“NOMA” uses movement to visualize a young girl’s fight for her life against a dark and uncontrollable force

Original artwork by Sara Zepezauer

As I walk into the Brooklyn Airspace I find myself in a warehouse with tall ceilings and scaffolding. Immediately my eyes are drawn to long blue silks that hang from ceiling to floor. A young woman pulls herself up the fabric using just her arms, and I am unable to look away asshe intertwines her arms and legs and effortlessly twirls and untwirls. Suddenly she lets go- the silk quickly unravels as she shoots towards the ground, letting the fabric catch her at the last minute.

Rehearsing at the Brooklyn Airspace (photo by Maia Sacca-Schaeffer)

I have entered one of the rehearsals for “NOMA,” a wordless movement piece with aerial dance directed by Sara Zepezauer and choreographed by the Circus Solaris Collective. In it a little girl’s world exists solely on her canvas. When she steps away to look at her work, she is swept up again in her strokes, moving among the colors she combines. As the darkness within her starts to multiply and becomes more aggressive, black enters into her painting and it becomes increasingly clear that she is dying from something that is seductive, dangerous and growing at an exponential rate. In the midst of this consuming darkness, an uncontrollable force takes over her mind and body and it remains unclear until the very end whether this is a self-created reality or the driving force of her art. The work uses painting as a metaphor for the darkness that can overtake us in our futile flight from death, pairing concept with visual representation and using movement to emulate the strokes of a paintbrush.

Zepezauer says that a year ago she went through a difficult time and this show became a way for her to cope with what she was experiencing. She says the piece seeks to explore the “uncontrollable force a sickness can create when your body becomes a host to something you can’t control.” The darkness that overtakes the girl in the show is intentionally ambiguous and it is left for us to decide what fuels this darkness and whether it even exists. “NOMA” speaks to anyone who has endured or watched a loved one endure a darkness too overwhelming to control, too large to conquer and too seductive to resist.

L-R: Rachel Boyadjis, Sara Zepezauer and Emily Henrie (photo by Maia Sacca-Schaeffer)

There are three members of the ensemble at today’s rehearsal: Sara Zepezauer, Rachel Boyadjis and Emily Henrie. Zepezauer has always been a dancer, starting when she was two years old. But when a tragic accident at age 18 forced her to have knee surgery she thought her dance career was over. She revisited silks after the accident, making her tentative first climb again after six months of immobility. While she couldn’t stand or dance on the ground, dancing in the air was a different story. She made the move in 2011 from Los Angeles to New York City and continued doing aerial dance, directing her first show “The Secret Below” in 2014. She has been doing silks for nine years now. Boyadjis is Zepezauer’s performance partner, but her background is based in theater writing and performance. Thus she brings a different viewpoint to the process of creating “NOMA” and says she helps with developing ideas about how the different parts on stage interact with one another. Four years ago she decided to give silks a try and after going to a class was drawn to the way it allowed her to express herself with the same freedom and emotion she found through writing. Henrie is a gymnast and she will be doing a solo within the show involving tumbling, hand balancing, and line drawing with chalk. The variety of backgrounds and experiences each member brings allows for diverse techniques and styles within the show.

The dancers’ movements will be accompanied by an overhead projector creating a dynamic backdrop in which someone will be mixing and dropping paint on a tray of water in real time. This projection will serve as the inspiration for the dancers’ movements and guide their reactions, making each performance slightly different. Zepezauer says that the painting theme that shapes the piece stems from her being a very visual thinker who often draws things before making them real. She had drawn many of the ideas for “NOMA” previously and now feels ready and excited to bring them to life. The show will also feature music described as “sound sculptures,” where sounds are built up and distorted, deconstructed and reconstructed to create experimental patterns that interact with the movement in real time. “NOMA” encourages performers and audience members to enlist all the senses and be immersed in a world of sound, sculpture and movement.

Rachel Boyadjis at rehearsal (photo by Maia Sacca-Schaeffer)

The process for creating and rehearsing the visually complex and beautiful movements of “NOMA” involves improvisation and brainstorming, with the piece constantly evolving and developing. The Circus Solaris Collective choreographed the project and it is the first piece =they have produced. The group fosters a collaborative and supportive environment that enlists creative ideas and experimentation to create something powerful. Their rehearsal process is at times individual, for instance if one of them has a solo they might work on it on their own first and then seek feedback from the other members. While the creation process involves improv and testing ideas, Zepezauer says that once they find movements and images they like they become established as choreography within the show.

