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Robert Viagas goes BACK

Back by Matt Webster

Reviewed by Robert Viagas

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If you could go back in time with just ten precious seconds to fix the biggest mistake of your life, would you be able to do it? Would you still do it if it meant you would forever lose everything that happened since then in your current life?

These are the two burning questions facing Leah and Derek, the would-be couple at the heart of Back, Matt Webster’s fascinating science-fiction conundrum of a drama, presented as part of producer Ken Davenport’s RAVE Theatre Festival.

BACK 1The sci-fi at element never overwhelms the emotional core of the story. Playwright Webster co-stars with Terra Mackintosh as a pair of lifelong friends and occasional lovers who do emotional dances around each other. The attraction is plain, but somehow even the warmest moments somehow turn into arguments. Despite how articulate both of them are, they are failing to deal with the central issue of their relationship.

Most of their arguments involve their failed dreams. Leah wanted to be a doctor, but a she was at the wheel in a car accident that killed a friend, and now her life seems to be a downward spiral. Derek dreams of success as an actor in New York, but apart from a fondly-remembered underwear commercial, his career is a bit of a bust. He longs for Leah to join him in the city; she longs for him to return home. Something always gets in the way of a stronger connection between them, and her solution is to use the “Back” option, leap back a decade and start over. To Derek, however, Backing is tantamount to suicide, since you disappear from this thread in the multiverse forever.

Derek finally realizes that he is not living in Leah’s original life, but in one of her failed Backs, and can think of only one way that he might undo all their mistakes, false starts and dead ends. But he knows the plunge will have its cost.

Beautifully written and acted, with genuine mystery and adult romance at its heart, Back plays like an especially intelligent episode of Black Mirror, though with a minimalist charm of its own.

The production features lighting design by Greg Solomon, which simply and effectively conveys the sense of going Back on the intriguing rectangular set designed by Tim McMath.

Directed by David Perlow, Back is playing a limited run through August 23 at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center, 107 Suffolk St. in Manhattan.

Robert Viagas picks DANDELION

Dandelion: An Original Musical

Music and lyrics by Colleen Francis, book by Jessica Francis Fichter and Sean Riehm, additional music and lyrics by Bill Zeffiro

Reviewed by Robert Viagas

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To go to college or not to go to college? That is the question confronting the title character of the new musical Dandelion, which was presented in a one-night-only 75-minute concert version at Feinstein’s/54 Below in Manhattan. It’s a question confronting many young people, but for Jane (Hailee Beltzhoover), the stakes are considerably higher.

Jane’s mom (Colleen Francis, also the show’s composer-lyricist) has multiple unhealthy issues. She is mentally ill and alcoholic, and she has a contentious relationship with her ex, Jane’s dad. The mom is needy and dependent and, while there is a part of her that understands it is Jane’s time to head off to college and start her own life, she also oppresses Jane with guilt to remain her perpetual caretaker. Jane is torn.

As presented in its truncated form at 54 Below, this lite foray into Next to Normal territory displays a great deal of promise but still needs sharpening, focus and, above all, its own distinctive voice.

In addition to a performance that paints heartbreakingly vivid picture of the mom’s struggles, Francis has composed a musically diverse score that shows her skill at soul, folk, gospel, and above all, country. The choice of style often seems arbitrary, however. A lot of the songs play like pop rather than theatre songs: the character is at the same place at the end of the song as at the beginning.

The best songs reflect the various conflicts of the story. “Get Your Shit Together” is a snarling fight song between the mother and her ex (Adam James King). Jane and her BFF Gabbie (the funny and endearing Lillie Ricciardi) contemplate the non-academic joys of college life in “North.” “Stay” is the mother’s cri de coeur.

To dramatize the conflict within the mom’s head, Dandelion uses an Inside Out-style quartet to voice her Depression (Allison Sike), Control (Miranda Lane), Rage (Brianne Wylie) and Paranoia (Adam James King). At least that’s what it says in the program. They are not as well defined in actual performance, and seem just like a regular chorus. Much more can be done here to make the show interesting and special.

