Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Phil Ridarelli


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-->The only thing that comes to mind trying to construct an intro for Phil Ridarelli is: “With no further ado…” There is much covered in this interview about who is Phil and how much he means to The Neo-Futurists. So I will let our conversation speak for itself.

the great and wonderful Phil Ridarelli
as captured in un-candid interview by John Pierson
transcribed in earnest by Megan Mercier

JP: Do you happen to remember when you were introduced to theater? More specifically when did theater begin its course altering your life?

PR: Well I could actually pin point the moment when it…my life changed because of theater. It was first grade, South side of Chicago, southwest side, Damen & 65th. I went to Henderson Public School, I went to Kindergarten there and I went to first grade there, and then we moved out to the suburbs. It was first grade, it was Christmas time and the teacher said, there was a substitute teacher, and I sat right in the middle of the classroom and she said we were gonna do Frosty the Snowman. We were gonna sing that on the stage and she needed someone who was gonna be Frosty the Snowman and everyone was like, “Ohhhh! Ohhhh!”

[So begins the peculiar gesticulations of Phil. Whether it is from his Italian upbringing or his work with the very physical character driven improvisation at Avant Garfield, or his rigid Goodman training, or a natural eccentricity, Phil Ridarelli has some of the funniest, most outrageous, and often mechanically rigid, looking gestures. He is always presenting, even in his smallest moments his energy vibrates his limbs, lips, and eyebrows into action. In this moment he shoots his hand up into the air and waves it about, the waitress walks by thinking we need some assistance. We don’t. We have already ordered our breakfast. Phil is just accenting his memories with boyish dramatics.]

I just sat there. Which I did a lot, I spent a lot of my youth just staring at the wall.

[And then as he refers to himself, all motion stops, and his eyes widen, all is frozen but the lips around his mouth and his pupils darting to the side.]

I just sat there and I looked at her, I don’t know, something about the way I looked at her caused her to pick me.
I remember not telling my mom I needed a costume until like the night before, and I said something like, “oh yeah, by the way I’m Frosty The Snowman.” So she gave me a white turtleneck to wear. She came that night and sat up in the balcony. They put a hat on me and I danced around. She still talks about it. And then I didn’t really do any of that again—we moved out to the suburbs and that was kind of a big time adjustment.

JP: What age were you when you moved out there?

PR: Seven. It’s funny, I think about it and it’s the same age that Joey is now.

JP: Yeah, that must have been a big change. You were even farther from the city than I was.

[Phil and I often commiserated about being boys raised in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. There wasn’t much to complain about there, it was upper middle class, but it always seemed too calm and small in scope than I liked. I went to high school at John Hersey in Arlington Heights and he went to Palatine in Palatine. These two schools competed against each other in all sporting events. We never competed against each other. Neither of us was involved in competitive sports. So we never met. I did date a girl from Palatine once, but it didn’t go so well. She destroyed my mother’s car. I don’t blame Phil for that. I blame her.]

PR: Palatine. Big change. I remember on one of my first days there I was by myself and some big kid stopped me on my big wheel and spit on me. I remember thinking, “wh—why—what was that?” [He holds his shoulders in shrug position.] I didn’t get mad about it. I just didn’t understand why he did it. So I just drove off and went home. Saying to myself, “Oh, this is what it’s gonna be like, huh?” I adjusted fine.
I remember being involved in Readers Theater in elementary school and we would do an assignment where we had to write a play like about the Chicago Fire, and I was the reporter. I didn’t think that really meant much, but obviously it must have meant something to me because I remember those times more clearly than I remember other types of projects.
When you go to 7th & 8th grade you get to choose your electives but as you’re coming into junior high school they choose your electives for you and I was put in the theater class. I mean, I had no idea why—maybe they asked my parents or something? I don’t even know how they would have known to say, “Yeah he’s interested in this.” It just seemed really random.

JP: So you hadn’t really given any signs of wanting to be in theater, beyond those earlier experiences that most kids are forced to have?

PR: No, it wasn’t like “Phil’s the baseball player.” They just put me in that class. Maybe my parents said, “oh he did this once,” or maybe they put me in because they thought this kid stares at the wall too much.

JP: So you weren’t the class clown growing up?


PR: I wasn’t a clown. I wasn’t the guy who made the class laugh.

[At first I found it hard to believe that Phil was not the class clown. This is the Phil who would surprise us all the time in rehearsals. Out of nowhere Phil would do something that would stop all action, we were laughing too hard to get anything done. Before we let the audience in for TML we gather in a circle and hug each other. It’s a moment together to help focus before the chaos begins. One day Greg bent down to tie his shoe, Phil unzipped is pants and slapped his penis on top of Greg’s head. And before Greg new what was happening Phil put his penis back into his pants. Greg stood up confused. He had felt something on his head but he had no idea what. The cast tried to hold back their laughter, but the love circle exploded with uncontrollable giggles. If you had gone to the show that night, you may have noticed a bit more giggling in the corners in between plays.]

JP: But you knew you were funny, right?

PR: I had a sense of humor and I’d come out with these zingers every now and then. My family will tell you that I drew a lot of attention to myself among them. I remember going on family vacations and driving for hours and entertaining everyone in the car, and at family parties. But at school? Not so much.
So they put me in this theater class and I had a crush on the teacher. Ms. Burlingame. To this day, I love that woman. And then after that, every semester I took a theater class. We did a lot more in those classes than they had done in the past because me and my buddy Mike Phillips were very capable of doing more stuff. We would perform Second City sketches and we would do musicals. Up until that point Ms. Burlingame had only done a certain amount of stuff with them, like theater games or performing at school. She certainly made more opportunities for us because she recognized that we were capable and interested in more. She videotaped some of those, I remember. God knows where they are now.

JP: Do you remember any of the skits you used to do?

PR: Mike & his family took me out to Dundee to see Second City

[The Second City Northwest stopped producing revues in 1995. This was where I went to see live comedy. In the suburbs none of us were able to get to Chicago to go to the original Second City. This is where many of my friends saw Steve Carrel and Stephen Colbert for the first time.]

