Saturday, August 20, 2011

J. Stephen Brantley's New Play Eightythree Down is Sex, Drugs and New Wave Music. Need I Say More?


"The good news is that whenever things fall apart, New York makes great art."

You've been involved in theater for a bit now, in various capacities...

Aside from my seven-year narcotic sabbatical, I’ve been doing theater non-stop since I was a teenager.

I’ve considered pursuing other vocations – porn, the priesthood – but I keep coming back to making plays. It’s so hard. I ask myself why I keep at it and all I can come up with is ‘I love rehearsal.’ A lot.

Why did you decide to start Hard Sparks?

I turned forty and I was sick of waiting around. I’d said for years that I had no desire to start a company but it simply came time to do things for myself, to take a leap into less comfortable territory and make something happen.

I’d also been feeling like a lot of companies out there, even those with the best intentions, were not treating artists as well as they could. I’m tired of actors and playwrights being made to feel like producers do them a favor by allowing them to work for free in their productions. Don’t get me wrong – a community of people coming together to develop new work simply for the love of it is great. Rising Phoenix Rep’s ‘Cino Nights’ series is the best of that. But they’re not charging admission, are they?

So I wanted to create a way that I could take really good care of actors. What I discovered was that I can’t do nearly enough. I found myself working with professionals who are actually quite used to being treated fairly, but are more than willing to work on my play for little more than the love of doing so. I’m still giving them everything I possibly can, but it’s not enough. Better than Showcase Code is still less than minimum wage. It’s tragic. Someone asked me if starting a production company was as empowering as I’d imagined it would be. Actually, it is the most humbling thing I’ve ever done. Sober, anyway.

What is Hard Sparks mission?

While our mission continues to evolve, there are three guiding principles for Hard Sparks: We commit to full productions of edgy new work. Not readings, not revivals of classics, but cool contemporary stuff. Second, we do it without sacrificing the dignity of the artists involved. That means everyone gets paid. And, maybe most importantly, we partner in creative ways with community-based organizations working to improve people’s lives.

This one is really important to me, but it’s also, in some ways, the most challenging. I want to produce plays that bring light to social issues, and I want to do it in a way that not only creates awareness of said issues, but also somehow benefits organizations working on them. We’re still working out the right way to go about it, but I’m determined that Hard Sparks somehow makes a positive impact in the wider world.

What is Eightythree Down about?

Eightythree Down takes place in Great Neck, New York during the final hour of 1983. It’s a sort of home invasion, really, of the basement bedroom of a closeted bird-watcher called Martin. Martin’s very fabulous old friend Dina turns up on New Year’s Eve with her ‘roommates’ in tow. They’ve fallen in with a seriously dangerous element and are running for their lives. When they descend on Martin it completely rearranges his reality. Things get quite violent and extremely sexy and the whole thing happens in about an hour. On one hand it’s about the consequences of indulgence and the futility of isolation. But then, it’s also sex, drugs, and new wave music. Loads of fun.

Who's involved in the production?

I’m really fortunate to have Daniel Talbott directing this play. He’s a freaking dynamo, I don’t know how he does so much. He’s brought along an amazing design team – Janie Bullard, Eugenia Furneax-Arends, Brad Peterson, and Tristan Raines. And our cast is just astonishing. I’m a little in love with, and very much in awe of, each one of them. Melody Bates, Ian Holcomb, Bryan Kaplan, and Brian Miskell. They are scary good and incredibly hot.

Did you hire a publicist?

Horse Trade has a publicist for everything it produces or co-produces, which is awesome. Of course, this doesn't mean I'm not also working the hell out of Facebook.

I’m always looking for ways to co-promote with other shows and events. It’s harder than I thought. Once Hard Sparks is a bit more established, other producers may be more amenable to postcard swaps and event tie-ins. For now I’m working the blog circuit and directing people to our IndieGoGo page. Which is http://www.indiegogo.com/Hard-Sparks

What was the inspiration for this seriously awesome play?

You’re going to laugh but I was on a Pinter binge. And then he died. So I watched the BBC version of The Room with Linda Hunt and Annie Lennox and started out with a play that was actually very quiet. But then it morphed into something else entirely and I’m very glad it did.

I’d also been thinking a lot about communications technologies – the internet mainly – how we use them, how we got here, where it all started. I keep trying to write about this schism between what should have been (greater connection) versus what I think is (further fragmentation) and that took me back to the early Eighties.

I feel like there was a cultural shift of some kind in 1983, some major change we may not have noticed at the time. We’ve all been very nostalgic for the Eighties lately, but there was a lot more going on than day-glo fishnets and the release of ‘Thriller.’ It was a grimy time. Economically? Politically? AIDS? So much fear. Of course it’s not unlike our current era in that. The good news is that whenever things fall apart, New York makes great art. Then and, hopefully, now.

What was your process in writing/developing it?

An early draft got me into a workshop with Craig Lucas at the 2009 Southampton Writers Conference. Craig’s work had always inspired me, and his Prelude To A Kiss was the first Broadway play I saw, so this was seriously cool. He helped to shape the play’s four characters by encouraging me to get more specific with them.

And then, once in rehearsal for this production, Daniel pushed me to up the stakes and push the action. Of course, you change one thing – like making the bad guy really really bad – and the whole thing falls apart. You have to reconstruct the story according to a new logic. So I threw out half the play and sat there staring at my computer at 3am cursing Daniel Talbott and having this imaginary debate with him about whether The Glass Menagerie would still be the same play if aliens landed on the Wingfield’s fire escape…And then I got over myself now it’s a much better play. Actually I love revisions. And I love Daniel Talbott.

How did you get involved with Horse Trade Theater Co?

Originally, as an actor. Well, originally as a squatter, but that’s another story. I was in Heidi Grumelot’s adaptation of Love’s Labours Lost called Punk Rock Love Song. I had a blue mohawk and played the recorder. I started sending her scripts, talking about doing this play, which takes place in a basement, at Horse Trade’s subterranean space on St. Mark’s…eventually I wore her down.

Are you noticing any trends in theater lately?

New York has lost fifty-seven performance spaces in three years. I’ve noticed that. I’ve noticed an increased economic disparity between commercial and indie theatre. I mean, there’s always been, but now there’s really no middle ground. And I’ve noticed that only a few artists are really looking for ways to make and present work in this new reality. It’s not going to be the unions or the arts councils or commercial producers taking care of us anymore. Artists are going to have to make things happen for themselves.

On the other hand, you walk down East 4th Street and things don’t seem so bleak. How many theaters are on that block now? And not one of them dark, ever, except maybe for renovations.

What's coming up next?

Hard Sparks is producing Nicole Pandolfo’s Love In The Time Of Chlamydia for festivals and touring. I’m really interested in seeing how her piece will work in pubs and other non-theater spaces. I may produce another of my own little monsters. And I am looking at work by a few other playwrights. Hard Sparks produces ‘daring performances of dangerous plays.’ There’s a lot of really good work out there, but not much that really fits such a mission. I’m also seriously thinking about cleaning out my refrigerator and maybe spending some time with my boyfriend. And oh yeah, I’m going to write a new play. I swear.

Eightythree Down begins September 1st and runs through Sunday the 18th at Under St. Marks. To purchase tickets, just light a clove cigarette, put black eyeliner ALL AROUND YOUR EYES and click your jaded little cursor here.

Photographs by Daniel Talbott.