Sara Nye is one of my favorite friends in the world. She is a beautiful dancer, actress, writer-the list could go on! Currently, she is performing as Jamie Nightshade in an adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes at the Allens Lane Theater. I am so so excited for Sara, and wanted to hear all about the production and her experience. She graciously answered these blog-terview questions. The first Philly-NYC blogterview! Enjoy!
Ellen: Why were you specifically interested in auditioning for this piece? What about the play speaks to you on a personal level?
Sara: I remember studying Ray Bradbury's novel of the same name in 7th grade or so, and I connected with the story immediately, this tale of two kids trying to figure out what's happening with this weird carnival that has come to town. In the novel, and the play, Nightshade is especially attracted by the carnival, which we soon learn is run by dark forces. I think when I first read it I was at the perfect age to identify with Jamie (Jim in the novel). He wants to grow up, but he doesn't really know what that means. Maybe he wants to stand out, to be a little abnormal and even dangerous, and that's why he likes the carnival. Maybe he already feels different than other kids his age and he sees something of himself in the carnival folk. Either way, I think a lot of kids in their young teens are grasping for something that makes them feel they belong, and the story speaks to that. There are also magical, fantastical things happening in this tale, and when I learned that Martina, the director, is also a puppet-maker, I knew I had to audition. I thought, how perfect to use puppets here, things that we can imbue with a life different than our own. Things that can do things we cannot do. Things that through the magic of theater cease to merely be things. I've always wanted to puppeteer, and I'm so glad I got that chance.
Ellen: If you had to describe the production in seven words (or a haiku…) what would you say?
Sara: I'll never turn down the opportunity to write a haiku! Here it is...
Are we just shadows
or puppets in your dark hands?
'Round we go again.
Ellen: Is this your first time acting as a puppeteer?
Sara: It is. I was so nervous at first. Is it my first time using puppets in a production (though I have done mask work, and some of the concepts are similar), and sometimes I feel so very new to it, so inexperienced. I do believe my experience as a modern dancer has helped the transition to puppeteer a little easier than it could have been. I'm now thinking about all the dance productions on which I've worked. They are sort of scanning across my mind like a filmstrip, and what I'm most noticing about them is how often I've been required to move in a different way, or move like another, or physically move another, or analyze the movement of another. I've tried very hard to bring all this history to bear on learning to move a puppet in a true way. I think of it like it's me, or like it's another person. I hope that helps.
Ellen: What was most challenging and most rewarding about the rehearsal process?
Sara: The most challenging thing for me was to not worry about looking stupid. It's funny. When I teach kids I have no problem looking and acting like an idiot, and getting them to do so, because I know it works, but when I'm working on something new or something at which I feel I won't be skilled, like puppetry, I have a tendency to get very meek. I try to bring Teacher-Sara into the room and follow my own advice. The most rewarding part of our rehearsal process was those few moments I suggested something that worked and got included in the production. I always get a little thrill when that happens. I guess it's a feeling akin to getting an answer correct in class and getting a sticker from the teacher. Everyone likes to think their ideas are good, right? Another rewarding thing to me is that by the end of the run, I will have performed this show 9 times. I rarely get to do that with dance productions, and the rehearsal period is normally twice as long if not longer. I think the most performances I ever did of a dance show was 6 times. It's really satisfying to be able to perform something for long enough that it really begins to have its own life outside of the rehearsal room.
Ellen: A long time ago I was supposed to do a puppetry workshop with the production’s director Martina Plag (alas I moved to NYC and never got to meet her). What was it like to work with Martina? She is quite the puppetry guru!
Sara: She is. Her puppets are beautiful. She also makes so many different types of puppets, which is something that immediately interested me about her. She doesn't specialize in one kind, she challenges herself to create puppets out of anything. In the show we are using puppets as varied as shadow puppets cut out of cardboard and affixed to poles, intricately shaped and dressed tabletop and hand and rod puppets, and a hot air balloon that floats across the space on a string. And many many others. There are so many moving parts in this show. Martina is a fan of trying things and trying them big. Try big, and fail big if necessary, but don't worry about it. If you mess up, shlock it to the floor and pick it up again. I also really admire Martina's vision for this production. At the beginning of the rehearsal process, she talked at length about what the set would look like, and what she wanted the sound and lights to do, and even in general where our blocking should be. She could see every physical detail in her head and wanted to make sure we could see it too. I'm a very visual person, so I appreciated her communicating these details to us early on. I am so grateful that she saw the potential puppeteer in me when I auditioned. Her faith in my ability to learn surprised me, and it really gave me a lot of confidence. So, basically, she's awesome to work with.
