Thursday, May 28, 2009

Heather Riordan

Strong, dedicated, intelligent, physical, mighty, these are just the first few words that sprung to my mind when I began this sentence about Heather Riordan. There are many people I can claim to have made their mark in the history of the Neo-Futurists but none of them carry it with them like Heather. You know those metal-like skeletal structures that keep a building standing? She's that. She might not have been there from the beginning of the company, but it sure does seem like it! Heather gave me one of the most clear, concise interviews yet. I hardly had to edit any unfinished sentences, "likes", "ums", or gibberish. Me, on the other hand, almost every question or statement I make in these interviews have to be restructured, I don't understand how the hell I get the info I get, I don't understand how they interpret my chaotic gestures and random stringing of words together into questions for them to answer. Nonetheless, I must state in print, that the brain of Heather, is in line with the voice of Heather and the actions of Heather. She is what she is, and she is aware of herself more than anyone I know. And that is why, in many ways, she represents Neo-Futurism for me.
(This interview was conducted in the theater of the Neo-Futurarium by John Pierson. This interview was transcribed by the ever present Coley Verbick)

JP: What’s your early life like and how did it bring you to the theater?
HR: I grew up in Rockford, IL. My parents inexplicably moved from San Francisco and Palo Alto to come to Rockford. I guess because that was a good place to work and raise a family. I would say my childhood was average, sort of boring and nice, nothing really exciting. But my family fell apart when I was 12 years old and I think I sort of grew up fast during that time. I had been interested in theatre before it all fell apart, but that’s probably when I latched on to it more intensely.
JP: Did you find yourself staying at school longer to avoid going home?
HR: I frequently spent the night at school.
JP: Oh, really?
HR: I went to a very weird tiny little college prep school in Rockford. I went there K through 12. I think there were 12 people in my graduating class, plus 3 exchange students. A lot of my classes only had around 6 or 7 people. It was a really unique experience and for me it was especially great because as my family dissolved I had this other sort of family that I could totally immerse myself in. In which, totally immersing yourself was sort of necessary. There were so few people at this school, so everybody had to do everything. The soccer team made sure that on the weekends we had theater productions running they didn’t have games, because everybody was doing everything. We didn't have enough people to have cliques. When we would have a musical, ¾ of the school was in it. And that was really good for me because it allowed me to do a lot of everything and be really immersed in school. I got a lot of individual attention. I don't think I would have thrived in a huge 2000 person school. I was very lucky in that way. I was just able to do everything I was interested in. I was able to do theatre and I was able to be on the boy’s soccer team and do a wide range of stuff.
JP: You were at a small school in a big town. I mean, Rockford isn’t Chicago, but it's pretty big. Why was the school so small? [While editing these interviews I realized that I had been seeing the educational world with side blinders on. I didn't know anything about private schools except that they were for rich kids. I know this isn't the case with Heather. I was lucky, the Northwest suburbs had pretty damn good public high schools.]
HR: The public school system in Rockford was and continues to be not very good. There are a couple of Christian schools that are an alternative and this was the only small college prep school. It was really fledgling at the time and had a mishmash of talented teachers that you couldn’t really figure out why they were there. I took a couple years of Latin and a year of Ancient Greek from a woman—a very smart woman who had a PhD whose husband was the head of the Classics department at Rockford College, but Rockford College is a small college and they only had need for one classics professor so she taught at this high school. Here’s these really talented people who just for whatever reason were stuck in Rockford and were teaching there and it was really fortuitous for me.
JP: I have always thought of you as being very industrious. It sounds like in your school you had no choice but to be active, yet this is very different from being identified as "social." Did you consider yourself a social person? Do you still have friends from this time period?
HR: I was social. I do still have friends from that time period. One of my best friends from high school has lived with my brother for a number of years and we were very close in school. I keep up with a couple of people from high school. I also just reconnected with somebody on Facebook. When there’s only 12 of you, it’s very easy to fall back into a, “Hey! How are you?” relationship. I was very active. I think I wasn’t on the volleyball team and I wasn’t in the science club and I think there were two other things I wasn’t in. And that sounds like I’m a real go-getter, but the truth was everybody had to do everything. I was homecoming queen, not because I was the prettiest girl, but for the irony of the homecoming queen being the starting fullback on the soccer team. There’s a great picture. I don’t think it was the one that was in the paper, but was someplace else. It’s all the homecoming queens from Rockford and mine was a picture that they took—there was a nice picture of me, but they took it at half time and they put the little tiara on my head. I looked really pretty and I’ve got make up on this side and this side because it was a really rainy day, I’m just caked with mud. (both laugh) It sort of looks like a Carrie picture. So that, in a way, encapsulates my experience there. That was really freeing for me. I was very shy as a young child, really shy. I think I went through the first four weeks of kindergarten without saying a word, if you can imagine such a thing. (JP chuckles) I was not very outgoing, so it was a place that sort of fostered being active. I have always been industrious to a point too where it’s a little bit of a behavior that I do to stop whatever else was going on. Certainly when I was a teenager, being over-scheduled was a great way to not have to deal with any family issues.

