Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dave Awl

A Quote from Dave Awl: “Sometime in the late 90s I got a very charming email from a high school student who had been cast in a production of Too Much Light at his school. One of the roles he had been assigned was playing me in my play "Chop Off My Head and 2 Grow Back" (which is in the first book of Too Much Light scripts). After talking about how much he liked the scripts, he admitted he was nervous about performing in the show, and concluded his email by saying, ‘I can already tell that the role of Dave is going to be my greatest challenge' And I wrote him back and told him that he had my sympathies, because I had always felt the exact same way.”

Dave Awl is a living, breathing and often sloth-like Epic Poem. Even in his less creative periods, in which he believes he is now engaged, the words that naturally fall out of his mouth are lyrical wonders amongst the background of the mundane. He uses tropes to define the meaning of tropes. Metaphors describe his life better than reality itself. These days he spends much of his time writing and editing computer guides. Even in this activity can be found the irony and poetry of his existence as an artist. While conducting this interview at Kopi eating carrot cake and banana cake, dessert, our mutually favorite meal, he showed me a dedication to him in an In Design Guide. He was touched by the author’s recognition of the work he put into this tome. After I read it aloud he began chuckling. An Awl Chuckle is consistently heartwarming, sad, joyful, and oddly absurd. I shoot him a sideways confused puppy look, and he says, “I edited this book about In Design in In Design.” And then we both chuckled.
I am not a believer in Dave Awl’s lack of creativity lately. He just works at a different pace than most. In 2002, a book collection of Dave's writing was published under the title What the Sea Means: Poems, Stories, and Monologues 1987-2002. He just finished writing a new book about Facebook, which is being published in February by Peachpit Press, called Facebook Me! And also in February, at the Rhinoceros Theater Festival, Dave will be hosting a new installment of The Partly Dave Show, which is the cabaret variety show he's been hosting sporadically since 2003.

Dave is the product of the eccentric, absurd, extreme, self-aware, colorful and flamboyant 80’s. Many of the Neos grew up in the 80’s but none of them seemed to embrace those days as much as Dave. I often talk of writing an essay about the life and death of compassionate irony. I believe it died at the beginning of the 90’s. Although Dave and I never really speak of the overwhelming emotions we feel for this life and our shared oddity, which manifests a distance from the “real” world. We are among the living with tearful eyes and an enormous capacity to love… from a distance, from behind a warped piece of fragmented glass.
I can never think of Neo-Futurism without stopping for a while at the doorstep of Dave’s brain. Yet, I can think of no other Neo-Futurist who has had as much conflict with the aesthetic, the speed and the sport aspect of Too Much Light. His style asked, “What is character?” And the incongruent answer came back, “Not here. Not at your pace.” In my history of The Neo-Futurists Dave Awl is the anomaly, the intellectual gay man that exists because he had sprung from the head of a mythological god that happened to have a diametrically opposed passion for non-illusory theater and pure fantasy.

An Interview with Dave Awl
Conducted by John Pierson
Transcribed by Coley Verbick

[Dave warned me that he meanders, because although his sun sign is Taurus, like me he also has a lot of Piscean energy in his astrological chart.]

[Let’s put you… here… mid-conversation:]

(with beach ball visitations)

DA: On my Mac I have folders and folders and folders full of little started concepts for novels or plays or short stories, with little text files full of notes and outlines and scribbles, characters, sketches, snatches of dialogue. And it’s frustrating because I’ll start a project and just as it's starting to catch fire, I'll find myself in a work situation where I don't have time to write for a while. Whatever job or paying project is taking over my life will distract me for a few weeks or a few months — until I no longer remember where the inspiration was coming from when I was working on that creative idea that I was making such progress with. And then it becomes one of the 75 different possible started projects I could pick up and work with. I’m always sort of spinning around from thing to thing for that reason.
I’ve always had a problem with my attention span. I think that’s part of why I gravitated towards writing poetry originally—because I can finish a poem before I lose my inspiration. When I get an idea, I go into a kind of fit and I start writing. But I have to strike while the iron is hot, because a day or two later I won’t be able to tap into the same place that the poem or story or monologue is coming from. When I was younger, it was much easier to write while the connection was open, because there was nothing in my life that was more important than being true to that inspiration at the moment it struck. Wherever I was, whether I was in math class or whatever, I had my spiral notebook right there in front of me. I could just tune out the teacher and start writing. There was almost no place I found myself in my life that I couldn’t just start writing if an inspiration hit me.
But as a rent-paying grown-up, it got harder. Sometimes I’d be at work when an impulse struck me, so I’d start writing a play for Too Much Light or a poem or something on my computer. But if the wrong coworker or manager came into my cubicle while that was happening, sometimes it might be a little awkward that I was doing something that was “not work-related.” In my 20s I was willing to risk the consequences of that. If lightning struck, I was going to farm the lightning. But as I’ve gotten older, my circumstances have tightened. You have to become a little more responsible to survive. The noose [chuckles] tightens around you a little bit. I often find myself in circumstances where the lightning wants to strike, and I can’t do anything about it. I’m rushing to a meeting with a client that I can’t be late for, or I'm on deadline with a work project, and my ability to pay my rent this month depends on getting it done on time. And so what happens is that the lightning strikes less often, because I'm less likely to give it top priority — which in turn makes it harder to get it to come when I want it to come. All too often, I’ve got an idea popping into my head and I’d really like to pursue it, but what I’d need is 90 minutes or so to just sit down at my computer and give it my complete attention, and I can’t. Because I’m on deadline. So that's tough, and one of the most painful things about being 42 — not having the freedom to give creative inspiration number one priority in my life.
JP: Have you ever tried setting an hour aside each day? For that single hour make all the rest of the world melt away?
DA: I've tried it but haven't been very successful at it, because when I’m in crisis mode I have trouble concentrating, or making time for anything but the current crisis. And I've been in that mode a lot for the last two years — which for the purpose of this interview, I will refer to as The Time of the Significant Distractions.

[It was at this point that I laughed very loudly over the din of noise rising from Kopi Café. I can only hope to think of such creative expressions in regards to my own situations. This is why I have allowed this mutual therapy session to exist as an interview. To me it is an example that this man has a way with words that seeps, pours from his soul, whether he is on stage, at work, or in a café with a friend.]

