Monday, January 5, 2009
Lisa Buscani is a busy woman with many impressive credits to her name. She was a founding member of Big Goddess Pow-Wow. She is a nationally known, award winning, Slam Poet. She travels the country performing The Late Night Catechism. She is now teaching Screenwriting at DePaul. Heather Riordan, fellow Neo-Futurist, says Lisa may be one of the most driven people she has ever met. And for that to be said by one of the people I think is the most driven means quite a bit.
Myself, I am glad I didn’t miss out on meeting and working with Lisa. I say this because, even though I have been a Neo-Futurists ensemble member twelve years, there are still many neo-futurists I have never met, and some I have never even heard of. Something in my sensibility is unable to accept this innocent ignorance. But the Neo-Futurist legacy is such a machine. It eats up its own member’s unique creativity and spits out beautiful, deep, absurd elusive moments in time, and it keeps moving on with or without you. Greg and Lisa were hard pressed to come up with the exact amount of cast members TML went through just in its first year, around 20, they both said in separate interviews. It is true that once the show became more established, the more the people auditioning were aware they were in for a mighty commitment. They stayed longer and that yearly number shrank. But shrinking or not it is still quite a large number that has accumulated over the ensemble’s twenty years of existence.
When I came into the show Lisa was long gone. I only met her two years ago when she made her first appearance on the Neo stage in fifteen years. Her style took some members by surprise, a harkening back to a time when the plays were barebone, little to no tech, scarcely any props, just a story told poetically, from one individual to an audience of individuals.
She auditioned for Too Much Light in its first year in 1988, before the cast even realized they were a “company.” She performed the show at its original location Stage Left, a small theater down the street from Belmont and Clark, the home of the Punkin’ Donuts, Berlin, and, the badly missed, Medusa’s dance club. She was there for the Scandalous move from Stage Left to Live Bait and finally to the show’s home now, The Neo-Futurarium.
Interviewed on Tuesday, 12.9.08 by John Pierson at Kopi Cafe
(Transcribed by Megan Mercier!)
[Lisa looks at my recording device and mistakes it for a tiny cassette player.]
LB: this is so, so retro.
JP: It’s digital. It’s actually not retro. It’s now. It’s retro-future.
[We then talked a bit about my interview with Dave Awl, which I had done a week earlier in the same cafe. Lisa and Dave are good friends. They are also the two most responsible for bringing poetry into TML. I mentioned Dave’s propensity for meandering. And she said, “Dave loves holding court.” And I agree, and am in full support of his Kingdom.]
JP: Where’d you grow up? Let’s get some basics.
JP: Don’t be afraid to meander and talk as much as you want.
[We share a knowing grin.]
LB: Okay. Um, I was born in Buffalo, New York and at the age of seven moved to Sylvania, Ohio which was a pretty well-to-do community, so therefore at my school I was offered a lot of opportunities, a lot of extra-curricular stuff that I could do. My grandmother was paying for children’s theater workshop lessons on Saturdays. That was one of those deals where you went in and you played improv games with a buncha kids your age and they also taught you about tech and how to build a set.
JP: So your grandma helped you along. Were your parents pushing you towards the arts too?
LP: Oh yeah, sure, sure. They caught me early. Also the teachers knew that I was a good writer and so would give me extra assignments. I was a good reader. They got me in all sorts of accelerated programs. But, you know in 6th, 7th, & 8th grade I’m doing children’s theater workshops on Saturday morning. But our director staged weekends of Chekhov for us to do. The Anniversary, The Proposal, a lot of the shorter, lighter Chekhov that we could do easily being ‘tweens. I was doing Chekhov when I was twelve years old. In high school we had a really great speech team, so I got into that. I was a state champion my sophomore year.
JP: What drove you? Did you feel you took more to Speech Team than theater?
LB: It was the same skill set. What drove me?
JP: Speech Team may not be football but it seems it’s just as competitive.
LB: Well, after awhile you kind of learned that the competition didn’t really matter much. Some weekends you lost, some weekends you won and it was completely arbitrary. This would help me much later in life. Most creative contests are subjective. From cooking and baking contests to, you know, America’s Top Model.