Ellen: Do you have a favorite moment in the production, or a moment that you are most proud of?
Sara: Favorite moment: climbing the tree so I can peek at a couple through a window. I love that Jamie is curious and naughty, and I love getting to climb the set. Proudest moment: seconding the Will puppet during a lengthy father-son scene. When a puppeteer helps a lead puppeteer on his or her puppet by being on the other hand and/or feet, that's called seconding, and it requires you to be really in tune with the lead puppeteer. You have to anticipate where they're going next, and I'm very glad I've learned this skill. I think I'm getting pretty good at it.
Ellen: What other projects are you up to next? How can we see them?!
Sara: The next thing I'll be working on is a project with dance company RealLivePeople(in)Motion, rlpim.org. It will be a project about jobs, and the starting point will be interviews with people that have jobs that are different from each other, jobs that are very different from our own, jobs about which we know little and would like to know much. It is slated for performance in the fall, but I'll keep you updated on its progress! Thanks so much for interviewing, me, Ellen!
Ellen: And merci mille fois to Sara! If you are in the Philly area go see this show! I will be sending my dramaturgical love and support to the production from Sibiu, Romania...!
Sarah Heffner (above) is one of my best friends, and without a doubt my favorite poet. Sarah is a recent graduate of NYU. Her poems have appeared in The North American Review, and The Three Rivers Review. She recently relocated to Korea and I miss her terribly. So I decided to do my first cross-continental blog-terview!
Ellen: Why Korea, why now?
Sarah: Well, I was born in South Korea, but adopted and grew up in PA. I recently reunited with my birth mother, who lives outside Seoul. I also recently graduated school; my lease was up. My life opened itself up for change.
Ellen: What has been the most surprising form of inspiration during this journey?
Sarah: Disorientation. Sometimes, you have to leave a place, to really see it for what it is. The same might be for oneself, but I’m still figuring that part out.
Ellen: Do you have a favorite place to write?
Sarah: My favorite place to write is where I feel the safest. So - my dorm room. I can’t believe I just wrote dorm room. I should be too old to live in one. And yet, here I am. Sometimes it’s really romantic to sit in a café and write, but I can’t say productive.
Ellen: How has the language switch affected your writing?
Sarah: Learning a new language is a microscope. Metaphors are being magnified and I have a clearer view of where potential crystals may form.
Ellen: Tell me a little bit about your various writing projects right now.
Sarah: Living is how I’m working on writing. Last year, I knew I wanted to be in Korea, and I knew how critical it would be to finishing the narrative in my thesis. I’m in gathering mode.
Also, after I read an essay written by someone who adopted a child, I feel an urgency to be a voice, in the void of adoptee voices. So I am working on a response to that essay.
Ellen: Have you seen any theatre? Or is there anything you are planning to see or visit?
Sarah: I am very interested in seeing Korean theater. I had the opportunity to see a dance performance for Peace Day held at Kyung Hee University. It was modern, and visually stunning (There is a picture of the performance at the end of this blog post).
Ellen: Sarah is a super stylish writer, so I have to ask: favorite fashion trend in Korea?
Sarah: Mix matched earrings! Remember a few years ago, bikinis didn’t have to match anymore? I love that earrings coordinate. For example, one earring will be butterfly, and the other a flower. I love how it presents an opportunity to wear more texture, patterns, art and color.
Ellen: Merci mille fois to Sarah for taking the time to share some of her wonderful thoughts! You can follow her fantastic blog here. Her writing and thoughts are so inspiring- definitely check it out!
Dave Carter and I are both dramaturgs in our third year at Columbia’s MFA Dramaturgy program. He has a background in philosophy, French, and directing, among many other super skills. He is one sharp dramaturg! Dave’s been working as the dramaturg for Columbia's MFA actors’ thesis A Midsummer Night's Dream, which opened this week. Dave generously took the time for this blog-terview to talk about his experience acting as a dramaturg on these projects.
Ellen: What drew you to this project? And how long have you been working on it?
Dave: What drew me to the project originally was my interest in classical theatre. I thoroughly enjoy exploring the complex dramaturgical investigations that come with work on a Shakespeare text. The riches offered in his plays allow for daring choices to any production of his work. As dramaturgs, I believe we are given a role as player of nuance: an artist that is afforded the opportunity to excavate a text, and ideally that excavation can often have little to no restrictions in terms of depth of meaning. And Shakespeare is lauded for his supply of depth. Also, Niky, as director and actor, has excelled in commedia, an art form defined by freedom and restriction; as a person, collaborating with him was also a joy and attraction to the project.
