Interview between John Pierson and Scott Hermes, transcribed by Sid Branca.
I met Scott downtown in the loop, after his long day of work before he had to go home to his family far out in the suburb of Arlington Heights. We had Thai food in a pretty fancy place. I asked the Maitre d' to sit us under one of the shell-shaped alcoves they had there because I thought it would help with the acoustics of the digital recording over the din of soft jazz and a few clinking glasses. The Maitre d' looked at me as if I were joking. He asked if I had a reservation to sit there. No one was in the restaurant at the time, only at the bar. So I said so, "no one is here.", he begrudgingly let us sit in the area I requested. Actually I had no idea if the sound would be better but I had put the wheels in motion, and I feared looking like a buffoon in front of Mr. Hermes. Scott is the recipient of a multitude of highest regards from colleagues of mine whom I hold in the highest regard. In my mind Scott's regard was so tall it had to loom impatiently over the roof of the restaurant waiting for us to finish. We order our food, and while we wait I place the digital recorder in between us, right next to a planter full of flowers, which I will eventually move because it blocks my view of Scott's face. I let him know that he can eat and talk, if he so desires. So Scott immediately puts a breadstick in his mouth, crouches over the table, and crunches into the microphone.
SH: Yeah get ‘em up close, get the sound effects in there.
[Crunching sounds and my laughter slightly distort the recording.]
JP: So right out of the gate, where born? Where raised?
SH: Uh, I grew up in In Princetown, a half-hour drive outside of Schenectady, New York, which is a town in Schenectady County, like a township here. There was something like one business in Princetown, which was a bar, that was it in my little area. So if we were going to go pick up, let's say, milk, it would be a half-hour drive.
SH: one way
JP: That is pretty small
SH: When I grew up we could only see our neighbor’s house in the winter. Once the leaves were off the trees we could see our neighbors. So it was a very rural, I spent a lot of my time out in the woods as a kid.
JP: What brought your parents to that part of the country?
SH: My mom and dad grew up in Buffalo, New York, and my mom got pregnant with my oldest brother, so they both dropped out of University of Buffalo. My dad was in sales. He found this deal basically up in the middle of nowhere. So they moved us all out there. There was four of us, four kids, It was pretty weird at first, I think because he was the only one out there who didn’t farm for a living, right, it’s all these farmers. We were the only non-farmers out there for a while, and then more and more people started moving out who weren’t farmers but they were definitely like factory workers. It was very blue collar.
JP: Did you have many friendships growing up in such a small town?
SH: There was four of us, so at first that was our constant. We were all two years apart, so, you know, my older brother was pretty much my constant playmate for a long time. Once I was in school, then a couple close friends, but you’re so far away from people it’s hard to get together. There were some other kids who lived down the street, so we played with them ‘cause we had to ‘cause there was no one else really, around to play with. It'd be half a mile to your friend’s house basically, it wasn’t that big a deal.
I would consider myself mainly a loner as a kid. I spent a lot of time by myself. I was the youngest of four, so I was always hanging out with people who were much older than I was. My oldest brother is six years older than I am, so I’d be hanging out with his friends.
JP: Being a loner and having your brother's friends as friends, what effect did this have on how you interacted or even how it may have lead towards being a performer?
SH: My nickname was Alien ‘cause I would just say weird things. and so I quickly discovered that if you say weird things people laugh. That was one of the earliest discoveries. I would just say stuff just to see what people’s reactions were.
One of my earliest memories is at the dinner table. There was four kids, my mom, my dad, so everyone’s busy telling stories and cracking each other up. So the only way to get my father’s attention or to get the table’s attention was to be funny, to be funnier than everybody else. So that was the first cutting ground where you had to get attention. So that was, that was how we did it.
JP: Do you remember any of the dinner table antics?
SH: [laughing] We really just tortured my sister. Often we would try to make her snort milk up through her nose. We did it with great consistency. One time she got so mad she flung pudding at us, and it hit the wall.
JP: It sounds like your humor had tangible goals from the very beginning.
SH: Early on you could easily sit there and not say anything the whole meal and be lost in thought and no one would notice. No one ever asked you how was your day? They sort of expected that you were gonna get in there and get attention paid to you.
JP: Are there any actors or artists in your direct family?
SH: My grandfather on my father’s side was a painter and a wildlife photographer. He started off as a commercial artist, and then the family got a camera when my dad was little. My grandmother didn’t want to use it so my grandfather started taking pictures. He quickly became more interested in animals instead of people. He would make these short films without audio, and then he would take them around the country as part of the Audubon Society and he'd narrate them as they were being presented. He did that for many years. He retired from that ‘cause the cost of film was too expensive. He then took painting back up again and made a bunch of paintings before he died.
JP: Did you get to watch him do any of these lectures?
SH: We’d visit him down in Florida and he would do them for us there. But one of the funnier things was how he would get us to write letters to him. He started writing a science fiction story that featured the four kids. Every time we’d write him a letter, he would write a segment of the story back to us. We would get these letters, we’d all be very excited, or at least I was, I was the youngest. I remember it very vividly. We’d read them aloud after dinner to see what’s happening next. Basically he was writing a serial. The setup was that my older brother had a job at a space port, and he was giving us a tour when, you know, the doomsday signal goes off, right? It’s supposed to be that all these spaceships are for various politicians so they can flee the planet in case of a nuclear Armageddon. We were in one of the congressman’s spaceships when the Armageddon signal went off. So we just fled the planet. "Sayonara." [I laughed right here. And I am relaying this fact now to you, the reading audience, because this seemed to be one of those perfect childhood stories I sometimes feel can only be made up but is true in the life of Scott Hermes. It quite frankly made me laugh not only because it made me giddy, it made me nostalgic, and perhaps even envious. Which I rarely allow myself to acknowledge. It is safe to say it made me feel many things.] So the four of us left, and so we’re in suspended animation, and we wake up and some alarm’s going off, we’re going to the wrong place!. So we crash-land on some planet. It’s a whole brand new planet for us to discover and we have all these adventures. One of the first things that we meet are these carrot people. He would also do paintings to go along with the stories, it’s one of my favorite paintings that I still actually have in my bedroom, It’s like a Dr. Seuss type thing with these brightly colored carrot people sort of dancing around. It's based on the painting The Rite of Spring. There’s some famous painting where there are maidens sort of dancing around in a circle. It’s based on that but these are alien carrot people instead. [laughing]
My oldest brother was becoming disillusioned with all that kid stuff so he stopped writing my grandfather. This upset my grandfather so he killed him and knocked him off the story line.
SH: I think I was in third grade. But yeah, all the four kids are characters in the story. And then, you know we start reading it and my oldest brother dies. I start crying uncontrollably, I’m weeping. My dad had to get on the phone, talk to his father and have my older brother miraculously come back to life. So the story is adjusted and it turns out he was just in suspended animation. [JP laughing] The plants can induce paralysis, he was really fine. And so these other weird aliens on the planet came and did this ceremony that brought him back to life. It was kind of like a spider stunning its prey, and he was about to be eaten and die but he looked dead, and so the coma.
JP: I think you were very lucky to have something like that in your life. That kind of experience growing up had to have aided your very own creativity.
SH: My older sister, my sister, my only sister, is very dramatic and she would put on shows. Actually, [laughing] I forgot about this, we shot the best movie ever when I was a kid, that my brother directed. We just found it; it's on super 8 at my Mom's home. I had the great fun of showing it to my wife and my two daughters. We watched it two or three times, and every time we’re going through it I’m pointing out more and more fantastic little details. One of the guys did a great acting job in there I was really shocked. It was my childhood friend Bobby Schleimann. He was really extraordinary. He did a really great death scene, he just died, you know, when he was dead his body was completely limp. You really couldn’t tell he was alive at all, it was fantastic acting. [This weekend I just had an interview with Bill Coleus, one of the original NYC cast. He had mannerisms similar to ones I had seen in Scott and Greg K. I asked him if he was inspired by them, and he says that Greg taught him a game where one person grabs something from the air and meddles with it until it becomes a killing device and then he kills, and then the killed must discover another killing device. Death and it's expression seems to be an intriguing tool for these boys of infinite talent and inspiration.] It was a monster movie. And I was the monster. My brother Dirk shot it. It was his idea, his script. We had some family friends, the Schliemanns. My brother Dirk had a friend John and I had a friend Bobby and my sister Chandra had a friend Terry. So we all had three friends in this same family. So they all came over and then just one day we shot a movie. Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
Are there any other art or theater incidences that you can think of that may have influenced the choices you have made in your life?
SH: My father’s mom and dad met doing a play. My grandfather tried out for the play just to meet my grandmother ‘cause he knew she was gonna be in it. My mom and dad met doing a play. My wife and I met at theater school, and my sister and her husband, they met when she was doing a community theater production of Oliver. [Many men Neo-Futurists have said in these interviews that they took up acting to meet women, The Hermes clan seems to have had a string of successes.]
My mom was always very theatrical minded but also she had come from a very long line of Scots, right, Scottish people, who are frugal, very thrifty, very, uh, pragmatic. So what was drilled into my head was, you’ve gotta make money. No matter what you do. And people in their generation had lived through, you know, (and then he says in a deep voice) the Great Depression. So they had suffered greatly through it, had eaten... raised their own chickens and killed them (Scott viciously stabs his pad Thai with a chopstick.). So. [pause] Even though my grandfather was able to make his living, artistically, that was sort of held up as the exception not the rule. My grandmother always did go off on these tangents about the financial opportunities they’d missed, and I don’t know, for whatever reason, it stuck with me. So, when I was looking around to go to college, I didn’t really look to do a straight theatre degree. My mom had convinced me that... [Scott doesn't imitate his mom but his tone changes a bit, one could say with a more calming yet pedantic tone.] "You can get a job and you can, you know, if you wanna act you can act. Nothing’s ever going to stop you from acting, right? If you want to actually act, you need to find something to make a living, you don’t want to starve to death." That was driven into my skull at an early age.
JP: So they weren't so strict as to boot you out if you pursued creativity.
[I am putting on a slight comic tone here, but I do have friends where this was actually the case, and even one who attended the very same school that Scott eventually attends (UOC) My friend Tammi Blustein, who is now in LA writing and performing for many sketch shows, was told by her parents that if she didn't commit her time in school fully to Mathematics they would "disown her." They specifically did NOT want her to take any theater classes or even step on a stage. She shared this with me. Moments after we performed an improv scene at Jimmy's Woodlawn tap she broke down crying and then told me about her present dilemma. She chose to pursue acting, and hopefully her parents chose to keep her. I haven't seen her in awhile. So like I said I knew this wasn't the case with Scott, but also I knew the influence these words could have no matter how caring they are said.]
JP: Well with such dramatic undertaking on the big 8mm screen in your childhood career, you must have ventured into some kind of theater in high school.