Sara Zepezauer practicing silks (photo by Maia Sacca-Schaeffer)

Watching Zepezauer and Boyadjis rehearse on the silks I am blown away. I am amazed at how fluid and seamless their movements are and how weightless they look as they glide up and down. They agree that aerial dance is extremely freeing, empowering them to create shapes and images in the air. Boyadjis says that the silks are based around the idea of tension, with the angle of the fabric responsible for keeping you safe. She says that silks have their own vocabulary and there are many types of wraps and knots. There are some climbs that only involve feet or only hands, and certain drops where you catch yourself or others where you don’t need to. She also describes “transition moves” that are necessary to unify the poses into a fluid story. Boyadjis enjoys the way silks involve a process of constantly building on what you have learned and also that they allow for personal stylization. Silks require upper body strength and flexibility, and Zepezauer says that doing handstands, planks and hand balancing are all essential to build up the “pushing and pulling vocabulary that keeps the balance.” Zepezauer says “NOMA” is best described as a movement show and that aerial is just a piece of its larger framework, with each component flowing seamlessly so that no one part is more important in telling the story than another. 

Rachel Boyadjis rehearsing silks (photo by Maia Sacca-Schaeffer)

“NOMA” transports us into a new world and puts us into the body of a girl whose fight against darkness becomes our fight, constantly making us question whether that girl on stage is in fact us. Zepezauer says that while “NOMA” is based on a deeply personal experience she hopes that every member of the audience can relate it to their lives and experiences and find their own meaning in the movements, thus integrating each of us into its story.

Original artwork by Sara Zepezauer

By Maia Sacca-Schaeffer      

Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival will present the American premiere of “NOMA” September 9 to 19 at the Johnson Theater.

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“hOMAge” is a journey through the letters of a WWII refugee who refuses to let the inherited trauma of the past define her future

Original poster designed by Melody Often, 2014

“hOMAge” shows us the way theater and movement can breathe new life into stories of the past. The work employs physical theater to explore the letters and poetry of the director’s grandmother, Hella Kurth (“Oma” in German), a WWII refugee, cancer survivor and yogini. Devised by The Clearing Collaborative Ensemble and directed by Natanya Ruth Silverman, it is part narrative, part movement piece.

Silverman was inspired to create “hOMAge” as a way of sharing the words and wisdom of her grandmother with others, words that have helped guide her own path in life. She had a group of letters from her grandmother spanning a fifty year period, and the correspondences covered everything from how to live a fulfilling life to ruminations on the way life shifts and changes. Silverman said that after the strong reactions the letters elicited when she shared them with friends, bringing some to tears, she knew she wanted to find a way to share the words with a larger audience. Thus with ‘hOMAge” we get to temporarily look at the world through Kurth’s eyes and let her words touch us.

Hella Kurth (photo from truthruth8.wix.com/the-clearing)

The piece is devised by the all-female Clearing Collaborative Ensemble of choreographers, musicians, and actors who create the physical and emotional world of the story. Silverman says that she always knew she wanted this to be a show with a lot of strong women because the letters are very much about womanhood. The story is a narrative about the women in her grandmother’s lineage and a meditation on the “female artist voice that wants to be expressed but has been stifled over generations.” The show zooms out to see how certain mindsets carry across generations, looking at Silverman’s great-grandmother who was discouraged from being a singer, and how Kurth stifled her own creative impulse to focus on raising a family. With “hOMAge,” Silverman breaks the cycle of three generations of women who felt they had to silence and repress their artistic sides, literalizing this idea in the show with the “woman in paper,” who is the one who finds Kurth’s letters and though initially overwhelmed, reaches an epiphany about how everything before her became “stopped up.” This woman realizes the importance of expression through creation, finally able to turn over a new leaf after honoring and understanding the past.

Silverman started acting at a young age in a professional children’s theater company and knew right away it was where she was at home. This exposed her early on to all elements of theater creation and the process that goes into a show. She minored in theater in college but since she didn’t see theater as a way to make a living, she started working as a teacher. She directed plays at her school and got a grant to bring back its theater curriculum, pulling her back into the theater world. She is drawn to physical theater and devised work and since 2008 she has focused on this less-traditional style that works to “express the cumulative consciousness of all the collaborators.” Her desire to keep learning about movement theater led her to train in mask-making, mime, character development and collaborative theater with Dell ‘Arte International in Northern California, The Grotowski Institut in Brezinska, Poland and Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. She is currently studying physical dance theater in India to continue developing a unique approach for devising work. She is constantly seeking to learn new things and gather tools to incorporate into her creation and rehearsal process.