JP: It seems this school was the perfect home for you. It kept you away from having to deal with some bad things.
HR: Yeah and just a perfect outlet at the right time. A very positive outlet as opposed to, I think in a different way or a different program I would have gotten into drugs or something else or maybe just have done one thing.
JP: Can you pinpoint when you decided theatre was going to be your pursuit? It seems you were doing everything. At that time did theater pop out as more important than other activities?
HR: You know, it was something that I had sort of thought for awhile, “Wow, I would never be good enough to do that,” and then I thought, “Why not try it?” And oddly, what I’m doing now is not at all the type of theatre that I thought I would be doing. When I was 12 my dad started taking me up to the Stratford Festival and then we started going to the Shaw Festival that was two hours away. By the time I graduated from high school, I had seen every Shakespeare and every Shaw play. I had just seen a tremendous amount of classical theatre. And that is what I always thought I would do, which is, of course, the antithesis of what I’m doing now. I never considered writing once. Ever.
JP: Did you take writing classes in school?
HR: You know,I never really took writing classes. I took an AP English class in high school and somehow got out of taking English 101 and 102. I took a lot of literature classes. I took three semesters of Shakespeare where papers were due, but I never took that writing class that everyone is required to take. I’ve always been cognizant of that that was something that was missing that I really should have gotten. I think maybe because I have a BFA, that sort of thing just slid under the table, as did that I’ve never taken a proper class in American history and the Constitution—which is a requirement.
JP: The required class I got away with never taking was biology.
HR: In high school, even?
JP: Yeah, everyone I knew in school had dissected frogs, insects and whatnot, I never did. I don’t know what happened. I know at the time I didn't want to take biology, and I was very well aware that somehow I had scooted around the "system, and got away with it." I enjoy science now, I still wouldn't dissect a frog, but I wouldn't have mind figuring out how it works. I always wonder about those kinds of things that you lacked or missed out in high school. And how that lack can sometime become a passionate pursuit later on. I have a passion for science. I wouldn’t be a scientist but I’m very interested in astronomy, physics, and anatomy.
HR: Science is fascinating.
JP: Since I started performing theater and writing I have been fascinated with incorporating a bit of science whenever I can. In order to stay current to what’s going on in the world. It’s important to make a one-to-one correlation with advances in science. [I started feeling stronger about this when I began studying Marcel Duchamp.]
HR: This is somewhat tangential and I think I fell into this a little bit in college and then thankfully got out of it—people whose lives are Theatre-Theatre-Theatre, you know, they’re theatre majors and all they do is theatre and everything, make really boring people and writers. And to an extent you need that drive if you’re going to be a successful person, but I just think it makes you—certainly for this show—less interesting. It’s what you do outside of your theatre. If all we wrote were plays about pursuing theatre and writing about theatre, all that inside stuff, it would be really dull. It’s our day jobs. It’s our interactions on the street. It’s the things that we study that are outside of that. And you’re a good example of that because your physicality stuff isn’t just physicality of theatre on stage. There’s a strong athletic component to that. And with you, it’s a little bit science-y and a little bit geeky. (JP laughs) That was what makes a lot of your stuff so interesting. I mean, I think there’s so much of an interesting physics component to what I saw in Fools. I’d love to sit down and do a show that was something like—Physics by John and Heather (JP laughs) and see where that goes. That, to me, is very interesting: how you bring your other interests into art. And if your other interests are just reading plays and auditioning for plays and talking about plays and hanging out with other actors—I just think at the end of the day you’d have to kill yourself.
JP: It's important, to get away from your own field in order to explore and bring things to it.
HR: I think it was Sonny Rollins was one of the bebop, late 50s/early 60s jazz saxophone players and he hit a certain modicum of fame. He took a sabbatical from music and was a janitor for two years while he said he thought it all out and then went back to jazz. Not that I wish to be a janitor, but it’s interesting when you see people like that who say, “I just needed to have a life that wasn’t music for a little while so I could understand music better.”

COLLEGE YEARS

JP: You’re in college prep school and then you are about to finish up, was it an immediate choice for you to continue on to college?
HR: I always knew I would to go to college. My parents were college educated so there was never an idea of not going to college. My parents were very straight-laced in that. They both had been professors at Stanford. I think the question was like, “What do you do after your bachelors degree?” That was sort of like what most people’s idea of finishing high school was my life. When you finish your bachelors, then what are you going to do? I chose a couple different schools and BU was the one I ended up going to. It was a conservatory program and that probably wasn’t a good choice for me. I probably should have gone to a small liberal arts school. But then I just played "See the World With Your Diploma." You know, I’d be like, “I hear there’s a good professor over here,” and I went to a bunch of different schools and I lived in a bunch of different cities.

JP: Name a few those schools.

HR: Cornell, Boston University, Harvard, Rockford College, University of Illinois, University of Minnesota, American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and others. When I was in college, I never took a summer off. I always went someplace else that was doing a summer program. I did the Harvard summer dance program with Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane. I did the Lessac workshop up in Minnesota with Arthur Lessac. (He is now deceased) If I had the money, I’d still do that. I would. If I didn’t have to work, I would have taken the last Goat Island seminar last summer. Every summer I would study a different aesthetic, a different methodology.
JP: Many people just pursue their degree and then they want to be done with school. It sounds like you were, and continue to be, more or less interested in learning as a continuing process more than an ends to a single concrete goal.
HR: The only reason I’m not still in school full time is the lack of performance opportunities. I mean, you’d perform some in school, but there just weren’t enough opportunities and that’s the only thing that kept me from getting a PhD in performance studies. There’s so much grunt work for somebody else’s vision instead of you just performing. I think if I hadn’t been a performer and I had done something else, I would probably still be in academia.

