This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

TWI-NY TALK: BENJAMIN DREYER — DREYER’S ENGLISH

Ben Dreyer

Ben Dreyer records the audio version of his debut book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

Barnes & Noble
150 East 86th St. at Lexington Ave.
Thursday, January 31, free, 7:00
212-369-2180
stores.barnesandnoble.com
www.penguinrandomhouse.com

When Random House vice president, copy chief and executive managing editor Benjamin Dreyer agreed to do a twi-ny talk in conjunction with the publication of his phenomenal new book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Random House, January 29, 2019, $25) I knew the interview had to be done via e-mail and not over the phone or in person, since Dreyer makes his living with the written word. (Yes, there is at least one error in the previous sentence; please see the paragraph below in bold to find out why.) Just like Ben, Dreyer’s English is a thoroughly engrossing read, both funny and expertly knowledgable. In the book, he covers such general matters of style as grammar, spelling, and punctuation along with more specific looks at what he calls “peeves and crotchets,” “confusables,” and “trimmables.” He lends insight to plural possessives, the serial comma, initialisms, parentheses, common mispellings, capitalization, and the “hoi polloi,” exploring certain items farther, more in depth, begging the question, “Do I need more than just autocorrect and spellcheck to write well”?

In the main text and detailed footnotes, Dreyer references such literary giants as Dickens, Fitzgerald, Hans Christian Anderson, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Bernard Shaw, and James Joyce; an avid theatregoer and old movie fan, the book also includes examples involving Katharine Hepburn, Liza Minnelli, Noel Coward, Joan Crawford, Abbot and Costello, Zoe Caldwell, Lon Chaney Jr., and Ingrid Bergman, among many others. The fact that Dreyer reserves his most deepest admiration for Shirley Jackson, the 20th century author of such novels as the Haunting of Hill House and such short stories as “The Lottery” is not surprising. Dreyer actually got a chance to copy edit previously-unpublished pieces by Jackson; in one of the best footnotes in his book, he admits to typing out the complete Jackson short story, “The Renegade” — “to see whether doing so might make me better appreciate how beautifully constructed the story was. It did.” I’m considering typing out some of Dreyer’s paragraphs to remind me of some of the style elements he espouses so entertainingly in the book, especially “lie/lay/laid/lain.”

A legend in the industry, I’ve known Dreyer since 1995, when I was a managing editor at Random House imprint Ballantine Books. He really sums up the primary responsibilities of a copy editor at the very start of Dreyer’s English (which has received praise from such literary stalwarts as Elizabeth Stout, George Saunders, Jon Meacham, Amy Bloom, and Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon): “I am a copy editor. After a piece of writing has been, likely, through numerous drafts, developed and revised by the writer and by the person I tend to call the editor editor and deemed essentially finished and complete, my job is to lay my hands on that piece of writing and make it . . . better.” He also recorded the audiobook, joined by his good friend and two-time Tony nominee Alison Fraser. (You can listen to a clip here.)

Dreyer will be at the Barnes & Noble at Eighty-Sixth & Lexington on January 31 at 7:00, signing copies of the book and speaking with award-winning Random House author Peter (Ghost Story) Straub. Its a great opportunity to join the Dreyer cult we’ve all been apart of for decades. He’ll also be taking copyediting questions on Twitter on February 1 from 12:30-1:30.

SIGNED BOOK GIVEAWAY: In the paragraphs above are at least a dozen grammatical errors that Dreyer deals directly with in his book; whoever correctly identifies the most will win a signed copy for free. Just send your name, daytime phone number, and list of mistakes to contest@twi-ny.com by Friday, February 1, at 3:00 pm to be eligible. All entrants must be twenty-one years of age or older; in case of a tie, one winner will be selected at random.

twi-ny: How long has this book been percolating inside you? Was there a final impetus that helped you go ahead with it?

benjamin dreyer: Back in the 1980s I’d written a bit of short fiction and was a regular contributor to Chicago’s then premier gay newspaper, Windy City Times, writing mostly on film and theater. Those writing aspirations fell by the wayside — I developed awful writer’s block, particularly insofar as writing fiction was concerned — and as I fell into freelance proofreading and then copyediting, I, happily, felt deeply satisfied that I was making a contribution to writing, even if I wasn’t writing myself, and I let the writing thing go. (As a friend said, “It’s too painful to be in a constantly anxious state of Not Writing. Better to let it go than to make yourself miserable on a daily basis.”) After I joined Random House as a production editor in 1993 and eventually became copy chief and managing editor, I pretty much stopped copyediting — there are only so many hours in the day, after all, and I have a lot of job. But: About six years ago I found myself invited to copyedit a novel — Elizabeth Strout’s excellent, to say the least, The Burgess Boys — and simply setting green pencil to paper again filled me with real joy; I’d forgotten how much I like to copyedit. And that sense of joy somehow rekindled my desire to write. I guess I was having a moment. So one afternoon I rather barged into the office of Random House publisher Susan Kamil and began to, well, burble at her about my desire to write a book about copyediting. She interrupted my burbling, suggested that if I wanted to write and particularly publish a book I might do well to have an agent, and — to make a longish story shortish — a few months later there I was, under contract to write the book that’s just now going on sale.

dreyers english

twi-ny: You have spent your entire career working on other people’s books, but now you’re the one whose words are being line edited, copyedited, proofread, and designed. What was that experience like? Did you enjoy being copyedited, or was it painful?

bd: That thing about “I hate writing, I love having written”? Well, if I didn’t quite hate writing, except when I did, I loved being edited. I’ve had the support of three great editors at Random House, plus my agent’s keen oversight, and they were all wonderful at encouraging me and challenging me — with of course a healthy dose of “Could you just finish it, please?” The funny thing is, it took me an awfully long time to find my voice, but once I found it, once I really let my writer freak flag fly, they were all “Yes, yes, yes, go, go, go.” Of course they asked me to expand on things they thought I wasn’t addressing fully enough, and occasionally I was asked to dial it down a bit. (If you’ve read the book, your response to that might be “And apparently you didn’t.” But truly, I did.) As to the copyediting, well, that was just amazing. I did request a particular freelance copy editor I used to hire constantly back in my production editorial days — I conceal her name here only to discourage people poaching her from RH, but she’s honored in the back of the book if you care to look in the acknowledgments — and she was superb, as I knew she would be. She called me out on any number of my bad habits, including a tendency to insert massive amounts of digression into the middle of a sentence, laughed at my jokes (in the margins, that is), and periodically would offer helpful/necessary rephrasings of text in such a precise imitation of my voice that I’d just pick up her suggestions and stuff them into the manuscript. In short, she did everything for me that I have always tried, as a copy editor, to do for the writers I was copyediting. I felt honored and protected and looked after and properly prodded, and she certainly substantively improved the book. (To answer a question you didn’t ask: A copy editor cannot turn a bad book into a good one, but a copy editor can certainly take a competent or better manuscript and make that thing shine. I think she polished me quite nicely.)