The 2014 cast rehearsing “hOMAge” (photo from truthruth8.wix.com/the-clearing)

“hOMAge” is a devised theater work, which Silverman describes as something that has a concept, theme, or text as its foundation. This is a radical approach that trusts the impulses of the body to guide the creation process. The actors explore how their bodies can be used to tell the story and brainstorm personal stories, poems and songs that relate to core themes of the text. For “hOMAge” Silverman says the actors pulled out lines from Kurth’s letters that meant something to them and would improvise scenes or physical images to evoke the text. She would then film these images and the group would discuss what did and didn’t work to determine the strongest elements that would permanently remain in the show, adding to the layers of dialogue and movement. The process is in many ways just as important as the final product and Silverman says it fosters a collaborative environment that incorporates the actors into the story and encourages a personal connection. Silverman has been working on making more shows like this because she is drawn to this cathartic process. The strong emotion that spurs each of her pieces creates something both poignant and authentic.

Silverman and the original cast of hOMAge from 2014 (photo from truthruth8.wix.com/the-clearing)

The ensemble will be dressed in all white to unify them as well as to turn their bodies into projection screens for stop animation images and even old family photos from her grandmother’s journal. The show will also use paper and pieces of cardboard but there’s no fixed set–the actors themselves will create the space. This approach pushes the actors be be creative in how they bring this world to life for audiences, constantly testing the boundaries of communication and how we can tell a story using physical movements. Yoga plays an important role in guiding these physical movements and Silverman says this stems from the fact that Kurth practiced yoga for over 50 years and it greatly influenced her life philosophy. Silverman knew in making this piece that she wanted to become yoga certified (she did this is 2013 in Thailand) and incorporate it into the show. At the beginning of every rehearsal she uses yoga and meditation to help center the group and give them calm and focus, and yoga’s conventions also guide the way the ensemble moves and understands their own physicality.

In “hOMAge” the actors are on stage the entire time and during a particular scene some might be speaking, others creating the set, others the soundscape. This unconventional approach leads to every step and gesture being “precise and timed because everyone is holding the space for each other and creating every moment.” Music plays an important role in the work with some of the actors singing, something Silverman has never incorporated into “hOMAge.” The music is largely the result of vocal sound effects with only small hand instruments used and every actor plays a role in bringing this music to life. She says that three of the women in the ensemble serve as the band for the show and have written songs using her grandmother’s words. Silverman gave some of the cast members lines or words from the letters to serve as a springboard for their experimentation and creation of these songs. Many of the songs elicit Kurth’s world and Germany of the 1940s. Music will also be playing as the audience walks in to the theater, as if they are walking into an ongoing story. Silverman breaks the fourth wall by letting the audience get a look behind the scenes before the show starts to deformalize the theater process and incorporate each of us into the process of bringing the piece to life.

Cast from the 2014 version of “hOMAge” (photo from truthruth8.wix.com/the-clearing)

“hOMAge” has been continually developing over the years and there have been various renditions of it, each enabling Silverman to find new “beautiful nuggets” in the letters and think of fresh ways to bring them to the performance realm. Silverman says there is always room to explore new elements of the story and excavate them in greater depth. She describes the show as “ever-evolving” and she knows that the way for it to live and grow is through the creativity, energy and voices of others. She says it is exciting and rewarding to watch the piece transform and take on new life through this process, saying, “this is the work that I’m meant to be doing. I love everything about it.” What makes “hOMAge” so powerful is that it shows us the way art fosters community and interconnectedness, tying together people from vastly different worlds and unifying their stories. Silverman hopes that sharing her grandmother’s words will touch people and empower women to continue to break the cycle by contributing their talents and voices.

Director Natanya Ruth Silverman

By Maia Sacca-Schaeffer

Theater for the New City’s 2015 Dream Up Festival will present the work September 17 to 20 at Producers’ Club Theaters, 358 West 44th Street.

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Dennis Yueh-Yeh Li’s “THE (NEW) TRIAL:” an experimental adaptation that explores identity and the power hierarchies that confine and define us

“The (New) Trial” is an adaptation of German playwright Peter Weiss’ “The New Trial” (1982) that uses Weiss’ words as a jumping off point but re-envisions them through the creative lens of adapter and director Dennis Yueh-Yeh Li, who is also Artistic Associate of The Living Theatre. Weiss, a politically engaged dramatist, earned his reputation in the post-war German literary world as a proponent of an avant-garde, meticulously descriptive writing, and as an exponent of autobiographical prose. He is best known for his plays “Marat/Sade” and “The Investigation.” Weiss’ “The New Trial” was largely influenced by Kafka’s “The Trial,” which deals with similar questions of how to maintain individuality within the machinery of corporations.

