Friday, May 16, 2008

Interview with Trevor Allen and Liebe Wetzel

Award-winning puppet master and Artistic Director of Lunatique Fantastique Liebe Wetzel collaborates with PF alumnus Trevor Allen to create One Stone, a story of Einstein’s life and the mysteries of the universe he explored.  Using puppets made from found objects, One Stone promises to be a dynamic visual experience.  Trevor, Liebe, their puppeteers and actor David Sinaiko, will be at Stanford University for the first reading on Monday May 19th at 7:30pm, and then at the Traveling Jewish Theatre the following night, Tuesday May 20th, at 7:00pm.



In an exclusive interview on the PF Blog, Trevor and Liebe talk about their collaboration:

 PF:   How did you develop your method of creating work - puppetry out of found objects? How long have you been working this way?

LW (Liebe Wetzel):  I started working with found objects about 10 years ago.  The “method” has grown organically out of our development process. I don't “write” with text, but assemble a talented group together and we play with objects. We create image phrases, which I weave into a narrative. 

PF:  How did you approach collaborating with Liebe to create this piece?

TA (Trevor Allen):
  I’ve known and loved Liebe's found-object puppetry ever since I saw my First
Lunatique Fantastique show, almost a decade ago. Her puppetry can make me laugh or cry depending on whether the subject material is a children’s holiday show or dealing with the destruction of Hiroshima.  When I told her that Einstein had an aversion to wearing socks... she “cast” my sandals in the role of the old Einstein's feet. She’s brilliant. But since her puppets don’t speak (although they certainly communicate, very clearly) I asked for a lone actor who would be our voice of Einstein’s mind. We were very fortunate to be able to work with David Sinako who has played a version of Einstein before and gets the concepts. The way we work has been in tandem with our wonderful Director, Jayne Wenger, who has been instrumental in keeping the whole thing together. It has been a wonderful collaboration, I have supplied the text and Liebe has created the images.  Some of the written stage directions came from me, many others came from Liebe’s beautifully handcrafted, image inscribed, note cards and still other moments from watching the puppeteer's offer improvisations while the lines were spoken aloud. Early on, we joked about using “found text with found objects” and although I have used much of Einstein’s own words in the play, a lot of the text is my own, suited to this new piece. It has been a real learning lesson, trying to weave together a story from new bits and old cloth to create a whole garment. I'm not entirely sure what the end product will look like... but as the great man said himself. “Anyone who has never made a mistake... has never tried anything new.” We hope you enjoy this new vision of wonder.

PF:  Before this, almost all you work has had no text. What was it like collaborating with a playwright on this piece?

LW:  Inspiring, trying, exhilarating, difficult- all things you would expect from a collaboration. By it’s very nature, collaboration is not easy, but ultimately it is incredibly rewarding. In some places the text and image phrases merge beautifully creating something better than either form by itself. In others?  Well, it is a staged reading.

The collaboration has inspired me to work with text in the future.

PF:  This project has been in the works for a long time, can you tell me how it came about?

  The idea for the project goes back a long way but this is actually a completely new play. A couple of months ago, I started with a totally blank canvas and everything has come from that. Although for several years now, I have been intrigued by the wonderful ideas, thought experiments and the personal life of Albert Einstein. The iconic genius and brilliant physicist who single-handedly changed humanity's perception of the universe. I have literally collected dozens of books under the auspices of doing research, in the hopes that one day I would be able to write an Einstein play. A few years ago, I even wrote a short play entitled
A Chain Reaction, which included a section with Einstein as a character. It was performed in the Planetarium in Golden Gate Park and won Best of the SF Fringe Festival. Since then, that section has been performed by The Rebecca Salzer Dance Theater and most recently even as a "modern Noh play" by Theatre of Yugen. It has been fascinating to watch that material be adapted to other movement based disciplines. I think its success has been due to the nature of the material, in that it deals with space-time, matter and light. These mercurial elements flow through the different performance mediums and each presentation was wonderfully different from the other, with only the text in common.