The Judges were required to submit in writing what they thought of our performance and what we could do better and what we did great. You could sort through criticism and figure out what was valid and what was not, with the help of your coach and then eventually by yourself. You ask yourself, “What direction is valid?” “What direction is not?” “When are your friend’s criticisms or comments valid?” You learn not be so hurt by it. Some people just can’t take criticism. Some people have been criticized for years and just know how to take it.
[In my head I had about three other conversations when the idea of criticism was brought up. Too Much Light works without a director, you are in charge of staging your own work. We are not always the best judges of our own work, but the risk of letting us do It ourselves and breaking the normal convention allows for strong individual voices to appear in the show. Therefore your fellow ensemble member’s criticism in rehearsals becomes very important as an outside eye. It is a constant struggle for all of us to know when to take and give criticism and when to stick too your guns or stay succinct or silent. When does your idea get diluted by taking too much criticism? To what degree is your play impenetrable to the audience because you did not allow enough of the ensembles opinions to help you make your piece more precise, blocked for better sightlines, or less accidentally obtuse?]
The other thing is—you’re familiar with the concept of a Freudian defense mechanism? [I nod yes, even though in the moment I have no idea what she is talking about, she is on a roll so I want her to keep talking.] I was born with a slight case of cerebral palsy. No big deal. Most people don’t know about it unless, you know, two months after knowing me they’ll say, “hey Lisa, why are you limping?” So the whole me being an actor thing, I’ve often wondered if it’s just a Freudian defense mechanism to say “Here. Here I am, here it is. It’s in your face, deal.” And to be pro-active as a person rather than to hide behind what I think might be wrong with me. So anyway…
[I interrupt the reader here to say that she so quickly talked about this slight handicap before moving on. I had always wondered about this limp but never asked. It took me a few more moments to move on. A whole world different from my own flashed before my eyes.]
I went to Bowling Green State University. I majored in Journalism on a theater and public speaking scholarship. Most schools you can’t do that because the departments are far too big to have a person who’s not majoring in the subject be on scholarship. At schools like Northwestern if you’re on a theater scholarship you damn well should be taking theater classes.
JP: So you were able to split your focus more.
LB: Yep. On the college speech team I was able to do all the 9 different events. I tried pretty much everything. Some things I tried one weekend and that was it. I was never very good at improvisational speaking. I just couldn’t do it. Or extemporaneous speaking I was never very good at, but I tried writing, rhetorical criticism, communication, I tried persuasion, I tried informative speaking and, in the things that I was good at—poetry and prose. In Duo Interpretation I took 4th place in the nation. I took 2nd in the nation for After Dinner Speaking, which is basically ten minutes of stand-up comedy with a serious undertone. Overall I did pretty well.
I flew out of Ohio just as soon as I graduated from Bowling Green. I’d spent three summers working at the General Mills factory in Toledo. After that I moved to Chicago. I just knew I couldn’t stay in Ohio. I wasn’t doing anything. I’m not just talking about theater. I’m talking about living in general.
JP: Was Chicago your first choice?
LB: (affirmative “uh-huh”) So I get here and I’m looking around, and all the theater people are glossy in a way that I didn’t think I had in me. The people who were doing avant-garde, I couldn’t get a handle on what they were doing. I saw Beau O’Reilly perform and I saw Jenny Magnus and I couldn’t even begin to contemplate their process and I don’t think they as performers at that time were in the mood to share their process the way they are now. I don’t think that’s the way they were back then, I think they were figuring out their own lives and I was too scared to say, “What are you thinking behind that?” I couldn’t even see it. I saw Beau at Lower Links and he just looked scary to me.
[Lisa saw Beau’s band, Maestro Subgum & the Whole. The Chicago Reader proclaimed them Chicago's original alt-rock cabaret act. The band was constructed from members of The Curious Theater Branch, and started in the late 80’s.]
JP: Whether you liked them or not it seems the avant-garde is what you gravitated towards. The first thing you mentioned about your Chicago theater experience was the avant-garde, not conventional theater. Did you quickly move away from more traditional performance arenas?
LB: No, it took awhile. I was looking around the stand-up comedy scene, which at the time was a very harsh place for a woman to be.
JP: What year are we talking about?
LB: ’86, ’87. Paula Killen [Big Goddess Powow] wanted to do some of her stand-up somewhere and was told by the owner of that club, “No I’m not gonna book ya. Cunt’s not funny.” Okay? So that’s what we were dealing with.
