Saturday, December 11, 2010

More Assorted Research

Subterranea is trying to get off the ground and here's some funny things that have crossed the ol' path over the course of some research.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


I checked out a friend's blog last week and saw the "It Gets Better" video from Jon Berry, the director of the US Office of Personnel Management.  As with the others, it's a very affecting testimonial, but my friend picked up on something he said which is still with me a week later: God doesn't make junk.

The simplicity and far-reaching implications of this statement are so profound, and again I must give props to "E" for noting how universally applicable it is.  It is perhaps the best catch-all personal affirmation I have heard, no matter the circumstances.  Unless those circumstances involve you not believing in God.  Hm.  

The week I saw that video was the same week I went to an open call for The Public Theater's Timon of Athens.  I hadn't read it, so in preparation I went over the text on my Kindle (excellent for portable collected volumes of public domain texts like Shakespeare) and in doing so came across this line:

"Why dost thou call them knaves? thou know'st them not."

The context in the play doesn't really have much to do with the American culture war, but in the abstract it seemed immediately resonant with regard to adolescent bullying and the thinly-veiled homophobia in congressional politics.

The man was a genius!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


October is drawing to a close and the million things that were so important that had to be done this month have, in the main, been taken care of.  Here are some of the things I am thinking about.

Getting out to see Kate in her new apartment and seeing what we can get up to in the neighborhood.
Getting better at driving.
Finishing my reel.
Visiting at home and seeing friends.
Prepping Subterranea for a limited production next season.

I think the most dangerous place to be in November will be between me and a camera.  Got a lot of learnin' to do, and hours logged is the only way to get comfortable.  That and classes, I suppose.

Had a very fruitful past few weeks including 
readings of Lloyd Suh's Great Wall Story and Larry Kunofsky's The Myths We Need, 
workshop performances of Qui Nguyen's The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, 
and seeing some great new work from The Vampire Cowboys Saloon artists and David Deblinger (his one-man show Beyond Measure was directed by my friend Aaron Weiner for a few nights at Nuyorican Poets Cafe).  

Oh, and almost winning an Innovative Theater Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in last season's The Brokenhearteds by Temar Underwood.  

Missed it by thiiiiiiiis much.

You know what else is interesting? Kate said something enlightening to me about my approach to Shakespeare.  My position was that the writing is poetry, the most beautifully constructed sentences in English, and the audience should be able to hear you honoring that in your delivery of it.  Not recitation or too flowery, but understanding the depth of the verse and employing it in such a way that they know you know it.  She said, playwrights do not want to hear their lines read as poetry, they want to hear them read as lines.  Like, between people with needs.  

That's horribly simplifying it, but I think she's right.  Every time I approach Shakespeare I feel this American Standard voice coming out of my mouth and not necessarily the character.  Mostly because I want to do justice to the language I love so much, but that's not even how Shakespeare would've wanted it to be done.  He'd be onstage using the language to compete with drunks, animals, political maneuvering and the talkative crowds.  There may or may not have been any poetry at all when you might get a tomato thrown at you for being boring.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Internet Research

The fastest way for an actor like me to get immediate dramaturgical immersion in the crazy ass world of a play like Agent G is to hit up Wikipedia and Youtube.  Here is some preliminary research I've culled from The Cloud.

The Vietnam War
This page is historical background and major events.

Boat People
This one has a wealth of "External links" to follow up on the Vietnamese immigration experience (some of them first hand accounts).

Viet Cong
The villains of Agent G.

South Vietnam
Basically background on the South before the Fall of Saigon, which effectively ended the war and led to the reunification of North and South.

Choson Ninja
This is a Korean "ninja technique" tutorial channel with some very strange but interesting moves.  The earlier videos are interesting to me.

"California Gurls" Katy Perry(feat. Snoop Dogg)
They wouldn't let me embed this video, but you can watch it here.  Then again, you probably know the song already.

viewer discretion advised

The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G: First Bite

art by Jeremy Arambulo whose stuff is consistently amazing

So this is the poster for Vampire Cowboys' next show (lovingly amended to "Agent G")  the First Bite workshop of which will be next week at the Battle Ranch at 8pm Monday and Tuesday.  The website has all the details.

It's been a long time in table/reading development and we're hard at work trying to give it a stage life now.  We'll probably be presenting only the first act, but already there's film noir, sci-fi, Miss Saigon, James Bond, Pirandello, Katy Perry and horribly funny plays within the play.  Oh, and some amazing fights that take place basically in a box.  No shortage of edgy, fun theatre candy here.

The action sequences are really good so far and I thought I would preview the process a little by offering my notes on what is historically known as "The Beer Fight."  