JP: What situations began to alter your perception of yourself from being a traditional actor to more of a writer/performer?

HR: There were a couple of things:
1. My second trip to New York. I saw Squat Theatre Company. It was an Eastern European theatre company back in the 80s. They would spend about a year and a half working on a show that was really dynamic and unlike anything I had ever seen before. And they were the Squat Theatre Company because I think they all lived upstairs above the theater space. One of the women who was in that company was Eszter Balint who stars in Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. I went to go see their show because somebody said, “If you want to go see something different, go see that.” There shows were set in front of a huge picture window. So the back screen of what was going on was the streets of New York City. The actors were amongst us. There was no fourth wall. Having seen theatre in Rockford and Stratford and Shaw Festival, that was pretty much it, I had never even heard the term “performance art.” It just blew my mind. There was a whole other world out there.
2. When I was in California, I went to go see a show—and I was staying with some pretty interesting people in California. One of the best quotes I ever heard, because everyone is so into their ideology. We had just got done with our acting class and I had this master class with Anna Deveare-Smith. She said, “ None of that Stanislavski shit is going to work here.” It was just so refreshing to have somebody say, “I’ve got a whole new aesthetic. There’s no fourth wall and there’s no rules and it’s all different.” Also, when I was in San Francisco, I saw Fred Curchek who’s a performance artist based in Texas. I don’t think he’s all that active now. He did some one man shows that were amazing. I went and I was captivated by everything he did. And those two things sort of introduced me to performance art.
It was something that I sort of heard of, but this was 1985. Who had heard of performance art? It was either very installation-based in museums that didn’t involve performers or people just dropping chocolate sauce all over themselves and I didn’t see the point of it. So that was really eye-opening to me. I was always really intrigued by pushing the boundaries of theatre and seeing what was this “performance art” and taking elements of that. And in a way that seemed really accessible and dynamic.


JP: What was the impetus to move back to Illinois (Chicago)?
HR: I was getting out of school in like ’86 or ’87 and Chicago was just at that beginning of being the place to be and the theatre place to be. And after living in other cities, notably San Francisco and Boston, the rents were so expensive that to put up a show, required either somebody’s parents having a trust fund or being rich or it was so mainstream. You just couldn’t put up anything in San Francisco because rents were exorbitant, there were no theaters and you were working 65 hours to pay your rent in whatever crappy place you were and in Boston it was the same way. And here, you could make a living and still have time to do art and that was really the decision and just sort of the idea that there was all this stuff percolating and happening in Chicago. I think a lot of people from Boston and also San Francisco ended up moving here because, and this sounds just so trite, but the rents were so cheap.
JP: What area were you living in?
HR: I lived in Rogers Park, which was not a good neighborhood at the time, just south of Loyola, in an apartment that was like $200 a month. I saw it during the day and was like, “I’ll take it!” and then came back that night and there were gangs everywhere and rats running by and people being shot on the subway platform. I can remember asking my dad for money like six months into it and I was like, “I need a new window,” and he was like, “What happened to your window of your car?” and I was like, “Somebody shot at it.” (both laugh) I didn’t really think that one through. Then I moved to Melrose and Broadway, and Southport and Irving Park. I lived on Southport when we were doing the show at Live Bait, which was nice because it was right around the corner.

JP: Right before you started Too Much Light, in what theaters were you involved?
HR: I was a company member at Zebra Crossing. I saw Lisa Buscani perform somewhere one night. It was just some show of different people performing monologues, but she just knocked my socks off. So later when I curated a show at Zebra Crossing about women’s rights, I asked Lisa to be one of the performers in it because she was really great. She very cheerfully said yes even though I just met her. She did the show and then she said, “Come see this show I’m in. It’s Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.” It was at Stage Left at the time and I had that same experience. I said, “Ooh, that’s different and fun! I want to be in that!” A month later she called and said, “We’re having auditions. Come audition for the show.” It was just that simple. I had never written anything except for the times I was in a show and I wanted to be in the show and in order to be in the show you had to write something for it like the piece I had done at Zebra Crossing. But for the most part I had just never given any thought to writing my own material. I hadn’t considered myself a writer and I just liked performing and didn’t really want to spend all that time angsting over words. But I would write something for myself if that was how you got on stage. I was more than willing to do that.
JP: Talk about your first experience seeing Too Much Light.
HR: It was at Stage Left. And I had never been to Stage Left. I can’t express—it seems so commonplace now—how revolutionary it was to have a late night show. There were no late night shows. Theatre happened at 8. Maybe if it was a staggered thing, it happened at 8:30, but there was no 11 o’clock or 11:30 show. This was just the weirdest thing. Just that alone made it so kooky and off beat. It just had a really fun energy and it got a different crowd. It was clear that it was not a theatre crowd. And I was really impressed with that because one of the things that had always nagged me was I had always thought that once I got my degree, I had to get out of Chicago and go someplace where there wasn’t any theatre and start some up. There was a guy in Rockford, Jim Sullivan—who I’m still in contact with sometimes—who went to Beloit College. Very talented, went to college, came back and started a theatre in Rockford because there was nothing. It was this drab industrial town. And he took that all away from performing in a bar on weekends to a 200-seat equity house. And I really admired that. I had done work with that company and I really liked the idea of—you know, you don’t go to New York, you don’t go to Chicago, you don’t go someplace where there are 40 theatre companies and you’re number 41 competing for the same audience. You go to the middle of Nebraska and do something. There’s a quote from Megan Terry that I’m going to misquote. She was a feminist playwright in the 70’s and 80’s and somebody said, “Why, as an alternative feminist playwright, would you do stuff in Nebraska?” and she said, “Can you think of any place that needs it more?” (both laugh)
Too Much Light was creating a new audience. It wasn't just sucking from that same small group of people that go see theatre. I really, really admired that. I loved the speed of it. You could just see that they were hustling every minute. It was like a bunch of waitresses on speed at The Melrose doing performance art. I love the immediacy of it and how close they were. And I just really liked how it changed from play to play. It wasn’t like, “Here’s our style.” And I think in subsequent years we even did a better job of this, pushing that envelope and saying, “Here’s what we do. Here’s how many different ways we can do it.” You know, you’d have something really goofy and then Lisa would do a serious piece and you could hear a pin drop because the audience was with you so much.

