From Film to Stage: The Chaplin Plays at the Dream Up Festival 2016

From Film to Stage

Charlie Chaplin’s beloved character the Tramp jumps from the screen and onto the stage in “The Chaplin Plays: A Double Feature,” by Don Nigro, as part of the Dream Up Festival 2016.

For those of you who have been living on Mars for the past century or so, Charlie Chaplin was a British actor, screenwriter and filmmaker. He rose to stardom during the Silent Film Era in the early part of the 20th century with his character the Tramp, a lovable, well-meaning vagrant that both provided a sympathetic figure for the common man and a poignant message about class structure in capitalist societies. Chaplin is largely considered one of the major proponents in bringing films into the artistic sphere, and his later works served to fuse political messages and satire into the fabric of the genre. His role in founding United Artists and supporting the idea that directors can and sometimes ought to produce their own work has influenced countless filmmakers since.

Yet, despite his accomplishments, Chaplin spent nearly twenty years of his career in obscurity, detested by fans who had once considered him a filmic icon.

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“The Chaplin Plays: A Double Feature” by Don Nigro. To be presented by Theater for the New City as part of the Dream Up Festival 2016. Ivette Dumeng as Charlie Chaplin. Photo by Al Foote III.

“The Chaplin Plays” are focused on the idea of stardom, positing the question if we ever truly own our reputation. For this query, Chaplin’s Tramp fits perfectly, as the first play, “Tramp on a Tightrope with Monkeys” is a one-man show, in which Chaplin reflects on his experiences with the cinema, and how in uplifting his career it also condemned it. Chaplin explains how he was drawn into stardom, how his name and image became commonplace, and how it was almost a natural progression for him to begin fusing his actual personality into his characters, resulting in him bringing politics into his work, a decision that would cost him popularity throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

“The second play, ‘Charlie and the Siberian Monkey Goddess,’ deals much more with identity,” Ivette Dumeng, the artistic director of the Nylon Fusion Theatre Company and the actor playing Charlie Chaplin, said, “I’ve always loved Chaplin – his films – I could sit and watch him all day.” Indeed, Chaplin became an icon, a polarizing one that has audience in a love-hate divide even today. Don Nigro wrote “The Chaplin Plays: A Double Feature” for Dumeng and Tatyana Kot; the company decided to perform it after recognizing the play’s fixation on themes of identity, a fixation shared by many modernized societies around the world.

“Identity is always drifting away from us in the dark…” Dumeng said reflectively, “Chaplin was highly flawed. He was a perfectionist. I feel like the people that come to see something like ‘The Chaplin Plays’ will either love Chaplin so much and want to get swept away by him, or they’ll come not really believing.”

The greater narrative of the plays is about identity, as everything from the concept of the tramp to the genders of the actors portraying the characters becomes skewed. In the second play, Chaplin is hounded by Anastasia, the self-proclaimed Siberian Monkey Goddess, who is driven to disprove the notion that he is actually Charlie Chaplin. Both sides have a point, and Chaplin’s identity as the tramp in the play is almost surrealistically ambiguous.

The play also deals with gender identity, seen most readily by the fact that the actor portraying Chaplin is a woman. This casting decision feeds into the themes of identity, as it

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Chaplin (Ivette Dumeng) is interogated by Anastasia (Tatyana Kot). Photo by Igor Maloratsky.

not only seemingly justifies Anastasia’s claims that the Tramp in front of her is a hoax, but also leads the audience to disbelief. “I talked to people, and they said if they didn’t know I was a woman, if they didn’t know it was me playing Chaplin in advance, that they would have gone with it,” Dumeng said after talking to audience members after an earlier production of the play.

Dumeng if the artistic director of the Nylon Fusion Theater Company. Started in 2007 with a name derived from the cities of New York and London (NYLon) the company strives to support emerging artists, and specifically produces plays that deal with social, political and culture awareness. While the company originally produced classical plays, like the works of Shakespeare, they now produce plays written by company members or for company members. The current issues regarding identity politics and the way we find identity in American society prompted the company to produce “The Chaplin Plays.”

