Let’s Chat! With Nikole Beckwith @ Colt Coeur

HEY Y’ALL! theater-words is back! After a summer hiatus, it’s time to dust the footlights… so LET’S GO!

photo by Dave Thomas Brown

photo by Dave Thomas Brown

First up for the fall is Colt Coeur’s Everything Is Ours, the funny/sad story of a sorta happy couple facing a very unexpected new member. (Favorite line: “I’m not crying — my eyes are allergic to feelings.”) Artistic Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt helms the production which runs thru September 21st at HERE. (You may remember the interview Campbell-Holt gave theater-words for Colt Couer’s last show — it’s a great read available HERE.)

Everything Is Ours playwright Nikole Beckwith was nice enough to answer some questions about her current play, as well as London vs. New York and what to see this season. Check it out…

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What was the inspiration for Everything is Ours?
I sat down to write it because I wanted to write the play that I most wanted to be in. Also, I learned from my mom that you are never really ready to have kids and I learned from my youngest sister that you are never really ready to be one, either.

In the play, an egg donor is presented with her biological daughter, and asked to take her in. If you were in a similar situation, what would you do?
Probably what happens in the play. I’d like to think I can rise to any occasion. With comedic timing.

The design is very striking in its off-kilter way. Did you always envision the set that way, or did it come in collaboration with set designer John McDermott?
I didn’t talk with John before the show, but I’m sure Adrienne did. A close friend of mine came to first preview and said, “It looks just like your first apartment in New York,” (where I lived when I wrote the play), and though I hadn’t thought about it before, she was right. The colors and feeling were very much the same, though my apartment didn’t have additions or tilted/odd sized doors. So John is just a very intuitive designer.  And a fair amount of the set dressing comes from my own home.

What is it like to work with Colt Coeur?
It’s great and exciting. They work really hard and really fast. I think we rehearsed two weeks for this show, and they built that set in two days — it’s crazy. They really go for it. And they are all also very charming and nice to be around, which is equally as important if you ask me. The cast and creatives and behind the scenes are all terrific human beings, putting so much of themselves into this work. It’s wonderful to be a part of.

You’ve done some work in London. What is it like to be a playwright over there versus in the States?
Theater happens so fast there. I wrote a play [Seven Sisters] at the National Theatre Studio January – March, and by May it was slotted to premier at the Royal Court Theatre in July. The RC came to The Studio, saw the reading, and programmed it based on the reading. They don’t have the same development culture we have; they like a play, they do it. Also, everyone sees plays there, everyone. Theater is much more a part of their pop culture and national identity than it is for us. They devour plays the way we devour movies and television. So, being a playwright in London feels a bit like being a part of a much bigger picture.

You write/draw comics in addition to plays. Are the skills needed for one similar to those needed for the other?
Kind of. It’s telling a story in a finite amount of time. It’s actually more similar to film than it is playwriting because the writing of it is so visual and you are telling the viewer where to look and what to see. Whereas on stage one audience member can have a completely different experience than the person next to them, based on what jumps out at them, who they are watching and how. When I’m writing a comic or a film, I give you your window and open it only as much as I want to. When I write a play, I leave the door wide open.

Seen any good theater lately?
MR BURNS at Playwrights Horizons. It is huge, and scary and true, while also being magical and funny and almost other worldly. But we are that world. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Find more info about Everything is Ours HERE.

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LET’S CHAT! Joshua Conkel & “The House of Von Macramé”

Yes, that's a Snicker's bar... (photo by Crystal Arnette)

Note the Snickers bar. (photo by Crystal Arnette)

Without question the wittiest, best-dressed bunch of bitches currently playing New York is the cast of The House of Von Macramé, a “pop horror fashion show” currently strutting its stuff at the Bushwick Starr. The musical is a grunge-glitzy slasher with generous doses of kitschy sass and bite, and springs from the talent of playwright Joshua Conkel, composer Matt Marks, and director Nick Leavens. Conkel, known for the plays MilkMilkLemonade and The Chalk Boyrecently answered some questions via email about the show, the state of theater, and where to find one especially potent piece of costuming—the vagina jegging.