1. Ninja Running w/ looks and katas
2. Two sword dodges (Amy)
3. Nunchuck dodge into left crescent (Jon)
4. Right roundhouse (Amy)
5. Paper block/hand block/paper strike (Bonnie)
6. Nunchuck dodge/paper parry/nunchuck dodge/paper tap (Jon)

1. Right sword kick parry into left crescent (Amy and Jon)
2. Simultaneous knife disarm and paper strike (Bonnie)
3. Sword block, twisty move, spin paper strike (Amy)
4. Take nunchuck hit into running (Jon)

1. Triple paper/knife attack (Bonnie, Amy, Jon)
2. Hand grab into double hand neck chop (Bonnie)
3. Backward dodge (Jon and Amy)
4. Head/hair slam (Bonnie)
5. Outside shoulder tap, inside fist (Amy and Jon)
6. Take stomach hit into running (All)

1. Running sequence right then left
2. Pop up into right cross (Bonnie)
3. Catch return punch, fist crunch, domino kick 
4. Take superman punch to the ground
5. Neck grab, human shield left then right
6. Right kick and toss away
7. Nunchuck dodge left and right, disarm, right nuts kick
8. Over the shoulder reset
9. Nunchuck strike right (reset under), strike left (reset under), strike left with nunchuck pop out
10. Flourish!

By this time I will be a complete mess, but the show must go on.  We'll all be addicted to five-hour energy shots by the end of this week.  That's three weapons, unarmed combat and a shitload of running.

Feel free to print this out and bring it with you if you would like to follow along ;)

Monday, October 4, 2010


Ensemble Studio Theatre's Octoberfest reading series is under way, and Subterranea was performed twice last week to great success.  I would have posted about it here, but Jon and I literally were staying up all night making changes and revising based on what we learned in the rehearsal room.  Octoberfest is a pretty amazing event with about a million shows going day and night.  We were nestled in between some of the most exciting playwrights out there now, all of us giving our shows another baby step forward in development.  It felt like the big leagues.

The team was as follows:

Nick: Paco Tolson
Dick: Jon Hoche
Ensemble: Erica Swindell, Julia Crockett, and Amy Waschke

Director/Stage Directions: Robert Ross Parker

These actors gave so much, and rolled with our punches every time we met.  Trying this, trying that, getting out of the comfort zone, dealing with cuts, trying out was amazing to watch them tackle all of that and we were honored to have them aboard.

We are also proud to announce that the machinery of production is revving up, and we are actively meeting producers to get this thing off the ground.  It's an extremely exciting time.  Thanks to Graeme Gillis, Annie Trizna, Tim Scales, Kate our stage manager, and Heidi Handelsman for their staff support at EST.

Friday, October 1, 2010

American Theater magazine article

Here is a link to the article in American Theater on Qui Nguyen, co-artistic director of Vampire Cowboys, in which I am quoted.  It's by Michael Criscuolo.  When he approached me to submit my two cents on working with Qui he warned that what I wrote may be used in part or not at all.  I wrote about three pages to make ensure some pithy nugget made it past the editors, and voila!

The article in full is reposted below if you just hate following links or can't wait to get to it.