Ellen: Can you give us a seven-word synopsis/blurb of the play? Or perhaps a haiku that acts as a blurb?
Dave: A search for humanity covered by archetypes.
Ellen: How did you function as a dramaturg for each piece? How often were you in the room? What kind of research did you do?
Dave: Before the rehearsal process I was in dialogue with Niky, discussing all manner of psychology and metaphor (over the summer break). I also was charged with assisting the editorial process of the piece in concert with both Niky and a German dramaturg. Once rehearsal began, I was not as needed in the room. I found my absence from the rehearsal most challenging. As a dramaturg, I often find myself in the room for a majority of the process, yet for this piece we all thought that the production needed to grow without any hint of critical obligations. It seemed best for the production to submerge itself in this world of the play, coming up for any assistance from me only when needed.
Ellen: What was the most rewarding and most challenging aspect of the rehearsal process?
Dave: It was challenging to work in what I thought to be a German model of dramaturgy. The play is geared towards a German production in an upcoming international festival held in Germany and as such my work methods varied radically from what I am used to. Essentially, I helped to research the piece and supply research material, though only rarely commenting on the process as a whole. It was illuminating to discover this sort of dramaturgical assistance.
Ellen: What are you up to next? (If it is a project how can we see it?)
Dave: Hopefully I can finish my own thesis now: Henry James and a failed dramaturgy. Though in the immediate future, as literary manager for the Amoralists, I am launching with the company our first play development series: the Amoralab. Our premier is on November 2, with each month thereafter offering opportunities for playwrights to have their works connect with new audiences. Hope to see you there.
Ellen: Merci mille fois to Dave Carter for taking the time to share his thoughts! I already have my ticket. All the cool kids will be there, so you can get yours here.
Medusa returns to the Hairdresser who once sheared the snakes from her scalp and begs him to help raise her winged child. Fifteen years later, Pegasus dreams of scouring the seas, but must first confront his mythical history in this fantastical take on Greek storytelling.
The paragraph above is the blurb for Annah Feinberg’s new play The Beautiful Beautiful Sea Next Door at ArsNova. Annah is one of my favorite fellow theatre friends; she is warm and wonderful, as well as stylish, and oh so smart. She is also getting her MFA in Dramaturgy at Columbia, and in the class behind me, scheduled to graduate 2013. Before she arrived she was paired as my dramaturg buddy; we emailed about exciting grad. school things. Like new highlighters!
I cannot wait to see The Beautiful Beautiful Sea Next Door; I even purchased my ticket in September, and so I sent Annah some questions for this “blog-terview.”
Ellen: What prompted you to create The Beautiful Beautiful Sea Next Door? Was there an initial kernel of an idea that you wanted to explore, or an image, or a question? When did you first start working on the piece?
Annah: This play actually began as an assignment in an undergraduate dramaturgy class. We were supposed to write a ten minute adaptation of a Greek myth, and I chose to riff off a poem entitled "Medusa Cuts Her Hair" by Jean Monahan. The initial iteration was part of what is now part 1, and only included Medusa, the Hairdresser, and Poseidon. Then, I expanded it into a one act to use as one of my writing samples to apply to Columbia. It was during this draft that I realized what was at its core: the conflict between reality and myth. I became obsessed with the ways in which we create our own myths and how much scientific truth really plays into that.
Ellen: How beautiful is "beautiful beautiful"?
Annah: So totally beautiful, especially to Pegasus, who is 15 and has never left the Hairdresser's beachside hut in his entire life. He desperately wants to be a marine biologist but his parents are afraid to confront him with the reality of his destructive, mythical circumstances.
Ellen: Is this the first production of the play? (If not, I'd love to hear about the piece's production history!)
Annah: This is the first production! I've been working on the play with director Barbara Harrison for about a year and a half. She directed a semi-public reading of the one act version in April of 2010, and the positive response from that reading inspired me to expand it. She and I have done a few private readings of the play to further develop it, and had many conversations about it over many many cups of tea.
Ellen: Since you are getting an MFA in Dramaturgy at Columbia right now, I am curious-did you work with a dramaturg on this piece?
Annah: Honestly, I would consider everyone who has been part of our development process to have contributed to the dramaturgy of this play. We had a dramaturg on the first reading, James Stull, who is going to do some dramaturgical consulting on this production. And Barb has really been functioning as a dramaturg on the piece for the past year and a half as well.
Ellen: What have you found most challenging, and most rewarding about the rehearsal process?