Where did the idea for Von Macramé come from?
I’ve wanted to write something with built-in runway shows since college. I love fashion, and costumes are always one of the things little theaters have to skimp on. I wanted to write a show that celebrated costumes, that paraded them.

When I got invited to make work for The Bushwick Starr about a year and a half ago, I knew I could do whatever I wanted. Nobody could say no. The most painful thing for me as a playwright is people saying “no.” (When you’re relying on theaters to produce your work, but your work is naturally sort of crazy and queer, it can be really frustrating.) Whether explicit or not, a pressure has started to build to begin writing smaller, more naturalistic plays.

The House of Von Macrame is very, very me. I got to toy with clothes, blood, new wave music, camp… all the weird things that I’m passionate about. For better or worse, it’s probably the most pure expression of my obsessions and interests as I’ll ever write, and that’s because nobody could say no to me.

The show began in a serialized format at the Flea Theatre. How did those beginnings shape its development?
Most of the characters and a lot of the jokes come directly from The Flea serial. It pained me to have to cut some favorite characters, like a model named Corvette Summers who was actually a killer android, or kooky plot lines, like Topaz’s secret anal pregnancy.

The structure of a successful serial and a successful two act play are very different, but the new musical does contain a lot of those fun, soap opera-ish elements. In the end I probably kept too much of the serial, and now begins the long slog of perfecting the show.

Joshua Conkel House of Von Macrame The Management

Conkel

You’re better know for your straight plays. What were the major challenges in making a musical?
Well, I don’t know about “straight.” Most of my work is pretty over-the-top and kitschy. MilkMilkLemonade, for example, is about five seconds from being a musical. It even has built-in dance breaks.

Our composer, Matt Marks, and I have so much in common. We both love disco, girl groups, new wave and horror films. We both have an interest in work being less pretentious and “dumber” if that makes sense. Working together was so natural and right.

The challenges on working on a musical, for me, are logistical. It costs a lot more, takes more time and there’s a greater chance that things can go wrong just because you’re spinning so many plates. This shit is hard. Just sitting with Matt Marks and director Nick Leavens and dreaming up songs or tasteless jokes? That part is easy and fun.

What’s it like being the producer AND the playwright? [Conkel is co-artistic director of The Management, which is producing Von Macramé.]
My greatest successes have been plays I produced myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so happy I’m a widely produced playwright. I’m so, so lucky to get produced as often as I do and in so many cool places around the globe. But the old adage comes to mind: if you want something done right, do it yourself.

I think it’s really useful to produce your own work, particularly in first productions. It gives a chance to work on things. Then you can perfect it by trial and error and send it out to other people. This was my model for MilkMilkLemonade and it worked really well.

Now we’re working on The House of Von Macramé. After this production closes we’ll make some tweaks and cuts and hopefully be able to send it on to somebody else to produce. We already have interests in out-of-town producers, so it’s looking hopeful.

Of course another part of this equation is the audience. I’ve built a perfect support for my work over the years and have a strong following that is young, queer, adventurous etc. If any of my wilder plays, like The House of Von Macramé, premiere before a general audience, they tend not to do as well. In short, these are cult plays and written for the cult. The cult nurtures and supports the work and sometimes it can move onto a general audience and sometimes it can’t. But this is the only way I’ve found to do adventurous work.

photo by Kate Hess

photo by Kate Hess

I love how some of your plays have this fascination with pop culture. What is it about that world that interests you?
Really, all of my plays are rooted in pop culture because I live here and now. The simplest reason is that I love it. I love B movies, comic books, pop music, fashion, television… I tend not to separate high and low brow culture and none of my pleasures are guilty.

In a larger context, I’m kind of floored by the theater’s unwillingness to move forward, by its obsession with the past. This is just my opinion, but our devotion to Shakespeare and Chekhov and Ibsen is killing us. Even most new plays I see feel dusty as shit to me and now it’s getting worse because everybody is falling in love with naturalism again and every new play is about rich honkies on vacation. Blergh.

