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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.

TWI-NY TALK: AMANDA SZEGLOWSKI / STAIRWAY TO STARDOM

(photo by Maria Baranova)

Writer, director, choreographer, and performer Amanda Szeglowski dreams of fame and fortune in Stairway to Stardom (photo by Maria Baranova)

STAIRWAY TO STARDOM
HERE
145 Sixth Ave. at Dominick St.
September 12-23, $18-$45, 8:30
212-647-0202
www.here.org

Before there was Star Search, American Idol, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent there was Stairway to Stardom, a no-budget New York City public access television show in which men, women, and children performed with big dreams in their heads, hoping to make it big. Writer, director, choreographer, performer, and “global paradigm architect” Amanda Szeglowski explores the American dream of reaching for fame and fortune in the vastly entertaining and ridiculously clever multimedia production Stairway to Stardom, which opened at HERE on September 12. The sixty-minute show features Szeglowski and her cakeface company, Ali Castro, Jade Daugherty, Ayesha Jordan, and Nola Sporn Smith, in glittery silver-sequined gowns and high heels singing, dancing, and sharing their successes and failures, their hopes and desires with a dry, wry mechanical delivery deliciously at odds with the spectacular longing for stardom that lies beneath.

The narrative follows the arc of a contemporary U.S. life in the arts, from what creative kids want to be when they grow up and what their parents expect of them to discovering their unique talent and then working odd jobs as they strive for artistic (and maybe even financial) success while also experiencing regrets. The performers are joined by Prism House — Brian Wenner and Matt O’Hare — who provide live video and music mixing, featuring excerpts from the original public access program. Szeglowski, who is also HERE’s marketing director, formed the all-female cakeface in 2008; their previous “linguistic performance art” projects include Don’t Call Me McNeill., Alpha Pups, and Harold, I Hate You. The new show continues through September 23; there will be a talkback following the September 20 performance, and September 15 and 19 are ’80s nights, in which the audience is encouraged to dress with their best retro flair. The show begins at 8:30, but HERE will be projecting clips from the original Stairway to Stardom in the lounge beginning at 7:00 every evening. Shortly after opening night, which kicked off HERE’s twenty-fifth anniversary season, Szeglowski found time to answer some questions about her own career trajectory.

twi-ny: As you were preparing for the opening of Stairway to Stardom, your native Florida — you went to high school in Tampa and college at USF — was being battered by Hurricane Irma. What was that experience like, balancing the two? Are your friends and family safe?

amanda szeglowski: Yes, thank you for asking. My family lives in West Tampa, so we were all watching the storm very closely. It was an incredibly stressful time to be in tech rehearsals all day and night approaching the culmination of a show I’ve been building for three years while this monster of a storm was creeping towards my family. I was checking in on them every chance I got and FaceTiming to see all the prep they were doing to their houses, going over the evacuation plans. . . . Being a part of that process helped me feel like I was with them. But growing up in Florida and having been through many hurricanes actually gave me some comfort as well. We know how to prepare and we take it seriously. That’s not to say that wine isn’t the first thing in the hurricane supply shopping cart — it is. But I felt better knowing this wasn’t my family’s first rodeo; they knew exactly what to do.

(photo by Maria Baranova)

Nola Sporn Smith, Jade Daugherty, Ayesha Jordan, Amanda Szeglowski, and Ali Castro reach for the stars in glittering show at HERE (photo by Maria Baranova)

twi-ny: Were you ever a fan of such programs as Star Search, American Idol, The Voice, or America’s Got Talent?

as: I loved watching Star Search as a kid. As I got older and the shows got more scripted I lost interest. I think Idol changed the game by making the auditions part of the show, and then it became a gimmick of who could be the most outrageous. But I will occasionally watch clips from these shows when my parents call me and insist that they just saw the greatest thing.

twi-ny: What is it about the public access show that spurred your creative juices? You treat it with respect without getting overly kitschy or mean-spirited.

as: The TV show was so raw — so vulnerable. These weren’t people trying to become a character on a reality show; these were people really trying to make it. I respect that. There wasn’t any competitive aspect to the TV show; they were just performing and hoping to be seen. Sure, when you see clips from the TV show there are moments that you want to laugh, but I spent hours and hours interviewing people about their lives for my script, and a lot of it was pretty damn sad. At least these people were out there trying. I wanted to honor that drive and explore what happens to all of us along the way, because I think that fire is there for almost everyone in the beginning.

twi-ny: What kind of talent does someone have to display to become a member of cakeface? When someone is auditioning for you, are you more like Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Jennifer Lopez, Usher, or Miley Cyrus?

as: HAHAHA. I think I’m a Simon and Paula hybrid. I’m Simon because I have a crystal-clear vision of what I want, and if you don’t fit, I am not going to beat around the bush. I never want to waste anyone’s time. But Paula has a way of finding a spark in people and being respectful of their contributions, and I try to always do that. I’ve received many post-audition emails over the years from people that I didn’t hire saying the experience was really special. I’m proud of that.

twi-ny: Is anyone associated with the public access show still around? Did you have to go through any kind of permissions process to use some of the original footage?

as: The show was public access. But I did get the tapes directly from someone who was given them by the host of the show, Frank Masi, before he died. [Ed. note: Masi passed away in 2013 at the age of eighty-seven; you can watch a YouTube tribute to him and the show here.]