If this were the beginning of a Qui Nguyen play, it would probably start with a high school dweeb accidentally opening a gateway to Hell. Or a ninja-style throwdown between two Manhattan street toughs and a Brooklyn gang lord. There would be a gleeful torrent of elaborate fight scenes, machine-gun barrages of snappy banter and enough profanity to make David Mamet blush.
Now, if this sounds more like a movie or a comic book than a play, don't worry: that's the idea. For most of the past decade, Nguyen has been on a self-appointed mission to make theatre safe for dorks. As the resident playwright for New York City's Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company(where he is also co-artistic director), he has written an onslaught of irreverent, action-packed geekfests designed to (a) show the hipster and fanboy crowds that theatre can be cool and fun, and (b) make several genres that have long been associated with other media—science fiction, horror, martial arts—palatable for theatrical consumption.
Since 2007, all of Nguyen's plays for Vampire Cowboys—which include the horror movie-inspired Alice in Slasherland, the blaxpoitation samurai mash-up Soul Samurai and Fight Girl Battle World, his love letter to sci-fi—have sold out their runs, primarily on strong word of mouth. Nguyen's rapidly growing fan base, built from both the indie theatre and Comic-Concrowds, anticipates his plays with the kind of giddy enthusiasm usually reserved for the latest Harry Potter movie. The crowd at one of Nguyen's shows can be a show unto itself—waves of raucous laughter crash through the theatre while loud cheers and gasps of awe and terror converge like Voltron. It's like watching Independence Day and a Dane Cook concert simultaneously.
Critics and peers are also starting to get with the program. Soul Samurai nabbed a GLAAD Media Award nomination, and Fight Girl scored a New York Innovative Theatre Award nomination for outstanding full-length script. In 2006, Vampire Cowboys landed the NYIT Foundation's Caffe Cino Fellowship Award, a cash prize "for consistent production of outstanding work." And this past spring, the company was awarded a prestigious Obie grant.
This season, Nguyen kicks things up another notch with two projects that promise to take him where he hasn't gone before. Beginning Mar. 31, Vampire Cowboys premieres his newest play,The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G., at New York's Incubator Arts Project. The semi-autobiographical tale—which aims to turn the lesser-known genre of Asian identity plays on its ear—features Nguyen himself as a lead character, struggling to write a meaningful drama about his cousin's true life journey to America, and constantly getting razzed by the other characters for putting himself in his own play.
Then, Nguyen takes his act to the West Coast with Krunk Fu Battle Battle, a new hip-hop musical commissioned by Los Angeles's East West Players that runs May 12-June 26. The project, about a kung fu teen who battles a shogun and his henchmen, marks Nguyen's musical theatre debut and the first time in recent memory he'll be premiering a new work without his longtime Vampire Cowboys collaborators by his side.
Nguyen at left (photo by Nathan Lemoine); right, Paco Tolson, Temar Underwood and Melissa Paladino in Fight Girl Battle World, by Vampire Comboys, 2008 (photo by Theresa Squire)
Despite the exuberant absurdity of making a snarky teddy bear a major character in Alice in Slasherland (achieved with animatronics) and of Soul Samurai's bloodthirsty title character greeting the audience with a casual "Moshi moshi, muthafuckahs," Nguyen is no gag writer. "I don't set out to write comedies," he says, explaining that his initial goal is "usually to make the audience cheer." Taking his cue from action/adventure genres, Nguyen says he's "more interested in writing something that's high-adrenaline—it's about that kind of thrill that you get." That thrill fuels his never-ending desire to attempt the seemingly impossible on stage, like disemboweling a demon (which he did in Alice in Slasherland) or staging an outer-space dogfight (a highlight from Fight Girl, done with hand-held mock-ups and puppeteers).
Still, he realizes "there's going to be something inherently funny" about seeing such moments performed live on stage, and confesses that he relishes making "people's heads explode with laughter." Nguyen is quick to point out that his plays are never meant to be campy: "When we're doing a samurai play, we're legitimately trying to do a samurai play"—but he admits his plays are intended to simultaneously celebrate and send up whatever genre he's tackling. Case in point: The scene in which a sword-wielding Ophelia (yes, Shakespeare's Ophelia) singlehandedly takes on an army of ninja zombies in Living Dead in Denmark, Nguyen's tongue-in-cheek zombie sequel to Hamlet, hilariously (and intentionally) evokes both Kill Bill and Charlie's Angels while blazing its own iconic trail.
Given his proclivity for rapid-fire, profanity-laced repartee, strong-but-sexy female protagonists and a preference for creating new genre archetypes, it's not surprising that Nguyen's idols are screenwriters Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith and comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan. Though he's a playwright of color, he insists he has no political or racial axe to grind. But, as his colleagues insist, that doesn't mean there's not more going on underneath the surface of his blood-splattering antics.
Vampire Cowboys co-artistic director Robert Ross Parker, who directs all of Nguyen's plays for the company, thinks his creative partner's humor "comes from approaching style and genre very seriously." Actor Paco Tolson, a Vampire Cowboys regular, marvels at the "giddy disregard for limitation in Qui's work. There are no taboos. Race, sex and politics are all fair game to him." (Italics and embolding mine, of course. -PT)  Carlo Alban, who played lead roles in both Denmark and Slasherland, calls Nguyen "a quiet revolutionary, a subversive, a ninja." And Maureen Sebastian, who portrayed the title role in Soul Samurai, praises Nguyen for stretching "the boundaries of what a script can do," and, in turn, "what American theatre can do."
Nguyen's distinctive style came about, in part, in reaction to his grad school instructors' insistence that visual, action-based stories were more appropriate for film than theatre. "It was about talking, talking, talking, but never showing," he recalls. "Do you think Shakespeare thought about that? In Romeo and Juliet, they shouldn't have a sword fight because we're a talking medium?" Nguyen rebelled against such conventional notions and began churning out a body of work that comes off like a collection of rowdy mash notes to pop culture.
The love affair began in his hometown El Dorado, Ark., where his Vietnamese parents reared him on kung fu movies because they wanted him to see stories where the heroes were Asian. Furthermore, they boldly taught him that most of the world was Asian and looked like him, so he wouldn't feel out of place in ethnically barren Arkansas. It was a calculated exaggeration that gave Nguyen, in his words, "great self-esteem" and a trove of inspiration.
Nguyen's heritage provides the source material for The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G., in which the author insists he will not be playing himself. ("I'm no actor" he says; the role of "Qui" will be played by a professional.) In the script, however, as Nguyen the character gets bogged down by uncertainty, Nguyen the writer increasingly explodes both style and form, playing with a revolving door of genres. "When people meet me and find out I write plays, they assume a lot of times that I write serious Asian drama," he says, eager to crack viewer expectations wide open with a well-placed theatrical roundhouse kick.
With Krunk Fu Battle Battle (which features a score by Beau Sia and Marc Macalintal), Nguyen takes the plunge into musical book-writing, a job for which East West's artistic director Tim Dang thinks the playwright is well suited. "Qui's writing is 'now,' it's 'today,'" Dang says. "It ventures out into hip-hop, poetry, anime, but it can still be accessible to a diverse audience." Those qualities led Dang to commission Nguyen, whose career he'd been following for several years, to pen the family-friendly tuner. For Nguyen, it's a happy return to the aesthetic territory of Soul Samurai. "My favorite things in the world are early '80s hip-hop, comic books and samurai stories," he says, excited about the opportunity to once again write something that incorporates all three.
No matter what genre he's working in, Nguyen's goal remains the same: "to show that theatre is just as cool as waiting in line to see the latest movie blockbuster."

