The first thing one notices about Joe Wissler is his size. At six-foot four, two hundred and twenty-five pounds, he usually stands out in a crowd. The next things that become quickly apparent are his gregarious nature and welcoming sense of humor. But the Manhattan-born, Brooklyn-raised character actor gets very serious when discussing the details of his chosen career. “What I love about Joe is his professionalism and dedication to his craft, which he clearly loves," playwright and casting agent David Bellantoni says about Wissler, who was recently nominated for Best Actor at the Unchained one-act theater festival for starring as a Brian Dennehy-like tough guy in Bellantoni’s Laundry, which took the Audience Award. “Most actors, no matter where they are from, think they can pull off a New York character – accent, attitude, swagger,” Bellantoni continues, “but in performance you can almost always tell they’re from somewhere else. Joe is the real deal, the genuine article. It was a pleasure to work with him and I would do so again in a heartbeat.”
Wissler is very much the real deal. In order to start dating (and eventually marry) Grace Argentina, he had to get past her eleven not-so-friendly brothers. Grace and Joe’s son is a Suffolk County police officer, their daughter a Nassau County teacher and track coach. And Wissler continues winning better and better roles in an extremely difficult business. This week Wissler, who has appeared onstage with John Amos (Good Times, Roots) in Felony Friday at the Fringe Festival, on Law and Order: SVU on television, and in such indie films as Waiting for the Blackout and Abscond Valley, is back at the Fringe in Baby GirL, Kutumba Theatre Project artistic director Kim Ehly’s semiautobiographical comedy about adoption, coming out as a lesbian, and searching for home. In between rehearsals for the show, which runs August 8, 10, 14, 18, and 24 at the Kraine Theater, Wissler discussed his acting career, his size, his deep, profound love of his craft, and more.
twi-ny: You were last at the Fringe in 2011, when you starred with John Amos in Felony Friday. What was that experience like?
Joe Wissler: In a word, it was amazing. Of course, I have been a fan of John’s since I can remember. I was so glad when he came to the rehearsals ready to work like any other actor. No pretense, no attitude. We shared most of his scenes, so we rehearsed quite a bit together. I’m happy to say that we became friends and remain so to this day.
twi-ny: This year you’re appearing at the Fringe in Baby GirL. Can you tell us a little about your role and how you got the part? It’s a different kind of show for you.
JW: I actually play two roles in the show. In the first act I play Dave, adopted father to Ashley, a very traditional, head of the family, “meat and potatoes Republican” living in South Florida in the late 1960s to 1980s. I dote on Ashley, which is why she comes out to me first, that she is a lesbian. Things take a turn from that moment on. In act two, I play Henry, husband of Ashley’s biological mother. Henry is a simple man who doesn’t say too much, thanks to the nonstop talking of his wife.
I auditioned for the roles, with absolute abandon. In one flashback scene, I jump into four different scenarios in a matter of one minute. There is just no way to win a part like that unless you are willing to completely commit to that individual moment. There was no playing it safe at this audition.
twi-ny: What is it that resonated with you to make you want to work on this play?
JW: Baby GirL is a play about struggling. Ashley struggles to find her sexual identity, her birth parents, and her life. Dave and Mary struggle to conceive a child, raise a child the way they think she should be raised, and then break away from the child they don’t understand. Struggle is what creates conflict, which is what creates drama. The beautiful thing about this play is there is lots of comedy mixed in with the drama, and a fine cast that understands how to work both the comedy and the drama so it will move the audience to laughter and tears. I’m sure the audience will walk away from this show with a lot to think about and talk about. And hopefully it will help someone out there struggling with his or her own personal feelings, be that if they need to come out, accept someone who comes out, or just choose to live the life they want for themselves.
twi-ny: You’re six-foot-four, two hundred twenty-five pounds, and from Brooklyn, yet you’ve appeared in a wide variety of genres on film and television and onstage. Do you think your size is a hindrance or an advantage?
JW: [laughs] My size can be both an advantage and a hindrance. Most times I find it to be an advantage. Of course, I can remember times when it worked against me. Many years ago, when I was a child, I started growing at an unbelievable rate. I can remember walking into auditions at ten years old and being taller than the man auditioning to play my father. More recently, I was being considered for a great part in a film. I was to play Jon Voight’s brother. Before production began, I was told that Jon Voight would not be doing the film. Instead, Malcolm McDowell was the new lead. Jon Voight and I are almost the same size, but I am seven inches taller than Malcolm McDowell. Apparently, size did matter. I always find a way to fit my dimensions into the skin of the character I am playing.
What about your accent?
JW: [laughs again] What accent? In my day-to-day life, my New York accent is certainly apparent. I have learned to eliminate it for professional purposes. Just listen to me say “You didn’t talk much at dinner” in Baby GirL.
twi-ny: What’s more fun – playing the cop or the mob guy?
