By LAURA HEDLI
It's just by coincidence that as a certain webslinger comes to Broadway, the Brick Theater in Brooklyn is hosting its first-ever Comic Book Theater Festival through July 1. However, even though it shares a medium with Spider-Man, the festival is designed to remind audiences that comics offer much more than superheroes.
In a way, the Comic Book Theater Festival is like a prism through which comics can be seen in all their constituent parts.
Take Keith Boynton's play Gutter Space (running through tomorrow night): It’s a jaunty metatheatre exploration where actors dressed as white knights, femme fatales and villains pose for panels in what appears to be a comic book still-life. Soon, however, they wonder who they are in the space outside the shot, living an unscripted existence. On the other end of the spectrum, Jon Hoche's Galactic Girl in: Attack of the Starbarians! (beginning June 11) is a sci-fi story adapted for the stage. It’s more about the content of comic books than the form, and it does give a nod to superhero mythology.
Meanwhile, there are personal shows like Robert Attenweiler's Our Greatest Year (beginning June 17), which draws inspiration from memoir comics like Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor series.
The Brick has been producing themed summer festivals since 2004, and a comic book concept has been on the table for years. However, the producing team always decided in favor of topics that were topical or conceptually broad, like the Moral Values festival in 2005 or the Anti-Depressant Festival in 2009.
"I think we’ve finally realized we’ve come to a turning point, and we’re going to take a break from those snarkier themes," says Jeff Lewonczyk, a longtime force at the Brick and the Comic Book Festival's executive producer. "We’re doing wonderfully well with some of our recurring festivals that are more specifically reflective of a sub-culture or another medium." The New York Clown Theatre Festival, for instance, has become an annual event, as have Game Fest, which features theatre inspired by video games, and Fight Fest, which celebrates combat theatre.
The Comic Book Theater Festival could to be added to that list, Lewonczyk believes, as long as audiences discover the crossover potential. Right now, though, he knows there’s a theatre crowd and there’s a comics crowd, and he’s focusing on each of them separately. "It’s a tricky line," he says. "In order to market something, you kind of need to play into stereotypes, but at the same time, we’re really trying to bust stereotypes a little bit with this.
One strategy is pairing with Desert Island, the comic book store across the street. The store’s owner put Lewonczyk in touch with artists who helped create the festival’s playbill, which is reminiscent of the funnies in a Sunday paper. Desert Island stocks promotional material for the Brick, and in turn, flyers at the theatre encourage audiences to check out the store either before or after shows.
For Lewonczyk, who has his own show in the festival called The Bubble of Solace (beginning June 25), this union of graphic art and performance art makes sense: "A lot of what happens in theatre takes place within the audiences’ mind. You’re editing your own experience. And to an extent, I see that happening with comics, too. I mean, they’re meant to be read a certain way, but you get a lot of the more experimental artists nowadays creating these huge compositions that aren’t necessarily intended to be read in a linear way. In both mediums, you as an audience member are taking the input that you’re given and tying it together in your own imagination."
Laura Hedli is a critic and reporter based in New York City