I know it’s just my personal taste, I know, but there it is.

Where do you think “VM” lives in relation to other pop-horror musicals like, say, Carrie or Little Shop?
I actually don’t know Carrie at all, but I was obsessed with Little Shop as a kid. I still know every lyric and line of that show and—I’m not afraid to say it—I think it’s as moving as it is funny.

“(Downtown) Skid Row” is the best chorus number ever, as far as I’m concerned. I think of it all the time when I walk along Broadway in South Williamsburg, with its above ground J Train, and I’m feeling particularly down and out.

In terms of other musicals, I think we owe a debt to Richard O’ Brien, who created Rocky Horror. Having said that, the musicals that Matt and Nick and I discussed the most are relatively obscure. They were Phantom of the Paradise, a 1970’s take on Phantom of the Opera, and O’Brien’s follow-up to Rocky HorrorShock Treatment, a criminally maligned and overlooked new wave musical. God, Shock Treatment is good. I wish more people appreciated it.

What’s your favorite model/housewives TV show?
I love them all. I watch basically anything Bravo puts out, but I have a special place in my black little heart for Kim from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. She’s such a tragic figure, and any shot of her riding in a limo alone after being ditched for the thousandth time is like food for me.

Did you make macramé as a child? (Because I definitely did.)
Actually, I didn’t. I didn’t do anything, really, except watch television. A childhood well spent!

And, most importantly, where can I buy a pair of vagina jeggings?
Maybe the costume designer Tristan Raines would make you a pair. You may have found a really lucrative business venture for him.

The House of Von Macrame Joshua Conkel The Management

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LIKE WHAT YOU SEE? YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
The Carrie Counter
Let’s Chat! with Adrienne Campbell-Holt

The House of Von Macramé runs through Februay 16th; find ticket info HERE.

Let’s Chat! with the BASiC Theatre Project


Between Under the Radar and COIL, January is the month for downtown theater. But those two festivals aren’t the only place to get your wintry, under-14th Street fix: The BASiC Theatre Project is having a go at Elizabeth Meriwether’s The Mistakes Madeline Madea 2006 play about twenty-somethings, loss, and growing up in the post-9/11 era.

Mistakes Madeline Made

I recently spoke with BASiC artistic director Zi Alikhan about the play, his company, and about Meriwether, who, since first writing Madeline, has made it big in Hollywood, penning the screenplay for No Strings Attached and creating the Fox sitcom New Girl. Here’s what Alikhan had to say.
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On first encountering the play…
I read Madeline in a class called Contemporary American Playwrights [at NYU] in fall 2008. The class was such a cool experience, but I was having a hard time identifying with any of the playwrights or their plays. It wasn’t until I read Liz’s plays that I was like, “Oh shit, this is a girl who’s not much older than me, who’s lived a very similar experience to me.”

Then she came to the class and was this awkward girl in big glasses who lived in Williamsburg. I was like, “You’re awesome—you’re just like every girl I see walking down the street!”

On Elizabeth Meriwether…
She’s been really supportive of the project. We were having a very hard time getting the rights to the play because her agents didn’t want a young theater company doing her work right now, when she’s so hot. So I wrote directly to her and said, “I’ve loved your plays for the past five years, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do right now.”

On the play
Madeline is about being in your early twenties, about being in New York City, and not having any idea of your sense of purpose. It’s also about a generation of young adults surrounded by constant war, feeling kind of desensitized to it, and what it means when war personally affects you.

On New Girl…
Yes, I am a New Girl fan—I started watching it and I still dabble in it. That being said, I think Elizabeth’s writing for the stage is what drew me to her in the first place. She’s such a strong stage writer. I actually think this is why she writes so well for someone like Zooey Deschanel—she really likes eccentricity.

On BASiC…
As much as it’s about creating theater, I’ve always been interested in creating community, and I think that’s what we’re doing.