Michael Criscuolo is a New York-based actor and writer. He is currently starring in the premiere of Tim Errickson's play, Endless Summer Nights, for Boomerang Theatre Company.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lonely Leela

Dear friend Rehana Mirza's multimedia play Lonely Leela is getting a showcase through New Georges next week and we had our first rehearsal today.  It's an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland/Alice Through the Looking Glass and it's mostly set within the fantastical world of the internet wherein the inhabitants are all puppets designed by Spica Webb.  Today was mostly getting to know what you can do with her puppets and how to best facilitate a wide range of expression.  There are finger puppets, hand puppets, sock puppets and rod puppets, each with different demands on the actor.  They mainly have gigantic eyes and hilarious tufts of hair.  The script is wild and deals with a ton of unexpected actions from the characters and I kid you not, every spare moment I had I was trying to get one of them to look like they were riding a segway as called for in the text.

I think challenge-based productions are a ton of fun and necessitate new ideas, bringing out the best creativity juices.  Very excited.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Some Summer Things

A few things that blew my mind this summer.

1.  Conor McPherson's film The Eclipse starring Ciaran Hinds, Aidan Quinn, Jim Norton and Iben Hjejle.  This has all the trappings of a supernatural story (McPherson's white whale and perpetual theme of his plays) and has three moments that scared me more than any movie I've seen in years, but it's really about the complicated relationship between three writers over the course of a literary festival in Ireland.  Ghost story, yes, but it's mostly an intimate, meditative film with a European pace.  The acting and writing are off the charts.  This is something I saw late at night while Kate was sleeping, and a few times I was sure I woke her up because I screamed out loud.  That's right, I said it.

2.  Justin Cronin's novel The Passage.  This is still in hardcover and can be found at bigger retailers where people sit in the aisles all day and it is at these places that I have been reading the shit out of it for free just like I did with Stephen King's mostly excellent Under the Dome.  I'm not even done (it's about 500 pages), but I don't care, it's that good.  It's going in.  I feel like I looked into this book based on the jacket reviews from other writers (including King) not knowing anything about it and was rewarded handsomely so I won't tell too much, but it's a showcase of what it means to be entertained as you read.  In the same way that Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves is a reading experience, Cronin has thought of everything and uses a wide array of narrative devices to keep things engaging.  Don't want it to end.  The only thing is that it is apparently a first novel in an upcoming trilogy and the groundwork-laying for the coming volumes is fairly obvious.  I got through 200 pages and was like, "You're sure taking your sweet time with this character introduction," you know what I mean?  Still amazing. Light years better than Guillermo del Toro's The Strain which is, at bottom, the same story.

3.  Antichrist by Lars von Trier starring Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg.  I saw this late at night, too.  This is classic von Trier. Pompous, gorgeous, sublimated fear of women.  I am still really confused by it and by the things I saw take place, but it is highly polarizing by design.  Cannes audiences loved or hated it, with people walking out and exclaiming things.  People from every side are up in arms over some of the things that take place, and that of course is the point.  He's a provocateur.  It's pretty innovative cinematographically, writing and story aside, and it's almost worth it for that.  Not for the squeamish or those without a sense of humor as black as night.

Was very disappointed to not be able to see much theater this summer although Kate had two award-winning productions at the Looking Glass.

I also had the pleasure of working with her on some of the most enlightening short film work I've done.  We wrapped The Diary Thief with the help of so many friends after shooting in every far off corner of the city with basically no crew during the worst heat wave I've ever had in New York.  I am actually sitting here sweating my face off as I write this since it's still blazing outside.

Tzipora Kaplan, also of Kate's production company See Films, directed a music video I was in at her office and it was a ton of fun.  No pics yet.  It'll premiere with a slew of other original music videos on my birthday at Bar13 near NYU.

Just trying to get as much camera time in before LA.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

New York Innovative Theater Award Nomination

I am happy to finally be able to report here that the NYIT Awards, which are the TONYS of the Off-Off Broadway world, have nominated me for Best Actor in a Featured Role for my work in Temar Underwood's play The Brokenhearteds.  It's an honor and a great encouragement for Temar's fledgling company I Mean! Productions.  You've got to hear him say the company name out loud.  It's hilarious. 

Here's an official announcement with myself sharing the headline with Susan Louise O'Connor and Harris Yulin (!!!) on Theatermania.

This is my third IT Award nomination after being up for Featured Actor in Vampire Cowboys' Fight Girl Battle World and, along with the cast, winning Best Ensemble for that one, too.

I'm thrilled and excited for everyone who is included here and for the recognition of this level of theater-making that the awards provide.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Tenant

Something else happening now that is really intriguing me is the work happening at rehearsals for Woodshed Collective's adaptation of Topor's The Tenant.  First of all, the level of intelligence and dramatic inquiry going on at these rehearsals is blowing my mind.  It's kind of a complicated story how it all works and where it's going, but what is so intriguing is the process.