Because Jessica Francis Fichter and Sean Riehm’s libretto was presented in highly condensed form in the showcase, we also didn’t get to see the character development of the brother, Jordan (Brenden McDonald), who is introduced as not caring about his mother with a funny country song (“Sucks to Suck”) but makes an abrupt transition in Act II. Also, as presented, the story starts promisingly, then goes around in circles for a while as Jane decides to go to college, then decides to stay home with her mother, then college again, then mother again, etc. However the issue is settled in a very satisfying way that was skillfully set up in the first moment of the show.

There is a lot here. The writers should keep striving to find that voice and make it sing out.

Directed by librettist Jessica Francis Fichter, with music direction by Neveda Lozano, Dandelion: An Original Musical played a single performance at 54 Below in Manhattan on August 14, 2019.

THIS Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is far darker

This Will Rogers doesn’t do rope tricks!

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William Roger’s play, “Dangerous to Dance With,” directed by Gerald vanHeerden, is a featured event of DREAM UP FESTIVAL 2019, presented by Theater For The New City, Crystal Field, Artistic Director. Performing at the theater’s Johnson Space at 155 First Avenue (between 9th and 10th Streets), NYC, for five showings: 8/30 Friday, 9pm; 09/01 Saturday, 8pm; 09/02 Sunday, 6:30pm; 09/04 Wednesday, 9pm; and 09/05 Thursday, 6:30pm is a dark comedy in the tradition of Pretty Little Lies begs the question, What’s funnier than a play about SEX, GREED, AND SELF-DECEPTION?

In Rogers’ tome we meet a paranoid playwright, a broken acrobat, a porn star, a neurotic farmer, and a plumber (who may be a hitman). The play premiered as part of the 2014 Kansas City Fringe Festival at the Off Center Theater in Kansas City’s Crown Center. This is its New York premiere. Learn more at https://rogersbill.com/plays/dangerous-to-dance-with

Bill Rogers is a writer and educator who has won several awards as a playwright and for teaching history and English in colleges in the United States and Australia. He has written four full-length plays, the book and lyrics for a full-length musical, two sixty-minute plays, and four ten-minute plays and is currently writing his first novel.
“I’ve written a couple of dark comedies. I enjoy this genre because it offers the opportunity to explore the sinister side of the human experience without becoming overly depressed,” he said, “as Randle P. McMurphy says in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “You gotta laugh…especially when things aren’t funny.”

What is your creative process and where do you get your ideas?

Inspiration comes from diverse sources: snippets of conversations overheard in coffee shops; a news report or a piece of music. I usually have only a general idea of the subject and setting of a play when I begin writing. Distinct characters emerge fairly quickly with their own unique physical attributes, accents, histories, and personalities. As the characters develop, their interactions direct plots and define the ideas and issues the plays explore.  So, I suppose it’s fair to say that character development inspires my story telling more than anything else. Unfortunately, once they start talking, it’s hard to get them to shut up. They often blurt out their best lines at three in the morning. They have no respect for a playwright’s need for sleep.

What do you hope the audience takes away from this piece?

Dangerous to Dance With is a brutally honest examination of colorful people undergoing identity crises. I tried to give my characters very human strengths, vulnerabilities, and contradictions as they endeavor to move on with their lives. If the play entertains, amuses, and causes audience members to reflect upon the choices they’re making in own lives, I will have accomplished my goals.

What’s next?

I hope to publish my first novel before the end of this year.

What do you think of the NY Festival Circuit?

It’s always a great thrill to do theater in New York City. If you count a staged reading of my play, Caldwell’s Bomb, at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, this is the third time I’ve had a play appear in a New York Festival. A fully staged production of Caldwell’s Bomb was nominated in the “Best Play” category at the Venus/Adonis Festival in 2016. This production also garnered a Best Director nomination for Gerald vanHeerden and two Best Actor nominations. On the whole, I’ve had very positive experiences with the festivals. They’ve given me the chance to develop relationships with talented actors and creative associates like our director, Gerald vanHeerden and stage manager, Roumel Reaux. 

What was the inspiration for this project?

In his poem, London, William Blake refers to “mind forg’d manacles” that impose restraints upon the human spirit. Dangerous to Dance With offered me the chance to explore these self-imposed manacles by examining an array of concerns that inhibit its characters from living fully authentic lives. The play also allows me to suggest strategies for escaping these restraints. 