One day I read an ad for a poetry slam at The Green Mill. It had just moved there from a little pit of a jazz club called The Get Me High Lounge in Bucktown. So, I go in there and I’d never written poetry before in my life. I hadn’t done much creative writing at all. Ever. I was always a journalism major. But I knew some poetry from working on the speech team. I had been reciting other people’s poetry for over eight years! I got there and I saw everyone buried in his or her manuscripts, holding them in front of their faces, wanting to pretend that the rest of the audience wasn’t there. And I say to myself, “ Shit, I don’t know if I can write this thing but I damn well know that I can deliver it better than anyone in the room. Go home and write something try it, what the hell? What could it hurt ya?” So I did.
The first piece I wrote was about my uncle who we had lost to AIDS two years before. He was one of the first-wave to die. There was no drugs, no lingering, gone. So, I got up and did it. It was a horrible poem, just a really bad poem. Very poorly written. I finish. [Lisa freezes with a wide eye pause. It is wonderful to see her relive a pivotal moment in her life.] Then there’s that moment where they stop because they’re, hangin’ on ya? [She pauses again.] Then they go back, “Whoaaaah!” like that? And I’m like, “alright, this is something. This is something I can do. I may not look like your average ingénue. I may not have the tremendous fuckability that seems to be required to get work in this town, but I’ll do something else. This is what I’ll do.” So I went back to The Green Mill every Sunday for, at least a year or two. Many of us still talk about how much we were around it at that time. We were there every weekend. It was like church.
JP: Was the poetry scene very accepting of strangers, outsiders, non-academics coming into it? Or was it very exclusive and hard to just walk in there and be part of it?
LB: It was very accepting. That was the whole point. They didn’t really care where you were from. Marc Smith, very much like Greg Allen, really recognizes the populist element in what he is trying to do. It’s supposed to be art for everybody.
[Marc Smith is credited with starting the poetry slam at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in November 1984.]
LB: I mean, it’s important to Mark that a fireman could get up and do his piece or that a cop could get up and do his piece or a secretary—me at that time—or a receptionist could get up and do that piece. And if you have, three bucks then you could read. It spread from there to all over the country. People were moving to and then away from Chicago, starting their own reading series. It became this amazing national thing. National tournaments began, teams and individuals. In ’92 I went with Sheila Doneghy, David Kodeski, Edward Thomas Herrera and Jim Banks and um, I won the whole shebang and the Chicago team took 5th. It was an amazing thing that this little DIY movement started in a bar in Chicago.
JP: From the get-go was it a competition?
LB: From the get-go we would balance it. It would be, okay, there’s an open mic where everybody listens and is quasi-supportive. I mean, if you really suck, they’ll tell you. But they’ll give you some time. To suck. I didn’t care if I ever got criticized. A lot of people really got upset about it. If this is so upsetting to you then you shouldn’t be here. “But these are my babies, these are my babies.” Shut up. Some time later alternative venues were starting their own competition-free readings. Whatever. “We’re-so-supportive. “We’re-so-warm.” Which is all bullshit because you never eliminate the element of competition from an art.
JP: At least at the slams the competition was up front. There seems something honest about that. It sounds to me like it’d probably create this cool energy, like, we have this competition but at the same time you’re just there with a whole bunch of creative people and it’s out in the open that you’re competing.
LISA’S INTRODUCTION TO NEO-FUTURISM AND CAREER IN LATE NIGHT CATECHISM
LB: So around the same time of the Slam I was doing this crazy guerrilla interpretation literature theater thing about substance abuse, it’s too long to explain. I find out that somebody’s going to this audition for this thing. This Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind thing. “Have you heard of it?” “No? I don’t care.” “Well you gotta come up with two minutes, two minutes of original stuff, then stand up there and give it.” I’m like, hmm, really? What have I been doing for the last year of my life? So I went to the audition
JP: Did you know any of the people in the show when you auditioned?
LB: No. No. The first thing I remember is that Karen Christopher’s face was all red and swollen because she just had her wisdom teeth out.
[I later learned that this was a very memorable wisdom teeth pulling for many neos. Greg mentions it in his interview too. Karen Christopher was an early ensemble member, who, taught neo-futurism with Greg and then went on to create the Goat Island Performance Group. The swelling in her face eventually dissipated and went away. We tend to survive those types of ailments these days.]
