Now just weeks away from the premier of Jackson Heights 3am, I spoke to Ari by phone during our holiday hiatus from rehearsal. As I've also taken a role in the show, I should have been learning my lines. I typed up our conversation instead.
J.Stephen Brantley Having done a few of these shows, I guess you’ve got it mastered by now. It’s all clockwork, right? Easy as proverbial pie?
Ari Laura Kreith There are those moments - trying to coordinate twenty-one actors, some flying in from LA, and seven writers working on a single script, and we’ve got holidays and two venues and Equity rules - when it all seems a little impossible! But one of the things that’s amazing is that it really is an ensemble effort—there’s something about this sort of project that really draws in people who think of making theater as “our production” rather than “this is my piece.” So you made the posters, which are amazing, for example, and Jenny Lyn (Bader, company playwright) has done so much to bring our huge unwieldy script into legible and unified form. And finding a TD, Ross DeGraw, who really embraces this adventurous sort of process, has made so much of this possible.
JSB I am totally having a bromance with him.
ALK Ross is great! And so many other folks like him have helped out. Even relative strangers hear about the project and offer to help out. Plus the logistics do get easier—this time we know how to light the space, which was a huge challenge at first. I knew I wanted to work in three-quarters, and in a found space, because it feels really important for the audience to see one another as they’re sharing this experience. But figuring out how to bring lights into a low-ceilinged venue in a way that didn’t blow circuits and blind the audience and still allowed for creativity and control in the lighting realm was huge. That’s a challenge that Nicole Pearce solved beautifully last year, and knowing how to do it this time, feeling like we have a bit of a rep plot, makes it easier now.
JSB Not that you’re replicating what you’ve done before…
ALK No, but it’s certainly easier to explore a few new elements at a time, so this year we’re incorporating Andrew Lazarow’s amazing video work, and that feels like a new-yet-manageable piece.
JSB Found spaces, shared spaces, non-traditional spaces – I think we’re going to see more and more of that, but it comes with its own challenges.
ALK Yeah. Last year we bought chairs, which was crazy—transporting seventy chairs from IKEA. And yes, I brought my kids to IKEA with me to buy the chairs, so I was rolling them on a dolly with a two-year-old and a four-year-old…so anytime I get overwhelmed I focus on things like that, and remind myself that this year all we have to do is bring chairs up from the basement!
JSB The trilogy is like an epic love poem to Jackson Heights. How did it begin?
ALK Almost as soon as I moved to Jackson Heights, I started thinking about how to express some of the magic of the neighborhood in theatre. I love the way so many cultures come together here, and I wanted to celebrate and share that magic, both with people in the neighborhood and people outside it. For a while, just after Dashiell was born, I was artistic director of a company called Jackson Rep, and I developed and directed two solo shows that felt like they explored specific aspects of the neighborhood—one was Leslie Harrell Dillen's piece about a white woman who traveled to India for her stepdaughter’s wedding to a Sikh man, the other was an interactive show by comedy writer Carl Kissin where he involved members of the audience in his storytelling. And I was really interested in the ways each of these writers explored something specific about the neighborhood, and so I wondered what would happen if more writers got involved and if it became sort of a conversation. That summer, I was in Boulder, Colorado, trying to describe what it feels like to live in Jackson Heights, and it started to feel very urgent to me to create a piece that captured some of these things. So the first piece we created this way, 167 Tongues, was while I was still with Jackson Rep. Such a clear artistic ensemble coalesced around that project, and such a passion for a particular way of working, that it felt right to build a company dedicated to this kind of work. Though we’re ever re-defining what ‘this kind of work’ actually is! So that’s how Theatre 167 was born.
JSB There’s something inherently dramatic about the mix of cultures in Jackson Heights. We all felt it that first night when we hit the streets for raw material.
ALK I’m in Maryland right now, and it strikes me that our life-on-the-streets and subway time in New York is really a gift.
JSB I’m in Texas. The population here is so diverse, and yet people still don’t ‘mix’. I think it has everything to do with cars. With drive-thrus.
ALK Right. But in a place like Jackson Heights, we see one another’s lives so constantly and with such taken-for-granted intimacy. We overhear each other’s most intimate conversations. How can we fail to grasp everyone’s fundamental humanity? And I don’t think of that as just a question about cultural difference-or-not, but that we have the opportunity to see deeply into the lives of others on a daily basis.
JSB This installment is much darker than the previous two. In some scenes, we see an uglier side of the neighborhood. How do you think it will be received by local audiences?
ALK Certainly we deal with some really dark topics—sex trafficking and drug-fueled violence are two of the most obvious. But we aren’t telling those stories in a gratuitous way—we’re looking at the need for connection and love, which are pretty basic and beautiful human impulses. And we’re exploring what happens when those needs aren’t or can’t be met, and how that can twist people.