I saw Tim Kazurinsky & George Wendt. So we did Danny’s Diner. I improvised a couple of silent sketches. I did one pantomime as a guitar player trying to be real soulful, acoustic, and people kept interrupting me while I was doing a show. I’ll tell you what. [He begins laughing at himself.] I did some ridiculous things in junior high school. I got up in front of the entire school and lip-synched to Barry Manilow just cuz, like, I spent a lot of time in my room lip synching music. It’s terrible. It’s terrible. I look back and I just shudder.

[He says “terrible” and “shudder” with such pleasure and with such a telling smirk. We look back at our past sometimes with embarrassment, and often wish we hadn’t done something, but I know Phil would not undo any of the ridiculous things he is now reflecting on. There are no apologies necessary.]

JP: Shudders aside, were you driven by audience reactions?

PR: Yeah, by that point I felt…the reason I continued doing it was because I was good at it, I got a lot of praise for it. When I would do a show in school everybody in my family would come. There were like 25 Ridarellis in a couple of rows. Afterwards they’d come to my house and we’d have a big extended family event. It was huge. After junior high school I went on to high school and clearly acting was going to be my niche. I wasn’t going to be an athlete. I tried the swim team once, and I tried other things once but it was like, no, this was what I was going to do. Mike and I both auditioned for the fall play, You Can’t Take It With You. We were just entering high school. We auditioned before classes even started, and we both got cast. Which was unheard of. “Freshmen getting cast in the fall play?”

JP: Was it difficult being the freshmen, or did your elder classmates accept you right away? Did you feel intimidated?

PR: Oh no, it was great. Two of the best friends in my life I met in that play. I had a small part, Henderson, the tax collector guy. We did the fall play, another show in the winter, and we did one in the spring. And then my sophomore year I realized, “oh, I can sing, too” so I joined the choir—Mr. Peterson was a psychology teacher at Palatine, he directed all the shows. Mr. Reiser was the choir director and musical directing for all of the musicals. I still talk to him.

[The well above average talent of Phil and his school friends, along with a few good teachers kept the school creating more and more opportunities for the students. David Reiser wrote his own musicals, added a play of his own to the yearly program, keeping the students busy the full school term. David Reiser still produces musicals. His writing partner at the time was Jack Sharkey. David has
written over 40 musicals with a number of playwrights and 21 of them are published by Samuel French, Pioneer Drama and Baker's Plays. Phil also began auditioning in the summer at community theaters. He got to the point where in his high school years he was performing on stage and rehearsing year round.]
JP: So after your high school years you knew you were going to pursue theater.

PR: I did, but I didn’t have any plan. Which is how I do things a lot. I mean I was very lucky. By my mid-twenties, thirties, things just constantly came my way. I rarely if ever have gone out and said, “I want this.”

JP: I happen to know that you went to school at The Goodman, and I don’t quite see how you could just be given that. It’s pretty hard to get in there. You had to have taken some kind of initiative. So how did that happen?

PR: My Uncle Joe—He was a cab driver, he had a son who got involved with drugs, went to prison, got out of prison, got murdered out on his front porch stoop, his daughter never talked to him. Crazy. Crazy life. An exciting life. I loved him. I loved the guy. Really admired him. He came over one Christmas, maybe, it was one holiday, and he said, “You know you really oughta think about going to that Goodman School,” and all I said was “Okay. Okay, that’s what I’ll do.”

JP: How did he know about the school?

PR: He was a cab driver, they know about this stuff.
[I pictured this brand of cabdriver that drives around the city picking up students and giving them advise on what school they should attend. Not only can they design a college program for you, they can also physically take you there.]

PR: So perfect example of how I do things. My senior year everyone’s getting ready to go to college and I’m off staring at the wall. And I’m like, “Oh, you mean they don’t call me and say ‘Phil, will you come to school? [He pauses] I gotta…” [Phil gesticulates back and forth with his fingers, like he’s trying to figure out some mathematical formula. He raises his eyebrows pretending he has just made a profound, but tragically late realization.] “Oh shit.” So after high school, I lived at home for a year. Got high, drank.

JP: Yeah, me too. [I never even thought about college when in high school. In my family just graduating was an achievement. I was the second youngest out of five, but I was the first to graduate. I had to wander a year before I realized I was ready to learn something. Perhaps Phil had some similar notion of waiting till he felt he was ready.]

PR: I did a lot of Community Theater. Then I realized, okay, I gotta do this. So I applied to The Theater School at DePaul and then auditioned. I remember I came home one day from work, and my mom and I got in this big argument, yelling about something. [Phil pauses. I can see him making an honest-to-god realization, a genuine look of wonder appears on his face.] In hindsight now, this is the first time I’ve thought about it, after the argument, she gave me the letter from the Goodman. And I realized, just now, this moment, that she probably thought, “That’s it. He’s going away. The last one. My baby’s going away.” So she was probably anxious about me leaving. That’s why we argued. So I’m opening the letter and I think to myself, “Holy shit. What if it says no?” I’d put all my eggs in one basket. And they accepted me. So… I went to school.

JP: Do you remember your audition?

PR: Yeah. I did a monologue from Death of a Salesman and one from The Matchmaker. There was a very physical part of the audition as well. Mr. Riser & Mr. Peterson both gave me really glowing letters of reference. I had my headshot up in Palatine High School for awhile, right by the auditorium they had pictures of people who [Phil broke his train of thought here, sometimes he avoids saying a sentence that may make him look set apart, or special in any way. I on the other hand won’t do that for him. He was probably on that wall because he is fucking talented and the school wanted to recognize the ones they were proud of.]…and back years later it was like, water damage ate it. And I was like, “Oh, how appropriate.”

JP: What I know of Goodman is that it’s very regimented for a theater school. Did they keep you busy?