SH: In ninth grade the very first thing I had done was a musical, it was The Boyfriend. It was in the summer, they used to do musicals in the summer, and I just did it because I had been in choir and one of my friends was doing it, so I said okay, I’ll do that. So I tried out, I didn’t get any speaking parts. I performed in the chorus and became a stagehand. But at one part I did have a featured dance number just because I was the smallest boy. They paired me opposite the tallest girl in the chorus to do a dance number .
JP: [laughing] For comic effect?
SH: Oh yeah!
SH: My hair was spray-dyed black too, it was very good!
[The excitement Scott imbues this last description of himself with reminded me of a description a future friend would say of him. Phil Lortie: "First thing to know about Scott was that he was the skinniest dude I had ever met. He was more like a chipmunk than a human being. But, it being the 80s, he worked that rail-thin profile to the hilt by adopting a punk aesthetic. Old pictures of him will show periods of experimentation with mohawks, piercings, and really, really cool clothes. A bit of a gym shoe aficionado too, as I recall. He had it going on is what I'm trying to say."] - (I planned on putting more of Phi Lortie's comments in here, but I had to save them for the outtakes.)
SH: I had a ball, I had a blast, a lot of fun. So then I just did a lot of plays during high school, and spending more and more time in there, spending more and more time hanging out with people, it was good.
By the time I was in my senior year I was getting more leads, major parts. I’d always get the funny, the funny accent, the funny character stuff. I had a good friend, Len Clayton, who was from Canada and had traveled around a bit, his family was transferred off to Venezuela, his dad’s an engineer, and then he came back. He exposed me to some of the external influences that formed my comedy ideas. His dad is English and so he introduced me to all those English comics, like, the Goodies, Monty Python and The Two Ronnies.
[In the Chicago suburbs I was lucky enough to have been influenced by all these same shows thanks to the late night broadcasting of channel 11, and the nonchalance of my mother's bedtime policy. Other shows we both enjoyed were: Not The Nine O Clock News, Dave Allen at Large, and of course Benny Hill. Channel 11 also had the tendency to leave in the "naughty bits."]
SH: On Wikipedia there was a list of unusual deaths, and so I was sharing it with my kids. My daughter was amazed that people had died of uncontrollable laughter. Someone died of uncontrollable laughter after watching a Goodies episode. [both laugh] It’s pretty amazing.
JP: Do you think you had a vision of yourself as a sketch performer, a character actor or a leading man.
SH: I never saw myself as a leading man. I always saw myself as a character actor. For instance, in our senior talent show, me and my friends did, two Monty Python skits and were basically continually booed through the entire beginning to end. [JP laughing] We even rigged up our own sixteen ton weight. I was the one who it got dropped over, but there was a screw that was coming through the piece of wood that was like the brace and it came down and it cracked me. It hit me perfectly, whack!, right in the back of my head, blood was coming out. Other than that we were just sort of booed continually through the entire rendition of our two sketches. [pause] We did some Shakespeare too. Again me and one of my friends, Vince, we went and did an audition for a production of Taming of the Shrew. That’s a great way to grow up fast is to be like in the 1970s be a sixteen or seventeen year-old hanging out with a bunch of community theater actors.
JP: That’s what happened to me, too. Yeah, we were all "experimenting." Huffing this weak suburban drug called Rush that basically just gave you a short term dizzy spell and a long term headache and Ya' know, running around forest preserves nude in the middle of the night [both laugh]
SH: Yeah, you sort of look back on it now and go “what the hell happened?” My wife Wendy and I try to explain to our kids, what things we did, it was the 70s, you know? Things happened like this all the time and nobody thought anything about it. [JP laughs.] So my friend Vince, we were sixteen or seventeen, and sort of having a grab at some twenty-one year-old actress there, yeah just hangin’ out, smoking dope and drinking and partying with us, and no one thought anything about that. [pause]
I was looking for something to do after I’d had so much fun doing the Shakespeare. My mom had been doing a lot of modern dance her whole life, and as a kid I used to watch these, she used to do a children’s modern dance where she was the rabbit from Winnie the Pooh. I would hang out at her rehearsals, ‘cause you know she had to do something with me. I was always very much into dance and movement. So someone had started this experimental movement dance theater improv thing, that was based on Sylvia Plath. And while I was dong that someone told me what a great city Chicago was. Then I got this catalog. I mentioned it to one of my teachers. I had a really good teacher in 11th and 12th grade, he was a former college professor, Fred Von Daacke, who had taught in Louisiana. One of his students later became like the Ku Klux Klan Wizard, like the Grand Wizard of the KKK. So now he was trying to get kids earlier on, to try and mold their minds when they still had a chance, ‘cause by the time they got to college he saw it was pretty much formed. So he was very much challenging our beliefs all the time and he really taught me how to write. He’s the one who said the University of Chicago’s a great school and you should go there.
[When I was sitting with Scott this was very clear, but I just want to make sure the reader realizes that Fred decided to teach younger kids because he wanted to help inspire critical thinking to help avoid minds being corrupted by prejudice and ignorance. That's my take on it.]
JP: Was UOC your one and only choice? Did you have other options in mind?
SH: [laughing] No. I mean, it’s ridiculous. I don’t know what you were like, I was seventeen and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I mean now my daughter’s getting ready to go to Prospect High School, and so they’re asking her what kind of career path do you think you want? She’s like, ‘I have no idea.’ [laughs.] ‘I’m thirteen!’, you know?
JP: I imagine some guidance counseling was going on in my school, but my family life was going through so much conflict: Father left, my older brothers were all causing trouble, arrested and drug trafficking, so my mind was elsewhere and my mother was too busy to get involved. I saw other people preparing for college and I didn’t do any of that. I worked for a year and then I helped start my band (Screeching Weasel) which allowed me to tour the country and eventually the world. So who can blame me?
SH: Beats the hell of out college.
JP: But later, on my own initiative, I decided I wanted to go to school to learn more so I went to Columbia College.
SH: I applied to MIT, University of Chicago, and University of Miami. Those were my three schools.
JP: Why Miami?
SH: I was interested in science, and my family’s always been very nature-oriented, So I figured marine biology, sun, sand. I got into the University of Miami with a full ride scholarship. I got turned down by MIT. One of my classmates got in to MIT, Lionel Sleeper.
JP: Lionel Sleeper? [I found this name very funny. It reminded me of my English teacher Lyon Trainer.]
SH: [laughing] so he deserved it man, he was much smarter, a far more hard-working student. I was a complete slacker as a student, even though I finished fourth in my class, it all just came to me, I never had to work at it and he worked really hard, he deserved everything he got.
I got a partial scholarship for University of Chicago which made it possible for me to go there. It was also the furthest away that my parents would pay for me to go visit. I wanted to get the hell out of Schenectady. It’s a physically very beautiful place, but there’s a lot of racism and close-mindedness growing up. I wasn’t really aware of it at first, but as I started getting older and I would go to Albany [A much larger city] I would interact with people different than me. In this dance-theater troupe I was also interacting with more diversity, a couple African Americans, different people. I began saying to myself, ""Well, all these things I’ve been hearing my life just aren’t true." And just knowing, realizing, that this is not the way I wanna be, and I don’t want to be around this close-mindedness. So one of my goals was to get as far away as I could from Schenectady.
So I visit Chicago and I love it. It’s hard to imagine this now. I was seventeen and my parents just sent me out, they put me on a train. "See ya!" [laughs] I checked out the city and the school, liked it. I got ripped off on a bad drug deal. I tried to buy dope from somebody in the Palmer house, they went to go get change, [JP laughing] and they never came back.
JP: You learned some lessons?
SH: Yeah. When I started at UOC I was a math major. I always loved math. And then I started doing shows even though University of Chicago didn’t have a theater department at the time,
JP: Yes, that’s what I always think is so interesting about that school, it’s brought out so many amazing performers and yet it didn't have a program for theater. It really is interesting, the culture that that college manifested, it just had it in it, whether the students had a theater department or not, it just seemed more organic, like the whole approach to University of Chicago seems to lend itself to creativity in any field. Does that make sense?
SH: Yeah, definitely, there was more of a DIY aesthetic there. "It doesn’t matter what you say we can do, here’s what we’re gonna do." Right? there’s always been that sort of attitude there. There’s a very rigorous academic agenda, but also a thriving underground, even if we’re having a good time it’s got to be intellectually challenging. So the school attracts a lot of people like myself who were good in school and smart, but also had this artistic side they wanted to explore but didn't want to go to a school just for the Arts.
JP: Were you aware of this complexity before going to UOC?
SH: I knew that there was no acting program, but that there was an acting club, University Theater. So the guy who ran University Theater when I got there was Steve Schroer. Steve is a lot like Greg Allen in a way, a very strong sort of vision of what he thinks is good art and what is not good art, but he had bad people skills. At some point he started an improv club. Improv at the time was predominantly coming from Second City. Whatever happened in today’s news we’re gonna mock that or, it’s making fun of the latest thing that’s going on TV. So Steve's idea, which was great, and certainly this carried through in my writing, is that we weren’t allowed to mention any references, any contemporary references whatsoever.
[I laughed here. But it wasn't in disbelief, it was a glorious recognition of my own beliefs, a belief that one tries to appeal more to the relative and the universals, dealing more with getting to the roots of things, creating timeless situations and character studies.]
SH: You can’t make fun of slogans, you can’t do a Mayor Daley impersonation. He was exploring improv but also using it as a tool for generating writing. We did a combination of written skits at first, mainly he did all the skits and we did all the segued improvisation in between.
JP: Did that lend you more to focusing on relationships and character?
SH: Well... [pause] Yeah number one he went back to the roots of improv which is always about what is the other person doing? How can you help the other person? It forced you to generate imaginary worlds, parallel universes.
In Aftertaste, the musical that Cardiff Giant ended up improvising, years later, it still had the Steve Shroer influence on us. Our cola was called Krispie Kola. You just make up parallels. There's no classical references, but the idea was to write timeless stuff, or to perform in a way that whatever you did it wouldn’t just be getting name recognition laughs which he felt was the cheapest laugh.
JP: This group lead by Steve influenced you greatly. This is where you met many of the people with which, for years, you would continue to create great theater.
SH: I met Mark Holman, and John Hildreth, and Phil Lortie. [And later Greg Kotis] Avant Garfield was our first thing we performed at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap, which was where the Compass Players also performed.
JP: Yeah, I performed there with a group called Sheila, which was a direct descendant of Avant Garfielde.
SH: Yup. So we would open up with a variety act, this would bring people in, and then we would perform. We’d do a combination of games and skits and after a while we stopped doing skits and just did games. Then later on we took a class with Del Close. He came down and taught us the herald. We also got to meet David Shepard.