Scene from Peter Brook’s 1967 film version of “Marat/Sade” (photo from independent.co.uk)

“The (New) Trial” is intellectual and introspective, centering around K, the “self indulgent” chief attorney in an international corporation. The play explores K’s obsessive idealism and his self-destructive methodology in helping others. Confined in his own docile body, K is manipulated as the public mask for the corporation to win the “war” over current global market expansion and is abandoned by the corporation once the victory is obtained.

Weiss’ play humanizes political ideas, and while Li says this doesn’t immediately lend itself to theater, his radical adaptation creates an experimental realm in which actors can test ideas and bring Weiss’ words into today’s society. Li says Weiss’ play is not about criticizing society but representing it, and that it confronts the very topics that made him want to go into theater. Li seeks to explore the power dynamics and questions of identity inherent in Weiss’ words by overturning our expectations of the way physicality, dialogue, and music can come together to tell a story. Li says that what he liked so much about Weiss’ play is that “it leaves so much room for interpretation” and its surrealist realm enables him to inject his own ideas into it without feeling restrained. Since Weiss’ work doesn’t follow a horizontal plot, Li rearranged parts of it so that certain themes were heightened, for instance emphasizing its feminist undertones.

Dennis Yueh-Yeh Li is from Taiwan, and dressing up in drag when he was seven drew him to the world of theater and the way it allows us to play with identity and even transform into someone new. He himself is gay and views theater as a tool to explore and create dialogue about issues of identity, sexuality, politics and human nature. He says that political theater appealed to him early on because it allows us to make fun of human nature so as to understand ourselves better. He earned his Master’s degree in Performance Studies at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and is currently the Artistic Associate of the Living Theatre and an ensemble member of The Forum Project. He says that The Living Theatre has had a huge influence on him as an actor and director in that it is “anarchical” and always pushing the boundaries between the audience and the stage.

A rehearsal for “The (New) Trial.” L-R: Lamin Leroy Gibba, Marc Andrew Hem Lee, Maria Hoffmann. Photo by Dennis Yueh-Yeh Li.

As I talk with Li, I get to look at the world through his eyes and am inspired by his creativity and the unconventional techniques he employs to challenge how we understand theater. For instance, in “The (New) Trial” the stage floor is a giant mirror that forces actors to constantly confront their own identities and reflect on them. Li says that the idea of “collage” is central to the piece and that it is constantly building on itself, with even the audience contributing to this structure. The stage is set up in such a way that the audience’s seats circle the stage, forcing them to become immersed in this world as the actors talk directly to them and feed off their energy. The play also uses the audience to experiment with creating layers of identity and to test the idea that people manipulate the power dynamic based on who’s watching. The play also explores identity by allowing for fluidity of roles, with all the actors playing multiple parts and swapping roles. Li came up with the idea of having each actor create a monologue to include in the show that comments on the play and enables each performer to incorporate a part of his or her own identity into the piece.

The play is fueled by a cast made up of actors from Spain, Germany, Singapore, the United States, and Israel. This further adds to the play’s exploration of identity, and Li says he wants to show people just how much these diverse voices can contribute to the theater industry. He plans to have the actors at times speak in their own languages, explaining that people best express themselves in their mother tongue and that it gives their words an authenticity and depth of emotion. He says that “it is not about understanding the words but about transmitting emotions,” and in this way “The (New) Trial” subverts our expectations of language by questioning how necessary words are in communicating ideas. Li also explores movement as a mode of communication, and biomechanical-inspired physical work evokes the idea of the corporation as a machine that is engulfing the individuals of society. Li says this component was influenced by Asian theater, where physicality is often more important than the verbal text.

Actress Maria Hoffmann (photo from oneononenyc.com)

I also spoke with German actress Maria Hoffmann, who plays the American Ambassador, about what it is like to act in “The (New) Trial.” She earned a Master’s degree in International Relations and started acting later on to fuel her creative side, and so she says that being a part of this play is an extremely fulfilling experience because it allows her to unite her interests in International Relations and politics with theater. Hoffmann gave valuable insight into Li’s creative process as director and says she appreciates the way he lets each actor be themselves and experiment with delivery of lines and movement. She enjoys getting to use her native language of German, and says that playing multiple parts pushes her as an actress to think about her own process and the way she goes about incorporating her own identity into the characters she plays.

The rehearsal process for the show is flexible and experimental, with Li giving the actors complete freedom and always open to adjusting the roles and staging. Li says that he holds off giving too much feedback right away on blocking or lines and instead empowers the actors to come up with ideas and think about the meaning behind the words. He wants the actors to perform themselves onstage and “just be you without trying to impersonate someone else.” This approach enables a deep connection with the script and makes each actor that much more invested in the final product. Hoffmann says that there is no competition amongst the actors and that they work as an ensemble, bringing together their diverse backgrounds to create something powerful. Li says that this dynamic between the actors is what drives many of his choices as director because relationships and the way we see ourselves in the presence of others are key questions that the play seeks to examine.

