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Above the Fold

Date: Jul 21, 2008


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Theatre can happen anywhere, even on a Greyhound bus.

Playwright Rajiv Joseph was travelling at night between his hometown of Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and while most of the bus was dark, one woman had a worklight on over her tray table and was "folding these little boxes and fish," Joseph recalls. "It was this weirdly theatrical moment, with her working under the light and darkness all around her."

They struck up a conversation, and he learned that she was an origami artist who also taught it to children. She mentioned that "some children just have an affinity for it. They seem to know the logic of origami without thinking about it—they can see the folds on the paper before it's folded."

This intrigued Joseph, whose play inspired by that late-night chat, Animals Out of Paper, opens this week at the Second Stage's McGinn-Cazale Theatre. It's about a skilled origamist like the woman he met, and her fraught relationship with a teenage wunderkind whose brilliance at the ancient Japanese paper-folding art surpasses even hers. Joseph says had been mulling a play about a child prodigy when he stumbled upon the world of origami.

His interest in hyper-talented youngsters, he hastens to add, was not because he ever was one.

"I was the most average kid in the world in everything," Joseph insists (a streak that's clearly ended: He recently won the Vineyard Theatre's Paula Vogel Playwriting Award). "It was probably just born of my love for the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. The concept of genius is interesting; I also love the play and the movie Amadeus. In my play, I explore the ways normal people can't conceive of what geniuses do, and even geniuses don't know how they do what they do. There's basically a Salieri/Mozart thing between the teacher and the student."

Joseph also explores the way that such unconscious, almost supernatural excellence can be frightening.

"At one point in the play, the kid despairs because he folds these amazing things, but he doesn't know why they affect people so much, or why he even folded them," says Joseph. "It's almost like his hands are moving without him."

Joseph's career has taken off in recent years along two tracks: politically themed works like last year's The Leopard and the Fox, about a crisis in 1970s Pakistan, or Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which will premiere in L.A. next spring. Then there are smaller, more personal plays like All This Intimacy, about a man who impregnates three women in the span of a few weeks, which ran last year at the McGinn-Cazale, or Huck and Holden, about a young Indian-American's complicated romance with American culture.

Though Joseph admits that his plays can be placed into two columns, he adds, "It might be a little more blurred than that. My plays are all over the place. Bengal Tiger is this kind of dreamworld take on Iraq; The Leopard and the Fox is a sort period piece, though there are dreamlike elements in that—ghosts and memories talking."

Animals Out of Paper, by contrast, is the "most straightforward of all my plays, structurally. It's linear; there are no flashbacks or dream elements. That kind of conventionality has been a new thing for me, and very hard, actually."

In fact, as Joseph keeps on writing and rewriting his toward its opening date, he confesses some envy of the origamist's art.

"We talk about how the character can just fold something once and it's done," Joseph says with a laugh. "But the way I've been changing this play, rewriting it, putting in lines, taking out lines—it's the exact opposite. Nothing is ever quite right; I have to keep going back. I'm anxious to feel that I'm done writing, and to let the actors and the director take it over."

The audience will get a chance to get in on the act, too.

"There's not too much origami in the play, but there are a lot of origami pieces on the set," Joseph says. "One reason is that it's very hard, and even the best origamist takes a long time to do it, so it's actually not very theatrical. But we do have a folding table in the lobby for patrons, and there's a sign that says if they can do something good enough, it may end up on the set."

Click here for more information about Animals Out of Paper.