The Significant Distractions are an interrelated complex of personal, family-related, work-related and even some health-related situations that have managed to derail my creative life for the last couple of years. Most of these situations have their roots going back to the early 00’s, around the time I left the cast of Too Much Light, and started to get pretty bad around 2003. And then in 2006 and 2007 they all just completely boiled over at the same time. It was like a storm of crisis. Instead of focusing on my creative projects, working on a show or a podcast or an idea for a novel, I was just pedaling as fast as I could to keep my head above the water — if you can imagine someone riding a unicycle in the ocean … which I guess is a metaphor I just created. [I chuckle again.]
For a while I was unable to focus on anything other than survival. I’m hoping what I’m seeing now is the light at the end of that tunnel. I am really hoping that 2009 is the year I am going to start performing again because I really miss it. There are several hopeful prospects on the horizon, and I’m just sort of praying that in 2009 the energy will change and the Significant Distractions will have been, if not licked, at least domesticated. [We both laugh.]
JP: Paul Auster wrote a book called Hand to Mouth, and another book called The Art of Hunger, both dealing with his own and other writer’s hunger for creativity and the physical hunger they endured to make it as writers. What prevents you from indulging in this type of sacrifice?
DA: For one thing, I've always had trouble splitting my focus. Some people are really, really good at that. And I’ve always… I have five planets in Taurus. Creatively, I have kind of a one-track mind; one project really occupies my mind at a time. When I was younger, I tried to play guitar and my great downfall was I couldn’t do two different things with my two hands at the same time. Some people can effortlessly be a one-man-band and do something with each hand, each foot and their head and—I don’t really have that. My brain is a little like an old computer from back in the days when RAM was really limited so you can only have a few windows open at time. Every time you open a new window, the computer gets a little slower, and then the little beach ball starts spinning, and eventually you open one too many windows and the whole thing crashes. That’s pretty much the way my brain works. I can have one or two, maybe three windows open in my brain, but at a certain point I just go into beach ball mode. For the last few years, the Significant Distractions have been the windows that have been hogging most of my RAM. It may be that at some point in the future what I’ve gone through will become fertile material for writing about it once some of that RAM frees up.


But there’s also something else going on. I realized earlier this year that part of the reason I've been having trouble writing is that I spend a lot less time with actual books these days, reading actual literary writing—poetry, novels, and especially science fiction and fantasy, which I've always drawn lots of imaginative inspiration from. In the 00’s I've gotten addicted to blogs—to political blogs in particular, because this has been such a politicized time. I've been obsessively reading blogs and news sites, and then when I do get some book time most of it has been nonfiction political stuff. And the thing about political or journalistic writing is that it uses a flatter, more factual voice than literary writing – the vocabulary is narrower, less evocative, less poetic. And it doesn't inspire the writing part of my brain.
There’s this thing in my head that I call the Word Organ, which is the place where the words come from. I'm using the word organ in two senses here — on one level it's like an organ of the body. The Word Organ is a part of my brain. But it's also like the organ you hear in a church when it's time to sing a hymn. You don't really know the melody — you just have the words in the hymnal in front of you. But then the organ starts playing, and you listen to it and you start to fit the words to the melody, and then you can sing along.
Well, when I write, there's something I listen for that's kind of like that organ playing. It gives me the rhythm and the melody, and I just start fitting words to the sound of the organ, and at a certain point it becomes like paddling a canoe down a river. It just carries me along. All I have to do is steer it a little bit, avoid a rock here or there, or maybe choose which way to go when I come to a fork in the river. But for the most part, there’s this momentum, this rush that comes along.
But over the last few years, I've noticed it getting harder and harder and harder to hear the Word Organ. Sometimes there’s just silence in my head when I try to write. I don’t feel that rush of words. I don’t feel that rhythm. So I've spent a lot of time thinking about why I'm having such a hard time putting words together. And I realized that it all goes back to the fact that I’m not spending enough time reading actual books with literary language. So I started a kind of rehabilitation program. I decided I needed to immerse myself in the richest, densest, most poetic language I could for a while, so I pulled some James Joyce off the shelf, and some other poets and writers who inspire me, and I started making myself, in the midst of crisis — in the midst of chaos — take 45 minutes or an hour and curl up on the sofa and read. And it's started to make a difference over the last few months. I feel like I can hear the Word Organ a little better these days, like it's starting to get stronger and recover a little.

[I just realized now, looking back at this interview that my suggestion of an hour time, to which he replied, he couldn’t do, he was actually in the process of exploring in his own way. I feel a circular flow to these words of ours and yet there seems to be paths explored in what some would consider an abyss. This also touches on a creative technique that I have recently realized other people share: hardly ever look to the media you are currently immersed in to get inspiration. Your brain becomes a Möbius strip.]

Much of my writing when I was younger came from just getting intoxicated by love, and life, and the world, and the world the way I wanted it to be, and imagining futures for myself—imagining my ability to become things I was not. Hitting my late 30s and 40s, a lot of that has sort of been knocked out of me by reality. I’ve become disillusioned and pessimistic, and a lot of that is the Bush years. First, watching George W. Bush take office by corrupt means, and then using September 11 to launch all of the war and torture and the thousands upon thousands of deaths that have defined this decade. Watching the country slide into a paranoid, militaristic, McCarthyist mindset.
Back in the 90’s, when I wrote my astrology column and did tarot readings—I used to be able to go into this sort of “trust the Universe” mode. There was something very holistic about that that was very good for my creativity: to be able to believe that people were basically good, and the Universe was basically good, and that there was something looking out for us. Of course I’m dreadfully oversimplifying this. I think if the me of 10 years ago were sitting here, he’d be rolling his eyes.


JP: Do you think you might just be more critical now?
DA: Absolutely. That’s a whole other thing. Before I go there, let me see if there was something else. I’m trying to find my way back a level in the conversation. [long pause] See, this is that beach ball I was talking about. It was something about the whole “trust the Universe” thing and why that interferes with my ability to write. There’s a “T” I didn’t cross there, and that’s going to drive me crazy. It was a question that you asked me and I’m not sure if I answered it.

[Dave was floating unstably in an ocean of abstractions and he asked me to throw him a circular device that floats. Not only couldn’t I find one, but also I couldn’t even think of the name of the thing I needed to throw in order to aid him. And further more it didn’t help that he may have thought I was on land, when in actuality I was just holding on to a piece of disintegrating driftwood with the tip of my finger.]