JW: I love acting. I love the characters that I get to play. I humanize the characters by a simple yet effective method. I find myself in the character, I find the character in me and find myself as the character in the situation. With that, anything is possible. The rest just depends on the costume.
twi-ny: You were recently nominated for Best Actor in David Bellantoni’s Laundry, in which the cast really seemed to bond. You’re a gregarious fellow; what’s it like when a group of actors don’t really come together on a set?
JW: Laundry was a great experience. A set is a family. It’s very important to make it work, with everyone involved – cast, crew, writers, production, and director. We are all working toward a common goal: To do the best work we are capable of. Nothing on set or behind the scenes should distract from that goal. That being said, jealousies and insecurities are always possible. While studying at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, I was taught that just like any other walk of life, you will meet all kinds, just more so in acting. Concentrate on your work and leave the negativity to those who need it. I only experienced that kind of situation on one project. Hopefully, never again.
twi-ny: You’ve also done stand-up comedy; do you still go back in front of that brick wall?
JW: I have not in quite a while. I am thinking about performing stand-up in L.A. on my next trip there in September.
twi-ny: What do you have coming up after Baby GirL?
JW: I will have a couple of weeks here in New York City to enjoy the rest of the summer. I am cowriting a play that I hope to finish this year. I will be traveling back and forth to the West Coast. My L.A. agent, Marlene Hartje, is amazing. I can’t wait to get back out there and see what she has waiting for me. There are a few plays being produced here in New York that I would love to finish the year out with. John Amos and I have been trying to coordinate our schedules for a couple of years, with the hopes of mounting a great two-man play a friend of his wrote. And of course, I am constantly on the hunt for a production of John Logan’s Red that is casting.
BRIDGET BARKAN IN THE LOVE JUNKIE
425 Lafayette St.
Saturday, May 31, $15, 9:00
Bridget Barkan is a practitioner of the healing power of music, having worked as a music therapist for special-needs children. The native New Yorker, a singer, actor, and Scissor Sisters regular who appeared on Sesame Street as a child and as an adult in such films as Sherrybaby and Everyday People and has a recurring role as a one-legged hooker on Law & Order: SVU, is doing some public healing of her own in her one-woman show, The Love Junkie. In the solo performance, returning to Joe’s Pub on May 31, the fiery redhead and self-described “douche bag magnet” — whose father, Mark, coproduced what might be the first psychedelic album, the Deep’s 1968 Psychedelic Moods: A Mind Expanding Phenomena — employs a mélange of musical styles and genres, including cover songs and originals, while portraying multiple characters to explore recovery from such intimate addictions as love and sex. Barkan, who has been busily posting short “Love Junkie Episodes” on her YouTube channel, recently discussed Times Square, the ’80s, gender roles, and hunting with twi-ny.
twi-ny: You were born and raised in New York City, where you started taking the subway by yourself to school when you were eleven. There are people today who would have your parents locked up for allowing such a thing. What was your childhood in the city like?
Bridget Barkan: Well, taking the subway wasn’t such a huge deal; kids younger than me did and still do. An old man once touched my ass when I was seven and I screamed bloody murder. New York was more edgy. I spent a lot of time going to play pinball or to the movies with my dad in the dirty Times Square, not the Disney version. One time, these two guys tried to mug my dad under some scaffolding, but he was raised in Brooklyn and ended up scaring the shit out of them. It was a very sexually vibrant city and I was excited about it all. It was also oozing with creativity. Sex and art come from the same place, so it makes sense. I think growing up here has given me a real love and connection to many different cultures and sense of openness. I live on the stage of life with no fourth wall.
twi-ny: You got fired from Sesame Street when you were six. What happened?
BB: Well, the rumor is that Bert and Ernie were having a fight in between takes and I came over and tried to fix the problem like I usually did with my parents. But then Big Bird stuck his big head in and Cookie Monster lost his cool. It got pretty messy and for the sake of the show, I took the fall.
No, the truth is, I was apparently bossing the older kids around and a parent complained. I was always an actress, but directing is my real passion . . . haha.
twi-ny: You have a special fondness for the style of the ’80s. What is it about that decade that appeals to you?
BB: Well, I grew up in NYC in the ’80s. Damn, I didn’t want to reveal my age, but oh well, I’m already an old hag in this industry anyway. You gotta be twelve years old but look thirty to be of any interest. I believe the ’80s was the last era of real unique expression. Everything that has come after seems to be regurgitated from the past. The ’90s definitely had some moments too. But to me, the real metamorphosis and discovery of hip-hop was a major game changer in the ’80s.
twi-ny: You recently tweeted, “I’ve always been more of the beast than the beauty.” What did you mean by that?
BB: I talk about this in the show, feeling like I’m a hunter. It’s rare that I meet a guy who is coming for my hide with a strong and ferocious intention. I’ve always had the instinct to woo men, shower them, serenade their hearts. Could be attributed to my growing up around three big brothers, having more testosterone. I generally played the boy when playing house or I was the evil witch. Never really the damsel in distress. Maybe I was a dude in my past life or maybe our gender role ideas and concepts are really screwed up. But I’m kind of a closeted hunter. I’ve realized I’m more afraid of going after men the way I used to. I dip my toes in it but I don’t go in for the full attack. I’m like a cowardly lion.
twi-ny: You’ve noted that you’ve wanted to do a one-woman show since you saw Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. What was it about that show that so deeply affected you?
