Sunday, January 27, 2013

What Does It Mean To Follow - The Art of Collaboration by Playwright Crystal Skillman

I first saw you and the world stopped. There was no time. And we were two. We were two. 


As we kick off this clean sheet of a year of 2013, I’m struck by how, as writers, we’re literally sharing with the world who we are at the moment. We’re sharing what we’ve learned and mastered - as a playwright your audience is in some ways watching you grow up as an artist.

The more personal my work has become, the more I’ve realized I’ve tapped into something an audience is really craving now from theatre.  FOLLOW is one of those plays.  Just published on indie theater now, it’s a play that is truly indie in spirit. In a nutshell, FOLLOW is an hour long play about The Tallen Family, as two estranged brothers must say goodbye to Lily, the woman they've loved in her dying hour and tell her daughter the truth about their past. Lily is never seen, and is placed where the audience sits, therefore the audience is Lily.

The play was ingeniously and inventively directed by Daniel Talbott at Fanfare (Horsetrade’s space on E. 4th Street) last fall so only ten audiences members could see at time.
 Talbott and Skillman

Daniel Talbott:  I’ve been obsessed lately with wanting to try to create a theater with only ten seats in it, and I’m so lucky that our extraordinary producer Lanie “Roger” Zipoy was so insanely game and wonderful about the idea, cause obviously, financially, it’s suicide.  It was so open and personal performing for so few people every night, and with that intimacy, any type of wall or barrier or ability to hide at all really did disappear.

I remember the people in the audience for this show – their faces, what they did during the show - more than any show I’ve ever worked on, except for Christine Jones’ brilliant Theater for One. It always felt special, the stakes where always extremely high and attached to the people who had come to see it, and there was no separation between the play and the audience.  We were all in that room together, and alone.  I loved that, and if I had my way I think I’d try to do it for almost every show I worked on - big, small, or anywhere in between.

FOLLOW really started as Daniel wanted to direct these two extraordinary actors in their 70s: Matthew Lewis and Jerry Matz. They were originally going to rock some Becket monologues but Daniel got excited more by creating something new. He asked me to get involved and came up with the great idea to do 'Mike Leigh style interviews' to create a new piece, using the world of Beckett as inspiration, but keeping it still very much my own play.
Actor Matthew Lewis
 "The more I immerse myself in Crystal's words, the more my deeps bubble up with all the attendant fears. I know this tell-all stuff was supposed to be over. But there are two things about myself that are very much a part of me and that I almost never talk about. The first is that I am a phony. Simple as that. Deep down that's what I think, or at least, fear. Second one is that when I was very young, I often fantasized about making myself invisible and being around and among people who had no idea I was there. That's it. If it's any use, use it. If not, ignore it. I love Crystal's gift for language.”
- email from actor Matthew Lewis after an interview

I love interviewing actors when I write - for the New Colony in Chicago, James Asmus and I co-wrote a play (in Collaboraction’s festival) following their model of interviewing actors on stage who would enter as their character. Often whole lines the actor shared became the play because they were sooo awesome and it was so illuminating. Also in the wonderful Playmaking classes I assist with APAC, we have the same approach.

But the interviews for FOLLOW were different. They were with the actors as themselves. In getting to know them, I was creating the play. I was using it as inspiration to write. (Because good lord! The play was to go into rehearsal in a month!) But these interviews, and my collaborating with these actors both personally and professionally, left a huge mark on me.
Addie Johnson with Sarah Shaefer in background
Originally the female character was a sister, around their age, also arriving to say goodbye to her mother. Kathryn Kates was unable to do the role as she got booked in a new show and Lanie Zipoy mentioned working with Addie Johnson, Daniel Talbott’s wife. I leapt at the chance - not only have I been longing to work with Addie since The Telling, a play that I really consider the beginnings of my writing career, but also I realized the character should be one of the brother’s daughters (instead of their sister).

