is such a hard question! Pat's writing is so poetic and there are so many beautiful lines in this play but I'm actually going to answer with some lyrics from the opening song:
I know,
This seems like the end
Of ice caps, trees, and the inter-specicial friends
I know,
You think you're at the end
Of the world
But then again
There's much more to be done
There's plans and dreams and history to be spun
You're not giving up when you know it's time
To begin again
In this beginning is the thesis for the journey that this musical takes you on. For me, the play is a call to arms in the form of a love story. It speaks to where our world is headed if we continue on in this way with disregard for how we are affecting the lives of future generations. But it also speaks to the doubts that we all face as individuals. Have I made the right choices? Is this all that there is to life? Unville Brazil 's answer is that there is always more to be done, and always time to begin again.

What is FullStop currently working on?
FullStop Collective just wrapped Cause of Failure at the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival this summer to great reviews and an opportunity for the play to be published on Indie Theater Now! Next up, we are producing Outfoxed, a new play by Lucy Gillespie, at Access Theater November 29 - December 16. And Brian reprises his role as director. Here's the teaser:

A bookish American student abroad gets in over her head in a life of sex and drugs.

Her mother gets a phone call…

I hope that you'll check out in the coming months for more details and join us at the theater this winter!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Magic Futurebox

Magic Futurebox
employs 'story theatre' to produce some incredibly visceral and intriguing  work.

Co-Founder and Executive Artistic Director, Kevin Liabson explains their esthetic and how this form of theatre engages and excites audiences.

What are the origins of Magic Futurebox and what is the significance of the company name?
A couple of years back, my now-partner Suzan Eraslan was working as Programming Director for The Tank. She took me on as a theater curator there. At the time, I was working with a different theater company, and as we embarked on a big series at The Tank - the Public Domain series - my partners at that company all got married and had babies all within a fairly small time frame. As such, Suzan stepped in to help with a lot of the production aspects of Public Domain. Before we knew it, we were producing together full time. Immediately after Suzan left The Tank, we were given the opportunity to move in to our space in Brooklyn, and it's been pretty non-stop ever since. We're currently running, I believe, our twentieth production in 2 years. 

In terms of the name, it's not a great story - when we realized that what we were doing constituted running a company, and needed to get our LLC, and thus a name, we spent a day or so throwing possible names around. As you do when you're naming something, a possibility would come up, and we'd google it and see if it was taken. Suzan suggested something, I said, "let me look it up on the old magic futurebox," which was just how I occasionally referred to my laptop, and she hit me and asked why I'd been holding that phrase out on her. It stuck. Tommy Smith, who wrote Demon Dreams (and two other shows we've produced), called it "the eventual result of producing all of these shows - it's the thing we're gonna open in the future, and we'll look back and see everything that's gone on and realize that we are in the future as a result of opening that magic futurebox in the first place," which I like better.

Tell us what 'story theatre' is? and why do you choose to work in this form of theatre?

Story theater is a form wherein actors both narrate and play the story. As an actor mimes opening a door, he might say "the baker creaked the door open and crept through." He then may continue to narrate or enter in to dialogue, but he never (or rarely) exits the story, exactly. The form was created by Paul Sills while he was working with the Game Theater in Chicago in 1968. The form requires no sets, costumes, or props - all factors of the environment are suggested by the actors through spacework, and often a shadow screen. A small group of actors play several characters each, and usually, there's a circle on the floor which is used as a guideline for travel, passage of time, etc. It's an incredible form when it's done well - it allows the audience to experience storytelling and theater the way that children do, but without any sort of pandering or condescension. It's a form that allows for wonder and awe. I had the good fortune to work with Paul on several story theater productions while I was at the New Actors Workshop, either as an actor, musician, or lighting designer, and then stage managed several more for Jason Hale, a student of Paul's and a real master of the form.  

Generally, story theater is applied to a collection of folk tales or classic stories. I'm very interested in applying the form to other work. I feel like there are so many ways in which other media has theater beat in it's effectiveness, and the only theater that really excites me is that which capitalizes on its form. Story theater, for instance, doesn't work on screen. Or hasn't yet.  I want to make theater that has to be theater. Story theater allows the audience to involve themselves in the creation of the piece by imagining the wall separating the two young lovers, as the actors simply lean on the space between them. If we're gonna get a whole bunch of people in the room for something, shouldn't we invite them to play?