Feminism inherent in the Neo-Futurist Aesthetic

JP: In much of the chicago comedy, improvisation, and stand up women struggled through much of the 80s and 90's to be taken seriously. The thing that impressed me with the Neo-Futurists when I started was that the women, Diana Slickman, Anita Loomis, and you, just to name a few, seemed to have found a way to express feminist issues, your equality, your strength without having to rely on being overbearing or even overtly obvious.

HR: Occasionally we’ll do something that’s overt, but I don’t think that’s as successful. A lot of times it’s just not as interesting. So I try to do it in a covert way because it is certainly a part of my agenda. In a covert way or with a twist or stylistically different or something, not just out there, sort of bald-faced. Not to say that I haven’t done some, I’m sure, dreadful, sledgehammer, terrible feminist plays. I’m sure we can dredge those up. But it’s just more interesting. Here’s a good example: Bilal does a lot of really neat political plays that are a great metaphor. The Bucket Play. You know, it’d be really easy to be like, “Why is the Senate so whiny?” And I think that’s something as an ensemble that we do is that we try not to just put the bald faced thing, but say, “How can we use this aesthetic—how can we use this style to mask this, to make it more art and less…”
JP: Before this interview took place I didn’t know about your high school experiences. I wonder if the fact that there were a very limited amount of people in your school, men and women crossed over their responsibilities in school more often than most schools. I wonder if it was just natural for you to be confident within your masculinity and your femininity. You had already proven what you could do.
HR: I can remember some of the Christian schools either not allowing us (the two girls) to play and then finally the coach was like, “That’s not an option. [Women playing] That means you forfeit the game.” I can remember one—which is where I first got this knee hurt. There was some guy in a Christian school, some sort of evangelical, Christian school that was very little about studying and all about the Bible, I could see just there were two guys who were going to take us down. That was at this Christian school, they were just going to take us out of the game. And they did it. I was in a cast for four weeks. So there were some things like that. When I was first working at the theatre here, I was a bartender at the Swissotel, which was a Swiss run company and had very, very conservative views on women's place. For awhile I could remember there was this huge consternation in Switzerland because our bartender was a woman [Heather WAS that bartender.] and literally I would have manager after manager from Switzerland explain to me, “No, you’re a cocktail waitress, that guy’s the bartender.” And I would say, “No, he’s the cocktail waiter, I’m the bartender.” And that was just very difficult for me and it was sort of like, “This is 1989 and we’re in the US. I don’t know where you think that’s coming from.” I certainly had a lot of little battles to deal with that. “What does gender have to do with bartending?” So it was just this idea of like, “Well, we only have uniforms for the male bartenders and we have little dresses for the cocktail waitresses.” I bought my own tuxedo. It doesn’t matter. So there are some things I had to put up with, but I never felt like, “Oh this is something I have to overcome,” because in school I was given every opportunity. I was just never told no and there were never enough of us that gender was something that could hold you back. Yeah, that made me feel more comfortable.
JP: Ok, so Lisa asks you to audition for TML, what did they ask you to do in the audition in those early days?
HR: They asked for, you know, a piece. There were no callbacks then. So I had to write a piece. I wrote a piece called—which I don’t have anywhere because this was before people had computers—called Pencil Dick that was about my experience actually with managers at the Swissotel that were sitting at the bar. I don’t speak French well, but I used to be able to sort of speak it and I can still understand some of it. They would talk at the bar and angst about this woman. “Why should she be a bartender? Why can’t she be a cocktail waitress?” And who was a good piece of ass. And this went on for weeks before I clued them in on that I understood French. So that’s what the piece was about and that was my audition piece.
JP: Then they called you to tell you you were in. Did you panic at all about not thinking of yourself as a writer?
HR: Yeah, well here was my plan: I was like, “I’m just going to ride this, for as long as I can and then they’ll figure out that I’m not a writer and kick me out. I’ll write a couple things for myself and hopefully people will write some good things for me and I’ll coast for as long as I can.” And to an extent, John, I still think that. (both laugh) It hasn’t really changed, I really only write out of necessity. I have some short stories that I’ve published under pseudonyms, but rarely do I write and I never do theatrical writing unless it’s out of necessity with a deadline and I have something to write about.
JP: This may be the crux of why I often feel you are the most Neo-Futurist of all the performers I have seen in the show, because your writing seems to be purely without decoration, whether it is literal or abstract.
HR: I don’t keep a journal and I don’t blog. I don’t do any of that sort of writer-y stuff because it doesn’t interest me. But when there is something interesting that happens, I have a little notebook that I just write it down and I try and use that as a springboard and then try to come and put a sense of style on that or how to abstract that. And I don’t spend a lot of time, or I try not to, unless that is the intention of the piece, to really think about like, “How is the audience going to get this?” Because I think that’s when I get in the way, when I’m deciding how I’m going to manipulate the audience into feeling. I have a general sense of it, but I think I brought in a lot of pieces that people just to this day are confused by. And I’m really fine with that.
JP: Sometimes we learn our style or a new style for ourselves over time in TML. Did you feel you had a style when you came in?
HR: I actually think like every two years I go through a sort of style change. There was a while where I did a lot of abstract movement pieces. I would have a lot of pieces that had words and movement and you wouldn’t call it dance but words that went along. I had a while where everything was a cohesive circle. A sort of, “Now I see. This play makes sense.” For awhile I did deconstructions. If I look back at my material and I look at the books, there’s like 4 or 5 different things going on.
JP: There is no denying that we all have certain plays that we bring back year after year, because they are timeless and the audience will always enjoy them. One of yours in this category is Heather Gets Classy. Can you talk about the genesis of this piece?
HR: Well actually, I had done the genesis of it while I was in college. I had to go to some of these vocal recitals and it was sort of like a contest and I don’t quite understand what they are and they have judges and I had to do one of them before in high school. I’m not a good singer. I mean, I’m a decent singer and I can hold a tune and I know music theory backwards and forwards, but I’m not an opera singer. I study opera just because I find operas interesting and I find opera sort of as means to an end and I used to do some musical theatre. So for this class, this voice class, you had to learn two Italian pieces. And the one I didn’t really know and I was studying puppeteering at the time (tries not to laugh), so my sort of “Fuck you!” to the whole process was to sing a Mozart aria from The Marriage of Figaro. So my whole goal in the thing was to do the one piece and not seem kind of good, get a chuckle, and then leave because this doesn’t impact my grade. It’s just something I had to do. I don’t want to be here. And so I was thinking about it and thinking about what is a great way of shattering the audience’s expectations. And I thought, “Man, there’s nothing worse than when you go see something and you get some self-important person who is going to do a classical piece,” and you can just, you know, people who watch you say, “Oh, no, you’re a decent singer,” and it’s like, “No.” And you can see the look of dread when they’re thinking, “Oh god, how long is this going to go on.” And so it’s sort of great to shatter their expectations. [If you haven't seen this piece. Heather stands center stage with what appears to be shark slippers on her feet, she begins singing, and while singing she turns her back to the audience and goes into a headstand with her knees on her elbows. You see her face upside down between her legs. It turns out the slippers are actually puppets and she makes the sharks perform a musical duet. It brings down the house every time.] When I proposed it for TML I didn’t even do it in rehearsal. I was like, “I’ve got this thing and it’s sort of funny. I’m going to do it with shark puppets,” and they just let me do it on Friday in the show and I have to say the rest of the cast just fell over laughing. You lean in expecting one thing and it shatters your expectations. And that’s, I think, the thing this show does most successfully. Or hopefully it does.
JP: So TML had been running for about 16 months before you came in. You just missed the painful exodus from Stage Left to Live Bait.
HR: Yeah. Ugh, thank God. The audition that Spencer [Kayden] , Dave [Awl] and I came in was to replace the people that they had had from Stage Left to bring the ensemble back up in numbers.

