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The playwright William Burke gives off an averse-to-advertising air. His unruly beard existed long before face fuzz was trendy, and he has been known to sport Tevas unironically. (His wife, the actress Julia Sirna-Frest, points out that Burke hails from Durango, CO – a consistent contender on lists for America's worst-dressed city.)
Nevertheless, as he set to work on his play Pioneers! #goforth, which runs at JACK through Apr 9, Burke found himself drawn to a series of Levis ads from 2009. "There were these jeans commercials that used Whitman and Bukowski poems," he recalls. "They were called 'Go Forth.' Look 'em up. They were strikingly done – you'd see these youths jumping off waterfalls with Bukowski telling you how to live your life."
The ads prompted Burke to think about the American Dream as it's sold to young adults, with campaigns that encourage youngsters to go off and act wild.
"But then you're kinda expected to grow a tie out of your mouth at the age of 24," he observes. "We're not really offering young people an equation that works—people go to college, they have tons of debt, and then they're expected to contribute to society. But if you do that one summer abroad then you'll be a person."
Pioneers doesn't offer a traditional plot, nor does it simply rant against the advertising machine. Instead Burke juxtaposes elements of the commercials alongside the work of photographer Mike Brodie, whose documentation of train-hopping kids ricochets with Burke's own experiences. ("I dabbled," he says.) Toggling between the glibness of ad speech and the authenticity of the train-hopping images has inspired what Burke calls 'memory writing.' Delivered at a breakneck pace, as fast an approaching train, the memory writing feels adapted and conjured from Burke's own life. The resulting text is as sprawling, surprising, and as curlicued as Burke's beard.
"The play has an emotional trajectory," he says. "I look at performance as a circle. At first the audience is on the outside, so I'm trying to evolve it so that the audience is included by the end."
To that end, ticket holders sit in chairs and lawn chairs beneath a large net, while above them three actors (Nikki Calonge, Ugo Chukwu, and Zoe Geltman) wriggle, flip, and hold on for dear life. Meanwhile, six machines blow "snow" through the room. "Bohemianism is connected to nature, and we try to recreate that in cities," Burke says. "It's about accumulation." The net, designed by Burke's longtime collaborator Carolyn Mraz, becomes what he calls "an obvious metaphor creating the idea that you can be freefalling, but you can also get stuck."
A live music score, created and performed by Catherine Brookman, works with the text, and Burke also considers it an invitation "for the audience to go off [of] and feel. The idea is that by the end everyone is less burdened."
Pioneers marks Burke's third production at JACK, a pint-sized theatre in Clinton Hill with minimal lighting and walls covered in tinfoil. "JACK infects your play like a fungus," he says merrily. "The limitations lead to a vibrant and focused creativity."
Paired with the limitations of the space, however, is an adventurous attitude reflected in the bold programming choices of artistic director Alec Duffy. Consider Comfort Dogs, Burke's previous production at JACK. "When he said yes to that, I felt compelled to email him back and say, 'Did you read the second half of the email where I mentioned the live dogs in the space?'' Burke recalls.
Duffy, who admits to having moments of anxiety regarding the actors suspended in a net, nevertheless feels driven to support Burke's wildest ideas. "I find myself feeling an affinity for William's adventurousness," he says. "I want JACK to feel like a place that offers artists an opportunity to create an experience that pushes the ways a play traditionally behaves."
Eliza Bent is a writer and performer based in Brooklyn.
Photos by Kevin Frest. Top photo (l to r): Nikki Calonge and Ugo Chukwu
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