PR: Yeah, but I was used to it. That’s just what I did when I was younger. The Theater School was a strange experience. The first year, like everything else before, they handed me everything. I was in two shows—small parts, but again it was unheard of. “A freshman onstage?” I think they must have been impressed enough with the letters of recommendation. “Hey, maybe we’ll give this guy a chance in walk-on roles.” And the 2nd year I went through some personal trouble, I had a girlfriend who was very involved with drugs and it pulled a lot of my focus. And it was hard to move beyond that point and my teachers sort of recognized it. “Hey, if this guy’s not gonna push himself we’re not gonna…”
I never was on a mainstage show. They never cast me like that. They didn’t do a lot of comedy. I heard other people say this of me, “You know, they don’t know what do with you.” I got a warning my third year. If I didn’t personalize my work more they wouldn’t ask me back for the fourth year. Really shook me up. It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone tell me, “You might not be good enough.” I thought, “What!” I’d always been praised. Yeah, I think I did very well in the stuff I was cast but it probably would have been better if…again, I’ve never been one of these guys who looks at what I’m doing in the context of the larger art world. I should have been taking classes at Second City and getting a commercial agent. I just didn’t know ANY of that stuff. There was a woman who came from some L.A. casting office and we did scenes for her. Very impressed. And I just didn’t follow through with it. I didn’t. “If they want me they know where I live.” I had that kind of attitude.
The last thing I did at school was a workshop with Scott Hermes and Wendy Goeldner. [Who later became Wendy Goeldner Hermes, huh.] The teachers kind of said, “We can’t cast you guys in anything, so we’ll put you in this improv workshop.” And that’s what we did. We improvised a show. It was improvised every night. It was the first time I had been introduced to, “Oh, you can just make up your own work.” It’s so funny because I hear myself talking about all the things I’ve done and really Too Much Light was the apex, the point where it all came together and made sense to me. Where I said, “Oh, I can use all these things I learned from all these different areas.”

JP: A few years later you would work quite a goodly sum with Scott. Did you know him before you were thrown together for this Goodman project?

[In Scotts’s interview coming up soon, we learn how Scott ended up at The Goodman. At this point Scott Hermes had already graduated from University of Chicago, and had already been one of the core members of Cardiff Giant, performing their show Avant-Garfielde weekly at Jimmies Woodlawn Tap in Hyde Park.]

PR: We knew each other in school. [But they hadn’t acted together.] He was a graduate student when I was an undergrad. So we improvised a show. It was called Dream Story. We would talk and talk, so that when it came time for the show we could pull from stuff that we knew about each other’s childhood and use it for a scene or image, a physical image. It was a blast. We did all sorts of stuff.

[This intensive use of discussion to broaden the realms of their improvisation is the process that Cardiff Giant had already been exploring, in their improvisation and soon in their very own scripted plays.]

PR: When I got out of college I thought, “Ohp! better get to work.” I took a job as a social worker. In hindsight, I feel you should just work in your field. It doesn’t matter if you’re gonna work in a box office or whatever just work in your field. There’s no sense in taking an office job if it’s not what you wanna do. I wish somebody had told me that. I spent four years as a social worker.

JP: You don’t think any of that world experience contributes to the theater you do?

PR: I mean yeah, obviously it does. That year between high school and college I worked at Little City, a place that was an institution for the mentally retarded. So yeah, it definitely played a big part in who I am and what interests me. But as far as what gave me opportunities, I would tell somebody just put yourself in those places where the opportunities are going to be and surround yourself with people who are doing the work you wanna do.


INTRODUCTION TO TML

PR: So after graduating I worked as a social worker for four years—it was on the South Side—and it was during this time that Scott invited me to come work with Avant-Garfielde down in Hyde Park. I was living with my girlfriend at the time. She was also in Dream Story. We lived on School St. right over by the old Stage Left. She said, “Hey, let’s go see this show. Too Much Light. You roll the dice, 30 plays in 60 minutes.” I’m like, “Okay sure.” We went and saw it. And I always tell this story about how Phil Gibbs was on the microphone at the time interviewing people as they sat in the chair before they went in the audience. I said, “Hi my name’s Phil,” or whatever like, “Hi. Great.” And, I got on the mike and started interviewing people just as an audience member.

[This will surface in a few interviews to come, but in the early days and up through the first year at the Neo-Futurarium as the audience entered, the cast would interview each and every one of the audience members. The spaces from Stage Left to Live Bait to The Neo-Futurarium increasingly got larger and so did the audiences, so it makes sense that this aspect would be dropped based on the amount of time it would take. Yet it seems a shame. It was a great way to immediately break down that wall between audience and performer.]

PR: A couple weeks later my girlfriend said “Hey, they’re having auditions for that show we just saw.” And I auditioned and I wrote a piece that was completely not Neo-Futurist at all.

JP: You were on a telephone.

PR: Yeah, it was called “Phil’s Phone Call”, and there was somebody at the other end. [In reality there was no
one at the other end.] Yeah. The other people auditioning must have been really bad, let’s put it that way.
[He later wrote another play called “Phil's Phone Call 2" about waiting for the results of an HIV test.]
JP: Greg was saying there was not much structure to the auditions at that time other than that the monologues had to be original. They were just looking for people with a spark, with charisma.

PR: I think it’s true. If I had to audition
the way people have to audition now I think I would never get cast. So I got cast. I did it and I loved it. It was this great culmination of everything I’d done in the past.

ABOUT AVANT GARFIELD/CARDIFF GIANT

JP: Before we get too deep into the Neo-Futurists, I’d like to take a little look at your participation in Cardiff Giant’s improv show Avant-Garfielde.

[I don’t want to have to say too much about the aforementioned group, because a few of the interviews to come will deal with this ensemble more thoroughly. But there is important information gleamed from their place in Neo history. Three big players in the epic story of TML, Phil, Scot and Greg K, all had time together to nurture their individual skills through intensive performances of improvisation in Avant-Garfielde on a small stage in the back of a bar called Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap. Kotis and Hermes went on to nurture their writing skills through scripts written from hours, into days into months of improvisational rehearsals in Cardiff Giant productions. These three men are mightily responsible for bringing a heightened sense of spontaneity, large gesticulations/presentational style, and a quick-witted rapport with the audience into Too Much Light. Other folks from Cardiff Giant include John Hildreth who has worked on the Second City stages and teaches at Columbia, and Mark Hollman, who still works very closely with Kotis. Together they wrote the Tony award winning Urinetown. This area of Hyde Park had a theater history already. The room next door to the Woodlawn Tap, which is no longer there, was the bar with a stage that spawned The Compass Players, which became The Second City. What is even more interesting is that during this time University of Chicago didn’t even have a theater department.]

PR: When I first saw Cardiff Giant I just remember thinking, “Wow, these guys are so smart. I’m not as smart as these guys.” Greg was a political science major and Scott was a math major.