Teddy Bergman (Woodshed Co-Artistic Director) and Stephen Brackett are co-directing a site-specific piece that involves peering into the worlds of the various tenants who share a building with the protagonist.  In the Polanski movie version, the lives of the others are just hinted at, and multiple playwrights have been employed to flesh out each room's tenants.  Sarah Burgess is writing our segment, and Jocelyn Kuritsky and Black-Eyed Susan are performing it with me.

A question that is immediately clear from our first investigations into a piece like this is how to dramatize the internal lives of literary characters and communicate their rich thought processes.  What is so wonderful about the source material is excavating the justifications for the characters' extreme actions, something which is fairly virgin territory.  We're blazing a mental path, but without an omniscient narrator or voiceover, how can we physically lead the audience along it?  

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Auden Reznor

Two quotes recently slammed together in my brain as I went about my Thursday.

The first is from The Cambridge Campanion to W.H. Auden.  Oddly, enough, it's not a bit of literary criticism from a critic but from Auden himself writing in the introduction to his 1935 anthology The Poet's Tongue, quoted by Stan Smith in the introduction (I tried but didn't really make it too far past the introduction, to be honest):

'Of the many definitions of poetry, the simplest is still the best: "memorable speech."'

This rattled around in my brain and then collided with a quote by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails from an interview regarding the release of their then-new album With Teeth, something that has stayed up there for about four years waiting to be utilized in my blog.  In his characteristically laconic (and arguably adolescent) style, he likens the songs on the album to "twelve good punches in the face."

What is poetry?  Why is it something I like in my limited experience of it?  What is any (literary) art form valued for?  I determined that I like poetry and plays and books because they wrestle the expansiveness of human experience and feeling into the rigors of language. 

The epic nature of human experience cannot be circumscribed neatly within the scope of our language, and yet, against all odds, some people try.  How to describe it?  When our best writers use words (with all their strictures) to engage with amorphous things like life and emotion, the experience of reading is transcendent because the words rise above their ordinary meanings, their base origins, and evoke more than they should.

Words, well written, give us a means to engage with our greatest human questions.

Good writing should have the same impact that a track from With Teeth has.  It should feel like a punch in the face. Was Reznor being poetic when he said that?  According to Auden, yes.  God knows what that meeting of minds would be like.

Music and it's qualities are still a mystery to me, though, and I have no idea why I like one thing over another.  Sometimes I'll love the melody and hate the lyrics, sometimes the opposite, sometimes I will hate a song and it becomes my favorite in time.  I can only think to say that sometimes, when everything is aligned, a good song's effect is magical.  They're musical poetry.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Hey, All of You, my legion of loyal blog followers who have been missing my pithy posts about what's going on in my brain for the past six months!  There's a lot to talk about.

The first thing is that my manager's office SirenSong Entertainment now has a fabulous web presence here. You can click on my profile and see pictures, read press quotes, and get career updates.*  It's a very impressive site and you can find many other incredible actors there including frequent collaborators Will Harper and Hoon Lee.  Huzzah to Donna DeStefano and her industrious interns!
*Just as I was writing that line, the half-melted italian ice I was eating spilled all over me and all over my bed. Watermelon.  Goddammit!)

The second thing is that I have, with the aid of my dear friend Jon Hoche, co-written my first ever play, Subterranea.  Jon and I play estranged brothers named Nick and Dick Brotowski who are thrust together by fate to fight Nazis at the center of the Earth.  We had been toying with the ideas and their execution when Carla Ching, artistic director of Second Generation Theater Company (2g), offered us a proving ground in the form of their new play festival In The Works this past June.  It was a giant step forward for us and we are so grateful for their support.  (We are also indebted to the rest of our cast*: Jackie Chung, Cindy Cheung, and Erica Swindell--as well as our director, Robert Ross Parker.)  The best thing about the process was to work so closely with trusted and admired colleagues.  It was a dream come true.

*Jesus Christ, the phone is ringing off the hook!  My friend Gabi just called and we caught up on the last six months.  He's currently head of production at Digital Kitchen and recently got back together with his girlfriend.  That's the short version.

Also, I was in Michi Barall's new play Rescue Me Off-Broadway with another stellar creative team.  I listed them all already so I won't get into it here, but they were so much fun and I learned a lot from them.  Mostly, though, I learned never to operate puppets after taking claritin.  No, iced coffee does not mitigate the attendant drowsiness.

More to come, as always.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tom DiCillo

Check out this Village Voice interview with director Tom DiCillo.  I've liked this guy for a long time, but wait until you get to the last question.  Holy shit.

