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Making a Joyful Political Noise

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir

Whether protesting climate change, racial injustice. or overconsumption, Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping do it in glorious song

It’s going to be a very busy Thanksgiving weekend for the Talen family. For the holiday, Bill Talen, better known as political performance artivist Reverend Billy; his partner and longtime director, Savitri D; their young daughter Lena; and their Stop Shopping Choir are heading to Saint Louis, Missouri to enjoy an organic Thanksgiving feast on the lawn of the world’s largest biotechnology seed company, Monsanto. Afterward, they’ll bring food to nearby Ferguson activists, who have been protesting nonstop since a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the August shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown. Then it’s back to their home base of New York City on Sunday, where this self-described “radical performance community” continues their five Sunday Joe’s Pub holiday run of Monsanto Is the Devil, equal parts evangelical church service parody, musical extravaganza, town hall meeting, and call to action.

While those may sound like independent events, Reverend Billy sees a very clear through line. Although the Church of Stop Shopping’s original focus was counteracting rabid consumerism, Reverend Billy and his cohorts have spent the past year using their unique brand of musical activism to spotlight corporations’ insidious role in climate change, including a 15-minute protest/performance at a Manhattan JPMorgan Chase bank last fall that got the reverend arrested, not to mention lots of international media attention. To Reverend Billy, all of these happenings are theatre, whether they’re taking place on a stage, out on the street, or in the aisles of Walmart, and it’s a compelling way to bring the group’s message to the people. I talked with Reverend Billy and  Savitri D about connecting various sociopolitical dots, how they come up with their shows, and what they hope audiences take away from the experience.

Raven Snook: Consumerism used to be the Church of Stop Shopping’s core issue, but you’ve been very concerned with the environment of late. How did you segue from one to the other?

Reverend Billy: We didn’t! Consumption is among the primary causes of climate change: consumption of energy, consumption of fossil fuels that become products, etc. I would say that [the Church of Stop Shopping's] turn toward this end of the spectrum, concentrating on environmental issues, began in about 2005 around Hurricane Katrina. But we’ll always continue with our main mission. When we’re down in Ferguson, it will be Buy Nothing Day [a.k.a. Black Friday]. So we’re going to have to buy everything ahead of time and make sure we don’t break the boycott. These issues are never separate. Everything is connected.

Savitri D: We try to be current with what’s going on right now and still address our core issues. Consumerism hasn’t gone away. Americans and people in other countries are consuming as much as ever. The crisis has escalated in such a way that we have to tackle things more directly. There’s a larger issue they fall into: citizenship. The fact that there’s police violence in our city, that we’re still blowing up mountains in West Virginia, these things are connected by our not being able to respond through the normal democratic process. We are addressing climate change very directly now and we have in our shows for the past couple of years. In a broader sense, we’re trying to activate people. Don’t let this be normal! It’s not normal to just turn away from police violence, to accept mountains being blown up, so we’re trying to de-normalize those kinds of things. The problem right now for most people is not a lack of information. We all know about climate change, so that isn’t the focus of our work as activists. We want to inspire people to take risks in their lives, to change their lives and the lives of people around them.

RS: So you’re trying to find the intersection of art and action.

RB: Well, action is theatrical. Action is anticipated, framed, and packaged, but it’s hard to make one that people notice. I think the challenge of our time is how do we break not the fourth wall, but the 400th wall? We’re all dazzled in a hall of mirrors. This modern information age is making us passive and we don’t know where to look. So when something like Ferguson happens, when a bunch of teenagers in a little part of Missouri that nobody’s ever heard of rise up and say no and break that 400th wall and everybody looks over at them, they are theatrical. We went [to Ferguson] back in October on Moral Monday and now we’re going again. It’s the same feeling I had when we went to the Wisconsin protests in 2011. Our daughter, Lena, was six months old, and we held her up in the roar of people who had taken over the state capitol. That first day in Zuccotti Park: it was theatre, and I was floating on air. We look for it now, where is this kind of activist theatre taking place? The anti-war march in Moscow, the protests in Burma, the students down in Chile who did that massive “Thriller” dance. The activists of today have to find a way to break the wall. We have an imperative. We’re not sure the life systems of the earth will continue. Scientists are telling us we’re in trouble. 2030, 2050 2070, choose your apocalypse. Right now we’ve got a tremendous requirement as activists to run down the middle of the street and be planet criers.

RS: It’s one thing when audiences come to see you in a theatre and pay for tickets. But when you’re performing outside of a traditional setting, what kinds of reactions do you get from viewers?

SD: We’ve had people join the choir from the street! One Buy Nothing Day, we had a guy get off a public bus and walk back two blocks to join us—that’s one end of the spectrum. The other is extreme defensiveness of hyper-consumerism. We get where that comes from. Brand loyalty is deeply ingrained in the spirit of the American people. The response we always hope for is to open someone’s mind. In NYC, there’s an expectation of street magic. In other places, people are surprised, not just at our message but that we’re good at what we’re doing. We use our chops to open up doors. Of course, delivering any message in a public space is upsetting to some people, never mind what the message is. We’ve been mistaken for an actual Christian choir with people saying, “Don’t talk to me!”

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November 26, 2014   No Comments

You Can Write Their Musical (Every Night)

The cast of Blank! The Musical

The cast of Blank! The Musical

A new musical is created entirely from audience suggestions

“When you look at YouTube and the culture of social media, you see how the rest of society is now a ‘creator.’ We expect to take professional level photos on our phones, so why not empower the audience to create a musical on the spot?”

So says improv artist Mike Descoteaux. That’s why his show Blank! The Musical allows the audience to create every single element of the full-fledged musical they see on stage. Every night, patrons choose everything from song titles to plot points, and no two versions of Blank! are ever the same.

In some ways, of course, the show, which runs through December 14 at New World Stages, extends the tradition of improvised theatre, which dates back at least 50 years. (Even musical improv, which is a relatively new form, has been around since the late 90s.) And as a veteran of major improv troupes like ImprovBoston and Chicago’s Second City, Descoteaux is certainly well versed in making spontaneous performances.

But Blank!, which Descoteaux music directs and co-created with fellow musical improv junkies Michael Girts and T.J. Shanoff, is also striding into new frontiers. For one thing, it gives the bare bones aesthetic of musical improv a flashy polish with a technological twist.

Blank! The Musical is a fully produced show,” Descoteaux says. “Usually people see musical improv with some well-versed actors, a piano, and a couple of chairs.” Indeed, part of improv’s charm is just how little is necessary for a performance. Actors mime their props and create vivid worlds out of thin air. Moreover, many of the city’s most famed improv venues (the UCB, the PIT, the Magnet) have a scrappy basement vibe, the familiar scent of stale beer mixing with collegiate camaraderie.

Blank!, however, has a full, industry-standard production team behind it and is running at a 300-seat Off-Broadway house. “We have a real pit for this show: piano, wind, reeds and a drummer,” says Descoteaux. “Not to mention $400,000 worth of lights.”

The show also plays with technology in interesting ways. When audiences arrive they use a special app to suggest what Blank! will be about. During a 15-minute intro, they vote on everything from lines of dialogue and song titles to musical themes and styles of choreography. [Read more →]

November 25, 2014   No Comments

How Many Times Would You Forgive Someone?

Ismenia Mendes as Emma & Quincy Tyler Bernstein as Shelley

Ismenia Mendes as Emma & Quincy Tyler Bernstein as Shelley

Heidi Schreck on the moral questions in Grand Concourse

After I saw Heidi Schreck’s play Grand Concourse, I made a mistake. The show left me uncomfortable, so I thought that meant I didn’t like it.
But I realized I was wrong: The play, which is at Playwrights Horizons through November 30, is successful because it makes me uneasy. Lots of writers tell me what I think I want to hear, but Schreck forces me to consider things about myself that are no less true for being unpleasant.

Specifically, she deals with forgiveness. Set in a Bronx soup kitchen, Grand Concourse follows a nun named Shelley who’s trying to reconcile her crisis of faith with her strong desire to help people. Soon enough, she meets a volunteer named Emma, a troubled but charismatic young woman who hurts Shelley (and others around her) several times.

So can Shelley keep forgiving Emma for causing her pain? Or is there a limit to how much one human being can possibly overlook?

When I recently spoke to Schreck, who is Playwrights Horizons’ first Tow Foundation playwright in residence, we discussed Grand Concourse‘s moral compass and the stark realities of forgiveness.

Mark Blankenship: What made you want to tackle forgiveness as a theme in Grand Concourse?

Heidi Schreck: I came to the play with the question of how forgiveness works generally and more specifically how it works for me. It’s a question that has haunted me for a long time. I grew up in a family of do-gooders in the best sense of the word. My parents ran a home for homeless kids and really devoted their whole lives to our community. They taught me that forgiveness was what one ought to give, no matter what happened.

MB: Which can be easier said than done.

HS: Oh yes. As I got older, I began to realize that I didn’t fully understand what that meant and that I had a more superficial relationship to it than I realized. I got into the question of “Is everything forgivable”? Well, clearly not everything. But putting aside great acts of evil, are there small, personal acts that are also unforgivable? And how do you decide? And what is forgiveness anyway?

MB: Without giving too much away, I can tell you that I was deeply struck by Shelley and Emma’s conversation about this very subject at the end of the play. Did you start the script knowing it would end there?

HS: At first I thought the play was about this younger woman inspiring this older woman who has lost faith in her vocation. But then I realized Emma was not as honest as I thought she was.

MB: Right. Which makes it harder to deliver the tidy ending where everyone feels good and makes soup. [Read more →]

November 24, 2014   No Comments

Why Alessandro Nivola Loves “The Elephant Man”

Alessandro Nivola in The Elephant Man

Alessandro Nivola in The Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper wasn’t the only actor obsessed with bringing the Williamstown Theatre Festival revival to Broadway

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

When director Scott Ellis called Alessandro Nivola back in 2012 about playing the part of moralistic Victorian doctor Frederick Treves in a mounting of The Elephant Man at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the actor knew he couldn’t say no. After all, his old friend Ellis was responsible for his entire career in the theatre and beyond. “It’s true!” Nivola insists. “In 1995, Scott cast me in a revival of A Month in the Country opposite Helen Mirren. I was just one year out of college and that play was not only my Broadway debut but my first show in NYC. It was entirely because of that exposure that all the other opportunities came.”

In fact, so many Hollywood offers flooded in that Nivola’s stage career was immediately sidetracked. Although he and Ellis attempted to work together many times over the years, their schedules never aligned… not even for The Elephant Man. “I was filming a movie [Devil’s Knot] in Atlanta at the same time as rehearsals,” Nivola recalls. “I had to fly to and from Williamstown three times if that gives you any indication of my level of commitment. There was no way I wasn’t going to do this thing.”

The life of Joseph Merrick, a real 19th-century Englishman afflicted with mysterious deformities who was treated and befriended by Dr. Treves, seems to have a compelling effect on actors. Nivola’s costar, Bradley Cooper, who plays the title character, recently revealed that David Lynch’s movie The Elephant Man is what inspired him to become an actor. And when he discovered Bernard Pomerance’s Tony-winning play of the same name, he did it for his grad school thesis.

Nivola, similarly, was introduced to Merrick’s story through the film, but he was pleasantly surprised when he realized the movie and the play were completely different. “I remember loving The Elephant Man but it was so filmic, especially Dr. Treves, who was played by Anthony Hopkins,” he says. “The character was fascinating but so understated. I couldn’t imagine how it would translate into a great theatre role. And then I read the play and was struck by Treves’ main arc. He goes from having supreme confidence and conviction in his own beliefs and the cultural values of the time and place to just total loss of faith and self-loathing. There are hints of that in the film but nothing like what plays out onstage. I saw it as a huge opportunity.”

Thanks in part to Cooper’s movie star cred, The Elephant Man was an insanely hot ticket at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, so a Broadway transfer seemed like a no-brainer, especially since the lead actors and director all wanted to do it. It was just a question of juggling everyone’s commitments, which wasn’t easy. As Nivola explains, “We were supposed to do it last fall so I had blocked out that time but when it fell through, that’s how I ended up doing The Winslow Boy,” which was produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, where Ellis is associate artistic director (yup, him again).
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November 20, 2014   No Comments

The Animal (Mask) Inside His Mind

Colbie Minifie & Douglas Smith

Colby Minifie & Douglas Smith

How Trip Cullman evokes the teenage horror in Punk Rock

Forget a simple blackout. When MCC Theater’s production of Punk Rock transitions between scenes, we’re treated to loud music, flashing lights, and young actors dancing around in animal masks.

And even though they take place between the scenes of Simon Stephens’ play, these moments are still vital to the show’s aesthetic. “I think that so much of the time transitions are afterthoughts,” says director Trip Cullman. “And I think they’re actually incredibly important.”

Cullman believes transitions should not only support the story, but also be theatrically interesting in their own right. In <em>Punk Rock</em>, which unfolds at a boarding school in Stockport, England, they’re meant to illustrate the psyche of the students, particularly William (Douglas Smith), a smart, somewhat innocent, deeply troubled 17-year-old.

“I think the play is partly called Punk Rock because of the chaotic, anarchic noise that’s going on in William’s head and all the kids’ heads,” Cullman says.

The title is partly what drew the director, a self-described obsessive music fan, to the project. Simon’s text indicates songs, by bands such as Sonic Youth, to be played in the scene changes, and Cullman kept about half of them. “When you’re working on something, you have an intuitive response to what you want to do,” he says. “I wanted to stay true to the impulse that he had, but sometimes, with some of the music that he had chosen, I didn’t feel that I had a personal, visceral response to it.”

Inspiration for the masks came from William’s dialogue. The boy is protective of animals, for instance, and when he becomes disillusioned with a fellow student, he accuses her of being a robot. “I thought it would be interesting to see all these characters, but all of a sudden they have the head of a bird or a robot like from Dr. Who,” Cullman says. “It was a way to visually unlock the subtext of his mind.” [Read more →]

November 19, 2014   1 Comment