Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Theatre 167 & J.Stephen Brantley: Bold, Boundary-Breaking and Beautiful

Jenny Lyn and Ari in their Workspace
"Our mission is to investigate intersections, boundaries and borders - both cultural and artistic"
-Ari Laura Kreith 
Artistic Director of Theatre 167
What is Pirira about?

Ari:  PIRIRA is about the ways we’re all connected—across cultures, space and time.  And it’s about figuring out what to do with that information, and how that knowledge changes us. 

Jenny Lyn Bader: You can even physically see people and their worlds connect in the play, since two rooms on opposite sides of the globe — in Manhattan and Malawi — mix in a single space.

Jenny Lyn and Ari both agree: It’s a play about changing yourself and saving the world. 

What has been the process of developing the show at Theatre 167

Ari: I was lucky enough to get to read PIRIRA when it was a 17-minute, two-character play. And after I read it, J.Stephen said “I’m feeling like there might be more here,” and I said, “yes.”  I feel like that’s often been my role throughout our process—saying yes, or “yes and…”.  J.Stephen is such a deep and adventurous writer and this play takes some big risks, in terms of both style and content. It’s been exciting, as we’ve worked together on the play through multiple readings, a week-long workshop, and now this production, to be able to support and encourage that. 

Jenny Lyn: By the time I saw it, he had more than 17 minutes. We were doing a show with over 50 people involved and asked if anyone wanted to use the theatre on our night off. J.Stephen wanted to hear his rough draft and so we hosted the first read of Pirira.

What was that first reading like?

Jenny Lyn: That reading was done on a split stage, so you couldn’t see the worlds of these two rooms, one in Africa and one in New York, intermingling as they do now in the full staging. But it already had so much beauty in it, so much soul. And it was asking such an important question: what if each of us engaged with each other differently? Could the whole world change?

Can you tell us more about Theatre 167 and the work you do there? What was the inspiration for forming the company?

Ari: Theatre 167 takes its name from the number of languages spoken in Jackson Heights, Queens, the most diverse neighborhood in the world. 

Jenny Lyn Bader
Artistic Producer
Jenny Lyn: Basically when Ari moved to that neighborhood she was floored by the diversity there, not just how diverse but how much interaction there was between the many different immigrant populations. And she got inspired to create a collaboratively written play, and got a dozen of us together to write it. That was 167 TONGUES. After that, we were hooked. We wanted to continue to do this community-building work, to put people of all backgrounds onstage, to serve under-served communities.

Ari: Over the course of three years, we brought groups of playwrights into the neighborhood, and into a deeply collaborative development process, to create what ultimately became The Jackson Heights Trilogy:  167 TONGUES, which we produced again after forming the company, YOU ARE NOW THE OWNER OF THIS SUITCASE, and JACKSON HEIGHTS 3AM. We produced them individually in Queens and then collectively in Manhattan this past season, in rotating repertory, in a production involving a totality of 18 playwrights, with 37 actors playing 93 roles.

PIRIRA feels like an organic progression from THE JACKSON HEIGHTS TRILOGY in so many ways.  Our mission is to investigate intersections, boundaries and borders—both cultural and artistic—and to explore how the telling of our individual and collective stories inspires us to appreciate a multiplicity of voices.  The TRILOGY allowed us to do that on an epic scale; PIRIRA investigates these questions in a way that is more intimate, intense and deeply personal. 

J. Stephen Brantley is both the playwright and an actor in this production. How has this changed/affected/informed the development/rehearsal process?

Ari: J.Stephen has acted in his own work before, and we’d just come off the Trilogy where we’d worked that way together, so the idea of J.Stephen being both playwright and actor felt very natural.  I will say that J.Stephen wasn’t initially sure that he should play Jack; I was pretty certain from day one, but I think neither of us wanted to push it.  We really wanted what was best for the play.  We did readings with other wonderful actors playing Jack, and just kept coming back to the rightness of J.Stephen in this role. 

J.Stephen has discussed the fact that in the past, it’s always been easy for him to be simultaneously actor and playwright in the room, and that with this project it was sometimes harder to switch from one role to the other. 

What do you think it is about this project that made that more difficult?

Ari: I think that was due to the nature of the play, and just the sheer emotional rawness of it.  As an actor, he had to be free to lose himself in the play and control nothing, and my goal was to make space in the room for him to do that—to be the “keeper of the play” so that he didn’t have to worry about it.

Jenny Lyn: This play is also like a chamber fugue written for four instruments, it has an amazing sense of music and I imagine it must be especially challenging to just be one instrument the whole time when you are trying to listen to the whole composition. But we’re so glad he decided to be in it!

Ari Laura Kreith
Artistic Director
Ari: Yes. Our collaboration on an ongoing basis feels very joyful and rich and exciting.  I think we are both people who prioritize what the play needs above all else, which makes decision-making fluid and easy.  And we both also really care about process and everyone’s experience throughout, which means we usually have similar goals for what happens in the room.  

Neither of us is particularly attached to roles or status, so we really invite the other’s contribution.  I think the most exciting times for me are just when we’re all mucking about (and the actors are very much a part of this too) in the world of the play, finishing each other’s sentences and making discoveries and figuring out how to tell the story.

How did you meet J.Stephen and become aware of his work?