LB: I did a poem that was as theatrical as I could imagine a theater group wanting to see. Turns out Greg had seen me. He’d gone to the slam, he’d seen me do my work so I wasn’t very nervous, and I just got up there and did it.
[Also speaking of Greg’s interview, he said he never went to a Slam back then, and that he had never seen or met Lisa. He just thought she had a good audition. So if Greg is correct, Lisa used an imaginary device to calm herself down and got the job! But if Lisa is correct, why has Greg blocked Slam poets from his memory?]
LB: Auditions then were a lot easier than they are now. We didn’t have years and years of trial and error to find out what we want out of a person.
[In Greg’s interview you will hear more about the audition process, but just to understand what Lisa is saying. In the early days a person would audition with one solo piece, and a few questions. Currently an audition entails filling out a two-page questionnaire, writing one solo piece and turning in copious writing samples. And then there is a call back a few days later where in the interim you have to write another solo piece that shows a different side of your performance talents. After I auditioned in 95 we started asking the people called back to also write a group piece that they had to walk us through similarly to how we do in our weekly rehearsals. Finally we interrogate them with free form questions from a panel of at least 13 ensemble members for about 15 minutes. And then if we don’t like you we begin defenestrating.]
LB: I was in Too Much Light for three years. I performed every weekend for a full year before taking any kind of break. [Lisa joined the cast in 89, about six months after its debut on Dec 2nd 1988]
JP: Did you have any idea that you were going to be in a show running for so long?
LB: We didn’t know. We didn’t sell out until December of 1990 but the fact that we were pulling regulars to a little show, that’s odd. We had people coming every weekend and the little punkers on the corner were listening to you musically and seeing us theatrically. That’s what’s odd. [She is referring to my band Screeching Weasel, which formed in 87] That they were at all interested in us, and that we could also pull the little preppies from DePaul was astounding. So we figured there must have been something to it. We were pretty proud of ourselves. But no, I don’t think we thought it would last, certainly not 20 years.
JP: And you still found time to perform elsewhere during those busy days?
LB: Yeah. I was doing slam poetry and I kept getting booked performing at universities. Especially after ’92 when I won the National Slam there were a lot of arts councils, things like that, a lot of smaller, longer shows. I left Too Much Light in the Spring of ’92. And then in ’94 after doing solo shows I got approached to do Late Nite Catechism. I’m like, what the hell? Catholic comedy? Why are they looking at me? They’d seen me in a solo show and thought that I just had the right kind of presence to do the role and, I’m like, what do they mean by that? I took it.
JP: I know you don’t consider yourself an improviser but you must admit that many of the theatrical experiences you take on tend to have a large percentage of spontaneity inherent in them. Plus you have cultured a certain ability to be funny when needed. What is your relationship with improvisation or spontaneity?
LB: I’ve never taken any Meisner but from what I understand about Meisner that’s what I’m living right now. Knowing lines so well that you forget the structure and then improvise within the lines, that’s what I like. I’m really good at making lines sound fresh the first time I say it when I’m concentrating. But you can’t compare me with someone like Phil Ridarelli or Greg Kotis. Those guys are fast improvisers. I just don’t have it. I get flustered. But I used to be ten times worse.
[In my interview with Phil Ridarelli the reader will begin to learn about the improvisation influence on TML. Phil, Greg Kotis, and Scott Hermes would often perform pure improvisation together on a small stage in Hyde Park at a place called Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap. They would all eventually end up in The Neo-Futurists at three separate auditions over a period of a few years.]
JP: In Late Nite Catechism you had to relate directly to the audience. So between that and TML you must have come to grips, or even succeeded in using a looser form of improvisation.
LB: The Character of the Nun is a lot more off-the-cuff than it used to be. You have to be able to get off some of the script. There are windows for improvisation with the audience, the people who are misbehaving. So, yes, I’m a lot more comfortable with it than I used to be.
JP: Did you have to make yourself more knowledgeable about Catholicism?