He concluded the interview with the hope that as many people as possible see this work. Sounds good.

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The Professor and the Theatre Festival

The theatre festival – once a rare event – is now a staple of New York arts & culture – not to mention tourism. These festivals open the door for playwrights to get their work seen. It becomes a de-facto battleground for visibility and continuity. Some can’t stand the heat and vanish after a play (or two) and then…

But then there are others that weather the storm to go to become a respected member of the indie arts community. One such member is Matthew Ethan Davis.

Facetune_06-04-2019-18-56-20 (1).jpegA distinguished college professor, Matthew Ethan Davis earned his stripes is a familiar name in the New York Theater Festival circuit. His name was celebrated at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the International Solo Festival (and was published in an anthology of plays from that festival), the New York International Fringe Festival, the Emerging Artists Theatre Company, Gorilla Theatre Group, the 14 One-Act program at Oasis Theatre Group, the Queerly Festival as part of the Frigid Fest.

And he’s still going strong.

His currently play is part of the Hudson Guild Theatre’s ongoing festival (Summer and WinterFest).

We wanted to take a moment to chat with Prof. Davis about life in New York Indie Theater.

Tell us about the show and about you – the playwright.

I have been writing plays since I was 8 when one Jewish Christmas morning, I found a typewriter under the tree for me. I never took it seriously until the The North Hollywood Theatre asked me to become a member (I was shocked) and then produced one of my plays (I was shocked).

It was pointed out to me that if I was going to be a playwright I should move back to NYC. I had been thinking about this anyway, because someone I loved very deeply was dying of AIDS. It turned out to be over my head because my mother died of lung cancer at the same time.

However, I kept writing and getting little productions of my plays until my boyfriend, now husband, insisted I go to college and I went to NYU where I got my BFA & MFA in Dramatic Writing and then a MA in Deaf Education.

I was the Writer in Residence for two theatre companies and found that I needed to be on my own. I kept writing and having little productions. My most current production was “Sleep At Your Own Risk,” a one-man comedy staring Rick Sky. We got a sweet review and paid. We’re going to keep building on the play, along with William Roudebusch, the dramaturge, and try to take it as far as we can.

As far as “Faster Than Shadows” goes, I’ve never seen it on it’s feet and in front of an audience. I love the characters and really feel for them. My director Ivette Dumeng, and the actor Bryan Hamilton have both been with me on this play for two years and deserve some kind of award. The rest of my cast Meghan E. Jones and Alfredo Diaz are both also wildly talented.

 

Your plays have a variety of topics and characters. Where do you get your ideas?

I get my ideas from my imagination which, as for everyone, is infinite. I always use aspects of myself in all my characters. I try to find what’s deepest and most private and share that, and that usually turns out to receive universal positive response.

 

What’s it like being a self-producing artist?

A nightmare. However, I have always been extremely lucky that really talented, incredible people surround me to help out with everything.

 

Does the festival circuit help or hinder?

The festival circuit is like a miracle because it allows me to see my plays on their feet. I’ve been in many festivals and they’ve always helped me tremendously get to the next draft. For me, playwriting is all re-writing and cutting. I love both so much. Sometimes directors forbid me to keep rewriting.

 

Where do you hope this play goes?  What’s next? 

I have no idea where the play goes next. Next is trying to get all my plays to the next level, and continue studying screenwriting at the Jacob Krueger Studio, writeyourownscreenplay.com, which I consider my Artistic home.

Faster-Than-Shadows-

New York Theatre Festival

Starring Meghan E. Jones, Alfredo Diaz, and Bryan James Hamilton

Dates:

August 27th 9:00 PM

August 28th 6:15 PM

August 31st 4:00 PM

Hudson Guild as part of New York Theatre SummerFest

441 West 26th between 9th/10th  Avenue

https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4242357

 

Robert Viagas is in 2071

2071 by Duncan MacMillan and Chris Rapley

Reviewed by Robert Viagas

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There’s a lot of talk about the upcoming 2020 presidential elections, and sometimes those in 2024 as well.