JP: So Scott brought you to Jimmy’s Woodlawn tap and that is where you first met Greg Kotis?

PR: Yeah and we became good friends. I’ll tell you I had some of the best most memorable theater moments with that group. But I also had some of THE WORST in my life. We got a show at a place called Peridot, at 53rd or something like that. A little coffee shop, improv night, there’d be just a couple people. I’ll try this game where I’m gonna make up this poem and take random suggestions from the audience as I’m saying it—boom. It was a fucking disaster. By the middle of it people were just like, “Stupid! Sit DOWN!” and I’m like, “Awww man. Well, if I can make it through that, I can make it through anything.”

JP: Why weren’t you more a part of this transition from pure improvisation in Avant-Garfielde to the scripted plays presented on the Northside?
PR: I auditioned for Too Much Light, I got cast just as they were starting to rehearse and improvise LBJFKKK. And I left, said you know what? I’m gonna do this Too Much Light thing, I’m gonna focus on that. [Both the Neo-Futurists and Cardiff Giant started to accumulate an enthusiastic growing audience. Cardiff Giant began performing their full-length shows on the North side and both companies maintained an influx of great reviews.] Later I went in and helped assistant direct for After Taste, one of their first musicals, and Johnny (Hildreth) left and I filled in for him. So I still had a relationship with Cardiff Giant while I was doing Too Much Light. It wasn’t long after, that Greg joined—was it Scott first?—No, Greg.

[A couple days later I learn from Scott’s interview that he auditioned the same time as Kotis, but that only Kotis made it in on that round. Ridarelli: May 18th 1989. Kotis: May 24th 1991. Hermes: Sept 25th 1992.]

PR: So we were all back together. I was so happy. “Yeah! Come on in. That’s fantastic!” We had a vocabulary. It was nice to be there with those guys and to have a common background. The thing I admire about Greg (Kotis) is he’s made a very conscious choice of developing his own style, his own sensibility. It started in Cardiff Giant, it got a little more defined in Too Much Light, and then the writing he’s doing now is clearly evolutionary.

"NEW" IS THE NEW "OLD"

JP: When you joined Too Much Light they had been around six months. In retrospect that seems quite early in the game but back when there was no real sense of a show lasting twenty years it must have seemed like a long time. How did it feel joining a show that had been so newly established, and with an increasing notoriety?

PR: It was great. I got the sense that people were really happy for me. “You found a place where you are happy and can succeed.” I guess in school I was just floating around saying to myself, “I don’t know, they don’t know what to do with me.” So it was great to establish this niche. In terms of other theater, I never felt too productive. In Too Much Light, gosh, everything is an idea, everything is…you know, “Oh, look what they did! They turned the form on its ear this way,” and “Oh, that gave me this idea!” I’d go to the museums and see bands and listen to more diverse music. It taught me how to take what I was seeing and hearing and find inspiration in everything.

JP: There are so many elements that are unique to Too Much Light. Was there any one facet that really took you by surprise in those first days of your involvement?

PR: I remember the thing that struck me the most was when people started calling out numbers and I was like, “oh fuck! It really is random. Whoa.” That was a big lesson. You know a play, the whole arch of the play, well this was all these little archs and you didn’t know which was coming next. I always say the formal training I got at the Theater School helped me prepare for that sort of loosy goosy feel because even all that crazy loosy goosy stuff always felt rooted and there was a reason why the play just before this—even though it was random—affected the next play and the next play and the next play.

JP: “Arch” is usually a term actors use to express the journey of their character, or their play, or their scene. How does Too Much Light have an arch in your opinion?

PR: It’s an interesting discussion, because we don’t play characters, you’re playing yourself. So the material you are performing is more than half the time about yourself. So real characters start developing. Not to get all intellectual about it, but that was a part of my life when I began emerging as an individual. I was at home. The relationships I was choosing, the jobs I was choosing, were purposely developing.

JP: So you think your career as an actor formulated during this time?

PR: Once I started Too Much Light at Stage Left—that’s when Stage Left started asking, “Hey would you do these plays with us? The other plays?” I became an ensemble member there for a little while. Then when Too Much Light left to go to Live Bait I remember being very anxious because I didn’t want [leaving] to become a habit with me because I’d done the same thing with Cardiff Giant. I went back to Stage Left and it was very emotional and I said, “I can’t remain a company member of both. I was a Neo-Futurist before I was at Stage Left. I’m gonna leave the ensemble and be a Neo-Futurist ensemble member.” [I just had an interview with Karen Christopher and she talked quite a bit about the internal conflicts this first move brought to the foreground. This conflict Phil was going through will be elucidated even more in her interview.] And we went to Live Bait and the people at Live Bait started asking me to be involved in plays there and from there it just kind of grew and grew. That was about when I got fired from my social worker job and I was like “Fuck. I don’t have anything. Now what?” Right then I got hired to do the world premiere of Lonely Planet directed by the playwright Stephen Dietz with William Brown at Northlight. It was my first Equity show. I got my [equity] card. I started looking my age—I was bald by my mid-20s. Commercial work started coming my way. I was just focusing on what I enjoyed and what I was good at, the opportunities came more and more. Once I got my Equity card I left Too Much Light for awhile. I’d been doing Too Much Light for a good amount of time. [I tried to find the exact time that Phil left TML for the first time, but the exact time is unclear. I know that he is in the ensemble photo for TML 91/92 and he returns for the ensemble photo from 95, which is the year before I came in. So he performed for about three years, took two years off and then returned and then left again around 97.] I went up to Madison Rep a couple times and shows at Victory Gardens and more and more TV day roles, commercials were coming in. It’s seems so fast now.

JP: Most Neos I talked to loved casting you Phil. You were probably the most used in other people’s plays for quite a long time. Why do you think that is?

PR: I think the big reason why people cast me in their Too Much Light plays a lot was because I always had my lines memorized. I mean, even since when we talk about grammar school and that shit? Never been an issue for me. I think people knew, “He’ll have his lines memorized,” [I will add that most people who used Phil spoke about his good memorization skills, but they also knew that Phil could make their play funny if it was supposed to be funny. Phil could act.]