This workshop has been the culmination of a long chain of events. I wanted to work with a visual artist. So when I was offered the opportunity by the Playwrights Foundation to work with a collaborator, I immediately thought of puppetry. No, really. But not cute "muppet-like" puppets. I wanted to capture the child-like wonder that is so evident in Einstein’s life’s work but also to see if it was possible to have his thought experiments illustrated for an audience while actually telling the story of his life. I wanted to work with a puppeteer who was capable of bringing those concepts to life by using “found object” puppetry. I knew that the only person capable of creating the kind of wonder out of the quotidian objects to be found in a musty old professor’s office was the genius, in her own right, Liebe Wetzel. We had actually wanted to collaborate on an “Einstein play” for many years. We had even unsuccessfully applied for a grant to do so. We both had other projects looming at the time and so we had to postpone our endeavor for several years. Thanks to the Playwrights Foundation, we are finally able to collaborate on this piece!

With this workshop opportunity, I wanted to create a totally new play that dealt more with Einstein, the human being, rather than the icon. I wanted to look at his “militant pacifism” and his non-involvement in the birth of the atomic bomb, even though, as we all know, he did write that letter to FDR. In my research, I was most intrigued by the fact (not an urban myth) that Einstein’s brain ended up in pieces, floating in a jar.
  This became a metaphor for looking at his life, as a way in. Although this draft has turned out to be more linear than I had anticipated. I began with the concept of spending an evening with Einstein’s mind or at least, the mental picture that he might have of himself. So we went with a more youthful version of the man. Not an old professor. Who thinks of themselves as old, in their mind?

The title was the last piece of the puzzle. I wanted something evocative and “object based.” We had been working under a number of different titles, like “Einstein's Brain.” But then I came up with, “One Stone: Ein-stein” both as a play on the English meaning of his name and as a chilling reminder that his equation, E=mc2, while not actually a prescription for a bomb but rather a description of nature, enabled others to unleash the destructive power contained within a single stone-sized piece of uranium, to horrifying effect.

Interview with Carson Kreitzer

Carson Kreitzer, recently in the ITR for her play Enchantment, won last year’s Lark PONY Fellowship, a position much desired by playwrights across the country.  As a PONY Fellow, Carson gained a fabulous New York Apartment free of rent for one year and $25,000.  As a result, she’s had time to focus on her writing career, which is now taking off.



In an exclusive interview on the PF Blog, we asked her about her writing and about how her Fellowship has helped her.  This is what she said:

PF:  You're the inaugural winner of the Lark's PONY fellowship - a prize to make any playwright salivate. How has that experience been so far?

Incredible.  The time to think and write and really dedicate your life solely to your craft is an astounding luxury for a playwright, and to be able to do so in New York City, with its overabundance of theatrical opportunities and the toughest economic climate we've got, borders on the insane.  I had to pinch myself every morning for about half the year, and now am sliding directly into dread that it will soon be over, and I will have to return to the real world, where this kind of thing never happens.  But it's an experience I will carry with me forever.  Without a doubt, this has been the most productive year of my life, and has set a very high bar for how much of my life should be dedicated to writing, to seeing, to being in the theater.


PF: While not documentary theater, your work often draws on historical figures or real life events. What draws you to a specific topic? What makes a person or event intriguing to you subject for a theatrical work?

I'm a theatrical magpie.  I'm attracted to shiny things.  I have to pick them up and turn them over and see how they work.   What makes an event or a person  "shiny" really varies a great deal.  There is just some catch, something that makes me stop what I'm doing and stare.  Often, there is some central mystery that I can't figure out, that inspires me to look closer and deeper for a very long time.  I don't write plays quickly, so when I hit on a new subject, I know I'm going to be living in that world for at least a year or two, often longer.  It's got to be something that will keep me intrigued, keep me thirsty to know more, for a very long time.


PF:  You've been a bit of an itinerant playwright over the past few years, how do the theatre scenes differ in the different cities you've lived in?  What's it like to be back in New York?

Minneapolis has great support, which is what brings many playwrights there in the first place, and an incredibly varied and vibrant theatrical community.  I was delighted to find that "real people" go to the theater, not just theater people.  And they will show up in the most outrageous snowstorms!   But not in the summer.  Minnesotans take their outdoors time very seriously, and woe betide you if you're trying to fill a house on a gorgeous summer day when the sun won't set until 9pm.   Like many playwrights, I came to Minneapolis through the Playwrights Center, on a Jerome Fellowship.  And once there, I found a home with Frank Theater, and now the Workhaus Playwrights Collective, and I fell in love.  So that's where I'm calling home these days, though I still feel very much like a New Yorker.  Austin is super-cool (and hot) and scrappy, with some fantastic companies doing amazing work, like the Rude Mechs, Salvage Vanguard, and Physical Plant.  And of course the best margaritas.   And New York just has the most goddamn theater per square foot of anywhere in the world, or at least that's what it feels like when you're there.  It's fantastic, and exhausting, trying to keep up.  And when you see those shows that change the way you think about what is possible onstage, those shows that will stay in your brain for the rest of your life-- that's what it's all about.  You can see those shows in Minneapolis and Austin, too.  Just not quite as often.