I’d also like to add that the book’s text designer — a colleague of mine for as long as I’ve been at Random House — absolutely, I think, nailed it. Writers often have lots of quibbles over and requests about their text design, but the first time I saw the proposed text design I almost cried, it was simply everything I had envisioned it might be. As a physical object, I think that the book is freaking gorgeous.

twi-ny: Your longtime colleague, Dennis Ambrose, who works for you, served as the production editor on your book. Did that make the process easier or more difficult, being so close to it, as opposed to it being handled by a different publishing company?

bd: Once we established departmentally that a lot of things I do for all our books as managing editor and copy chief I obviously couldn’t do for my own book, it was mighty smooth sailing. Dennis is an absolute pro and managed it all beautifully, and between the two of us we kept me in my lane. Of course it was easy to relax and know I was being taken proper care of because I’ve worked with Dennis for decades watching him take care of the likes of Edmund Morris and Jon Meacham, among others. He knows what he’s doing. And though indeed it’s a bit peculiar to be published by your own house, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’ve gotten a lot of love, from all departments, and I’m deeply grateful for it.

twi-ny: Was there a specific item that you really wanted in the book but either your editor editor, the production editor, or the copy editor convinced you otherwise?

bd: Everything’s basically as I set out to write it, and I never felt strong-armed to cut anything (or to add anything, for that matter). Maybe my agent and editors encouraged me to trim some of the book’s voluminous lists, and they were usually right, though every now and then my response to “Can we cut this?” was “Nah,” and there was no brawling about it. Though in typeset pages I did cut some things that even I was bored reading, and I’m glad I did.

twi-ny: In the book, you point out numerous cases in which you don’t follow such publishing bibles as the Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster 11, and Words into Type. You also noted in a 2012 Random House video that your department does not have a house style. As the copy chief, do you have one favorite choice that goes against generally accepted book publishing style?

bd: We really truly really truly don’t have a house style — except for the silent, don’t-query-it-just-do-it mandating of what some people call the Oxford comma, some people call the serial comma, and I call the series comma. And that doesn’t come from me; that was in place when I arrived at Random House. And that’s scarcely unusual: Almost everyone in book publishing favors that comma, even as many/most journalist types detest it. Maybe once a year, if that, an author objects post-copyediting to the comma, and you just grit your teeth and defer. But otherwise — and again, this is good copyediting practice as it was taught to me — every book gets the copyedit it specifically and uniquely needs, in support of what the author is attempting to do, not in support of what the copy editor or the house thinks is Good Writing. The thing I’m pleased to say about Random House books is that you can never tell by the copyediting that they’re Random House books — except that they’re well copyedited. To perhaps slightly misuse cardplaying terminology: We don’t have any house tells.

twi-ny: The book teaches the reader about grammar, punctuation, spelling, and style, and you often boldly, and with humor, defend your preferences. However, in the acknowledgments, you thank the copy editor for “calling out my worst habits.” Can you share one or two of them here?

bd: Aside from the aforementioned habit of overstuffing the middles of sentences so that on occasion by the time you get to the end of a sentence you can’t recall the beginning, I also violently overuse parentheses. And OK, their overuse reflects the way my brain works — constant digressions and by-the-ways — but after a while, enough is enough. All my editors encouraged me to take things out of parentheses; similarly, there’s a lot of stuff I’d initially relegated to the book’s ocean of footnotes that got moved up into the main text.

twi-ny: In the late 1990s, Random House had an in-house chat room called the Water Cooler on the company intranet, and, in retrospect, it was like an early iteration of social media, complete with controversies over language and political correctness. Since the forum was in a publishing house, the posts tended to be fairly well written, but in today’s world, grammar, punctuation, and style have taken quite a hit on social media. You are an avid user of Facebook and especially Twitter; what are your thoughts on social media’s impact on written language?

bd: Facebook is . . . well, it is what it is, to use a phrase that as a copy editor I’d throttle a writer for using. But I find the language of Twitter — and truly, it speaks its own language — endlessly amusing, and when I’m there I like to speak it. Questions without question marks (or, often, any terminal punctuation at all) make me chuckle, ditto all-cap shouting to express manic enthusiasm or mock alarm. To be quite honest — or, if you prefer, TBQH — as I worked on the book, and for a long time I couldn’t quite figure out what my writerly voice was supposed to sound like, I eventually realized that the voice I was cultivating on Twitter in my self-appointed role as Your Pal the Copy Chief was precisely the voice I wanted to bring to the page: succinct (ish), joshing in the service of making valid points, and mocking my own sense of seriousness, all in an attempt to, simply, try to get people to listen to what I was trying to say, and perhaps to appreciate it and learn something from it without their feeling they were being nagged or hectored.

Ben Dreyer

Ben Dreyer and his husband, Robert, pose with their pooch, Sallie

twi-ny: With that in mind, you also aren’t shy about including your thoughts about our current spelling-challenged, Twitter-happy president in many examples in the book. Are you afraid that such references will date the book or anger readers who lean more to the right than you do?

bd: I think that there are so many things to despise about the current administration — everything, now that I think of it — and its degradation of the English language is, I suppose, scarcely the worst of it, but of course the English language is what I do for a living, and I take personally his (you know, that person whose name I’d just as soon not type) subliteracy and, worse, the endless lying and base distortion of the very meanings of words to suit his poisonous agenda. He has dishonored everything I hold dear as an American and as a human being, and I see no reason to dissemble to avoid angering his cult. Perhaps if we all live long enough and I’m given the opportunity a few years down the pike to revise the book for a second edition I’ll change things up a bit, but for the moment, here in the winter of 2019, I’m quite happy with what the book says, and about whom.

twi-ny: You’re a theater aficionado, and the book is filled with theatrical references, particularly regarding musicals. What have you seen lately that you’ve loved or hated?

bd: I saw Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery a few months ago and was riveted. For one thing, it’s a first-rate script, as one expects from Lonergan, and as a person of a certain age whose parents are of a certain age plus a few decades, I found it harrowing, and I like theater that’s harrowing. For another thing, Elaine May gave a titanically good performance. She’s so good at portraying a woman who’s losing her mental moorings that in the opening scene I found myself anxious for her as an actress; soon enough, to be sure, you realize that she’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing: She’s acting. (I was told afterward by people who were highly familiar with the play that she’s line-perfect down to the very commas.) Looking forward, I’m pleased that Lincoln Center Theater is about to mount a new John Guare play. I think that his Six Degrees of Separation is one of the greatest plays of my lifetime, and I’m always keen to see what he has on his mind.

twi-ny: The other night I saw a show called Say Something Bunny!, the title of which desperately needed a comma, especially since the script, which was given out to everyone as part of the show, has a comma when those words appear in dialogue. What theatrical grammatical error makes you the most crotchety?

bd: Everyone likes to make fun of Alan Jay Lerner’s inability to distinguish between “hanged” and “hung” in My Fair Lady, so let’s not do that one again. OK, the other day I was listening to the original cast recording of Hairspray — and of course we all know never to refer to theatrical cast recordings as soundtracks, right? — and as happens every time I listen to “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” (did I just google it to make sure that it’s not “Momma”? yes I certainly did), when Tracy sings that she “could barely walk and talk so much as dance and sing,” I mutter “No, not ‘so much as’; it’s ‘let alone.’” I mutter a lot. As my husband says — lovingly, I’m reasonably certain — “It must hurt sometimes to live in your brain.” Well, yeah.

twi-ny: At your book launch on January 31, you will be in conversation with one of Random House’s most successful authors, Peter Straub. How did that come about? What are your thoughts on his writing?

bd: When Ghost Story was published in 1979, I remember reading the review in the New York Times Book Review and literally — and by literally, I mean literally — running to my local bookstore to get a copy. And I think that it’s one of the great horror novels of our time. Cut to the mid-1990s, and I’m Peter’s production editor at Random House, first on The Hellfire Club, then on four subsequent books, including Black House, his second collaboration, after The Talisman, with Stephen King. And he’s simply the loveliest man, and a delight to work with and for, and very sharp and funny, so when I was asked with whom I’d like to be In Conversation, he immediately leapt to my mind. And he graciously agreed to support me for the evening. I’m looking forward to it hugely; I haven’t seen Peter in a few years, so it’ll be lovely. And I’m rereading Ghost Story right now, and good Lord I’d forgotten how scary it is.