JP: I talked to Greg Allen about working with you. We talked about how acting relates to the Neo-Futurists. And I asked whether or not Phil’s performing was character-driven in TML. He basically said no. Your big character is yourself. A lot of your actions are larger than life, big gesticulations, very character-like movements, but he was saying that it fit in the show well because it was you. The energy and physicality was you on and off stage. When I first saw you perform, I saw this bigness but I was also very impressed with the stone cold look you could put on. You have an incredible ability to express humor or drama without having to put on, or change, much expression on your face. Seeing that inspired me.


PR: I do remember being a big presence, vocal, a loud presence and force in the show. But I think after awhile I realized it wasn’t always necessary, especially in a room with that many raucous people at that time of night with that kind of attitude. You were capable of getting their attention by being more subtle and focused than constantly having to be loud. And I still do all that crazy, over-the-top stuff but I remember some of those other moments as well as—I know exactly what you’re talking about—those moments of letting the play come to you, being just silent and still. I was happy I had success doing both. I wouldn’t have always wanted to be that guy or that guy.


JP: The format that we have given ourselves allows for so many techniques and skills to be nurtured, but what gives the show it’s enjoyable live feel is the performers comfortableness with having fun, being playful. This is an important element that reminds the audience that we are there with them. But it also reminds us that we are lucky to perform with people that are practically like family. Sometimes it is hard to get through a play without laughing or just smiling. Are there any memories that come to mind where this playfulness surfaced and took over a play?

PR: There was a play with David Kodeski, Steve Mosqueda, and me under a blanket and we would pop up on
a certain line and at one point David turned to me and he said, “Dutch oven.” And the three of us just laughed.  
You could see the sheet shaking, we just laughed. There was a similar incident with Kodeski.  [Kodeski was
famous for making people in the cast laugh while on stage, and he would often break himself.  And the
audience would always laugh along with him.  He could have been a successful guest star on the
Carol Burnett Show.] David wrote a play about the chicken’s asshole being called the vent. We’d just gotten
the air conditioning units put in.  [These vents hang obtrusively above our stage.  They remind me of the
ducts you find in the movie Brazil.]  He was talking about the chicken's asshole being called a vent and I just
very slowly turned my head up toward the air vent and Kodeski lost it.


JP: In TML you are always very good about talking to the audience between plays. Did this come natural to you, especially since you had been improvising in front of audiences already with your Goodman show and with Cardiff Giant?

PR: Yeah, I mean, I think if anything those “in between moments” were the opportunities to improvise. And we weren’t improvisers—but it was my way of letting people know that we’re still here and we’re still trying and we’re still interacting with each other and it’s real easy in Too Much Light to get into the habit of
saying “curtain.” Wait for the next one. “Curtain.” Wait for the next one. And that was my way of saying the energy has gotta stay present throughout.
I often got really pissed off, the buzzer would go off and there were plays on the clothesline and we would ask the audience if they wanted to see the rest, and I’m like, what the fuck are you thinking? We put 60 minutes and we try, if we don’t, you know. So one night, we asked and they said yes, and I took the clock off the wall and handed it to someone in the audience and said “Here. You can have this. Obviously it means nothing to us so you take this home with you.” Somebody got it back, I’m sure. But all those discussions and arguments early on about the traditions and the rituals before the show, the pricing of the show, everything—you know, I had those arguments in theater school where you had to justify your choices, so I felt very strongly about…in a sense, to a fault, you can’t change any part about the show. But I justified every part of the show so I didn’t want it to change.

JP: When a show becomes that popular it is hard to stay pure to an original idea. I agree with being stringent about many of the parameters involved with Neo-Futurism. It is not how I feel about theater in general, but if I choose to be part of an aesthetic then I choose to wrestle within it rather than try to tear it down.

TMLMTBGB NOT JUST A SHOW BUT A COMPANY?

PR: For a long time I didn’t think of it as a theater company. I’d tried starting a theater company with some friends right out of college and we did a couple shows then we were done. I didn’t…I wasn’t about to start another ensemble. I always felt better being a hired gun. “You want me to come in, do your show? You want me again, come talk to me again.”

JP: Was there a time when you started feeling you were part of a company?

PR: Oh, oh yeah. There was a time when I looked around and thought, oh yeah, I’m part of a company.

JP: And that was before the company even started writing and producing other shows than Too Much Light?

PR: Yeah. But soon we started doing the first few solo performances and the first few sort of original scripts. I took a trip with me and Greg and Adrian [Adrian Danzig is a 500 Clown founder.] to Vermont, and a bunch of Adrian’s friends and we lived at this farm. We spent a few weeks putting together this play for a bunch of people in Vermont. It was that whole Dream Story experience again.
There was so much potential, we could make something of nothing. And so if there’s anything I regret now its that I am not involved as much as I’d like in the Prime Time shows I’ve seen lately—Roustabout and A Very Neo-Futurist Christmas Carol and Beer, some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen. Fantastic. I would love to be involved in those things, working with people who are part of the Neo-Futurists now who are much younger than I am. I think I’d be able to offer a lot.

JP: You have directed a few shows with the Neo-Futurists. The Mime was the most recent. In some ways I think they way Too Much Light works helps to set a performer up to think often more like a director than performer. We are asked to be critical of each other, which is difficult.

PR: In Too Much Light I was very vocal. I think people in the ensemble were either—I don’t wanna toot my own horn and say they were intimidated by me—either that or they figured “I don’t wanna argue with Phil because he won’t drop it.” I never understood that. “I’m telling you why or how I think this might be improved or why I don’t think it’s good enough to be in the show.” I would always throw out an idea. And I was shocked that people thought they had to take my ideas, that they couldn’t just say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Great! No problem! I’m more than willing to imagine that maybe I was more willful than that, or whatnot, but I never saw it any other way. You were supposed to do that.

JP: When I came into Too Much Light I had already written and produced 15 of my own plays, and I very early in that process learned that it was important for me to listen and incorporate as many opinions I could without it changing any vision I had. I would often ask my actors their opinion, and I was constantly inviting theater friends to watch rehearsals and runs. Many times I found that my vision was flawed and that other’s opinions only helped to clarify what I was doing. But it took me awhile to accept when I felt I was right and when I felt I might be wrong. Creativity can be very vague. I think this made my transition into the Neo-Futurist “collective” easier than it had for some others. I love the idea of something becoming more flushed out by the input of people who are as equally talented. It’s a dream come true for me. I think we often get too defensive or precious about our work. I often catch myself getting offended, and I just have to step back for a moment to discover that is coming more from a place of insecurity than righteousness.