A Conversation with Doors' Documentary Director Tom DiCillo

Talking with the independent filmmaker on the eve ofWhen You're Strange

By Eric Hynes

published: April 06, 2010

With a résumé that stretches back 30 years, Tom DiCillo knows the highs and lows of independent filmmaking better than anyone. After serving as cinematographer on Jim Jarmusch's first two films, he made beat-inflected movies of his own, starting withJohnny Suede (1991), which showcased a young Brad Pitt, and the low-rent hit Living in Oblivion (1995), which satirized shoestring filmmaking right at the height of indie self-satisfaction. In the decade that followed, he went from promising auteur to direct-to-video afterthought—before returning with 2006's flawed but heartfelt modern fable,Delirious. His new film, the rock documentary When You're Strange (see review, right), would seem like a major departure, but DiCillo's veneration of Jim Morrison and the Doors speaks to the filmmaker's unflagging affection for idealists, bohemians, and iconoclasts. The 56-year-old free spirit talked to The Village Voice about the joy in creation, the business of selling out, and that blasted Oliver Stone movie.
Why revisit the Doors in 2010? The biggest thing that kept me awake at night was this terror of "Who am I to try to say something new, or different, about the Doors?" Ultimately, I had to treat it personally. Jim Morrison would have to exist like a lead character—that I had written. In other words, someone I would not judge, someone I would just accept and present in the most truthful way. There's a whole strata of people whose experience of the Doors is the Oliver Stone movie. I don't put it down—it's the movie that Stone wanted to make. But it's not about the Doors. It's about four guys that he kind of fantasized and fictionalized.

In the film, you describe Morrison's poetry as "symbolic and pure," and that latter word could also describe key characters in many of your films, like Michael Pitt's good-natured vagabond in Delirious, Sam Rockwell's anarchic jester in Box of Moonlight, and Steve Buscemi's filmmaker in Living in Oblivion. Why are you drawn to this notion of purity? 

Maybe that comes out of my respect for anything that is truly original. My experience is that, most of the time, original work is ignored, trampled upon, or passed over for stuff that is screaming for attention—stuff that, after a glance or two, falls apart. My heart goes out to it because I know how hard it is to try and remain pure in this business.

Is that why the idea of "selling out" still bothers you? You end the film with the words: "As of this date, none of their songs have been used in a car commercial." 

That fact remains, and it's not a judgment—it's a statement. I believe that's part of what people respond to about the Doors. Because, what the fuck, man—does everything have to be for sale? The argument from a number of people who have seen the film is that, well, Dylan's music has been used by Victoria's Secret. U2, everybody has done it. And all I can say is that's their choice. To me, I value stuff that is made because it's made. The creation of something to me is a miracle. No matter what it is. The fact that it has to be instantly for sale in order for it to be valid is something that has plagued me throughout my career.

The irony is that by not doing it for the money—by making what you want and being honest about it—you actually have to spend more time thinking about business. When younger filmmakers seek you out at festivals, what do you tell them?

Being in this business requires an ability to take a successive number of punches to the gut, a kick in the balls, a kick in the head. And just as your head clears, someone hits you in the back. So how do you tell someone, "Do you have what it takes to not only endure that, but to keep going without getting bitter or resentful?" To just accept the fact that where you are is where you are. The only thing that really matters is somehow making another movie. Because what's going to sustain you is a belief in the joy of creation. If you don't have that joy, you will crumple.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Rescue Me, The New York Times Review

When The New York Times mentions your name in print, it is therefore incumbent upon you to then put it on your blog.  Here is the quote:

Between fourth-wall-breaking jokes, the game cast, including the clever Off Off veteran Paco Tolson (“Goodbye Cruel World”), brings to life plot summaries and meta-analysis of Greek tragedy. The director, Loy Arcenas, fills the space quite nicely; attractive video clips of family trees explaining the House of Atreus and jokey TV show snippets complement the story of Iphigenia (Jennifer Ikeda), who is sacrificed to appease Artemis (David Greenspan, wearing pressed pants and a devilish smile).

I am very proud of our show and everyone in it, and all of our hard work really is doing something.
For more information on who's who working on the show or to buy tickets please visit the revamped Ma-Yi Theater website.

I also got a nice bit in's review.  You can read the whole thing here.  Below is the quote.

The ensemble is excellent. Jennifer Ikeda makes Iph a quivering bundle of opposites: vulnerable yet tough, wry yet sentimental, wise yet naive. Julian Barnett brings quiet despair to the role of Orestes. As choreographer, Barnett has created a range of poignant and joyful dances. David Greenspan is a dryly imperious Artemis/Athena. He plays these female roles without drag, wearing a shiny black suit, evoking an MC for a celestial cabaret set on Mount Olympus. Oni Monifa Renee Brown and Katherine Partington move eloquently as the dancing priestesses, while Leon Ingulsrud winkingly evokes Elvis in his role of King Thoas. Ryan King makes a sympathetic Pylades, Orestes's best friend. Paco Tolson nearly steals the show with his rapidfire switches between personas and accents as a lackey, CNN anchor, a host of witnesses being interviewed on TV, and a herdsman complete with a puppet sheep.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Rescue Me (a postmodern classic with snacks) by Michi Barall

(David Greenspan as Artemis and Jennifer Ikeda as Iphigenia, photo Brain Barenio)

Michi's show is a real triumph.

It's smartly written, it's been beautifully designed and directed, the actors and dancers are terrific.  I watch the work everyone has put in over these last arduous weeks translating into happy audiences night after night. I feel thankful to be in the company of such professional storytellers, exploring, learning with them.

There are funny moments, touching moments, dramatic exciting moments, heady philosphical moments, and they all add up to an evening of theatre that takes you somewhere.  Yes, it is post-modern.  It's in the title.  By dispensing with traditional narrative techniques, Michi actually gives a modern audience a chance to experience an ancient play without the usual stuffiness and attendant boredom.  The melange of styles and formats match the tones and themes of the individual scenes, again amounting, ultimately, to a richer experience.