BB: There was this amazing web of stories. They were all connected so magically, intertwined and mirroring one another. I’ve always loved movies and books that express and highlight how we are all connected. And how a life can be this pure explosion of seeing what other stars you are connected to in your constellation. At the end of the show, this giant mirror comes down, so the audience can see themselves. I was just in tears, and it has stayed with me ever since: The power of art that opens your heart, breaks it, then heals it again.
twi-ny: What was the genesis of The Love Junkie?
BB: I started writing many different one-woman shows over the past years and they were always about heartbreak and failed love. One show started where I played every guy I was with but I could never find an ending, because I kept doing the same thing over and over again. I needed to actually change something in my life so I could write the show I wanted to. I did just that, this time around. I ended a relationship and committed to the relationship with myself.
During the last two years on tour with Scissor Sisters, I researched every artist and show that I loved. I journaled, I wrote weird songs, made tracks, improvised for hours on my computer, danced, did solo photo shoots. I also got lots of advice from [Scissor Sisters] Jake [Shears], Ana [Matronic], Del [Marquis], and Babydaddy, in different ways. Just being who they were inspired me, but they also took time to let me share with them. But it was the actual doing that got me running. I tried out a different performance art piece once a month at an art party called ArtErotica, curated by Dinna Alexanyan. I found a spiritual comedy coach named Alicia Dattner, who guided me through some healing work. She also had been going through love pain as well.
twi-ny: You play multiple characters in the show. Do you have any particular favorites?
BB: I think my favorite character to play is the Old Me, the jaded, lonely, fat, sick, dying, washed-up me. Playing her with a fat suit, cigarette, and cane is a lot of fun. On a personal level it’s like I’m exorcising that idea from my head, that I won’t ever really become her.
twi-ny: You’ll be performing The Love Junkie on May 31 at Joe’s Pub. What are the plans for the show after that?
BB: I love Joe’s Pub; it’s become a real home to me. I would like to have a consistent run of it in NYC, maybe weekly, biweekly, then take it to L.A., London, and beyond! I am looking into spaces and always looking for people to help it grow. I’m excited to let it evolve. Not every show will be the same. It’s an organism in itself. I designed it to be a journey. Maybe this show will be the first step. There could be eleven more. It is a healing experiment for me. So I will walk the road to recovery and see where it takes me.
In 2004, struck by the world’s continued indifference to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, actor Jay O. Sanders attended the ten-year commemoration of the start of the mass killings in Kigali, the African nation’s capital. Moved by what he saw, Sanders, the Austin-born son of activist parents, decided to do something about it. A Shakespeare in the Park regular who has appeared in such films as JFK, The Day After Tomorrow, and Revolutionary Road and has played recurring characters on such series as True Detective, Person of Interest, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Sanders began writing Unexplored Interior, a fictionalized play that takes place immediately following the 1994 genocide, as a Hutu man and Tutsi woman fall in love, a Rwandan student in New York City sets out to make a film about what happened, and a UN peacekeeper contemplates his own life in the wake of the tragic events. The play will have its latest staged reading on May 11 at 12 noon at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (admission is free with advance RSVP) as part of the official Kwibuka20 events commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, calling for people to “remember — unite — renew.” An all-star cast will be directed by James Glossman (Trouble Is My Business; Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead), and the production in New York will be broadcast live at the new outdoor amphitheater at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center courtesy of Google+ Hangout on Air, followed by an international panel discussion and Q&A session.
twi-ny: What was the genesis of Unexplored Interior and your interest in Rwanda?
Jay O. Sanders: Let me give you the short answer. In April of 1994, my wife and I, both working actors, were cloistered in our West Village apartment with our five-week-old, first-and-only child, reflecting on what it meant to be the guardians of a life, when President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in Kigali and the start of genocide hit. We watched the news as reports of this horrific event unfolded and repeatedly told us it was beyond our understanding. Stories began to flow of brutal, neighbor-on-neighbor mass killings and a Canadian U.N. peacekeeping commander who was calling for help but no one was being sent, and all without pictures, as no press was inside the country. Until they began to show video of hundreds and hundreds of bloated bodies floating down the rivers along the borders, caught on the rocks, going over falls. It was a mind-numbing, grotesque, and totally infuriating circus of ignorance and failure of the world to respond.
I got it in my head that if I could just see out through the peacekeeper’s eyes, as a fellow Westerner, I might at least be able to understand. I thought, I need to play him (as actors do). I watched every report I could find, yielding reports of that same man refusing to order a full withdrawal and managing to save the lives of some tens of thousands of refugees while bearing witness to the 800,000 whom he couldn’t, and finally, on returning home, attempting suicide numerous times, unable to process what he’d been through. After ten years of germination and finding myself still as ignorant as before, I was overcome with the need to find an answer I could give my son. To arm him with an understanding of this genocide of his lifetime. I felt I owed him an answer.
twi-ny: You’re a well-respected actor, familiar for your work in numerous films and plays and on television. How did your acting experience inform your writing of the play?