The Jimmy's stage was a six feet deep platform. We would put curtains across the back window. Jimmy’s is a classic Chicago tavern, where it’s got a wooden railing that goes up halfway across the window where you can look down on the street, people can see in. They took three basic bars and jammed them together so there’s three separate rooms. You start in the front, you go through the main bar, there’s a middle room, and then finally there’s a back bar where we were. So we could be isolated from all the other places. We were stuck at the way at the end of the bar. We would be on one end on a slightly raised platform. We built railings, took down the existing railings and made railings that were detachable. We had hinge-pins we’d pull off and have to stack that so we could then have the complete stage. There was an exit door on the left where people could walk out. Above it was an area to store our props. We had a ton of props, a ton of hats and wigs. We would fasten some clip lights, announce to people we were starting the show, so people who didn’t want to be bothered would leave. We’d perform for free and then afterward just pass the hat.
JP: That space was a great lesson to me. You had to get up and go, ‘cause these people were just here drinkin’ and to get them to listen you had to have an abundance of energy right out of the gate. For me it was a nurturing of the big, I had a hard time trying to do anything smaller there.
SH: I think that initially we had to be big and funny and fast
JP: What I'm pushing towards, what I experienced there perhaps through oral history and perhaps through osmosis, was a style that incorporates large, quick, yet detailed gestures. I see this style in common with you, Greg K and Phil. Do you think this style was nurtured at Jimmy's?
SH: Yeah... I think what happened is that we, as a group, as an organism developed an idiom, developed a way of working together, sort of signals that we would give one another. Doing that show was one of the best times of my life, without a doubt. We’d rehearse twice a week and then we would perform once, and then later we were working on long-form shows. We spent a lot of time together honing our craft. After a while it became so seamless and when it flew it was just fantastic and crazy. We didn’t necessarily have to be big and we could do quiet and smaller stuff but I think it was just that we liked to be big, loud and fast. Insane characters. We would always want to keep cranking it up ‘til you had to kill someone, that was the only logical ending [JP laughs] to any scene. We had all kinds of murdering props, a huge duct tape hammer that we would use that was left over from another show we did.
JP: When did Greg Kotis come into the picture there?
SH: Sheldon Patinkin came in and helped start the Off-Off Campus, Greg K and Bob Fischer were in that. So after that was done, Steve asked them if they wanted to join us. Steve had worked with them as well, he was part of the whole UT, University Theatre. Those guys were just great. The first year of Avant Garfielde was me, Mark [Holman], John Hildreth, Phil Lortie and Dawn Brenann, who’s also a really great artist, just beautiful, huge, insane paintings. Then Bob Fischer and Greg joined and then even later on Greg Reynolds joined us. And after awhile I went to theatre school at Depaul. We’d actually graduated and still did the show for a year. Then, basically, I wanted to learn how to act. Between my junior and senior year I went off to New York and did Strasburg Theatre Institute through NYU for the summer. I got a lot of positive feedback from the instructors there. I was very encouraged by that, so when I came back I decided I wanted to do more acting. I was struggling along, going out and auditioning and I got one role at Court, I was like second night watchman in Much Ado About Nothing. It was fantastic and a lot of fun, but I decided I wanted to learn more about the craft of acting and so I applied to Northwestern and DePaul, and I got into both. Northwestern’s incredibly expensive, so I went to DePaul theatre school instead. That was a great experience.
JP: And that is where you met Wendy Goeldner and Phil Ridarelli, one of the best actors I know. Phil told me that DePaul didn't quite know what to do with him and it seems you may have had a similar experience since the three of you ended up in the same Sketch comedy show. Nobody knew what to do with you.
SH: Yeah, exactly. Nobody... I don’t know who let me into that school. [JP laughs] I have a feeling it was this guy Rick Murphy, ‘cause he was at my audition. So for whatever reason I got in. They saw something. I wasn’t classically trained, I didn’t really fit in. So what we did was a thing called Dream Story. That’s where I got to work with Phil and with Wendy, the second show I did with my, at that time girlfriend, now wife, then Wendy Goeldner now Wendy Hermes. I met her in What the Butler Saw. We had a great time doing that, and then we got to do Dream Story together. This speech teacher, Bill Burnett, wanted to explore storytelling and dreams. It was free-form. We would basically do whatever we wanted to any given night.
JP: Were you still working with the gang in Hyde Park at this time?
SH: Nope. I would sometimes come down and join the improv set. At that point they were trying to crack into the North Side and they were doing, I think that’s where Phil also got involved with them, Roxy’s on Fullerton. They were doing an improv show there for a while and I would see them there. I had a big falling out with Steve [Schroer], the director, ‘cause I criticized his skits. They did a sketch show at Straw Dog and it was universally panned and ripped. I saw it during my first year of theater school and I’m liking all these theater school ideas jammed in my head. So unfortunately I shared them with Steve. He asked ‘What’d you think of the show?’ I told him honestly what I thought, and so the next day he called me up at home and was like, "I can’t believe you said those things to me last night, I never want to talk to you again, you can’t work for this group again, you’re never gonna make it in this business." So I didn’t talk to him again for two or three years. [pause.] Then inside of Cardiff Giant there was a revolt, they kicked Steve out, they took over the group themselves. So I worked with those guys again. And eventually I saw Steve later and he was apologetic about his behavior.
JP: When did this group become known as Cardiff Giant?
SH: So Avant Garfield became Cardiff Giant when they started performing on the North Side and they did their first revue. It was basically Steve’s idea. It’s a P.T. Barnum story, a P.T. Barnum scam. A farmer in upstate New York, Cardiff, comes and says "I found this petrified body of a giant." And P.T. Barnum goes and sees it, immediately recognizes that it’s fake. But all these crowds are showing up to see this giant that once walked the earth. And so Barnum makes his own. The guy with the original Cardiff Giant sues him, and P.T. Barnum says "You can’t sue me, it’s a fake, a total fake, it’s a fake of a fake." So Steve liked that idea of acting as being a fake of a fake. People are pretending to be something that they’re not, we’re pretending to be people that we’re not. The idea that there’s something... implicitly scamming about performing.
The last year of my MFA at DePaul, that’s when Cardiff Giant did LBJFKKK which was their first show by themselves, improvising without Steve directing, fully improvised rehearsals turned into a scripted play, it was a huge hit for them.
JP: You weren’t involved with that?
SH: Nope. It was really hilarious because I knew they were going to open it, so I was talking to some of my theatre school friends, "I’m going to go see some friends of mine tonight, does anyone want to come along?" They’re like, "Oh yeah what is it?" "Oh, it’s this group called Cardiff Giant, doing this show called LBJFKKK." "Oh yeah! Yeah, yeah! yeah!" [Scott imitates a few different emphatic excited voices, as if cheering. And then referencing himself he says in a calm, deadpan voice,] "Oh, okay." [both laugh] The Reader had just published a great review of the show by a critic who just never liked anything, EVER, always ripped everybody a new asshole. And he just went on for paragraph after paragraph expounding about how brilliant Cardiff Giants' show was, how he’d blown snot on the back of the people in front of him he was laughing so hard. So I went to see it and it was brilliant. They blew me away, I was so happy for them.
When I graduated I started working with them again, and so we did Love Me, Rancho Obscuro, All Eight Die, and then we improvised our first musical, Aftertaste, and then I directed Dreamy, which did incredibly badly. It was the worst show, in terms of attendance, that we ever did.
JP: You guys were a transient company, you didn't have your own space?
SH: Yeah we were just renting spaces. We started off with a bunch of shows at Mary Archie Theater, then Straw Dog, and then we got our own space, which later became Factory’s space up near Loyola
[What is odd is that my group Hope And Nonthings and my friends' groups; David Cromer's Big Game and Nick Digilios' Factory Theater were all using these exact same spaces and to my recollection I never overlapped or even heard of Cardiff Giant. So much was going on at that time in storefront theater. In retrospect, not knowing about them was a serious loss to me.]
JP: The first people in that Loyola space was David Kromer and Anna Schapiro with Big Game.
JP: There are so many crossovers that existed in the world of small theater in Chicago. [Our minds were being blown at the moment, that might also have to do with the four glasses of wine we just drank.]
SH: Yup, it’s a small scene.
JP: Molly Brennan was a part of Factory and then hooked up with Adrian Danzig who was a neo-futurist, and Molly's company she helped start Barrel Of Monkees have a long running show still play at the Neo-Futurarium. And my friend Steve Walker has worked with almost all these companies, and with you!
SH: Wow. I was talking to John Hildreth the other day, John went on and did a lot of work with Second City and the northwest SC company and directed a bunch of stuff, worked with Second City a lot. He’s teaching at Columbia now too he also came back and directed me when I did my Jeopardy solo play. At some point during that run we all got to start reminiscing about the old days. And he says something like, "You know, it’s just different now because... we had no thought other than putting up our current show." We would improvise for six months, that’s all we would do, five days a week, Monday through Thursday night and then Saturday and Sunday and then the director would tape it, and the director would go home and transcribe what we had rehearsed, and come back in, and then at some point we would start putting it together. We’d find good stuff then the director would start saying okay, go this direction, improvise this way, improvise that way. We’d start putting the skeleton of the plot together, but basically for six months all we’d ever do was just work on the play. But now, at least according to John, it’s very hard to get that kind of commitment out of people. ‘Cause everyone’s doing this thing as a way to get showcased. So that they can have someone to come see them so that they can get to the next point in their career. In Cardiff Giant we had no other idea other than that we were gonna put on the best show we could put on. That really drove us.
JP: I sadly never got to see a Cardiff Giant so I would like to spend a bit more time with you looking at the history of Cardiff Giant shows.
SH: LBJFKKK was huge, Love Me did well, Rancho Obscuro and then All Eight Die. All Eight Die had a couple great moments in it... Greg and I had a great orphanage song and we had this one extended bit which always killed, which is the pudding people. So All Eight Die was basically, in the title, all the character’s are gonna die, but it’s basically about some village called Southtown, directly south of Northtown, and there were developments moving in and we’re getting run down. The pudding people are our central myth. [both laugh] It's a story that everybody knows but again this stuff that Steve [S] early on imbued us with, this idea that we can’t reference anything in the real world, we'd make up our own mythology all the time. So people don’t know what we’re talking about. But we do. ‘Cause we would spend months rehearsing and improvising. We would have all these scenes that would never make it into the show, but our characters knew that we did these things and our characters knew this about each other. So we had history that would never show up textually on stage, but would always show up in our relationships. Things that had happened through the process.