Annah: It has been thrilling and terrifying to begin to step away from the piece. I have been doing pretty minimal re-writing during this rehearsal process, since it is so quick, so I really see myself trying to pull myself away from the rehearsal room and let Barb and the glorious actors (Sharina Martin, Nick Lehane, David Sanchez, and Alex C. Ferrill) do their brilliant thing. I really could not be happier with the way things are going. The play has a very specific tone, and the actors are really beginning to grasp it and own it.
Ellen: What are you working on next? How can we see it!?
Annah: I'm working on a couple of other plays right now: NUMISMATICS, which I began working on in Leslie Ayvazian's playwriting class last year at Columbia. It is about coin collecting, obsession, and religiosity. There are songs. I haven't touched it in a little while, but I am planning on picking it up again and working with director Lila Neugebauer to develop it once AntFest is over. I also recently started a new play called WE MUST MEMORIZE THIS BOOK, which I read the first 10 minute of in Inkslingers' [untitled] reading series. I played both parts and sang the song. I had to get really drunk before I could drum up the courage to do that. That play is about siblings and outdated scientific information.
In non-writing land, I run the R&D writers group at The Civilians and am the artistic assistant at LCT3. Also, grad school.
Ellen: Many many thanks to Annah for sharing this with us! Go buy your ticket now! No seriously, stop reading this, go buy it here.
“What’s for Dinner?”
Set in a remote French village, The Three Bears follows the spiraling disintegration of an American ex-pat family struggling to do the right thing: stick it out for the kid.
Simone Marie Martelle is blowing up, seriously! She is currently in rehearsals, directing her third production of her play The Three Bears, which will soon open at the San Francisco Fringe. Last Spring, Simone invited me to work with her in script development on the piece, and since then I’ve acted as a dramaturg for each production. I have been honored to work with Simone; she is incredibly talented, intelligent, motivated, and generous. I am fascinated by how quickly these productions have happened and so I wanted to blog about her process. I sent Simone a series of questions for her to reflect and answer at her leisure during the “hurrication.” Enjoy her thoughts below!
Ellen: Simone, you have been the playwright, assistant director, and director of The Three Bears all in a little over a year. The piece has changed considerably for the Fringe, due to the Fringe’s time stipulations. What have you learned that has surprised you about the piece from all of your different roles, and the different productions?
Simone: Good question! Working on The Three Bears both as A.D. and Director, more than anything, taught me to look at my script differently – I had to completely forget that I was the playwright and that these were my words, and I had to try to make the play work on stage, with real living people to embody the roles. It was definitely a learning process: it was hard letting go of the play I had in my head in order to let it take on a life of its own. What I think surprised me the most, however, was how much the play changed with different actors. The characters of George and Susan were so drastically different in each production! George’s character, especially, went through a huge evolution, from monster to a man that actually is redeemable and sympathetic.
Ellen: In the first production at Shapiro Studio, Susan, was played by Kathleen Marsh*. In the second production at Manhattan Rep, George, was played by Kevin Bohl. Now, the two who were in separate productions are acting together in this latest third production. They are both such fantastic, intelligent actors-I’d love to hear what it was like to create this hybrid production where they each previously had their own rehearsal history with you.
Simone: It is fantastic working with Kevin Bohl and Kathleen Marsh* together. They are both fantastic actors and I am really lucky to have found them.
I was devastated when I learnt that I could not take Kathleen* with me to Manhattan Rep. because of its non-equity stipulation. She was the embodiment of what I envisioned Susan’s character to be like – we had auditioned over two days for the production at Columbia and we saw a bunch of talented actresses, but Kathleen* had that ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ that we were looking for. I just knew that one day I would have to bring her back to work on the play again. Kevin, on the other hand, surprised me during his auditions for Manhattan Rep’s production. I had been looking for someone to play the role much meaner and stricter – much like Greg Hornison played the character in the first production. But when Kevin came into auditions, both Tatiana and I were blown away by the incredible amount of depth he was able to bring to the character from just page-long sides. He wasn’t playing the ‘George’ we expected, but his ‘George’ was far better than anything I could have ever dreamt of. We knew we had found a rare gem.
Now moving on to the San Francisco Fringe, I am delighted that I can bring these two together. They bring a new dynamic to the play and, for the first time, I think that the characters of George and Susan are equals: equally sympathetic and equally repulsive at the same time. They are both strong actors and they certainly are able to bring a strength to their characters we haven’t seen until now.