JP: What do you think the differences are between the early days of Live Bait and now?
HR: Oh, this sounds harsh. Focus. At first at the time, you didn’t know how long it was going to last, but was it. It was all we did. We put every ounce of creative juice into Too Much Light. Now we’re so spread out. You spent the whole week thinking about what plays—there just wasn’t anything else. Too Much LightToo Much Light was the be all and end all. Maybe you took some time off and did different shows, but not very much. And this was the pinnacle and there was no other programming and there was also no money and no hope for any money. I think when I joined the company we made $5 a month. (both laugh) And then it bumped up to like $10 a week. And that was good because at least at $10 a week you could claim it on taxes that you were actually a performer. But there wasn’t the, “Let’s move this theatre company forward,” it was just, “Let’s just do the show.” Every week it was like, “How can the show be better?” And the show was, maybe just by nature of it, more intimate. I mean, Live Bait is a 75-seat house. And our connection with the audience members was a little more intimate. You could never do this here, you’d have one or two people rolling and there’d just be one person name-tagging. It was usually Ayun. [Halliday] I don’t know why. It just always seemed to be Ayun. And then, when you walked through the theater, you’d walk on stage and there’d be four chairs and we would interview the audience. Sometimes it was just like, “So what did you have for dinner? Why did you come here? Why are you wearing those shirts? Are you a Republican?” And so you had chatted with every audience member before the show started because it was only getting in 60-75 people. And so you’d do a play and you bring somebody on stage and you could say, “Ah, these were the people who went to Pizzeria Uno for dinner.”
JP: Yeah I believe that a rapport with the audience is very important as to how they receive the show. That was an issue when we were in Wooly Mammoth Theater in DC. They have a 300 seat house with a full staff. When you have a stage manager, and all the luxuries of just being the entertainment, it’s easy to fall into the hiding backstage waiting for our entrance mentality. I think it’s an important element to the show to be seen, to be out there. Even though I find it difficult. I’m shy by nature. It’s hard for me. Sometimes I’ll just force myself to wander the stage and audience waiting for someone to grab my attention.
Greg said when the show moved here it was just too big to interview every audience member. It couldn’t be done.
HR: It was just too many people. I think part of it was we had tried it for two weeks and it literally had turned into this: “Hi, what’s your name? Oh, there’s people waiting. Can you go sit down?” We more than doubled our audience and so that just was not going to happen ever again. Back at Live Bait we just had like maybe 2 rollers, maybe 1, and just one person doing name-tags. So there were four or five people to be talking to the audience. There was no place else you could go. There was no hiding back there. There was no other duties and there weren’t as many things, for example you didn’t have volunteers. You didn’t have this to watch and we were at somebody else’s theatre company so we didn’t have to lock the door. You could just be totally interacting with the audience.
During the early days here at the Neo-Futurarium we would sell brownies before all of the legal ramifications. People would come up and ask, “Are these your brownies?” or “Are these Ayun’s brownies? Ayun always uses a lot of chocolate chips or whatever.” I mean, I had people who would be like, “Heather always uses a lot of vanilla and sometimes she puts almonds and Ayun makes it with cinnamon, and blah blah blah.” Or we’d make oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and they’d be like (whispering), “Whose are they tonight?” And that level of intimacy I really miss.
JP: Yes we often lose the personal elements while trying to grow a company, and I feel I have to be one of the voices that asks whenever we give away these duties, like cleaning the space after the show, taking out the garbage, handing out tokens. Giving up some of these duties makes sense because we’re busy people, But there’s part of me that says, “No, we should probably keep doing that so that the audience sees us doing the bare bone work. We aren't just actors here.” I often equate it to pure improvisation. There’s these key things that you have to give the audience all the time, taking suggestions, breaking character occasionally, making mistakes. They always have to know that you’re improvising to get the full enjoyment of the task at hand. Neo-Futurism has some of the same components that crave an added level of understanding in order to fully enjoy what we bring them. The audience needs to see us rolling people in, taking out the garbage; they need to see us talking to each other and the audience before, during and after the show.
HR: I love tokening. It’s a way of greeting every single person. It’s like when they come in, I’ve made eye contact with all of those people and I really like that and I really miss it. And I think it’s growing and I also think it’s just in terms as how we grow. Also, our programming. If we just did Too Much Light, we could still do all that stuff, but not with this robust, full thing that we have. So it’s one of the things you give up.