Then it was Mark Holman's turn to be director. He wanted to do a musical. We thought he was nuts. We had never done a musical before. So he brought in this great composer, Patrick Sinozich that he’d worked with elsewhere. We just started from scratch and every once in a while you’d have to bust out the rhyming dictionary, and Patrick sort of taught us how to fake songs, um, that like you’re trying to improvise-- you know, so we’d always improvise songs during the show and some of us were really good at it in our improv and some were not, but, like, like for me he, when, the great advice that he gave on like, trying to write a song, take an existing song, and then re-write the lyrics to it, ‘cause then you know you’ll always scan well, right, so... you can always write new music to it, right. So you can take “We’re Off to See the Wizard”, right, and you can, you can re--over, you know, “follow the yellow brick road” or “somewhere over the rainbow” and as long as you write lines that scan to that, you can put any music behind it, and it’ll still scan. It has an internal alignment. So you don’t have to worry about having uneven lines. That was my problem when I was writing and improvising song lyrics, they were all over the place, they didn’t scan. So Aftertaste was this huge hit. We actually opened it the night before I got married. So we had been trying, we thought we were going to do it in like three months, it took us six months to put it up. I thought my wedding was gonna be at the end of the run, and my wedding ended up being the day after we opened. I performed this thing, I got it up, did the first weekend, went off, had an understudy fill in. I got married, went out on my honeymoon for two weeks, came back and jumped right back in. The show kept selling out that little Factory Theatre space again and again and again, very popular. That’s when Phil came in, because he took over for John, ‘cause John had some other commitment. [pause] It was actually kind of sad, it was sort of the beginning of the end for us.[This was NOT because of Phil. Scott goes on to explain why things began to dissipate.] The show was so popular, I don’t know if you’ve run into this before, it’s where success dooms you. You start bringing in structure and People raising money and putting together a board. I think that tore us apart.
JP: After you had left the Neo-Futurists we had similar pains that tore us not completely apart, but it caused rips that I still haven't recovered from. We lost Diana Slickman, David Kodeski, Dave Awl, and Anita Loomis when we went from a more traditional collective to a board run non-profit.
[This didn't have to happen, as Diana Slickman and David Kodeski will talk about this in their upcoming interviews. Bringing on a board doesn't have to tear a company apart, and it took us years to get to the point where we have a pretty great board right now.]
END OF PART ONE:
PART TWO WILL BE UP IN ONE WEEK.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Hey folks! If you read these please become an official "follower" by signing up on the right there, or even more important to me, please leave comments in the comment sections. If you have specific questions for Neos or just a general question please leave those too. This project is important to me, and everyone involved is doing it purely of their love for the company's history and not for any monetary gain, so it helps to see comments to ensure people are actually reading and enjoying the work.
Coming up next: Scott Hermes & Heather Riordan.
I am flying out to NYC this weekend to get Ayun Halliday, Greg Kotis, Rob Neill, and Bill Coleus
Coming up next: Scott Hermes & Heather Riordan.
I am flying out to NYC this weekend to get Ayun Halliday, Greg Kotis, Rob Neill, and Bill Coleus
Posted by The Fool Machine Collective at 10:15 AM
Saturday, April 4, 2009
[Unintelligible man banter, Greg expresses concern that this will be verbatim.]
(My transcriber for this interview, Corey Craig, said that progress was going slow typing out the audio because Greg and I kept talking over each other. We made it hard because we were laughing all the time. The only response I could have to this response was to start laughing, because I knew it was true. Greg and I share similar fascinations with both the sketch comedy absurdness of Monty Python and the often highbrow, academically absurd performance art of DaDa, John Cage and Marcel Duchamp. We even share an appreciation of the melodic genius of the band Bad Company. Although many of our beliefs about friendships, morality, and objectivism are miles apart, we endlessly entertain each other and ourselves with our communal isolation, and at times, lonely appreciation of chance, the vulgar, the nonsensical and the meticulous. We share an awareness of the insecurities in ourselves as social beings, and this makes it hard for us to tell when we are being genuinely spontaneous and when we are looking into the future constructing the history of our identities and supporting the myths of ourselves. This tension makes for an interesting and well-respected friendship.
Many came to this company with an awareness of its popularity, and this immediately complicates a relationship with its creator. I had never seen Too Much Light before, and had only known Greg Allen from a meeting where the spokespersons for a hand full of Chicago theater companies got together in the early 90’s to discuss going to the Edinburgh Fringe festival as a unit. I found the words he spoke a bit self-righteous for someone I had never heard of. Today, I may still find these words puffed-up, but having been lucky enough to join the company and go to Edinburgh on our own and receive a special award at this prestigious event lessens my criticism of his boisterous appraisal of his company. [It should be noted that Greg has no recollection of this meeting.]
To be the creator of a show that purposely highlights the lives of the performers themselves, and to succeed beyond anyone’s expectations inherently creates a tension. What is more important the structure and concept of a show or the performers and writers themselves? The complication deepens when it is realized that there is no real answer when discussing Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. All of this was on my mind when I interviewed Greg Allen. Yet, when it came down to it, these thoughts were too ethereal. All I really wanted to know was where he had come from and where was he now.)
An Interview with Greg Allen
Conducted by John Pierson
Sitting in the empty Neo-Futurarium Theater
Transcribed by Corey Craig
Conducted by John Pierson
Sitting in the empty Neo-Futurarium Theater
Transcribed by Corey Craig
A CHILDHOOD OF PRIVILEGE AND LONELINESS
GA: I grew up in Wilmette, I was born April 6th, 1962, that’s about a couple years before you.
JP: Twelve years, Greg. (I look at him, feigning exasperation.)
[We look at each other waiting for the other to crack. I crack first.] No, it’s only five.
GA: (laughing) I was going to say, “Not that many.” (We get back on track.) I went to New Trier East, in Winnetka, which was a very rich, very affluent community. I never had a sense of being rich myself. It was so pervasive that we were blind to our own affluence.
JP: Did you have any friends that were filthy rich?
GA: I didn’t really have friends, John. No, I really honestly… I literally... [This is the way of Greg, he likes extremes and he often catches himself in an exaggeration mostly for humor, but in this situation the reality may not be too far from the extreme, he may not have had “no friends” but I could easily sense the loneliness he may have felt in his childhood.] I had a best friend, Joe Gordon, from fifth grade until freshman year of high school. He became kind of hunky and started hanging out with girls. I was not up for that in some way, and I think he was not particularly up for hanging out with this geeky guy. So I lost Joe Gordon my freshman year of high school and did not get together with another friend until college.
JP: So what did you do after school every day?
GA: I went and watched television. [This is meant as sarcasm, yet like myself, I’m pretty sure he spent a goodly amount of time watching television in his youth. Today Greg and I can often honestly claim our ignorance of pop culture, but I’m sure we both lived through it as isolated children looking for something to do.] I don’t know. I was very depressed for a long period of time. Literally my entire high school career I was extremely isolated. I was a photographer. That was my artistic outlet. I was a darkroom fine-art photographer, black and white. By my senior year I remember over half my day was spent in the darkroom, which was impressive. I was able to wriggle around so I was able to have about half my day either in the darkroom being a lab assistant in my photography class, or in cinematography class, which I also studied with my photography teacher. I lived in the darkroom where I was king.
JP: Do you have a sense of when photography became important to you?
GA: My teacher at New Trier was extremely inspiring. He was really my mentor, Dick Olderman. Photography gave me an incredible outlet in response to the incredible isolation and depression that I was in the midst of.
JP: Did you have a conscious awareness of yourself using photography as a devise to help justify your sense of isolation?
GA: It wasn’t conscious as to that was why I enjoyed it, but I was very conscious of using it as self-expression. I very much expressed this incredible isolation through my photos. I did a whole photo series on graveyards called “Graven Images,” and another series on store window mannequins about how fake and creepy they were. I became a darkroom master on multiple exposures. We had the most amazing darkroom. I was able to set up seven projectors in a row and expose the same sheet of paper to all these different images that I had set up and then develop it, in the chemicals. One of the masterpieces of my time was a photograph of my other photography teacher, Mr. Ware, who was this black guy with a big afro. I was able to double expose his face on two sides, and superimpose a barbed wire fence with a little angel up in the corner. Everyone thought it was about the black man’s experience. To me it was just a self-portrait.’ I was also the photo editor of the art magazine at New Trier.
[Greg wrote a play about the illustrious people who had come from New Trier including Lorie Dan and Charlton Heston. Greg enjoys saying New Trier. I surmise it is not only his personal history of the place that makes it important but the audible sound it makes which keeps the repeated word fresh in his mouth.]
JP: Let’s go back a little bit to grade school.
GA: Early in grade school I was kind of a bad kid, up until third grade. I was the class clown always getting in trouble, wisecracking, trying to get everybody to laugh. Then in third grade, it’s weird how I really remember this, I was put in Miss Umanzio’s class, and suddenly looked around me and there was Robby Esp, and Vincent McCarthy, and Paul Onley, and myself, the four worst kids in the school. And I was like, ‘I’m not that bad! I’m not like those three!’ Then I fell in love with my third grade teacher, and basically would do anything she said and really became studious and introverted and quiet, kind of, in one year. I very clearly remember this.
My fourth year in grade school was the beginning of my theater career, when for some unknown reason, my friend Paul Campbell and Jack Blanchard and I, got the idea of entering the talent show. We wanted to do a Laurel and Hardy bit on stage, but since we hadn’t seen a Laurel and Hardy movie, we had seen the Dick Van Dyke show, within which Dick Van Dyke and a friend of his do a Laurel and Hardy bit. So what we did, it was already meta at this point, was our version of The Dick Van Dyke, Laurel and Hardy bit. We reproduced that on stage with Paul Campbell, the skinniest guy in class, being Hardy, and I played Stan Laurel. [The subtle joke here is that Hardy was actually the fat one. Neither Greg or his friend were fat, so they chose the thinner of the two to be the fattest.] I just remember it was slap sticky and we broke eggs. Jack Blanchard was the waiter. His first entrance to the stage he slipped and fell down on his ass and got a huge laugh. So in the second performance he did it again intentionally and actually fell down and hurt himself. But that experience was when I realized, “Wow, hey, this is really fun.”
So in fifth grade I figured out a way of breaking into the school auditorium. Every day at lunch I’d break in with a bunch of friends and we’d just run around. Somehow that inspired me to create theater in the auditorium. My fist idea for a play was to stage Tommy, [The Who’s Rock Opera] with all my friends. I said, “Come on guys! We could do this!” Here, I’ll sing one of the songs...’ [Greg begins singing me his rendition of the lyrics "There’s A Doctor I’ve Found," from Tommy. He is singing very loud and out of tune... on purpose. Or is it?] I wish that’d happened, I would love to have that on film. Really, I didn't understand Tommy, at all, at that point. My friends wouldn’t go along with it. Our fifth grade class had a video camera, so we filmed these parodies of “Laugh In” bits, where I played the hippy dippy weatherman. We would also stage these for the school. Then I started writing this play called, “George the Genius,” in which of course I was George. The concept was that these robbers would hold up various stores and take their money. The robbers were wearing T-shirts that said, “N-O-T-H-I-N-G,” and they’d run away, and then the cops would show up, you see this coming, the cops show up with George the Genius as the investigator, and he would say, “Well, what happened?” “Well these guys broke in and took all our money!” and then he’d say, “Well, what were they wearing?” and they would say, “Nothing!” And he’d say, “Oh, they were wearing nothing? I don’t believe you.” and he would walk away assuming there had been no crime. This was the premise of the whole play. And so, it came time for the entire fifth grade to come see my play. The robbers robbed the first store, a hat store. The second store was a wig store, or something funny like that, and then they robbed a third store, and then started to rob the fourth store when Mr. Clements, my fifth grade teacher, stood up, and said, “That’s it! This is going nowhere! Everyone back to class!” And that was the last time I set foot on stage until college. That was it.
