Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Weird Has Only Just Begun: An interview with Robert Askins & Jose Zayas about P.S. JONES AND THE FROZEN CITY

 "We have to keep digging and digging through the shit of the old to get to the strange of the new."
-Robert Askins

P.S. Jones and the Frozen City is one of the most fun and imaginative plays and productions this year and Rob Askins is definitely one of the most exciting playwrights coming up. I couldn't wait to hear what he and Director Jose Zayas had to say about their work together (Interview by director Kel Haney).

KEL HANEY: Can you tell us a bit about how you orginally came up with the central character, Pig Shit, and how the world around him developed? Is it safe to assume that you're a fan of comic books?

ROB ASKINS: Well... when I was growing up I spent a lot of time working on my grandfather's tree farm. It was my job to put the dirt into the pots. I spent all day scooping. We would take the trees in a big ol' converted cattle trailer and sit by the side of the road to sell them. My Grandfather was a quiet man. There wasn't much talking. I would pull out my comics and dream of a different world.

Pig Shit is built around child dreams of the world. He goes on a journey he can't understand through pockets of the world where the rules shift constantly. He wants very badly do to what's right. To do what's good, but at every turn the easy answer -the comic book solution, is yanked out from under him.   

(L-R): Joe Paulik (P.S. Jones), Sofia Jean Gomez (Momma)
KH: I love how you incorporated an 'outside' narrative voice, speaking directly to the audience. How did that device develop?

RA: Me and Jose were talking and at a very early stage we were trying to answer the basic question of how do we do this? How do we get across all these strange images. From there it turned into a whole buncha stuff, a way to highlight the artifice, a way to accomplish exposition, a way to narrate comic book style, the thing we was doin'. It started as a hammer and ended as a beating heart.

KH: Jose, when did you first encounter a draft of this play? (I think I recall a reading of this play at Ensemble Studio Theatre in the winter/spring of 2011 & I think you directed it...) Do you remember what your initially drew you to this piece?

JOSE ZAYAS: My friend Matt Huffman and Rob approached me about directing a reading in September of 2011.  It was at EST.  The play had me from the title, originally called PIG SHIT AND THE FROZEN CITY, it was brash and crazy and I knew that I was about to get into something that was fun. 

What I didn't expect was the poetry and the imagination of the piece.  I was mesmerized by Rob's conceits, the sweetness of his characters and the breadth of his imagination.  It was an impossible play filled with impossible stage directions. And it is a play, unlike most plays, that takes us somewhere we've never been.  A new world, a new myth, how exciting is that? Rob is a master of the off-kilter stage direction and I knew I wanted to hear this voice as part of the reading, so I decided to make the actors a chorus, this device worked surprisingly well and gave me a quick insight into how the play could be staged, if the piece was about narration, the act of storytelling, a kind of ballad of a superhero as told to us by a community, then the story could be told through language and through simple theatrical gestures.

(L-R): Bobby Moreno, Katey Parker & Chloe Moser (All covered up playing Lothar puppet), Eric Wright on floor with head down (Hand), and Joe Paulik (P.S. Jones)
RA: Yeah, it was crazy. We went in with all this vague notion. Well maybe, and maybe, and maybe, and came out with a thing. The actors helped us to answer so many questions. We just sat around asking questions about the weird world we were trying to create. Just really beating the hell out of it. And the puppets... watching the spider take her first steps was a revelation. Lothar growling a little. Then a lot. I remember walking down the street with a mock up of the hand on and little kids would just stare and laugh and clap their and hands and hide behind their mothers. That was a moment that delighted me to no end.

KH:  Rob, did you do any significant rewrites, prior to the workshop, following the workshop, or in rehearsal for the production?

RA: Oh man, this thing was 149 pages at the beginning. Real nutty. As nutty as it is now, it was only wilder back then. In writing the play, I said no to nothing. I just let it rip. I was looking at the Henry Darger stuff and wanted to include every world I'd wandered through. Every loaded sign system. Every wild whim. One of the tasks of the rewrite process was just getting it all together. Getting it into one world. That has been the process. How do we take a thing that is intended to defy sense and make it watchable and coherent in production.

Joe Paulik (P.S. Jones)

 KH: The design elements of this production are tremendously cohesive--how did you assemble the design team?
I have worked with all of the designers in different productions. They are my creative family and whenever I can, I try to bring them together. This allows for a process that is not precious. Everyone in the room is in it to win it, we love to have fun, but we are all problem solvers and this play was a giant puzzle that inspired us from day one.  The set designer Jason Simms and I have done musicals, straight plays, comedies etc...He has a remarkable eye, an understanding of the economics of off-off Broadway theater, a brilliantly dry sense of humor, a finely tuned sense of story and can create sharp edged whimsy like nobody else I know.

The projections were created by Alex Koch, David Tennent and Kate Freer: Jason created the backbone of our world and the projected world is the beautiful dress on top.  It's been a wonderful collaboration and it has resulted in a production that really takes advantage of the language of comic books and graphic novels to tell a story that can best be told on the stage.