I lost my ability to believe. I lost my ability to romanticize things, to go into that romantic mindset. That’s the only way I can put it. But to the question you just asked, absolutely yes. One of my great problems now is that my internal editor has become the Incredible Hulk. When I was younger, it was much easier to go into a state of mind of “Fuck what anybody thinks, I’m just going to write what I write and not care about it.” But then I would go to my creative writing classes, I’d show my writing to friends, and gradually sometimes I'd start to worry about what other people would think, or absorb other people’s opinions, and they would inhibit me a bit when I was writing. So it got to the place where I would sometimes need to trick myself. For example, in the early 90’s I was having some writer’s block. So I said, “Okay, well, just for me, I’m going to write some poems that will be like diary entries that no one will ever see. I’m not going to be proud of these. I just want to get some things down on paper.” I wrote a bunch of poems that way and they were some of the best things I had ever written at that point. So I immediately started reading them and people loved them, and I got all of this positive feedback. I typed them all up and Xeroxed them and gave them out to friends and, of course, I lost the ability to ever hoodwink myself that way again.
Now I always know that if I’m writing something there’s a good chance that somebody’s going to read it if it turns out well. So that was one thing. But the other thing is after, I think, you know, 20-some years of actively writing, I've worked with so many different people who are talented and creative and have very strong aesthetic biases that for every sentence I write, I can think of someone I’ve worked with who would disapprove of it. [We both laugh.] There is someone in me who can cross out everything I write. Either it’s someone from the Neo-Futurists, or it’s one of my old creative writing professors, or it’s someone that I’ve talked poetry with or, a critic or some scholar’s work I’ve read. There’s no piece of writing that I’ve written that somebody somewhere won’t find fault with. And I’m really good at imagining the faults other people will find at this stage of my life. Which has a crippling effect on the sort of heedless exuberance I think you need when you’re doing the writing. You have to get it down on paper and then go into the evaluative mindset later. But if you’re evaluating too much as you’re writing, then it just becomes a straightjacket. So yeah, the internal editor is really out of control and I’ve been trying to find ways to drug or kidnap or hypnotize the internal editor. I need to, you know, tie the internal editor to a chair.
JP: Let’s go back to before the editor was there. One of the many things I find fascinating about your writing is the fantastical use of metaphors. Whether it’s an elfin princess with long green hair or a phone conversation with the idea of you, where does this form of writing come from?
DA: I’ve always had a fascination with figurative language, to some extent; I think any decent writer does, certainly in terms of poets. To my mind, two particular things distinguish poetry: the musicality of the language and the idea that in poetry, there’s a special attention that is paid to the sound of the language as well as the sense of the language. But also, poetry is all about figurative language. Poetry is all about metaphors and similes and metonymy and synecdoche and all those other fascinating flavors of tropes. Before I even knew the names for those things I always gravitated towards the kind of writing that had a heightened use of tropes — where inanimate objects were personified, and the language had a lot of thing-for-thing substitution in it. Par of that is that I’m a surrealist — it's always been instinctive to me, a matter of my tastes or my predisposition. But I do also know that to a certain point it became more deliberate, and I started paying attention to it when I was reading work that used figurative language. I learned the names for things like metonymy and synecdoche and learned to spot those sort of things in the writing I was reading. When I was writing What the Sea Means, I was reading Kenneth Koch’s book, Making Your Own Days, in which he defines and explores those basic tropes. The book takes you through the process of writing poetry and the various tools that poets use, and I remember at the time I got a big creative boost out of reading it. I was just taking the techniques he was talking about and using them as exercises. I think that The Bestiary came partly out of the period when I was reading that book.


JP: Dave, where were you born, where were you raised, what were some of your first theater experiences? In that order… Go!
DA: I was born in Peoria in 1966 at 6:17AM CDT and grew up in East Peoria, IL, which is, believe it or not, a suburb of Peoria. It's like Peoria, only not so cosmopolitan or sophisticated. We would drive into Peoria when we wanted to see tall buildings and there was, quite literally, a cornfield or sometimes a soybean field across the street from my home. There was a house in between, but if you walked out my front door and kept going and jogged around the house across the street, within about 3 minutes you’d be lost in a soybean field.

[I wouldn’t say it is a popular trend but I must say many neo-futurists seemed to have come from smaller towns. Scott Hermes was pretty much raised on a farm, Jay was raised in a very small town Berlin Ohio, Heather Riordan grew up in a more populated area but she went to school with a graduating class of around 20. Slickman was raised in Kansas… enough said. The list goes on, but I’ll stop here.]

