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Writer-composer Greg Kotis and his wife Ayun Halliday gab about their latest irreverent theatrical collaboration
Greg Kotis (who won a pair of Tony Awards for writing the book and lyrics of Urinetown) and Ayun Halliday (experimental dramatist and performer, indie comic icon and best-selling memoirist) have collaborated on a lot of projects over the years, including marriage, two children and gleefully out-there theatre. After almost three decades of working together on and off stage, they're about to debut their latest endeavor, I Am Nobody, which opens on March 5 at The Tank for a month-long run. A dark chamber musical that's equal parts road trip rom-com and quest to quash an impending digital apocalypse, the show is written by Kotis and features a cast of five including Halliday playing their own instruments. If the show is as amusing as Kotis and Halliday's repartee, at least we'll all die laughing.
Ayun Halliday: Hi Greg.
Greg Kotis: To paraphrase my grandmother from the Old Country, "Who is there?!!"
Ayun: It's your wife of soon-to-be-25 years. If you turn your head slightly to the left, you will see that I am sitting a foot or so away from you, on this, the eve of our first tech rehearsal for your new show I Am Nobody.
Greg: Ah, yes, I see you now. It's easy to remain transfixed by our devices and not notice human beings, even if they're sitting a few feet away on the same couch.
Ayun: Can I trouble you to tell us a little more about I Am Nobody?
Greg: It's a new musical about people so transfixed by devices that they go mad!!!
Ayun: When you say musical, do you mean like full orchestra and ripped chorus members Bob Fosse-ing about in sequins and character shoes?
Greg: NO!! It's a low-budget, Off-Off Broadway affair. Five actors playing guitar (and ukulele and mandolin and tambourine). Fifteen songs, 90 minutes. There is some dancing, but I wouldn't put it in the Bob Fosse category.
Ayun: So, a departure of sorts from your best-known musical. which is Urinetown.
Greg: Yes, in that it's not a big, Broadway-style, big cast type show with "I Want" songs and Act I finales and ballads and the like. The themes of dread of the future and humanity's capacity for self-destruction are in full view but, you know, in a funny way. Tell me about Miriam, the character you are creating for this show.
Ayun: Way to seize the wheel! Miriam is an incredibly self-reliant farm woman, who's also incredibly proud of being an incredibly self-reliant farm woman. Ideally, she'd be played by Cherry Jones in Transparent mode, but fortunately for me, this is not an ideal world. I commend you for writing such a rich assortment of unhinged, comedic parts for middle-aged women: Lunchtime's Nina, Urinetown's Penelope Pennywise, The Truth About Santa's Mrs. Claus, Yeast Nation's Jan-the-Unnamed (even though in the production I directed, that role was played by a then-teenage boy who is now our son's college roommate).
Greg: Your Mrs. Claus was a thing of (unhinged) beauty, and your Miriam is sure to set a new standard in Cherry Jones-esque insanity! Is it still fun to put on shows together after all these decades?
Ayun: First of all, thank you, and second, yes, it's still fun. It's actually more fun now that all our pretty chickens are out of the nest, and I can truly immerse myself in the process and let the household go to hell in the name of art. Our artistic collaboration is just a year or two shy of three decades at this point. I joined the Neo-Futurists in 1989, and I believe you auditioned in 1991, and very shortly thereafter, the bells rang and the angels sang, and we moved to New York and two children were born and raised, and... let's talk about the show some more. Unlike me, you've experienced having your work produced in some pretty Tony (ha ha, see what I did there?) settings, which is to say big budgets, dressing rooms with couches and windows, toadies, divas, etc. What do you like about working at The Tank?
Greg: The Tank is a special place. By Lincoln Center standards, it's utterly devoid of resources, which means the work is all about making something happen with nothing. That's often the best kind of something that can happen in a theatre. The people I've encountered there are unnervingly inspired and capable, including our director Meghan Finn, who's also the artistic director of The Tank, and her husband Michael Cassedy, I Am Nobody's music director. Two married couples involved with one production!
Ayun: And three wonderful performers in their twenties, which, if I'm doing the math correctly for once in my life, makes them barely older than our eldest child. We could be their parents! I love working with them, hearing their perspectives on Slave Play and The Sopranos, and introducing them to art I love that isn't on their radar. I know people are always saying their cast feels like one big happy family, but this one really does, freshly minted, but also multigenerational, something I'm very interested in of late. I will brag about them like some kind of nightmare grandma when one—or all—of them make it big. I'll tell our own grandchildren about playing ukulele on stage with them in one of grandpa's plays—excuse me, low-budget guitar-driven chamber musicals—back in the day.
Greg: The cast is rounded out by comedy stalwart Patrick McCartney.
Ayun: The children—our actual children, not Patrick's or my castmates—are very bedazzled that he was in the movie Elf. It's a lot of fun.
Greg: It's also strange to be trying to mount a low-budget musical comedy about the end of the world while the world—at least the world as we know it—seems to be ending. Here's to gallows humor!
Ayun: Amen to that, brother! I mean, husband. I also kind of suspect we're the only ones purchasing dust masks for a show. I was kind of taken by surprise that Home Depot was all sold out. Fortunately, the 99¢ stores in East Harlem are well stocked. This is kind of a double public service announcement for seeing the play and containing the coronavirus pandemic… not that masks can do much of anything as far as the latter's concerned. (Takes a beat.) I'm gonna go watch BoJack Horseman now, okay?
Greg: As long as you get some rest. See you in rehearsal!
Ayun: Again, I'm at the other end of the couch. But yes, see you in rehearsal, ukulele in hand, may god have mercy on us all.
Top image: Greg Kotis and Ayun Halliday. Photo by Isabelle Pflanz.
Greg Kotis is the author of many plays and musicals, including Urinetown, Yeast Nation and Pig Farm. Ayun Halliday is the author of seven books and several plays, and hosts the monthly variety series Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. They live in New York City, where they operate their company Theater of the Apes out of their apartment.