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The Mistakes Madeline Made runs through January 20th at the Theatre at the 14th Street Y
Click here for more info; here for tickets
Interview has been edited and condensed

 

 

Let’s Chat! with Jay Montgomery


Superstorm Sandy did more than ravage the infrastructure of the Tristate area; it threw a major wrench in the schedules of pretty much ever theater production in the region. Especially hard hit was Staten Island’s Harbor Lights Theater Company, whose production of The King and I was thrown in jeopardy when Sandy settled in. Associate Artistic Director Jay Montgomery was nice enough to answer some questions about the challenges Harbor Lights now faces. 

What have been the physical and financial impacts of Sandy?
Harbor Lights produces at Snug Harbor Cultural Center, a New York City Park. When the Mayor shut down the parks, we were shut down, also. We lost six days of build and tech time, as well as rehearsal. We delayed our opening a week, and then another day when Snug Harbor was closed due to the Nor’easter, finally opening Friday, November 9th. We have to close on the 18th, rather than extend a week, due to the unavailability of the cast the next week, which is Thanksgiving.

Financially, we lost a third of our run—we’re a new company in our third season, the only Equity company in the history of Staten Island—and a three-week run is what we’ve built up to in our short history. The loss of revenue puts us in real peril. We estimate the loss at $30,000.

Has the state provided any aid?
The state hasn’t provided any aid as of yet. We do intend to pursue support if available. As of yet, we have not found any sources to help with loss of revenue.

How did your creative team manage to work on the show while public transportation was shut down?
The creative team worked electronically through the storm’s aftermath. Getting to SI was impossible for days—we drove to our Stage Manager’s house—she had power—to recharge and do administrative work.

How can New Yorkers help you guys out?
New Yorkers can help by coming to see the show! One of the great things the arts can do is promote healing, and this production certainly does that.

Have you been in touch with other theaters impacted by the storm?
We have been in touch with other theaters indirectly through David Lotz of Actors’ Equity; he has been spearheading communication throughout the area.

Moving away from the hurricane, what are the challenges for a young company like yours?
Our biggest challenge is simply carrying on. This production of The King and I was a strategic choice to get us to the next level in audience development. We invested significant money in advertising and production value — specifically choosing a classic piece of theater. Besides the loss of four performances, the last thing on the mind of Staten Islanders right now is to do anything pleasurable, and with good reason. This has caused a slow down in ticket sales for remaining performances resulting in additional loss of income. Whether or not we can survive the financial loss is unknown, but we remain determined to have a glorious closing week.

We’ve offered blocks of tickets to displaced people, relief staff, and volunteers in Staten Island to two of our performances  encouraging them to let us transport and lift them for an afternoon or evening; Harbor Lights was created to be an institution to serve the community, by bringing the arts to our underserved borough. We hope to continue to fulfill that mission.

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The King and I plays through November 18th at The Music Hall at Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden
Tickets are available HERE.
More at http://theharborlightstheatercompany.org/
Hurricane photo, above, courtesy of NASA
Pictured below: Hansel Tan and YoonJeong Seong in the Harbor Lights production of The King and I.

Let’s Chat! with Adrienne Campbell-Holt

Enough about the Tonys, already—let’s go back Off-Broadway!

While lots of big, downtowny institutions sit dark over the summer, plenty of scrappier companies buckle down and brave the hot months. Case and point: Colt Coeur, a can-do ensemble founded in 2010 now on its third production, Eliza Clark’s Recall.

Colt Coeur’s first outings, Steven Levinson’s Seven Minutes from Heaven and Lucas Kavner’s Fish Eye, earned the company the kind of pull quotes many an uptown theater would kill for. The Times called Heaven “so real you almost believe it was written by one of its characters” and New York Magazine titled its review of Fish Eye, “Bringing Sexy Back to Off-Broadway.”

Behind this bringing back of sexy is artistic director and founder Adrienne Campbell-Holt, who directed all three productions. I chatted with her after catching a preview of Recall, a chilling, dystopian take on childhood psychosis (think We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Minority Report). Our phone conversation covered the play, the downtown scene, falling scenery, and everything in between. Enjoy excerpts, below.