However, even though I am now working with two actors that were in previous productions, I knew I couldn’t just mash up the two previous versions. I had to let the two of them find their own rhythm and life in the play. I had to let the play develop organically – just like if I had never worked with them before. In addition, this performance we are lucky enough to have two fabulous actresses play Marie and Young Marie. Chantal Gagnon (Marie) brings a new introspectiveness to the character, as well as an inner strength that we haven’t seen before, and adorable Gabrielle Etzel (Young Marie) has a feistiness that is new to Young Marie’s character and definitely entertaining. The result: we have a very different play on our hands.
(*Actor Appears Courtesty of Actors’ Equity Association)
Ellen: One of your techniques in rehearsals for this play has been “character therapy.” It’s a form of table work/character therapy, and is genius for creating a rich, detailed history between all of the actors. I’ve been fascinated with how affective this has been- did you create this technique? Are there any other rehearsal games that you have found particularly affective?
Simone: Yes and no – I did create this “Character-Therapy” rehearsal game because I thought it might be a nice way to get the actors to think about their characters and it seemed like therapy suited the premise of the play, given that this family clearly needs some therapy! J However, I don’t know if I can take full credit. I sort of stole the idea from my training at the Yale Summer Conservatory for Actors that I attended in the summer of 2008. There, my teacher Blake Hackler encouraged us to keep character journals where we would answer questions about our character’s background, much like the questions I ask my actors in the ‘Character-Therapy’ sessions. Also, back when I used to be an actor, I was a little Method and so that may have also influenced me when I thought of this rehearsal game.
As for other rehearsal techniques… my assistant director Tatiana Rivera is actually great at coming up with exercises for the actors. She seems to have a knack for finding exercises or games that unlock new things in the rehearsal and the actor’s performances – even if sometimes these games irritate or frustrate the actors in the moment. For example, in one of our scenes, Tatiana had Gabrielle Etzel (Young Marie) knock over George’s chair every time George said something mean, and as a result, George not only became angry with Young Marie, but ultimately broke down in sheer exhaustion– showing him what it really is like to lose control and the desperation that comes with it. As a result, George’s performance in the scene is more nuanced.
Ellen: As the play’s productions have progressed, the graphic design for the postcards/posters has changed (you can see all three images at the top of this blog post). Can you talk a little bit about this evolution, and how it is linked with each specific production?
Simone: Well, for the first production, Chandler and I decided to hire a graphic designer to make the postcard. I had an old image of my childhood panda bear, which I sent to her and we gave her some ideas that we had – although nothing concrete. The postcard we got back – while beautifully designed – was not really quite what I was looking for, or what I had envisioned, but with budget and time constraints, there wasn’t the time to really make a new design.
Later, I decided to make the postcards myself. I have a little background in design from high school, and experience with Photoshop, so I thought I’d play around. For the second production, I wanted to play around with the idea of child and adult worlds, and find a way to merge them: hence the child’s drawing of wine glasses. I also wanted bolder colors, so I went with black, white and red – very dramatic and bold – like the production I was hoping to put on at Manhattan Rep.
For this play, I knew that I had found some fabulous actors and I wanted to showcase them. Kevin and Kathleen*, in particular, have worked with me for a long time and I guess I was looking for a way to thank them for their loyalty and dedication to the project. Also, I spent the summer interning at The New Group and found myself a little influenced by their poster designs, which frequently involve simple, dramatic pictures of their stars.
Ellen: Wine plays a huge role in the play, and I realize that I actually don’t know your favorite wine! Does it have a taste of cassis?
Simone: You know, I don’t actually have a favorite wine. I’m ashamed to say that despite my upbringing in France, I know very little about wine. I usually defer to my father about such things… although I do love a glass of white wine. Much like Susan, I actually hate red wine!
Ellen: I believe that The Three Bears has been the top selling show for advance tickets for the Fringe. Can you tell us about how we can get advanced tickets before the show sells out?
Simone: Yes. Half of all tickets will be available at the door a half hour before curtain but you can also purchase tickets online at BrownPaper Ticket. Tickets are $10 ($12.99 online) and can be bought at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/182381 You can also find out more about the play and details about performance times on The Three Bears website at www.threebearsplay.com
Ellen: After the fringe what are you up to next? How can we see more of your work?
Simone: Right now, I might have to take a little break from directing. When I get back, I will be busy writing my thesis play for Columbia, under the mentorship of David Lindsay-Abaire – and that play is scheduled to perform at New York Theatre Workshop in early April. Other than that, you can always check my website www.simonemartelle.com for updates and more about my work.
