It started off in Dallas with David Parr’s A Most Happy Stella, in which I played two roles and sang a jazzy version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ Before even leaving Texas, I was writing for New York Madness’ latest installment of shorts, this one curated by Daniel Talbott on the theme ‘Spiritually Blue Balled’. My play God Head was directed by Roberto Cambeiro and featured Ron Bopst, Todd Flaherty, and Colleen Kennedy. That same day I began another Talbott-related project (see below) and a week later rehearsed and performed a reading of Kathleen Warnock’s lovely That’s Her Way with the exquisite Danielle Quisenberry. This Wednesday I’ll start work on Chris Weikel’s latest, Dead Man’s Chest, in which I play Captain Kidd - a pirate! (You had me at ‘Ahoy.’) And somewhere in there, That Uppity Theatre Company of St. Louis produced my Shiny Pair Of Complications and LCT published an excerpt of Jackson Heights 3am. Madness! March has been leonine both in and out, ides and all.
So, speaking of Daniel Talbott, it was just over a year ago I first wrote about the amazing work his Rising Phoenix Rep was doing with their Cino Nights new play series at Jimmy’s No.43. Inspired by the legendary Caffe Cino’s do-it-yourself aesthetic that gave birth in the nineteen-sixties to what became Off-off Broadway, the RPR team have produced some of the best shows I’ve seen these past thirteen months. Their dedication to new plays and the people who make them attracts some of New York’s most dynamic playwrights, directors, and actors, and the excitement surrounding their monthly events has made Cino Nights one of the hottest tickets in town. Everything about what they do inspires me.
And this past week I was blessed to be a part of it. I played the role of Captain Nick, a (twisted memory of a) children’s television personality, in Charlotte Miller’s favorites, directed by John DiResta. I love nothing better than being in rehearsal, except for being in rehearsal with brave and generous actors like Jimmy Davis, Addie Johnson Talbott, Seth Numrich, and Amelia Pedlow. Oh my dog, are these guys good.
Cino Nights shows are fully mounted plays, usually about an hour in length, designed, rehearsed, and teched in a single week (or less) for one performance only. So there is hardly time for ego-driven proprietary bullshit (not that there'd have been any with this kindhearted crew). Bold choices are made very quickly. The tiny space leaves no room for actors to hide. And a shoestring budget encourages innovative staging and design. It’s an amazing and potentially terrifying ride. I was weirdly calm from beginning to end. I loved being there so much, I guess there just wasn’t room for fear.
In Charlotte’s Miller’s favorites, siblings Margaret and Travis’ return to their recently deceased mother's home to clear it out but find themselves trapped there by childhood memories. It’s screamingly funny at times, but also deeply disturbing as old wounds are reopened and nightmares are revived.
Captain Nick was one of those nightmares, and I had a blast playing him. Being in a rehearsal room with a playwright as generous as Miller, a director as sharp as DiResta, and a company of such extraordinary actors was, for me, at once humbling and thrilling. I had as much fun watching the others work as I had doing any of my own bits. It was inspiring and challenging and edifying to watch the way Addie and Seth and Jimmy and Amelia worked together. It was magic. Each and all of them gave me chills, made me laugh, and inspired tears. As my fellow Texan Charlotte might say, I was just, like, ‘…gaw!’
The experience made me all the more grateful for the community of theatre people with whom I work and play, and I was already feeling pretty lucky. On this World Theatre Day 2012, I’m reflecting on what it is we do, and how far-reaching the effects may be. It seems so often that we are toiling away in anonymity or, at best, preaching to a proverbial choir. (I recently produced a show in which one performance was absolutely packed – with comps. Sigh.) But if you believe, as I do, in the power of art and the ripple effect of transformational sharing, then there’s really no show too small. Look at something like Cino Nights. That little room at Jimmy’s holds maybe 40 people - if you pack them in and don’t crowd the playing space with more than three or four actors at once. One performance. Little publicity. And yet Rising Phoenix Rep is making a noticible impact on New York theatre. It is encouraging playwrights to try new things, to tackle new subjects, to collaborate in challenging new ways. I love listening to people talk about these plays in the bar afterward – wheels turning, fires igniting. They pass it on. If you were to play Six Degrees Of Rising Phoenix, you’d soon find yourself connecting dots across the country, if not around the world.
When I started Hard Sparks, I had a lot of big ideas, and I guess I still do. I start plays with big ideas. I play characters with big ideas in mind. Like a lot of artistically bent types, I do want very much to change the world in great big ways. But when I look at the people I know who are doing it – Daniel and Addie at RPR, Ari Laura Kreith at Theatre 167, Martin and Rochelle at Indie Theatre Now and Joan Lipkin's That Uppity Theatre Co. in St Louis... and even when I think of international companies that face challenges as immense as Belarus Free Theatre did this past year, or Theatre For A Change in Malawi, or Instant Café in Malaysia, or the premier of Doric Wilson’s A Perfect Relationship in India, or the work of slain Palestinian director Juliano Mer-Khamis' Freedom Theatre… I see that it’s all built on tiny moments. Emotional connections. Mucking in. Sharing something deeply personal on an intimate level, each of us a spark.
On World Theatre Day, we celebrate the power we share to ignite change, to empower artists, to cross cultural and geopolitical boundaries with an international vocabulary of live performance. On one hand, it’s big heady stuff. I’m dizzy at the thought of it, and awestruck by those who’ve blazed the trails I now humbly, worshipfully follow. But I am also tremendously proud to be part of something so vibrant, so alive, so irrepressibly bad-assed. It would be silly to say I love theatre, it would be like saying I love the hair on the back of my hands. Making plays is simply a part of who I am. Metaphysical DNA.
But it is right to say that I love the work and the people with whom I do it. I love rehearsal. And today of all days I am filled with love and gratitude for my fellow theatre-makers. May every month be as mad as this March.
''May your work be compelling and original. May it be profound, touching, contemplative, and unique. May it help us to reflect on the question of what it means to be human, and may that reflection be blessed with heart, sincerity, candor, and grace. May you overcome adversity, censorship, poverty and nihilism, as many of you will most certainly be obliged to do. May you be blessed with the talent and rigor to teach us about the beating of the human heart in all its complexity, and the humility and curiosity to make it your life's work. And may the best of you - for it will only be the best of you, and even then only in the rarest and briefest moments - succeed in framing that most basic of questions, "how do we live?" Godspeed.'' - John Malkovich, International Message delivered to UNESCO in Paris, 22 March 2012.