I went to Robein Grade School, then East Peoria Community High School. I was a fat, addled, unpopular child who just wanted to read books all the time, hated sports, didn’t know how to communicate with other people and would just want the world to leave me alone while I read The Lord of the Rings over and over and over again. Then I got to high school and something weird happened, which was that I started to be able to communicate with my peers a little bit.
JP: How did that secretive child end up becoming a performer? What happened?
DA: I was never that much smarter than my peers, but it was like my brain was shaped differently, and I was a very cerebral child, which isn't the usual thing. So, for example, when I was in first grade, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. Now, lots of kids like dinosaurs, but I memorized all the Latin names of all the dinosaurs and in our first grade class, there was a game where the every day, one kid got to choose a password and the other kids would have to say the password when coming into the room.
So I picked rhamphorhynchus for the password, or maybe it was it was stegosaurus. I think maybe I did both on different days. And of course it didn't go very well because none of the other kids could even pronounce rhamphorhynchus. Whereas to me, those names were easy to say because they belonged to really cool dinosaurs. I also remember a day when one of the teachers was showing a film strip of dinosaurs and she kept mispronouncing the names of the dinosaurs and I would—she’d say it and I’d say, “No, it’s this.” So she handed me the pointer and I went to the front of the classroom and gave the lecture. She would show the next dinosaur and I would go on and on about the dinosaur and what era it lived in and whether it ate plants or animals and so forth.
The funny thing is, I was tremendously retarded in terms of my social development—all those years when I was in grade school I somehow thought that being bookish and brainy would make people like me and I should play that up. Whereas, a lot of kids who were every bit as smart as me, book smart, that I went to school with, were also socially smart enough to realize, “No, no, no, no. The other children will hate you if you seem like a brainiac.” And so they would sort of hide that or play it down, and I didn’t understand why they were doing that because I was really that socially dumb. And for that very reason, I was isolated because the only things I really wanted to talk about, nobody wanted to talk about with me. I didn’t know anyone else with whom I could discuss the things I was interested in.
By the time I got to high school, all of a sudden my peers started to listen to what I was saying and they would laugh and respond and I’d be like, “Wait a minute. They just heard what I said and they answered me back!”
I don’t want to say they caught up with me, because that sounds really asinine, but suddenly they were starting to be interested in the kinds of books and things that I was interested in. Suddenly I was not the only kid in the room who was interested in intellectual things, and so I started to have real conversations, and came out of my shell a little bit and figured out how to make other people laugh. I learned to relate to other people, made friends, joined the Drama Club, got on the speech team and started performing. Between my junior and senior year, I hit a growth spurt and became a vegetarian and lost about 50lbs. So by the time I was a senior I was actually thin and went New Wave, got a groovy haircut, started dressing flamboyantly and created a persona for myself. All of that gave me a self-confidence that allowed me to start writing.
Sometime around 8th grade or freshman year I got an 8-track tape player and started building a music collection. I listened to The Beatles and then David Bowie and then Talking Heads and Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, The B-52s… And then I just began scribbling poems in my spiral notebook. I was hearing the Word Organ. At the time, I really didn’t know what it was, but there was suddenly this stream of words running through my mind. I knew that at any time I could open up the notebook and listen to the stream of words, and just start writing them down.
JP: Do you think this broadening and maturing of your creativity, when knowledge you took in became fodder for creative writing, correlated at all with becoming aware of yourself as a social being instead of this internalized grade school kid?
DA: I think it was partly that and, strangely enough, the onset of puberty and the way that that changes you. Some of it was self-confidence. [pauses] But the music I was listening to was sparking my imagination the most, putting rhythmic, rhyming words and figurative language in my head. If there was any one thing that was the catalyst for my writing, it was that. For the first time in my life I was listening to music that just wasn’t like the “Oh, baby, I love you” lyrics in Top 40 songs you would hear on the radio. I was listening to music where the lyrics were arty and poetic and thought provoking. It hit me like a ton of bricks and I wanted to emulate it.
My first poems were basically song lyrics and it was probably a couple years before I really started writing things that weren’t rhymed or metered. I started getting interested in poetry beyond song lyrics, reading everything from Percy Shelley to Allen Ginsburg and I bought an old, beat-up copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry that was discarded by the library. And I just spent hours and hours reading that. In the back there was a section on prosody. I learned the different metrical feet: iambs and dactyl and spondees and trochees. And that really grabbed me: the idea that you could take a line of poetry and break it down into syllables and stresses and accents and analyze them—the patterns of it. And so, from that time on, when I wrote poems, I was always conscious of prosody. Not just the meter but also things like alliteration and assonance and slant rhymes and the other different kinds of “music” you hear between words. Again, the idea that there was a vocabulary to discuss it really appealed to me. So I paid a lot of attention to it and I think some things grew out of that in my writing.
JP: I have some questions to ask about that, but let’s go on with your high school years.

[I leave this statement by me in here, because, I really had had about 20 other questions for him. “What does prosody mean?” “You enjoyed a Norton Anthology in high school?” “My god Dave, can I crack your head open and look at your brain?” But I decided to shoot for brevity and feign control of the ebb and flow of this interview.]

DA: In high school I filled dozens of spiral notebooks of poems and the good ones I would copy into a special spiral notebook that was kind of the “best of.” I would show them to friends whom would all tell me how brilliant the poems were, like friends do. And of course I would believe them, and keep writing.
JP: Do you remember any of your first times sharing poems with others?
DA: Oh, yeah, just shyly opening my notebook and handing it to the friend across the aisle in the classroom before class, and they’d be really quiet for a few minutes and you’d sit there and wonder what they thought and what they were going to say. And then they’d hand it back to you and look you in the eyes and tell you, you were the best poet ever. Ever! And that they were just honored to be your friend. [We both laugh.] As a goofy little high school kids, you can sort of believe that. I remember a bunch of us, like little New Wave drama club kids, we went to go see the Thompson Twins when they played at ISU. After the show we were out back by their tour bus and I ripped a poem out of one of my many little notebooks, and handed it to the bouncer guy to give it to Alannah Currie. He took it in and gave it to her and she did this sweet little bow to me through the window of the tour bus. And afterwards a friend of mine told me, after seeing the poem in question, that if the Thompson Twins didn’t make that a song out of that poem, and didn’t record it on their next album, they were crazy.
I guess my peak experience of all of those days was that I won a couple of high school poetry contests and I got an honorable mention in the Scholastic National writing contest.
JP: Were you an orator of your own poems at this point? Did you share them aloud with your friends?
DA: Strangely enough, not so much. On the speech team you could perform poetry at speech tournaments, but it had to be poems published by “real poets.” So my own poetry was just written down, but very rarely read aloud.
That changed slightly when I was at Bradley and on the speech team. Poetry was a big event and you were supposed to perform work by published authors, but the definition of “published” was pretty loose and it was rarely checked on, so there were some poems I wrote that were performed by peers of mine on the competitive circuit. There was a poem called “Smashing Candy,” which was my Too Much Light audition piece, which I wrote when I was 20. A friend on my team did it competitively and won a bunch of tournaments with it. Then it started to be done by other people at other colleges and on a high school levels. In fact, to this day, I hear about people who have performed it on the high school circuit or are still doing it. I think there are Xeroxed copies of it in file folders in high schools here and there. But even in college, although I did a lot of writing and lot of performing, it was pretty rare that I got the opportunity to, myself, perform what I had done, except in terms of comedy events. In high school there was an event called Original Comedy, in which you wrote an eight-minute piece that was like a monologue, but you would play all sorts of different characters and do funny voices. So I did Original Comedy in high school. And in college I did what was called After Dinner Speaking, which was basically like a funny persuasive speech.
Other than the speech team, probably the defining thing of my college years was I wrote a humor column for The Bradley Scout that came out almost every week. And according to the rules for the paper at that time, the column didn’t have any other title than Dave Awl: Humor. [Laughter ensues] That’s what it said at the top of it every week: Dave Awl: Humor. And I can’t imagine worse circumstances under which to try to be funny other than to have the word “humor” at the top of what you’ve just written — and yet somehow, it was very successful on campus. Pretty much from the first one I wrote, it had a cult following. The teachers all read my column and knew me when I took their classes, which could be both good and bad.
My first couple of years on the college speech team, I had a lousy track record at tournaments I couldn’t win — I couldn’t even break finals. And yet, the people on the team who were successful took me right, because they read my column and were like, “This guy has some comedy writing talent. Sooner or later he’s going to figure out how apply this to speech tournaments.” So they just sort of trusted me.
JP: Did their trust pay off?
DA: Yes. I mean, by the time I graduated I won a national championship in After Dinner Speaking. It paralleled my earlier experiences. In high school I was the fat, awkward, unpopular kid who worked really hard at transforming myself and learning how to be funny to my peers and by the time I graduated, in my senior yearbook I was voted “Best Sense of Humor” of the senior class. That, of everything from my high school years, was the thing I was most proud of because to me, it meant that I had learned how to communicate with other people. Similarly, I had started out as kind of a loser on the college speech team, but over the 4 years I figured out how it worked and I had that humor column to give me some positive reinforcement. Bradley’s kind of a small school surrounded by cornfields. There wasn’t a lot going on there much of the time, so if you could stand out there and be a little different, people were grateful and would support you. So it was definitely a case of you could be a big fish in a small pond there. But, interestingly enough that is ultimately how I ended up in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Do you know?