I will never forget my Skype conversation with Addie while she was in LA and I was in London (I had flown in for the recording of Bobby Cronin’s musical Concrete Jungle, I'm co-book writing the book, which was being recorded in the West End). Addie knows my writing - my strengths as well as my weaknesses, so I was a little nervous to hear her thoughts on this early draft. Her generosity touched me deeply. She shared her experience with loss and family and was so emotionally open and available to me that I was able to clearly see what must be done next. I had a huge writing checklist for myself as a result of our conversation but I was really jazzed. I dove back into the writing inspired and worked on the draft on the plane back the next day.

Meanwhile, Daniel was always really excited by the idea of having the cast be so large in such a small space - can you tell that play was set in NYC? :) I got chills when Daniel walked around Fanfare waving his arm and describing his idea was to not just capture the  drama of a family losing a woman - but in the middle of this play about loss, we’d follow several other wordless characters. These other characters - each with their own drama - each staged in the same space, yet so clearly each living in different apartments. For me, it hit why loss hurts so much. Because the world, for good and worse, goes on without you.

Right there in the room the actors would be performing in, I typed the new setting that Daniel and I both literally described together at the same time: "Noah’s apartment on the lower East Side, Josh’s apartment on the West Side and every apartment in NYC.”
Video by Jody Christopherson
Talbott: The play originally was just the two fathers and Sidney, but I couldn’t stop thinking about all
the other folks who were stacked on top of and sandwiched below this story happening. I wanted to see if we could somehow include them and their lives, juxtaposed and living simultaneously in and
around and through each other, without them knowing it. Almost as though that on any given day, you could come to the space and see one of their stories instead of the Tallens’ story, and that at the same time you’d watch the Tallens acting out their lives around them.

Do you hear the TV? That old man on the fifth floor watching movies all day. That couple you’d always talk about - “wide-eyes” you’d call them, always fighting or grabbing at each other, bump up against me in the hall and I’m more lonely than ever - so alone in this city.

When Daniel informed me who would be playing the “other neighbors” in Follow, I was floored. Each name he mentioned was not only a wonderful actor but writers themselves!

One of the wide-eyed couples was Troy Deutsch who is the playwright of Lake Water (!) which I adore. He just finished a new play called A Video World about a kid in a small town who wants to go to Hollywood and be famous more than anything (and it involves Kevin Costner!)

Troy Deutsch: I came to the project last minute and it was exhilarating to jump right in and leave my insecurities at the door. Within minutes of meeting Sarah, we were grabbing and kissing each other. I've never worked like that before, but it was really exciting and liberating. There was a lot of trust in the room. Sarah and I got really close really fast and Daniel helped us shape that intense personal connection and bring it to the stage. I approached this role just like any other role, but instead of dialogue we were communicating through behavior. 

Richard Millen, who played the man on the fifth floor watching movies, had just finished a short film called Chronicle of a Death Postponed, which won the Award of Excellence in the Best Shorts Competition ( He is literally one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever met. Every movement he made on stage meant something - his character's inner life was so strong.

Jerry Matz and sound designer Janie Bullard

Richard Millen: “I had to start with what I know ... being in, inside, being alone. Make what happened that day, that evening, before the opening, specific... what had I done, etc. when I go down for popcorn... make use of every detail on the piano... Find out what Daniel meant when he suggested a stuffed animal as a new found friend...made me a lot less alone. Let the sounds and voices of each neighbor do something to me. Use the unfinished New York Times crossword puzzle book that had been given to me in the hospital... (What is it to need to be heard and not be able to speak?)

Sarah Shaefer, Troy’s wide-eyed partner, is also an actor/playwright with upcoming plays for Mariah MacCarthy's Caps Lock Theatre Company (GIN BABY) and Rising Phoenix's Cino Nights.