JOS: I started out to write a one-man show for myself as [Roméo] Dallaire, the peacekeeper. It seemed like an obvious, straightforward way to enter the story and bring it to others. So I found him in Rwanda at the ten-year commemoration, flew myself over to see for myself where all this had happened and be among those who had experienced it. I had discovered that, fortunately, he was still alive and now the author of a book about his experiences, Shake Hands with the Devil.
Again, the short version: I met him there, then spent time with him later in Quebec, and proceeded to write that play. But I soon discovered, the more I knew about what had happened, that Dallaire was actually my White Rabbit who led me into the situation, and the larger story was among the people themselves. So, I continued to study and write and emerged with a twenty-six-character play for fourteen actors which weaves many stories together, including Dallaire’s, with crossing themes on a much larger canvas.
twi-ny: How did you hook up with Google+, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center?
JOS: My wife, Maryann Plunkett, and I had done a reading down at the museum several years ago and I had noted the beauty of both this center of record for not only the Holocaust but all related genocide, as well as the beauty of the theater [Edmond J. Safra Hall] itself. When I began to think about where my play began, this was perfect. When I flew over for the ten-year commemoration in 2004, I was recognized by members of the CNN team, who invited me to join them for the week, which I did, gladly, finding myself front and center at all the major official events, including the official opening of the Aegis trust Kigali Genocide Memorial. I was there as President Kagame, General Dallaire, and many, many others witnessed the lighting of the eternal flame, above a mass grave holding 250,000 victims of the genocide.
So, when I was thinking about where I wanted to connect with our event, that, again, was obvious. Then, one of my producers, my dear friend Daniel Neiden, introduced me to Paula Gil Rodriguez, who had, herself, produced several large Google+ Hangouts on Air and knew a number of people at Google. She loved the idea of the project and she and her husband, Nick Lopez, came on board. My friend James Glossman has been my director from the moment the idea hit me to write this. It all just grew and grew.
twi-ny: Who are some of the people who will be participating in the reading?
JOS: We have a brilliant family of actors — some well known to you, others who you should know. Michael McKean, presently in All the Way on Broadway, plays Dallaire; Sharon Washington, award nominated for Wild with Happy at the Public and on Broadway with The Scottsboro Boys; Arthur French, who has been in everything and most recently of The Trip to Bountiful on Broadway; Fritz Weaver, one of the most distinguished stage and film actors of his generation; Charles Parnell, whose TV series The Last Ship premieres soon; Owiso Odera, Marlyne Barrett, Clark Jackson, Craig Alan Edwards, Irungu Mutu, Matthew Murumba, Benjamin Thys, and our youngest at thirteen, Nile Bullock, lately also of The Scottsboro Boys — all fantastic, deeply dedicated to this project, and each one a reason to see the play.
twi-ny: Is a full production of the play in the works?
JOS: We are still looking for a production. I’m hoping this presentation grabs the imagination of some brave producer or producers!
twi-ny: As opposed to last year’s presentation, this one will use social media in a fascinating way. What’s your personal experience with social media? Are you a Facebook/Twitter/Google+ junkie?
JOS: My personal experience is everyday. I use Facebook regularly as an international bulletin board and have just recently ventured over to Google+ as well, because of this project. I have a Twitter account but am not very fluent with it yet. These online forums have afforded me connections beyond anything I might have come upon otherwise — people out of my past, which included a lot of traveling, so that reaches a very long way, and those I’m just now meeting with common friends and/or common interests. Also, I regularly give master classes out at my alma mater, SUNY Purchase, and social media is a place we can all stay in touch for mutual news, project updates, and personal encouragement. It has been a godsend.
twi-ny: At any given moment, there is some kind of brutal civil war or genocide going on somewhere in the world, and more often than not, the U.S. government opts not to get involved. What can we as individual, peace-loving Americans do to try to change things?
JOS: Learn. Understand as much as you can. It’s always evolving — it requires regular effort — but there are ways to make a difference through awareness, voting, challenging the machine, humanizing world issues, applying compassion in your own life. Kindness begins with each one of us, at home, at work, in our communities, with the homeless, in our voices lifted against apathy — it ripples out and grows from those seeds into and across the world.
Writer, director, teacher, artist, journalist, and filmmaker Liza Johnson has followed up her debut feature, 2011’s Return, with Hateship Loveship, a subtly beguiling and intimate drama based on a short story by Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro. In the film, Kristen Wiig gives a career-redefining performance as Johanna Parry, an odd, lonely caregiver hired by a widower (Nick Nolte) as a housekeeper for him and his granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), whose father, Ken (Guy Pearce), is trying to put his life back together after having served time for the accident that killed his wife. Johanna is misled by Sabitha and her best friend, Edith (Sami Gayle), into thinking she is having a romantic correspondence with Ken, as the two girls take advantage of Johanna’s innocence and simplicity.
