Now, New Paradise will be performing its piece Freedom Club in NYC at the Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street, NYC, January 6-15.. The piece was created with Adriano Shaplin and the Riot Group who brought their show Pugilist Specialist through NYC a few years ago.
The artistic director of New Paradise is Whit McLaughlin. On a personal note, Whit was a teach of mine at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts in 1992. He was a big influence on me as a young artist, and I’ve always been incredibly pleased to see how his work has evolved and become nationally recognized.
I got a chance to ask Whit a few questions about the show and about the companies involved. Read on!
Has New Paradise come to New York City before?
We were in NYC in 1998 at the Ontological Theatre with GOLD RUSSIAN FINGER LOVE, a sort of epistemological James Bond epic. We returned in 2002 with THE FAB 4 REACH THE PEARLY GATES, which brought us the OBIE Award--we owe everything to the Beatles and to their lawyers.
Could you describe what New Paradise Laboratories is?
New Paradise Laboratories was founded in 1996 by Lee Etzold, Rene Hartl, Jeb Kreager, Mary McCool, Aaron Mumaw, Matt Saunders, and me. McKenna Kerrigan joined us a bit later. It was their first theatre company, my second, having also co-founded the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble back in 1978. We set out to create a style of physical theatre that I might describe as based in “rapturous physical presence”. The work has changed over the years, but the attention on the expressive power of the body has endured. Our first piece eventually became STUPOR, which was very popular with audiences, but both adored and reviled in the press. It was based on a bunch of Goya etchings. Arty but nasty.
What would you say are the main influences?
Early Playboy magazines, Artaud, a love affair with alcohol (now ended), and the sculptor Giacommetti.
Tell me about Freedom Club. What is the Riot Group’s association with New Paradise Laboratories?
Adriano Shaplin (the Artistic Director of the Riot Group) and I began to lurk around each other. He saw New Paradise—DON JUAN IN NIRVANA was his first piece, I think--which was full of fucking, hallucinations, and fake spirituality; I saw his work with Pig Iron Theatre and thought his writing was impressive: very present and aggressive. He approached me and we decided to cook something up.
I started by re-directing a couple of the Riot Group pieces that were great but that we thought could be spruced up a bit: VICTORY AT THE DIRT PALACE and HEARTS OF MAN. We had a blast. I got to know the Riot Group actors in the rehearsal hall, which was a good introduction. Then we jammed our companies into some workshops and began to work up material.
Adriano had become fascinated with demagogic talk shows and so I started paying attention too. We began to wonder if there was a way to fabricate a sort of really true history piece and then he proposed a Booth/Lincoln mash-up and FREEDOM CLUB started to come into being.
You’re based in Philadelphia. What do you like about working there? What do you see as differences between doing work in that area, and in New York?
In Philadelphia, I get to live in an under-rated paradise. I get to own a home and send my kids to private school on a theatre experimentalist’s salary.
I don’t think that happens everyday, though. I’ve been incredibly lucky and have very good friends.
How is your work generated?
An idea spends a lot of time in my head and then a lot of time in the studio. Everyone makes proposals--actors, designers, stage managers, dramaturges, web designers. I have to open my mind pretty wide. Then it all gets mashed together.
Could you tell me about the ensemble? Have the company members remained consistent?
The members of the Ensemble come and go and then come back again. They do a lot of other work and are developing their artistic lives in a number of interesting and challenging ways. Several of them are designers now as well. Writers. They have their own companies. I like that aspect of things. It’s a real treat when we get back in the room together.
We’re in the process of moving New Paradise Laboratories into cyberspace. What happens to physical presence when it’s dislocated and 24/7? We have started working with a number of new performers. And some company members are part of the creative team now.
We’re thinking of reviving a couple of the old pieces, which will be challenging and inspiring. What happens to movement actors as they move through their thirties? Their bodies begin to carry more and more wisdom. And they manage their injuries.
I’d like to ask you a bit about PGSA. Governor’s School was a fantastic experience for me, formative and extremely valuable. Recently, the program was defunded by the state. What do you think of the loss of the program and what was it like teaching us back then?
The Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts was built on a utopian notion. Give 200 high school students a free ride for five weeks during the summer and make them think and breath an art form twenty-four hours a day. I created the theatre curriculum there starting in 1985. It was a blast.
New Paradise’s work came out of PGSA, actually. I worked with students there to invent 40-minute pieces that were very dense, inscrutable, and beautiful. I decided to do that full time and thus my company was born.
It was a sad day when the plug got pulled on PGSA. People fought hard to save it, but in hard economic times it seemed unnecessary. It was easy for the Pennsylvania State Legislature and Governor Rendell to throw it on the fire (ironically Rendell has been a big supporter of the arts). It didn’t cost a lot of money, but it couldn’t garner the necessary support to survive. A symbolic burning at the stake. I feel the loss very acutely.
How can people see Freedom Club?
January 6 through the 15th at the Connelly Theatre at 220 East 4th Street in Manhattan. Go to http://freedomclubtheshow.com/ for ticket information. A sweet little microsite.
Honestly, Whit's the real deal and I really can't recommend New Paradise more highly. Plus, company member McKenna Kerrigan graced a few readings of mine a few years back. One of the best actresses out there.