JP: Well I know you were the only Neo-Futurist to write for the show before you were in it.
DA: But do you know how, from being on the Bradley speech team, I got to Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind?
JP: Lisa?
DA: Yes.

[I have conducted five interviews so far, all in different levels of transcription, and in a few of them Lisa has been brought up as an important influence. Scott Hermes found Lisa compelling. She unknowingly gave him a new direction different from his mostly character driven performance style, Heather knew no one more driven and in fact both Heather and Dave found their way to TML via Lisa’s persistent invitations to see the show and even audition. There is something about almost every neo-futurist that impresses me, but I am not exaggerating when I say the aforementioned neos are some of my favorites. And to discover someone influences them I have been around and didn’t even realize the complexity of their involvement confirms my obsession and need for the neo-futurist collective to continue being an inclusive force, because the constant resonances of the unknown and yet-to-be-known are a strong influential power.]

DA: On the speech team you all piled into a van and drove off to some other Midwestern university for a tournament all weekend. Lisa was on the speech team for Bowling Green University in Ohio. We met up in speech tournaments and eventually got to be friends. When Lisa graduated she came and stayed with me at the house we had on the Bradley campus, which we called The Orchard. Later when I would go up to Chicago, I would always call Lisa and we'd get together. That was a real bonding experience, because Lisa was in that first year or two in the big city where you don’t really know anyone and you’re lonely. So you’re grateful for the friends who stay in touch with you.
A few months before I graduated, Lisa started talking about this thing called the Poetry Slam, which she was going to consistently. So when I moved up to Chicago, the summer of 1988, the first thing I did was go to a poetry slam with Lisa. And I just flunked it. I just didn’t fit in with the crowd or the mood or the vibe there. I couldn’t figure out how to fit in. So I went around to some other little poetry nights where I would get invited to perform at, but I wasn’t really going anywhere with all of that. About 8 or 9 months after I moved, Lisa said, “I got cast in this show called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind,” and she essentially ordered me to come and see her in it. Some other friends of mine had gone to see it and had said, “Oh, Dave, you should come see this show. You would really like it.” But the first time I saw it, I thought, “Oh, this is really gimmicky. Lisa’s really good in it, but oh, this is so clever, clever.” I held onto my catty attitude for most of the first show. But, on some level, I was compelled. And I will say this too: the show kept getting better and better. Greg Allen might not agree with this, because he tends to really hold those early shows in high regard, but I really felt like over the course of 1989, I watched the cast gradually start to coalesce and find their voice and get smarter and better, week by week, until around the time of the first anniversary, it had really just flowered and come into its own. But it took me a time or two of seeing it before I finally admitted to myself that I wanted to be in it. I liked the honesty, the immediacy, the spontaneity, the freedom and just the feeling of people being themselves on stage.