JSB What we kept talking about in meetings was loneliness. I think it was important to all of us that we portray that kind of desperation honestly, but that we also transcend it somehow, that there is connection or at least the potential for it.
ALK Ultimately, I think this piece takes us to a place where, for the most part, those needs are met, often in unexpected or unlikely ways. And that will hopefully inspire the audience to think about the humanity of people they might otherwise choose to ignore, and possibly think about how they might have some sort of deeper connection to people they would otherwise look away from. So the journey to those dark places is necessary, I think, so that we can explore ways of moving toward the light.
JSB I think people will get that, whether they live in Jackson Heights or not.
ALK It’s funny, I guess I haven’t thought too much about how the story will be received, with the exception of clarifying that it’s not appropriate for kids.
JSB Yeah this is definitely not You Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase.
ALK No. But these stories need to be told too, and hopefully even if someone is offended – and I imagine we will have a few walk-outs – they will be inspired to think about these things and explore why they were offended and what it is about that particular story that they think is untellable or unhearable. Part of our company’s mission is to give voice to people whose stories often go untold, and sometimes I think those stories aren’t told because a few vocal audience members are afraid to hear them or are offended by them. And it just seems like an obvious and necessary choice to honor our commitment to the people whose stories are often hidden out of deference to a few.
JSB Many directors would balk at the notion of wrangling ten overlapping storylines by seven different playwrights – as would many playwrights. In fact, there’s one who visibly shuddered when I told him about it. So what do you love about working this way?
ALK It’s like a huge party with amazing artists! Really! I love working with writers, and I think there’s something beautiful and challenging for writers in this process. When I first became interested in working this way, it was about the stories being told in the piece and how important it felt to truly reveal multiple perspectives on an event. But I’ve really fallen in love with the way it inspires writers to work out of their comfort zone, to explore things that they’ve never written and possibly felt they wouldn’t be allowed to write about because of people’s expectations of their work based on race or culture or sexual orientation or previous style-
JSB Or language. I never would have done anything in Bengali were it not for this show, that’s for sure. I was really nervous about writing characters outside my own cultural sphere. It took a lot of help and encouragement from other members of the company, a lot of mutual trust all around.
ALK And it takes a particular kind of writer—or a writer at a particular point in their relationship to writing—to embrace that process. It’s about being very generous with one another, being flexible with each individual piece in the service to the whole. We have one character who has changed ethnicity three times as he morphed to contain characters from several scenes. We have central events that have disappeared or moved offstage to allow the overall plot to build. We have scenes that have been written by three people together, with elements and characters from everyone’s stories. And I’m really grateful that everyone allows me to muck about and ask questions and suggest relationships. It’s really magical!
JSB There’s been a lot of synchronistic thinking from the very start. I think it’s because we all appreciate each other enough to allow that ‘magic’ in.
ALK The respect that everyone has for everyone else as artists, in building and developing and changing…it’s really about finding, together, what works for the piece. And the fact that there’s a shared perspective about how theatre can be a catalyst for a deeper cultural perspective and true compassion is central to allowing that to happen.
JSB I love your certainty in that. In fact, you seem pretty fearless, all the way round. Does anything about this work ever frighten you?
ALK I suppose I should feel scared bringing everyone into the room together for the first time and being the person who stands up in front and says, “In ten months, we’re going to have a show.” But I’m mostly just curious and excited about what’s going to happen. I tend to be very intuitive about who the collaborators for a particular project need to be, our collaboration being a case in point: I knew you understood and had an affinity for this kind of work and had read some blog entries you’d written, and I knew you were someone who brings great collaborative energy into a room, but I really didn’t know anything about you as a playwright, except that I just knew. And John Keller, who is one of our core actors, he and I laugh about how when he came to audition, he was in and out in three minutes and thought “Well, that did not go well,” but we ended up casting him and creating a role around what he’d brought into the room that day.
JSB I thought you’d known him forever. It seems like your sudden instincts lead to long-term collaborations.
ALK Yes, balancing out those intuitive, seemingly reckless choices are some truly amazing artistic relationships that developed over time; Jenny Lyn Bader and I have worked together almost since I arrived in New York, and I feel like she knows what I’m thinking better than I do sometimes, or like I can be in rehearsal with one of her scenes and know what she’d say about something even when she’s not in the room. And there are people like Rajesh Bose and Arlene Chico-Lugo, for example, who have been in all three plays in the trilogy and I just can’t imagine working without. It’s been so exciting on this particular project to be able to create roles for them that are really inspired by them as people, and I feel like their depth as people and as actors have really led us in creating that arc.
JSB I wanted to write for Rajesh right from the start. And I am just in love with what Arlene is doing as Adela. As a playwright, it’s so exciting and gratifying to have such amazing actors saying your stuff. I know, for me, it’s much less scary when that happens.