Merci mille fois to Simone for taking the time to answer these questions! If you are in San Francisco check it out! I will be sending my dramaturgical support from afar. Again, you can learn more about the play and details about performance time here: www.threebearsplay.com
I’ve been honored and delighted to work as a dramaturg with playwright Caroline Prugh on her latest piece Highway Blue. Caroline and I have been meeting since January, and this week Highway Blue has it’s first performances! In order to give somewhat of a sneak peak, I asked Caroline a couple of questions about the project to give some insider insight on this exciting new work.
Ellen: Highway Blue has had quite the journey (no pun intended). Could you tell us a bit about the initial kernel of the idea, any other various incarnations, and where you have currently landed?
Caroline: Highway Blue is one in a trilogy of fantastical love story musicals. The other two are called Motel Blue and Western Blue. These "Blues" are my take on the eternal pleasure and pain of falling in and out of love. Each one builds it’s own world around its heroine and hero and all contain a character Siglinda who serves as a kind of guide for the audience as they travel through these worlds.
In Highway Blue, Mary Belle and Benjamin begin as friends then lose track of one another; our story picks up with them reconnecting later in life now maybe ready to face the love between them. We're used to seeing romantic comedies begin with a "meet-cute," the traditional form follows that after their initial meeting we watch a series of complications play out before they end up together happily ever after... I wondered how epic these complications keeping them apart could become?
When we experience the loss of someone close to our hearts our world feels their absence. So when it seems Mary Belle and Benjamin are lost to one another, perhaps now forever, their world together, a fantastical musical world, feels this absence in the loss of its fantastical musical elements. We move from metaphorical color to black and white until all can be made right.
Ellen: How are writing lyrics different than writing dialogue for you? Or is the process similar?
Caroline: I feel the similarities more than the differences. Hopefully all my writing—dialogue, lyrics, and music strives to operate in service of the story. One of the particular challenges of lyric writing is the question of rhymes. I enjoy the rigor of making true rhymes (sure, sometimes "enjoyment" might involve the pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth). Ultimately in theater, everything has to connect with an audience’s ear. Lyric writing provided me with a new approach and attention to thinking about how my dialogue sits in the ear.
Ellen: I know that in the past you have had plays with music, but if this is your first official musical I am curious how that term has shaped the process. What changed in framing the piece with the term: musical?
Caroline: I took the term “musical” as an invitation to push the boundaries of what I imagined possible on stage in terms of theatrical storytelling. I have a great respect for the traditional form of the American musical; I also love opera and the vaudeville and music hall traditions, so there are plenty of places I to go for inspiration for how music can work on stage.
Funny thing about me, I've been writing songs longer than I've been writing plays. I was that kid alone in her room with her guitar, not practicing for her lesson, but writing her own stuff instead. However, I couldn't sing to match what I heard in my head, which drove me nuts, so eventually I stopped playing guitar, writing songs and took up the bassoon.
Soon after I started writing plays, songs began to find their way into some of them, but I still wasn’t able to achieve the sound of what I was hearing in my head. Then I met Eli Zoller. He joined Estate, my last play-with-music, when our music supervisor Aaron Gandy brought him on board as orchestrator/musical director.
When I first heard Eli’s orchestrations for Estate, I felt he understood the music in my head and could expand on ideas in it to beyond what I could achieve alone. He committed to Highway Blue early on in my writing process, so I approached the music for this piece with a newfound sense of freedom and fearlessness. I redefined my definition of "sing-able moment.” I wrote full company numbers. I hurled myself headlong into the unknown (for me) knowing if I ran into serious trouble, I wouldn't have to find my way out alone. As a collaborator, Eli brings a passion to my music’s orchestration as tireless as mine for writing it.
So why isn’t this advertised as a new “musical”? Why do we call it a musical-play? Well, a third of the stage time is spent without music, which seemed to beg for the word “play” to be included in the definition. However, as we near the end of our rehearsal process on this initial production I’m ready to drop “play” from the description. Silence and all, this is indeed a musical through and through.
Ellen: What has been the most surprising thing about Highway Blue in the rehearsal room? And what did you find most challenging in this process?
Caroline: I find it incredibly thrilling to watch what other people’s imaginations bring to a world first conceived by me alone in my room. It’s why I write for the theater. Every day working on this production has had its share of happy surprises and when conflicts inevitably arise, I feel like we’re able to arrive at solutions comprised of the best parts of what everyone’s brought to the table. Our producer David Carpenter is a guiding force behind making this kind of collaboration possible.
This is my first time working with director Jennifer Sandella. Like Eli, I feel she can see beyond what I put down on the page. She has a wonderful eye and has done an amazing job of recognizing, articulating, and protecting the core essence of this piece.