LB: Yeah, I worked for the firm. You better believe it. So I read, every History Channel thing about the Catholic Church, every History Channel thing about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I’m at the front of it. I’m forced to go see things like Last Temptation of Christ and Passion of the Christ. Because I know that I’ll be asked about it in the question and answer session. There was a period when John Paul II was still alive when they kept asking about retirement and I had to find out about retirement. When I was doing the show in Washington there was a bunch of conservative Catholic groups that would come to see the show and try to fool me. Asking me legitimate questions that by rights the character should know, but there’s no way a civilian would know how many times papal infallibility has been imposed. I had to call up the PR department of the Washington Arch Diocese and have a sit down with somebody there. I wrote down all the questions I could think up. I still don’t know 90% of what’s out there just because it’s 2,000 years of economics and sociology and psychology that I wouldn’t possibly ever begin to know. Performing and studying for the show changed my attitude towards the church a lot. I used to think the church was this evil thing and now I just think of it as being like Congress.
JP: Falling into that job, that role, did fairly well for you.
LB: Maripat Donovan originated the roll. I took her place in 95 so that she could take it to Boston. I slipped into the Chicago role for 6 months and then moved to New York on my own. I lived in New York for 8 years.
JP: So Maripat would bring it to a city, and when she wanted to move on, you would take over the role? Is that what you did in New York?
LB: It never happened in New York. She performed the show there for a year and a half, won all the awards and then left. She then moved out to Los Angeles and did it there for a couple of years. By then they had started to tour it. So I did staggered 15 months in Cleveland, 15 months in Detroit, 11 straight months in Cleveland, a month in Portland, a month in Seattle.
JP: That’s some major touring. You were basically living out of hotels for years while technically living in New York City.
LB: Then in 2003 after a relationship with a boyfriend broke up—surprise—I said, you know, I’ve got enough money now where I can buy. Where can I buy? Well, in New York real people don’t buy unless you have some kind of deal where you’re buyin’ in Jersey, Staten Island somewhere. I looked at LA. Couldn’t find anything halfway decent, the housing prices were insane. And I thought, you know what? Go home. You were always happy in Chicago, I never felt like New York was home. It was a lovely place culturally. It was an embarrassment of riches. I was never home. And the hoops that they put me through to get performance time at the poetry venues weren’t worth it. Back home in Chicago, I walk into The Green Mill and there I am allowed to do anything I want. Well in New York they only have 15 minutes for you at 11pm on a Sunday. That’s all you get. It’s just…when you talk about resources that are available to a community in terms of time and space New York is stretched. When your ticket gets punched you win big, but getting your ticket punched is unlikely. And in the meantime, trying to nurture oneself as an artist is very difficult.
JP: Traveling all over the place, how did that affect you? Touring alters your quality of living, that transience and alienation must have affected your creativity. Did you find a change in your writing when you were traveling a lot? Did you enjoy traveling so much?
LB: Oh yeah. I still like it. I tell ya, it’s a damn good thing that I enjoy my own company, because I was alone. I saw so many movies. I would get into town and immediately find the Art Houses and go during my days off. You had to plan things to do by yourself. The movie thing helped me later in life, right now I’m teaching screenwriting.
Sometimes you would hang out with the crew. But they had lives of their own. Lives, in that town, and other places to go and people to see. So you had to be responsible for yourself.
[I then tried to engage her in a conversation about people’s ability and inability to be extroverted in a town of strangers. The conversation didn’t really go anywhere, but I think it’s an interesting aspect of being on the road. It always amazes me when I meet people who can go anywhere and make friends. I sometimes feel like a vampire who can only go into a place if he is invited. Neo-Futurist Steve Mosqueda is a perfect example of a contrary personality of that of Lisa or me. If you hang out with Steve you don’t stand a chance of being alone. He immediately makes a room full of strangers into a congenial gathering of newfound friends and a few irritated infuriated loners who just want to drink their night away. Lisa basically said that she didn’t think bars were an option since she got out so late, and as a woman felt weird going into a bar by herself. She also expressed a difficulty in getting conversations going about what she was doing in town:]
LB: Nobody believes me when I tell them what I do for a living.
-“No you’re not!”
-“Yep, there’s a poster of me on Euclid Avenue that’s 20 feet tall.”
-“No there isn’t!”
That’s a strange thing. That for 11 months I’ve been a star of a show that has done really, really well and then I come home and I have to contemplate temping gigs? I never made the transition to going out on auditions. I’ve never really done that.