An associate professor of art at Williams College, Johnson has been making short films for more than fifteen years, including several works (Good Sister / Bad Sister, South of Ten, In the Air that have been shown at prestigious international film festivals and in art museums. Hateship Loveship, which, like Return, is powerfully realistic, opens April 11 in theaters and on VOD.
twi-ny:. You’ve gone from making experimental short films that have included nonprofessional actors to now two feature films with impressive casts, including Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon, and John Slattery in Return and Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nick Nolte, and Christine Lahti in Hateship Loveship. What has that transition been like?
Liza Johnson: The biggest change really just has to do with the way the production runs. I made those short films in worlds where people lived extremely precarious, contingent lives — Mississippi after Katrina, the deindustrialized town I grew up in, indigenous Northern Australia. (Thematically this is also true of the characters in the features.) But within those real-world contexts, and working with almost zero money on the productions, it’s very hard to have a story that has cause and effect, because people can’t be absolutely certain that they can come back to perform for a second or third or sixth day. Even though Hateship/Loveship is a very small independent film, it still has a full crew and unionized actors who are all in a position to return to finish out the whole story!
I love working with nonprofessional actors, and it’s also a great thrill to work with people who have an incredibly trained sense of the craft of acting. It’s just a very different way of working.
twi-ny: In the 2008 Hugo Boss Prize catalog, you wrote about Patty Chang’s Flotsam Jetsam (which is currently on view at MoMA, where your work has also been shown), “The visual style of Flotsam Jetsam suggests a documentary relation to the real at the same time as revealing the conventions we use to produce ‘realness.’” In many ways, a similar thing might be said of Hateship Loveship, which has a very realistic feel to it, especially in regard to camera movement and the lead performances. Would you agree?
Liza Johnson: You are an amazing researcher! Patty Chang has been a close friend and a sustaining confidante for a long time, and I’m sure we influence each other even if we’re working in pretty different styles.
And yes, when I first met with Kristen on the project we talked about how important it was for the world of the film to feel real, and to be shot in the style of realism — which is definitely a style and not just how the world inherently looks! I had a great time working with Kasper Tuxen, the cinematographer, and we watched a lot of movies that use available light when we were preparing. He’s pretty amazing, and we really went to great lengths to use available light whenever possible, or to just supplement it if necessary. The production designer, Hannah Beachler, was also really supportive of my idea to try to build a world that is not overdesigned, and tries to maintain the feeling of accident and surprise that come with locations, even though she redesigned and reordered every surface that you see in the film.
twi-ny: Hateship/Loveship is based on a short story by Alice Munro, who just won the Nobel Prize. Her work has also been adapted by such directors as Sarah Polley, Anne Wheeler, and, next, Jane Campion. How familiar were you with Munro’s writing prior to making the film? Are you concerned at all about being branded as a woman director who makes “women’s films”? You’ve previously explored a more radical side of feminism in Good Sister / Bad Sister.
Liza Johnson: I have loved Alice Munro’s writing for as long as I can remember. I was pretty thrilled when Mark Poirer brought his script to me. The story that the film is based on is an almost perfect story, and a very literary one filled with internal monologue and close, shifting points of view. The movie is inherently different from the story, because Munro is so brilliant at writing the inner life of characters in ways that sometimes can’t be photographed. (If you filmed the end of her story literally, you would see a picture of a teenage girl just standing there, whereas in the story it unfolds amazing revelations within her mind.) The film is truly a translation into another medium, and hopefully one that honors the tone of the original, which is unsentimental, non melodramatic, and really committed to the beautiful and complicated choices of its characters.
If you’re going to compare me to Sarah Polley and Jane Campion, that is a ghetto I’m more than happy to be a part of! But no, I’m not afraid of being branded as someone who makes “women’s films.” A lot of male directors that I like have also made beautiful movies with female protagonists. Personally I would want to invite John Cassavettes, William Wyler, Robert Altman, and Todd Haynes into the neighborhood.
I also think that Hateship is not just a movie for women. There’s no question that Kristen’s character is the spine of the story, but it also showcases performances by Guy Pearce and Nick Nolte, who are both powerhouse actors delivering complicated male characters.
twi-ny: In certain ways, Johanna, the character Kristen Wiig plays in Hateship Loveship, reminds me of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, maybe without quite so much doom and gloom. Is that way off base, or is there a direct or indirect influence there?
Liza Johnson: Direct! Kristen and I watched Jeanne Dielman when we were working on her character and thinking about domestic work. In both the story and the screenplay, her work as a caregiver and as a cleaner is really important to the way she sees the world and the way she reacts to everything. So of course we tried to look at whatever precedents we could find for the cinematic treatment of this kind of occupation. Obviously Akerman is making a different kind of sustained conceptual gesture there, one that I would be proud to have made, but my movie is more classical in its forms than the ones that she uses in the amazing, extreme experiment of her film.
twi-ny: You also teach art at Williams College. Has your relationship with your students changed at all now that you have two well-received feature films under your belt?