Playwright Peter Weiss (photo from quotationof.com)

I am surprised to learn from Li that Weiss did not receive a lot of recognition as a playwright because of his strong political leanings, and so this project is also a way of perpetuating Weiss’ ideas and making them relevant to the issues we face today. For Weiss’ upcoming 100th birthday, Li is planning to bring “The (New) Trial” to Germany to honor Weiss’ legacy and further celebrate the diverse voices that make up the cast.

Li is passionate and energetic, and his approach to directing is extremely refreshing. His adaptation of Weiss’ work seeks to redefine the way we understand and interact with theater so as to make the experience of the play meaningful for both audience and actors. Li says an important part of theater is believing in yourself and your own approach. He says that we shouldn’t be afraid to stray from the ‘rules’ of theater and we need to let go of preconceptions that a man should have to play a man or that only one actor can play a particular role. We need people like Li to make theater an active and reflective experience that challenges our expectations of what art should be.

Director and adapter Dennis Yueh-Yeh Li

By Maia Sacca-Schaeffer

Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival will present the world premiere of “The (New) Trial” September 1 to September 6 at the Johnson Theater.

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Cristian Avila’s “DADDY’S BOY:” a play about sexuality, family, and being who you are

Cristian Avila’s poignant and timely play refuses to let us be complacent, urging us to confront issues facing the LGBTQ community, cyber-bullying, and the struggle we all face to be authentic to our selves. “Daddy’s Boy” is deeply moving, giving us access to the life of Milo, a 17-year-old national wrestling champion. As the play begins we are immediately sucked into a wrestling match, watching Milo face off against his childhood best friend J.T. It soon becomes clear that this is far more than a physical match and that there is a high stakes battle of values taking place as well.

Milo and J.T. face off. Photo from an earlier version of the play performed at Post Theatre Company at Long Island University CW Post. Foreground: Cody Petit (wrestler in pink), Jeffrey Tierney (wrestler in black). Background: (Chorus) Tyler Matos, Paige Borden, Melanie Overfield, Morgan Green. Photo by Mia Isabella Aguirre.

Milo identifies as queer and J.T. represents the homophobia of Milo’s Texas hometown that his two fathers fled for more liberal Manhattan. As Milo is about to win the match, J.T.’s homophobic dad screams out “faggott,” which serves to fuel Milo even more. Milo’s victory sashay and pink singlet are recorded and the footage goes viral, prompting a media backlash that triggers a horrific assault on his life. This tragic event and Milo’s bravery drive his “straight acting” dads to face their fears of their own homosexuality and to come together to support their son as he embarks on the long road to forgiveness and healing. Avila constantly defies expectations and turns stereotypes on their heads to explore the origins of deeply rooted mindsets. For instance, he humanizes the bully J.T., giving us a look into the struggles and abuse he faces growing up. Avila says we tend to vilify the bully without looking into who they are or their family history, and that the play is really a story about Milo and J.T., who are both daddy’s boys.

Before the match. Photo from an earlier version of the play performed at Post Theatre Company at Long Island University CW Post. L-R: Cody Petit, Iris Seaman, Jeffrey Tierney. Photo by Mia Isabella Aguirre.

Avila has a BA in Dramatic Art from UC Berkeley and he came to New York City after graduating. He has now been in NYC two years and after working in hospitality knew that his passion still lay with theater and writing. So he moved on to the next adventure, attending graduate school to get his MA in theater and extremely happy to be doing what he loves. For a while had wanted to write a play about high school and bullying, and this led him to “Daddy’s Boy.” He says the play is a marriage of his research on gender and cyber-bullying, as well as inspired by real life events. Since much of the process of bringing a play to the stage is new to him, he says he wants to learn all he can. He views the script as a draft and collaborative effort that is ever-changing and evolving. He is constantly working to improve it and incorporate the feedback of others in a way that involves each person’s voice in the life of the play.

While talking with playwright and director Avila I am impressed by just how intricately thought out and full of clever connections “Daddy’s Boy” is. He says the wrestling theme underlying the show not only serves as a metaphor for wrestling with ideas, but also is apt because being a gay athlete today often leads to a negative public response and is an area of acceptance we need to make major strides in. Also, wrestling is an appropriate choice because as Avila says, it is “one of the most homoerotic sports but also one of the most homophobic ones.” The stage takes the form of a wrestling arena flanked by two benches, with whistle blows ending the scenes. He says framing the show within a sports arena constantly encourages us to ask if there is a winner in this situation or if there can be while so many people continue to struggle to be accepted for who they are.