Demon Dreams incorporated live music. What were the benefits and challenges of this?
Music's a pretty integral part of the story theater form, and Tommy capitalizes on it beautifully in the script to Demon Dreams. Because the form is so open and playful, audiences are totally willing to accept songs and underscoring - anything that helps shape the environment, tonally or otherwise. We brought in the Wiz Kids, a couple of DJs who had invented a wearable turntable set (TurnTableTar) to play the shows, and Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky generously provided tracks for us to use as the beats for lyrics Tommy had written. Having live musicians is a huge boon to a story theater show, as the music and the sounds they can provide further shape the environment. Most of our sound effects were variations on record scratches and such, and we focused on underscoring the show the way you would a Warner Brothers cartoon.  Having the flexibility of live musicians playing with the cast, we were able to allow the cast to improvise physical choices a lot more than if we were tethered to a sound board.

What has the audiences reaction been to Demon Dreams and your other productions?
Demon Dreams
was pretty well received. Basically, it's a fun, high-energy children's show questioning the innate goodness or evil-ness of human beings. What's not to love, right? Our shows seem generally to be fairly popular, but it's a tough question. I'm not out to shock or offend anybody, but I don't think everybody should like everything. People who thought Demon Dreams was too silly or frivolous loved Firemen, another of Tommy's shows we produced, which was anything but. Theater is for audience, absolutely. But any given piece has its own audience, and not everyone is a part of any given audience. If everybody likes what we're doing, then we're not doing our job.

What was the most satisfying part of working on this production?
I was (and continue to be) super duper in crazy love with the cast. They were 6 of the most giving, collaborative people I've ever worked with, and I'd do anything for them. So much of my job for this show was just to set up an environment wherein they could play around until they found something wonderful. I really just got out of their way. Only one of them, Joe Burch, had worked in story theater before (Joe and I both played Hanrahan in Paul Sills' adaptation of Yeats' The Stories of Red Hanrahan), and teaching the conventions of the form to these lovely, playful people was incredibly satisfying.  It's such a cool form, and working with pros who'd never really seen it before served to reinforce my love for it.

What is next for Magic Futurebox?
I think I can officially announce that we're extending our current show, Open Up, Hadrian, which we're co-producing at our space with Caborca Theater through Sept. 29th. We've just started rehearsals for Bloody Lullabies for Brave Women, a new piece my partner Suzan commissioned from Miranda Huba, which will be a very limited run to benefit the New York Abortion Access Fund.  We've also got the Deconstructive Theatre Project in residency at our space working on The Orpheus Variations, which will run at our space Oct.19-28th, and we're about to start casting The Carnivorous, a play by Julian Mesri, the focus of our Playwright Spotlight this year.  The Playwright Spotlight program focuses on one writer a year - MFb produces three of their plays, showcasing the breadth of their work.  Last year's Spotlight was Tommy - Demon Dreams was the second of his pieces we produced.  We're also working with Tommy on a new show, hopefully for Spring, but it's in the earliest stages of development. We have about 5 other projects in some stage of development, as well as upcoming workshops and residencies. I know that's a lot of information, but there's even more at

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sans A Productions

Sans A Productions
is a relatively new theatre company, which  we all know can be simultaneously terrifying and thrilling.

They have been making a name for themselves with their high quality work. We caught up with founding member Sally Cade Holmes to find out more about this organization.

What are the origins of Sans A Productions and what is the significance of the company name?
Sans A started almost two years ago in a living room in Astoria. We wanted to be pro-active about our careers and have control over our art. All five of us went to the University of Evansville where we formulated a common language of theatre production. After moving to New York and working with lots of different companies, we longed for folks in the room that spoke our language.

We also saw the majority of new theatre companies focused on the actor/director/playwright relationship and we wanted to expand that conversation to include designers. We want a true collaborative process - the best idea comes from whoever has it.

Our name went through a few drafts. After our original name brought about a threat of lawsuit from another company, we found ourselves briefly without a name - we were sans a name. So we landed on Sans A which also serves as an acronym for our first names.


Sans A Productions is a new company. What has been the most challenging and most exciting part of creating this company?
Producing brings with it unexpected problems and pitfalls at every turn. Most exciting has been to look those unknowns in the face and decide to do it anyway. Honestly the hardest part was trying to decide who we were as a company and what kind of work we were interested in. How do you know what you want to do if you haven't done anything yet?! But it's been exciting to see five individual artists collaborating to become one cohesive artistic group.