PR: I think it’s a very important lesson to understand. I mean, Too Much Light is not gonna die. You can’t kill it. So, take advantage of the fact that it’s going to be there. It’s this long thing. Be patient with yourself. Don’t feel like, just because someone gives you criticism on this thing—it feels fast-paced and frenetic and you gotta get a play in this week—it doesn’t have to be that way. You’re gonna be a member of this ensemble for a loooong time if you choose to be. You can keep trying out different stuff. You know, Kodeski was the same way. He was very blunt with people. Sometimes I’d think he would do it just to push people’s buttons. But for the most part, he was very similar to Stephanie, I remember Stephanie being that way. But there were some people that just didn’t…on occasion I felt people were resentful of the fact that I was speaking out, up on my feet making suggestions about how to stage something or what not.

-->A KAREN CHRISTOPHER CHALLENGE/CATCHING YOUR OWN BULLSHIT



JP: I had commented once that while performing I always knew when you were in the audience. I could hear you laughing and talking to the actors and the people around you. To clarify, you do not interrup plays, but add a soundscape, an awareness of your presence. You make it a priority for all to know you are there as an audience member and/or also as a performer. And you said that one of your inspirations for that presence came from working with Karen Christopher.

PR: Karen and I had seen a performance troupe from San Francisco. I believe they were all ex-convicts. Karen told me about it; dragged me along. One of the things they had in common with the Neos was that there was no lying onstage. These guys were constantly in each other's faces if they thought there was bullshit going on. At some point after that I was performing a monologue in Too Much Light and Karen yelled from the side, "You're acting!" And she was right. I wasn't connected to the material at all. I was trying to hard to get a reaction from the audience. And she called me on it. So I immediately replied "You're right" and called curtain or something. I think if anyone interrupted a scene or monologue now, the particular author or performer would freak out. I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think so. This reminds me of another similar moment where I was performing a monologue that was submitted by an audience member. There was a first! It was about his father, his relationship with his father and that he was dying. There was nothing neo-futurist about it. It should have never been performed on our stage by one of us, but there you are. Anyway, it was very well written and very moving and I always got very emotional performing it. One night at Live Bait, I remember being so outside of it, just going through the motions thinking, "gee, what young lady will be so impressed with my sensitivity that I might get laid tonight" and I was shocked with myself. I stopped mid-sentence and said aloud "I can't do this." Ted Bales must have thought that I was so deeply moved. He came over and asked if I was alright, kinda escorting me offstage with his arm around me. I almost laughed out loud. I think I said "Oh, no. I'm fine. I'm just full of shit."


JP: Looking at your theater history, it’s pretty diverse. Do you feel you have always been perceived this way?

PR: I had a foot in the commercial world and a foot in the improv world and sort of the theatrical subculture and only occasionally did they cross over. People were like, “Oh you do THAT? I didn’t know you could sing.” or “I didn’t know you did comedy” or “I didn’t know you did straight stuff.” I’m not…I don’t say that I’m capable of doing anything. But so often people see you as one thing and that’s all they think of you of. I still, to this day, I go to theater auditions and people say “Oh, you still work with the Neo-Futurists?” It’s just that’s what it is.

JP: I often say that you are one of the best actors I know.

PR: Thanks

JP: And I often ponder, “Why doesn’t everybody know the many wonders of Phil?” What part of this ignorance of your talent are you responsible for? I feel you are very successful, but I think you know what I mean.

PR: I made definite choices and I avoided some certain choices. I wanna live here, I wanted to be a father as much as I wanted be an actor when I was a young man. I think more than anything now I’m ready to start looking for more of a balance. Again, I was so caught up in Too Much Light and being in Chicago that it never really crossed my mind to go to L.A. or something like that, you know? And from where I sit? I’m not the best guy out there. When I was a young man I walked around saying “I can do anything. I am the best actor for this job.” And now I know that’s not true. I know there are certain things that I’m just not good at. It’s an interesting place to be. I had a conversation with Beth before the kids were born. It’s a hard thing. I want the best for them—it’s been this way my whole life—I want the best for them, but I’m not…I don’t wanna have that lifestyle of just giving up my dreams entirely. And Beth said, “I’d rather have the kids seeing their father pursuing what he loves rather than being miserable about not doing it.”

JP: Have your children seen you perform on stage yet?

PR: Not really. Actually, Yeast Nation might be a good time for them to see me. [Yeast Nation is the name of the new Musical by Greg Kotis that will premiere in Chicago. Actually as I am sitting here editing this interview, Bilal behind me on another computer just saw an article that said that Yeast Nation originally to be premiered in Spring has been pushed back to Fall, produced my American Theater Company. Phil had also acted in Greg's chicago debut of Jobey And Katherine. Pictured below.] They’ve seen me on TV, like in a movie—“that’s you! That kid, he’s like, playing you’re son? What?” They’ve seen that. I admire Adrian [Danzig], his ability to raise a family and pursue the things that he loves, is really good at, really passionate about. Greg [Kotis], the same way. His ability to say, “This is my time, I’m gonna rent a space to write, that’s what I’m gonna do and that’s my time to do that.” I’m lazy to the point that I just enjoy picking up the guys, hangin out with them after school. I’m incredibly, incredibly lucky.












JP: I had a short conversation with Adrian when I worked with him on Go Dog Go and he was fairly critical of The Neo-Futurists and companies like Oobleck’s inability, whether intentional or not, to really make a product out of their successful shows. I don’t think he is saying that Too Much Light hasn’t done well, but that it is nowhere near as financially stable as a Second City or a Steppenwolf, and therefore hasn’t achieved its potential.