JP: I could never get myself to audition either. Sometimes I feel the Neo-Futurists are made out of the outcasts of the theater world. Many of us are just better performers than actors if you know what I mean.
LB: I feel like that but there are some of us that…I don’t understand how the Steppenwolf doesn’t know about Diana Slickman. She’s better than a lot of the people that I’ve seen grace their stages—or the Goodman for that matter. How have they not been paying attention to this woman?
JP: I think that about Slickman too but I most often comment on it in relation to Phil Ridarelli. I mean that guy should be insanely famous.
[Lisa’s interview was conducted before Phil’s. Phil and I talked more in depth about choices and career decisions we make as performers. I will leave that for you to read when I post his interview.]
LB: I remember being in TML with Greg Kotis one night when we had sold out, and we just couldn’t be any hotter. It was one of those nights where everyone was in sync, everyone played off of one another, and we were ON. The crowd was giving us every bit of energy that they had, and then I looked around and I saw my friends (the cast) I knew some of them couldn’t pay their bills and had huge holes in their jeans and shit and I thought to myself, you know how is it that this crowd is getting ignored? I don’t understand it. Look at what we can do. We are road tested and mother approved. How is this possible? And when Kotis won the Tony, [Urinetown] I felt vindicated—very happy of course for Greg, but I felt that I wasn’t crazy. Somebody else finally figured out that Kotis’ writing is funny. What we’ve known for five years. It was a sense of relief. Or when a Neo-Futurist pops up in a movie. I’m like, ‘yes.’ Somebody finally figured us out. I have immense respect for them, that they’re smart enough to figure us out. I was trying to explain a similar concept to a friend who looks like an anchorman, he’s very conventionally attractive and for three years he had been here and landed himself four agents and had done shows with theater troupe after theater troupe. He had been so successful in the short time that he’s been here, and I tried to explain to him that I don’t really go on auditions. That writing my own work has been my constant invitation to the theatrical portal, that there is a parallel universe to the universe that he’s in, where everyone is just as good but just focused on something else. And occasionally people jump from universe to universe, but he didn’t know what I was talking about. He really didn’t.
JP: While we are on the topic of the success of Too Much Light would you mind speaking a little about the moves from one space to another? The original space at Stage Left only held about 50 people, so it was inevitable that the company would have to move elsewhere but with these decisions often comes hardship.
LB: Yeah, the first move from Stage Left to Live Bait was scandalous. Just so scandalous. Um, Stage Left had just started to say, “okay, you have to take anybody from the Stage Left ensemble that we give you into the show. One of our Stage Left people wants to join TML and audition for TML you have to take them.” There was a person in the Stage Left ensemble that we just couldn’t stand. We didn’t think this individual was right for the group, she wasn’t our type of performer and certainly wasn’t a writer from the audition. Um, so we…refused. Greg had been out of the show for a while and when he returned during this, we all started saying things like, “We can’t work with Stage Left anymore, let’s move up to Live Bait, okay?” So we did. Stage Left staged another show they simply called Baby, and everyone who had been in the Stage Left ensemble took all of their plays and they did 30 plays—and they did a mock play to the point that we had a lawyer sitting in the audience seeing what they took. We’re standing outside of Stage Left handing out flyers to our show up at the Live Bait—“you wanna see Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind? That’s where it is.” Greg had to say, you know, the clock idea is mine, 30 minutes is mine, you can’t really copyright an idea but certain phrases you trademark phrases you can copyright.
JP: You can’t restrict one element but the combination of elements is what makes Too Much Light.
LB: Right. That’s what he had to do and that’s when he had to do it to keep the Stage Left people from takin’ it. When we moved up—and that was really hard because I was friends with some of those people, but we were not going to be forced to work with people we didn’t wanna work with and so, we left. I still remember one show where we were sold out but all of the Stage Left people were sitting in the front watching our show so that they could recreate what they saw. Next week. So it was like, tension in the air. I almost couldn’t do it. Now, the move up to from Live Bait to the current space was difficult only in that Sharon Evans claimed that we didn’t give her enough time—we gave her a month, a month’s notice—and, I don’t know. Live Bait was hard because they had really nice sets for their prime-time shows and they were always claiming that we were moving their stuff and ruining their stuff, well, that was the nature of our show and that they knew how rambunctious it was, don’t take our money if you don’t want us to be in there.