TWI-NY TALK: SEAN WILLINGHAM

Sean Willingham attempts to ride Torres Brothers Bucking Bulls LLC's Millennium's Buck during the second round of the Duluth PBR 25th Anniversary Unleash the Beast. Photo by Andy Watson

Sean Willingham rides Millennium’s Buck during second round of 2018 Duluth PBR contest (photo by Andy Watson/Bull Stock Media)

PROFESSIONAL BULL RIDERS MONSTER ENERGY BUCK OFF AT THE GARDEN
Madison Square Garden
31st - 33rd Sts. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
January 4-6, $28-$226 ($506 for PBR Elite Seats)
www.pbr.com
www.msg.com

When twi-ny was first offered the opportunity to interview PBR veteran Sean Willingham, the focus was going to be on his farewell tournament, the Professional Bull Riders Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden January 4-6. After a storied nineteen-year-career, the eight-time winner and twelve-time world finalist was hanging up his boots. But a funny thing happened on the way to the World’s Most Famous Arena: Willingham has had such a productive season that he changed his mind. “I am just old,” he told PBR.com in November 2017 when he announced his retirement. “I have been riding bulls for a long time. Man, it ain’t easy. That is for sure. Bull riding is all I have ever known since I was fifteen years old. I live, breathe, and sleep it. It is hard to realize I am going to give it up.”

The thirty-seven-year-old Willingham, who was born in Norman, Oklahoma, and raised in Georgia, where he still lives, has suffered such riding injuries as a cracked skull, a dislocated hip, a torn groin, and a broken neck. So no one was shocked when he called it quits so he could spend more quality time with his wife, Kayla Leigh, and their two young children, daughter Lani and son Conlee. But then came the 2018 season. “I definitely want to go out on top; who knows what the year brings. This may be the best year I ever have. I don’t know. Nobody knows. Only time will tell,” he told PBR.com last November. Time has told, so Willingham is sticking it out for at least one more campaign and discussing with twi-ny what his suddenly different immediate future holds in store for him.

twi-ny: Last November, you announced that this would be your last PBR season. How has the year gone?

Sean Willingham: The season went very well, with no surprises. I accomplished everything I wanted to, including making the PBR World Finals, the richest and most prestigious event in our sport. I had such a good year, I decided that this will actually not be my last PBR season. If the Rolling Stones and the Who can retire and unretire, so can I, right? I’m going to ride for another season to see if I can have an even better one than my comeback year in 2018. My goals are, first of all, to win New York City, and then qualify again for the World Finals in Las Vegas in November and win the Finals event. Ultimately, I want to win the world title. If you don’t think you can win it, you shouldn’t be in it.

twi-ny: The Duluth competition in March didn’t go quite as planned. What was that experience like, in what you thought was your last event in your home state?

SW: The experience was good; a lot of fans were there. It didn’t go as good, but I love Georgia and the fans. But now that we’re going another year, I’m pretty excited to be competing in front of my home-state crowd again with another chance to win the event for myself and the people in Georgia. The hardest place to win is in your hometown.

Sean Willingham, Fire, Pyro, in the opening during the third round of the Billings PBR 25th Anniversary Unleash the Beast. Photo by Andy Watson

Sean Willingham is introduced at third round in Billings during PBR twenty-fifth anniversary season (photo by Andy Watson/Bull Stock Media)

twi-ny: You initially chose Madison Square Garden as your farewell appearance. Why New York City?

SW: I originally chose New York City because of the history of Madison Square Garden and what it’s known for — championships, legendary concert performances, even event rodeos back in the ’50s. The atmosphere is totally different here, and the fans are great to us. They love a good show, and PBR is a great show to watch. New York fans are very involved and feed off us riding. The Garden would be a great place for athletes in any sport to finish their career. You know, I’ve never won this event; 2008 was my best year, finishing fourth, and ten years later I’m still here competing. And twelve years ago, I was here to introduce our sport to New Yorkers. Nobody expected to see bull riding in New York City. We even set up an arena on Broadway in the middle of rush hour, which made all the commuters stop and check us out. Every year since, it’s been a little more successful and keeps growing and growing.

twi-ny: Will you be able to perhaps spend some extra time in New York as a tourist, and if so, what will be on the agenda?

SW: I plan to see the sights. We’ll probably do a little touring after the fact. I am going to go see the Statue of Liberty and hopefully some late-night shows. I don’t know if they’ll be coming or not, but the kids want to go see the World Trade Center Memorial. We’ll probably do some shopping and also go to Central Park and feed the ducks. I’d love to go to Rockefeller Center and put on some ice skates.

twi-ny: You’ve spent more than half your life as a professional. When you started as a teenager, did you think you’d still be riding more than twenty years later?

SW: Yes, I sure did. I knew I was too lazy to work and too scared to steal! Joking aside, I definitely figured I would still be riding, but not at this level of competition. I’ve been fortunate enough to stay at the top for this long, which is very unheard of in the sport of bull riding. They say I’m the longest-tenured rider at the top of the PBR. That means a lot to me. With all the injuries that can happen in this sport, most people don’t last more than ten years at this level; luckily for me I’ve been able to keep my body in a good working manner to stay competing.

twi-ny: When you thought this would be your last season, what did you envision doing next? I’m going to assume it wasn’t going to be something in which you could suffer such injuries as a broken neck, which you did in 2015 in Montana.

SW: Well, you can break your neck getting hit by a car crossing the street. But to be fair, I guess the big difference is the car then won’t chase you down like in bull riding.

twi-ny: Will you be continuing the Sean Willingham Invitational?

SW: I’ll still be promoting my event, running my pressure-washing business, and hopefully doing some work on the television side of things for PBR, commentating at the events.

twi-ny: What about golf?

SW: I plan on playing a lot of golf, that’s for sure! I’m looking forward to going to ball games with my kids and watching them grow up, helping them and supporting them in whatever they decide to do.

(photo by)

Sean Willingham and his wife, Kayla Leigh, enjoy a relaxing moment away from the bull ring (selfie by Sean Willingham)

twi-ny: When you do eventually retire, are there any specific bulls you’re going to miss?

SW: I’m going to miss SweetPro’s Bruiser. His ability to buck at the top of his game for three years is incredible. It’s the same for him as it is for me as a rider; to be able to perform as long as he has and be the Bull of the Year the last three years like he has is pretty impressive.

twi-ny: What is your favorite memory from your PBR career so far?

SW: My favorite memory is winning Duluth in 2014. I had been competing at that event for twelve years before finally winning it in my home state. The hardest one to win is in front of everyone who has such high hopes for you.

twi-ny: What will you try hardest to forget?

SW: The hardest to forget is a tough question. Sleepless nights and breaking my neck are two of them, along with a long list of other injuries I have had to deal with throughout my career, including having six anchors put in my groin to reattach it to my pelvis. Other than that, there’s not really much in this sport I don’t want to remember. I enjoy all of the memories and opportunities this sport has given me.

twi-ny: You enjoy water sports, and you recently went on a cruise with your wife and kids. How was that?

SW: The cruise was good. We got to experience our first hurricane on the boat, going right through Michael. But the cruise was very enjoyable, very relaxing, and I love the Grand Caymans.

twi-ny: What other family-friendly things do you expect to do once your career is over that you couldn’t do while on tour?

SW: I want to show up at more games my kids are involved in, more cheerleading competitions that my daughter does, and play more golf with my friends. And most importantly take my wife out on a date.

TWI-NY TALK: STEVE LOVERIDGE (MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.)

Documentary reveals the many sides of M.I.A.

Sundance-winning documentary reveals the many sides of musician and activist M.I.A.