JP: “This is going nowhere?” Did he ever question you about the play later?
GA: No, no. I never talked to him about it. It is actually possible that it was going nowhere. [laughter] I think I theoretically worked out the end, but there wasn’t a script or anything. It crushed me, though. Having been humiliated in front of the entire fifth grade class.
JP: Did you have opportunities to see much theater outside of student productions during those school years?
GA: My first theater-going memory is when I was in first grade. A group had come to Central School, to do Dandelion Wine, and it was in our gym. At the end of the play I remember thinking they’d done such a good job. It was such a wonderful show. I wanted to be the last person clapping. [Greg begins clapping.] And so everyone applauded at the end of the show, and I just kept applauding, and then I still wasn’t sure that I was the last one applauding, so I just kept applauding. [Greg increases the intensity of his clapping. It is a good thing we are dong this interview in our empty theater and not in a restaurant.] Then it came time for all the classes to file out, and my class got called, and we all stood up, and in line I continued clapping down the entire hallway, because I had been so extremely moved by that production.
My parents did take me to various shows. [He pauses, and then remembers an important detail of his life.] My parents actually met in the theater, which is really surprising, they were both in a little community theater group in Wilmette, where they met, my mom was doing tech or something, or costumes, and my dad was in the play “You Can’t Take It With You.” [In my interview this is the third time this damn play has a connection to Neos. Yes, it was a popular play, but... Come On!] He was they guy who lives downstairs and makes lots of explosives. And so, I guess they fell in love there, which is kind of wild. I know it’s really weird, ‘cause basically, I always say, I come from a long line of businessmen. I don’t have any real artists in my family. My dad was a painter as well, kind of a, Do-It-Yourself man.
JP: He sounds fairly artistic to me. Your family just didn’t have anyone before you who had an artistic career. His painting was artistic?
GA: Yeah, it was artistic. He painted watercolors, he did lots of photography, he didn’t do darkroom stuff, but took slides, you know, slides, that’s what you took back then. And he also did a lot of wood working, which I helped him with a lot, which is how I know how to do wood working stuff, and um... Oh, and models! He built models a lot, which was really fine work, so he was pretty crafty.
JP: All of that plus a regular job, he sounds like he kept himself very busy.
GA: Definitely, yeah. He was a very busy guy. He was a regional sales manager, for a scientific equipment company, so he would travel around the country meeting with these incredible scientists in the labs, like FERMI lab, figure out what they need, and then he’d come home, because he was also an engineer, and he would draft things like, a sputtering system, or a vacuum pump. Then he’d go back and say, “I think this will do what you need it to do.” And then he’d send it to his company, and the company would build it, and then sell it to the lab. My dad was very much a traveling salesman in terms of loving to tell jokes. He always had endless jokes and lots of bad puns.
JP: [My father was also a salesman. I auditioned for the company with a piece called, “The Aluminum Comedian.” My dad was an aluminum siding salesman and an incredible joke teller. He had a library in his head full of one-liners and comedic short stories. I believe I did not inherit that kind of talent. This skill was a must for door-to-door salesmen. They had to have charisma, a certain panache, to succeed.] With sales jobs in our parents’ days, joke telling seemed to be ingrained in their living, you just had to be charming and good with small talk.
GA: Yeah. Everyone loved my dad, and dad loved his job. He said from the get-go that he loved every day of his job. And he’d be away, I mean, he was gone for most of my childhood. He was always on these business trips, forever.
JP: I grew up without my father living in our house, so it was hard for me to perceive what it would be like to have a mother and father at home. Did you feel that difference? Did you feel the difference of other kids having their parents’ home more?
GA: See, I was so isolated. I don’t even think I had anything to compare it to. And actually, that was the day and age too, where moms stayed home, and dads went to work, and so even with various friends, I would go to their houses, but you’d never see their dad. Mom would stay home, take care of the kids, make the dinner, it’d be on the table when the dad came home and by that time, I was gone.
My dad passed away fourteen years ago, now, my mom kind of reminds me of what it was like to live in a house with a hawk and a dove in it at the same time, ‘cause during the Vietnam war, my dad was very gung-ho military power, and my mom was very non-violent, so they just vowed never to talk about it, which I think was the story of my family and the whole North Shore in general, nobody talked about anything. That impression really got to me in general. No one ever talked about anything important. My family never had any open emotional expression whatsoever. That was one of the things that inspired me to seek out an artistic outlet, as well as to create something like Neo-Futurism, which is based in self-expression.
My family was so repressed. Girls, sex, romance, it was really weird how verboten those topics were in my house.
JP: That must have lead to some difficulty for you in the school years where one of the main topics for kids is sex.
GA: I kind of just shut down. I was uptight about talking to my friends about it. I just didn’t make the leap into adolescence. I freaked out and didn’t know how to talk to girls, and ultimately even lost how to talk to boys. I was a major outcast with the advent of high school.
JP: I wrote a play for TML called “Inside”, about how many of my creative friends, including you and myself, have trapped inside themselves a sense of still being a child. It both isolates the person and creates this wonderful sense of play that makes them captivating to be with and watch. I’ve noticed that in many of these cases something happened when they were younger where they, either had to grow up too fast, or they just had a departure from what other kids were experiencing. They need to hold on to this idea of childhood and keep it safe.
GA: I’ve always felt like I’ve never had a childhood until I got to Oberlin. I was always a very good boy. I never got in trouble. I always did the right thing. I always got good grades. You know, since that transition in third grade, where I fell in love with Miss Umanzio, I was just the best kid there was, and uh, you know, the idea of a fight happening in my house was impossible. No one would ever have any open expressions of emotion in my home.
JP: I was the good one too, and I felt an overwhelming pressure from myself to be good, because my family was so explosive, my brothers, and older sister grew up in the midst of a divorce, they were always angry and volatile. I felt that I had to be the one that was respectful to my mom, and came home when I was supposed to, even if she didn’t ask me to. My younger sister was able to bridge the gap between older siblings, I could not, I remain distant.
INTRO TO ABSURDIST THEATER AT NEW TRIER
GA: You have to complete a junior thesis at New Trier, and, I didn’t know what to do it on. I was sitting in this library, and there were books in a rack. There was a book called, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And I thought, “Wow, what a weird title.” I started reading it. “What the fuck is this? It’s like a play, but no one could actually perform this! I mean this doesn’t make any sense! People don’t talk like this!” Then someone told me about this book called, The Theater of the Absurd by Martin Esslin. So I read that, and that talked about Beckett and Pinter, and so then I picked up “Waiting for Godot”, and I read that and I picked up “The Zoo Story” and “American Dream”, “Rhinoceros.” I just suddenly read all these plays on my own. “This is really wild wild stuff!” They talked about rebellion, and I was psyched about that. “Rhinoceros” is about not conforming to the masses, but trying to stay individual, so that was like my bible.
JP: I didn’t know about Beckett until after I started writing my own absurdist plays. In my high school years Rhinoceros was my introduction to reading Absurdist Theater. [I came to Absurdism not first through reading absurdist playwrights but by seeing the movie “The Producers.” My father took me to a showing of it when I was little. I loved Mel Brooks. Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel were magical together. I later found out that they starred together in a film called Rhinoceros. I couldn’t find it so I checked out a play from the library that had the same title. At that time I was still unsure whether or not they were related. Many years later Greg and I would have a discussion about this, and a few days later I found a gift in my mailbox at the theater. It was a rare VHS copy of the film “Rhinoceros.”]
GA: It’s a great play for being inspired. And so without ever looking at Neil Simon, or any kind of realistic stuff, I immediately launched into Absurdism. I went and saw Edward Albee when he lectured at Northwestern. I wrote my junior thesis on theater of the absurd, and “The Zoo Story” and “American Dream”. I was always a slow reader. I could never pick up novels and read through them, and I hated poetry, so, plays were perfect because I could actually get through them.
THE COLLEGE YEARS
JP: [This question in no way implies that there is any pattern at all with Neo-Futurists but I still think it is an interesting question to ask.] Did you go straight into college?
GA: I did. At New Trier everyone went straight into college. There was never even a question that I was going to go straight into college. And in high school somehow, the summer before my senior year of high school, we took a college trip where we stopped at seventeen different colleges, in mainly the east. I think Oberlin was the first stop going east. And then everything in the east and then come back, and I did it in the summer because I was scared to actually talk to anybody. So I never actually met any of the students at these schools, I just read the catalogues and kind of looked at the campus. And then somehow, by my senior year, I had decided to apply to Vassar, Hampshire, and Oberlin. I liked Oberlin because... I was very much my mother’s child, very involved in civil rights, and studying non-violence, and um, and Oberlin was the first school in the country to be co-ed, it was the first school in the country to admit blacks, and had a long history of rebellion, in the 60’s, so I was pretty psyched about that. Vasser I kind of threw in there as one step below the Ivy League, so I could flash it in front of my friends, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to Vasser.’ And Hampshire because it’s incredibly self-directed and that was kind of my photography-artistic side, of thinking, ‘Wow, if I really want to go for that, I’ll go for Hampshire.’ I walked around for a couple weeks telling people I was going to Vasser. I applied and I got into all three, which didn’t help at all.
I decided to go to Vasser but then I looked at Oberlin’s catalogue again, and just said, “Oh, I’ll go to Oberlin.” I basically knew nothing other than it’s history, and it was also the closest to home, which is not something I wanted, really. (He surprises himself.) I wanted to go away. My brother had gone to Boston University, before me, and kind of, left, just, left the house altogether. That was my model of getting out. I made the shift over to Oberlin knowing nothing about it. My parents drove me there.
The first day we stayed in a hotel outside of Oberlin there was some girl at another table that looked about my age, eating with her parents. My parents dropped me off at my dorm, and left, and then I saw the girl again, in my dorm. I kissed her two days later, and she was my girlfriend in four days. I had gotten my first kiss at high school graduation, from the most popular girl in school. I set my sights very high! And so my second kiss, EVER, was in the first three days of college. I made a ton of friends that day, and I felt like everybody here is an outcast, and everybody is in the same boat as I am. It was a tremendous shift. Early on I said, “I’m gonna be happy here,” and I was. I immediately fell in a couple groups of friends who are still my friends. [Blair Thomas, Adrian Danzig, and Kate Goehring, to name a few.] I just ate it up, the liberal sensibility, the openness of communication, the homosexuality on campus, and bisexuality. I slept with a man before, I slept with a woman! (He says with a bright boyish grin.) Ah, um, pretty wild stuff. Oberlin helped to open the door of experimentation.