JP: Cliques never really leave us, we deal with being in them and perceived by them from the outside. Do you feel their have always been cliques in the company, and have you been apart of them?
HR: I’m sure other people might say, “Oh, Heather was part of this,” I saw myself as somebody who moved freely amongst those and wasn’t in one. Sort of never felt part of. There were little cliques, I just sort of felt like I was able to sit at any of the tables in the lunchroom (JP laughs) and didn’t know why. Maybe it’s just because I said that I would or maybe it was because nobody wanted me full time at any of them, so I just bounced around. But I sort of felt like yeah, that did happen, but somehow I managed to stay outside of it. And maybe part of that is my schooling and my upbringing of like, “Cliques? You got to be kidding! We don’t have enough people for a clique.”
JP: In high school I had a hard time dealing with idea of a clique, I had the instinct to try and bond with the other outcasts, but that even seemed a clique to me. I really wanted to fit in, but I always felt slightly off center. By senior year I had fallen into the theatre so I can see how I’ve become part of it, but here with the Neo-Futurists I feel like I dance pretty well between different inner groups.
HR: Yes, I would say that you do. I think people who do sort of fall in and I think there’s people that get stuck in the corner lonely and then I think there’s people like you and I that sort of bounce around.
JP: Often people will get frustrated with the fact that there are cliques. I believe they are things that just naturally happen. If you get along with certain people socially and tend to go out with them it makes sense that you would bring that into a show that purposely pulls from our real lives. Some of the getting around the pitfalls of cliques becoming alienating is just accepting that they exist.
HR: Yeah, certain people are going to be closer than other people. There’s certain people that I really enjoy working with, but I just don’t ever see socially. Just different things, and I don’t know if it’s age or what. I was looking around at some of the newer people and out of all the women, Caitlin’s who I really feel comfortable hanging with. Caitlin is probably young enough to be my daughter. But Caitlin is sort of one of those people that defies a clique and is interesting and you’re just comfortable hanging with her. I’ll see that or people that you sort of share other interests with. Like if I never did theatre again and she never did it again, I’d always want to spend time with Chlöe. And then there are people who I really like, but it’s more of a working relationship.

Is Heather accident prone?


