Some friends of mine are working on the timely "Burning Cities Project"... here's a quick chat I had with them, via e-mail, about it.
1. So tell me about The Burning Cities Project. What inspired it?
Brad Raimondo ("BCP" ensemble member/producer and Dreamscape's Producing Artistic Director)
I've been carrying this idea in the back of my head since September 11th, 2001. I was in Manhattan that day--about five blocks from Ground Zero whe the planes hit and, like everyone else in Lower Manhattan, I spent most of the day walking uptown, trying to figure out where I was going to spend the night, trying to get in touch with my friends to make sure everyone was okay and, most of all, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And I looked around and realized that there were all of these people who were neither victims nor "survivors" (in the sense that, as frightened as we all felt, very few of us were ever in any real danger that morning). We were by-standers, or eye-witnesses. And that meant that our stories were most likely going to be forgotten. Our experiences of that day would not become a part f the official history. And I realized that there must be stories like that in all of the catastrophes throughout history. So I thought we could create a piece of theater that would seek out and tell those kinds of stories.
The other objective of the project was to show that, whatever politcians or commentators might say, I don't think it was fair to call the attacks of September 11th "unprecedented" or "unique." Because, if anything, on that day I felt that I suddenly had more in common with people in other countries and times than I had before. So, finding those psychological and emotional connections was also important.
And I carried those twin ideas in the back of my head for a couple of years and then, on July 7, 2005, when the London Tube was attacked, all these ideas came back into the forefront of my mind and I sent out some e-mails and made some phone calls and put together an esemble of people interested in collaborating to create this show about catastrophes and individual stories and how people respond emotionally to these things.
2. From whom did you gather your linked stories?
The research took many different forms. One member of the ensemble became an utter expert on the firebombing o Dresden--mostly through secondary sources such as books of interviews and writings by survivors and eyewitnesses. I went through a similar process with the destruction of Hiroshima. But in some cases, there was much more primary source work. One of the most affecting pieces, I think, in the project, was created by an ensemble member who is a native of New Orleans and is based on interviews that she conducted with her family and four of her friends from growing up about the differences and similaritis in their experiences in the days after Hurricane Katrina. But in both cases, whether it's the Katrina piece based on direct conversations, or the Dresden piece, constructed from material that has been recorded and written down, what ends up on stage are the words of people who were actualy there on the ground, when things wer! e happening--filtered, of course, through whatever artistic lens the authors or creators chose to apply.
3. What can you tell us about the ensemble's process in transforming these elements into a coherent evening of theatre?
Jennifer McGrath (Director)
In regards to the ensemble's process, I think one of the biggest challenges was trying to create a clear story with an arc. Because the pieces were all devised from different specific events or reactions to events, there was a bit of a broken up feeling. We would see individual pieces that were engaging or enjoyable or intelligent but where was the link? How do we fit them all together to tell one complete whole story? The monologues created from actual interviews with the cast highlighted all of the different approaches people were taking, how they were feeling and what was personal to them. In creating a script we worked on using them to shape the arc by showing us the different feelings and emotions people had while examining this work and creating the pieces and the project as a whole. It not only allowed us to see the shared humanity in all of these atrocious events that we were remembering and reflecting on, but also allowed the ensemble to step back and look at themselves and the personal journeys that they were taking during the creation process. As an outsider coming on to the project to direct, I encouraged them to find the commonalities of both the experiences in the events they examined and also in the experiences they went through personally while creating a piece on this sort of subject matter. We not only see the people that experienced their cities burning, but also the journey of those people that choose to rise up and examine these stories.
The other greatest challenge, of course was editing and having people let go of their work. As a director entering a room where 90 percent of the actors were also the writers of the entire play, I was completely overwhelmed. It took a while for people to begin to trust me with their work and to realize that there was much editing and shaping to be done. Having the writer in the room as you rehearse is both a blessing and a curse. If you come to an obstacle, the writer can offer suggestions or changes on the spot to make things better and help further the story. At the same time, if they disagree with what you as a director are doing, it can be disastrous. It's particularly difficult dealing with writing that has come from such deeply personal and visceral emotions. Things are very raw and there's a weight that goes along with that. When the group, however, thinks about the overall picture and what we are trying to do, and can let go of their work and keep the best interest of the overall project in mind, that is when things that are truly magical can happen.
4. Where can the show be seen?
We're performing August 22nd through 27th at Dance New Amsterdam.
The showtimes are 8/22 at 5:45, 8/23 at 4:30, 8/24 at 8:30, 8/25 at 10 pm and 8/27 at 4:15.
Technically the address of teh theater is 280 Broadway, but the entrance is on Chambers Street, smack in the middle of the block between Broadway and Elk Street. It's a very nice, newly rennovated sapce that we're thrilled to be in.
We're part of this year's 10th Annual New York Fringe Festival, FringeNYC--which is very exciting for us. This is the third show we've submitted to FringeNYC and the first one to be accepted. Which I'm thrilled about, since this project is so important to me personally. So, for tickets you should check out www.fringenyc.org or follow the link from our website.
5. Tell us about Dreamscape, its history and what's next for you.
Zack Calhoon ("BCP" co-producer and Dreamscape's General Manager)
The Dreamscape Theatre is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to supporting the work of young and emerging directors. I was first introduced to Dreamscape when I got cast as Banquo in their inaugural production of "Macbeth" in 2002. Over the years, I kept getting cast in more challenging roles like Antonio in "The Merchant of Venice" and then Jamie in "The Credeaux Canvas." Then I had the great pleasure of playing the title role in Dreamscape's critically acclaimed production of "Hamlet" last year, and this October I'll be playing Lee in "True West"--which is part of our second three play season. We're also producing "Marisol" by Jose Rivera and a world premiere called "Truce On Uranus."
I've grown to love the work this company produces so much that I signed on as its General Manager this year. And a lot of people have had that same experience of working with Dreamscape again and again and becoming part of the family. We're very excited about our 5 seasons and our future in the Indie theatre community. For more info visit Dreamscape.
(Thanks to Zack Calhoon for alerting me to this piece.)
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.