Liza Johnson: I don’t think so. They’re pretty engaged and attentive, but that was also true before. It’s really good to be the film professor — you get a lot more enthusiasm than when people are just taking your class to fulfill their premed requirements.
twi-ny: With Hateship Loveship only just opening theatrically, is it too early to ask what your next film project might be?
Liza Johnson: I’m writing something that I really like that is a drama about some unexpected things that happen to a group of teenage girls. And I also have a new project coming up with Michael Shannon, who is an incredible talent. (That is a movie about men, by the way, in case you are worried for me about the women thing!)
Last August, Prince protégées LiV Warfield and Shelby J. tore up City Winery with a week of hot shows with the New Power Generation and the NPG Hornz, including one extremely late night in which they joined their mentor for a rip-roaring set. More recently, Warfield has been making a name for herself on the talk-show circuit in support of her brand-new solo record, The Unexpected (Kobalt, February 2014), knockin’ ’em dead performing “Why Do You Lie?” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, “Soul Lifted” on The Arsenio Hall Show, and “BlackBird” on Sway’s Universe. (She’s also scheduled to appear on Late Show with David Letterman on April 4.) The Peoria-born singer takes a giant step forward with the explosive new album, the follow-up to her soulful, intimate 2006 debut, Embrace Me, the horn section lifting her to new levels on ten songs bookended by brief instrumentals. On the title track, which was written for her by His Most Royal Purpleness — Prince also cowrote the seven-minute “Your Show” with his former backup singer and serves as the album’s executive producer — Warfield and the NPG Hornz channel Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company; the record is also highlighted by the bold hooks of “Why Do You Lie?,” the foot-stomping blues of “BlackBird,” the pure funk of “Lena Blue,” and the jazzy grandeur of “Freedom.” Warfield will be headlining B. B. King’s on April 6 with the NPG Hornz in what promises to be an electrifying evening. She’ll also be sticking around after the show to meet fans and sign copies of her CD.
twi-ny: You were born and raised in Peoria, went to college and recorded Embrace Me in Portland, Oregon, and are now based in New York City. How has place made a difference in your life and career?
LiV Warfield: Every place that I have been has been so instrumental in who I am as an artist. Peoria provoked interest in music but Portland allowed me to free my talent and discover who I was musically. Now that I live in New York it has opened up so many doors for me and people have welcomed my music and artistry.
twi-ny: It’s been eight years between your first solo record, Embrace Me, and The Unexpected. Why so long?
LW: What took so long is that I had to learn a lot. I was given the opportunity to work with Prince not long after Embrace Me and he has taught me so much. I learned how to write, arrange, and really become a better artist. The wait was worth it to me and I honestly wouldn’t change a thing.
twi-ny: How has it been going from backup singer to being the central attraction again?
LW: Going from a background singer to the central attraction is definitely a different experience but I am now better prepared for what’s to come.
twi-ny: You have a justly celebrated powerhouse voice; why do you open the new record with an instrumental? Is that just a tease?
LW: I wanted to do something unexpected with the open and close. I also wanted it to be very musical and allow you to go on a journey with me.
twi-ny: In “Fly,” you sing, “People don’t define me / I need to be who I need to be.” As your career takes off, has it been difficult to break out of conventional categorizations, especially since your music embraces so many different genres?
LW: Yes, it has been difficult because people do want to box you in. I want to make good music for all to enjoy. I understand that people need categories but my hope is that people will be open and just enjoy it. There is something for everyone on The Unexpected.
twi-ny: What’s the coolest thing about working with and getting to know Prince?
LW: The coolest thing about working with Prince is that I can call him my mentor and I can talk to him whenever I want. I am so thankful for him and sometimes it’s hard to believe.
twi-ny: Is there a specific meaning behind why you capitalize the “V” in your first name (LiV)?
LW: There is significance to it. I work with an amazing group of musicians and I am part of a collective unit. It’s not just about me . . . it’s about the unit. The small “i” reminds me to keep things in perspective.
RAYYA ELIAS IN CONVERSATION WITH ELIZABETH GILBERT
37 Main St. at Water St., Brooklyn
Wednesday, April 2, free (advance RSVP appreciated), 7:00
“This book is the story of my life,” Rayya Elias writes in the first chapter of the painfully poignant yet ultimately inspiring Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side (Penguin, March 2014, $16). “This is my truth, and it may not be pretty, but I own it.” Pretty it isn’t, as the Syrian-born Elias details her battles with drug addiction, her time in prison, her struggles with sexual identity, and her eventual recovery from a shocking rock bottom. Clean since August 1997, Elias is a gregarious woman with an infectious personality that lights up a room. She “always wanted to be the center of attention,” she notes in the book, and she’s spent much of the last year doing just that, promoting Harley Loco — the title refers to her Rikers Island nickname — around the world. A musician, filmmaker, hair stylist, and major football fan, Elias will be at Brooklyn’s powerHouse Arena on April 2 for the launch of the paperback edition of her memoir. She will once again be joined by her close friend Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling author of such books as The Signature of All Things and Eat, Pray, Love who wrote the introduction to Harley Loco. Last fall, we appeared on Elias’s sports-and-fantasy podcast, “Football Riffs and Chicks,” and now she is returning the favor, answering intimate questions for a very personal twi-ny talk.
twi-ny: You just lost your pitbull, Ricky. How are you doing?