JP: Were there good photography classes at Oberlin?
GA: There was not, and that was one of the issues. There was a really lame photography professor, who taught one class in photography. There’s a winter term at Oberlin where you can choose to do one subject for one month. So I came back and worked with my mentor at New Trier. I worked in the darkroom and helped teach an LD class with him.
JP: So having not much in the way of Photography at Oberlin, let's hear a little on how the transition into theater for a career occurred.
GA: I never took an intro to fiction class at Oberlin because I was scared to death I’d never be able to finish the novels in time. So I took the intro to drama class, because I knew a little bit about it already, and because I knew I could read plays. There was a practical intro to drama class, and we had to put on scenes. That was pretty damn fun. Sophomore year, the only way to get into an acting class at Oberlin was to throw your name in a hat. It was a lottery. And I thought, ah, this is a good way to meet girls, too. [Adrian Danzig, in his interview, said a similar thing about meeting girls in theater. I wish I had know that. It never occurred to me it would be any easier in theater than in any other pursuit. Perhaps Oberlin girls are extremely pervious to theatrical sexuality.] So I threw my name in a hat and got chosen to be in an acting class, my sophomore year. This opened up a whole other world for me. I never had thought physically. I always thought either intellectually or emotionally. I felt like this was a third part of my life that had opened up. I’d never been in touch with what my body felt, at all. I’m just who I am. So the acting training from Roberta Rude, was very influential in that way.
Then I was cast in my first show. It was an absolute disaster. I was cast in an Ionesco play, “The Lesson” as the professor, who has 80% of the lines in the play. This is the beginning of my inability to memorize lines. It panicked me, just absolutely panicked me. And I had to memorize almost an hour’s worth of nonsense, to be able to do this play for a student director. I went to New York that spring break, and just sat in the NYU library trying to memorize lines the whole time. It was torturous. I came back and I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. I had to go on, book in hand, which really kind of crushed me because every one else did a good job. I just, couldn’t get it down.
JP: Did you still pursue written character roles after that?
GA: I auditioned, but I didn’t think of myself as an actor. I was way too much in my head to be an actor. I had taken the directing and playwriting classes at Oberlin. My junior year I went to London and saw about sixty plays. That was just the most amazing theater scene in the world. I was already a theater person before I went, but that experience turned me into a director.
After I graduated, my girlfriend, Kate Goehring, was still at Oberlin, so I went back to live with her. And while I was there I started assistant directing with my old professor doing “Tartuffe” on the main stage. He asked me to play a small part. I’d watch the show from the audience for the first half, and then I’d go back and get in costume and make-up and come out to deliver this one little monologue, then leave. In the second performance I walked on stage and said about four sentences, and blanked. Just completely blanked. There was an audience of around 500 people, sold out. This was my cast that I directed, and I felt so bad. I looked down, and then I looked up, and I burst into a sopping sweat, and then I backed up, and said my line again, and I was able to finish out the little speech, but at that point I vowed never to set foot on stage again. [For the third time. If you’re keeping track.]
JP: I have been thinking about the many shows that you have directed, particularly the ones that are adaptations, and they actually seem more like reinterpretations. Do you ever feel it is enough just to try to stage what the author intended?
GA: I’ve always latched on to reinterpreting whatever is on the page. I don’t believe in trying to figure out what the author intended because you never will know. And so I feel here are the words and you can interpret them any way you want. And so, even early on, when I was in my directing class, I did “Measure for Measure,” I intentionally reversed the traditional roles of who the protagonist and who the antagonist was. I experimented with staging in the round. I would always dick around with style and structure as a director. I enjoy coming up with unique interpretations, or making the production say what I want it to say, and not worrying about what’s being loyal to the author.
JP: Where does this instinct come from?
GA: I don’t know. I guess kind of a need for self-expression. I would latch on to these things and feel like, “Well this is what it’s about, for me.” I don’t really care what it’s about for anybody else. I wanted to say what I wanted to say. I latched on to directing as a communicative media. Even though I wasn’t the playwright, I would be able to take known texts, and adapt them in such a way that they said what I wanted them to say. Even in my beginning directing class I remember getting in trouble for it. The teachers would say things to me like, “Well, that wouldn’t work for the whole play, but for the scene you chose that’s pretty interesting!” I’ve never really let that get in my way.
JB: You obviously discovered yourself as a director at Oberlin. Did you do any writing for the theater while you were there?
GA: I wrote my first play at Oberlin. ‘Cause I took a playwriting class there. I was very involved in the Nuclear Freeze movement at the time, and I read Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, in “The New Yorker,” and was very moved at the doom that hung over all of us, and so I wrote a play called “Angst” [laughter] ...very college. “Angst” took place between the time all the missiles were launched, and Armageddon, basically, and you watched these two characters on stage trying to figure a way out of this dilemma. They hit upon the idea that if they don’t think, don't breathe, and don't feel they can stop time. And when they did this the lights would shift on stage and then there'd be these little dream scenes which would get them out of their dilemma. There was this absolute panic as the missiles were coming down and the play asked what would you do in those last moments? I was trying to figure out what’s the last thing to say in one’s life - very much like Beckett. So in the last sequence they realize it's not working because the audience is there, thinking and breathing and feeling. So the two actors turn out to the audience and command them to stop time with "Don't think! Don't feel! Don't breath!" and then that's the end of the play. It was either incredibly self-indulgent or [laughter] a really powerful ending, depending on how you look at it.
JP: How did it fare?
GA: It fared pretty well. Blair Thomas the founder of Redmoon and Blair Thomas Productions directed it, with my friends Ann Colby and Peter Riggs. That was my first experience of writing a play and giving it to a director and saying, “I’ll show up on opening night.” I remember just cringing and hating it, because of course it wasn’t the way I wanted it to be. So that was definitely what inspired me to be a writer/director/performer. "Cut out all the middlemen! I want it to be exactly what I want it to be!" [If Greg had long hair and a tie on, at this point is where these elements would fly through the air uncontrollably, and then in the pause he would straighten his tie and comb his hair back.] Um, so that experience was very influential in terms of that.
THE ITALIAN FUTURISTS, THE AUTOMATONS AND RELATIONSHIPS SPIRALING
JP: In between going to school at Oberlin and then returning, you lived in Boston for awhile. What were you doing there?
GA: In Boston I needed to find out that I could survive on my own. I’d gone through school, school, school, school, and then suddenly left college and... I had to get a job. I left Oberlin as an English Major, and it’s like, "What does that mean?" I’d never had a job really. I had worked at a photography studio in Winnetka for a couple years during the summer, and that's about all. So in Boston I got a job telemarketing for a theater. I didn’t last more than two months, but I outsold everyone else there, I was very good as a salesman. Then I started working for the Boston Public Library. Which is where I worked at what my friends called the Book Death Camp, throwing away 50 tons of books over the course of the summer. That was very exciting, doing heavy manual labor for the Boston Public Library. Then come November or something, maybe December, I went back to live with Katie at Oberlin.
JP: This is when you worked on Tartruffe and a few other directing projects, but most important to the history of Neo-Futurists, this is when you staged your first Futurist show.
GA: Yes, we called ourselves The Automatons. That was great fun.
JP: What was the structure of this performance?
GA: Earlier in my junior year at Oberlin I had taken a seminar on the Avant Guarde with Philip Auslander, who’s now a really big writer, theoritician. He introduced me to the Italian Futurists. I was like, "Gah! [That's the best spelling of the sound that Greg made that Corey and I could come up with. If you decided to strangle yourself right when you had the largest epiphany of your life, it may sound something like "Gah."] This stuff is crazy, this is great!" I liked the plays and I liked the Manifestos. So later I got together with Kate, Blair, John Russell, who later went on to write “Stupid Kids” before he died of AIDS, and Kirk Van Skoyik. I said let’s do these Italian Futurist plays. We just performed them back to back, a short fifteen minute thing. And we performed them in this very mechanical way. Everyone thought it was wonderfully hysterical. It went over big, to the point where we actually did it outside the next day during lunch and got another big crowd of people to watch us. And I said to myself, “There’s something to this.” That was definitely inspiring.
JP: I'm sure that didn't bring in any money at that time, how were you surviving?
GA: I was freeloading off of Katie. I mean I knew all the ins and outs of how to get free food and I was staying with Kate so it didn’t cost anything, uh you know, you learn how to break into everywhere.
JP: When did you feel you had to leave there? Did you-
GA: I, uh. So I was living with Kate, and then Kate went to the O’Neill, she went to the National Theater Institute in January. I don’t know how I got away with this... I was living in Katie’s dorm room in an all female dorm, and Kate was then gone, and so for January I’d set it up to direct “Tartuffe” with my professor, even though Kate wasn’t going to be there. The winter term came to an end I was living in Kate’s dormroom, and you could eat in the co-op if you weren’t a student. I paid about a hundred bucks for a month of food. And during that time was when we did a wedding brunch. We thought it was a fun idea to just declare a wedding. We took away all the chairs so no one could sit down, only served finger food, and then I sat at the front door with a whole bunch of name-tags, so that people could put on name-tags and assume different personalities, like, “Shell-Shocked Uncle” or, I was “Joey,” the autistic brother of the bride. Everyone had a role, and that was the the inspiration for the name-tagging for Too Much Light.
So, Kate was gone, and there was a girl about to move into Kate’s room and I had to get out of there, so I met this woman on campus who I hung out with one night, and I mentioned I needed a place to stay. The next night we were hanging out and she said, 'So are you gonna come live with me?' I said, “errr, ok.” This is where the play “The Lamb May Lie Down With The Lion But She Doesn’t Get A Lot Of Sleep” comes from. I moved into her house, which meant her room, which meant her bed, and we slept in the nude. I didn’t expect that at all! She knew Kate! She had a boyfriend! I, yeah, that didn’t last long.
Then I got really freaked out about how many women I was seeing at the same time, and I had to leave. I was even directing “Action” by Sam Shepherd at the time, and I just said, I’ve gotta get out of here, High Fidelity issues. I was seeing four different women on campus. It fucked with my head, big time.
JP: Was it women issues which finally drove you away from Oberlin for good?
GA: I loved Kate, but I thought, "Maybe I could love more than one person at one time!” I tried but it just totally freaked me out completely. So I went back to Boston and got an apartment in Summerdale, and worked at the Café Pamplona, for about a year. And then, basically following in Kate’s footsteps, I went to the O’Neill, to the National Theater Institute. I applied for the fall session of 1985. Fourteen weeks, where you do everything.
