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Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get super enthusiastic about things. This week, James Kautz, Artistic Director of The Amoralists, and Andrew Block, TDF's Manager of Off-Off Broadway Services, geek out over drinks about the pressures and pitfalls of directing new plays in the New York International Fringe Festival, which is running through August 30.
Andrew Block: I can't believe we've found a minute this week before our shows hit FringeNYC, but here we are. I've been dying to chat with another director about their experiences with mounting new work in this crazy festival. So thanks for making this happen.
James Kautz: Man, likewise. Beer and a whiskey, please.
Andrew: So, If you just met me in a bar, like this?
James: Which would never happen, never happen.
Andrew: Right. So, if I was some guy interested in going to Fringe, with 200 shows to see, what would you tell me about your show that would make me want to buy a ticket over the 199 other shows out there to see?
James: Nudity and violence. Ha, Not really.
Andrew: That's usually the Amoralists route, right? This is safe Amoralists?
James: Not at all, it's in incredibly dangerous show. At its core Schooled is a celebration of honest storytelling and theatre in the purest sense. It's three people on a journey going through very honest problems that we face today, like privilege and classism and sexism. They're all very relatable, and the struggles are Greek in proportion because this is what we all face every day in our own lives. How about yours?
Andrew: Similar in a way, in that it's very relatable characters. Straight Faced Lies takes place at Thanksgiving, which everybody understands. At its core it's about fear of human connection and how your past within your own family can put up a roadblock to you having an actual relationship or being able to relate to the world around you. But it's done with a really biting, dark sense of humor. It's six characters all coming together at this Thanksgiving, with enormous baggage. And dinner ensues. Sounds like your piece is pretty straightforward.
James: There's theatricality in it. But in comparison with some of the other pieces in our venue, The Robert Moss, we don't have nearly as many moving pieces. I can't imagine what it would take to manage some of these pieces in a single space. I don't know how some of these Fringe pieces do it.
Andrew: Yeah, I know. This is the fifth time I've done the Fringe in some capacity as producer or director.
James: You're a veteran. 5-Timer.
Andrew: Ha! I guess. And at this point I've learned it's all about simplifying. You make it about the actors and the piece, and not about all these moving pieces. When you have 15 minutes set up and strike time, and a tech time that's just the length of your show, it's almost impossible. So it's really about focusing on the essence of what makes this play pop.
James: It's a fantastic lesson for any theatremaker. You should always be looking to trim the fat and get down to the essence of "what does this story need?" How can I use my limitations to find greater creativity? It's like a boot camp or crucible of creativity. At the same time, I'm thinking, "How can we still make this theatrical and not just be 3 cubes in a space? How is this more than a workshop?"
Andrew: It is a new work?
James: Brand new. I've known [the playwright] Lisa Lewis for years – her husband is the publicist for The Amoralists. She was looking for someone to help push her out of her comfort zone. When you live with a play for a while, and if you have the courage to, you want to go "Okay, what are fresh eyes on this? What am I missing?" She wanted to break it open a little. Fringe gives new work an opportunity for just that.
Andrew: The playwright I'm working with, Mark Jason Williams, I actually met him 4 years ago at a FringeNYC Director/Writer Speed-Date where they were pairing writers with directors, and we've been collaborating ever since.
James: You do develop a shorthand with artists that you've worked with before, but at the same time every work is new and every work is different. With each play you have to find a new language for how you're able to talk about what they're trying to do.
Andrew: You like working with the same people – and it's such a benefit when working in a festival – because you can get in the room and just do the work. Ours is a dysfunctional family piece, but it's a very functional family that's putting it together. We all share that vision of, "Let's get this done, let's attack it, let's make the most economic and bold choices behind things, go with something and see what sticks."
James: That's what it's all about. So much of your energy goes towards creating a safe enough space for people to take the risks that they're going to need to. When you have people you've worked with before, you can leapfrog a lot of that.
Andrew: Now, I know you come from an acting background. Is this your first time directing?
James: My first production was last year, The Qualification of Walker Evans, at Walkerspace. Which, by comparison, was a huge show with 300 light and sound cues. We started out thinking it was going to be a small intimate story, and of course it ballooned into this epic thing. Schooled wound up having to be the opposite. Where I had the freedom to stretch our muscles on the last one, within Fringe, every instinct I've had to explore it bigger, I've had to shrink down.
James: Which is great!
Andrew: Sometimes playing within these Fringe rules can be beneficial. It causes an artist to really commit to their instincts. It goes back to your acting school days, where you figured out how to create this entire kitchen with just a table and 6 actors on stage.
James: You have to cast actors who are brave enough to go with you and trust those forced choices of what's actually possible onstage. But then so much of our job is giving them permission to feel foolish at first.
Andrew: How so?
James: We have a scene where towards the end of the play one of the characters is moving, and a line about how many boxes there are in the room. And all the actors and stage manager assumed, "How are we going to get boxes onstage?" I'm like, "Guys, just see the boxes. We don't have time to pull all the boxes out. How and where?" And it seems like a minor thing, but that translates the language of the play to us. And now the next scene is easier because, "Well, we didn't have boxes in that scene; we don't need darts in this scene." Has there been anything through this process that you thought maybe you guys weren't going to compromise on or get through? Has there been any conflict between your vision and the "rules"?