PR: But you know what? I don’t resent the fact that Greg didn’t or can’t take the show to that commercial level—like if the show was Comedy Sportz or Second City and has a base in many cities—you could certainly do that, you could certainly have that. [He pauses, looks at me deadpan, but a more serious deadpan and then he continues.] In a way, it’s silly not to. Greg has a strong enough sense of theater, the theatricality of it doesn’t have to turn into a commercial, frat boy party. But, you know, I think that Adrian and 500 Clown got the opportunity to take their show around the world and use it as a tool to meet other artists and, by all means. By all means! Can you imagine if we did the same weekend of Too Much Light for two years? Toured the country for two years? Doing the same show, choose the Best Of or whatever. In the back of your head everyone would be dying to change things up. Greg knows how to run the art, how to create art, direct a group of people to achieve his vision. Running a business... maybe not so much. My perception has been that if Too Much Light got too much bigger or expanded too quickly, he wouldn't be able to control... (influence?) both sides to his liking, to his satisfaction. So...until he does... it ain't gonna happen. I could be wrong, but it's been 20 years, so perhaps I'm not.

JP: The show is unique in many ways and more like an art movement than a scripted play it is difficult to distinguish between the power of the structure and the power of the ensemble. To create something with this built in dilemma must make for some difficult times.

PR: You gotta realize where the true success of the show lies. You gotta learn to embrace each individual's contributions to the show. Early conversations about ownership and the creative process were often painful and hurtful. It took a lot of us, Greg included, accepting what the show, what the company, was going to be... and what it wasn't going to be.

INFLUENCING EACH OTHER AND CONSTRUCTING PLAYS

JP: Prior and during the early days of Too Much Light were you aware of the performance art that was going on in Chicago, spoken word or slam poetry?

PR: No. I certainly wasn’t, I mean, I wasn’t a part of it. I never attended a poetry slam but I knew it was out there. I just—

JP: But they seem to at some point collide.

PR: Well I would say that’s owed all to Dave and Lisa. They just said, “Well, this is what I do. It’s poetry and I’m gonna do it in the show.”

JP: Did that seem strange at the time?

PR: Oh no. No no. It made perfect sense to me. I enjoyed doing it. That’s why I enjoyed collaborating with Dave. I just hadn’t written that way. It wasn’t just the poetry, it was the absurd plays that he’d written, too.

JP: I love Dave’s absurdity, his sense of rhythm and music.

PR: Yeah, that was so much fun. You know, he really introduced me to a lot of different music that I hadn’t listened to before. Just his spirituality, his sense, I’d never known a guy like Dave before.

JP: Talk a bit about how you cast a play. Often we tend to get comfortable writing for the same people. Did you have certain ensemble members you wrote for the most?

PR: No. I made a point of thinking, “Who is going to give me what this play needs?” If I were the central character in a play, I would think who has the quality that I’m looking for here? Lusia would play my mom, Steve would play my drinking buddy. It was about who had whatever quality to play off of. That’s whom I would write for. It’s a combination of casting people to what you need and writing something for specific people. I’m thinking now of those plays of mine similar to, “Catch a Falling Star.” [This can be found in the book of plays called 200 More Neo-Futurist Plays…] Anita had to be the person over there who was, like, flirting and Kodeski was the guy over there tapping a glass, because it just made sense to me that way. Like you need somebody who’s dry and sort of bored with it. That’s Kodeski. Recasting always bothered me. People would leave for a while and you’d recast it and it’s just not the same.

JP: Often I’ll just take a play out of the menu instead of struggling to recast. Along with that I like to challenge myself to commit to the life of my plays but at the same time not get too attached, and think of them more as a process, as variations on a theme. If I’m recast in someone’s play…my job is to try to find my own way to do it, and if the roll is too specific I will feel it, and the author will often choose to recast again or take it out, and that is fine with me.

PR: It’s like that silent piece that Bilal wrote with the clown noses and the cup game. [Cognito Communicado] The minute I saw it I was like, “I’ve got to do that piece. I have GOT to do that piece.” Part of it was because it’s such a good piece and part of it was I wanted to make it my own. It was very similar to the stuff I’d written and I wanted to have written that piece. It was just great.

JP: I have heard from a few of the interviewees, when talking about consistent quality, and someone who could write for anyone, they immediately bring up Scott Hermes. To Dave and Diana, Scott raised the bar, and forced them to concentrate on becoming better writers. You have told me in the past that you agreed with the statement about his immense talent but you had also said that you didn’t feel that pressure from him. Probably because you had worked with him for so long already, and that you had arrived in the company before him.

PR: I’ll try to respond to that in a roundabout way. I’m thinking now of the history, just the relationships within the show. People like Betsy and Ted came and went, some of the people that chose not to have a relationship with the Neo-Futurists afterwards. Those guys who were in the show when I first joined Phil Gibbs, Robin, some of their names I can’t even remember, Mike, Melissa. I was trying to live up to their standard.
It’s funny, I got in at the time when people are like, “So you’re an original Neo-Futurist?” No. I mean, I let people think that. Well they couldn’t have been doing it that long. Six months maybe before I joined them?

JP: Greg has said that that first year they went through something around 20 people.

PR: Really? I’m thinking now of all the faces that came through for those early months or year. Wow. I mean there were…yeah.

JP: Yeah it’s hard to see that now because you join the company and you expect to be there for at least two years. We cast new ensemble members in prime time shows that are happening a year and a half to two years later. You’re assuming that they’re going to be around.

PR: If you’re an ensemble member I don’t know why you wouldn’t keep some kind of contact or relationship. You know, it presents more opportunities for you. Why wouldn’t you? I’m really looking forward to Yeast Nation.

ON DIRECTING

JP: You worked on the prime time show Picked Up. You directed Dean’s piece called the Mime. That was the best work I had ever seen Dean perform. I overheard that you kept stripping down his performance, constantly having him simplify, and make reactions smaller. I think that was a brilliant move, it made his performance of an absurd plot feel real.

PR: You know, you’re the first person to hear say that and I’m glad, but I have no context. I didn’t know Dean. Really what it was just directing what I thought appropriate for the moment. I mean, hats off to those guys for just trusting me to do it. I don’t think they’d ever actually seen me…Dean took a big leap of faith and trusted me to do it. I’m glad he did.

JP: You are accumulating quite a few directorial appearances with the Neos: Torque, a few Film Fests and, of course, The Mime. So I imagine you want to continue to pursue directing?