FOURTEEN WEEKS AT THE O'NEILL AND A RETURN TO CHICAGO
(SCRIBBLING DOWN THE FIRST NEO-FUTURIST PLAYS)
(SCRIBBLING DOWN THE FIRST NEO-FUTURIST PLAYS)
JP: The O'Neill is pretty intense.
GA: It was very intense. You had one day off for the fourteen weeks. But a tornado hit, in the middle of it, that was kind of cool, so we got a couple days off. The O'Neill was also where I met Jeremy Piven. We were enemies, we were absolutely arch-enemies, which is pretty funny. When he finally came to see Too Much Light, he got turned away at the door. And I, someone told me this, he said, and no one knew who he was at the time, but he said, “But I’m Greg’s arch-enemy! You have to let me in!” And I’ve always given him a lot of credit for saying that. There's a good, friendly animosity between us. Also, Ian Roberts was there. He’s one of the founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade. I lost touch with him.
JP: Was there any experimental theater going on there?
GA: No, it was pretty traditional acting training. Most of the teachers came from New York, or Yale. I had the utmost respect for the teachers there, and learned a ton. Yeah, it was pretty straight-forward theater, but I still experimented with elements. I directed scenes in the round and from different perspectives. I wrote a play there called, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”. It was a scathing review of my family, which is a little harsh.
I went there as a director, but the teachers not only thought I was a strong director, but also a strong playwright and actor. That really gave me the confidence to then move back to Chicago to pursue theater and to face my upbringing, which my brother never did. My brother ran away from home and just, never came back, basically. I felt like I can’t run away. I don’t want to run away from my upbringing, I want to deal with what the North Shore was like, I want to deal with my parents.
When I came back to Chicago I lived at home, worked at the Blind Faith Cafe in Evanston, and got into a double internship at the Organic and Wisdom Bridge, which were two of the bigger theaters in town. Then I moved on to an internship at Remains, while I became the literary manager of the Organic. I leapt right into practical volunteer experience, which I always encourage people to do. At the Organic there were only two people in charge there. It was the Artistic Director and the Managing Director. Blair and I jumped in and we became half the staff. That was pretty cool.
After about a month at home I got my own apartment on Paulina behind what was Carson’s Ribs, near Senn High School. Surviving on my own, with my own apartment, that was cool. A number of Oberlin people were here too. So I pretty quickly had a community of people. I was acting in a couple shows for people who called me up and just said, “Can you be in my show?” I was in “Josephine the Mouse Singer” at Chicago Actor’s Ensemble. That was a disaster. And I was in BetaWolf, at the Organic. That was pretty funny. It was this long process, ensemble oriented devised show, based on Beowulf, set in the future. Preposterous show. It was a cast of around thirty-five, so that was a fuckin’ blast. It ran for quite awhile. It was six months worth of work. It was great because you had this community very quickly.
Then I got to know Larry Sloan at Remains theater. While there I worked as the AD for Bob Falls’ production of Road. I was a dresser with Curt Columbus for The Mystery of Irma Vep which was a great play. I did three shows helping out Remains. I got fired from the Organic. [under his breath] ...That was a fuckin’ nightmare. That was a really ugly thing. I won’t go into it but it was nuts. It was not good. Bad. Political. Situation. [I did not push him for info about this, I don't want these interviews to be gossip columns but I feel it is important to acknowledge conflicts within the theater world. And obviously this was a big one for Greg, and may have given him an insight into what he would be dealing with in his own company.]
JP: Were you writing during this period? Was there any planting of seeds at this time for starting your own performance company?
GA: I took a couple classes with Thomas Riccio about devising work and I was very inspired by that. I still had the Italian Futurists show The Automatons in mind. And I had pretty much developed this audience interactive sense. At that point I was very much, viewing the audience as the antagonist to a show, like with “Angst”. I somehow latched on to audience participation as being really really fascinating. I was incredibly frustrated trying to write anything that lasted very long. So I took the Italian Futurist sensibility of these really short plays and then my own beliefs in audience participation and no illusion which drove me crazy too, all the acting and fakery. I started writing three scenarios a day on an eight and a half by eleven sheet of paper in a notebook. And every day I sat down and tried, as quickly as possible, to write three plays, or scenarios for plays. And I did that for a while, to the point where I had about seventy. And then I did a reading of them at the Organic, with the title, “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind”. That got a really good response.
TOO MUCH LIGHT MAKES THE BABY GO BLIND, WHAT?
JP: But I know you didn't jump right into producing Too Much Light, you had directed and adapted other shows around the Northside for awhile.
GA: I directed “No One Knows How” at the Gallery Theater. I talked the Artistic Director into letting me direct something and he gave me a copy of this play by Pirandello called “No One Knows How” It was the last play he had written. I turned it into a meta-theatrical play. I’ve always wanted to go back to that, because Pirandello is mostly known for “Tonight We Improvise” and “Six Characters in Search of an Author”, very meta-theatrical plays, whereas a huge bulk of his work is all just melodrama. So I took one of his melodramas and made it meta-theatrical. I adapted and directed an adaptation of “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell, at The Bailiwick. I did a performance art piece “Ballot, Bullet, Ballet” with my friend Robin MacDuffie. [Who would become a member of the first Neo-Futurist cast.] I’d made friends with Dennis McCullough who was the Artistic Director of Stage Left at the time. He had been an intern at Wisdom Bridge before me. He approached me about doing something at Stage Left and he said, “What would you like to do?” And I had a bunch of different ideas and one of them was exploring these Italian Futurist plays and this whole idea of doing very short plays and cranking them out really fast. Around that time The Italian American Theater Company did a show at Randolph Street Gallery, which was a presentation of the Italian Futurist plays. It was very very aggressive in the real traditional sense. You walked in the door, and they had this Doberman, chained at the door, that would bark the fucking daylights out of you. And then you had to get around the Doberman, and someone cross-examined you and then you went in and they gave you, I think, three green peppers, during the show, and then they would come out and you were supposed to whip these green peppers at the performers. It became the war that you read about the Italian Futurists experiencing. People in the performance got pretty damn hurt, and you could buy more peppers if you wanted! You could whip a green pepper pretty hard and this woman caught one in the eye. It was harsh, it was harsh. It inspired me to do that as well.
JP: Many Neo-Futurists I have talked to have been inspired by the poetry that Lisa and Dave had brought in to TML from Forensics and Slam poetry, was this any influence in the early days for you?
GA: I was unaware of it. I mean, I went to Randolph Street Gallery, and would see performance art, or Lower Links, and see performance art, things like that. But I was, essentially unaware of the poetry of forensics side of things.
[There was much underground theater springing up in the late 80's in Chicago. It makes sense that an artist could not see all the influences going on around them. So it is wonderful that even though this is the case, many of these influences beginning during this time could eventually make impressions on TML. Too Much Light is a show that welcomed the eclectic nature of Chicago at the time. Just look at the amount of companies celebrating their twentieth anniversary the last year or two: Theater Oobleck, Curious Theater Branch, Profiles, Comedy Sports, The Neo-Futurists, The Annoyance, and actually my company Hope And Nonthings!)
GA: So I told Dennis the show I was working on was called Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind and we agreed that that was the most frightening thing I could do. Blair had talked about late night theater and I’d never heard about late night theater, there are all these empty stages, after shows, and I’m out, prowling around for something to do in the middle of the night, why don’t we try that? Stage Left was right near the Punkin’ Donuts on Belmont and Clark, so it was perfect location, there were kids out there all the time, so we opened December 2nd, 1988, I cast one of my co-workers at Powell’s. (Greg was working at Powell’s Bookstore at that point. This is the area he was in when he got shot in the leg while minding his own business. ) I cast Robin McDuffie, who I’d worked with. There were three people from Stage Left, who wanted to be part of it, Randy, Mike, and Melissa, Kathy Gees came out of nowhere, I think she just auditioned, for me. I had these open auditions. Phil Gibbs came outta nowhere...
[I am trying to get an interview with Phil Gibbs. I haven't heard back. I'd like to find out where "nowhere" actually is. Perhaps that is where he is now, and that is why I can't get ahold of him yet.]
JP: What was the audition process like? Did they have to come in with an original piece?
GA: I had people come in and create an exquisite corpse, in groups, and then stage those. I wanted to see them working together. I don’t really remember exactly what I did. I mean, I do remember exquisite corpse pieces coming out of that night. And some theater games. I remember offering a lot of parts to people, some people going, “no.” So when we started rehearsals I would just preach the Neo-Futurist gospel and talk about that a lot, and then give assignments. People would bring in pieces, but I’d written about two thirds of the show. But other people were devising pieces and we’d rehearse almost every night, up to opening, and then keep rehearsing every night, and writing manifestos. I would start the show with a Manifesto on stage, to the audience, which was very angry at the time. I would just improvise a manifesto in the moment. It was usually about getting out of your seats and taking charge of your life and rebelling against being a voyeur. Things like that, change the world. Kind of hard to imagine now.
[I believe in this idea of changing the world, if only in small nudges. The Neo-Futurists may not cause world peace in a country or even in a neighborhood, but it is an influential force on many individuals, perhaps causing them to open their eyes to new ways of learning and understanding those whom are different and/or similar to themselves. These small changes are difficult to measure or quantify. I have no doubt that this show has changed the lives of hundreds, if not thousands. Just keep reading these interviews and you will witness ensemble members altering each others paths and slowly but surely affecting attitudes that will ultimately help to shape the world.]
Greg: We did two weeks before we closed for Christmas. We had an audience of invited friends the first couple weeks, and then... I don’t know, somehow, it just took off. We sold out our first night, in June of ’89. We had our first gig that same week. We went over to Edge of the Lookinglass, which was Lookingglass’ first space, downtown.
JP: When you first opened did you really think you'd be -
GA: Creating a show that would go forever?
JP: Hopefully. What I mean to ask is, most shows have "runs." They have built in expiration dates. Is it correct to say that Too Much Light did not have a set expiration date?
GA: Yes, you can say that. The idea was that we were going to create ten new plays a week. It was a while before I caught on to having them roll the dice to determine how many new plays. The intentions was to just keep going. I don’t know why I didn’t think of having a set run, but we never had a set run.
JP: I know that every new cast members brings a unique voice, but there are certain staples, certain ways of organizing plays that we fall into, and every once in a great while we may stumble upon a new way in which to structure our short plays. Do you believe that a large portion of the structures still used came from those very very early days?
GA: Yep, I think so. Also, we never had a technician for the first couple years, so it was basic, almost no tech. And if we really needed tech someone would run up to the booth and climb a ladder to go up there and push a button, and so that really changed the tenor of the show, that basically, it was really all people in the same room. It was just lights up, heres the show. Certain things like the line play was created back then, and flashlights were heavily used, matches, you know, all the really, simple stuff.
JP: This do-it-yourself mentality, using a lot of cheap props and even cheaper special effects, showing the strings as it were, the man behind the curtain, do you think it was inherently part of the aesthetic, or did these elements become part of the aesthetic out of necessity?