I had moved to Chicago after I graduated with the idea that I was going to do stand-up comedy. And this was 1988 — it was the heyday of Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison. The comedy that I saw in the pubs I went to was really ugly. It was racist, sexist, homophobic, brainless… just bilge spewing into microphones, and people laughing and applauding and shitting themselves. And after a few nights—a couple open mike nights, a couple of showcases like that, I went, “I don’t want to be a part of this scene. I don’t want anything to do with these people. I don’t want have to try to make these people laugh.” And then I went and saw Too Much Light. And they were funny without aiming for the laugh. It made you laugh because it made you think, and then you laughed with recognition of what they were making you think. And they were political in a feminist, anti-war, pro-gay progressive way. They would stand right there onstage and call bullshit “bullshit.”
JP: Was there a gay man in the company before you?
DA: Just barely. Not when I auditioned, but out of the same round of auditions that I was in, Ted Bales was cast.
JP: Did he speak openly of his homosexuality?
DA: Oh yes. He was the first openly out gay guy in the cast. And he immediately seized the platform, but as many of us found, it is much easier to be the only gay in the village when there are two gays in the village. [We laugh.] In other words, if you have a couple of homos in the cast, it is so much easier to introduce those themes into the show because you have a scene partner, among other things. A collaborator, someone else in the menu-picking sessions to back your really queer play when maybe the straight people in the room weren’t really getting it. So when I joined the cast, Ted and I—we were at loggerheads a lot. Don’t get me wrong, we rarely saw eye-to-eye about much, but on that one thing, we were on the same page and we were able to do things like get the Neo-Futurists to march in the gay pride parade. Interestingly, for the first year or so, the show had not been on the map in the gay community. It was not written about that much in the gay papers. It wasn’t seen as a company that had gay people in it or was particularly gay friendly and we changed that perception pretty aggressively in the second and third year of the show.
JP: Was there much gay theater in Chicago during this time?
DA: There was already quite a bit of gay theatre for gay audiences. You know, gay theatre companies, gay playwrights. What excited me about Too Much Light was the opportunity to do gay-inclusive theatre for a gay-inclusive audience, so you weren’t just preaching to the converted. But that you were actually coming out as a gay person in front of an audience that was mostly straight, but had enough gay people in the audience that you’d have some support. And to me, in those days, in the early 90’s, there was nothing more powerful than the idea of being a gay person on stage with your straight friends supporting you. You’re openly gay and your straight friends are all there with you saying, “You go girl,” and the audience is kind of sitting there, absorbing that. To me, that just made an incredible… I mean obviously, the big movie right now is Milk and it goes right with Harvey Milk’s message that for a gay person, there is no more powerful or important political act than simply living your life honestly and coming out to the people you know.
JP: And once you do that, the heterosexuals around you can’t deny that they know people that are gay and they have to be confronted with that issue instead of keeping it hidden.
DA: Absolutely. And the thing is, Harvey Milk says at one point in the movie—he says something like, people who know that they know one gay person vote for gay rights by a 2 for 1 margin. It’s that powerful in changing people’s attitudes. And at that particular point in history, I wanted to change people’s attitudes in that way. I saw early on that lots and lots of high school kids were coming to the show. And I know that when you’re in high school and you’re gay, until you meet your first other gay person, you think that you’re the only gay person in the world. And you can’t imagine what another gay person even looks like and so, here’s the opportunity to be the first gay person. And then for a lot of the kids who were straight it was just an opportunity to see an openly gay person, supported by all their straight friends. That was one of the things that really excited me about being in the show those days, other than the opportunity to not have to do just comedy or just poetry or just one kind of thing. You could mix together all of these different genres and I really liked that eclecticism.
JP: Did you have to consciously balance how much gay material you brought in?
DA: Part of being in the show is finding that balance and having the cast telling you, “Sorry, you can’t have another funny play in the show this week because we have too many funny plays,” and, “We can’t have another poem in the show this week because we have too many poems.” And I do remember times, early on, like maybe around the time when we would do the annual Pride show—which was something Ted and I kind of lobbied for because it was part of that process of putting the company on the map in the gay community that we had to kind of work at for a few years, before the idea got out that, “Oh, Gay Pride Weekend is a good weekend to see Too Much Light,” and we would start to get that gay audience showing up for it. But in the weeks just after we did a gay pride show, the audience would come in and we’d have this 99% straight audience and we’d do all this gay-oriented material and maybe the audience we had on one particular night just wasn’t having it. And afterwards we’d be cutting the menu and some of the people in the company would go, “It’s the all-gay show this week, isn’t it? Yeah, our show is, ‘We’re gay. Shut up!’” and just sort of portrayed it in ways that I’d start to feel sort of… how did Diana put it? I can’t quote it exactly, but I remember when Diana came into the company, we were starting to have one of those discussions about whether there was too much gayness in the show, and Diana just kind eloquently shut it down. She said, “As far as I’m concerned, we can have as many gay plays as we have straight plays,” or some kind of no-nonsense thing like that… something that I couldn’t really say without sounding strident.
JP: Too Much Light, since it had more of a mixture of gay and straight audience, do you think it may have been an easier location for closeted gays and lesbians to come out? Would they have been afraid to just go to a gay show at a gay club?
DA: I think that high school kids could go there without feeling they were outing themselves by going there. But at the same time, they'd see something that would reassure them, encourage them. Definitely, there were so many kids over the years that would come up to me and thank me or tell me—kids would kind of grow up coming to the show, and then they’d go away and come back on breaks from college. They would show me lines from the show that they’d copied down in their spiral notebooks. They would say that it meant something to them and that it had helped them with their coming-out journey and that really meant a lot to me. It just really felt like that was a healing thing that we could do for high school kids who were struggling with that.


JP: Phil came to a class I was teaching and told of an incident at a high school gig that epitomized both the importance of Neo-Futurists responding to an audience, and our responsibility to educate about intolerance. Do you know to what I am referring?

DA: This happened around 1996 or 97, I think. We were at one of the suburban high schools, performing Too Much Light in a huge auditorium for the assembled student body.
At some point in the show, I did a play called "Statement," which is a monologue where I out myself to the audience. I sat in a chair in the middle of the stage and told the audience that in my years performing Too Much Light, I'd always been completely open about being gay. Then I told them about a news story I'd read about an actor in San Francisco, who was playing a gay character in a play, and when he left the theater one night there were people waiting for him who beat him up and killed him. This was a true story. I used to have the newspaper clipping in my files. Then I took a long pause, looked the audience in the eyes, and told them that that story was always on my mind while I was doing the show. The possibility of violence. The last line of the piece was, "And I don't leave the theater alone." So, after I did that play, the next play was a very silly little comic piece of mine called Duetta Ristretta. At a certain point in the play I walk into a spotlight and grate a carrot while singing the Toreador Song from Carmen in a silly falsetto voice. After I sang the last note, there was a pause before I walked off stage, and in that pause some kid way toward the back of the auditorium yelled out "Faggot!" Crystal clear, and everyone heard it, and you could also have heard a pin drop. Now, of course I was angry, but what also flashed through my mind at the same time was that this kid, whoever he was, had just made the point of my earlier play. I had just talked about the reality of gay-bashing, and there it was—at least on a verbal level. It was actually kind of a dramatic and powerful moment, and on some level I thought it was better for me not to address it, but just to let the audience witness what had just happened and think about the implications of it. So I held my pause for an instant longer, and then walked off stage. I found out later that the kid who yelled it was immediately surrounded by teachers and taken out of the auditorium. I can't remember whether we finished the play or someone called curtain. I do know that we pulled down another number, and set up to do another play, and called Go. But at that point, Phil — my knight in shining armor! — decided he couldn't let the matter go any longer. He was really angry, just doing a slow burn about it. So he said, "Hold on. Before we go on, I just have to say something." And then he went off for a minute on how ignorant and offensive and cowardly it was, and so forth. (Unfortunately, I can't remember his exact words anymore.) And at that point, not wanting to seem like a victim who couldn't speak up for myself, I chimed in and said that if someone in the audience had a problem with me they should talk to me after the show, and not yell things out of the darkness like a coward. And all the other kids in the audience gave us a huge round of supportive applause, and that cleared the air, and we went on and finished the show. Afterwards we had a workshop scheduled with some of the kids, and they were just beside themselves about it. They were so upset and angry and embarrassed for their school, and so supportive of me — just great kids, and it really kind of choked me up. It became what educators like to call a "teachable moment" at their school, on the subject of homophobia ... it was a hot topic there for weeks afterward. Teachers led class discussions about it. Some of the students wrote me letters of apology on behalf of their school. I'll never forget one incredibly endearing letter I got from a student, that began with the words, "Today I am ashamed to call myself a Titan ... " — which made me laugh and tear up at the same time. One of the teachers sent me a copy of the next issue of their school paper, which had more letters from students, and an editorial about the incident. So I wrote my own letter to the paper, which was eventually printed, thanking the students and the staff for being so supportive. The thing is, they felt like their school had been shamed. But I told them in my letter that I was more proud of the hundreds of them that had shown support for me, than I was angry at the one person who had acted like an idiot. I told them that at my high school, ten years earlier, I don't know if anyone would have stood up for an openly gay person. So I thought they could be pretty proud to call themselves Titans after all. For me, the whole episode really encapsulated why it felt important to be an out gay person performing for straight audiences -- that the show could reach people in very powerful ways. It's one of the reasons why, during the years I was in Too Much Light, I felt like I was an activist along with being an artist.