Andrew: Spoiler alert: We have a gun in our show that shows up at one point. Now there are very, very strict rules in Fringe, and especially now, about guns looking real. And I've got a lead actress, fantastic, who is all about the reality of the moment, and if that gun has a little orange tip on it, man, she is going to lose her sh*t. So it's trying to find the balance between I gotta follow certain rules, we have to honor the piece. I have to do honor to the actor, and at the end of the day I need the moment to work. So I have to go back to the core of the play and ask, "What is the story I'm trying to tell? What is the best way to do this by honoring all these different pieces?"
James: I will say it's my favorite way to make theatre, but it's pretty scary. Our very first production meeting we sat around a table and asked, "How are we going to create this world?" It's not a single set; it's 4 different playing spaces in a huge cavernous theatre. It's a timid show, it's claustrophobic. How do we do this without walls? How do we do this without adjustable lights? I can't isolate something. How do we make that work to our benefit?
Andrew: And then there are design choices. I've done tons of minimal theatre before, but I also like to have a full artistic vision, regardless of the limitations. So with this piece, flowers are a big motif. It starts out in a florist shop, and then it's Thanksgiving and there's a homecoming happening, so we've been able to design a solidly grounded aesthetic for the show based around simple floral work. Discovering ways of working a flower into a character, into a costume, or set piece. And we're not spending thousands of dollars to recreate this whole florist shop.
James: Cause where are you going to store it!?
Andrew: Right! And to be honest, the design for Fun Home inspired my vision for Straight Faced Lies. That started as a workshop and then The Public and now on Broadway. But the design has stayed beautiful in its simplicity. It has these very minimal moving pieces that are there to create simple imagery and support the life of the actor that's onstage, creating this world from it. How do you create a vision in this way?
James: To their credit, every one of our designers was pitching in ideas. Our costume designer was throwing out how he envisioned the set. Our set designer was thinking about lights. And I think because of the Fringe, we gave ourselves permission to think of it together as a whole. Everyone is empowered and engaged, and on something like this where we have so many limitations, everyone needs to feel that way. Everyone needs to come to the table and feel like having an idea – the power of saying "Yes" feels good. Setting the budgets really low because we have to keep it moving… why not listen to everybody's ideas?
Andrew: Coming from a genuine place of, "We believe in this so much, we want it to work."
James: This year everyone I've known and worked with seems to be part of some show in Fringe.
Andrew: That's the thing about Fringe that amazes me. It's 2 1/2 weeks. There are 200 shows. They're from all over the world. Everyone gathers in 16 venues downtown. Our plays are going to resonate with a certain audience. But then there's that juggling act, or that burlesque show, or that solo piece coming from Australia that's going to connect with someone else. And it's such a representation of New York! The cross-section, the diversity of this artistic melting pot. That's what makes me keep coming back to it. 'Cause at the end of the summer, every time I've done it, I've said "This is my last Fringe for a while" And then the spring rolls around and I'm like, "Oh yeah, that sounds like a fun project…" And then you're in the thick of it, of this energy, and "Man, this is really exciting!" Then there's these couple of weeks where you're like, "Oh my god! I've got to get out!" And now we're opening and there's a lot of stuff that still needs to get done before this thing opens, but it's going to open! And you just have to trust that at the helm, you have the right vision for the piece and everyone on your team is going to follow along. And it's going to be a great experience ultimately. Even though it seems scary as hell.
James: I would counter that that's the experience on every show. I think that's what I've been most surprised by. My team and I, at no point have we forgiven ourselves at any step of the way for being part of a festival. We only get 5 performances. I've worked harder on this show than any other. Most of us, if you're living in this city, you better f---ing work hard. You know? But I don't think it's sunk in yet that…
Andrew: In 3 weeks it's all going to be done.
James: It's all going to be done! The amount of hours that we put into this, and carving up a script, and finding the truth in all of this. It's unlike any other production.
Andrew: I actually kind of like the five performances thing. Because it makes every one of them special. Each one becomes an event. It's not like we're running this thing for 6 weeks or months, and someone can just show up whenever they want to. No. You better show up at this time on this date. Everyone gets excited. "Oh yeah, I'm going to be at that party that is that show and go have drinks in the Lower East Side…"
James: It's like that last week of every production.
Andrew: Exactly. Each performance is that. I feel like of all the projects I work on in the city, Fringe always seems like the one people are interested in the most. "Oh you're part of Fringe! That's awesome. I don't know how the hell you do it!" It's that sort of feeling, like a drug. It's almost like you have to do it, even though when it's all said and done, I'm exhausted.
James: I'm far more exhausted directing than I am by acting or even producing! I mean, poor us, right?
Andrew: But we wouldn't have it any other way. Everyone in the TDF office is taking their summer vacations right now, and I'm doing this show. And my community, the off-Off Broadway artists who I work with at TDF, this is their heavy producing time. Between all the big stuff that's going to open in the fall and Tony season just ending – it's downtime for all that. This is the time when all the artists in New York who have no money are like, "Now I'm coming out, and we're going to do a show!". In Fringe or not, this is the time to do it.
James: Most of these companies, like the Amoralists, who are my contemporaries, we always live in the Fringe time. In your January/February rental slots, and your summer. That's when you thrive!
Andrew: I'm looking forward to a very long vacation somewhere in the fall. And I have no idea where I'm going…
James: Lock ourselves in our apartments and drink some whiskey.Go here for more information on FringeNYC productions, including instructions on how to buy tickets.