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

Testimonial #46: Erik Abbott, Theatre Artist, Producer, Scholar, Critic and Teacher, Actors Repertory Theatre Luxembourg

“Madame French Teacher had a limited background in theatre, but she had an infectious spirit, an ability to inspire — and high expectations: she demanded commitment and discipline and hard work.”

How are the arts re-igniting your community and sparking innovation and creativity in your local schools?

I know that there are performing arts programmes in the state schools, in the European School (for children of EU employees) and in the prominent private schools. At least some of those programmes are very strong. There is also a state conservatory that offers music and theatre courses for young people. One of the long-time amateur theatre clubs (going strong for over forty years) offers a youth theatre programme every year, as well as a summer residential academy. What precisely, the effect of all this is on innovation and creativity in the schools, I honesty don’t know. But, as a theatre artist, producer, scholar, critic and teacher, it thrills me that I see young people in attendance at every single production I attend (and I attend a lot). We know that arts education and participation increases critical thinking skills and cognition — in other words, the arts create better learners. It is an absolute article of faith for me that they also create better citizens, parents, workers — people.

How has your life been indelibly touched by a teacher who utilized the arts for whatever reason and acknowledge how they were instrumental in breaking the mold to allow you to become who you are today?

We have to go back to the beginning: eighth grade. I was kind of short, kind of fat, more than kind of nerdy, a late bloomer, angry and unhappy. A friend suggested I get involved in the school spring musical, which was going to be directed by the French teacher, whom I didn’t know. (To this day I’ve never taken a French class.) I did ask to be involved (I don’t think we had actual auditions) and I was cast and, well, the rest is history. Madame French Teacher had a limited background in theatre, but she had an infectious spirit, an ability to inspire — and high expectations: she demanded commitment and discipline and hard work. I fell in love with being in a theatre and being on stage. I learned lessons in that first show that I still follow (not least things like ‘upstage’ and ‘downstage’). I made a decision, or more accurately, I discovered that this was what I was going to do with my life. And I have. I’ve spent my life in the theatre, in one way or another. My skills have enlarged and evolved — I rarely act onstage any more, but I direct and produce and teach and critique and practice dramaturgy and write plays and do scholarship and set budgets and update the company Facebook page and write press releases and publicity material and negotiate venue leases, etc., etc., etc. At thirteen, I awakened to an idea that no other life is possible. I still believe that. Thank you, Madame French Teacher.

The Madrid’s Edie Falco on Carmela, Jackie and the High School Musical That Launched Her Career

By Kathy Henderson
Twitter @KatH_NY
February 27, 2013
Broadway.Com

Before Edie Falco donned mob wife couture as Carmela in The Sopranos, she won a Theatre World Award for her harrowing performance as the embittered wife of a jazz musician in Warren Leight’s Tony-winning drama Side Man. Falco continued to make stage acting a priority while becoming only the second person in history to win lead acting Emmys in both drama (The Sopranos) and comedy (the title role in Nurse Jackie). Now starring as a runaway mom in MTC’s off-Broadway premiere of The Madrid, Falco chatted with Broadway.com about her iconic TV heroines, three favorite stage roles and the high school musical that gave her the confidence to pursue a career in acting.
Read more…

Role That Changed My Life

“I was a shy, awkward kid—I didn’t know how to be popular and never wore the right clothes—and being chosen to play Eliza in My Fair Lady at Northport High School [on Long Island] was very, very meaningful. My mother had been an actress, and the idea of auditioning for a play was mortifyingly scary for me. But Fran McGarry, who is still performing, cast me and gave me the confidence that I could carry a play and lead an ensemble. The fact that she trusted me was a huge part in my becoming an actress. My Henry Higgins was David Troup, who now works at a theater in Maine [Everyman Rep] and was one of my dearest friends. I would love to do a [Broadway] musical. I almost did Threepenny Opera with Alan Cumming, but I had a conflict. I find the whole mode of expression in musicals very moving.”

Fran’s Comment:

As Edie’s high school drama teacher, I am grateful and humbled to know that I played a small part in the arc of her career; nevertheless, there are thousands of teachers who have impacted the lives of so many students. Edie was the first to share her story:
“Fran McGarry and Eve Terry, perhaps unbeknownst to them, played a huge part in my path to my present career. Though I was just a schoolkid, they treated me like an artist; made me believe I had something unique to offer. They helped grow my confidence which I believe can take you anywhere you want to go. I am so grateful.” Edie Falco, July 11,2011

What about you?
How has your life been indelibly touched by a teacher who utilized the arts for whatever reason and acknowledge how they were instrumental in breaking the mold to allow you to become who you are today?