[It was here that I showed my Piscean traits by completely switching gears on Dave. Maybe some handcrafted figurine on a shelf in the café reminded me of some of the fantastical moments Dave shared on stage with Stephanie Shaw. Stephanie and Dave were my safety net when I came into the show. When I felt like an outcast I would rest my head on Stephanie’s lap and Dave’s natural slowness culled my sometimes uncontrollable hypersonic energy, and when they included me in one of their fanciful non-illusory plays I was honored to participate.]

JP: So in the early days you had your collaboration with Ted, later in TML there seemed to be a collaborative bond with Stephanie Shaw.

DA: Stephanie and I had a strong writing bond right from the get-go. We were on the same wavelength. Nobody in the history of the show had written parts for me as consistently and as well as Stephanie did. I know that in my early days in the show people liked my material, but they seemed to have a hard time writing parts for me, figuring out how to use me as a performer. So it felt like for the first few years, if I didn’t write parts for myself in the show, then I wasn’t in very much of the show. When Stephanie came along, suddenly I was in lots of things that I hadn’t written myself, and I was having fun all through the show. And when she left the show, I really noticed it. I felt like, “Oh wow, I’m back to standing on this tiny little ice floe of my own material.”
I realized that if the Neo-Futurists were in an ice cream freezer, you’d want to be chocolate or strawberry or one of the popular flavors that has a lot of shelf space and right in front and center, and I was like the pistachio or coconut almond fudge that there’s always one box of over in the corner for the people who like that sort of thing. There were times where I’d try to break my way out and say, “I can be strawberry. I can be chocolate. I can be vanilla,” and the company would kind of say to me, in various ways, “No, Dave. You’re the coconut. Stay on your shelf.”
In the early days of the show, we hadn't yet developed the little fairness mechanisms that were in place by the mid 90’s, like the Universal Cut System …

[On Sunday nights after a full weekend of shows we will add the two die rolls together from Friday and Sunday and the conductor from that week (this position rotates every two weeks through the performing cast.) will lead us in what is known as “universal cuts.” We run down the play titles and either say, “Keep it” or “Cut it.” If there is silence when we get to a certain play that means it is cut, unless someone got distracted and wasn’t paying attention. If you are in the show you are ultimately the only one who can say, “Cut it” to your own play. Anyone can say, “Keep it.” We go through the menu once in this fashion and then we go back and discuss only the plays that are kept. We give each other criticism on how each play went that weekend. If we need to cut more, we haggle, and we cut more. We never cut less. An interesting fact is that the current New York ensemble deals with this in a slightly different way. In New York you are not allowed to say, “Keep it” to your own play.]

I worked for the next few years at writing different kinds of plays and trying to push myself to stretch, and I got to where if I worked really hard, I could be in more of the show and do different kinds of things. I worked hard at trying to write good parts for other people, in the hopes that people would do the same thing for me, and I had varying degrees of success with that. Then, towards the mid 90’s it really came together. That was my best period in the show. I also think it was the best period of the show itself. And it’s funny, a lot of people will—the natural tendency, I think, to want to identify a golden age of the show is to think of your early years. But for me, I think it’s not my early years, it’s really the middle of the company. Starting in about 1993, once we moved into our own theater and got settled, we had for the first time in the history of the show a cast of 9 people that stayed absolutely stable for two years. It allowed us to figure each other out and really gel as an ensemble.

[The cast Dave is referring to is: Greg Allen, Greg Kotis, Ayun Halliday, Scott Hermes, David Kodeski, Diana Slickman, Lusia Struss, Heather Riordan, and Dave Awl. It was pretty close to exactly two years with this line-up. In March of 95 two women were cast, Anita Loomis and Stephanie Shaw. Phil Ridarelli returned that year. Greg Kotis and Ayun Halliday left to start the first New York Ensemble.)

I don’t want to go too far into the direction of saying everybody being on the same page or the same wavelength, because even during those two years I was talking about, we fought like cats and dogs. We all had different creative visions, but there was somehow a culture that we all developed together, and that worked really well. It was the chemistry of the group I'm talking about. You know, not the atoms themselves so much as the way the atoms are arranged to form the molecule.
And even after Greg Kotis and Ayun went to New York, that chemistry continued for a while. Phil came back into the cast, and fit right in, and then Anita and Stephanie, and it still felt like the same group of people.
And even after that period, I mean, the years from ’96 to 2000, my last 4 years, we had an amazing group of people that I was proud to be part of.

[For sake of space the next section must be summarized. Dave talked of all the great people that came into the show over the years to this very day. He wanted to stress that in many respects it was more the conditions around the ensemble than just the ensemble itself that caused 93 to 96 to be the Golden years for him. I came in after that time, and of course as I hear him say these words, I want to be the golden years for him, but I know the conditions he is talking about, I know the insanely talented people to whom he is referring; I know how well tuned an ensemble can get with concentrated time. I know how complicated the everyday politics of business got (PPA License, arranging for and constructing an actual Board, Trying to keep our space up to code, people were growing older, getting married, having babies and moving) I can fulheartedly say that all ensemble members present and past took on a challenge beyond what is expected of an actor, and all have achieved undying respect in my eye and to this day TML is still leaps and bounds above most anything else I would rather be doing theatrically, but I am willing to admit I brushed up against and just missed out on Dave's TML Golden Years.]


DA: Everybody who was in the show at that time will say that Scott Hermes really raised the writing bar. Before Scott we were all pretty prolific, but when he came into the show, he would bring in 7 new plays every week. And before that, everyone else might have written 1, maybe 2 new pieces per week. Sometimes there were weeks when you weren't able to come up with a piece at all, and sometimes we wouldn't have enough new plays to put in the menu, so we'd recycle old pieces. We would sometimes have to go, “Oh, we’re short a play. Let’s all try to improvise something on the spot.” Then suddenly Scott came along and we started saying to ourselves, “Well, Scott is going to get all 7 slots for new plays if the rest of us don’t bring in scripts to compete with him!” We all started writing a little harder to keep up with him and balance that out. Just rise to the Hermes (pronounced like the Greek god), the Hermes standard!