One of the show’s most unique and creative devices is a Chorus that is on stage the entire show and that responds to the dialogue, interrupts, and even gets involved in the action. Avila describes the Chorus as a “conveyor belt,” with the larger group precisely shifting and readjusting to release characters into a scene. This dynamic entity comes to represent the voice of society, the conscience of the characters, and even a Home and Away fan base that embodies liberal and conservative politics. The Chorus is also meant to evoke the ancient Greek choruses that would tell stories through song, part of an underlying theme in the show of drawing from Greek tradition. For instance, the protagonist Milo’s name is taken from the first great wrestler in ancient Greece, and the structure the story takes is modeled after the trajectory of the tragic hero, with the Greek idea of catharsis being the end goal of the show.

The Chorus watches on. Photo from an earlier version of the play performed at Post Theatre Company at Long Island University CW Post. L-R: (foreground) Cody Petit, Iris Seaman, Jeffrey Tierney. Chorus (background): Tyler Matos, Paige Borden, Melanie Overfield, Morgan Green, Meredith Binder, Christopher Balbi. Photo by Mia Isabella Aguirre.

The Chorus also transforms into a vehicle of violence at times, speaking to society’s and the media’s role in perpetuating inequality. In an extremely powerful scene, the Chorus becomes the voice of social media. We sit in a completely dark room, the faces of Chorus members illuminated only by their phones, and they take turns reading real posts that Avila found online about internet sensation Brendan Jordan, who like Milo had a viral video that received a variety of responses and even backlash from the gay community. The role of the media in constructing society’s opinions about gender and in “forcing codified behavior on people” is important to Avila and he feels much of this power resides in the anonymity of the web. People can cyber-bully and even abuse others online and escape culpability, and he feels there needs to be increased recognition of the hurtful and negative space this fosters. Avila ultimately sees theater as an experience, and so scenes like this one that turn the Chorus into a mirror of ourselves ask us what we would do in this situation and what role we want to play in this complex web.

It is hard not to be inspired by Avila’s commitment to tackling social issues through theater. He says that theater has a way of sparking social awareness and change in a way that really connects with people, and that’s what makes it so worthwhile. In working on the show’s premiere for the Dream Up Festival, he teamed up with the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which works to combat cyber-bullying and LGBTQ inequality. This partnership comes with a hope of getting legislation passed for cyber-bullying, and members of the Foundation will be speaking at the show’s opening night at the festival on August 30, with all ticket proceeds going to the Foundation.

Milo is idealistic and represents hope for progress in the face of tragedy, and that is ultimately what Avila wants to leave audiences with. Milo embraces all traits, saying, ‘this is me, and I don’t have to be a certain way.’ This attitude not only inspires the other characters in the show to think about their own identities but also empowers the audience to celebrate who they are. However, society is not as evolved as Milo and there’s still a lot of progress to be made. The violence enacted towards young people and the pressure put on them to conform to certain molds leads to depression and even suicide. Avila says that it was extremely difficult for him to write the violence that takes place in the show but he knows it was necessary to do justice to the people who feel trapped and silenced and whose stories need to be told. “Daddy’s Boy” takes a step forward by tackling issues going on right now and that aren’t going to disappear unless more people get involved and work to bring about progress. Avila hopes his show can play a part in getting cyber-bullying legislation passed and that it will spark a dialogue. He said his next goal for “Daddy’s Boy” is to bring it on a college tour and get different academic departments involved in an interdisciplinary discussion about these issues to try and illuminate the path towards meaningful change.

Playwright and Director Cristian Avila

By Maia Sacca-Schaeffer

Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival will present the world premiere of “Daddy’s Boy” August 30 to September 6 at the Community Theater.

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Vinnie Nardiello’s “THE BOOM:” An intimate look at the backstage world of stand-up comics

cropped poster boom

I remember when I first discovered stand-up comedy. I was flipping through the channels and came across a man wearing jeans and a t-shirt, pacing frantically across the stage. My finger hovered a moment over the button on the remote. I found myself sucked in, marveling at the way this ordinary man managed to capture the mundane aspects of everyday life and find a humor in them that I would have never conceived. Humor is deeply personal, and so finding a way to connect with a room full of strangers is truly an art. It is easy to forget that comedians are people too since we seek to confine them within the persona they assume on stage. While I can easily flip off the TV and an audience can leave the room to end a show, the comedian remains. What happens after they step off the stage? What does a comedian do in those tense hours leading up to a show? Vinnie Nardiello’s new play “The Boom” has some answers.