But America as a culture—once upon a time enthusiastic about the future—now rarely collectively thinks about or plans for what our world will or should or could be like in the late 2020s, let alone the 2030s or 2040s, where many of us, our children and our grandchildren will be living. Perhaps it has become too scary to contemplate.

It takes an author from Great Britain, Chris Rapley, to jolt us into thinking hard about that future in his theatrical monologue 2071. And it is indeed scary. Human activity, especially the burning of coal, oil and other carbon-based fuels, is driving up the temperature of the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere in ways that are already being felt, and which, if not checked, will create flooding and violent weather in the decades and centuries to come. Rapley, as impersonated Off-Off-Broadway by actor Robert Meksin, asks us to contemplate that future anyway, so that perhaps, if we wake up and act wisely, it won’t be quite so scary in the end.

Presented successfully in London in 2014, and now hosted in it U.S. premiere by the environmentalist theatre group Ripple Effect Artists, the 90-minute solo show tells a compelling story, though it is weighted down with statistics. The word “percent” makes up a way-too-hefty “percentage” of the script. Rather than focus on the real-life impact of these changes—that global warming will raise sea level to the point that the 29thStreet location of the theatre could soon become waterfront property, or that our most productive farmlands could turn into desert, or that summertime temperatures in New York could regularly bake in the 110s—the script harps on the fact that average global temperatures could rise one to three degrees—which makes it sound to the layman’s ear like no big problem (though it certainly is).

Not helping is Meksin’s schoolmarm-ish delivery that robs this drama of its drama. The bottom line is that humanity is indeed very quickly running out of time to return the planet to normal weather patterns, and that radical changes in the way we generate energy and grow our food will be required—immediately—if we want to bequeath a better world to the people of 2071 and beyond. That’s the story 2071 wanted to tell in a theatrical way, but lost in its dry, symposium-like format.

Directed by Carin Zakes, 2071 is playing a limited run through August 11 at the Episcopal Actors Guild at 1 East 29thStreet in Manhattan.

William Hand and HUNGER

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When a manic episode prompts a struggling artist to create a YouTube Live persona and disappear into Times Square for four days, he emerges with a primer on how to survive Late Capitalism.

That is HUNGER presented by The How at IRT Theater, running through August 19. With showings on August 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18 at 8:00 pm (75 Minutes. Tickets: $15 General and $25 Patron). IRT: 154 Christopher st. NYC #3B (third floor).

This fascinating exploration is brought to you by William Hand (author/performer),
Polina Ionina (performer), and Paulina Jurzec (designer/videographer).

Tickets available at https://hunger.brownpapertickets.com/

Hunger specifies theater-making as an act of labor, and examines the collective reimagining of labor in our digital fame economy.

William Hand says “I am exploring the work of Knut Hamsun, whose extraordinary novel, Hunger, shares my assumption that artistic endeavor is a means of survival. Hamsun and I believe that art making is a high wire act. My production of Hunger is a schizoanalysis of Hamsun after Deleuze and Guattari. I got hungry to superimpose that analysis onto the contemporary mode of celebrity guru status, i.e. for everything that is a job, there is someone on the internet who plays at that job as a performance for extra cash.”

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The How joined forces for this residency with Dirt[Contained]. We took a moment to speak with Mr. Hand about HUNGER. 