ALK If there’s one thing that scares me about these projects, it’s just the moments when I think about the hubris of it all—trusting my gut to know who belongs in a particular piece before it even exists, and then as the project evolves, shaping the stories and trusting that ultimately we will be telling something that needs and deserves to be told. Except that I really think the work has its own magnetic pull to it, that it draws the right people and stories together, and truly I’m just another person drawn to serve these stories in some way.
JSB How do you get there? What in your background prepared you for making collaboratively devised pieces like JH3am?
ALK I did my undergrad at Yale, and really struggled with the town/gown divisions—being at an Ivy League school in the midst of a decaying inner city. I spent my senior year creating an interactive theatre event, working with Yale actors and non-actors, as well as actors and musicians from the New Haven community. We created all these scenes that audience could walk through, exploring ideas of work, play and ritual, and staged the piece off-campus so it would be accessible to all. The experience was amazing: two hours of interactive theatre culminating in a huge dance party with an African dance band. The heartbreaking thing for me was that not one of my professors came. And then, when I did talk to a faculty member, he read me a list of names including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Jesus, and told me I was walking a dangerous path because I should look where they all ended up.
JSB Um, yeah, cause those guys all totally wasted their time…
ALK Looking at it now, it seems pretty ludicrous, but as an about-to-enter-the-world college senior, it terrified me about my identity as an artist making community-based theatre and made me question whether there was a true home for this kind of work or, indeed, for me, in the theatre. After that, I was an actor for a while, did my MFA in Acting, and while I was in school I started a summer theatre company because I felt like my classmates weren’t being challenged in the ways I thought they should be. And so I started directing there, really to encourage friends to take artistic risks. We did new plays, because I thought it was really amazing that you could do new plays!
JSB It is!
ALK And I assumed I would stay there building that company and doing that. But then Jeffrey Carlson, an actor who had been one of the original company members before moving to New York to go to Juilliard, he came back and we did a season together and he pushed and challenged me. I loved it, and I realized that was what I needed to grow artistically, was to be in an environment where my collaborators were pushing and inspiring me like that. I never really thought of it that way til this moment, but there are all the things I loved then – community-inspired theatre, new plays, and truly collaborative and challenging artistic relationships – in the work that Theatre 167 is doing now.
JSB What’s the most challenging part of running a company like Theatre 167?
ALK I think it’s all the stuff that’s challenging about running any small theatre, really. The boring stuff. Where does the money come from, how to find affordable rehearsal space, who wants to go out and hang posters in the cold. Really not worth complaining about.
JSB Duly noted. Next question: Your two adorable kids frequently end up in rooms full of all kinds of people, from various countries and of many ethnicities, speaking multiple languages, all getting along. They don’t think it's normal, do they?
ALK Of course they do! Don’t you?
JSB Well, now, yeah.
ALK Part of raising kids in New York is that they get exposed to so much—when my daughter was three, we found a man lying in the street on a freezing cold night and called 911 and she talked about it for weeks after. Sometimes it scares me. But I think it makes them more compassionate people when they understand that life is complicated, that they’re lucky to have a home, that sort of thing. And one of the things my kids are lucky to experience, both growing up in Jackson Heights and growing up around this particular theatre company, is a really glorious, very diverse and joyous culture.
JSB Now for the important stuff: Is my horribly offensive, half-naked performance as Leo going to cost you donors and get you banned from using PS69?
ALK I’m sure we’ll offend someone.
JSB It’s what I do.
ALK But your performance isn’t offensive! And Leo is very important. As we look at people whose stories aren’t told or are ignored, Leo is a prime example of someone we want to look away from because he’s in so much pain and doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s so easy to judge people like that, and yet the trajectory of the play reveals the ways that we’re all truly connected. And isn’t that something that we want people to think about, and want our children to learn? I don’t want to give the story away, but things might have turned out very differently if someone had been able to see and reach Leo that night. And I have a deep interest in the Leos of the world, and how we can pull them back from the void.
JSB I do too. And it seems possible in theatre, in that arena of what-if. I know bitchy, cynical plays are very fashionable right now, but I still believe in the power of theatre to bring people together.
ALK So do I.
JSB I mean, this show is hardly sunshine and roses, but if seven playwrights can all get along…
ALK And, not to be melodramatic or cheesy, but I feel like there’s something about walking the streets of Jackson Heights that expresses how we can live together as a global community—how we can be celebrate cultural difference and experience commonality. When Elodie was four, she was looking at a photo on the cover of the New York Times magazine; it was an article about a principal who had turned around a low-performing school in the Bronx, and he had been photographed with a number of his students, who were all African American and Latino. Elodie was very curious about the picture, and when I asked her why, she said, “These kids are all different from me.” There was a pause and then she said with admiration, “They’re older.” I love it that this is her world.
Theatre 167’s Jackson Heights 3am opens January 13th at PS 69 in Jackson Heights Queens. It will also play two weekends at Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows Park. For tickets click here.