There are several design challenges in this production, the foremost being two singing gas pumps. At the start the question was: are they costume or scenic elements? In the end, all three of our talented designers (as well as our dynamic comic duo of actors) have contributed elements to bring them to life.
We have a fantastic cast. Since this is my first musical, it’s the first time I’ve worked with trained musical theater actors. Hearing them sing is a revelation. But I’m not asking them “just” to act and sing, they also have to transport this story into a world without music… fortunately this company has phenomenal chops all round.
I would be completely remiss if in speaking about our rehearsal room I didn’t mention our stage manager Alejandra and her assistant Janette, who are diligent about keeping us on the road moving forward. Before I even made it to the rehearsal room I had you, Ellen my fabulous dramaturg, with your insightful questions and research to keep me personally on the road moving forward. And without Sarah Eismann, Karly Fisher, Ito Aghayere and all at Manhattan Shakespeare Project who commissioned this piece, I wouldn’t be writing this at all.
Ellen: What are you working on next? How can we see it?!
Caroline: Up next will be my thesis play, which will be part of the Columbia University New Plays Now 2012 festival in April at the East 4th Street Theater.
Ellen: Final question, I’ve been wondering about this for quite a while now. In Highway Blue there is a character Sunshine Ice Cream Man. What is your favorite kind of ice cream?
Caroline: Mint chocolate chip.
Ellen: And on that note, I highly recommend you see Highway Blue and get a cone of mint chocolate chip before or after the show to celebrate. Merci mille fois to Caroline for taking the time to answer these questions; your responses are illuminating, thoughtful, and full. Information about the show is below.
Steve and Marie Sgouros Theatre at The Players Theatre
115 Macdougal Street
July 21, 22, 23, 28, 29. 30 @8pm
July 23 @2pm
August, 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 @8pm
Running Time: 90 Minutes, no intermission.
For tickets please visit www.theatermania.com/new-y ork/shows/highway-blue_183 280/
For theater information and tickets please visit www.theplayerstheatre.com
Please also visit www.manhattanshakes.org and www.randomaccesstheatre.co m
Originally commissioned by Manhattan Shakespeare Project
My dear friend and fellow Dramaturg at Columbia University, Jesscia Kaplow Applebaum, recently participated in Pig Iron’s
summer session Physical Theatre: Presence, Play, and the Red-Nose Clown. I’ve eagerly been waiting to hear about this experience. So, I sent Jess seven questions to answer via email, with the intention of blogging this correspondence, in order to open up the conversation to a larger community of artists.
Jess: First, I want to say thank you for this opportunity! I just arrived back in NYC a few days ago and have been wanting to take the time to process the past three weeks. Your questions (which I've just read) are the perfect way for me to begin doing that.
Ellen: What prodded you to do this intensive with Pig Iron? Why Pig Iron? Why now? What were you hoping to discover?
Jess: For the first time in eleven years I had the months of June, July and August to myself. And as I don't really understand the concept of long vacations or extended downtown, I began to look at what I could do that would be exciting and productive.
Sometime in late April I was drinking wine and talking about summer plans with one of my favorite directors Ashley Kelly Tata. I asked her about her experience with Gardzienice. (Ashley did their intensive last summer and I've had an interest in Polish theater and a love of Polish poetry for years...) As our conversation went on, I quickly realized that what I really needed to do was stop running away to Europe and to explore my own country and get to know its theater and performance work.
That night (or early morning) I came home and checked my email before turning in. There in my inbox was a message from Pig Iron saying that they were extending applications for their summer session: Physical Theatre: Presence, Play, and the Red-Nose Clown. I'm big into signs and so I deiced right then that I was going to apply.
Looking deeper or beyond this "sign," the type of performance I most enjoy watching and collaborating/developing is physical/dance theater. (Some of my top favorite companies that do this are Pig Iron, the Rude Mechs, Siti Company, Pina Bauch, Ballet C de la B, Sidi Larbi.) And since my days at NYU's Performance Studies program (perhaps even before) the exploration of presence has been both a kind of obsession of mine. So I was excited by the content of the intensive.
Lastly, I recently turned 33 and I my gift to myself was to use this year to do things that scare me. I hadn't trained as a performer in fifteen years and so I thought that was the perfect way to start.
And as to what I got out of the experience I am still processing – but I think it can begin to be located in the answers below!
Ellen: Can you describe a daily day during this intensive?
Jess: Wow. That's kind of hard because we covered so much!