(photo courtesy of Amanda Szeglowski)

Amanda Szeglowski takes a well-deserved break from climbing the stairs to stardom (photo courtesy of Amanda Szeglowski)

twi-ny: How amazing was it to perform in such great costumes, as well as high heels?

as: The costumes, which are by Oana Botez, are absolutely fantastic. It’s such a blast being able to sparkle head to toe on a downtown stage — very atypical for the scene. The heels are challenging, but anything else with those costumes would be absurd, right? And the performers are all pros, so they make it work. I wanted an over-the-top glamorous look that I could juxtapose with the stark reality of our words. Oana definitely achieved that.

twi-ny: What did you want to be when you were growing up?

as: The opening text, which I call a monologue (even though it’s delivered by five voices), is basically a run-on sentence ticking off all of my childhood dreams. It includes a mermaid, grocery store checkout clerk, princess, trapeze artist, restaurateur, and movie star. Of course, I always wanted to be a dancer, but that’s obvious, and our unfulfilled dreams are so much more interesting.

twi-ny: What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

as: I’ve had a slew of them. The story in the show about working in the housewares department at Burdines was my life at age fifteen. I had no idea how to sell kitchen appliances and would literally walk away from customers and kick back in the stock room. That was pretty awful. There’s another story about a boss with revolting coffee breath; that was my first job in NYC. But another horrific experience was telemarketing. In high school I worked at a call center selling satellite broadcasting to elderly people in rural areas. I had to convince them they needed HBO. It was super sleazy, plus I got sexually harassed by my boss. I’d say fifteen was not a banner year for my career trajectory.

twi-ny: What would you like audiences to take away from the show?

as: I’d like them to be reminded of our often-naive notions of success and talent, reflect on the choices they’ve made, and leave with a glimmer of hope.

TWI-NY TALK: JODY OBERFELDER — THE BRAIN PIECE

(photo by Christopher Duggan)

Jody Oberfelder Projects will present The Brain Piece at New York Live Arts June 28 - July 1 (photo by Christopher Duggan)

JODY OBERFELDER PROJECTS: THE BRAIN PIECE
New York Live Arts
219 West 19th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Wednesday, June 28, gala benefit $200, 7:30
June 29 - July 1, $25-$35, 7:00 & 9:00
212-691-6500
newyorklivearts.org
www.jodyoberfelder.com

New York-based director, choreographer, dancer, and filmmaker Jody Oberfelder’s The Brain Piece, premiering at New York Live Arts June 28 – July 1, continues her exploration of our internal organs, following on her extraordinary 2013 piece, 4Chambers, an immersive, multimedia, interactive journey inside the human heart. Performed by Oberfelder, Mary Madsen, Pierre Guilbault, and Hannah Wendel along with ten dancer docents, The Brain Piece is divided into two parts, “Mind Matters / Head Space” and “World of Brain,” combining film, visual art, installation, dance, music, and text for an audience limited to 72 members. The cerebral, multimedia piece includes her award-winning short film Dance of the Neurons, made with Eric Siegel, which turns firing synapses into a colorful, joyous dance. Oberfelder, a travel and yoga enthusiast and former lead singer of the punk band the Bagdads, founded Jody Oberfelder Projects in 1989 and has previously presented such works as The Titles Comes Last, Moved, Re:Dress, and Throb. The charming, gregarious, always energetic creator took a break from rehearsals to tell twi-ny all about The Brain Piece.

twi-ny: We recently bumped into each other at the Whitney Biennial, where you were serving as a docent for Asad Raza’s “Root sequence. Mother tongue,” an installation of living trees paired with specific objects, one of which you contributed. As museumgoers made their way through the exhibit, I couldn’t help but think of it as a kind of improvisatory dance with nature, especially with you there. What was that experience like?

jody oberfelder: We’re actually called caregivers. The people who pass through sometimes don’t know we’re positioned as such as we, as you describe, do this improvisatory dance with people in conversation. The show has been up since March and we’ve seen the trees go from bare, to blossom, to leafing, and now they can’t wait to get planted outside. Many people have passed through. Asad’s work balances organic, inorganic, and human all in the space. Having a person in the room is as important as the trees and the caregiver’s placed object. I’m learning that conversation is often this invisible thread that links things together in the present.

twi-ny: Your work is very scientific; were you interested in science when you were a kid?

jo: I would not say I grew up with a scientific bent. I had a fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Dowd, who explained the digestive system with panache (“...and out the other end” — we were all snickering). I’ve come to science through the body, and through a curiosity about what makes us alive. There is a beautiful ecosystem within us and a giant cosmos outside of us. Did you ever see that film by Charles and Ray Eames — Powers of Ten — it’s all about zooming out and zooming in. That, to me, is what science is about. Things can be very specific and very vast.

twi-ny: Yes, Powers of Ten is quite eye-opening. How did you find/choose your science collaborators — Dr. Wei Ji Ma, Cecilia Fontanesi, and Ed Lein — and what did each one bring to The Brain Piece?

