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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.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

An Interview with Jessica Applebaum, Dramaturg

I've recently had the good fortune of coming across the young theatre company called One Year Lease. Just before the end of the 2005, they produced three versions of Phaedra, the program being entitled, "Phaedra x 3."

Jessica Applebaum, the Dramaturg for One Year Lease and for the Phaedra Project, agreed to be interviewed in this space. I felt it was an excellent opportunity to speak with an individual whose role as Dramaturg gives her a unique perspective on the artistic process of a company that works with classic texts. Also, to ask questions about Dramaturgy, which is a task that, in and of itself, is seldom given its due.

Below are my questions (such as they are) and Jessica's very thoughtful answers. I think attention should be especially paid to her definition of the often unconsidered term "Classic" and her response to why Classic texts specifically appeal to her.

Tell me about how you came to be associated with One Year Lease and Phaedra?

In the fall of 2000 I was walking out of the documentary company where I worked to grab some lunch and ran into Ianthe Demos (Artistic Director/Director). – Ianthe and I had taken courses together at Vassar in the theatre department and our senior year had collaborated with Gabrielle Cody on a (re) making of Chuck Mee’s Orestes 2.0. – We stepped into a Chinese restaurant to catch up on what was happening in our lives post college. Ianthe told me she and Ari Barbanell (Artistic Director/Actor) had started a theatre company with fellow Vassar alumnus, One Year Lease. They were beginning to work on their next production – Jean Anoulih’s Antigone and I was asked if I wanted to come on board to dramaturg.

And how was that first experience with them, working as the dramaturg on Antigone?

Wow. That was a while ago … I am trying to place myself in that specific production since we reconceived the play four years later.

Of course an understanding of the political climate of Anouilh’s Antigone was also of great import to the project, that goes without saying…

In 2000 we used Lewis Galantiere’s translation. In 2004 Marie-Pierre Beausejour a brilliant actor that we had worked with in Machinal is also a translator. As we began rehearsals in 2004 (she played the Chorus) we kept talking about the differences between Anouilh's and Galantiere's Antigone. She went back to her apartment and came to us with a new translation to work with

Anyhow, one of the major projects I worked on in 2000 was reading Anouilh’s play in its original language and then bringing to light choices Galantiere made in his translation.

I love the complexity of French as a language. Words are very specifically gendered in a way that the English language is not. As well certain words used in certain contexts have multiple meanings, so the person translating the text from French into English is not merely translating it. He or she (at times) is often forced or compelled to make a singular choice of a words meaning based on the limitations of English as a language. It was important for me to present our production team with the multiple meanings and readings the French language created.

I was excited to see that the work I brought to them began to appear in their conceptions of how to design the show - how to show these double entendres and metaphors and codes in the design of the show.

Soon after the production was over I was asked if I wanted to become a member of the company, which I immediately said yes to.

From my first day in the rehearsal room and our first design meeting, I knew that One Year Lease’s integrity to the medium of theatre – the plays it chooses to perform, the actors and designers it chooses to work with and for – was an opportunity I wanted to both be a part of and to support.

You say something interesting here, which is “the actors and designers it chooses to work with and for...” It’s rare to hear it expressed that a company works for the actors and designers.

Companies can and do work with a group of practitioners to create plays – but I would suggest a differentiation then between a theatre company and a producing body …

One Year Lease is a theatre company. We are invested in our practitioners. We work for our actors, for our designers, for our director (from both an artistic as well as a producing perspective). We want and I believe are successful at creating a ensemble of actors and designers who continue to challenge each other and make us stronger practitioners.

It’s a matter of respect to them as well as to the medium we choose to work in.

As for my association with Phaedra x 3 … Throughout the years as we end one production we immediately begin to think of what we want to perform/produce next. In 2004 our second run/reinterpretation of Antigone for the UnConvention ended. Our company members were asked to bring plays to the table for the coming year. With the political climate as it was I was interested in performing Kafka’s Trial.

Then, Ianthe and I took a trip to Greece for Christmas. We were walking along the river below the villages of Papingo, where her family has been part of the community since Ianthe was a little girl. Looking at our surroundings and discussing the openness, care and curiosity that the village had for us, we realized that whatever OYL’s next project would be we were bringing it to these mountains. We would live and rehearse among the villages of Papingo, perform for them, and then bring the project back to New York.

It made sense then for us to go back and ask our company members to bring us plays that were either Greek or based on a Greek myth. One of our members, Jackie Kristel, brought Ianthe Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love. When Ianth became intrigued by the challenges Sarah Kane provides (especially for her as a director) I said to her, “If you liked and were interested in Kane’s play you must read Matthew Maguire’s Phaedra.” I had read the play my senior year of college and fell in love with Matthew’s adaptation of the myth – and had been wanting one day to help bring it to life.

Very soon after Maguire’s play was read, Ianthe came to me and said, “I have a crazy idea.” She had the Hughes translation of Racine’s Phedre, Maguire’s Phaedra, and Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love in her hand. “A rep of six actors, performing all three, rehearsing in Greece…”

Who could say no to that?