I guess the best way to break it down is to say that the three weeks each had a particular focus. The first was on the neutral mask. The second on the expressive mask (this goes to commedia) and the last week was clowning.
Every morning we would physically warm up to make our bodies alive and alert. And we would play games to develop a trust and a communication with the ensemble as well as a sense and spirit or jeu (play). (Jeu is a core value of Pig Iron's mission and work and I think can be felt very distinctly in their productions. If you're interested in learning more about the company I might suggest picking up TDR's article "Ta daaaa": Presenting Pig Iron Theatre Company" (Volume 54, Number 4, Winter 2010).
As the morning progressed we would move into learning specific techniques to work of that week and doing acrobatics. (These two studies alternated by day.)
The techniques that we practiced can be compared to scales for musicians or drawing straight lines or circles for artists. For instance, in the first week when we focused on being present through the neutral mask. One of the major exercises that we did was journey from sleep, through various terrains, to sunset. And when we got onto clowns we
would line up and practice gags with objects.
On the days that we did acrobatics we tumbled, began to dissect the handstand, partnered with others to find balances and holds. The work was to remind ourselves of gravity and to gaining the perspective and possibilities of life when your center is flipped.
Acrobatics also challenged us to throw ourselves off-center to find new territories of performance - or perhaps better put unimagined possibilities.
In the afternoons we would be given composition assignments or improv exercises/scenarios to present to Quinn Bauriedel (Summer Session Director, co-founder and Co-Artistic Director of Pig Iron), Sarah Sanford (member of Pig Iron since 2001 and former student of École Jacques Lecoq), Charlotte Ford (Philadelphia-based theater artist and member of the core creative ensemble for Pig Iron’s Welcome to Yuba City) and our fellow colleagues (who hailed from all over the US, Turkey and Germany).
Then, three days a week our groups would stay later to further rehearse or devise small pieces that we would bring in to the workshop the follow days. We would bring the pieces in the follow day to show and receive critiques of that work.
Ellen: How do you think this experience will aid you as a production dramaturg?
Jess: I can't wait to find out!
My passion is to work with ensembles of actors and designers as well as creating devised pieces. During the three weeks I found so many wonderful ways to play with a group of performers and I'm excited to bring that play into future projects.
With my own company, One Year Lease , I know that the
physical work and the games that Pig Iron shared will deepen our ensembles ability to communicate with each other - both bodily and verbally. And I'm excited to present our actors with opportunities to be thrown off-balance and see what they will find together.
With all future projects (including those outside of OYL) I hope to carry a belief or a focus that Quinn reminded me of: performance isn't primarily for the performer, it's for the audience. What this means to me is that my job as a dramaturg is to give, to be generous. The simplest and most complex way I can do that is to help create the space,
the permission, the inspiration for my fellow theater practitioners play with each other.
With that foundation I hope to help create a sense of play extends beyond rehearsal to performance so that with each production an intimate relationship between the performance and the audience can develop.
Ellen: In the past, you have performed as an actor and a dancer. I know that this Spring you took a Viewpoints class at Columbia, but I wonder how different this intensive was. Did you frame yourself as a dramaturg, as a performer, or both? Or more?
Jess: The only way for me to participate and to learn about presence, play and the red nose was through performance so I was performing. I was a performer. But if you look at my skills in performance I think it's right to say I was a performer-dramaturg ;)
I'm excited by that.
I think to be good at our craft it helps to have and to explore multiple talents and skills. When I'm in a room working with an ensemble I can offer different sets of tools some of which come from understanding/embodying different performance styles. Others come
from years of study/scholarship like knowing a lot about Greek theater or post-dramatic structure.
Ellen: How are your handstands?
Jess: Dude, handstands are difficult! I got it once by locking my arms and getting my core and legs over my center - that was June 21st 2011 a day I will always remember and one day hope to repeat! But I need some major core strengthening to master it!
Ellen: Do you feel you have a better understanding of Pig Iron as a company after this intensive? I know that you are very interested in their work and mission.
Jess: Anytime one can get insight into how a company trains together its work becomes richer. And so I'm very excited to see their future work and see how my three weeks with them influences my experience as an audience member.
Ellen: Knowing you interests in walking, and you flaneur tendancies, I have to ask, do you now have a clown walk?!
Jess: I have a clown personality: Josephine. She gets nervous and might have to pee at any moment. We haven't spent enough time together yet for me to really know her walk. But I'm excited to do so!
Ellen: Merci mille fois to Jess for generously answering these questions!
Such exciting answers, definitely food for thought. Check out more on Pig Iron & One Year Lease & bon weekend!