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.

For more information:

http://www.dreamupfestival.org/SHOW15-13-TheNewTrial.html

http://www.jsnyc.com/season/dreamup_2015/thenewtt.htm

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.

For more information:

http://www.dreamupfestival.org/SHOW15-07-DaddysBoy.html

http://www.jsnyc.com/season/dreamup_2015/daddy%27st.htm

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.

IMG_0784

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.

IMG_4034 copy

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.

For more information:

theboomplay.com

http://www.dreamupfestival.org/SHOW15-05-TheBoom.html

http://www.jsnyc.com/season/dreamup_2015/theboomt.htm

DREAM UP FESTIVAL 2015 EXPANDS TO NEW VENUE

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.

pcbar

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:

http://www.dreamupfestival.org/index.html

http://www.jsnyc.com/season/dreamup_2015/Dream_Up_General_Info.htm

Dream Up Festival 2015

Dream Up Festival 2015 is the festival’s 6th anniversary and it will premiere an exciting lineup of shows! This festival of adventurous theater features new works from across the country and abroad. The roster includes plays, dance theater, solo works and interdisciplinary works.

This year, owing to growing popularity, the festival has expanded beyond its primary venue. For the festival’s first five years, all productions were presented at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. This year, 19 productions will be presented at TNC and seven will be presented at an outside venue, The Producers’ Club, Crown Theater at 358 West 44th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenue) in Times Square.

The festival will run from Sunday August 30 2015 until Sunday September 20, 2015. Show times are Monday-Friday 6:30pm and 9pm and Saturday-Sunday 2pm, 5pm, 8pm. Ticket prices are $12, $15, $18, $20. Tickets are now on sale online at smarttix. Or by phone at 212-868-4444.

For more information and show descriptions visit:

http://www.dreamupfestival.org

http://jsnyc.com/season/dreamup_2015/dream_up_2015.htm

Light the Flambeaux!

In a diverse undertaking full of world premieres and international visitors, the 2013 Dream Up Festival, presented by Theater for the New City, will only feature one dedicated musical: “Flambeaux: A Caribbean Musical.” With a book by Nandi Keyi, who collaborated with directors Roderick Warner and Lawrence Floyd on lyrics, and music by Jeff Bolding, “Flambeaux” explores colonialism and the question of home in 19th Century Trinidad, then a territory in British possession.

Image

Nandi Keyi wrote the book and collaborated with Lawrence Floyd and Roderick Warner to write the lyrics for “Flambeaux: A Caribbean Musical”

Flambeaux” tells the stories of the residents of a tenement yard in early Port-of-Spain, the largest city in Trinidad. After the mysterious death of Sello, a popular stick-figher, a brawl breaks out, causing the colonial authorities to harshly punish all involved—those whom they see as a base class. The musical presents people of different races and social classes struggling for power and a sense of belonging in the complex melange that is Caribbean society.

Though the second portion of the title is rather self-explanatory, you may be wondering what exactly the term “flambeaux” means. According to Keyi, “Flambeau(x) is a makeshift lamp, created by placing a piece of cloth in a bottle with kerosene, which creates an unwieldy flame. Caribbean people used the flambeaux to see in the dark before lamps, and of course, electricity.” But beyond the literal, “Flambeaux has a… place in the annals of Trinidad & Tobago history, as the Africans took to the streets with lit flambeaux to commemorate the Emancipation Bill, which came into effect on August 1, 1833 freeing them from enslavement.” Although slavery ended then, colonialism and injustice in Trinidad did not. In fact, the country only became independent in 1962, becoming a republic in 1976.

Much like the island nation in which it is set, “Flambeaux” did not develop quickly, or in one swift step. Keyi wrote the work’s forerunner, “Light the Flambeaux” while living in Canada in the 1990s. Even then, she knew that “there were still layers – particularly the wants and needs of this community – that needed to be developed.” However, other endeavors took precedence. Keyi contends that “I worked on the play very, very, sporadically over the years … actually decades. Then last year, I met two amazing artists, our producer Lawrence Floyd and director Roderick Warner, who demanded, inspired and supported an exploration into the depths of this world.”