Check out these two raves:

"Hungry for a Greek play that doesn't taste like ancient leftovers? Then try Michi Barall's Rescue Me (A Postmodern Classic with Snacks) at the Ohio Theatre. Barall deconstructs Euripides'sIphigenia in Tauris and reworks it into a contemporary story with popular hit music and modern dance. Under the auspices of the Ma-Yi Theater Company and directed by Loy Arcenas, it retains the flavor of fifth-century Athens but uses our present-day cultural idiom to enhance the classic."

"This winningly irreverent and loose adaptation ofIphigenia in Tauris is like seeing Euripides' tale through a funhouse mirror, a humorous, captivating novelty rather than a recognizable reflection of the original. Although its mix of anachronistic appropriation and meta-theater isn't groundbreaking -- in fact, it's arguably already a cliché of downtown theater -- the combination proves giddy and infectious. Better still, under Loy Arcenas' inventive direction, the production engages both those familiar with the source material as well as the uninitiated."

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tech Rehearsal

Rescue Me has been a very fluid process with many things being found, discarded, and reconfigured often.  Now that we have spent two days teching in the Ohio Theater downtown, a lot of what we had envisioned in the rehearsal room is inevitably (and predictably) taking new shape on the actual stage.  The days are long and there is a lot of artistic negotiation, but the upside is that we are starting to lock things down and get bits of business and blocking down to a science.

One of the things I like the most is, yes the designers can't really work until they can be in the theatre, but it gives you such a rush of enthusiasm to get all of the costumes, set, and goodies at once, and then off you go with all of the imaginary things made real.  Having the tactile experience of the technical elements in concert launches you into the run with great energy...  It's by necessity that tech comes last, but emotionally it feels by design; after all the austerity and privation of rehearsal, you are rewarded with a surfeit of technical riches just before you do it for a paying audience.

Of course, this is also a scary ass time because you've got to make all the technical stuff work and everything is new and the audience is paying to see you in TWO DAYS.  In my experience it takes a full day to get through Act I and then another day to get through Act II, on the third day you get a dress rehearsal in the afternoon and then your first preview that night.

Somehow I'm always in shows with a hundred ensemble characters and the tech can be a nightmare changing in and out of every costume in time for the next scene, but we've been pretty fortunate so far with this one.  There's one big hairy moment we'll have to look at during the dress, but I'm sure it'll work out.  It's all about teamwork and we have a really great team.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Lady Drug Dealer And The Heist

Today Temar and I hosted the first I MEAN...Productions table reading at our apartment.  His new play, The Lady Drug Dealer and the Heist, is an amazing riff on the unreliable storyteller and laugh-out-loud funny for nearly all of its hour-plus running time.   I remember being backstage during the run of The Brokenhearteds and hearing him talk about some of the ideas he had for his next project and him saying, "It's going to be a play about drugs.  I think it'll be called Doing Drugs.  Everyone is going to do a ton of drugs.  The marketing will be: 'This summer, Paco Tolson is...Doing Drugs.' 'Andrea Marie Smith is... Doing Drugs.' Et cetera..."  That's how I remember it, anyway.

Well, those dreams from last summer are now on 86 pages of paper and a lot of those pages are characters snorting, smoking and drinking.  We do a ton of drugs.  It's also about friendship, loyalty, and finding out who you are and what you care about.  And race.  And Astoria.  And ghosts.

There was no fanfare, it was really just for him to hear it out loud, but it was a riot and the start of something very promising.  When it was over though, he kicked everyone out.  In a gentle way.

Since I always like to see who played what in the production history pages of published plays, below were the actors and their roles.

Gray: Temar Underwood
Jimmy: Paco Tolson
Reggie: Mike Mihm
Benjie: Jon Hoche
Miz: Andrea Marie Smith
Odessa Powers: Maha McCain
Hunter/Morrison: Ian Campbell Dunn
Stage Directions: Paco Tolson, with help when his mouth was full of chips.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Elephant Man

So in between running around town like a madman trying to feed Alvaro's rabbit and go to the gym and put my reel together and catch up with friends and rehearse this play I found myself at the Jefferson Market Library.  They have a good drama section although you can't really argue with the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library (ever since seeing Good Will Hunting I've thought going to the library was awesome--probably before that, actually: I went on my first ever date at the Jones Library in my hometown).  Anyway, I was returning Topdog/Underdog, Valparaiso and A Life in the Theater (it was a good haul, all very good reads) and I got out The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance.

I read it in Union Square on a bench in about 45 minutes and my god this play turned me upside down.  It's a very experimental language play for the seventies and it reminded me a lot of Suzan-Lori Parks' Venus (naturally, what with the freakshow aspect), and although it's not crazy deep with the character building, the themes and use of subtext are some of the most significant I've seen in the past few years.  Yes, years.  Some Pinter comes in the same orbit, but the Pinter I've been reading of late (at the Perf. Arts Library no less) is all classic stuff.