Exit Carolyn was the company's inaugural production. Why did you choose this play?
We saw a reading of Jennie Eng's EXIT CAROLYN put on by the Slant Theatre Project. Besides being genuine and funny and ready for a production, Jennie's play also called to us because of its unique design challenges. The script calls for a full New York City apartment, an eccentrically dressed wacko and a beautiful moment when the whole stage fills with fireflies. So the opportunity to flesh out that world is what drew us to the play.

What was the most satisfying part of working on this production?
The most satisfying part was probably the first night of tech. Seeing all the different elements of the world come together for the first time was so exciting. The intersection of all the production elements is where the story lives and it's that collaborative intersection that we find most satisfying.

Your focus is on new works. Why develop new works?
Foremost we look for work that calls for a great degree of collaboration amongst all theatre artists (directors, writers, designers, actors) and that inherently begs working on new material. New York is a new play town and new work always has the potential to reverberate down the line. It's the possibility of being part of something bigger than ourselves, the possibility to develop the next generation of great plays in the American canon that excites us about new works.

What is next for Sans A Productions?
We have two projects in the works at the moment. Up next is a co-production with aMios Theatre Company on November 5th. We're bringing in design elements to their monthly short play series, Shotz!

Then in March of 2013, we're producing Mark Rigney's wonderful new play BEARS at 59E59. Come check it out!

Keep track of our upcoming projects via our website, facebook, or twitter!

Congratulations to the entire Sans A Productions team!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Homunculus Mask Theatre

Homunculus Mask Theatre is creating some of the most interesting and unique work in New York City.

Artistic Director, Joe Osheroff tells us about this cutting edge company that employs one of the earliest theatrical tools.

What are the origins of the Homunculus Mask Theater?

I'd been wanting to start a mask theater company for quite a long time here in NYC.  I've been making masks off and on for fifteen years and I had directed some mask shows in graduate school, but found it difficult to get it started again here in New York, where most of my focus was directed towards being an actor.

About four years ago, my friend Kevin Laibson, who was curating at the time for the Tank, asked me if I would like to create a mask show for a Halloween show at his venue. Apparently one of the acts had dropped out. This was exactly two weeks before the performance date. At first, I was pretty apprehensive, but then decided what the hell, why not? Somehow, I managed to wrangle a few actors together and we created about forty five minutes of material in ten days. The audience seemed to really love it, so we decided to keep it going. 

Somewhere down the line I cast Michael Raimondi in our adaptation of Karel Capek's RUR (the only traditionally scripted show we've done). He subsequently took the initiative to help legitimize the company, so to speak, and took on the role of Executive Director. He's pretty much the reason anything gets done, and definitely shares the same passion for this kind of work that I do.  

Why work with masks? and how do the masks enhance or change the work?

I've always been fascinated with masks, both from a theatrical and cultural/ritualistic standpoint. My parents used to work a lot in Africa, so we always had these crazy wooden African masks all over the house, which must have influenced me in some way as a kid.

I've studied a lot of different styles of mask work, but have always noticed that there isn't a whole lot going on to move the form forward theatrically. If you look around, you might find a lot of masks used in folk tale theater or in commedia troupes. I've never been interested in going down that road, although the work we do is certainly rooted in a lot of the older styles. What I'm attempting to do with Homunculus is make mask work more accessible to a modern day audience - make it a little more rock and roll, if you will. 

There is something incredibly simple and beautiful about watching mask theater.  It seems to often reach an emotional place for the audience that is unexpected. In terms of our productions, I don't think that the masks enhance the work. I think it's the opposite - the work enhances the masks. Or maybe it's a symbiosis between the two. If a mask is embodied fully by the actor, anything can happen.

The choreography and movement of the piece is very important. How did the movement enhance or support the production?

The choreography is a vital part of what we do. About eighty percent of what we do is set to music, so it's important that we allow the music and the movement to intertwine. On the other hand, what we are doing is not dance. We are telling stories with soundtracks. Sometimes the choreography is very exact, depending on the piece, and sometimes the actor has the leeway to use the music to inform his or her choices. 

I think the music enhances the production because it helps set the tone and inform the world we are creating. It's also essential to have certain moments in the show that don't have music - this juxtapostion adds depth to the overall tone of the show. 