JP: Two people come to mind, you and Sean, when I think about how “sketch” can work in TML, no matter what we call it. We all have ways of testing the aesthetic. Your style seems to have bumped up against it more than most Neos I have known. What was your take on this conflict?
DA: I always, in my mind anyway, called myself the resident dissident of the Neo-Futurists. Because I don’t like dogma and I don’t like rules. I really don’t. I understand the sort of Oulipist principle that if you give yourself some rules and structures as an exercise to write in, that that’s productive and that’s fertile. And again, that really worked for me when I was writing What the Sea Means. I’m going to write a sequence of poems that fit this sort of rule. But in the early days of the Neo-Futurists our aesthetic was presented to us as a manifesto that almost had a moral imperative behind it. If something was not Neo-Futurist, then you might hear that said from certain corners of the company with a tone of almost biblical disapproval. And when Scott came into the company, he was really good at knocking that down. When certain people within the company would say, about a creative choice, “That’s not right. I don’t think that’s right.” —Scott would say, “As in, morally right?” and everybody would laugh and the tension would deflate and we’d get past it.
I was so admiring of Scott that he could be so light-hearted about it and still make the point so well. And we started to get away from that finally during that era. But the thing is, I never signed on for all of Neo-Futurism because I didn’t know about all of Neo-Futurism when I was cast. And there have always been elements of the Neo-Futurist aesthetic that just aren’t my thing, and there are other things I wanted to do creatively that weren’t really allowed. My dislike of rules in general, and the fact that some of the rules were trying to X out things I really wanted to do artistically, set up the fact that I was always going to push the boundaries. This is my dirty little secret—I have never cared for Italian Futurism. Never. I have no use for Marinetti. Sacrilege! Blasphemy! But I've always said that I was more interested in the Neo than the Futurist in Neo-Futurist. There was a stew of influences that Greg looked to when he sort of created the aesthetic. It included Italian Futurism, but it also included –
JP: Surrealism and Dada [Which are two of my favorite influences.]

DA: And, the big one for me: Fluxus. I was a Fluxus guy. I loved everything about the show that seemed Fluxus. From Futurism came the emphasis on speed. I’m not a speed person. I am a slow, ponderous, meditative person. That created some conflict in the show. Greg was always very impatient with my slow synapses and slow reflexes, and he would let me know that in various ways. And again, I was not an athletic person and I never will be, so to the extent that people in the group insisted on athleticism, I was just going to be a conscientious objector to all of that. What I loved about the aesthetic was the emphasis on directness and honesty, the eclecticism, and the risk taking, but mainly the eclecticism. The just sitting there and just being bombarded by 30 different things from 30 different directions is something that every time I would go and watch the show, especially when I wasn’t in it and didn’t know any of the material ahead of time, would just make my brain bubble over. By 45 minutes into the show, I would be spacing out on plays that were happening because I would be so busy thinking about the ideas that I was getting from what I'd already seen. That’s what hooked me in, and what I loved about it.


JP: What I love and am also frustrated about is the idea of honesty. Don’t you think explaining honesty to the audience in the face of having some plays that are coated in fabrication would contribute to the audience getting confused and not realizing when something is true? Because many plays are made more meaningful if the audience is completely aware that my father is really dead, or that you are actually gay, or that Greg got shot in the leg. That’s my problem with the show going too far into the surreal, into satire and sketch comedy, that you may lose that element of trust with the audience.
DA: I think so much of it is in the attitude. What saves it in that regard is the fact that we wrote these words ourselves and we’re doing our own work and the audience knows it (most of them who are paying attention). That creates a visceral connection to where even if I’m talking about watching a man talk to a lizard in a box on the el, the audience knows that Dave is telling this story in his words and it’s his story. And so by being his story, it’s as real and as personal, whereas if I had handed that monologue to someone else and he or she had gotten up and done it, it might or might not, depending on their skill as a performer, have that same visceral connection. You can feel when someone is performing their own words and those words are really meaningful to them. You can feel that personal connection that they have.

And that’s one of the things I’ve always loved about the Fringe — hearing people perform their own words, with as little as possible separation between the artist and the stage. There’s as little as possible money between the artist and the stage. And when you get into commercial theater, money comes in to produce it and the people who gave or raised that money get a say-so in the work. They are allowed to edit or direct or tamper, or whatever. It may make the work more polished, it may make the work mature, it may make the work better by a lot of standards, but the one thing it will not do is make the work more visceral, more real and powerful in the way that you experience when you walk into a room with only 50 seats in it, and someone gets up and performs something they wrote about their own life. You can’t duplicate that on the Broadway stage. You can’t. And after a couple years of experiencing the immediacy of fringe performance, when I would go to see conventional theater, I would just feel so alienated by the distance between the stage and the house, by the makeup, the costumes and all the layers of slickness. It just never provided the same thrill for me again. So, you say honesty, and I think in some regard, honesty is shorthand for a lot of those things—a certain directness and a certain nakedness, but also a certain passion that comes from an artist being invested in their own words and their own ideas. And maybe that’s as a performer or maybe that’s as a director, or maybe it’s even as a producer on some of the work, but the less money there is in the picture and the smaller the house, the more likely it is that the artists are going to have final say-so over their art. And that creates a more intense and flavorful experience, at least for my palate.

Picture Credits:
1. Dave TML Photobooth Picture
2. Dave Photo for Verbatim Verboten
3. Dave and Pineapple
4. Dave Photobooth Picture
5. Dave and Ernie
6. Dave and friends at The Orchard
7. Stephanie Shaw
8. TML cast circa 1993
9. Scott Hermes
10. Partly Dave Show
11. Blushing Under the Mushroom (Dave, Lisa Buscani, Greg Allen, Ayun Halliday)

Believe it or not, there actually are outtakes from this interview. There are also outtakes from the outtakes, but those I will keep to myself. Dave Awl Interview Outtakes

Monday, January 5, 2009

Lisa Buscani

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.

Lisa Buscani
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.

LB: Sure.

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.


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!”
-“It’s true!”
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.


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.


[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.


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.