Rayya Elias: Well, the grief comes and goes. It’s only been a few days since he passed, so I’m still in shock, I think. Ricky was my kid and companion for thirteen years, so there is a huge gaping hole in my heart. We were meant for each other; he was beaten up quite dramatically (used as a bait dog), and he had the scars to prove it, yet he was so good inside. We did quite a bit of healing together.
twi-ny: For the last year, you’ve spent a lot of time on the road promoting your memoir. What’s that experience been like, especially as you have to keep going back over some very difficult times in your life?
Rayya Elias: Writing the book was the ultimate cathartic experience for exercising those demons. Sometimes, when I was in the midst of working on the book, I doubted my own memory because it was almost too much to grasp. It got pretty deep.
twi-ny: What’s been the best part of the tour?
Rayya Elias: When I was on the road promoting it, it became like a testimonial. My favorite part was that people came out of the woodwork to tell me their stories, whether it was an eighteen-year-old child who had gone missing due to drugs or a gray-haired lady who related to being fat as a kid or being bullied as a teenager. So many people wanted to be heard because they related to many parts of my story. That’s what really kept me in the zone.
twi-ny: How about the worst?
Rayya Elias: There is no worst. Honestly, I love all of it. It’s something I’ve longed for, so I’m taking it all in, the hotels, the road food, even the airports, and especially when friends I haven’t seen in years show up at a reading/performance, I love it.
twi-ny: Is there a question that you’ve been surprised you haven’t been asked yet?
Rayya Elias: Not really; people have pretty much dissected it. I was really happy that a college radio station in Brisbane, Australia, asked about methadone detox. No one in the States really bothered giving that one any thought. I was pretty grateful, as I have a strong opinion about it!
twi-ny: You’re very good friends with Elizabeth Gilbert. How did the two of you meet?
Rayya Elias: Liz and I have been friends since the year 2000. She came into my studio and needed an intervention. Not a drug intervention like I was used to, but a hair intervention. I cut her hair and we told each other stories. She was writing for GQ at the time and asked me to style a story that Mary Ellen Mark was shooting. We clicked on a level that neither of us really understood. It was deep, and very real, and she became a part of my life. Then, many years later, she bullied me into writing my memoir. Ha!
twi-ny: Do you want to offer a sneak peek at the powerHouse event? For example, will you have your guitar with you?
Rayya Elias: I will absolutely have my guitar, and I will play a few songs. A new one is called “Touch the Ground,” inspired by Liz’s book The Signature of All Things. I recorded it, and with Barb Morrison producing, it sounds amazing.
twi-ny: Last November, we appeared on “Football Riffs and Chicks.” That was a lot of fun. Will there be another season?
Rayya Elias: I loved having you and Ellen on “FR&C”; it was so much fun. Yes, I will definitely do it again; this year I will concentrate a little more on fantasy, I think.
twi-ny: Your fantasy football team, which is named the Pittbulls, after Ricky, finished in a three-way tie for the best record in our fantasy football league. Were you happy with your team’s performance?
Rayya Elias: I’m never happy with my team’s performance unless I win. My guys were getting hurt every week, so I really had to study and pick up the next best available athlete for the position. It was hard going. I can’t imagine what the real live sport is like for the coaches. That’s why I’m in awe of the game.
twi-ny: You were born in Syria and still have family there; how has the political situation there affected them and you?
Rayya Elias: It’s been extremely difficult. The country is torn, my family is torn, my heart is broken for the Syria I visited just four years ago. I spent Christmas and New Year’s with family in Aleppo and Damascus. Now they are struggling and I haven’t heard from some of them in quite some time. No one saw it coming because the country seemed to be on the verge of a tourism breakout and everything seemed to be going well.
twi-ny: Okay, so you’re a writer, musician, hair stylist, podcast host, filmmaker, and big-time football fan; what’s next for you?
Rayya Elias: I’m wrapping my head around a new book, a novel of sorts. I’ve never tried to write fiction, but I’m gonna give it a whirl. Music is something that is constant in my life, so that’s a given. The rest is up to what inspires me. I’m the type of person who loves to be involved in creative endeavors and make stuff. Once an idea enters my head and my heart, it starts to take over my being, and once it’s too much to hold in, then I gotta let it out. If I can’t keep it in, I gotta let it out!
In her bold, innovative works, California-born, New York–based choreographer Faye Driscoll explores ritual and relationships between the performers themselves as well as the audience. Anything can happen in Driscoll’s pieces, which have included such successes as You’re Me, 837 Venice Boulevard, and There is so much mad in me. Her latest work, Thank You for Coming, which makes its debut March 6–15 at Danspace, is the first of a trilogy — the working titles are “Dance,” “Play,” and “Space” — that continues her examination of the mind and body as well as society’s interconnectivity. An early version of “Dance” was presented last year as part of the 92nd St. Y’s “Stripped/Dressed” series, and it featured five performers locked together for much of the time; they also interacted with the audience directly.