Sarah Shaefer: I had a lot of fun going through different ideas of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do on stage in the play, which ultimately ended up being a playwright. I was actually writing a real play on stage, one that I'm currently working on about date rape, and before rehearsal or a show, I would always go over exactly what I was planning on writing, so I would have a list of scenes that I needed to write in the notebook I had on stage with me. I absolutely loved that I had to live my own private life with these other very private lives happening around me.

Gillian Rougier set the whole play in motion. A neighbor who is an actress rehearsing a dance for an audition, trying over and over again to get it right while rewinding Fiona Apple's song "Regret". Gillian choreographed her own opening dance - her determination set the tone for the whole play of characters trying to fix their lives desperately.
Gillian Rougier
Gillian Rougier: The dance at the start of the play was was an ode to all the unknown artists in the city who work relentlessly, putting their all on the line for a dream, without making any real headway. I wanted to acknowledge their struggle, their pain. I wanted to dance for them. When I come back in at the end of the play, it was heavy. Think of the worst day possible and coming home after it. I wanted to honor the weight of the disappointment, of the rejection. I wanted to try to recover from the pain, the let down, the sadness, the wariness. The apartment became my sanctuary, a place to lick my wounds. One of the things that heals a dancer's soul is to dance and under the genius direction of Daniel, we decided that I would dance again. There had to be some hope in the story.
Lanie Zipoy, Tristan Raines and Matthew Lewis
Our design team was Tristan Raines (Costume Design), Janie Bullard (Sound Design), Steven Cunningham (who helped Lanie Zipoy as producer), Kevin Shea (Stage Management). They popped out Fanfare’s space to not only really feel like an actual apartment, but also helped create wild, intimate inner moments of the characters. Jimmy Davis, a wonderful actor in his own right, came in for a day and helped create a dance break moment that happens in the play - where all characters - unaware of the others take part in the same dance.

Jimmy Davis: I knew the dance for FOLLOW, a play of intimate proportions, should be intimate. That the actors filled the simple choreography with such appropriate emotion was exactly perfect. Exactly what was needed. It was the actors' own projection onto the empty movement that elevated just-a-dance into another level of story.
Jimmy Davis with cast

As I write this, Daniel and Addie with RPR are co-producing (along with piece by piece, and the Barrow Group), ALL THE RAGE. They started previews on Jan 19th and they are all working on the first Rattlestick West production out in LA in March/April. They’re very excited too about the next few Cinos (which includes Sarah's new play in the fall).

I’m working on polishing my next play Geek which opens March 23 with the wonderful Vampire Cowboys which has been a year in the making. The words of kindness from what our intimate audience discovered from Follow still rings in my ear and gives me courage. I saved all the kind emails sent after the play including actress Keilly McQuail:

"I've been thinking so much about your play. I don't think I've seen anything like it before, and you're right, some of it is the fact that I've never seen that generation of actors playing in the downtown theatre mud like that, which was amazing. But your writing also just seeps into me, in a way that I've not really experienced before. You were writing about these giant things that get written about all the time, life, death and true love--but it was the newest, most refreshing way I've seen someone write about that in the longest time, I even felt it in my bones. It was such an intimate gift, your play. I just wanted to say thanks and tell you that it stuck with me.”
Jerry Matz
Great collaboration creates something unique for an audience. Great collaboration is about listening. Early on in those interviews, Actor Jerry Matz shared these actual thoughts with me:

“As an actor -- only feeling myself on stage
A coat
Try it on - it fits
Where it came from
Someone else’s life”

I remember the line the minute it came out of his mouth as I typed away - transcribing whatever the actors shared without judgement. I bolded and typed next to it "THIS IS GREAT!!" In the play, it ended up being an incredible moment, both in language and event as his character Josh Tallen,was finally able to tell Sidney the arriving daughter  that he is her father and say goodbye to his brother’s wife who he always loved.

