"When he comes to me with a vision, I know the realization of that vision is surely imminent."
-Actor Jimmy Davis on working with playwright/director Daniel Talbott on Afganistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait
Anyone who knows theater artist Daniel Talbott knows that he's always up to something, and that something is usually a lot of things (i.e.acting, writing, producing, directing, teaching, advocating...), but when I heard he was going to San Fransisco over the summer with his wife and son to work on a new commission, and that his core group of actors (Seth Numrich, Jimmy Davis, Brian Miskell, Jelena Stupljanin, and Wendy vanden Heuvel) were traveling there to work with him, (joined by SF actor Liam Callistor) and live together in an intensely collaborative environment, I wanted to know more.
Daniel Talbott: "About a year and half ago, I started getting really obsessed with how detached I felt about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and just how often I could go days on end without ever really thinking about the fact that we were fighting over there, and not just fighting but that many people were dying. The whole thing seemed so far away from me and my life, and I was pretty pissed at myself for being so detached and numb, and I just felt it was wrong and I wanted to try to find a way to begin to hopefully bring it closer to myself and make it hit more.
I started reading a bunch of articles about the wars, and just war in general, and watching as many movies and documentaries as I could, looking at pictures, watching things like videos of dads or moms coming home to their kids and families on Youtube, etc. And I just started kind of falling apart about it all and feeling pretty hopeless and disgusted, and that led me to want to try to write something about it."
Talbott was then commissioned by David Van Asselt and Brian Long of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Lisa Steindler and James Faerron of the Encore Theater Company for the new West Coast Project.
"It’s this brilliant experience where you get to go out to San Francisco for almost three months and write a new play from scratch," said Talbott. "And then you go into rehearsal with it and fully try to get it up on its feet in this buck-naked barebones workshop with some tech for a few nights in front of an audience."
Talbott arrived in SF with some initial ideas and the beginning of the first scene and worked on completing a draft that would be rehearsal ready.
Talbott: "I was just kinda slogging away downstairs at Addie's mom's house every day with the back door open, listening to the ocean."
The play became AFGANISTAN, ZIMBABWE, AMERICA, KUWAIT (or AZAK for short). "I think of this so much as all of our play," emphasized Talbott. "I wrote it for Seth, Jimmy, Wendy, Jelena, and Brian, and it wouldn't exist without those guys."
"We operated as a family unit," says actor Jimmy Davis. "For three weeks straight, we spent nearly 24 hours, 7 days a week with each other. During the week we rehearsed, improvised, explored, performed and rewrote together. On the weekend, we relaxed and vacationed together. Every night we cooked meals, grocery shopped, cleaned dishes, took showers, and slept under the same roof. Daniel, his wife, his child, a revolving door of other various guests, and his mother-in-law slept upstairs. Me and the other actors slept downstairs in one room on two beds. It was like adult theater, sleep-away camp."
"There's a shorthand between us," adds actor Brian Miskell. "I've known Daniel for three years and I think that still makes me the newest to the group. But we all know each other, everyone knows what makes the other person tick; the things they're passionate about, plus a ton of our baggage. Some of that's in the play. Some of it informed rehearsals. And some of it was just helpful when we needed to blow off steam during a break or over dinner. I was really grateful to have people I could trust this much and who knew me this well on such an intense play."
"Since Daniel and the Rising Phoenix Repertory people (Addie Johnson, Denis Butkus, Sam Soule, Julie Kline, Brian Roff) invited me to become a member of their company," says actress Jelena Stupljanin, "I think we did probably 4 or 5 shows together for RPR and then for other theater companies in NY where I worked with Daniel as a director. The latest one was in South Hampton early this Summer where we worked on Wickapogue Plays by HardSparks and I was in the piece written by J.Stephen Brantley which Daniel directed, and I was acting alongside Seth and Brian. With Jimmy we did "Much Ado about nothing" together for Boomerang theater co, also directed by Daniel. I've never acted with Wendy before and I was so excited about that!! I also met for the first time Liam Callister who is a SF based actor."
"Comfortability with each other allows us to work faster in the abbreviated rehearsal process without having to sacrifice the laughs that keep a rehearsal room boyant and fun for all involved," Davis adds. "Incidentally, Daniel's play covers some of the very heavy subject matter that is war. Keeping the lightness is essential...for me at least."
"There is a great vibe in the room that Daniel sets up that is both playful and also open enough for the floor to fall threw and your heart to break, it holds it all, and that I found to be unique," says Vanden Heuvel. "I have worked with a few directors like that but the chill, not too self important or serious vibe wasn't there, and that, I think, is unique to Daniel."