As I sit with Nardiello his passion about his project is palpable. He is also extremely clever and funny, joking about the ups and downs of being a comic as well as the journey that led him to the world of theater. Nardiello has been a stand-up comedian for over 10 years and he knew as early as college that he wanted to do comedy writing. He found stand-up rewarding because it allowed him to get his work out right away with instant feedback. As his career evolved he started doing more work as a writer, writing material for other people, doing radio appearances, and even serving on the writing team for the television pilot “Paulie.” But Nardiello felt ready to try something new and to step outside of his comfort zone. He found himself drawn to the world of theater, saying, “I think these past 10 years of experience have led me to this play.”

“The Boom” explores the lives of comics once they leave the stage by looking at the dynamic between three comics in a dilapidated comedy condo owned by Steel City Funny Factory in Pittsburgh. Nardiello described to me how these condos, while less common now than they used to be, are still in use and are often located next to comedy clubs or even directly above them. These condos are usually pretty disgusting and each week a new batch of traveling comics move in. They live together, drink together, and silently hate each other as they prepare for their shows. The condo in “The Boom” is claustrophobic, both literally and mentally, and this leads to strong egos and glaring age differences colliding beneath feigned friendliness. Nardiello says that a lot of comics know each other even if only as acquaintances, and so it is hard to hide in these condos. It often involves treading the line between a sense of competition with other comics and a feeling of closeness with them since they understand one another in a way few can.

“The Boom” centers on three comics: Buddy Darby, a reformed addict turned religious freak and experienced comic who is past his prime; Tim, his right hand man whose comedy skills are lacking and Ray Messina, the new guy who is making a name for himself by appealing to a younger generation after he had his big break in the form of a viral video. Nardiello says that while the show is not autobiographical, “bits and pieces of people’s lives and experiences went into it,” including his own. 

The three actors playing the three comics in the show do stand up in real life, Dan Stern, DJ Hazard and Richie Byrne, and director Mark Riccadonna is also a writer and comedian. Nardiello discussed how this wealth of stand-up experience brings a unique authenticity to the show, and the actors are able to capture the spirit of comics because they themselves have lived it and can even use the play as a way to reflect on their own experiences or re-live some of them. They not only bring their own stories and experiences to the show but also their distinct mannerisms. Nardiello says that the body language and blocking they employ evokes the way comics really relate with one another, for instance in the way two comics might size up one another. The rehearsal process for the show sounds extremely entertaining and just like the condo in the play, cramming a bunch of comedians into a room creates an environment replete with big personalities and where everyone is trying to be funny. The cast has been rehearsing in the Comic Strip Club, an actual NYC comedy club, which helps them get even more in the mindset of the show.


DJ Hazard and Kara Jackson rehearse on the Comic Strip stage

This is Nardiello’s first foray into theater, and he says that the process of creating “The Boom” started with first trying it as a screenplay, then a novel, and finally as a play. When he attempted it as a play he says it “flowed fast” and he knew he had found the right way to tell this story. In comparing stand up to theater he says that they are quite different, since with theater you can let the idea unfold instead of worrying about having to quickly get a laugh, adding, “it’s fun to have a different way of telling a story.” Nardiello plans to keep exploring theater in the future and continue writing plays. He says that what is most rewarding about it is the collaborative aspect, something that rarely factors in to stand-up. He is impressed by the way each person involved brings something to the show and imparts their own ideas and experiences.

However, theater and stand-up do have some common ties. While I always thought that comedians improv and adapt material as they go, Nardiello says that part of their art is making something they have said endless times seem fresh and new. He adds that comedy is much more scripted than it seems and many comics keep the same act night after night because once they establish the story they want to tell in a way that gets audiences to respond, it’s risky to significantly change that. This fear of delving into new material is something Buddy Darby is plagued by in “The Boom.” In this way comedy and theater are linked, both centering around a carefully rehearsed script.

With “The Boom,” theater becomes the lens through which to better understand comedians because audiences are pushed to think about the questions of identity that come with playing a character. While in a play actors have a character to hide behind and applause is almost guaranteed, stand-up requires a different vulnerability because it is the comic’s name on the line and they can’t hide. Nardiello says that politeness is not expected in comedy clubs like in theaters, and since the act is very personal it can be extremely disheartening to have an audience respond negatively because they are in effect rejecting you. Having real-life comics play the roles in “The Boom” blurs the line between theater and stand-up and asks us to think about the people who put themselves in these vulnerable roles.