MATANGA/MAYA/M.I.A. (Steve Loveridge, 2018)
IFC Center
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Opens Friday, September 28
212-924-7771
www.ifccenter.com
www.miadocumentary.com

In the mid-1990s, Steve Loveridge and Maya Arulpragasam met at St. Martin’s College and became friends. Over the last twenty years, Loveridge and Maya — better known as M.I.A. — have collaborated on songs and videos, leading up to the documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., an intimate portrait of Arulpragasam, from her childhood days as Matangi in Sri Lanka, where her father was the founder of the Tamil Resistance Movement, to her teen years as Maya, a developing artist, and finally as M.I.A., the controversial music star and political activist who has released such albums as Arular, Kala, and 2016’s AIM, which she claimed would be her last. Maya has been filming herself since she was very young, and she opened up her vast archives to Loveridge, who sifted through nearly nine hundred hours of recordings to make his first film. Loveridge shows Maya working on her music, protesting for peace, and famously raising her middle finger while performing with Madonna at the Super Bowl. M.I.A. is a powerhouse onstage — I was blown away by an October 2007 concert at Terminal Five — but Loveridge reveals her more sensitive and vulnerable sides in addition to her fierce ambition and pride in who she is and where she is from. Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is now playing at IFC Center; before attending several postscreening Q&As, Loveridge discussed the film with twi-ny, giving thoughtful, extremely honest, and provocative answers to questions about his friendship with Maya, his feelings about the music industry, and his future as a filmmaker.

twi-ny: What was it that first attracted you to Maya at art school?

Steve Loveridge: She was confident. I was very shy and I think she was much better at meeting people, finding ways to access different places. She took me on lots of adventures and made London seem like a playground.

Also, in our work — I think the other students and tutors on the course kind of looked down on pop culture — music videos, TV movies, mainstream film — but Maya and I, being a gay guy and a brown girl, maybe we saw more value and significance in what pop culture could mean and how it could reach and create change in the world because we had personal experience of it changing our ideas of ourselves, helping us have a vision of who we could become, and being a lifeline when we were teenagers and we didn’t have any people the same as us around to guide us in real life.

twi-ny: Could you tell back then that she was primed for international stardom?

sl: Yes. I think everybody’s got a story, everyone is interesting — but if you’re a poor person and don’t have a “way in” to the arts, or any connections, you have to have a special kind of confidence and robustness to go and knock on doors and ask to be let in, because no one’s going to do it for you. She had that. It took a while for her to find the right door, but she was looking for a way in every day.

Steve Loveridge and M.I.A. at New York premiere of documentary at Film Society of Lincoln Center (photo by Sean DiSerio)

Steve Loveridge and M.I.A. at New York premiere of documentary at Film Society of Lincoln Center at New Directors/New Films festival (photo by Sean DiSerio)

twi-ny: Do you think it is easier or harder to make a documentary about someone you know so well?

sl: Ordinarily, I’d say it’s harder. I think objectivity is too difficult and I would question the wisdom of a friend making a film about a friend. But in this circumstance I feel like Maya, and her family, and the Tamil community were so jaded and mistrustful of the media and interviewers that this story had to be trusted to someone who had earned that trust on a personal level.

twi-ny: In the film, Maya says that she originally wanted to become a documentary filmmaker, and that is evidenced by how much footage she compiled over the years. Did she ever stray from being the subject and instead act like a director or editor? How involved in the process was she?

sl: It was vital from the outset that she wasn’t involved in the edit at all. Even though we’re friends, just to keep things clear, we got a lawyer and did a contract that said I had final cut and she wasn’t allowed into the edit suite. I think that’s amazing trust on her part — I would never ever let someone do that with my personal videos. Especially as she hadn’t watched most of them for years.

twi-ny: What was it like sifting through her archives?

sl: It was emotional and also very educational — I learnt a lot more about her family story. It also reminded me of why I became her friend in the first place.

twi-ny: Was there anything that she declared was off-limits?

sl: On a couple of the tapes she’s chatting to people about me when she’s in a bad mood, and it’s funny eavesdropping on conversations about you that people had fifteen years ago.

twi-ny: How many hours of footage was available?

sl: It was very difficult to deal with the amount of material. There was about seven hundred hours of vérité filming, one hundred of media archive of M.I.A., about thirty hours of performance. One of the hardest things was watching footage of her and talking about her all day and then also trying to maintain a friendship — it was too much, so we had to take a break from each other for a bit and not really talk much.

twi-ny: Regarding that, there were some issues between you, Maya, and her record label, leading to your posting that you “would rather die than work on this.” How did that all get settled? It certainly appears that you and M.I.A. are on good terms again, if there ever really were problems.

sl: Yeah, the problem wasn’t Maya (although I did think she coulda stepped in and helped me out a bit more — it’s hard for a little filmmaker to deal with Interscope, Roc Nation, and all these music industry people all on your own!).

The basic problem was that I worked on the film for a whole year in 2012, with it funded by Interscope, and then suddenly one day they just stopped the funding — but not in a professional, courteous way; they just didn’t pay their bills, stopped answering the phone, and left the production company just guessing. I got angry that Maya’s management weren’t interested in helping me sort the situation and we had a fight about it.

Part of the frustration was that in 2013, Sri Lanka was controversially chosen to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which felt like a real blow to the Sri Lankan Tamil community in their quest for some kind of accountability for the human rights abuses that had happened at the end of the civil war in 2009.

Maya was really, really keen to get the film out in some form that year, in case it helped raise awareness in some tiny way, so it was difficult feeling blocked by her own team.

In the end, the situation was resolved by scrapping the whole project with the record label. I went away and got a job, forgot about the movie for a year, and then in 2014 we found funding from Cinereach, a New York not-for-profit who had seen the trailer I leaked online and got in touch. We started again from scratch with a whole different approach. Making the film in the independent documentary space instead of from inside the music industry transformed it completely, and I was able to make a film that matched my vision.

So when Maya says the film took seven years, or ten years, like she keeps telling interviewers — it wasn’t all my fault! It really only took from 2014 to 2017, which apparently isn’t that bad for a feature doc, especially as I was a first-timer and had nearly nine hundred hours of material.

twi-ny: Are you fully satisfied with the final product? Is the Maya onscreen the Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. you’ve known for more than twenty years?

sl: I am. It’s definitely only about a certain aspect of her story — I focused on her cultural identity and how she negotiates being all these different things at once, and I think it does a good job at evoking what that feels like to be around. People describe the film as “messy in a good way,” and that’s how she feels. I left out all the gossipy relationship stuff with boyfriends, and it’s not really a traditional music doc in that there’s not much of her artistic process or output other than when it serves the identity narrative. But I feel like her music and art are out there and available for people to discover and dip into as much as they like.

twi-ny: Do you have a favorite song/album/video of hers?

sl: “The Message” is great, on her third album [Maya] — whoever wrote that is a genius. [Ed. note: The song was cowritten by Loveridge with Sugu Arulpragasam, Maya’s brother.] But my favorite is always “Galang” because it was the first thing. When the record label sent us the first pressing, it was so exciting holding a vinyl record in my hand that she’d actually made, and then doing the video with all her stencil artwork in it and seeing it on YouTube, it felt like some kind of validation and like the world was suddenly opening up for us.

twi-ny: This is your first feature documentary; do you plan on making more films in the future?

sl: Maybe — I’d certainly never sign up for something again where I only get paid based on hitting certain stages; making this film has crippled my personal finances, and it’s going to be hard to ever contemplate doing that again! I honestly sometimes feel like filmmaking is really only for rich people. But I love stories and storytelling and maybe I’ve learnt enough about the things that slowed this project down to not make the same mistakes again and I could do it in a way that can work for me creatively and financially.