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Why did you want to produce Recall?

I’ve always been a bit of sci-fi nerd—I love Philip K. Dick—so when my agent sent me the script, I fell in love with it right away. I had also just read the book Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, which made me feel drawn to Recall’s alternate presence world and the menacing possibilities of it. I also really loved the book The Road, and I felt Eli’s writing had elements of that sci-fi alternate presence, while also being really firmly grounded in reality and truth. At its core it’s a mother/daughter story, a love story where all the characters are trying to protect someone.

The play’s pretty freaky—how do you go about making scary theater?

In theater there’s this opportunity to let things go unseen—it’s scarier what we don’t see, like in The Blair Witch Project. So, [in the play’s climactic final moments] not seeing the room fill with water is scarier and makes us think of more different things. Some people have said, “It made me think of the gas chambers,” or, “It made me think of burning people.” All these horrible things!

It’s so delicate. If we had a much a greater budget and unlimited resources, maybe we would’ve had to choose to be sort of expressionistic. Instead, our constraints forced us in that direction.

What’s the terrain like for young companies like Colt Coeur—is New York hospitable, or are things tough?

You probably got a sense on Saturday night of how tough things are. Everybody worked around the clock in the few days before previews started to build the set, but part of it fell on an actor’s head five minutes before 8 o’clock. That’s terrifying for me because, of course, safety first, and because it rattles the company. That night was also a really small house, and we had been full the night before—I feel like that’s representative of how hard and uneven it is.

When I was twenty two, I started a company in New York called Nest. It did well and it was fun, but I was naïve and had no idea how hard it was. When I started this company, I was in a different place maturity-wise and with connections, and it really helped to start it wish a group of artists that I trusted. I think that’s the most important thing when you’re starting a company, that you’re all working around the clock for zero dollars, and believe in it, and that you’re having a good time with each other.

Fortunately, the first two shows were received well. Some of the powers that be, like the Roundabout people, have been really positive, which helps. Also, a lot of the actors in the shows ended up signing with big agents and our costume designer just won a Tony for Peter and the Starcatcher. So, it’s cool that they still want to work on these shows.

Do you get the sense that the things for downtown companies are different now than they were 10 or even 20 years ago?

I used to work at the Wooster Group, and when they would talk about the 60s and 70s, I would get so jealous and nostalgic for that time—it must’ve been great for there not to be like 300 million different downtown theater companies! Now there are just so many.

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John Guare, Wisdom-Monger


An interview featured in the program for John Guare‘s Are You There, McPhee?, at the McCarter in Princeton, includes a particularly striking response from that esteemed playwright. When asked, “What would you like an audience coming to see the play to know?” Guare responds,

“I would like the audiences to be aware of the story that they live in. Are they comfortable in the story of their lives? And another level, what is a love story? It’s two people sharing the same narrative. And what is a divorce? When you realize that your partner is in a completely different story than you are, and you don’t choose to be in that person’s story anymore. You want to more on to a new chapter. We talk about lives in literary terms, “I want to move in to a new chapter.” I would like audiences to look at the story that they’re in. Sometimes it’s so much easier to look to other people’s stories and completely ignore our own story, [and not ask] if our story is giving us nourishment, if we’re interested in our own story. Horror of horrors, when we live in a story that we [realize] is not the story we intended to be in. I think it’s just to be aware of what narrative we have chosen for our lives, what narrative we have made for our lives, and what narrative we can change in our lives.”

Much food for thought.

More soon to come on the play itself.

photo by Paul Chinn/ San Francisco Chronicle

“Smash:” An Outsider’s Take

Uh oh! Debra Messing’s character “hates everyone who writes theater blogs” on “Smash,” a new NBC series about the creation of  a Broadway musical. Here at theater-words, though, we’ve decided not to take that personally—after all, it’s none too often that our fabulous invalid hits network primetime, and with a parade of New York stage talent to boot. So: anti-blog sentiment and all, we loved the show.