“I mean why do we go see theatre? It’s not just to be entertained. It’s something else. We want to be swept away,” Dumeng said.

“The Chaplin Plays: A Double Feature” will premiere at TNC on September 14 at 6:30 PM in the Community Theater. For a full performances schedule, ticket prices, and more info about the play or the festival, please visit www.dreamupfestival.org. For more information about “The Chaplin Plays” please visit http://www.nylonfusion.org/.

The glamour of it all! New York! America!

By Tim Esteves

The Cuban Revolution at Dream Up 2016

The Cuban Revolution at Dream Up 2016

Step aside Castro, there’s a new revolution brewing, and it’s happening at TNC’s Dream Up Festival. “Alpha 66” by Robby Ramos is a new drama that explores the ways a Cuban family is thrown into disarray in the wake of the communist revolution in the 1960s.

Cuba is now, as it has always been, a hot topic in the American sphere. From the beginning of the nation’s history, when Cuba was a colony of Spain, America displayed ambitions to annex, or at least gain de facto control over the island. After Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War, the US declared Cuba a protectorate, installing a government whose initial pro-American attitude dissolved into bitter dislike. As a result, it’s little secret to the average passerby that the US and Cuba share a bit of an abusive relationship. Cuba had a rough breakup with America in the 1950s after Dictator Batista’s regime was overthrown by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement. Tensions would continue to build between the nations culminating in the Missile Crisis of October 1962- a thirteen day showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union concerning the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba. And things have been shaky between the two ever since. It wasn’t until the later years of the Obama presidency that a reestablishing of relations between America and Cuba has occurred.

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Papo’s choice between nation and family.

Hence, “Alpha 66” comes at a time when there is a resurgence of interest in Cuba and Cuban goods in the mainland United States, after nearly fifty years of embargoes and travel bans. Tourism in Cuba is expected to increase sharply over the coming years, and famous imports such as Cuban rum and cigars are expected to begin filtering into American markets.

The narrative of the play follows a single family of common people during the apex of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the American radio host Bill Kenny sends anti-Castro broadcasts into the island nation, the cruel warden of a prison, Madre, has the soldier Papo interrogate his own brother, Rafa, an illustrator who stands accused of distributing a propaganda poster of Che Guevara in drag. As the two brothers confront one another, their younger sister Ava is brought in for interrogation by Madre. As the play progresses, the family’s association with the terrorist group “Alpha 66” becomes evident, and Papo must choose between nation and kinship.

The parallel of the nation and the family is constant throughout the play, and the line between them is often blurred despite it never being crossed. The government in the play focuses on “control through nourishing,” said Aminta de Lara, artistic director of the Sinteatro-Intimus Company and the actor playing Madre, “dictatorships make and effort to turn people into children.” Hence, the play sees the government taking on stern, almost motherly, qualities while Papo’s family begins to resemble politics, focusing on issues of freedom of speech and thought.

The play is also concerned with democracy and freedom and the fragility with which they exist. “We’re hoping very much that we can make them think about such important values about freedom…how important democracy is, and how quickly it can go away,” de Lara said, “People take it for granted.”

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From L to R : Katia Martin as Ava, Txai Frota as Rafa, and Robby Ramos as Papo. Photo by Remy.

The title of the play is derived from Alpha 66, an anti-Castro paramilitary group formed in 1961. Largely based in Miami, Florida, and active during the 1960s and 1970s, Alpha 66 planned several assassinations of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Though none of these attempts materialized, and hopes of an invasion to free Cuba from communist rule dissipated with the failure of the United States’ Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, the group is officially still active today.

“Alpha 66” is written by Robby Ramos of Sinteatro-Intimus, whose family migrated to the United States from Cuba. Sinteatro-Intimus is dedicated to preserving and rediscovering the most basic essence and elements of theatre. “Theatre is about taking photographs of the human soul,” Aminta de Lara said. “Alpha 66” is the first original play the company has produced that is not written by de Lara, and the first play directed by company member Marion Elaine.