TWI-NY TALK: JOE WISSLER / ALL MY SONS

All My Sons

George Deever (David Winning) and Joe Keller (Joe Wissler) face some hard truths in All My Sons at Bernie Wohl Center (photo by Susan Case/Halina Malinowski)

Bernie Wohl Center @ Goddard Riverside Community Center
647 Columbus Ave. between Ninety-First & Ninety-Second Sts.
June 20-24, $20
www.outoftheboxtheatre.com

Joe Wissler loves acting; it’s in his bones. You can see it when he’s onstage performing or when he’s discussing his career, which has included appearing in shows at the Mint, the Fringe, the Actors Studio, the Producers Club, and Where Eagles Dare and such indie films as Powder Strike, Empire, and Street Revenge. The Manhattan-born, Brooklyn-raised character actor is quite a character himself, a tough guy with a heart of gold. Wissler is starring this week in the lead role of Joe Keller in the Out of the Box Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, an Actors’ Equity showcase running June 20-24 at the Bernie Wohl Center at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. The play is directed by Justin Bennett, with a cast also featuring J. D. Brookshire, Matthew Dunivan, Marie Lenzi, Susan McBrien, Patrick McGuiness, Nirvaan Pal, Anna Marie Sell, Jennifer Wingerter, and David Winning.

“As a director, it is an immense pleasure to work with an actor like Joe,” Bennett said. “He is constantly striving to find the depth of a complex character that many actors consider to be a dream role. He is always willing to try different ways to do something. Fortunately, the rest of the cast works in a similar way in order to produce a fantastic quality of acting in one of the masterpieces of American theater.” Founding Out of the Box board member and coproducer (with Halina Malinowski) Susan Case added, “We’re delighted to welcome Joe Wissler to the Out of the Box family. Justin cast Joe to play the lead role of Joe Keller after wading through several hundred resumes and auditioning numerous actors. Joe brings great warmth and honesty to his compelling portrayal of this beleaguered character.” After finishing tech rehearsal, Wissler filled us in on his latest show and more.

twi-ny: We last spoke with you four years ago, when you were in Baby GirL at the Fringe in 2014. How’ve you been since then?

Joe Wissler: The years certainly do fly by. In those years both my children have gotten married, Joe to Kaylyn and Nicole to Sam. In addition, Kaylyn is expecting our first grandchild in July. I have spent a good amount of that time writing. The first project, 20 to Life, is about a police officer who is all set to retire, only to find that his new girlfriend is pregnant, forcing him to stay on the job. Production is set to begin in the fall of 2018.

All My Sons

Chris Keller (Matthew Dunivan) and his father, Joe (Joe Wissler), have tense moments in Out of the Box revival of Arthur Miller classic (photo by Susan Case/Halina Malinowski)

twi-ny: You’re starring as Joe Keller in All My Sons at the Bernie Wohl Center at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. How did that come about?

JW: I saw a listing on Actors Access and submitted. I went in to the audition with one simple strategy: Tell the story from the heart, not the head. It seems to have worked. I am now part of a cast that I consider to be the some of the finest actors I have ever had the pleasure to share a stage with. Our director, Justin Bennett, has guided us on the journey with the precision of Magellan. I am so thankful to Out of the Box for producing this masterpiece and for being the most professional, amazing people that they are.

twi-ny: Joe Keller has previously been portrayed onstage by such actors as Ed Begley, Richard Kiley, John Lithgow, and David Suchet and on film by Edward G. Robinson and James Whitmore. Aside from the original 1947 version, of course, have you seen any of the other adaptations?

JW: I have not seen a stage production of this play before. Which is fine by me. It allowed me to create the character from the ground up. Which is sometimes very difficult to do if you have seen an amazing production. Watching a master actor such as the ones you have listed would leave an impression that would be hard to erase. This Joe Keller is all Joe Wissler’s.

twi-ny: What approach are you taking for such a classic role? What do you think is the key to the part?

JW: I am approaching this classic with the respect it deserves. It is truly one of the finest plays ever written. To win this part is one of the greatest honors I have received professionally. I am letting my emotions guide me through the text as a conductor would rely on his sheet music. Every line has such an emotional explosion behind it. The key to this play is Joe’s love for his son. I believe nothing is more important to Joe. And that’s why I love playing this role. I have the same love for Joe and Nicole.

all my sons

twi-ny: Keller has to deal with something from his past that haunts him. Is there any one thing that you regret from your past that you wouldn’t mind sharing with us?

JW: “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.” Thanks for giving me the chance to say that. My biggest regret is not spending even more time with my mother over the years. She passed away suddenly at the young age of sixty-five and it wasn’t until she wasn’t there anymore that I realized how much I still depended on her. It was her guidance that brought me to acting. And that gave me the heart to love as deeply as I do. Anything good that can be said about me is because of her. I dedicate this performance to her.

twi-ny: Have you done any other Miller plays? Do you have a favorite?

JW: This is my first Miller play. I hope to get cast in many more. I do have a favorite. Actually two, A View from the Bridge and of course All My Sons.

twi-ny: Did Joe and Nicole treat you well on Father’s Day?

JW: To look in their eyes and see them smiling is all I need. The gifts were nice too.

TRIBECA TWI-NY TALK: JEFF KAUFMAN / EVERY ACT OF LIFE

(photo courtesy Jeff Kaufman)

Producer and director Jeff Kaufman on the set of Every Act of Life (photo courtesy Jeff Kaufman)

EVERY ACT OF LIFE (Jeff Kaufman, 2018)
Tribeca Film Festival
Monday, April 23, SVA Theater 2 Beatrice, 8:00
Tuesday, April 24, Cinépolis Chelsea 6, 5:00
Wednesday, April 25, Cinépolis Chelsea 2, 6:15
Thursday, April 26, Cinépolis Chelsea 9, 4:00
everyactoflifedocumentary.com
www.tribecafilm.com

Four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally and his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy, appeared in the 2015 documentary, The State of Marriage, about marriage equality, but director-producer Jeff Kaufman and producer Marcia Ross were surprised to learn that no one had made a film about McNally himself. So they did. The result is Every Act of Life, an intimate portrait of the Texas-born activist and playwright, who has also won two Obies, four Drama Desk Awards, and an Emmy and has been a fixture in the theater community for six decades, writing such popular and influential works as Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; The Lisbon Traviata; Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Master Class; Kiss of the Spider Woman; and Love! Valour! Compassion!

Kaufman and Ross combine archival footage of many of McNally’s works with personal photos and new interviews with an all-star lineup that includes Angela Lansbury, Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Larry Kramer, Edie Falco, F. Murray Abraham, Tyne Daly, Billy Porter, Chita Rivera, John Slattery, Rita Moreno, Joe Mantello, and Christine Baranski, among many others. The film follows McNally through every act of his life, from his childhood in Texas living with abusive, alcoholic parents to his homosexuality, from his relationships with Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, and others to his bout with lung cancer and marriage to Kirdahy. Every Act of Life is having its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23, with Kaufman, Mantello, Abraham, Lane, and McNally participating in an “After the Screening” conversation moderated by Frank Rich. (The film is also being shown April 24, 25, and 26.) Just as the festival got under way, Kaufman, who has also directed Father Joseph, The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America, and Brush with Life: The Art of Being Edward Biberman, discussed the project via email in this exclusive twi-ny talk.

twi-ny: You first interviewed Terrence McNally and his husband, Tom Kirdahy, for The State of Marriage. How familiar were you with him and his work at that time?

Jeff Kaufman: Marcia grew up in Mt. Vernon, just outside of NYC, and the great love of her youth was coming into the city to go to the theater. It shaped much of her life that followed. I grew up near Seattle with a love of classic movies and art, so my discovery of the theater came a bit later (in part by subscribing to the Fireside Theatre Book Club). We both loved Terrence’s work but also made some lasting discoveries through making this film.

Every Act of Life

Every Act of Life is an intimate look at the life and career of award-winning playwright and activist Terrence McNally

twi-ny: Do you have a favorite play of his?