GA: Well, that was kind of one of the great things. We had no budget, so we didn’t even think of having a budget. And also we were performing on other people’s sets, which was wild, for the first three years. Until we moved here we were on someone else’s set. So, yeah, I think through great challenge, you come up with great creativity. We would show up and suddenly there’d be a kitchen sink set behind us, you know, and then the next week we’d write a play to do on the kitchen sink set. We called that play, This Old Set. It was a very funny play. I walked around talking about how everything was fake.
JP: Yeah, I actually revised that one, my own version that we did in New York. We just couldn't ignore that we were performing in a bright yellow motel room.
GA: We’d open the oven, “Nah, nah, it doesn’t really work.” We’d go out into the audience, “What about this audience?" "No, they’re all those puffy inflatable things.” And then we’d walk outside, “What about these cars out here on the street?" "Nope! All pretend! It’s all back projection!”
INTERVIEWING THE AUDIENCE
JP: In the very beginning the cast used to interview the audience as they entered. Did this element disappear because the audiences got too large?
GA: It ended here. [The Neo-Futurarium] It was just too many people. Yeah, it just took forever. At the other two locations we always interviewed people at the at the top of the show. When we went to New York at The Public we interviewed people. The first thing, people would come in the door, they’d roll the die, pay one to six bucks, they’d get a name tag from someone in a little booth, there was a little ticket booth, and so they really couldn’t hear, and they had the old big walkman, and earphones. The whole idea was that it was supposed to be task oriented, where someone would say their name, “Bill!” and you’d hear “ill!” and so you’d write down ‘ill’ or you’d write down ‘zill.’ It was an Ellis Island kind of thing. They usually had to stand in line, and then we would have a bunch of seats on stage, and we’d fill the seats on stage, and then we’d interview them. Phil Gibbs usually interviewed people, or I interviewed people. “So what’re you here for? What do you expect? Who are you?” Then when we thought they were done, we’d put them in the audience. This was a great way of getting to know the audience quickly, ‘cause when someone’d come back. I mean, I swear for the first year, I knew anyone who had come to that show. If someone came back, I would recognize them instantly. It’s just so hard to imagine now.
So we’d interview them, and finally we’d get them in their seats, and start the show. It was kind of abrasive, like if, a critic came, we’d say, “OH, so you think you’re a critic, huh? You’re someone to judge us!” You know, and then we’d say, “Hey everybody! A critic!”
One thing I just loved about the Stage Left space was there was this display window, and we would show up about an hour ahead of time, someone would show up, often me, and you’d just sit in the window, and there’d be different things you could do. You could be a living mannequin who didn’t move, and then people would go by, or you could follow them with your eyes, while you didn’t move. Or you could be there and eat dinner or something. It just stopped traffic. It was amazing how many people were just fascinated that there was a human being, in the window. It was very Neo-Futurist. It was just a person, you know, but it was fascinating in that framework. People would come and go, there’d be crowds around the fuckin’ window! It was so funny! “Is he real?” “No, he’s not real!” “Yeah, I think he’s real!” That became most of our publicity. “That’s the show with the guy in the window, right?”
And we talked to everybody at the end of the show. I would talk to everybody in the lobby. That created this community of, “ah, this is great, I’m gonna come back and tell my friends” Those are the elements that we’ve lost here. We tried to replicate the window-work at Live Bait, but it didn't last ‘cause there was no walk-by traffic there. And the window wasn't suited for it.
JP: When you went from Live Bait to the Neo-Futurarium the audience capacity more than doubled in size, did you even bother trying to interview the audience at the first shows here?
GA: We did, we tried it here. At Live Bait we had a house of about 75. We were able to interview everybody on stage. Then, when we came here it was over, I mean, we tried it for a couple weeks, but it just took forever. And everyone had to sit around and wait. The advantage of both, Live Bait and Stage Left, was we were able to take the audience out into the street occasionally, which was pretty cool. ‘Cause it was right there, and we tried that here. There was a play called “Deja Corner of Foster and Ashland.” We walked the whole audience out to the corner and they watched a play take place across the street. That just took forever. I mean, it was like, “AND fifteen minutes later, we’re back!”
THE ELDER STATESMEN OF NEO-FUTURISM HEATHER & PHIL RIDARELLI
AND ALL THOSE OTHERS THAT FIRST YEAR
AND ALL THOSE OTHERS THAT FIRST YEAR
JP: Next to you, the only one that comes remotely close to having been here since early on is Heather Riordan, can you talk a bit about when she came into the show.
[Heather entered the show Jul,y 6th 1990. You should know that just recently, after this interview was conducted, Phil Ridarelli petitioned to become active in the company again. If all works out you will see Phil in the show at least 16 weeks a year. But not in a row!]
GA: When we started the show we had rehearsals at Chase Park, we paid ten bucks a night , and that started going up. "This sucks, we don’t want to pay this much." That was the one financial deal we had with Stage Left, was that they paid for our rehearsals in Chase Park, and then kept 97% at the door. That was something that was not good either. Ah, yeah, there was a real ugly fall out with Stage Left.
[Greg and I barely touched upon this conflict already talked about with Dave and Lisa. After I met with Greg, I met with Karen Christopher, and she was very open about the conflict and how it affected people on the inside. So you have that to look forward to.]
GA: Then I discovered Margate Park, which was right near my home in Uptown. They didn’t know to charge anybody anything. It’s like, “Can we have a room?” “Yeah!” “..Okay! We’ll just take the room!” So we had auditions there, of all places, and I remember Heather coming in, and standing on her head, and singing opera with shark puppets on her feet, which then went into the show as “Heather Gets Classy” which I’m sure you’ve seen.
[Here is one of those moments, where memory is tricky. A few days later I interviewed Heather and it was clarified then that this was definitely not the piece with which she auditioned. What Heather said about this classic piece is that she brought it to the group a few weeks after she had been in the show. She didn't even show them in rehearsal. She just explained that she would put shark slippers on and sing an aria while standing on her head. She said the reaction to the proposal was lackluster, but they put it in anyway. The first night it aired, it became an instant classic. The cast cold barely put themselves together to perform the next play.]
GA: Back then we had auditions, that was it, someone came in, did a two minute piece, we’d ask them a question or two and they left. Then we’d say, “Yeah, let’s cast her.”
JP: Did you find you would go through cast members quicker back then?
GA: Yeah, it was an underground show, late at night. [He stressed the late at night. At the time this concept really was an anomaly, the only other company at the time besides Second City performing late night theater was Annoyance, who were also just beginning.] We went through like twenty people the first year, I think. Maybe not. I mean, it- well... maybe not twenty, maybe fifteen, well... maybe twenty. [I left this stumbling over the amount in because noone I have talked to has a clear picture of how many came and went in that first year, but it was definitely enough for Greg to get flustered and not be able to distinguish the number fifteen from the number twenty. Greg then began naming a bunch of people; actors, singers, and friends who did the show anywhere from three weeks to three months, this began to get a little ridiculous, so he decided to hold official auditions.] At the end of the year we [The cast: Greg, Karen, Lisa, Phil R. Melisa Lindberg and Randy Burgess.] cast four people, Ted Bales, Adrian Danzig, Paige Phillips, and Ayun Halliday.
JP: Often, even more than yourself, I see Heather as the one who takes the Neo-Futurists aesthetic of non-illusory, no character, real life performance to heart. I can honestly say that Heather is always Heather.
GA: I think Heather’s that way because- I mean it’s almost like the Supreme Court judges, like these guys who were put in, who were kind of conservative at the time, and now they’re really liberal. Compared to everybody else, I think thats kind of the case. I think at the beginning we were incredibly hardcore Neo-Futurist for the first year or so, and then, mostly because I stopped training the people coming in, I think the aesthetic got filtered down, so that I think, Heather’s just a throwback to the class of 1990, where it was closer to the bone. We talked more about the aesthetic. Whereas now, people come in and have to pick it up through osmosis or a class, which I think has helped a lot, to have people take our class, to at least understand the basics of it. I don’t know, I don’t think of Heather being that hardcore of a Neo-Futurist -
JP: I do. Looking at her body of work, I just think she physicalize it a lot more. Instead of straight intellectualizing she abstracts it with movement, rhythm and with disjointed, yet brutally honest, text.
GA: Yeah, it’s funny I always thought Heather wasn’t a writer. Honestly, when she came into the ensemble I thought Heather didn't write that much, she doesn’t even really think of herself as a writer. I would say she’s more of a performer, than a writer.
JP: I agree that she is more a performer, but who plays are still based in text, without a doubt, but whether it's abstracted or in a rant it's just Heather speaking.
GA: Right, yeah, absolutely, no, no crap there, no. Yeah, we had to break people of some other acting habits, Ted was the hardest. Ted really, was always acting up a storm on stage.
JP: Whatabout Phil? [Ridarelli]
GA: Phil is an amazing performer. Phil, Phil is always Phil, I think Phil has a really great sense of being a goofball on stage and that lends itself to being aware that it is Phil. I mean, you know, all his little stuff, [Greg tries to gesticulate like Phil] is still very much Phil. I don’t think of him being a character.
JP: When you brought Phil in did he just seem to get it?
GA: I think he just took off from the get-go, yeah, and he was just a really dynamic performer.
JP: Do you remember what Phil did for his audition?
GA: Phil did a hokey phone call. “Yeah? Joe? Yeah, it’s Phil.” You know, it’s- [laughter] it was some comic scenario. It was called Phil’s Phone Call when it went into the show, but it wasn’t actually particularly Neo-Futurist. But, you know, we kind of took that in stride at the beginning. [Yet, the aesthetic as aforementioned was discussed more, so this must have lead to very interesting polarities.]
JP: I've heard stories, perhaps from Phil himself, that he made an appearance in the workings of the show even before he was known to the cast.
GA: In the program it said something about sitting in the chair, and look at the audience, and just be yourself. And it said "Talk to Phil" And so Phil was like, “O-kay, maybe it says talk to me.” The program was talking about talking to Phil Gibbs, but Phil Ridarelli wound up with the microphone, interviewing people his first time coming to the show, and so the mic was turned on, we were like, “Who is that guy?” And he came back again, and it was like “Oh, this guy’s great.” Then when he auditioned for us, it’s like “Oh, that’s Mr. Microphone.” So, yeah, we just had a good feeling about him.
[And then Greg and I ran out of time. Greg will be re-interviewed down the line. There is much more I want to learn about the company through a polyphony of voices, and I look forward to interviewing him again with more of a sense of the many diverse perceptions. I imagine Greg and I will also discuss the transition from The Neo-Futurists just being a show called Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, into the present company which now has a full Primetime Season, plus one off evenings like the Filmfest. We will also discuss the opening of the first and second New York Branch. And perhaps his future as a Neo-Futurist adaptor and director.]
Posted by The Fool Machine Collective at 4:30 PM