Driscoll is also a master collaborator, working with a wide range of musicians, visual artists, designers, and theater directors. Last year she choreographed Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin’s “A Marriage: 1 (Suburbia),” and this year they return the favor by contributing their unique visual design to Thank You for Coming. “Nick and I have absolutely loved Faye’s work for a long time, and getting to collaborate with her on this process from such an early stage in development has been a pretty amazing experience,” Margolin explained. “It’s a process unlike any we’ve been a part of before and has led to some really unexpected and exciting stuff. It has been really eye opening in terms of what a process can be and what it can look like. It’s been inspiring watching as Faye unflaggingly chases rigor and perfection in material that still manages to feel spontaneous and organic.” (Nick and Jake’s new exhibition, “A Marriage: 2 (West-er),” runs March 8 – April 12 at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn.) Driscoll discussed her process, collaboration, fundraising, and more a few days before Thank You for Coming was set to open.
twi-ny: You presented an early version of this work last year at the 92nd St. Y. How has it changed since then? I see that the dancers now include Alicia Ohs, who worked with you on You’re Me, and Sean Donovan, who made a guest appearance in Nick and Jake’s “A Marriage: 1 (Suburbia).”
Faye Driscoll: Yes, it’s funny because for me in some sense I think the Y version was complete in and of itself. But the cast shifted, designers got involved, and new ideas emerge and old ideas either went deeper or got thrown out. So you will still see the Y material, but hopefully it is also a totally new work. What’s exciting to me about this project is that it reflects my process of generating a lot of ideas and then evolving them into each other and making new iterations and offshoots that will continue forward into my next work — because it’s an interconnected series. With Thank You for Coming (the series) I have set up a process of producing work that reflects my process of creating work — which is often making things in excess, and with many possible versions — and in the meantime I am building a company of performers and designers around a long-term project.
twi-ny: Thank You for Coming continues your very direct relationship with the audience and your exploration of social experience and interconnectedness, both in title and execution. Why do you think you are so drawn to this aspect of performance?
FD: I think I have always been interested in performance as a ritual of expression, protest, transformation, and basically one gigantic act of mirroring with the performers and audience. I don’t buy this idea that in order to be socially engaged you have to adapt to a certain way of being; I think we are all socially engaged whether we like it or not — or maybe whether we choose to deal with it or not. I am not saying I am totally dealing with it in this work, but I am trying. I am trying through my own formal and aesthetic experiments to expand my perception of this interconnection, and maybe others will feel that or maybe they won’t.
twi-ny: In 2009, you were one of fifty artists chosen by the New Museum for its “Younger Than Jesus” triennial, and just recently you were named a Guggenheim Fellow. What was it like when you found out about the latter? What kind of impact has it had on you?
FD: I have been blushing all year from having gotten the Guggenheim. I feel so honored. It just makes me want to make my work stronger. There can be some internal pressure involved. But I have always felt pressure when I am making things; it’s just that I feel a little bit more visible now.
twi-ny: Like so many choreographers, you have turned to Kickstarter to help finance projects. What has that experience been like? Are you a good fundraiser?
FD: Please donate! That is what Kickstarter has done to me! Which maybe is an essential trait of a good fundraiser? The willingness to ask and keep asking without shame. Being a choreographer, you have to be it all — grant writer, fundraiser, administrator, stage manager, public speaker, floor sweeper. It’s truly exhausting. I think I am a better choreographer than I am any of the other hats I wear, but I try hard because it’s what the work needs. And I have more help now than I ever have and I am super grateful for that. Even though Kickstarter is extremely stressful, it’s also really amazing. We have more than two hundred people backing us — that feels pretty good. It takes the power out of some monolithic “funding entity” and into our own hands. But doing a Kickstarter campaign can seriously consume your life. I really want us to reach our goal — please back us! See, I’m obsessed.
twi-ny: You have collaborated with a wide range of artists, from Young Jean Lee and Nick and Jake to Taylor Mac and Cynthia Hopkins. What are the secrets of being a strong collaborator?
FD: I love collaborating with these people. I learn so much and it keeps me on my toes. I think being a good collaborator is having the willingness to serve the project, not just your ideas and tastes.
twi-ny: Do you have a dream collaborator?
FD: I am dying to work with Ann Hamilton.
twi-ny: In 2007, you told Feministing that in fifty years, you’d like to be remembered as a rebellious, honest, dangerous choreographer who had a lot of fun. How do you think you’re doing so far?
FD: Oh wow. I’m not sure. OK, I think Fun is my F word. I think it can be a big no-no in the avant-garde world. And honestly sometimes in my personal life I have a hard time relaxing. But in my work I have a lot of fun. Maybe because then I am taking fun seriously? Not sure. I think there is something in fun and play that is a kind of key to all transformation. And isn’t really good fun also a little bit dangerous?
(Ed. note: Advance tickets for Thank You for Coming are sold out, but there will be a wait list before every show beginning at 7:15. You can contribute to the production via Kickstarter here.)