JK: For Marcia, her favorite play by Terrence (of many) is Love! Valour! Compassion! She says it speaks so beautifully about relationships. There are many characters and moments and plays of Terrence’s that keep reverberating for me, but I would mention (so others can look them up) the spiritual moments in A Perfect Ganesh and Corpus Christi, the sense of family and scope of life in L! V! C!, and the deep connection to the power of the arts in Master Class.

twi-ny: What made you think he would be a good subject for a full-length documentary? Was it difficult to get him to agree to the film?

JK: When we interviewed Terrence and Tom for The State of Marriage, we were so impressed with how direct and open and full of feeling Terrence could be. His life and work have changed many lives, and launched many careers, so his story is about a community of remarkable people as well. Through Terrence’s life and work we connect to a history of the theater, the struggle for LGBTQ rights (as Nathan Lane says, “Terrence has always been ahead of his time”), overcoming addiction (thanks in large part to Angela Lansbury), and what it means to keep searching and growing (and loving) throughout your life. So, for us Terrence, like his plays, speaks to a lot of important concerns.

And since we worked well together in the previous film, it wasn’t hard to get him and Tom to agree. They’ve been great to work with throughout the project.

twi-ny: Terrence gives you remarkable access to his life. Did that happen early on in the process, or did you have to establish a rapport?

JK: Our first conversation about doing this film was with Tom Kirdahy, a theater producer and former AIDS attorney who is also Terrence’s husband. Tom understood completely that honesty and access are essential. None of us wanted a fawning tribute. Terrence wasn’t comfortable with every aspect of our interviews, but he was remarkably forthcoming and unvarnished. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, but Terrence is unique.

twi-ny: Were there any times he asked for the camera to be turned off?

JK: When he decides to open the door, he opens it all the way. There may have been a few things he pushed back on a bit, but we always got what we needed.

twi-ny: Terrence is known for being a perfectionist and, at times, demanding, yet he is very relaxed throughout the film. Did the making of the film actually go that smoothly? Whose idea was it to have numerous scenes in which two characters speak very comfortably to each other?

JK: I always try to put interview subjects in a positive frame of mind (even while asking a lot, on several levels). Marcia is a great ally in this as well. Often when I’m working with the film crew to set up the shot, Marcia engages in her singular way (and depth of theater knowledge) to help keep the subject engaged and relaxed. Then I conduct the interview. Since you asked, I came up with the idea for the various sequences (Edie and Murray talking about Frankie and Johnny, etc.).

(photo courtesy Jeff Kaufman)

Jeff Kaufman interviewed a vast array of theater people for documentary about Terrence McNally (photo courtesy Jeff Kaufman)

twi-ny: You have amassed a terrific cast of characters from both his personal and professional life for the film. What was that experience like, “casting” the documentary? Was there someone you really wanted to interview but was unavailable?

JK: Casting is key in documentaries, narrative films, and the theater. Also important for our work is to get people to tell stories that put the audience in a scene with the subjects of our films. We were pretty much able to talk to everyone on our list . . . but I would have loved to go back in time and film Terrence with some of the people who are no longer living. We got as close as possible to that by finding unseen footage of Edward Albee and Wendy Wasserstein, having Bryan Cranston read an amazing letter to Terrence about what a writer needs to keep going, and getting Meryl Streep to read a letter from Terrence’s beloved high school English teacher.

twi-ny: In the film, Terrence and the actors talk about the importance of collaboration, which even extended to many of the documentary participants helping the Kickstarter campaign by contributing special rewards for donors. How does collaboration in theater compare with collaboration in film?

JK: Both are essential, and as Terrence says, life is about collaboration as well. I have a strong vision for what I want the documentary to be and say. So does Marcia. However, that only comes together through the work and vision and talent of many people.

twi-ny: What was the single most surprising thing you learned about theater and Terrence McNally while making the film?

JK: I don’t know if this qualifies as a surprise, but Marcia and I were both impressed by finding in Terrence, and others in the film, great artists who could easily rest on their laurels but who instead are still inspired, still learning, and still striving to do new and better work.

TWI-NY TALK: FLINT RASMUSSEN OF PBR

Flint Rasmussen (photo by Matt Breneman / Bull Stock Media)

Flint Rasmussen entertains the crowd at PBR event in Anaheim in 2016 (photo by Matt Breneman / Bull Stock Media)

PROFESSIONAL BULL RIDERS MONSTER ENERGY BUCK OFF AT THE GARDEN
Madison Square Garden
31st - 33rd Sts. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
January 5-7, $28-$551
After-parties at Hooters on January 5 and American Whiskey on January 6
www.pbr.com
www.msg.com

The Professional Bull Riders’ twenty-fifth anniversary tour barrels its way into Madison Square Garden January 5-7 for the twelfth annual PBR Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden, as thirty-five brave athletes will try to stay atop bucking bulls for the wildest eight seconds in sports. Among those competing to unseat current champion Jess Lockwood is Cooper Davis, the rider we interviewed two years ago who went on to win the 2016 world championship. Last year we introduced you to brothers Tanner and Jesse Byrne, the former a bull rider, the latter a bullfighter who protects the riders from danger. This year we get an inside look at the man who serves as a kind of master of ceremonies for all competitions, PBR “Exclusive Entertainer” Flint Rasumussen.

Since 2006, Rasmussen has been putting on clown makeup and revving up PBR crowds in between bull rides, telling jokes, dancing — specialties include Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk, the Harlem Shake, twerking, and flashdancing — and going into the audience and meeting PBR fans. An eight-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Clown of the Year, eight-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo Barrelman, a big-time high school athlete, and a former math and history teacher, Rasmussen is an avid hunter and fly fisher and the host of Outside the Barrel on SiriusXM Rural Radio (channel 147). His father, Stan, was a popular rodeo announcer, a profession taken up by Rasmussen’s brother Will, while his other brother, Pete, was a former member of the PRCA and the Northern Rodeo Association. Flint married barrel racer and horse trainer Katie Grasky; their two daughters are involved with rodeo as well. After a day of skiing out west, Rasmussen answered questions about his life and career, giving careful thought to his replies, delivered with a refreshing honesty.

twi-ny: PBR refers to you as its “Exclusive Entertainer,” specifically not using the word “clown.” Is there a trend to stop using such terms as “rodeo clown?”

Flint Rasmussen: We went to “Exclusive Entertainer” for a couple reasons. PBR is not a rodeo; it is just bull riding, so Rodeo Clown is not an accurate title. Also, I don’t really look at myself as a traditional clown. The only thing about me that is Clown is the makeup.

twi-ny: This will be PBR’s twelfth annual competition at Madison Square Garden, the longtime New York City home of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which featured such famous clowns as Emmett Kelly. Even if you don’t see yourself as a traditional clown, do you feel that history when you enter the World’s Most Famous Arena, especially with Ringling Bros. now closed down?

FR: With my background, the history that I feel at MSG is more sports and entertainment oriented. It is the home of the Rangers, the home of Bill Bradley and Patrick Ewing and Spike Lee talking smack to Reggie Miller from the front row. The Big East basketball tournament was there for so long. Every great musician has performed there. Billy Joel? Yes!

I am not really a circus guy. Believe it or not, I have never had much interest, or read much history, on circus clowns. I was always comfortable in front of crowds and wanted to be an entertainer of some sort. My family was involved in rodeo in Montana, and I just performed as a rodeo clown on a dare a couple times. It just happened to take off for me, and it turned into a career. We have held on to the tradition of the rodeo clown makeup as a salute to that rodeo tradition and to distinguish me from the cowboy-protection bullfighters who I work with.