What about Phaedra do you personally connect with?

The struggle between desire and pride.

Desire is a very isolated emotion that one has little control of, that bleeds into the world one engages with … Pride as well isolates one from communicating one’s thoughts and emotions freely, it often halts one from saying everything that is needed in a social situation. The struggle between Phaedra and Hippolytus is as human as drama gets and is what I connect to with this story.

What was your role, specifically, as a Dramaturg?

In the beginning I think one of my integral roles was to help choose the three Phaedras that we were going to perform. One Year Lease is dedicated to performing classic texts. Classic for us is defined as a play that is necessary, durable, and urgent. One of the beauties of this project was to actually perform our mission statement. To chose three texts that spoke to each other and to the fact that they have been interpreted and performed by playwrights from different eras, cultures and values. These three plays in particular spoke to the breadth of the Phaedra myth and to our definition of classic.

In terms of my role during the actual rehearsals and production, I felt that for this project what was of the utmost importance was for me to go back to the myth and provide a solid background of who these characters are (where they come from, how they are related to each other) to our actors. As well I believed it was integral to give them a background of the cultural climate that the myth and the adaptations of the myth sprang from.

The same actors played the roles of Phaedra, Hippolytus, and Theseus in a nightly succession. While the roles of the myth slightly deviated for our other three actors (Oenone/Nonny/Strophe) (Aricia/Strophe) (Theremene/Angus/Priest) all of our actors had three plays in their heads at once. Whatever I could do to provide them with any information that would help make each of their characters clear and distinct was the integral job that I had as dramaturg.

I think that Dramaturgy isn’t something that most casual theatergoers have much awareness of. What sort of work does it entail? How can you tell, for example, excellence in dramaturgy on the stage?

What sort of work does a dramaturg do … It changes from production to production as well as from practitioner to practitioner.

My work consists of reading the plays we are going to perform and then having a long discussion with Ianthe and often our designers as to how we want to bring this text to life.

I research the play, and the playwright. I find the foundation from where the text comes (the culture, the time, it’s place in history) and then I research how it has been performed and adapted from its inception. I bring that research to our designers and actors.

Then, as we begin to make choices and understand where we want to ground our production, I bring images, sounds, more articles, and poetry to our designers and actors. Sometimes for specific conversations I want to have with our practitioners, other times for pure inspiration – for each practitioner to do what they will with the material presented to them - source material that will inspire and challenge and clarify the choices of life that are being breathed into the text. I make myself available for any and all conversations, questions, and needs that are brought to me.

As for how you can tell excellence in dramaturgy … I’m not sure how to phrase my thought … If the audience leaves the production you’ve worked on and the conversations inspired about the production are centered around the choices that have been made on stage, whether they are liked or not, you have done your job as a dramaturg well.

What do you think your work brought to Phaedra?

Ultimately it’s a question that I struggle with as a dramaturg. Like any artist there is part of my ego that wants to be seen, that wants to say, “I did that! I helped to make that choice that you just witnessed.” But really, very early on the work that you bring as dramaturg (in my opinion) to a production leaves you. You provide materials for your actors and designers and director to take from, to interpret, and to integrate into the production.

The work that I brought to Phaedra is part of the production, that I have no doubt of, but it resides in the performances of our actors, in the direction of our director, the set, lights and costumes of our designers … I think that each of them would have a different answer for what they used, what they found helpful … what they integrated into the performance.

Phaedra was rehearsed in Greece. How did that come about? Obviously, the actors and director were informed by this sort of exercise, but how did it affect your work?

One of the most important roles of the dramaturg is to facilitate communication between the text or texts you are working with and the many layers of its reading that are necessary to make the production come to life.

Working in Greece for the month, I was able to hear the stories of Phaedra we were presenting - from the pages of the playwrights, to the interpretations of our actors, to Ianthe’s beginning vision of how to stage and make each play stand on its own. And from hearing the stories I was able to draw attention to moments, both large and small in which these plays both connected and disconnected from each other.

An example that I found intriguing that Matthew Maguire brought up when he came to see the shows was that both he and Kane (who had obviously read Racine’s Phedre) were drawn to the words, images and actions of burning and bursting.

From Maguire:

ANGUS She's in the bath again.

NONNY I know that.

ANGUS Always splashing—and always silent.

NONNY She's afraid of bursting into flames.

From Kane:

PHAEDRA Can’t switch this off. Can’t crush it. Can’t. Wake up with it, burning me. Think I’ll crack open I want him so much. I talk to him. He talks to me, you know, we, we know each other very well, he tells me things, we’re very close. About sex and how much it depresses him, and I know –

STROPHE Don’t imagine you can cure him.

PHAEDRA Know if it was someone who lived, you really loved you.

STROPHE He’s poison.

PHAEDRA Loved you till it burnt them.

Greece provided me the space to find those moments and if the weren’t recognized to bring them to the forefront for all of us to consider.

Greece presented me many challenges. I had only a binder of dramaturgical work that I had brought with me to Greece, and that was about it. We had no Internet connection where I could run off to find more articles that might inform us. There were no museums or galleries in the mountains for me to go to and bring visual images to our actors or designers. So it was me with the texts, our actors and Ianthe.