Ari: Oh, this is funny!  I met J.Stephen when he interviewed for a role in a live industrial I was casting—a standardized patient project where actors pretend to be patients to help train medical students develop bedside manner.  And it was a crazy day, my son was sick and so I had to bring him to this huge group interview with probably 20 actors, and some of them were clearly annoyed that there was a two-year-old in the room.  And J.Stephen just charmed him in an instant, and throughout the whole interview just kept making him smile.  And I just was so grateful for his kindness and ability to play multiple roles in the room at once (foreshadowing?) that I cast him, figuring that he’d do an amazing job of nurturing fledgling medical students. 

And then I learned that J.Stephen blogged about theatre, so I invited him to YOU ARE NOW THE OWNER OF THIS SUITCASE and he wrote about it in such a way that I felt like he just completely got what Theatre 167 was about as a company.  And his writing was so beautiful!  So I asked him to join us as a writer on the JACKSON HEIGHTS 3AM.

I still remember our first phone conversation about JACKSON HEIGHTS 3AM, where he said he probably didn’t have time and of course, I’d never read any of his plays and did I want to…and then somehow from there he said yes.  And he never actually sent me any plays, so we went into development for 3AM with my never actually having read anything he’d written, which sounds utterly crazy, except I think there’s something important about trusting your intuition in a creative process and in this case I just knew. 

Then he wrote a character in JACKSON HEIGHTS 3AM that I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing so he became an actor on that project. And when we brought the show to Manhattan in February, he played two utterly different roles back-to-back, which was amazing.

Jenny Lyn: I first met J.Stephen when he joined us as a co-author on JACKSON HEIGHTS 3AM. As a playwright, I worked on all three of the trilogy plays. Following real-life meetings and research sessions, we shared characters and stor- lines on a Google document. Of course, not all playwrights like sharing. Some are more suited to a deeply collaborative process more than others. J.Stephen turned out to be wonderful at working with other writers, an especially generous and ingenious collaborator. It was such a pleasure working with him, we wanted to again. And we keep finding ways to work together.

In the play, two separate scenes are occurring simultaneously. What was the rehearsal process like to bring these two worlds together on one stage?

Ari: It was so exciting to figure out how to do that!  After our first read-through, we rehearsed the worlds separately for a week.  We spent three days just investigating the Chad-Gilbert relationship and arc in New York, then spent time exploring just the Jack-Ericka story in Malawi before bringing everyone back together.  

J. Stephen Brantley
Although the two stories are distinct, one of the most beautiful things about this play is the way the arc of one world impacts the arc of the other.  Once we started bringing the stories together, there was a period where it felt very challenging to take them apart. 

We were all very interested in the moments of simultaneity or resonance, and working together allowed us to discover those.  For example, there’s a moment where Ericka says “ouch” in Malawi, and in the next breath Chad pricks his finger on a thorn in New York.  Jack talks about the challenges of digging wells in Malawi while water is being poured (loudly!) into a bucket of roses in Manhattan.  So we got to find those things in the room together, which was really exciting. And then, much later, we pulled things apart again.  The question then was, “Am I really playing the truth of this relationship or am I letting the text of the other scene take me where I need to go?”   

It felt like our process mirrored one of the major themes of the play—that our individual experience is impacted by and connected to people across the world, whether we realize it or not.

How did you both get involved/or exposed to theater?

Ari: I grew up out in the country, and there was a theatre in a barn about a mile from my house. The summer I was six (and I don’t know exactly what inspired this) I decided to go pick up cigarette butts in their driveway and see whether if I did that they would let me in to see a show. And they did!  

This little tiny barn turned out to be a nationally known stop on singer/songwriter, folk-jazz-blues concert tours, and it housed a resident company. And they happened to be doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Somehow I got cast as a fairy and they made me a costume out of an old t-shirt with plastic dry-cleaner bags stapled to it.  When the lights hit those bags, they turned the most beautiful colors.  I remember running through the audience and leaping off of furniture, and it was just so joyful.  What I didn’t realize until later was that the space was started by a group of people who had met in recovery.  So they were changing the world and saving each other at the same time. That was my first theatre home.

And then, in the third grade I told my teacher I wanted to direct a play and she said OK.  Thinking back, it was astonishing because I was a really shy kid. But she basically let me take over the class for several days (embarrassingly, I think I also cast myself as the lead) and then we performed for the entire school.  

Jenny Lyn: I also started putting on plays at a tender age, but at home. My mother was an actress so I grew up around theatre even when I was small and she had a few steps built in our living room that were like a platform, in case anyone ever wanted to perform when they came over. So I had a tiny stage right at home where I created and staged my first plays.

What's next for the company?

Jenny Lyn: First on our list is letting the world know about our world premiere of PIRIRA! The play has just been published by Indie Theatre Now, which is very exciting.

Ari: Then in January we’re bringing the Trilogy to the Queens Museum, where we’ve been invited to participate in the International. We’re re-imagining the plays plays as a site-specific performance for their grand re-opening.

Jenny Lyn: Parts of the Trilogy will be staged in different galleries, in the cafeteria, in the elevator… watch out!

Ari: We’re also incubating some new projects, as always!  More about those soon...

Salty or sweet?

Ari: Both always. One gets you to the other.

Jenny Lyn: Yes, they’re good in combination, but I have to go with salty. I think there should be a Halloween for salt!

Pirira, starring Adrian Baidoo, J.Stephen Brantley,Todd Flaherty and Flor De Liz Perez and directed by Ari Laura Kreith has been extended from November 15th - 24th at the the West End Theater in NYC. You can get tickets at Theatre167.org.

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