What's essential to remember, though, is that nothing will work if the actors aren't being truthful with the masks. No amount of music or underscoring can cover up a "dead" mask. So, the piece should be able to stand on it's own without the music, although the music definitely gives it the boost it needs to be more visceral.

Homunculus: Reloaded was created by the group. What was that process like?

The process was fun but intense. A lot of times it felt like we were all jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.  There was definitely a freefall period between the first rehearsal to about two weeks before the show that was a little nerve wracking. I guess the same could be said about working on any show, but when you are up against the clock and trying to devise original material, you have to have a lot of blind faith that it will actually come together.

Our process included a lot of brainstorming and problem solving. Most of the time I would come into the rehearsals with an image in my head that I'd want to explore, or a piece of music that I'd found. Other times, it was a little more straightforward, where I'd have a definite story I'd want to tell. We'd do a bunch of improvisation based on these ideas. More often than not, something entirely new and much more interesting would emerge than what we originally set out to do, which is a testament to the amazing group of actors in the company. 

The concept of this show and a lot of our other work is to present a series of energetic, but non related scenes that segue seamlessly from one to the other.

After we found the overall arc of the scene, we'd then set about polishing it. With mask work the proof is in the details, so this would often take a lot of time. For example, we opened the show with a scene in a restaurant where everything goes woefully awry. The music was from the Barber of Seville - Evan Zes, the assistant director, and I were watching TV one night and heard that song on a car ad and immediately decided we needed to put together a restaurant scene set to that song. In our heads, it had all the elements of being something really cool - a bumbling waiter, an uptight maitre d, an abused customer, on and on. In reality, though,it was incredibly challenging.  Every second of that scene had to be airtight - in the end, the scene was about four and a half minutes long, but ended up using about twenty props and took thirty hours to rehearse. 

What is next for the Homunculus Mask Theater?

We are trying to regroup and gear up for a production in the next eight months. As you well know, it's crazy expensive to produce in this city, so we are going back to square one with our fundraising. In the meantime, we hope to keep busy by premiering new short work  around the city - we just did an few pieces at the Living Theater as part of Elephant Run Lab's evening of new work. We are currently collaborating with the Asian theater company Leviathan Lab to do a playwright/mask making program in the Chinatown school system. I'm also working with composer Bobby Cronin, Jack Feldman (Tony award lyricist of Newsies), and playwright Alan Mogul on a musical adaptation of the cult film Mary and Max, that will use masks to help tell the story. 

Contratulations to Homunculus Mask Theatre!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant

Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant
creates a unique theatrical experience for each audience member. 

We asked founding member Conni Hall about how this eccentric troupe developed this adventurous and entertaining theatrical experience.

What are the origins of Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant?

The group of actors who founded Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant came together in the summer of 2006, while in residence for a production of As You Like It at The Stonington Opera House in coastal Maine. Our physical emblem, the “Conni’s Restaurant” sign, came from an abandoned diner that was known for serving legendary French toast to the town’s fishermen. We fantasized about moving into the place, asking, “What would happen if a group of experimental theatre artists took over a roadside restaurant?” Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant — the running joke — was born. Once we got back to New York, we decided to try the idea as the concept for a show. Since then we have brought in a resident production manager, director, and designers.

Conni's is more than theatre and more than just a meal. How do you create this communal experience for your audience? 

Peter Lettre in Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant
In a way, the meal actually does the work of creating community for us. We seat people at banquet tables of 10 each and they share a meal, family style. This is a novelty for many people. The theatrical experience begins when the audience meets eccentric characters at the box office and in the bar, and they choose an identity for the evening with a “hello my name is” nametag. They agree to playful rules of etiquette that are sung to them by devotees of the legendary Conni Convergence. This warms up the party atmosphere and invites them into the room with individual attention. Only after this pre-show initiation into our strange world, do we reveal an elaborate pre-set dining room. We make it clear to the audience as soon as they walk in the door that we will take care of them as our welcome guests and that they need to respect our home. We make the food and the theater ourselves from scratch. A New York audience can smell authenticity and they appreciate it. I think they can feel that the show doesn’t exist without them. 