Since I didn’t have my usual tools and resources and since I wanted to remain an integral part of the rehearsal process I filmed every rehearsal and performance that we had in Greece to use as a reference for our actors, for Ianthe and for myself. In the mornings in Greece we would wake up to watch the work that had been done the day before to help us see and remember what we had found and to use that as a foundation from which to build the performances. Ianthe used those tapes as a reference for reblocking the shows in New York. And our designers were able to watch and have an idea and feel of what we had created in Greece, from which they could build upon.

There’s been a fair amount of discussion on the theatrical blogsphere regarding how to bring audiences to new work and “indie” theatre. I’m curious if you think this rehearsal process is something that the audience seems the benefits of, or is it more of the benefit of the company?

It must be a combination of the two, no? When you have a group of actors brought together with their director and you are given the space and breath to focus on your craft and the stories you want to perform, without the distractions of everyday city-life, an intimacy to the story, and to each other is created. That intimacy is then performed and communicated to the audience that watches the production.

The audience’s response in turn benefits One Year Lease for we are charged and inspired by how our audience reacts and interacts with the performances we do. They challenge us to create new performances for our next productions.

Now that Phaedra has closed, what did the project achieve for One Year Lease and in your artistic progress?

What did this project achieve for One Year Lease and for our artistic progress … I think within the next few months we will be made more aware of what we have achieved. I can say immediately that it strengthened everyone’s work.

For One Year Lease in particular, I think that we have gained much from the challenges that this project brought to Ianthe. The project demanded that she direct in genres that were new for her to work with. I think she did an exquisite job. And we will learn how much it has strengthened us as a company with the next production that we produce.

What is it about classic texts, specifically the Greeks, which appeal to you?

Debate without morality. The debate might be centered around someone’s morality, but what a classic play, especially Greek tragedy, does and why it appeals to me is that it presents the audience with a conflict that cannot easily be diagnosed as good or bad, right or wrong. It makes everyone from the designers, to the actors, to the audience question and think about the performance they have just engaged in. And from that I think it connects theatre to our present life, it brings an awareness to each person’s senses, thoughts, and behaviors.

Have you seen any productions recently that you admired or enjoyed?

We have been rehearsing and performing since the end of October, so unfortunately I have not been to the theatre recently.

Within the next week I will be attending Bradford Louryk’s Christine Jorgensen Reveals at Dodger Stages. I worked with Bradford on one of his first productions Klytemnestra’s Unmentionables in the spring of 2000. Bradford is a performance artist who is consistently exploring the boundaries of gender. I look forward to see how he explores and integrates technology (one of his primary passions) and Christine’s (America’s first famous transsexual) only recorded interview with his performance style.

I also very much admire the work of Fovea Floods and The Debate Society. They are two companies who bring unique productions to the stage, engaging their audiences both with their choice of plays and the ways in which they are conceived and performed.

It might have been a few summers ago, but Fovea Floods Bull Spears was a brilliant original work that I recall and think of to this day. The hyper-reality of the Western combined with Ubu-Roiesque style of acting and design was bold and inspiring. Their adaptation of The Maids, was also a production that I very much admire. Their use of doubling Solange and Claire, alternating between two men and two women brought a new conversation to Genet’s discussion on gender, politics, and class.

And I cannot speak highly enough of the work done by The Debate Society. Their last play A Thought About Raya, brought life to absurdist Daniil Kharms “Incidents.” Kharms was a founder of the Russian group the Oberiu. The goals of the Oberiu were to create an encounter with an object in order to illuminate, complicate, and discuss its embodiment in everyday life. Performers Paul Thureen and Hannah Bos took the text of Kharms’ “Incidents” and brilliantly weaved together a narrative that illuminated Kharms’ art. The physicality of their acting and flawless comic timing embodied Kharms’ texts and brought to their New York audience the humor and sorrow of his life.

The Debate Society’s next production The Snow Hen (based on the Norwegian folktale
Jostedal Grouse – the story of a little girl left alone in a feather bed during the plague, who was later found and said to have grown feathers herself) will be running at the Charlie Pineapple Theatre in Williamsburg in February. I so look forward to seeing how they have rewritten the tale and how they will stage it.

How do you feel a young company needs to go about distinguishing itself in the rather busy NYC scene?

I think simply, you distinguish yourself by doing. Theatre is active, it is present. So you keep working, you keep performing, you keep engaging your audience in plays that you are inspired by and continue to be inspired by … You keep them talking about the work you do …

And on a practical level, to promote those conversations, you hire or work with a great publicist to present these conversations to larger communities.

And what’s next for you?

What’s next for me? We begin discussions of One Year Lease’s next production as soon as Ianthe comes back from Greece. I am excited to see how the mountains have inspired her this year.

I also look forward to working with and supporting friends and practitioners who have projects that would benefit from having me as a part of their productions.

1 comment:

MattJ said...

thanks for this matt. I learned a lot.