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The Lions of 21st Century Live Art

 

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Jay Michaels,
the host of Terror Talk on Terror TV
conducted the interview

 

Naya James, Lucia (“Lu”) Bellini, and Trenton Clark are the pride of lions that make up THREE-HEADED LION PRODUCTIONS. Amassing decades of experience between them, Bellini, James, and Clark (sounds like a law firm, no?) have appeared, directed, produced, and studied with some of the leading names in independent art: Wednesday Repertory Company (where Trent is a resident director), Anjali Productions, an independent film production company (Naya is an owner), Theater 54, The Paradise Factory, The Algonquin, Richmond Shepard Theater, NY Madness, Planet Connection Festivities (where Lu is an award-winner), HERE Arts Center, Abrons Arts Center, Hudson Warehouse, Papermill Theater, New World Stages Hollywood, and La Mama Experimental Theatre.

Makes sense that they would join forces to create their own theatrical hub.

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The team opens their first production at another laudable festival: Theatre for the New City’s Dream-Up Festival.

IMG_4142Combining all their talents and tastes, Abdication! Is a blend of Retro TV, cutting edge “downtown” art, timely topics, brilliant writing, directing, and acting, and some gallows humor thrown-in. Abdication! is three fantasy based tales on what happens when we [willingly] give up our identity. Imagine Orwell’s 1984 spiced with Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror.

I took the reins of interviewing the Lions due to my devotion to all things macabre.  

OK, let’s start with intros… tell us about yourselves as artists.

NAYA JAMES: First and foremost, I regard myself as a storyteller. There are many different ways to tell a story of course—my main mediums are writing and acting, others do it through technical design or directing, etc. But I feel that any valuable narrative art has to service the story above all. Because it is the story that brings people together, lets them experience something as one and create a shared energy space. To me, that is what we in film and theater should always be striving for and what I aim to do as an artist.

LU BELLINI: I started out as a ballet dancer when I was about 3 years old and I remember being so fascinated from that very young age by my teachers and choreographers creating and guiding us all. I would be so proud of being part of the group of people coming into the theatre from the backstage door. It’s like all of a sudden, I knew something mysterious and magical that nobody else could know about. I would ask my mother: “can I please pretty please put up my own dancing recital?” Of course not. I was 6. Maybe 7. Still no. Shortly after I got bit by the acting bug, and it still itches today. But that was not quite enough to fill that “let’s-come up with new ideas make a show tell some jokes and use music to recreate a feeling a situation a though” hole in my heart. It started to fill up when by accident I ended up co-directing for Bad Babies Films. I did research and read books and studied and practiced and I am of course still doing that today. So I would say that myself as an artist is that part of me that searches and listens out for new pieces of information every chance I get to add to my little baggage of knowledge, to then put to practice and experiment, make it my own when I can. Practice, practice, practice. I am not the kind of artist that think I was simply born with a miraculous talent and that I should just go out and spread my amazing gift into the world (you would be surprised by how much I hear stuff like that or along those lines). And plus, why not? I love reading and talking about theatre, and film, and directing techniques, and acting techniques, I find it truly interesting. And if I have to be responsible for a group of 15, 20, or however many people, I owe it to them to be as prepared as I can be. Same goes if I am acting in something, you’re not alone and what you do and what you bring to the table touches so many other people that might not even be in the room in that moment. 

TRENTON CLARK: I started doing theatre when I was in high school. A friend of mine had seen the audition posting for the upcoming spring musical–that year wasAnything Goes–and maybe she thought I would be really good, or perhaps she just wanted to get me to stop humming and singing my way around campus. Either way she marched with me over to the call board and practically put my name down for me. And that was that. I was cast as ensemble and got my first real dose of theatre. Despite spending much of my time in the Musical Theatre world, I really found my passion for the arts in the acting studio. I loved studying the text. I quickly adopted my mother’s father’s appreciation for Shakespeare; I’ve even carted his aging, hardback copies of the Bard’s works across the country with me–three times. I moved to New York to study the craft at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.  I graduated. I worked professionally in regional theaters and tap danced (something I had never done before going to school in NY) my way across Asia in a production of 42nd Street. I was told I should try TV, so I moved to Los Angeles. It was during my time on the west coast that I really began exploring and pushing the limits of my creativty; I did a movie musical, I worked on a green screen project. I’ve grown to love those elements of storytelling that really push the imagination.

What’s your creative process and how do you make the fantasy elements real?

NAYA JAMES: My creative process as a writer is to just try to participate in life as much as possible. To notice the things happening around me. People and the environment are connected in many significant ways that you might miss if you’re not paying attention—so I just try to pay attention, to observe people and situations. From doing this, stories and ideas tend to arise organically. In everything I create, I try to ground it in the reality of the human experience as much as possible. Regarding fantasy, it doesn’t matter if you’re a character in middle earth in the beginning of days, or a character living on Mars hundreds of years from now—your fundamental human emotions and need for love, community, connection and security will always be the same. So as long as characters feel and exhibit truthful behavior, it doesn’t matter how fantastical the imaginary setting is.  