Word of mouth.

Cecilia is a dancer and a neuroscientist. She met one of my dancers, Mary Madsen, at a party. I loved talking with her from the very beginning. The thing she said, “The brain is everywhere in the body,” totally clicked with my premise of dancers illuminating brain life.

Wendy Suzuki, who helped illuminate the brain-body connection for me, introduced Wei Ji to me. Wei Ji has been a great collaborator. He comes to rehearsals to “fact check” and advise. He’s in Dance of the Neurons. I audited his class at NYU on illusion. We did a combo lecture / performance in Amsterdam.

Another neuroscientist introduced Ed Lein to me: Gary Marcus. My company manager at the time, Clare Cook, was giving him private Pilates lessons. Gary and I had several conversations, which culminated in him saying, “You know, you should meet Ed from the Allen Institute for Brain Science. He specializes in the biology of neurons.” Ed and I had a back and forth on a kind of Skype sketchpad, and he drew little pictures of how neurons are formed that eventually became the literal storyboard for Dance of the Neurons. I embellished, of course, and played with all the ways neurons “dance” and form synaptic connection. I’m most grateful to these scientists, who are also artists.

twi-ny: Without giving too much away, how will the physical space of New York Live Arts come into play? Only the second half will take place in the theater on a proscenium stage, correct?

jo: It’s my hope that there really is no separation between the sections, that the more experience-based portions of the work continue to inform the world of the brain in the theater. There are nine films in part two. When you go to movies, you don’t question that the actors are not that big. I think the problem with live theater is that we’re in a long shot for too long. I’m creating an atmosphere of a giant brain with moving parts. I think this is the nature of brain plasticity: zoom in for close-ups, see what the alignment of neurons are doing at this time, how we’re constantly in a perceptual loop.

Jody Oberfelder served as a caregiver for Asad Raza’s “Root sequence. Mother tongue” at the Whitney Biennial (photo by twi-ny/mdr)

Jody Oberfelder served as a caregiver at the Whitney Biennial (photo by twi-ny/mdr)

twi-ny: 4Chambers involved a significant amount of interaction, at one point bringing the audience into physical contact with the dancers. Will there be anything similar in The Brain Piece?

jo: You’ll see.

twi-ny: Good answer. I only recently learned that the doctor who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein actually removed his brain and brought it home to study. What is the most unusual thing you learned about the brain while making this piece?

jo: That the brain is a noisy place and we’re constantly trying to figure things out and make sense of the world. And that our bodies are the vehicles for us to sensorially enter the world. Ask a neuroscientist to define “mind” and they have no clear thing to pin down. There were philosophers, then psychiatrists, and now great discoveries in seeing the pictures in the brain, seeing what makes things go off, decay, or become more plastic, make connections: That’s the dance of neurons. But the mind — it’s like vapor. We breathe in present and past. It’s in constant motion. And dancers are the perfect vehicles to convey this movement.

twi-ny: How have the two works brought the heart and the mind together for you?

jo: The heart leads to the mind. When working on 4Chambers, I interviewed Wendy, who talked about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and how all the way down from our brains our hearts operate. We feel our hearts, but it’s triggered by the mind. You know how what your brain is doing by what your heart is doing, and vice versa. “I can put my hand on your heart and feel your heartbeat, but if I put my hand on your skull, I can’t feel your thoughts.”

twi-ny: Regarding Dance of the Neurons, your choreography has always been very cinematic, and The Brain Piece includes that short film, which has been garnering prizes at festivals. How do you see the two disciplines merging in your work?

jo: Thank you. Someone at a festival said I was a filmic choreographer. I like that. I’m pretty visual. Like a filmmaker, I’m in the business of arranging time and space and hidden narrative. I use a lot of improvisation around ideas and look for dancers who can take the ball and run with it. I like to think that if I give the performers imaginative tasks, the content will form, and it’s my job as a director and choreographer to prepare for a rehearsal with a loose storyboard of possibilities, then go deeply inside the physical investigation for the interaction with audience members, the films, and the onstage content. Devising content is a matter of honing in on what feels right.

I worked with a wonderful dramaturg this time around: Jessica Applebaum. The piece has had many renderings. She helped me not be afraid of the complexity of the subject matter and to go forward making. Details and big picture always in mind. Jessica has also left me a lot of space these last months to figure it out on my own. Today our neuroscientist, Wei Ji, was there to see me finish the finale in our last moments of our last rehearsal!

I love it now. I’m even surprised by it.

twi-ny: I’m very much looking forward to being surprised by it as well. This might be an obvious closing question, but now with the heart and the brain covered, do you anticipate continuing to explore the mind-body connection with different organs as the focus?

jo: The sex organs will probably be combined with the guts. Like when you feel something in your gut. Intuition. Power.