Let’s kick this off…

I just wanted to make some good theater.

Done. That’s it. I didn’t want to worry about sets and lighting instruments and insurance and equity requirements and making sure the run was long enough to garner press and stay mindful of donor concerns and…well…everything else you have to do to produce PROFESSIONAL, HIGH PROFILE theater in this town.

Every savvy theater-goer in New York City knows there’s not always a direct corollary between PROFESSIONAL, HIGH PROFILE theater and GOOD theater.

I just wanted to make some GOOD theater and get a GOOD audience.

In all the years I have lived and worked in this city, one of the most engaging theater experiences I have had was a puppet show in a basement. A puppet show in a basement with a basic lights-up, lights-down technical plot. A puppet made to look like some creature evocative of the Frankenstein milieu slowly crawled across the simple, concrete stage floor. It was mesmerizing in its restraint. It was eerie how the creature moved in a manner no human could ever replicate. What did this creature want? Where was it going next? And how did the puppeteer or puppeteers get this thing to move with such alien grace? I found myself engrossed by the story of the piece as well as feverishly wondering how the magicians were doing it. If it was a card trick – how the hell were they finding my obscured card in their shuffled deck?

Meanwhile, a few weeks back, I attended a huge Broadway show (that shall remain anonymous here) that had spared no expense in its spectacle, its colorful presentation, and its technical wizardry.

And the direction had no soul.

And the performances had no heart.

And I was left wondering if I could leave at intermission and skip down to the basement to see something that would enthrall me as much as that creature on the concrete floor had.

You could argue that I have been cursed with some strange creature fetish – or at the very least lack an appreciation for populist entertainment.

And while you might be right on the first point (I might simply have a fascination with the non-human that would associate me with some subset community that society should probably marginalize immediately) –

– I’d certainly have to take you to task on the second point.

I have busked on New York City street corners and have sung in parks and subway stations. I have seen street acts – underfunded by producing companies and often under-appreciated by critic communities – collect audiences and gratuity that professional NYC theater companies would covet. There’s a bongo player in Union Square with a growling baritone that is just as honest, heartfelt, and satisfyingly musical as any act I’ve seen at the Village Vanguard. There’s a magician who works the F-Train with nothing more than a deck of cards and a beat up bowler hat whose majesty and dexterity easily equals a Blackstone Jr. or a David Copperfield. There’s an acrobatic trio in the Times Square subway station that has spirit and talent so convincing, one would think they were a rogue act on the run from Barnum and Bailey.

It’s this spirit I wanted to get back into my theater craft.

What magic could we make with nothing more than a good actor, a good script, and decent LED flashlight purchased from the local Walgreens?

I got a couple of young writers to join me.

First it was Joshua Cox. He brought in this crazy little piece dealing with a couple of seemingly dimwitted, red-neck carpet cleaners – who were actually much craftier than they might first appear – and were embarking on an adventure much zanier than the audience might have been initially expecting. It was terse and strange and eccentric – and unlike anything I had seen in a while.

Second, it was Mallory Westfall. She worked in my office and there had been little creative activity between us at the start other than a shared love of good television – and a tendency to wax poetic about where to get the best hamburger in town (to her unending credit, she was the first person to convince me to order delivery from Five Guys…I am eternally grateful for the recommendation). She brought in a piece that – while quirky – had a macabre, haunted under-pinning that certainly betrayed her sometimes wistful, sweet demeanor.

We collected a great team of actors: Molly Roberson and Thomas DeMarcus (we had endured many a show-running at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts together), Collin Ware (college crony I have been trying to work with for years), and Dana Berger (who had been instrumental in getting FIST IN THE POCKET‘s “WASHING MACHINE” critical acclaim, some award recognition, and a very wet set and costume – you had to see the show).

We had them out for a rehearsal dinner, set up in the living room, handed them the LED flashlight (purchased for $5.99 at the local Jackson Heights Walgreens) and had them figure out what to do for the first run-through.