HR: We had spilled some water on stage that we did not clean up and we were jumping over a chair in a movement-based piece, and I jumped off of a chair and hit the water. I didn’t realize it at the time because we’re all hyped up on adrenaline and running around, but I just couldn’t get… I tried to stand back up and my leg just buckled under and then I could hear people in the front (whispers) "Stay down." "Oh my god." Then I would say 45 seconds later we had moved on to the next play and I had finished the play. I sort of crawled up to the chair and finished and couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get up. And then I was like, “What’s that sensation? Oh God, it’s pain!” And then the lights got really bright and I was realized, “Oh, I’ve done something really bad.” But coming from a medical family I knew that going to an emergency room Saturday night at midnight was really dumb and I was going to have to wait for an ambulance and I might as well just finish the show. (laughing) so I just finished the show with my leg up.
JP: Was it true that you were perched on the side of the stage?
HR: I couldn’t be physical. I couldn’t move. My best friend, Consuelo was in the audience that night and she said, “You know how I knew you were really hurt? I had never seen you sweat so profusely on stage.” Yeah, you never see me sweat on stage. And I was, just from the pain, dripping sweat like I was sitting in a sauna. And that was when I was thought, “Ok, this is probably really serious.” That accident took me out of work for two months, and I couldn't do the show either. That was 17 years ago. No income and I didn’t know how I was going to pay for my medical bills. I had little insurance and the choice that was left for me, because I asked somebody, “How do I pay for this?” was that you sue the theatre company, which at the time, to pay my bills and take time off of work would have shut down the theatre. Or "Too fucking bad." Those were the choices. That was a hit, thousands and thousands of dollars. I had no cushion at the time. I was like, “Ha, I think I’ve got $300 in savings.” So I borrowed money from some places. It took 3 years to pay all that back and I have yet to get the surgery on my knee. I did a little break on the fibula and I tore the MCL a little bit, but I totally ripped apart the ACL. My husband had that surgery two and a half years ago and it was really successful. And his was even longer than mine had been between accident and surgery. So it’s something I think about, but it again, would require taking a couple months off of work and I gotta tell ya, I’ve done enough surgeries for the next… maybe if “the accident” had not happened, I would consider. Like, “Oh, well I’m back in school now. Maybe I should get this ACL fixed.” [Heather recently had been hit by a car on her bike. This is what she is referring to here. She has also gone back to school to study Nutrition. This will come up later in the interview.]
JP: When did you become a Personal Trainer?

HR: Even when I had started doing the show, I was a fitness instructor. I had been teaching aerobics since college. I had found that in college. And that to me—and I’m surprised I didn’t think of it as a job earlier. I guess it was something you did on the side. But I had studied dance for many, many years. I took about 15 years of ballet and did a fair amount of musical theatre, which is more jazz and tap. But I had started ballet when I was 3 years old, just with my funny, deformed feet. [Heather's fourth toes sit on top of her other toes, like bunkbeds. It’s called brachymetatarsia] I think my dad thought I was going to have balance issues and was like, “Let’s get her in dance. Let’s get her really proprioceptive and really encourage dance and sports.” Just so this wouldn’t become a handicap. So I had played soccer and I had been a ballerina—which are two quite different things. They sort of have some similarities, they help each other.
Then later I was at this dance center in Boston called Joy of Music and it had this class called Aerobics and I was like, “What’s that?” I had never heard of aerobics. I took it and I was like, “I could so totally do this!” (JP laughs) And I really liked it. Also, it was the first year. It was my freshman year of college and I had always played on a sport, and danced in high school. And I was in college and I didn’t have money for dance classes outside of what was going on in whatever class you’re taking and I wasn’t doing any sports. I had tried doing the Boston University soccer team. But at BU they played on Astroturf and I couldn’t do that with my knees. The other thing was these people would practice at 7 in the morning. And I was like, “Maybe soccer.” But I really missed that athleticism. And then here was this class where you exercised for an hour. With music! It’s like, “Who wouldn’t want to do that? How could anyone in the world not want to do that?” And granted, there were ridiculous thongs and hair scrunchies. (JP laughs) You know if you could look beyond that. And you got this thing. You know, you worked out for about an hour and you got this nice endorphin rush, but the hour went by really fast. My one regret with college by sort of choosing theatre is that I always found sports medicine really fascinating. My dad was an orthopedic surgeon and was the team doctor for some local stuff. And I had always sort of had that bug. And when personal training had started to come into vogue—and I had really latched on right when it was early and people were like, “You're a personal trainer? Personal trainer for what?” There wasn’t that terminology, it just wasn’t in the lexicon back then. And you say something like, “A one-on-one athletic trainer. A one-on-one athletic coach.” It was all very different. I could do theatre and “Oh, I can do something with like… that’s like fitness based and medical based and help people feel better about themselves.” So as personal training started to come around, I sort of hopped on early and it was a weird transition because people just didn’t have personal trainers. It took a long time for people to see that as something that wasn’t just a luxury for the rich in the same way as massage. It always seemed like you didn’t get a massage unless you just had tons and tons of money. It was just something rich people did. And I think people started to say, “You know, I work with my body a lot. I should get a massage. It’s a good prophylactic thing to keep me from having to see a doctor early on.” Or like a financial advisor where it’s like, “Oh, I guess if I’m going to have this money, I want to utilize it the best.” And the same is sort of true at the gym. When that started up, I was at the Swissotel, which was a hard gig to give up because back in 1988 that paid $10.50 an hour plus tips and I was bartending, so I made a lot of tips. They probably could have paid us $3 an hour, but they didn’t. They paid us 10 because they were European and they didn’t understand that. (JP chuckles) Incredible benefits. You know, like not great insurance, but when I quit, the day before I turned 30. I think I had 6 weeks of paid vacation a year. I could stay at any Swissotel in the world for $25 a night. When we went to New York, I stayed at the Drake. Everyone else would be crashed on someone’s couch and I would be like, “I’m at the Drake. I’m on Park Ave.” It was a hard job to leave. I could also work 24 hours a week, which meant just 3 days, and be full time. So it was kind of hard to leave that because I knew I was going to take a really big dive being a personal trainer just because it’s freelancing. And back then you still had to explain to people what it was.