PR: Yes, for so many reasons. I enjoy applying a vision to a longer form. I enjoy, I think I’m good at helping people with their performances—like this whole thing with Dean. I enjoyed the hell out of that. Telling a good story. Logistically, I appreciate the fact that I can direct and the show can run. I don’t have to be there, I can be home with my kids. That’s a big factor. And it’s nice to know that people would trust me enough to say, “Here. We want you to lead us.”

JP: Many directors have their vision and they do what they can to stick to it and others work on the fly and their ideas come to them in the moment? Do you look at a script and see staging?

PR: I think ideas come out during rehearsals. But in terms of the overall show, I try to be faithful to the script. Most of the stuff I choose to do in the staging has to do with communicating the themes, telling the story. Not that I’m against setting Shakespeare in the Deep South in the 1900s, but it’s not the first thing I would choose to do. I always think that works for heightened moments of the show, like, “Yeahhhh…you know, all those work together.” But then you stick it with the rest of the script where it doesn’t necessarily work and then it feels forced. Not all the time. But for me primarily it’s “Let’s tell a story.” I try to understand what each of the characters is experiencing, going through. You know, because I’m an actor. That’s where my focus goes. What’s the story about for them?
Being an actor or director, you look at a script, something that draws you to it? Commit yourself. And the more you commit yourself the more the play is about you and something that you have to learn. Now, it’s absolutely possible and probably more likely that what you’re simply doing is projecting your needs onto this text and so you get out of it what you need to hear. But, in that way, it becomes about you and things that are important to you rather than starting by imposing your opinion on it.

THE COMPLEXITY OF EMOTIONS ON STAGE

JP: Punk music is based on simple, melodic, three-chord music, so it’s easy to get the impression that anybody can do it. “It’s easy because it’s simple.” And then you find out, “Oh no, you have to have a sense of melody.” I think that happens with Neo-Futurism, “Oh, you guys are just being yourselves. That should be simple.” But there is a lot of skill that has to be learned. For instance, if you’re talking about an emotion you experienced in the past, you are looking at it in retrospect so more than likely you wouldn’t feel the same emtion. You have to bring it to the present and perform it in a way that you’re not pretending. I think people often forget the difficulty in that.

PR: I think it’s impressive that you can get to the emotion in another way. There’s been a few times on that stage where there’s been real emotion, where I’ve lost myself in it and that’s wonderful. It’s really cool. Pretty rare though. But yeah, it’s…I don’t wanna belittle anyone who’s auditioned for the show, but some people’s auditions, they think they get it, and yet it’s so far away from what we do.

JP: The one thing I think translated that I heard from Sheldon Patinkin at Columbia that I still think has to do with the Neo-Futurists—and he’s pretty strict with his directing, pretty old school. He says if an actor is feeling it, he’s probably not doing it right. I feel in Too Much Light if you’re feeling it too much, you’re not really portraying what you’re trying to say. I know there are some times on stage when talking about a topic it affects you. But if it becomes more about the emotion, let’s say I’m talking about something sad that happened to me, like my father died, if I were just to have it be about that, then what they’re seeing is not a story where they can relate to sorrow or whatever. It’s more about oh, John is sad onstage. I think it’s important that we look at our plays and it has to be relevant, not just a diary.

PR: It’s always gonna be theatrical, and I guess my only response to that is how few times people realize that doing something that’s comic is the same thing. I think this relates back to what we talked about, that same blank performance style, just sort of letting it happen. If you were to act funny about it, the frustration of being stuck with a cup here and a balloon here and you can’t put them down, you know, you don’t play that “whoaaah look at me,” you play the “how do you solve this problem,” you play the frustration. I think that also relates to, don’t play the emotion. What’s your action? What are you trying to accomplish? And it’ll be funny. But the plays that really intrigued me were the ones that were on the line of, is this funny? Is this sad? There was a pair of plays I wrote with the same physical action to different music. One was a Bobby McFerrin tune, one was like a Looney Tunes soundtrack. We called them “Harmony" and "Coda.” In the show, whichever one came first—the funny one came first, whichever title was pulled second, the more serious tone music came second. And it was just amazing how each thing, same gestures, same physical score was tragic or comic.

JP: Phil we have to wrap this up. But I am sure that we will have many conversations to come. Because it doesn’t seem like the Neo-Futurists are getting rid of either of us any time soon. I can only hope you plan on being even more involved in the upcoming years.

PR: I really want to be more involved. I don’t know to what extent. I don’t wanna say I’m starting over, but you know as I’m describing my career, that point where I started doing Too Much Light and started getting recognition from other people? In a way that’s what I wanna recreate. I want to create more opportunities to work with people in prime time shows. Get back out there. And Too Much Light has been my entry to do that, too. And not to mention, the bottom line, that’s my home. And I feel comfortable there and it’s a good place. If I’m gonna go back in anywhere it would be there.

PICTURES USED:
1: Photo booth of Phil
2: Phil's Headshot (I found it online)
3: Phil's Kids (Dominick foreground, Joey background)
4: Phil with guitar in Battle Of The Bands at Victory Gardens
5: Phil in is dorm room
6: Phil smoking
7: TML 89 Cast Photo (Front row, from left: Greg Allen, Robin MacDuffie, Lisa Buscani, Phil Ridarelli. Back Row, from left: Randy Burgess, Karen Christopher, Melissa Lindberg, Mike Troccoli, Phil Gibbs.)
8: Cardiff Giant at Jimmies Woodlawn Tap. Avant-Garfielde (Phillip Lorte, Bob Fisher, Scott Hermes, Greg Kotis, John Hildreth and I don't know who the lady is...)
9: At Jimmies Woodlawn Tap (Greg K, Phil, John Hildreth)
10: The 1990 Cast of Too Much Light (Front row, from left: Ayun Halliday, Spencer Kayden, Heather Riordan, Phil Ridarelli. Back row, from left: Adrian Danzig, Dave Awl, Karen Christopher, Greg Allen, Ted Bales, Lisa Buscani.)
11: David Kodeski photobooth
12: David Kodeski Fillet of Solo (And Some Can Remember Something Of Some Such Thing)
13: Karen Christopher photobooth.
14: Phil, as a father, in Mr. 3000
15: Phil, Dominick (Nico) and Joey
16: Phil and Ayun Halliday in Jobey and Katherine
17: Picked Up (Ryan Walters, Laura McKenzie, Dean Evans, Jay Torrence)