If this all sounds a little indulgent – well – it was.

It was a saxophone jam. Fellow musicians and I used to do this when I was in college studying music theory. An instrumentalist (sax, trumpet, guitar, euphonium, etc.) would take a chart (jazz-talk for sheet music) and play solo. There was no rhythm section to worry about. No bandleader or conductor. They would free-flow and explore musical ideas. They would hunt for new melodies. The only rule they had to follow was to stay within the confines of the chord changes. They would have to stay in key. They would need to tell the story. Everything else? All bets off.

In terms of this theater-party I had started to plan – we had originally thought we would shine a light on the actors to illuminate them from the opposite corner. Perhaps a second flashlight would shine on them as they read their scripts with the small, $5.99 LED flashlight. However, sitting in the darkness of the room – the writers watched the actors control the source of light themselves, deciding when we as the audience would see them or not see them – and this proved to be much more riveting.

They became the magicians. They decided which cards we would see and which cards would be hidden from us. It was like watching four magicians all do card tricks with the same deck. What did they reveal to us? What did they hide from us? Where did they want us to look?

In its small, unassuming way – a group of writers and actors working in my living room with glasses of wine and plates of capellini pomodoro scattered on tables – it reminded me why I had chosen this profession. The writing; my writing; Josh’s writing; Mallory’s writing; it was a living, breathing thing – kicked into the animate by these wonderful theatrical instrumentalists.

It was a variation of what I did in college. I threw little fetes and premiered new pieces and drank booze with friends and cooked for the masses. The masses actually only numbered about 50 – but that certainly felt way more massive when you were cramming them into your Dallas, Texas efficiency apartment.

It was refreshing to return to something that – in its NYC theatrical way – was a variation on playing the backyard with your garage punk band (another gig I’ve done – in highschool – the lead guitarist tried to light his right hand on fire and play his Mexican Stratocaster while it was burning; true story; he lasted about 5 seconds before dunking his hand in a salad bowl filled with ice water; i have often wondered what became of him and have come to the conclusion that he’s either no longer with us or running for political office somewhere).

This last Saturday – for its inaugural performance – our little garage punk band put on a hell of a little show.

Collin in flashlight 3

Collin in flashlight 1

(Pictured Above) Collin Ware does an excerpt from a ghoulish little piece called “CAR NOIR” (working title) by Jason Stuart. Photos by Kirsten Wolf.

Dana's face in flashlight2

(Pictured Above) Dana Berger does a piece called “The Girl Who Heard Fire Scream” by Jason Stuart. Photo by Cojo Art Juggernaut.

Molly's face in flashlight

(Pictured Above) Molly Roberson does a piece called “The Girl With The Purple Nail Polish” by Mallory Westfall. Photo by Cojo Art Juggernaut.

Collin and Thomas in flashlight 2

(Pictured Above) Thomas DeMarcus and Collin Ware perform “Rug Suckers” by Joahua Cox. Photo by Cojo Art Juggernaut.

We just wanted to make some good theater. The buzz from the audience suggested that we did.

I accept that this little thing will need to grow if it’s to survive. We’ll need to let it build. We’ll need to develop it and strengthen it and – hell – might eventually need to worry about insurance and equity cots and lighting instruments.

But I never want to lose the spirit of what this thing meant when it was an actor with a gift of talent, a good set of words, a whole lot of passion, and nothing more than a Walgreens flashlight bought at a Queens drugstore. It’s an unabashed idealism I won’t apologize for.

With a little luck, the virus has started to spread. We’ll see in early 2010 what kind of infection we get.

cast and writers

(Pictured Above) The Writers & The Cast – From Left to Right: (the writers) Jason Stuart, Joshua Cox & Mallory Westfall, (the actors) Thomas DeMarcus, Molly Roberson, Dana Berger, & Collin Ware. Photo by Cojo Art Juggernaut.

Thanks for everyone who came.

Jason

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~ by saturdaysinthedark on November 10, 2009.

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