But what about the world beyond Times Square? What will it make of “Smash” and Broadway? To find out, I recently watched the pilot (a free download on iTunes) with a theatrically disinclined friend. What was the reaction? Here’s what I found on the outside…

Q: Did you enjoy “Smash?”

A: Well, at first I thought it was going to be another “Will & Grace” rehash because the first scene is Grace [Debra Messing] in the kitchen with a Will look-alike [Christian Borle]. But then that sort of shifted when they were followed by a fierce Anjelica Huston and some catchy tunes!

Q: Catchy tunes?

A: Yes, the most memorable part of the show was the last song. To be honest, I was a little bored with the understory, namely the work that goes into a Broadway show.

Q: Um, you do know that that’s the entire premise of the show, right?

A: Yes, but you really just want to get to that final song with the passion and the glamour and the culmination!

Q: Right. So in the show two women are vying for a big Broadway role. There’s a chorus veteran and a newbie—

A: Yes, this voluptuous sexy blonde woman [Megan Hilty] and a frumpy no-name [Katharine McPhee].

Q: Katharine McPhee was a runner up on “American Idol.”

A: Well she doesn’t look like it!

Q: So she’s not going to win?

A: Obviously she’s going to win because she’s the underdog. You don’t want her to win, but she’s going to.

Q: What do you mean you don’t want her to win?

A: Well, she’s cast on the show to look like a trainwreck! Her parents make fun of her, she’s struggling to make it as a waitress… though, when she meets with the director at his apartment, she does show her true colors and reveal that she has some talent behind all those sad layers.

Q: You really don’t like her outfits, do you?

A:She was clearly shopping at the Salvation Army in Williamsburg.

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Cruisin’ Town with Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim is on the media circuit, and those of us hoping for a Christmas delivery of “Look, I Made a Hat” have had to whet our appetites by following his tracks around NYC. That’s right—theater-words saw SS live and in person, twice in the past two weeks. Here’s word from the frontlines.

1.  The Colbert Report, 11/30
Although attending a TV taping is like boarding an airplane (Security! Waits! Delays!), it was worth it—briefly. In a very quick interview, SS played the straight man to Colbert’s dominant, ironic persona, and revealed that he was behind Colbert’s participation in the Philharmonic’s production of “Company.” (Before the taping, Colbert told the audience that his favorite Sondheim song is “Finishing the Hat.”)

2. Barnes & Noble, interview with Anna Quindlen, 12/7
Although there was no TV excitement, this conversation was far more satisfying and illuminating than Colbert’s. Sondheim and Quindlen are good friends—as evidenced by the number of times they collectively teared up—which made for a free-associative, infectious enthusiasm. SS gems poured and poured: He said that “movies and TV are set in aspic” compared to live theater, that a “standing ovation disturbs the exuberance” of a great performance, that “those of you who saw [the 2008 Broadway revival of “Sunday”] were lucky” because of its technological artistry. But most interesting was this: Were he stuck on an island with one of his shows performing every night, he’d want it to be “Forum.” (Because it’s funny!) And if a time machine could take him back to a single performance of his, he’d see the Roundabout revival of “Assassins,” excerpted below.

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With the Cast of “War Horse”

Wonka and Charlemagne

I saw several drunken horses—real horses!—stumbling out of P.J. Clarke’s last Sunday night after the Tony Awards. “Humans kid themselves that they can drink like horses,” slurred Rojo, a standby for “War Horse.” “But we put your breed in its place tonight.”

Moments later, two others on a carrot break joined in. Charlemagne and Wonka, who play “Joey” and “Topthorn,” assented: “We just knew we were going home with the big prize tonight.” (“War Horse” took six Tonys back to the stable, including one for best play.) “We had to celebrate proper. We’ve drunk maybe twelve bottles of JD between the two of us.” All three snorted and stomped.

The horses generally get along with the human cast members, said Wonka. “There’s a bit of tension over the different unions”—horses are covered by Actors Equinety—“so there are small differences in how management treats us.” (Horses get extra physical therapy but have to attend promo events for the breakfast TV shows.)

[Read more...]

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