LU BELLINI: Any fantasy element can easily become real if you treat it as such. If you think about it, any reality can be a fantasy for someone else and vice versa. I find it a matter of being able and willing to put yourself in the required proverbial shoes. It can’t harm if you’re stuck with the imagination and curiosity of a small child. First step of the process: having a good relationship with the script (and the playwright). I must love it and believe in it and it has to make sense for me, for my sensibility, humor, etc. I am not fit to direct or act in anything under the sun. With time I found that some things are better fit than others (like most people I am sure). As a director I usually then start to compile visual and musical references for myself and for the rest of team I am working with so we can all start “seeing” the show slowly emerging from the fog. I keep an open mind and more often than not things change quite a bit from those first concepts. Better ideas and/or more effective ways of telling the story might come from anywhere at any time. Not to mention the world of logistics and staying on time/budget which will try your imagination and general process really good. Reason why I find it crucial to have a team you trust and that you feel comfortable with around you. It is sometimes in time of trouble that true imagination and collaboration happen and shine. 

TRENTON CLARK: I always start with the text. I’ve learned over the years that you can study and study and study a script, and there are always more surprises. It’s amazing what information can be pulled from the writer’s chosen words. After learning the script inside and out, the next thing has always been to play; make that weird choic–in the moment. It may not be the best choice but it’ll teach you something, about the material, or about yourself, often both. Fantasy comes alive when you’re uninhibited and unfiltered. The courage to take that risk and do the uncomfortable often results in the most amazing discoveries. In that state of constant discovery, the fantasy is kept alive for me.

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From left to right Naya James (playwright/producer/actor), Lucia Bellini (director/producer), Trenton Clark (producer/actor)

How do you inject humor without losing the message?

LU BELLINI: I don’t think comedy and humor would cause any message to be lost. If anything, I believe it might help getting people to listen or to even get the message across without even realizing there a was a message in the first place. 

NAYA JAMES: A lot of times humor is the message. For example, “laughter through tears” can be seen as the quintessential human behavior—we are complex emotional individuals, and our ability to find humor and nuance in grim or challenging situations has historically been one of our best coping mechanisms. 

TRENTON CLARK: Well, never try to be funny. Again, going to the script will almost always show you where the humor lies. And humor is complicated; it isn’t just slapstick, it isn’t just punchlines, it’s ironies and tragedies and so much more. Then there’s the humor that comes with discomfort. I stick with the message and commit to my choices and the humor flows from things naturally.

I’ve always felt that anything fantasy, sci-fi and horror are cautionary tales. What’s your opinion?

LU BELLINI: I agree. Even if they don’t intent to be. They tap into those big “as ifs” and “what if that happened IRL” and “what would I do if” and they get the conversation going and your wheels turning. “what if” can be a very powerful question. 

NAYA JAMES: I believe it depends on what exactly you’re attempting to caution people against. Pieces in the fantasy, sci-fi or horror genres can absolutely serve as warnings to people of potential or future danger. But in other stories, a more utopian or aspirational alternative can be presented. In these instances, they can have the opposite effect, encouraging people not to proceed with caution but rather to barrel full steam ahead. And sometimes there’s a special hybrid, cautionary tale and heartwarming Utopia story all at once—which is why a movie like Avatar was so popular! 

TRENTON CLARK: So much of human storytelling is cautionary. Warnings of creatures to be feared, stalking in the dark have always been whispered across the campfire. Zombies, one of my favorite creature-villains, are arguably the most utilized characterizations of our fear throughout modernity. Representative of illness, disease, contagion, and death, Zombies teach us to be cautious of infections and new “miracle cures”, the depths of the jungle and crowded public places, and perhaps most of all ourselves and the horrors we are capable of. StarTrek teaches us that no matter how advanced our society may become, we are still human and prone to err. 

What next?

NAYA JAMES: To continue working with my fabulous collaborators. To develop this show to its ultimate creative vision, and hopefully find it a more permanent home. After that, more plays, films, and multimedia. As my production partner says, I am a “bottomless pit of ideas.” So just getting those ideas to fruition in attempt to connect relevant stories to as many people as we can. 

Abdication! explodes with live action and video sequences (From left to right: Trenton Clark as Rick Rarey, Mike Ivers as Joe and Naya James as Mara in the video segment for the episode Love Lobotomy)

LU BELLINI: I am looking forward to seeing Abdication! finally on stage and how to improve it from there. I also can’t wait to start working on Naya’s new full-length play, and who knows… maybe jump on stage, myself, for a bit?  

TRENTON CLARK: I write, I direct, I act. Abdication! will continue to see development and I see a lot more beyond that on the horizon. 

 

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