PF: What's up next for you?

Taking advantage of the time I've got left in New York!  Then back to Minneapolis and my lovely (and talented) lighting-designer boyfriend.   After seeing theater probably five nights a week all year (often more often than that), I may be ready for a slightly more human pace.


Friday, May 2, 2008

Interview with Kenneth Lin

Kenneth Lin, whose play said Saïd recently played at the Marin Theatre Company in February, returns to the Bay Area for PF’s In The Rough Reading Series for a reading of his new play Dovetail.  The play, written in verse, deals with Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton, two giants of The Enlightenment who independently and spontaneously created calculus, in a meeting during the closing days of their lives.  The play will first be shown at Stanford University on Monday May 5th at 7:30pm, and then at the Berkeley Rep the following night on Tuesday May 6th at 7:00pm.

RSVP or Read More About Kenneth In The ITR

Back To Playwrights Foundation

We asked Kenneth Lin what drew him to the story of these mathematicians:

PF:  Having read three of your plays, I find that the voice of each is so unique that I wouldn't even know it's the same playwright. How do you approach crafting a style for a specific play?

KL:  I think that my plays are so research intensive and therefore end up obsessing me every time I'm in the process.  So, when I finally get to the other side, I need a clean break and I need to find a way to get my brain moving in a different direction.  Also, whenever a theater commissions me, I feel a lot of responsibility and I always want to give my all, and that means pushing myself stylistically and giving them the most innovative play that I can be writing at that moment, which is kind of wonderful and harrowing all at the same time.  Then again, it could just be whatever pills I'm taking at any given moment.  :-)

PF:  What is the genesis or inspiration for Dovetail?

KL:  I had always known that Leibniz and Newton, according to Western historians--and I emphasize Western because people were working on Calculus related theories in India and Asia years before Newton and Leibniz--had invented Calculus simultaneously and independently, and I always thought that this was sort of amazing.  Then, later on, I learned that when animals evolve an adaptation independently, say for example, eyes, an adaptation that so much unrelated fauna evolved, it expresses something very important about the world that animals live in.  In the world we live in, seeing is so important and so selected for that all these animals came to it somehow over billions of years, on their own.  Then you have the theorists that argue that certain adaptations are so complex as to prove divine intervention.  So, what does it mean about the world and God when two incredibly complex systems thought evolve simultaneously?  Why do we need Calculus so much in our modern world?

PF:  Is Dovetail your first verse play? What are the challenges or advantages of working in verse?

KL:  I think being a multi-cultural, bi-lingual writer also has a lot to do with my yen for continuing to look at my craft from different perspectives.  Who was it, Wittgenstein who argued that there cannot be an idea that cannot be expressed with language?  Well, how does thinking in two languages fit into the equation, then?  I know, personally, that there are things I cannot express as well in English as I can express in Chinese.  Likewise, there are ideas that I can't express as well in prose as I can in verse.  The challenge is that verse takes a lot longer to write because one is constrained, but the neat thing is that once the language is constrained, if frees you characters to be more magical, as their speech must be more eccentric to transcend the meter.  Dovetail is my second verse play, I wrote a much smaller play about myth and commerce in rhyming couplets while in grad school.


PF:  What's up next step for you?

KL:  Well, right now I feel myself in the final stretches of finishing a play about the Curta Calculator for Manhattan Theatre Club.  The Curta Calculator is the world's first handheld four function calculator.  It was invented by a concentration camp prisoner who was kept alive by the Nazis who wanted to present it as a gift to Hitler.  After that, I have to finish another commission for Arena Stage.  In the meantime, I'm developing a tv show and working on a some screenplays before getting my play Po Boy Tango ready for it's world premiere at the Norhtlight Theatre Company in Chicago.  So, busy weeks, months, lifetimes ahead!