Topics covered include the nature of altruism, social performance, the effects of capitalism on decency, what constitutes mercy, and religion's place in a world of commonplace horror.  From the back cover:

"During it's opening season, The Elephant Man won all the major drama awards including three Tonys, three Obies, The Drama Desk Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award."

No shit.  I had never heard of this guy before and here he is winning everything under the sun.  Apparently, Billy Crudup did it on Broadway a few years ago, too.   I see the picture in the bathroom at Telsey, but I have no idea whether that was good or not.  Wish I had a patron now more than ever.  How else am I gonna see this stuff?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Refine, Clarify, make Specific

For me, the work in rehearsals lately has dealt with puppetry and dance.  I am a very spastic person, so getting technical and minute is hard for me but it's exactly what the work demands.  It's almost like counting out your stage life and dialogue to a beat:

1. Crouch           "Daughter
2. Look side        Of
3. Creep              Agammemnon,
4. Swing arm      And
5. Make wave     Bright gem
6. Shake head     of Clytemnestra...."

This is very exciting and will ultimately be very rewarding, but right now it is kicking my ASS.  I suppose it's really no different than typical stage blocking, but with that you're just, "Cross left and pick up the cup on 'This cup?'" and not elaborate, sharply defined modern dance-y moves that punctuate each line.  Maybe I'm just struggling with dancing, something I have never been a genius at even when it was easy things like waltzes in musicals when I was in High School.  

It's actually been really enlightening to work with a puppet because you really start to see where things don't work and why.  Usually, it's because you're not thinking of the puppet as your scene partner but as something separate from yourself.  A character of mine interacts with a puppet played by me, so if the storytelling of our relationship is told in a succession of looks back and forth, those looks better be damn clear.  

Here's an example:

A character asks me, "Is it yes or no?"
I'm looking at this other character.

The hand puppet looks at me.
I look at him
He shakes his head "No" 
I look out to the character and say, "" 
The puppet cocks his head sideways.

So if you look at the wrong time or miss one altogether, the beat is mush and you lose the thread of what's going on in between the lines.  Repetition, I think, is the only thing that can get someone as spastic as me to get over the herky-jerky, split personality nature of this kind of performance into a relaxed, settled in, comfortable state where the puppet and I are actually flowing together.

Friday, February 26, 2010


hunger directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender

This is from an interview with Steve McQueen for Eye for Film:

Could you talk a little bit about the choices of the look of the film?
It’s one of those things. It was really tough but I also wanted to do a good job. What I mean by that, is that if you think of painters like Goya, who painted the worst images of war in such a way that they were engaging. One has to make movies like these engaging but not as one sees often – and I apologise here – in most American movies, where there is violence which is pornographic or sexy. It becomes much more, what can I say, numbing, as it if it doesn’t matter to me. But if you look at violence as something which has consequences, in the way that you direct the film, is in relation to that event.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Taxes and First Rehearsal

It's very late and I'm trying to get all of my deductions entered onto my tax forms for my "show up early and see what happens" yearly adventure to the Equity building and their VITA program.  This is always, always a pain in the ass because all my receipts are on tiny slips of paper shoved in a plastic bag.  I waited too long to get a bona fide appointment (again) for the free tax preparation, so now, as last year, I must venture out hours early to get onto the waitlist and see if they can fit me in before rehearsal starts at 3pm.  It's a great program, they have 8 appointments a day, and in between those scheduled appointments they take on stragglers like myself from the waitlist.  Maybe 15 are seen per day.  Ugh.

While I try and do this I will procrastinate by giving an update on Rescue Me.  We had a very warm and friendly first read-through.   The script is funny and open to a lot of collaborative contribution from the actors and the design team.  Something made clear from the beginning was that the process will be very organic and tailored to what everyone is bringing into the rehearsal room.  We're going to organically find out what we have over the course of the next few weeks and that, for me, is always a very exciting place to be.

There are a lot of music, dance, and multimedia elements built in, too.  Can't wait to see how we can play with those before tech.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Spring/Summer Listings of Shows in the NY Times

Qui first pointed me to this "things to look for this summer" spread in the Sunday Times, and as I read it I noticed many of my favorite companies and many artists from my cohort were represented with some really amazing shows, not least of which is Ma-Yi's Rescue Me (p.8 online).

Big Ups to:

Ensemble Studio Theatre, Lenin's Embalmers
Vampire Cowboys, Alice in Slasherland
The Play Company, Enjoy
Kristoffer Diaz and his play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at Second Stage

I am sure there are more, but these are all shows I know personally through having workshopped or read them, and I'm so excited for such a talented group to come out strong in the next few months.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Broadway World Profile

For many years I have seen shows I've done written up in press releases and articles on, but they never created a profile on me with a hyperlink to other credits or photos like so many of my friends who were in the shows with me.  This was very frustrating.  I knew there was stuff on me there but they never got around to making me legit . . . until now.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you my name underlined in red!

Also available for your perusal is the press release for the premiere of Michi Barall's play Rescue Me (A Postmodern Classic with Snacks) that will be Off-Broadway in March, produced by the inimitable Ma-Yi Theater Company.  Tickets available now.

Dance Theater, people.  Dance Theater!