The sound by Jane Shaw and Emma Wilks keeps the play moving, and gives it a cinematic quality- the production is very tightly choreographed and the sound is invaluable in creating that alternate universe where giants and spiders coexist. The lighting by Ryan Ogara is magical and quite detailed and it plays a big part in creating the illusions needed to tell this mad story, he is the unsung hero that makes the marriage between set and projections work so well. The whimsical costumes by Carla Bellisio are a pure explosion of color and madness. She gives us that wonderful polish that ties everything together and connects our world with the world of PS in recognizable but odd ways.

And of course the magical and unique puppets by Eric Wright and the puppet kitchen are that cherry on top that makes the audience feel like they're kids again- these wonderful beasts and inventions are what take us fully into that other world where humans coexist with magical creatures.

Sofia Jean Gomez (Great Glass Spider)

KH:  How about the cast? Some of these actors were involved with last summer's workshop. What can you tell us about the casting process?

JZ: Preston Martin, Jenny Seastone Stern and Steven Rishard were involved in last summer's workshop.  Preston actually came onboard when we did the reading last spring, he has been working on it the longest.  Everyone else has come on it through auditions, recommendations and luck.  Diana Oh, Bobby Moreno, Sofia Jean Gomez and our PS, Joe Paulik came to us through auditions that we held in the fall and our puppetteers were brought to us by the brilliant folks at the puppet kitchen.

It was a long process as one of the things we discovered is that we needed actors who had a particular personality to make this work and an affinity for this material.  We saw many great actors but Rob's language and characterizations demanded a particular kind of performance- it's hard to explain but it's the kind of show that you know immediately when an actor gets it- we were looking for actors who were funny, adventurous, who could deliver Rob's language with wit and irony but also with heart. Not an easy thing to find and it was actually through the process that I figured out many of the rules of the world that helped us
Robert Askins
create such an exciting and tight ensemble.


KH:  How about the rehearsal process for the production? Were there any unexpected challenges?
JZ: It was a great process. So much fun and so many laughs. I think that we are all surprised at how physical the play was.  The precision needed to tell the story surprised us. The PS role is very demanding, you have to run, do mime, be funny and genuine while acting with a puppet hand that behaves as another actor; the spider on the chair looks easy but you have to coordinate three actresses to make this happen as one, same thing with the great green builder Lothar.  To make this work you have to create an ensemble that trusts each other and that is willing to go that extra mile to make a second of stage time work. 

The biggest challenge was finding the style of the play and the balance between the stylized comic book world and the truth of the emotions.  I don't think we really found this until tech came in, since the tech is so heavy in this show and it affects rhythm, it was like acting in front of a green screen for the most part.  Quite tough but ulimately a wonderful challenge.

RA: It was the best thing ever. It was play. Then deep question. Then laugh contest.  

KH:  Jose, after I saw the show, I asked you how long you had to tech for this show, and you told me THREE days! It's an understatement to say that I'm impressed... How'd your team make this happen?!?

JZ: A lot of preplanning, a lot of long nights and a lot of love for the show and for each other.  It always helps when everyone involved really believes in the show.  I knew we could do it but I'm always surprised when it turns out so well.

KH: The play ends with a cliffhanger, a teaser for a potential next chapter for P.S. & Co. Is this simply a homage to the serialized nature of comic books or are you seriously thinking about a sequel?

RA: No, not just homage. This is just the beginning. Darger's realms of the unreal went on and on and on. I think that is a challenge to me. To write through influence. To write past "sense". We make sense. It is an artificial, manufactured thing. It is the crystallization of a world view an old way of seeing the confusion that we suffer through. The challenge of now is how to up-end sense. How to disturb it. How to get outside and see the world new now again. To do that we must keep going. Again and again. Deeper and deeper into the absurd. Further and further into the weird narrative obsessions. We have to keep digging and digging through the shit of the old to get to the strange of the new. So expect 100 sequels, prequels and alternate histories. We have not yet begun to get weird.

P.S. Jones and the Frozen City runs until December 23rd at the New Ohio Theatre, located at 154 Christopher Street between Greenwich and Washington Streets in New York City. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for studnets and seniors and can be purchased on line here or by calling 1-800-838-3006.

KEL HANEY is a freelance director, who focuses on new plays and musicals. She has directed and developed new work at Ars Nova, The Directors Company, Cherry Lane Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Flea, The Lark, Ma-Yi Theater Company, New Dramatists, New Georges, NY Fringe Festival, Partial Comfort Productions, Studio 42, Vampire Cowboys, Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre, Westport Country Playhouse, Williamstown Theatre Festival & the 52nd Street Project.  Also: resident director at The Flea, Manhattan Theatre Club Directing Fellow, Lincoln Center Directors Lab, Old Vic/New Voices Exchange Program and Ensemble Studio Theatre member.

PS Jones Photo credit: Jill Steinberg Photography.

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