William Hand: Polina and I run this little org, The How. We work with a lot of different artists from around the world, in different disciplines, and it informs a lot of what we make and how we make it. What We Do and Hunger are very different pieces, but we collaborated with each other on them both. Polina performs in mine, and I in hers. We’ve trained together with our friends and colleagues for three years in our junky little rehearsal space in Brooklyn, and even though Hunger is a text-based multimedia piece, and What We Do is a wordless dance theater piece, they share influences, collaborators, and themes. Both pieces are definitely about alienation, both pieces are definitely about trying to find meaning in a very lonely world, and both pieces place the human body as the center and starting point of this search.
When asked about his creative process, Mr. Hand shared a story that began in Munich and included so deep personal details
William Hand: I was in Munich at a theater festival and seeing how freely the German theater talked about labor in their work. I started attempting to make a play about the labor of being an artist in the 21st century- the eerie pull of the digital fame economy, the vertigo-inducing loneliness of social media, and the ongoing alienation of American culture from honest creative theater. 
A year prior to this, the first friend I had made in New York City committed suicide. He suffered from treatment resistant mania, and throwing himself into the theater with a wild abandon gave him the strength to weather his mental state. He was one of only a handful of people I have ever met to have the true artist’s spirit. The more I continued to write a piece about YouTube and celebrity gurus, the more obvious it was to me that the reason I was writing this piece was that it seemed as though my friend’s genius was wholly incompatible with this current modern dystopia.
Discontent to write solely from a place of rage,  I dove into Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger, about a writer who’s subconscious mysteriously wills him not to eat. His inability to eat cuts him off from writing, which cuts him off from money, which further inhibits his ability to eat. Eventually he becomes completely incompatible with society, but this mysterious subconscious drive also seems to be a source of power for him as well. He sees through illusions of society with greater clarity, and while his writing doesn’t get any more marketable, or even any better necessarily, it starts to provide him a kind of almost religious joy. I realized that the romantic aspect of this book comforted me greatly. It seemed to portray a radical psychology that didn’t exist in our world until the author willed it to exist, and I recognized it as having a resemblance to the type of revolutionary psychology that might have kept my friend alive. So our piece Hunger is a kind of contemporary adaptation of this novel written as a vision of hope. 
To create the world of this piece, Polina and I have developed a half ingenius half insane multimedia apparatus to convey the digital perspective of the characters. One character seems to live entirely in a VR simulation of his own life, which he watches on repeat. Another stares into a smart phone’s reflection of himself as he records a philsophical podcast which slowly deteriorates into a painful personal trauma. A third interacts only with her viewers, who send her gifts but only on the condition that they get to watch her unwrap them. Three smartphones broadcast these three worlds live on stage. 
The How delves where few companies go. 
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William Hand: Created by William Hand and Polina Ionina, The How aims to be a place for artists of different disciplines and backgrounds to come together to create pioneering pieces of theater. 
December 2016: The Vyuga Project was an ongoing series of ‘studies’ of Sarah Kane’s Crave directed by Polina Ionina with dramaturgy by William Hand. We premiered the piece at Dixon Place featuring the musical direction and composition of Laura Bowler. Bowler’s enigmatic and challenging score, featuring two violinists, highlighted the texts remixed from Wim Wenders, T.S. Elliot, Knut Hamsun, and others. By creating an associative landscape around Kane’s piece, and by diving into her original source material (Elliot), Ionina and Hand created a context for the ensemble to reignite the flame of Kane’s work.

Ionina used a blend of somatic practices and musical experimentation to unite the artists across disciplines and create a language of improvisation and formal experimentation.

June, 2017: In a brownstone/artist collective/gallery space in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Polina Ionina, Akmal Rakhimov and Lucie Vitkova played in Jon Fosse’s I Am the Wind.  directed by Will Hand. Coming off the success of Vyuga Project, the collective wanted to explore the ways in which musicians and actors can deepen their collaborative relationships in the rehearsal process to find new ways of telling stories. Vitkova, a composer and accordionist, created a soundscape that served to translate Fosse’s imagistic poetry into a more immediate, visceral, and inherently dramatic allegorical space. 

Throughout 2017 The How created an experimental music and dance series that premiered new cutting edge pieces throughout Brooklyn. Premiering monthly, the How showcased over 50 different artists on 40 different acts in 2017. 

October, 2017: Again a part of Dixon Place’s summer residency program, the company developed a devised piece around the topic of Confederate monuments in America. With artists Tanya Chattman, David Glover, Weronika H. Wozniak, Linus Ignatius, and Ilker Oztop, Hand and Ionina developed a rehearsal process that allowed for a deeply diverse and international cast to reflect on monumentality in their hometowns and native countries. Discontent with the style of political theater in our current climate, the ensemble attempted to create a space that worked towards utopia in the theater in real time, with art action protests personally devised and performed by every member of the ensemble. The piece was developed over the next year, and premiered at The Tank in Midtown Manhattan in October 2018. Based on the success of this piece, Hand was selected as one of six North Americans to attend the Politik Im Freien Theater Festival (Politics in the Independent Theater Festival) in Munich, Germany.

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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