In “The Boom” we get to see the person that remains after their show is done, and the way the audience’s response can build them up or destroy them. The play gives us insight into the world of comedy as a business, the pressures that come with having to make people laugh every night and the search for approval and self-worth that drives both the comedians and their audiences. Nardiello says that he’s noticed a growing public interest in this topic that corresponds to an overall shift in our desire to know about movie-stars when they’re off-screen or about the private lives of celebrities. Thus, “The Boom” shows us everything but the comedy act itself, and the compelling emotional moments and heartbreaking revelations make comedians more real and like us than ever before. Just as we need comedy to allow us to laugh at our lives, we also need theater as a mirror for the way we view our selves and one another. Thus, the play takes us deep into the comedy world only to return us right back to our own lives.

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Playwright Vinnie Nardiello

By Maia Sacca-Schaeffer

Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival will present the world premiere of “The Boom” September 9 to 20 at the Cabaret Theater.

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This year for the first time ever, the Dream Up Festival is expanding beyond its primary venue. For the festival’s previous five years the productions were all presented at Theater for the New City (TNC). This year, seven of the 26 shows will premiere at The Producers’ Club Theaters at 358 West 44th Street.

Producers' Club entrance

View of entrance (from Producers’ club Facebook page)

Michael Scott-Price, curator and festival director, said that the move to the new venue was largely the result of the festival’s steady growth each year and TNC receiving many more submissions than they could possibly house. The desire to expand to a new venue has been brewing beneath the surface since the festival’s third year, but now in its sixth year TNC was ready to make the leap. After looking at neighborhoods around the city, Scott-Price says they decided to branch out from the East Village and test the public’s response in a venue in Times Square, the hub of NYC.

Scott-Price has worked as literary manager at TNC since 2005. He conceived the idea of starting the Dream Up Festival in 2009 as a solution to the growing number of shows that hoped to be staged at TNC. He wanted to get as many shows out there as possible, and the festival offered an ideal way to both get more artists’ voices heard and get the public more involved in the world of theater through quality shows at reasonable prices. He feels that with the lack of funding for the arts across the United States we need to create opportunities to showcase new artists and ideas, especially since new artistic work often receives even less attention. Thus, the Dream Up Festival focuses on new works to respond to this need and to give audiences the chance to experience never-before seen shows.

from http://www.producersclub.com/rentals.html

Crown Theater (from producersclub.com)

The new venue is the Crown Theater at the Producers’ Club. The Producers’ Club is a complex with a bar and lounge as well as four theaters inside. Scott-Price said they visited the spaces and chose the Crown because it had the potential to be in line with TNC as far as aesthetic, sound equipment and lighting: “We wanted to give people the comparable experience to the festival repertory conditions at TNC.” The next task was to decide which shows were best suited to this venue. The Crown has some similarities to TNC’s Cabaret Theater, which is a blackbox theater, but has mounted seating and a center aisle. Thus, the shows best suited for the Producers’ Club tend to be those that have modest settings, less reliance on props, and that are experimental or movement based. For instance, one of the shows that will be presented there, “Bubbleheads” by Darcy Heller Sternberg, envelops us in a surreal, dreamlike world where we experience the impact of divorce through the eyes of a child. These shows push theater to its limits and challenge our expectations, in line with the festival’s goal to frame our experiences in creative ways.

There are inevitably challenges that come with expanding, one of which is getting the word out about the new venue. Scott-Price is thoughtful and deliberate, and he says they aren’t going to assume anything for the future but are approaching the expansion with caution. He says they want to “do their homework on what happens with this year’s festival” so that moving forward they can make an informed decision about whether or not to continue using the Producers’ Club or even keep expanding.


Producers’ Club bar and lounge (from producersclub.com)

In addition to the exciting expansion to the new venue, Scott-Price says Dream Up 2015 has other unique traits. He said that each year “based on the submissions, the festival organically takes on its own sense of what it will be.” He said TNC is always impressed by the variety of material they get each year and by how without having to assign a theme, the works themselves breathe life into the character of the festival. For instance, this year Scott-Price was surprised by the higher than usual number of musicals they received, as well as by the number of experimental shows that employ creative staging and props. This gives Dream Up 2015 its own feel and audiences will also contribute to this by adding their responses to and at times participation in the shows.

Scott-Price says that TNC is already planning for next year’s festival and that it has room for all types of works. For him, what is most important is to give these artists an opportunity to get their art out there. What started as the seed of an idea years ago has turned into something unstoppable, transforming art into a community experience.

By Maia Sacca-Schaeffer

Dream Up 2015 runs from August 30 to September 20, 2015 and will include plays, dance theater, solo works and interdisciplinary works. This year there will be 26 shows, including six dance theater works and four musicals.

For more information about the festival visit: