Connecting Communities: as easy as ABC

The Alphabet Series at Metropolitan Playhouse

Lillian Rodriguez as Jonas Mekas
Lillian Rodriguez as Jonas Mekas

 

Jason C. Brown as Jeanise Aviles

Jason C. Brown as Jeanise Aviles

Tammy McNeill as Jimmy Webb

Tammy McNeill as Jimmy Webb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inspired by the community of people who inhabit the East Village, Alex Roe, Artistic Director of Metropolitan Playhouse crafted the Alphabet City series, a theatrical production that captures snapshots of local personalities whose personal stories make for a fascinating dramatic presentation. For the past eleven years, Alex carries on with this endeavor to “celebrate unheralded lives in a way that is unique” through its most recent creation The Indelible, a collection of solo performances comprised of six new monologues based on interviews with locals told entirely in their own words.

The process has pretty much remained the same. Alex has the actors seek out “someone who is like them or unlike them, but [to] make a connection with them and then try to identify as best they can with that person’s aspirations, their history, their both physical manifest and more hidden selves. . . And then transform their words through a performance that tries to capture that person’s spirit into a portrait of them. And that very act of meeting someone bonding with them in a sense and then telling their story . . . is a transformative event.”

Actor Lillian Rodriguez speaks of how 92 year-old Jonas Mekas has left his “indelible” mark by founding Anthology Film Archives and “he’s just got a very unique personality and interesting story coming from Europe, escaping from a forced labor camp [and] then coming to America pursuing his dream which was to film what he loves.” Similarly, Jeanise Aviles: hair artist/color specialist/wig maker/performance artist/knit bomber personified by Jason Brown is “just an indelible character all around. Your subject has to have an indelible kind of impression on you for you to be magnetized by them and their story enough to spend all this time with them discovering them, transcribing what they say and creating a monologue around them.” Tammy McNeill as Jimmy Webb, manager and buyer at Trash and Vaudeville (AKA the punk Peter Pan), considers her subject’s unique history is how he leaves his indelible impression: “Jimmy has so much history, it’s brought him to an incredible place in his life, and he’s so much a part of the neighborhood that people recognize him. They know who he is and what he’s been through, but also how his story is a part of the culture in the East Village. His journey and his connection to the neighborhood make him unforgettable.”

Audiences are drawn to this project for its humanity. Director Chris Harcum devised the combination of monologues by focusing on each “character’s” need to tell: “It’s two-third intuition and one-third dealing with what’s being brought to you. Of these three in particular you could literally put this in any order and have something happen, to a degree.” The process is open-ended in that the selection process is entirely left up to the actors; yet, in spite of their not being “assigned a list” actors’ sensibilities guide them to achieve their objective. “Part of it is finding the right people to do this,” says Chris. “Alex trusted me with this project because I’d performed in it twice and we’ve known each other for ten years now. Each of these actors are very different actors; none of these actors have the same process; none of the actors have the same background; they all kind of attack things differently. So my process was how much do I come into this? How much do I back off? I try to steer the ship in a way of project management – this has to happen at this point and we have to have these things. I had to put the people together to make 2 evenings. I was doing that before they actually printed out the monologues. I heard some of the audio recordings at that point. ‘Well, it’s probably going to be these 3 and I’ll see if anything kind of jumps out at me to not be right about that decision and move forward from there’; and so, that’s what we did.”

And the audience experience is transformative: “It’s like ordinary people doing extraordinary things” injects Jason. “When you’re (initially interviewing) a real live human being you really don’t think about them in a theatrical context and using the arts and putting them into a theatrical context [with] the subject becoming “CHARACTER” and having a voice and speaking to the audience and imparting these messages. I think the one through-line between all 3 of these folks is they talk a lot about hope; they’re very positive; they all have these kind of aphorisms about life that are just kind of universal that the audience relates to and by theatricalizing these people they will go back in their own lives and look at people who impact them in a different way.” Tammy received a Facebook message from an audience member to say how much she enjoyed seeing her portrayal of Jimmy. She said that she would not have understood someone like that; would not have gotten to know someone like that and came away from it with a more open mind; an open heartedness. It was interesting because “I hadn’t even thought of that. I’d been so wrapped up in Jimmy’s story, and thinking ‘this guy’s so great’, that I hadn’t even considered that somebody would come in not immediately agreeing with me, not knowing who he might be.”

“We feature all kinds of people” Alex adds. “Artists, more violent people, more gentle people, healers; invariably, I think, in everyone’s life the way that they put one foot in front of the other and make their way through the world is an inspiration to people who see it. It’s a special combination of actor/storyteller who are telling someone else’s story, but in their persona. And that makes it all possible. And people who get past these superficial who they are, past their details of our history and into something that is human and aspirational, inspirational.”

It is also transformative for the actor. Alex mentioned how actors are not the same having done this project: “I would guarantee they’ll look at things a little bit differently. But when you’re really looking at someone – why did that person choose that word and going down into that really specific place and then that act of absorbing all that material and bringing that out to people. The challenge is not everybody can do this. I think at different places they were challenged to a point of – in a way that they have not been previously and it was something that in some ways really makes you confront yourself in a different way. And so I feel like this will carry on with them in whatever they may do in the future.”

Connecting individuals to each other not only sustains the mission of this project at Metropolitan Playhouse, and one that “we’ll continue to do as an important part of our season,” asserts Alex, but also impacts those communities beyond the East Village: “What has really excited me most is that actors who have done it before have taken it elsewhere and disseminated it as if it were another community. One of the people who went off and did this, as I remember, did it for a camp for LGBT high school students and it was extremely meaningful to them to connect with their own identity and the other people that they interviewed. I’ve heard of other people doing it with family members, particularly, or with homeless members of their community.

Theater provides an opportunity for audiences to witness ordinary people doing extraordinary things and as an Artistic Director, Alex Roe envisions “using this art to not only do all the things that theater does – create a space for ritual performance for a society to examine itself, but actually connect people to one another . . . so that everybody in the room feels that connection whatever they do is incredibly exciting to me. If I could see that happen elsewhere with different communities and see more communities find the virtue in this art and how it brings them together and softens their hearts, brings them to tears and transforms them, then I can’t really imagine anything else I’d rather see and have it go.”

It’s as simple as A-B-C.

East Side Stories
The Indelible
April 14 – May 3, 2015
Metropolitan Playhouse
http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.org/

That’s How Angels Arranged
Written and performed by Lillian Rodriguez as Jonas Mekas,
Filmmaker, poet, and artist. Founder the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and the Film Makers’ Cinematheque, now the Anthology Film Archives http://www.jonasmekas.com

COLORBOMB!
Written and performed by Jason Brown as Jeanise Aviles
Hair Artist/Color Specialist/Wig Maker/Performance Artist/Knit Bomber

Gimme Life
Written and performed by Tammy McNeill as Jimmy Webb
Manager and buyer at Trash and Vaudeville (A.K.A. the punk Peter Pan)

Christ Harcum, Director
Alex Roe, Artistic Director

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