None of this is out of disrespect for the true clowns, but I don’t feel I really adhere to much of that tradition in my performances. We use music. I wear a microphone. Much of my performance is ad lib comedy, almost stand-up at times. And my outfit is almost a sports uniform. It is just more contemporary.

I do think, however, that Ringling Bros. was a real part of our history, and a true show. Every show after it somehow stems from how things were done at the circus to entertain crowds and provide a family show.

Flint Rasmussen (photo by Andy Watson / Bull Stock Media)

PBR Exclusive Entertainer Flint Rasmussen takes to the air at the Des Moines Chute Out (photo by Andy Watson / Bull Stock Media)

twi-ny: Who were your inspirations?

FR: My inspirations were athletes, comedians, and musicians. My favorite basketball player ever is Dr. J. He was a great player and great entertainer all in one. I watched Michael Jackson wow crowds of every age. He was the greatest entertainer of all time! Then there was Billy Joel on his piano, Bon Jovi and their big hair, and Garth Brooks taking country entertainment to a new level. And stand-up comedians — Eddie Murphy, Howie Mandel, Jerry Seinfeld — with their amazing timing and audience interaction.

twi-ny: Since this is a blue state with a lot of cynics when it comes to any form of entertainment, do you approach the New York City crowd any differently from those in other cities?

FR: New York City is different than anywhere we go, and probably the most difficult place. New Yorkers expect the best, because they get the best every day of the year. They like to be involved. I have learned over the years to use a lot of audience participation and interaction instead of just liner comedy. I definitely cannot do the same show in New York City as I do in Billings, Montana, or Sacramento, California, or Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I like to think that is why I am the one with this job.

twi-ny: Has the New York audience changed over time?

FR: When we first came to New York, the fans knew absolutely nothing about what we were doing. We constantly had to educate while trying to entertain. Now they “get it” a little better. Also, the people around the city seem to appreciate when we are in town.

twi-ny: When you’re here in New York City, do you have any time to take advantage of the culture? What are some of your favorite things to do here?

FR: Through the years, my family and I have seen some Broadway shows, which I absolutely love! We caught a Knicks game. And we were able to see museums and other sights. Probably not as much as one should; the job we are here to do is always on my mind. Probably my favorite thing to do is eat way too much of the greatest pizza in the world!

twi-ny: You’ve played football, ran track, and were a champion barrel racer — and you were a high school teacher as well — but this is a whole different thing. People might not realize how dangerous your job can be, as shown by that rope takedown you experienced in Glendale in 2012. What goes through your mind when you’re suddenly face-to-face with a fearsome bucking bull?

FR: The danger thing is hard for any of us to address, because we look at it differently. Most people probably look at my job and say, “I could do that,” because it looks like I am just out there goofing around. But there is a lot going on. If I am not paying attention at any given time, I could get hurt very badly. But as far as the bulls go, I think people in cities don’t understand that most of us grew up in a rural, ranch-type setting. We have grown up either around, or directly involved in, the large-animal industry.

I am looking out my window this very moment doing this interview and can see cattle. I have been in corrals sorting cattle my entire life. This lifestyle exists in a strong way in this country. It is how people eat! Yes, bucking bulls are different. But they aren’t bucking because they are pissed off. They are bucking because their bloodlines tell them that is what they are here to do. Not every horse runs fast. But the ones in the Kentucky Derby are bred to do it, so they do. Bulls are not rare, exotic circus animals. There are millions of people in this country who are around bovines every single day as a way to provide food for this country and to make a living for their families.

So when anyone in the PBR is face-to-face with a bull, they aren’t really thinking; they are reacting in the way that their body and mind have been conditioned to over the years.

(photo by Andy Watson / Bull Stock Media)

Former UFC champion Holly Holm gives Flint Rasmussen a unique autograph at the Pit in Albuquerque (photo by Andy Watson / Bull Stock Media)

twi-ny: How was your Christmas?

FR: Christmas is a great time and my favorite holiday. It was a cold and white Christmas here in Montana. My personal and family situation has not been good in the last year or so, so it was different and difficult. I have had a wonderful career, and I love the opportunities, but it can be very hard on a family.

twi-ny: I’m sorry to hear that. You’ve been in the rodeo and professional bull riding business for thirty years, you suffered a heart attack in 2009, and you will be turning fifty shortly after the MSG dates. Does that change your approach to your job?

FR: My health and age have, of course, changed my approach. I no longer completely depend on the physical comedy and dancing aspects. I can’t do many of the things I used to do. I listen to my body a lot to try and stay ahead of any health issues with my heart. I really do think that for a guy nearly fifty, I am in very good shape and can still shake it pretty dang well.

twi-ny: Yes, you can definitely still shake it pretty dang well; our readers can check out some of your best moments here. When the season ends and you head back to your home in Montana, what’s your favorite thing to do there? Since your daughters are or have been barrel racers too and you own and operate a horse ranch, do you ever get a chance to get away from it all?

FR: Montana is definitely home to me. But as I get older, I really don’t like winter. Montana will always be home, but I wouldn’t mind getting farther south once in a while. I fly home between almost all of our events. In the summer I fish when I can. My daughters go to rodeos in the summer, and I get to as many of those as I can. I have helped coach track the last couple springs up here. My oldest daughter, Shelby, is a freshman at Montana State University on a rodeo team scholarship. (Yes, that does exist.) And my younger daughter, Paige, is a junior at Belgrade High School, where she is a hurdler/jumper/sprinter on the track team. She is also very talented in rodeo. They are both very musical, too. Their mom, Katie, trains amazing horses for them, which allows them to excel and be successful.

I also do a weekly radio show called Outside the Barrel on SiriusXM Rural Radio that emphasizes the Western lifestyle, music, and comedy. I host a stage talk show in Vegas for a couple weeks out of the year, too. I probably need to find a way to get away from it all once in a while. But it isn’t a bad life to not get away from.

TWI-NY TALK: POLLY DRAPER / 20th CENTURY BLUES

(photo © Joan Marcus)

Sil (Ellen Parker), Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn), Danny (Polly Draper), and Gabby (Kathryn Grody) celebrate forty years of friendship in 20th Century Blues (photo © Joan Marcus)

The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 28, $79-$99
212-244-7529
20thcenturyblues.com
www.signaturetheatre.org

I spent much of the summer of 2014 serving on a jury for a murder trial, a case involving a drug-related shooting in Harlem. One of my fellow jurors was writer, director, and Emmy-nominated actress Polly Draper. Best known for her portrayal of Ellyn Warren on the groundbreaking drama thirtysomething, the Yale grad (both BAA and MFA) has also starred on and off Broadway (Closer, Brooklyn Boy); wrote and starred in The Tic Code, inspired by her husband, jazz musician Michael Wolff, who has Tourette’s syndrome; and wrote and directed The Naked Brothers Band television series and movie, starring their sons, Nat Wolff (The Fault in Our Stars, Buried Child) and Alex Wolff (In Treatment, All the Fine Boys). Draper, who has also won a Writers Guild Award, has been experiencing a career renaissance of late, portraying recurring characters on The Big C with Laura Linney, The Good Wife with Julianna Margulies, and Rhinebrook, as well as playing a key supporting role in the Kickstarter-funded indie hit Obvious Child.

She is now appearing off Broadway through January 28 at the Signature in 20th Century Blues, a bittersweet drama written by Susan Miller (My Left Breast, A Map of Doubt and Rescue) and directed by Emily Mann (Baby Doll, The How and the Why) about four sixtysomething women who have been getting together once a year ever since they met when they were all arrested at a political protest forty years earlier. Draper plays Danny, a divorced photographer and mother who has taken their picture every year. When Danny tells journalist Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn), veterinarian Gabby (Kathryn Grody), and real estate agent Sil (Ellen Parker) that she is having a solo show at MoMA and wants to include the forty years of photos, displaying them publicly for the first time, questions arise as the women look back at their past and consider their future. Danny is also contemplating taking care of her aging mother, Bess (Beth Dixon), in her apartment, which her friends do not think is the best idea. “She’s my mother,” Danny explains. “And, I don’t know how long I’ll get to be a daughter.” (That line rang extra true for me, as a half hour after I saw the play last week, my mother passed away in my sister’s Upper East Side apartment.)