Some of the performance is improvised and dependent on audience reactions. Can you share a few of the more interesting audience interactions?
There are some I won’t share. “What happens in the restaurant stays in the restaurant.” But on more than one occasion I have had to physically put my hands on an audience member to keep them from charging the stage. During the Bus-That-Table game in the middle of the performance, we routinely have people taking off articles of clothing, leaping into the air and doing flips, and running around the room pursued by other audience members while holding a bus bin. They never cease to amaze me. More intimately, we have a section of banter in the middle of the show where audience members get to ask questions of one of our self-declared celebrity avant garde performers, and their participation re-shaped that section. Each of us has moments when the audience ‘stopped’ us. As Sue James, I had an audience member grab my arm in Cleveland to tell me all about the way that food is saving that city. Rachel Murdy, who plays Muffin, has gathered a wealth of advice for new mothers from her survey of mothers in the audience, who ask to feel her bump.  

Conni's is nominated for Outstanding Ensemble and many of the performers have commented about what a gratifying experience it is. Why do you think the project is so rewarding for the performers?
As a performer, I can only answer for myself.  It feels like this show was given to us, even though we made it. Partly it’s the authorship of it. We made it together, and we keep re-making it together. Partly it’s the audience. It is gratifying to make people feel good but to feel like we are still pushing the boundaries of our own creativity. In other words, I feel like we made something populist by working in a way that’s deeply personal and artistically demanding, as actors working through character.

What is Conni's working on now?
We are creating three new shows this year, with smaller groups of company members working with outside actors and collaborators. While continuing our ongoing fascination with food service, we are branching into new ways of exploiting theatricality–namely walking tours and social clubs. We recently premiered Little West 12th Night, a historical walking tour of the meatpacking district based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which ran as part of the undergroundzero festival throughout the month of July. We are hopeful that we will be able to re-mount that production in the near future. Four of the company members are currently in Cleveland devising a new piece with local actors called The Secret Social, which will run in December at Cleveland Public Theatre. Soon after we return to New York, we will create some new material for the Conni’s Restaurant characters at NACL’s Deep Space Residency.  This will be a more intimate setup, with some of the Restaurant characters taking on roles from classic texts. That piece will show on October 13 in Highland Lake, NY.

Congratulations to the Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant!

Friday, September 7, 2012


stretched the musical theatre art form in some exciting and modern ways this last season.

We caught up with creator and composer Kamala Sankaram to ask about this groundbreaking work.

Miranda is described as a "The Steampunk Murder Mystery Opera." What was the inspiration for this Musical?

I was really interested in writing a modern opera- something that would borrow from the classical form, but would resonate for a contemporary audience. I settled on using the frame of reality TV. In a reality TV show, we’re conditioned to accept these very stylized versions of people, complete with theme music. It seemed a natural extension to then have the stylization include singing. This frame also led to some of the major themes in the show, such as the idea that you can’t really judge a person by what you see of them (or by what music they happen to have attached to them.)

Miranda was really a multi-media project that mashes up various genres. What were the challenges of piecing together all of these elements.

I’m very interested in mash-ups, and have used this approach in some of my other works. In this case, the different genres were used to give a sense of character to the murder suspects. I was interested in seeing whether one genre would tend to sway the audience toward voting for a suspect more or less than the others… and it did! I think part of what helped the different elements hang together was to have a strong overarching aesthetic- that of steampunk. Steampunk is a branch of sci-fi that imagines what the modern world would look like if it relied on mechanical, rather than electrical, power. It uses Victorian England as a jumping off point. I first settled on steampunk because it allowed us to use a law that was in effect in Britain at the time- if you were wealthy, you could pay someone poor to stand trial for you (and sometimes even to serve your sentence. This is actually going on in China right now). But I’ve always had a fascination with old machines, gears, and corsets so it just made sense that the entire world of the show should use the steampunk aesthetic. We were also lucky to have a great design team involved (including Matt Tennie designing the video and Spike McCue performing the live video feeds), so we seemed to be pretty much on the same page.

What was the audience's reaction to the piece?

I was pretty amazed by the audience- we had people ranging in age from 8 years old to 73, from different ethnic backgrounds, theater people, opera people, people who had never been to a downtown show before… And they really seemed to get into it! Even the audience who started out not wanting to yell along with the Bailiff (Jerry Miller- who did a fabulous job getting the audience involved), by the end was fully invested in seeing their murder suspect get punished. I heard many people arguing about it afterward. I also got so many requests for cds that we decided to record a cast album, which is being mixed right now.

What was the most satisfying part of creating Miranda?