Talbott: "They're family to me and some of the most brilliant and huge-hearted people I know. It so instantly felt at ease and at home. It never felt showy, or like any of us had to prove anything. For the whole time we were working on the play, I was just like, 'this is how I hope things will always be. How did I get so lucky to be surrounded by these guys?'"
"And Addie (Talbott's wife) and her mom and our family busted their asses to make it possible for me to be able to mostly just be a playwright while I was writing the play. Especially Addie was really great about making me do that cause I like doing a ton of things at once. We do everything together, and it’s a constant wonderful balancing act of who’s going to do what, and I wouldn’t be able to do any of what we do without A and our son B and our friends and fam, and their love and support and insanely hard work. I just felt blessed to be there."
INTENSITY AND COLLABORATION
"Daniel's written a play that shows us what it feels like when you're about to die," says Miskell, "and it's ugly and desperate and animal, but it's also so beautiful. Watching people take care of each other as well as themselves in a situation like this is heartbreaking. The way they interact is what makes them special, not just the cards they've been dealt.
Talbott: "I really try to help lay down enough tracks or monkey bars to grab onto, physical actions and stuff, within hopefully a strong, specific, and defined world so that the play is moving forward and the story is hopefully being told, and then always try to balance that with trusting actors to do their work and find their way from bar to bar and track to track.
I also really try to make sure there’s tons of communication and trust and respect in the room, and to try to know when to shut up, or when to throw something out there that will hopefully be helpful. In the room, it’s a lot about intuition, and also trying to have a very flexible game plan to jump in with each day, and if there’s not a ton of respect and love and belief, I think you’re fucked. Actors have extraordinary instincts, and trusting them to do their work and not micromanaging them or trying to manipulate a performance out of them is so important."
"One of the reasons I love working with Daniel is that each time I've worked with him on a play" says Numrich, "he welcomes opinions and he's very open to hearing your thoughts even if it's not about a scene that you're involved in and when he disagrees he'll say that, but it so nice to feel like we're all on a level playing field in terms of creative input and thought. That kind of collaboration really makes it feel unique in that it gives your a very strong sense of ownership when you're performing it - I mean we only had two performances but if we had more, that sense of ownership, when you really feel you've helped create it, keeps developing over time."
"I think the main challenge for me in Daniel's work is this idea that you really can't hold onto anything ever," adds Vanden Heuvel, "Although don't get me wrong, there is character, story , musicality, language, etc, but his plays demand you to go out on a limb and risk in the ether, or you will fall smack dab on yo' face! My character's journey is pretty much two big monologues, and I think that was challenging to keep on that train and not fall into tricks, but to give over to it and trust the ride. I also think the nature of the material is challenging because it is about War and Daniel wants everyone to experience that, not just talk about it."
"One evening Daniel suggested that Brian and I should go with him to the beach to work, to have rehearsal of our scene there," says Stupljanin.
Stupljanin: "We stayed there at that beach for maybe an hour or so working while the sun was going down 'into' the Ocean."
Miskell: "We sat on the rocks, ran through the surf, and waded out to watch the sun set. It was one of those moments when I felt really profoundly grateful for what I get to do. And part of appreciating that kind of beauty means realizing that one day it will be gone. Which fed back into the play. The dread of what it would be like to have to give all of that up, but the dream of getting someone like Jelena by my side at that moment? It's one of the richest moments I've ever gotten to work on.
Stupljanin agrees, "It's something I'll always remember."
"Working with Daniel is always a whirlwind," adds Davis, "and it's always personal. His brain moves super quickly. He's an idea man always in the pursuit of making and creating art. And, unlike many, he has the uncanny ability to 'get it done.' When he comes to me with a vision, I know the realization of that vision is surely imminent."
YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN
Talbott: "It was such an amazing thing for me to be back here, and especially to get to rehearse at A.C.T. at 30 Grant and stuff cause it’s where I started in the theater in Craig Slaight’s incredible Young Conservatory program. I kept walking the halls and being in those gorgeous rehearsal spaces looking out into the city and feeling so thankful for the folks in the Bay like Craig Slaight, George Maguire, Amy Potozkin, Ken Ruta, Bruce Elsperger, and Ed Decker who believed in me, especially when I couldn't believe in myself. And I just wouldn't have any of what I have now without them and the Bay Area theater community, and being back there reminded me so much of that."
"My parents actually moved to the Bay area so I've spent some time out there but hadn't seen any theater before this trip,"says Numrich. "We saw Lorenzo Pisoni's one man show Humor Abuse at ACT which was fantastic and the theater was beautiful. We also went to the Marin Theater Company and saw Circle Mirror Transformation which was really great. I was really impressed by the quality of work that I saw.