A relaxed, easygoing woman with a broad sense of humor and a natural talent for leadership, Draper, like Danny, is passionate about everything she does. “When it comes to my art, I have very strong feelings,” she said when we met to talk shortly after the bizarre trial ended with a hung jury. And also like Danny, she is passionate about justice and freedom, as evidenced by her reactions to the trial in addition to her activism for numerous liberal causes. What follows are edited excerpts from our 2014 interview and a brand-new email exchange about 20th Century Blues, the legal system, working with family, and more.

(photo © Joan Marcus)

Danny (Polly Draper) cares for her aging mother (Beth Dixon) in new play by Susan Miller (photo © Joan Marcus)

twi-ny: I can’t believe it’s been three and a half years since we sat on that long, bizarre murder trial. What are your thoughts looking back at that summer in court? At the time you called it a musical comedy.

Polly Draper: I think about that experience so much!!! And did you hear that those guys got convicted finally? I guess the second jury didn’t have our crazy guy on it. But I doubt they had as much fun as we did! What a mind-blowing experience!!!

twi-ny: I know! What was your single favorite moment of the trial?

Polly Draper: Meeting you guys. Meeting all the fun people and going out to the Chinese restaurants. I had a lot of fun. The only thing that wasn’t fun was the deliberations because of the crazy person. But even the deliberations had their fun things, like every time he’d fall asleep or when he wasn’t there. All the characters . . . It was fascinating for me in every way.

twi-ny: If you knew then what you know now, would you put yourself through it again?

Polly Draper: Definitely! Absolutely! I know some of the people wouldn’t say that at all, but I would so do it. It’s one of the most fascinating things that happened in a long time to me.

twi-ny: You’re currently starring in Susan Miller’s 20th Century Blues at the Signature. What initially drew you to the play itself and your part specifically?

PD: First of all, I was drawn to the play because it dealt with friendships between women and also with issues common to women my age. Plays written on this subject matter are few and far between.

Secondly, I really related to the character I was playing and her struggle to realize her artistic vision, which in her case involved putting together a photography exhibit at MoMA. Having struggled with many of my own artistic endeavors, I could identify with the obstacles she faced.

I also intimately understand this character’s relationship with her mother, who is in the throes of dementia, because my own mother is suffering from Parkinson’s disease–related dementia.

twi-ny: I’m sorry to hear that. The play follows four women who have documented their friendship through forty years of photos. What’s your longest current friendship?

PD: I’ve known my oldest friend, Wende Lufkin, since we were eight years old and share all my childhood and teenage memories with her. We live on opposite sides of the country and rarely see each other but are inextricably bonded by our shared past.

The two old friends I see constantly and have been entwined in my life for the past forty years are writer Jenny Allen, who I met in college, and actress Brooke Adams, who I met doing a play when I first came to NYC. (The two of them were at opening night for this play, in fact, rendering it even more meaningful to me.)

twi-ny: Speaking of long friendships, it’s now been forty years since thirtysomething debuted. In June 2007, you reunited with the cast for a “Look Who’s Fifty” story, and this past September EW did a “Where Are They Now?” feature. It really was quite a group of creative people; all these years later, everyone is still very busy, with many of the actors becoming directors, including yourself. Why do you think that might be?

PD: When we were on thirtysomething, all the actors were encouraged to direct. Regrettably, I wasn’t interested in doing so at the time, but I think the fact that so many of my cast members did it demystified the process for me. We were also encouraged to volunteer ideas for scripts, which got me interested in the whole process of script writing. Some of my castmates, like Melanie Mayron and Peter Horton, had already been directors and writers before they got on the show.

Everyone in the cast was smart and ambitious. So . . . I’m guessing that accounts for all the many directing / writing / acting projects among us.

(photo by Carol Rosegg)

Emmy nominee and Writers Guild Award winner Polly Draper has a passion for art, social justice, and family (photo by Carol Rosegg)

twi-ny: You’ve directed your family in The Naked Brothers Band series and movie, wrote and starred in The Tic Code, which was inspired by your husband’s Tourette’s syndrome, directed one of your sons in a play written by your other son, and next up is Stella’s Last Weekend, which you wrote, directed, and star in with your sons. Why do you think working with your family has gone so well? Do things ever get especially difficult either on the set or back at home?

PD: My family is the most important thing to me, so it is not surprising that all of the work I have created involves them. And it doesn’t hurt that they happen to be extraordinarily gifted actors and musicians.

I was actually surprised by the lack of stress we had on the set of Stella’s Last Weekend. The last time I worked professionally with Nat and Alex was on The Naked Brothers Band when they were wild and crazy little boys, so it was a treat for me to work with them as wild and crazy adults.

Because we worked together before and because we all know each other so well, we not only trusted each other, we have a shorthand communicating with each other. This resulted in all of it feeling surprisingly effortless from beginning to end. Nat and Alex both had great ideas for their characters and great improvisations they did in the scenes. They also kept everyone on the set in constant hysterical laughter with their brother antics.

I think the movie reflects the joy we all had making it. I am really proud of it and I can’t wait until it comes out so people can see it. The screenings we have had of it so far have been phenomenally successful.

And Michael, who also did the score for The Tic Code and The Naked Brothers Band, did a killer score for this one too.

twi-ny: Would you say that the camaraderie that you helped foster in the jurors room during the trial compares to that on a film set?

PD: That’s what my husband said. He said, “This is just typical of you. You always wind up hanging out with the people you’re doing a project with, and this is your new project.”

twi-ny: You move smoothly between film, television, and theater, from Obvious Child, The Good Wife, and Golden Boy to Closer, Rhinebrook, and now 20th Century Blues. Do you have a particular preference as an actor for one medium over another?

PD: I think I just like doing work I’m proud of. I like working on interesting projects no matter what medium they’re in.

There are advantages to the control you have and the instant audience feedback of acting onstage, but there is something magical about the intimacy of acting on film as well.

I love to write scripts because I can play every role in my head.

I love to direct because it is thrilling to create the real-life version of what used to be just my fantasy.

It is also beyond exciting to watch what each actor brings to my words.

I also love the process of editing because it is so much fun to give shape to the movie and fix mistakes and choose music and find meanings in all of it that I never saw before.

So basically, I love every part of the process of acting, writing, and directing except the actual business part. That part I hate and fear. Unfortunately, it is one of the most important parts!

twi-ny: Getting back to the play, what gave you the blues in the twentieth century? And what about now, in the twenty-first century?

PD: Oy vey. I guess the simple answer would be to say that the blues I had in the twentieth century were more personal and involved growing up, and the blues I have in the twenty-first century are more global and involve fear for all of mankind.

When you and I served on that jury almost four years ago and Obama was still president, I don’t think either of us could have guessed the seismic shifts that have happened this year. The list of things that give me the blues now have to do mostly with our president and the flame he fans of lies and hatred and backward thinking, but he seems to be just a by-product of a frightening trend worldwide.

My blues in this century are every thinking person’s blues: They concern the environment, the spread of misinformation, North Korea, Putin, guns, nuclear holocausts, sexual predators, prescription drugs, women’s rights, civil rights, immigrants’ rights, terrorists, the Koch brothers and where they put their dark money, Steve Bannon and his scary white supremacy fans, cyberwarfare, Republican congressmen, our judicial system, and any old men with weird orange hair.