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Two artistic spouses -- one of whom has two Tonys -- on their latest stage collaboration
Welcome to Behind the Scene, TDF Stages' ongoing series where theatre artists write about their creative process.
Usually when we run artist interviews at TDF Stages, we conduct the conversation. However, when Ayun Halliday (experimental dramatist, indie comic maven, and best-selling memoirist) suggested she chat with her playwright husband Greg Kotis (of Urinetown fame) about their upcoming theatre endeavor, we couldn't resist the chance to eavesdrop on their offstage banter. After two decades of working on (mostly) separate projects, and raising two kids (almost to adulthood), the couple has resurrected their Theater of the Apes. The company has only one prior credit: the original 1999 New York International Fringe Festival production of Urinetown, a musical that quickly made its way to Broadway and three 2002 Tonys (Best Book, Best Original Musical Score, and Best Direction of a Musical). Despite that now-legendary trajectory, they're returning to their Off-Off roots with a pair of world premiere absurdist comedies running in repertory at Brooklyn's The Brick this March: Lunchtime, written and directed by Kotis and featuring his wife and their teenage son, Milo; and Zamboni Godot, written and directed by Halliday. So, how do these busy artists and parents balance it all? To hear them tell it, amusingly!
Ayun Halliday: Excuse me, are you one of the guys who wrote Urinetown…and also scoops the cat litter?
Greg Kotis: Yes, I did write Urinetown AND I scoop the cat litter AND I'm the only one in the family who knows how to load the dishwasher properly. Did you write Zamboni Godot? What's that all about?
Ayun: It's a raucous midlife meditation on the comedy of existence, the hell of long-term relationships, and the famous play where nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. Uh...as your wife of 20-plus years I should probably add that cast member Marjorie Duffield, who plays Gogo (née Goneril), added that bit about the "hell of long-term relationships."
Greg: "A raucous meditation…" I'll be curious to see how you pull that off.
Ayun: It's funny gearing up to run in rep with you. I know everything about your play, Lunchtime, whilst you know nothing about Zamboni Godot besides what I just told you, who's in the cast, and a couple of props that are junking up our bedroom.
Greg: Well, you're in my play; I'm not in yours, hence the disparity.
Ayun: Our friend Michael loves to characterize me as Lucy to your Ricky, constantly trying to sneak into your nightclub act -- though in reality it was I who cast you when you auditioned for The Neo-Futurists in Chicago way back in 1991 or so. We performed in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind together for about a decade, and then we had a baby. I believe the last time I was in one of your plays I was about seven months pregnant with her. Or no, wait, we restaged it in Chicago, and drafted all of our old friends to be volunteer babysitters because we were trying to apply the principles of low-budget theatre to childcare…or something. Anyway, thank you for putting me in your new play! I am enjoying playing against type.
Greg: You're forgetting The Truth About Santa in which you played Saint Nick's mortal consort. I was in that, too, kind of, but only because one of our actors got sick of our kids, who were also in the play, so I had to take over as your cuckolded husband. We live a very strange life.
Ayun: Oh man! Sorry, that's a huge lapse! I was just talking about that play the other day, too. I love that play...though at the time it felt kind of intense. Both the kids got sick (as in throwing up backstage with no understudy) and I had to squeeze Milo's hand to cue him every time it was his turn to say a line. It feels a lot less stressful working with him now that he's 16 rather than when he was a first grader. Would you agree with that, Mister Director?
Greg: Absolutely. It's very fun watching Milo (who plays a waiter/busboy who dreams of joining the police force) find his voice as an actor and go toe-to-toe with some fine, seasoned New York players. It's fun watching you, too, enlisting some fashionable pumps for maximum physical comedy. What do you like better, acting or directing?
Ayun: Hard to say. My approach is pretty holistic these days. I do love writing, which reminds me of playing with my childhood dollhouse. I write with certain actors in mind. I used to joke that I wrote Fawnbook just so I could put my friend Chris Lindsay-Abaire in a giant sunbonnet (a goal I failed to achieve in my role as default costume designer). But I'm finding I love directing, too. I love puzzling out the playwright's motivations, along with the characters' -- even when I'm the playwright. I bring a lot of my acting training to bear when I'm directing. Apparently, I also use a lot of way-out metaphors and obscure literary references to try to goad the actors into giving me what I want. Chris and Marjorie were ribbing me a bit over that. What about you, what's your directorial approach?
Greg: I've been lucky to watch some excellent directors ply their trade, so I'm more or less trying do what I saw them do: listen, watch, trust the actors, think in terms of action, stuff like that. Exploring the mystery of staging has been particularly fun. We're still in that happy place where everything is possible, and the show (as far as we can tell) is going to be good. How are your rehearsals going?
Ayun: Good, though as you know, our producorial duties are piling up. I'm relieved I know my lines for Lunchtime. Well, most of 'em. I'll get there! There's so much still left to do. The housekeeping's going to suffer. How is it for you, buzzing back and forth between working on [the Broadway-bound musicalization of] The Sting -- where all the production stuff is taken care of, and there's a director, and actors who don't have day jobs, and sometimes even catered lunches -- and Theater of the Apes, which is basically just you and me?
Greg: Two entirely different worlds. It's musical versus straight play, which is its own kind of gulf. And then it's commercial versus storefront. I feel lucky to have the chance to swim in both waters.
Ayun: I have no designs on Broadway, but I'd like to swim in the Public's waters one day...
Greg: You and me both.
Ayun: So -- despite us having put the matinees at 4pm so people can see Lunchtime, grab a nice dinner in Williamsburg, and then catch an 8pm performance of Zamboni Godot -- hypothetically, let's say some poor soul can only catch one of our two Theater of the Apes shows. Which one should they see?
Greg: Lunchtime, undoubtedly. We will have prop guns and fake food, and you can't compete with that.
Ayun: But we have ice skates, a palm tree, and someone wets her pants onstage.
Greg: Hmmm...that's tough competition.
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, most recently Fawnbook, The Mermaid's Legs, and Zamboni Godot. They live in New York City with their family and cat.
Top image: Amy Berryman, Milo Kotis, and Ayun Halliday in Greg Kotis's Lunchtime. Photo by Gyda Arber