Adds Talbott: "Lisa also teamed up with the wonderful folks at A.C.T. (Mark Rucker, Carey Perloff and everybody) so that we had rehearsal space and got to perform in those guys' beautiful new black box on Market Street, The Costume Shop.
I also literally can never say enough amazing things about David Van Asselt (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater's Artistic Director), or ever express how much I love him and thank him for what he’s done for me, and the same goes for Lisa Steindler and James Faerron. Getting to team up together and work with them has been a dream come true. They are both always fighting the good fight and are unwavering, even in the face of these increasingly f***ing hard times for the arts in this country. They never give up; they make things like this project happen against all odds, by hook or by crook. They do it for the love of it and they always have your back, whether you take off and fly or you fall on your face and burn up. I really can’t say enough great things about both of them or say how much they both mean to me and how much I look up to them; they’re the real deal and neither of them get the credit the deserve - they aren’t fancy, they’re real.
BEST OR MOST MEMORABLE MEAL(S)
Stupljanin: "Jimmy's home made vegetarian spaghetti."
Miskell: "After several days of contemplating starvation in the desert for hours (punctuated with burpies and sit-ups and insane Talbott-devised exercises) it felt amazing one night to go to Jasper's Corner Tap and Kitchen and just get a grilled cheese with pulled pork. And Addie Johnson makes a mean mess of pasta for an army of hungry actors."
Vanden Heuvel: Addie Johnson's pasta!!!!!!! Jimmy's pasta was good too but not as good, sorry Jimmy!!! At one point during on of our communal dinners, my 12 year old daughter and Jimmy Davis broke out in a dance routine with huge laughs and joy and I think for me this was a huge highlight. It doesn't get better than this I thought!
Talbott: "Blowfish Sushi is pretty badass and also the breakfast burritos at Coffee Bar, and I think the best meals we had while we were our here were the things we all made together with stuff from the Marin farmer's market - they were pretty amazing too. We ate really well and together, and it sucks not to all be having dinner together every night. I really miss everyone being out here."
Numrich: "We went to a really great restaurant in Sausolito called Le Garage. Daniel's family and Addie's mom Jan go there fairly frequently and they had fantastic food but a lot of the best meals where what Addie and Jimmy would whip up. Addie and Jimmy were the chefs of the house and they would always come up with something seemingly out of nothing."
Jelele: "Zack Calhoon wrote a play for Sara Thigpen and Sevrin Anne Mason and me that will be directed by another RPR member Julie Kline and produced by RPR. Also, as a creative producer I'm developing a feature film that is a collaboration between several filmmakers from 7 different countries who are all alumni of the Berlinale Talent Campus 2012."
Miskell: "I'm doing two different pieces at Jimmy's No. 43 in the beginning of October. The first is a few scenes from Hamlet on October 2 and 3, directed by Knud Adams. Then on the 8th and 9th I'm in Barn, a new play by Charlotte Miller directed by Michael Padden, and I get to act with two of my favorite people (and fellow Lit Associates at Rattlestick), Diana Stahl and Sanford Wilson. And then I'll head to Washington, D.C. for the rest of the year to do Annie Baker's The Aliens, directed by Lila Neugebauer at the Studio Theatre. And I really hope we get to do AZAK again soon. I'm hungry to dive back into it."
Numrich: "I just started rehearsals for Golden Boy presented by Lincoln Center at the Belasco which opens December 6th, with preview starting on November 8th. I'm having a great, great time. It's a beautiful play with an outstanding cast. It's a dream."
Vanden Heuvel: Marty Moran's "All the Rage" at the Peter J Sharp theater in January which is a co- production with piece by piece, Rising Phoenix Repertory, and The Barrow Group, also we are doing Daniel's play Slipping out in Los Angeles in March/April with Rattlestick. Also work on a project with the Lake Lucille Chekhov community that was started by Melissa Kievman and Brian Mertes in the soon to be future.
Talbott: "I’m heading back home to NY in a couple weeks and the Stick’s season is starting up with Adam Rapp’s amazing and completely badass new play Through the Yellow Hour, and we have a ton of Rising Phoenix Rep stuff going on too - our next Cino, some shows at Jimmy’s we’re trying to figure out dates for, and our next Off-Broadway show: Martin Moran’s stunning All the Rage.
We’re also editing the new Cino book, and I’m starting rehearsal on a new play by Crystal Skillman that I’m directing and working on with her, along with the wonderful Lanie Zipoy and also especially Addie who’s going to be in it. And Seth and Jimmy and Jelena and I are all starting to work on a couple of film projects together too, which we’re all really excited about.
I hope the next step for the play is that we all get to do it together in SF and hopefully at the Stick maybe next season, and I just want to keep going on it with these folks and get back in the room with them all as soon as possible."