“Alpha 66” will premiere at TNC on September 9 at 9:00 PM in the Community Theater. For a full performances schedule, ticket prices, and more info about the play or the festival, please visit www.dreamupfestival.org. For more information about “Alpha 66” please visit http://www.sinteatrointimus.org/.

By Tim Esteves

Dream Up Returns

The annual Dream Up Festival returns to Theater for the New City for its newest season. The Festival annually presents fifteen to twenty new works of theater, with participants from genres of drama, comedy, musicals, experimental theater, physical theater, dance, and staged journalism and non-fiction plays. This year, the Dream Up festival has a range of enticing and challenging new works. Here’s a preview of some of the particularly interesting ideas that crossed our desk.

The play “Alpha 66” by Robby Ramos is a drama set in a Cuban prison during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s. It follows the story of Papo, a pro-Castro revolutionary as he is Alpha66postercalled into the prison in order to interrogate his brother, Rafa, who stands accused of distributing posters of Che Guevara in drag. A work of historical fiction, “Alpha 66” raises questions about duty and family, and how long the bonds of loyalty can hold out under pressure from an omnipotent, oppressive regime. The play arrives at an interesting time, considering a resurgent interest in Cuban culture and politics, following the easing of travel and trading restriction imposed upon the island nation by the United States for nearly half a century. Audiences are invited to view the workings of the Cuban government from the viewpoint of a family caught up in it, all while enjoying newly imported Cuban rum and cigars (finally!).

Another notable participant is “The Joint,” a musical with book by Curtis Jones. This play is set in 1960s Virginia, and features a rocking soundtrack reminiscent of the times. The story follows the young Corrida trying to get back on her feet after a failed career as a singer in New York. She is dragged into a web of secrets, intrigue and romance under the roof of The Joint, a juke club located under her house that has become a point of gathering for the community. With music composed by Timothy Graphenreed of “The Wiz” and choreography by industry veteran and tony award winner Kenneth L. Roberson, “The Joint” promises to be a wild and lively ride through the 1960s.

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“Missamma” performed in Dallas, Texas on March 27, 2016. L-R: Gayathria Kandadai, Kalyani Siddhartha, Rajeswari Udayagiri, Vijaya Bhaskar Rayavaram, Uttej Akupatni. Photo by Bytegraph Productions.

 

“Missamma” is a play written and performed in Telugu, a South Indian Language, with English subtitles, based off the 1955 movie of the same name. “Missamma” follows the story of two Indian immigrants of different religions in 1970s America, who, in order to find employment, must pretend to be a married couple. As the plot thickens, the two begin to develop feelings for one another, while a local detective uncovers a secret that changes their lives forever. Written as a comedy, the play is a family production, accessible to English-speaking audience with humor that is inspired by film legend Charlie Chaplin.

Ivette Dumeng as Charlie Chaplin

“The Chaplin Plays” Ivette Dumeng as Charlie Chaplin. Photo courtesy of Nylon Fusion Theatre Company.

Speaking of Charlie Chaplin, Dream Up is also presenting “The Chaplin Plays: A Double Feature,” by Don Nigro. Performed by Ivette Dumeng of the Nylon Fusion Theatre Company, “The Chaplin Plays” present two new short plays featuring the likeness of everybody’s famous tramp, bowler hat and mustache and all. Both plays explore the question of identity, and follow Chaplin’s ideas about life, death and, oddly enough, monkeys from Siberia. Abandon everything you thought you knew about Chaplin before strolling into this production.

All of these plays will premiere as part of the Dream Up Festival 2016 at Theater for the New City. We invite you to join us from August 28 to September 18 for these plays and more! For information about scheduling, ticket prices, and performance reservations, please visit http://www.dreamupfestival.org.

See you then, and never stop dreaming!

By Tim Esteves

“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.

For more information:

http://www.circussolaris.com

http://www.gofundme.com/noma2015

http://www.dreamupfestival.org/SHOW15-14-NOMA.html

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

“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.

For more information:

http://truthruth8.wix.com/the-clearing

http://www.dreamupfestival.org/SHOWTS15-05-hOMAge.html

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

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