"If love is a coat --
Try it on - it fits
Where it came from
Someone else's life
Today it ripped open
Today ripped me open"

The act of theater is give and take. It’s all about choice. These are the folks you choose to make your family. A theater family is all about the art of collaboration.
Addie Johnson, Matthew Lewis and Jerry Matz
Lanie Zipoy: There’s nothing like being a part of the germination of a terrific project and watch it bloom into something absolutely gorgeous. I was so happy to see the lives of people we rarely see in indie theater – two older brothers – on stage. That was a real joy. As I get older, I’m excited to produce work that investigates the different chapters of our lives. I love plays about 17-year-olds, but we’re not 17 forever. We need that diversity, cacophony of viewpoints and life experience for the stage.

Producer Lanie Zipoy's passion for the play was infectious and such a gift. She became the heart of Follow as the show ran, most of the time personally greeting the ten audience members that would come a night and leading them up to Fanfare which had been transformed into the Tallens apartment, and of course, every apartment in NYC.

The ending of FOLLOW goes to a very emotional place - the family is there for Lily's last moments, which in essence are the audience's for that moment. For that moment we see through Lily's eyes, her loved ones trying so hard to let go and move on.

Addie Johnson: Sidney lives in a dark place - the other side of the moon from the inspiring exuberance and positivity that twirls Crystal through life. A lot of times I do a play and I can't remember a word of it a week later, or a month, but the first monologue of Sidney's twists through my mind all the time. It's a little scary. Daniel's direction is so demanding and so trusting and so freeing at the same time, in a way beyond anything else I've experienced, and his work and Crystal's haunting words came together to make something that breathed so fully in the world that I'm still turning it over and over obsessively, and still trying to back away from it. Almost as though the play - the experience itself - is rasping for air at the edges of our memory, demanding attention and foreboding loss.

Matthew Lewis: The end was the Beckett moment. Beckett wanted to call Piece of Monologue 'Gone'. He wrote of the certainty of darkness closing into further darkness - Crytal wrote of darkness opening into the possibility of connecting. Every night I knew it was impossible.

Jerry Matz: I loved doing that last scene with Lilly. Each time felt fresh and I didn't force anything. Whatever was there, was there. After the first few performances, I kept my eyes closed while visualizing our life, and I found it freeing and exciting.

Follow’s final words are the final act of collaboration written by me, given life by these actors, through the love and care of Daniel's direction, our whole team. They are a gift from all of us to you.

“I forgive you
forgive me
begone pain
begone past
begone love

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN is the author of GEEK opens March 23 in New York with Vampire Cowboys. WILD, which debuted in Chicago this past summer with Kid Brooklyn Productions (Directed by Evan Caccioppoli) will make it’s debut in London with Kibo Productions THIS SUMMER.

She is currently co-writing the book of Bobby Cronin’s musical CONCRETE JUNGLE (the international recording mentioned above is coming out THIS YEAR), working on her screenplay RUN with director Michael Melamedoff, and her new full length ANOTHER KIND OF LOVE. Crystal teaches playwriting at the Sam French Institute.

(VIDEO) JODY CHRISTOPHERSON is a performer and writer. She has been awarded grants from Philadelphia Shakespeare, Bowery Arts and Sciences, commissions from Blue Box productions and the Exquisite Corpse Film Festival in which her film "LIKE THIS" was an official selection and winner. Her work as a performer has been seen at: Lincoln Center, Dixon Place, EST, The Public Theater, PS122, the Humana Festival, Classic Stage Company, the Bushwick Starr, Nebraska Rep and as a singer/lyricst/composer for the theatrical band Greencard Wedding with Dutch actor/ musician Michael de Roos. She is the editor and creator of New York Theatre Review Blogspot. Her writing has been featured on; The Huffington Post, (Jody is an HP Blogger)‘s Indie Theater Companion. Member and Patrick Lee Awards Coordinator: Independent Theater Bloggers Association.

Photo Credit: Hunter Canning (Production) Daniel Talbott (rehearsal)

No comments:

Post a Comment