JP: So the idea now was to rent your own space. And that space was where the company resides now in Andersonville. A space that had previously been rented by a sister company called Theater Oobleck. How was it getting the audience up here? Did it take awhile to recreate an audience?
LB: They followed. I don’t remember any weekend that we didn’t sell out. Everybody followed, and that’s all I can say.
ON THE PROGRESSION OF TOO MUCH LIGHT AND THE NEO-FUTURIST AESTHETIC
JP: How do you feel writing and performing the show now is different from… let’s say… the first year or so?
LB: How it’s different from now is when you wrote plays they stayed in a lot longer than they do now.
JP: Was there a die roll back then that judged the amount of plays that were cut?
LB: Yes, but if something was moderately successful, it stayed in. I mean, we got rid of a whole lot of shit that didn’t work because we were just foolin’ around. And the stuff that immediately didn’t go, went—we didn’t’ have the option of taking the good stuff and saying, “you know, this has been in a long time. Even though it’s still working let’s take it out and try something fresh. It stayed if it was working, until we were absolutely sure that we could not do it any more. Also, we could cast each other in our own stories more easily and more often. I had a poem called “Chekhovian Depression” that we set at a Cubs game. We’re sitting in the audience as if we were in the baseball stands. That type of stuff was still allowed. It was a Chekhovian-like tirade about how depressing the world is. When I’d done it for 5 weeks, Mike Troccoli said, “Hey Lisa, can I try that?” and I’m like, “sure. It’s yours.” And it stayed in for another 3 weeks with Mike in it. We would do that all the time. We would do cast changes just because somebody liked the material. Which, I don’t see much anymore. I see that more as a function of somebody’s leaving. We need to recast it.
JP: If you see Too Much Light enough you realize that we have reoccurring structures in our plays: flashlight play, line play, parody, monologue, visual piece to music, etc. Do you feel you may have been a catalyst for a structure?
LB: I don’t really think they were doing performed poetry as such until I started to make it. I mean they were doing stuff with poetic quality, but nothing that was designed to knock you on your ass in two minutes. And then, you know, after me it was Dave Awl and then everybody started to try their hand at it once they saw that it worked, then a lot of people came up with some really great stuff. Rob Neill and Mary Fons both came out of the Poetry circuit.
JP: In many of the plays I have read there seem to be much more direct address in the early days, meaning just a straightforward monologue with no image, sound or decoration.
LB: It was done more. Because, you’ve got to remember, we had to run up to the tech booth and do our own sound and lights. We didn’t have technicians. We did it ourselves.
JP: So for the most part you made it as simple as possible?
LB: Yeah. Technology plays a large role in today’s plays, because those guys have access to a lot more music than we did, you know? Simply sampling something or, you know, downloading an iTunes and stuff like that wasn’t an option 20 years ago. We used tapes a lot. But now everybody’s fooling with lights, everybody’s fooling with sound. Now when I come into the show I feel inadequate because that is where I came from. My emphasis was always on bringing the thickest language that I could bring.
JP: I feel the elements you bring to the show now are just as essential as back then. It is necessary to resist relying on tech in order to break down that fourth-wall and show the audience that we are just ourselves speaking to you.
[When I first began performing TML there was a fella who had been coming since the beginning, consistently. He even got a Valentines Day play into the menu. Anyway, each time he came to the show he would count how many plays used tech, lighting or sound. He would get very upset if those types of plays dominated the menu. He would tell us afterwards exactly how many used tech. He was the most strict neo-futurist audience member I have ever seen. He could be annoying but I respected his view, and almost always agreed.]
LB: I really think that this show has survived because we’ve just managed to find the best of everything available to us and turned it into art. The work that everybody’s doing now, they’re taking what is smart and fun and joyful. I think if we weren’t joyful we probably wouldn’t have lasted one minute, much less 20 years. Even the saddest things we write and perform are in essence joyful. It’s joyful that people are willing to talk about them, to take a look at them. I don’t think we’re scared of looking at anything. If something’s sad we look at it. We talk about it. If something’s funny, of course we put that down. And I just think that we’ve all been able to stop and look around us and put it down and that is all that we’re required to do, really. You know, my friend Kim talks about art and that our only job is to be creative. It’s the rest of the world’s job to make us famous. And we’ve done our half of it for 20 years, been holding up our half of the bargain for 20 years. It makes me laugh that I still enjoy it.