Though it is not Keyi’s first work centered around Caribbean characters (she wrote a novel entitled “The True Nanny Diaries” about female domestic workers here in New York City), it is her first play with entirely original music. She states, “I think it would be untruthful to tell a story set in a barrack or tenement yard in early Port-of-Spain, Trinidad without music.” Music serves as a cultural symbol, and as a reminder of the resilience of the Trinidadian people. She explains, “Whether it is music story of the highly-spiritual “Shango Baptist,” or the Jab Molassi – music coaxed from old British biscuit tins – or a half-full glass bottle and a spoon, the voices of washerwomen, the ribald voice of the chantwelle (early calypso singer). Music is everywhere; it rises, and rises in spite of the conditions on the ground.”

In order to create the music for the show, Floyd worked with Jeff Bolding, a two-time AUDELCO award winner and former member of the music ministry at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Though he has made his name in composing Gospel music, Keyi contends that “The spiritual songs in ‘Flambeaux’ are, of course, coming from a Trinidad aesthetic but [like] the Negro Spirituals of America [they come from] African roots – the black keys on the Piano – so Jeff connects.” In any case, “working with [Bolding] is fantastic; he listens to the traditional old-style Trinidad melodies and applies structure, range and polish. He may not know what it is, but he has good instinct on what it is should sound like, and that’s what he delivers.”

Keyi and her collaborators did not choose to set their story in colonial Trinidad without reason. Keyi, director Roderick Warner and costume designer Martin Scott-Pascall are all of Trinidadian descent. According to Keyi, “I am tied to Trinidad and Tobago, because my parents were born there; their forebears were kidnapped and dropped in the Caribbean during enslavement. I was born in England because my parents left colonial Trinidad & Tobago to seek ‘betterment’ in England.” Though she spent the first five years of her life in England, she spent most of her formative years, from the ages of five to 16, in a small town in Trinidad. Though “home life was brutal” in Trinidad, “the upside is that I was imbued with this amazing connection to a culture that fits me, despite my British birth. The ten years I spent in Trinidad & Tobago [influence] everything I do.”

That question of identity has been very important to Keyi in a number of ways. Nandi is not her given name, rather, “Nandi replaced a pretty, Eurocentric name I was given by my parents. Nandi was chosen by me. It reflects how strongly I feel about my African-self. Keyi is my name by marriage; it reflects the like-minded views of my husband who legally replaced all his names with African names.” As she reminds us with this choice, as well as in the themes of “Flambeaux,” “Names are important. When Africans lost our names through enslavement, we lost a vast part of our identity. My name reminds me that the reclamation is part of my work.”

If you do not want your Caribbean experience to end after viewing “Flambeaux,” then Keyi recommends that you “take the #4 train to the end of the line; walk down Utica Avenue, across Church Avenue. Enjoy how de people walk as if dey carry music in their waists. Experience a steel band side during practice, purchase a corn from the back of a car truck, some nuts [from a] man on a bicycle; it is all part of the experience.”

 Image

Join us at the 2013 Dream Up Festival to see “Flambeaux: A Caribbean Musical” on 8/18 (8 pm), 8/20 (6:30 pm), 8/22 (6:30 pm), 8/24 (5 pm), 8/28 (6:30 pm) in the Johnson Theater at Theater for the New City. The show runs 120 minutes, and tickets cost $18. For tickets and more information call (212) 254-1109 or go to: www.theaterforthenewcity.net.

By William Gutierrez

Namaste

“Bow your head in gratitude. Namaste.”

If you are like many New Yorkers, then you have heard those exact words at the end of any yoga class. However, at this year’s Dream Up Festival, presented by Theater for the New City, you might hear those familiar words in a completely new setting. “One Breath, Then Another,” a one-woman show written by and starring writer, actress, massage therapist and yogi Amanda Erin Miller, features a blend of performance and interactive yoga that has never been seen before on stage.