This was my first large-scale work, and, honestly, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to pull it off. So, it was thrilling to see it come to life in a way that I never could have imagined. It was also such a treat to be able to get to know all of the people who worked on the show and made it happen- it wouldn’t have been possible without them, and without the support of HERE, which gave me space to develop the show through their artist residency program.

Do you think musical theatre is still important and why?

I do think musical theatre is important for several reasons:
  1. Music is a universal, and so it can provide a way to connect with experiences that are unfamiliar to us. I think part of the success of shows like Next to Normal, is that music provides an entryway into something that is very foreign for most of us. You can do this in a play, but it takes more time. Make it a song, and people immediately understand it.
  2. This may be because music creates an immediate emotional response. You can use this to amplify the text of the song, to provide a layer of subtext, or to be completely ironic. Can you imagine the Book of Mormon without the music? Part of what makes it funny is how the text plays against the familiar musical theatre tropes.

What is next for the artists involved with this project?

We have another big show in the works, but are holding off for a bit to let everyone spend some time on their individual projects before we jump back in. 

Rob and I received a commission from Opera on Tap to write an immersive parlor mystery, so we’re working on that right now. I’m also working on a new show (Thumbprint) with playwright Susan Yankowitz based on the life of Mukhtar Mai, which will be produced by Beth Morrison Projects. Rob, Matt Schloss (sound design), and Eric Brenner (the voice of DAVE) have been finishing their own musical- Yahweh’s Follies. Lauren Yalango and Christopher Grant (choreography) are on tour with Pilobolus. Most of the cast members are composers in their own right, so they’re all writing music and performing... It’s an amazing group of people!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Project Y Theatre Company

Project Y Theatre Company is a transplant from Washington, DC. Since 2009 they have been producing new works here in the Big Apple.

We asked Artistic Director Michole Biancosino to tell us about their process of developing new works.

What are the origins of Project Y Theatre Company?
Project Y started as the dream of two recent college graduates, me and my co-Artistic Director, Andrew W. Smith, who moved to Washington, DC and saved up money to rent a small space in Adams Morgan and put up two plays over the course of a year.  After that immediate critical and personal success we agreed to a project-based company - we were choosing plays that were new or unseen and that spoke to our younger generation - and set a life limit of 5 years on the company to avoid any pressure to "get big" or plan seasons.  After those 5 amazing years were up, we parted ways and went to grad schools, got married, moved abroad, lived life. Then in 2007 we were both pulled back to Project Y, to the passion we had for producing new work together, this time in NYC.  We started up again in our new home, first with a reading and then with the world premiere of Karl Gadjusek's FUBAR. We have been doing exciting work with Project Y ever since - we have a new team of awesome producing partners who go above and beyond to support the work - and we're still staying true to our project-based philosophy of focusing on the development of new work and artists.

LoveSick is a collection of humorous love-gone-awry stories incorporating music. What was the inspiration for LoveSick?
LoveSick in its current form was really a three-separate-parts inspiration.  Lia Romeo, the playwright, was inspired by her fascination with romantic comedies, and she wrote all these stories about screwed up love happening to screwed up people - she focused on the funny fact that most people search and hope to find love.  Tony Biancosino, the songwriter, was inspired by breakups, relationships, and all the misery that comes along with being in love when a relationship is either doomed or done - and he found a sick humor in the heartache.  The combination of those two parts - plays and songs - was just a crazy idea I had to make a musical all about screwed up love - to stage it as an event and let theme be the force behind the musical.  I had directed a reading of Lia's plays and I had been listening to my brother's songs on my computer and they just started to fuse in my mind as a perfect combination, so we put it together in a workshop production in 2010 to see if there was something to this. That was the birth of the current musical, LoveSick or THINGS THAT DON'T HAPPEN.

What was the most satisfying part of working on this production?
The choice to use actor/musicians was the best decision we made, because not only did it get the actors intimately involved with every aspect of the production (if they weren't acting, they were playing guitar, or dancing in a spotlight, or singing or shaking a tambourine), but it got them to fully support each other both on and off stage.  Watching the audience scream with laughter after our boy band-type number, then seeing one of the lead singers hop on stage, take off his tuxedo jacket, and play a full drumset, illustrates how dedicated and ego-less our cast was.  It was a unified effort and the audience could sense how all the actors were in sync with each other.   