ASSOCIATES, COMRADES, FRIENDS, AND ALLIANCES
[We often say that the Neo-Futurists are a big family… a big dysfunctional family. When you spend so much time together it is easy for relationships to get complicated, to forge chasms or close friendships within the greater ensemble. We struggle not to form alliances. But they happen. And very often these opposing forces help to keep the company balanced. For each interview I have chosen a few contemporaries for the interviewee to expound on, some of these are random yet some of them are driven by my own curiosities.]
JP: Dave Awl mentioned that you helped him out often because he felt like he had a voice that consistently got shut down. He felt his specific voice was difficult to get evenly represented in the show. He specifically talks about you in reference to the tour to New York where you fought for another play of his to go into the show. What was it that you were fighting for?
LB: There are certain people in the ensemble who, their work was very popular and when personalities are very popular and they are—when I say aggressive, I don’t mean that—they’re just out there. Forward. People know who they are and people like to work with them and cast them, right. And Dave is…when it comes to his work or at least at that time, he wouldn’t make noise for himself. And I saw it. First of all, the way they were choosing the plays for that particular outing was flawed. It had taken us two days and we had not picked 30 plays. I had suggested, well, why doesn’t everyone come up with a short list of plays and everybody gets three? Oh no, we couldn’t do that. Dave was going to New York with, like, one play to his name when there was like ample room for there to be 3 Dave plays, and if this is all about equality and populism and fairness, well let’s show a little of Dave. And he wasn’t—truly John, how can you speak up for yourself like that and not seem like an asshole?
JP: It’s difficult.
LB: It wasn’t anybody being greedy, it wasn’t anybody being mean, it’s just they weren’t being—I thought—as considerate as they could be. I felt—if we say we’re about equality, if we say we’re about fairness, then goddamnit let’s be fair. If we think we’re progressive—justice is a part of that—then we have to walk it like we talk it and you know, hold the group to that standard. Like, Phil—I love Phil, everyone looks forward to Phil. Sometimes he just doesn’t know when to stop. Small things. He’ll be sittin’ there and his knee’ll be goin’ like that—buhn buhn buhn—and you have to say, “Stop.” He’s just got an energy that you can’t deny. I don’t want to hold people like that back, but I don’t want them keeping other people from having that place. So, I guess that’s the answer to that.
JP: What was your take on Phil Ridarelli?
LB: Just that his timing was amazing. It was razor sharp from the very beginning. He was smart and athletic. Between he and Karen they were the closest we came to consistent physical performance—people will tell Ridarelli that and he’ll just laugh, but he’s very athletic, even now with everything that’s happened to his knees he’s still an athletic person. I was never a movement person. Dave was never a movement person, I really couldn’t. Dave doesn’t really care for it. He’s not oriented that way. But Karen Christopher was, and Greg Allen to some extent. In those early years we really didn’t do a lot of movement stuff. Like now, there’s full dance numbers. I don’t think many of us felt that comfortable with choreographed movement.
WHAT ELSE IS LISA UP TO CURRENTLY
LB: I’m a critic for Time Out Chicago and for New City, I teach screenwriting at DePaul and we are getting ready to stage another Big Goddess Pow.
[We went on about this Big Goddess Pow-Wow, which lead to talking about Punk Rock music. I have started a second Blog that will store the unedited versions of things that did not make it into the final interview. You can read them here:outtakes]
JP: You have also returned to the Neo-Futurist stage after over 15 years. It is great to have you back. We just brought on five new ensemble members and you got to work with Caitlin Stainken, who if I am not mistaken was the first neo-futurist ever hired who had no theatrical experience. In fact her first time on a stage was her first performance of Too Much Light.
LB: Caitlin Stainken and I are good friends now. I’m 20 years older than she is and she’s just like, “alright! let’s do it!” and we’re like “okay!” She’d say, “It’s such a great cast in the show. I’ve never performed and it still sounds strange to me to hear my voice coming out of my mouth.” and I’m like what? I’ve been doing this since I was twelve! What are you talking about? Even though we’re more established and have a board and a burn rate and all the non-profit mumbo jumbo that you have to go through to continue with the theater, we can still cast someone who has never performed before. That’s something that we should be admired for. That’s a risk.
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