Image

Amanda Erin Miller, author of “One Breath, Then Another”

Fear not—there is no need to bring your yoga mat or dress in athletic wear if you want to attend the show. According to Miller, “audience members are invited to chant Om and Sanskrit mantras, engage in breathing exercises and a couple of yoga poses, lift their arms, balance on one foot, and meditate. These participatory moments are sprinkled throughout the show so there will be time when the audience is just watching as well.” Yet Miller would not go so far as to call her piece explicitly interactive. “One Breath, Then Another” is instead experimental. Ms. Miller contemplates, “I still consider this level of participation in theater to be experimental. It’s still not the way most of the contemporary public expects to experience theater. Every invitation to the audience to chant or breathe or move is an experiment. Will they comply? Will they resist?” As previously mentioned, “the fourth wall keeps going up and coming down,” which further solidifies this work as something experimental that cannot be defined by what has come before.

But of course, not everything in the show is totally new. For one thing, Miller contends that “there is a certain performative element to teaching yoga. In order to facilitate a healing experience for the class, to help the students find a sense of ease and peace within their bodies and minds, I have to access a state of a calm and centeredness within myself… I am playing the role of yoga instructor.” In this way, her performance does not, in some ways, attempt to reach into a place she has never gone before as an instructor or as a performer.

It cannot be ignored that Miller tells her own story through “One Breath, Then Another.” The autobiographical play focuses on her search for answers at an Indian ashram following a mental breakdown that caused her to move from New York City, where she was studying writing at The New School, back to her hometown of San Diego, where ineffectual therapy sent her looking for answers elsewhere. Describing her disorder, Miller states that, “Every sentence I spoken lingered in my mind so I was deconstructing it word for word and wondering how the words carried individual and collective meaning.” First, Miller turned to body work as a manner of therapy. Miller explains that “I felt an intuitive pull to study massage therapy and found the giving and receiving of bodywork to be monumentally healing. There was no language necessary for this sensory exchange and it was a huge relief.” But eventually, writing her memoir which eventually became this play became part of an effort to “tackle language, to reclaim it, to use it to tell my story and to help others.”

For large portions of the show, Miller portrays herself. This comes with unique benefits and challenges, for Miller, including that “I compound my vulnerability as a performer. Performing itself is already a vulnerable act, and then on top of that I am striving to truthfully relive some of the most painful moments of my life in front of an audience.” However, playing oneself also comes with a few perks. For Miller, the character “is already in my bones.”

But although this is a one-woman show, Miller portrays multiple characters. Her biggest challenge as an actress is the portrayal of her father. Miller’s father was a “heavy smoker” whose health problems were only compounded by his struggle with anorexia nervosa. “My relationship with my father was complex but loving at its core, as we understood each other better than anyone else. Nearly a year after I recovered [from her own severe case of anorexia], he died of lung cancer.” For Miller, “One Breath, Then Another” is not just a play about learning the practice of yoga. She synthesizes her difficult familial experiences in this journey, and having to play her father is “the most emotional part for me, the driving force behind the whole story: my being like him, loving him, not wanting to end up like him.”

Although “One Breath, Then Another” has already gone through several stages in Miller’s life—as an experience, a memoir, and now a play—she is not finished with this story just yet. In the future, she hopes to “perform the piece in yoga studios and have the audience sit on mats,” making the piece even more experiential than it already it.

Amanda Erin Miller performing "One Breath, Then Another"

Amanda Erin Miller performing “One Breath, Then Another”

Join us at the 2013 Dream Up Festival to see “One Breath, Then Another” on 8/18 (8 pm), 8/21 (6:30 PM), 8/23 (9 pm), 8/25 (2 pm), 8/28 (6:30 pm) in the Cabaret Theater at Theater for the New City. The show runs 50 minutes, and tickets cost $12. For tickets and more information call (212) 254-1109 or go to: www.theaterforthenewcity.net.

 

Written by William Gutierrez.