Do you think musical theatre is still important and why?
I actually think musical theatre has the potential to be the most important theatre because it is seen by so many people. Audiences pour into town everyday and want to see the latest musicals, and later the biggest hits will be performed and seen at high schools, colleges, and small theatres across the country.  So musicals reach people. LoveSick is not your grandmom's musical - in style, tone, and structure it breaks all the rules - yet we still wanted people to leave the theatre humming the songs.

Your process for developing new work includes; readings, online video projects, workshop productions and full productions. How do each of those elements help the production progress?
We have developed this amazing three-tiered approach to working with new playwrights on new work.  Our online projects have introduced us to so many writers and actors, who become life long collaborators. The yearly themed reading series are the backbone of our company - LoveSick started in our reading series, last June we did a Workshop Production of Sean Christopher Lewis' "Goodness" at Under St. Marks that started in our reading series, and our next full production also came from this year's "Holy Cow!" series: plays about religion, faith, and Life after death.  Workshop productions have allowed us to develop a new work with the playwright and then put it up before audience without the stress of money or reviewers. We mount a full production every 12-18 months because we normally work with the writer for at least 18 months to develop the piece and because we wrangle every ounce of man-power and fundraising available to have high production values and amazing casting. By the time we open a production, every producing and creative team member is fully immersed in the play.  Its actually a pretty unique way to run a company - focus on the development process and get everyone involved in and excited about the play from the first reading, through a development process, then a workshop production, and culminating in a fully realized show.  

What is next for Project Y Theatre?
We are thrilled to announce we will be producing the world premiere of "User's Guide to Hell, featuring Bernard Madoff," by Tony- and Pulitzer nominee, Lee Blessing.  Lee is a huge supporter of Project Y - he has been one of our Champions (our version of an Advisory Board) for years and comes to everything we do.  We were excited to have his play as part of this year's reading series; it was a huge hit. This play is so smart but also laugh-out-loud funny.  The reading went so well, we all kind of thought, "Let's do this again!"  We are once again on the furious search for the "right" space, which is always a huge hurdle for us, since we pick each theatre for the needs of the play itself.  We're putting those pieces together right now.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Kim Katzberg

Kim Katzberg's Penetrating the Space garnered critical acclaim and two nominations this season.

It has been a busy year for the multi-talented performer. We asked Kim to tell us a little more about her provocative work.

What was the inspiration for Penetrating the Space?

For years I felt this burning in my gut that I wanted to create an original piece of theater that was entirely from my voice. I felt limited in many of the roles I played in traditional theater and felt that there were characters inside of me that wished to be expressed that lived beyond the boundaries of most plays. The characters in PTS came from my bowels. After I earned my MFA in acting I finally had the confidence to try and write a show from these characters' points of view.

What has the audiences’ reaction been to the piece. 

People either really like it or they don't get it. Even though it is exploring a woman's experience in relation to dominating men, guys seem to really relate to the vulnerability in the show. Audiences find it disturbing and funny at the same time. People have told me that sometimes they feel worried to laugh because they aren't sure if they should. I love that reaction!

Tell us a little about your 'one-woman show kit' and maybe some of the best reactions to it.

When I would cart all of my props, costumes, set pieces and the huge purple horse around the city in a grocery cart to go to a rehearsal studio-people mostly said, "nice donkey!"

Maia Cruz Palileo is also nominated for the Innovative Design award. What were her contributions to the work and what was it like working with her?

Maia is a visual artist and had never worked on a piece of theater before. She is my wife and we both adore eachother's work so we felt inspired to collaborate. Maia created stop motion animations that expressed the characters' inner monologues or moved the story along. She also designed and built the purple horse. Working with her was a dream. She's incredibly hard working and intense. I can't wait to work with her again.

Penetrating the Space was produced on a double bill with Tom X. Chao’s nominated production Callous Cad. How did these two shows work together as an evening and what were the benefits and challenges of having two separate productions on the same bill?
One of the challenges of doing a solo show is that it gets lonely. Working with Tom gave me a lot of support because we were in this thing together and we weren't competing in any way. Also, Tom is an experienced producer and I was not. This was my very first solo show. He acted as a mentor to me which was invaluable. It was also financially helpful because we split many of the costs. The challenge was to get reviewers to see both shows.

What’s next for you?

I have a new solo show, Darkling, in development. It's partly autobiographical in that the protagonist is based on me at 13 when my older sister ran away from her lock-up boarding school. I recently performed a short excerpt from the piece in CATCH 52.

Congratulations to everyone involved with Penetrating the Space!