Of Fame and TML


JP: Did you ever have any expectations that Too Much Light would bring you national fame, or that it could be a vehicle for other successes?
HR: Not really. I have a lot of drive, but I don’t have any ambition. I just don’t. And it’s sort of a failing. And it’s true in my other work. I can remember I got a callback from MadTV right before they had started up. It was going to be the next Saturday Night Live. And I did well at the audition and I did well on the callback. I liked what I did and I didn’t make it. And I was sort of bummed about it because it was a time when David wasn’t making much money and I thought, “God, that’d be easy.” Then I watched the first show of it and I was so relieved. I thought, “Are you kidding?!” Here’s this great opportunity that I have every week to share material and I come in and people are there to help me make that material better. And it’s this collective experience. Out there, 1. you’re in LA. and 2. it’s television, and I don’t like television. I don’t watch television. I don’t own a television. And it’s really cutthroat and it’s really mean and it’s people saying, “I want to get my stuff in over your stuff.” That just struck me that it was more like, “Do you know how lucky you are that you didn’t make that last round?” Because I would have been miserable. I just think I would have been miserable and I would have lasted for about 2 weeks. I like the little sort of pseudo-quasi-fame that I have around Andersonville. People will come up and say, “Oh, I saw you in the show before!” Something like that. But fame? No. I think very few people handle fame well and want fame and I don’t think I want fame. I think it’s just a huge problem in the same way—I was discussing this with my husband. [David Bremer] We sometimes buy lottery tickets just for fun. And there was one that was $278 million. You know, you win $10 million, everyone loves you. You win $278 million, everyone hates you. You have a horrible life with that much money. You would just have to give all of it away. It would just be too much. And fame is sort of that way. I think it warps you. It would warp me and I’m glad I’m not famous.
JP: You have been active with this company for a long time Heather. Longer than anyone else accept Greg. You have seen many people leave. Scott, for instance, left to raise a family. Just realized he couldn’t do the show anymore. I respect him so much for the choice he made.
HR: Oh, so do I.
JP: His choice was devastating for some in the show at that time but the reason was so logical and beautiful. Some people may leave because they’ve gotten what they can out of it. Some have to disconnect and search for fame or security, and others leave to work out their own niche. What is it that keeps you here so long? [I must say here that about a month after I conducted this interview, Heather dropped the bomb that she might have to go inactive and leave the show. I am still in shock.]
HR: Well, it’s a combination. The dynamic relationship with the audience and when it clicks, it really clicks. Sometimes it doesn't click but if it happens at least every 6 to 8 weeks, that’s even enough. I felt the shows in Washington [Woolly Mammoth Theater] really clicked, and I had a real fun time performing. I felt even though it was a really big theater, I felt engaged with the audience and that was a lot of fun. And so I think part of it is that. Part of it is also, again, the lack of ambition and the laziness. It’s really the only theater that’s 2 blocks away from my job. And I’m already in the company and I’m lazy.
JP: You don’t have to re-audition.
HR: Yeah, you don’t have to re-audition.
JP: Every 10 years or so.
HR: Exactly. So there’s a lazy element. I mean, honestly if the company lost its space and we moved to Pilsen, I’d really have to think about it. But you know, the other part of that, I don’t mean to just say that I’m here because honestly, I have lived in this neighborhood for the last 10, 12 years because this is where the theater is. And it makes sense to live near what you do all the time. At least to me. And to be a part of that neighborhood and that community. But I just like it Too Much Light. I like the continual challenge of it. I find that really fascinating. And I always think that the show is always so varied. The show never peaks and valleys. It does nothing but peak and valley, you know? The show never has its apex. It’s just one of many. And so I think I’m always just tinkering with trying to get it right and trying to do something new in the space. And sometimes certain people will just come in to the ensemble and it will sort of revitalize you.
JP: Is there a sadness involved with your longevity and the people you have had to see go?
HR: There is. You know, like you were saying with Scott Hermes. When Scott Hermes left, he had no regrets. It was for his family. I was just devastated that somebody who had that much writing talent wasn’t going to be putting their stuff up here every week. I was like, not for Scott, for the rest of us. Like the world is a slightly less insightful and amusing place because Scott Hermes doesn’t do plays every week. Same thing with Slick. [Diana Slickman] It’s just her take on stuff, to have that there every week. But you know, a lot of those people have managed to find other outlets for themselves. I just think I don’t really have the ambition to do that. I don’t know, maybe I would. When I take breaks, I get opportunities to do stuff with other theatres and I turn down more stuff than I do. I wouldn’t know how to navigate in that world. But when people leave, sometimes I just think, “Yeah, they’ve had enough,” or sometimes I see where this show is just not quite the right fit for people. And they try to make it fit and they put that coat on for a couple years and it never does quite fit right. And when they leave, I think, “Well, they will find the thing that fits them a little better,” or the process just isn’t for everybody. Like David Kodeski and Greg Allen both have always struggled with memorization. When David finally left the show, he was like, (sighs). You know? There was a relief. Like, “I was never going to be good at memorizing and I didn’t have to deal with that aspect of it anymore.” It was interesting to hear him say that. Or people like Dave Awl who writes some wonderful stuff. Like some of the stuff Dave writes, you could just spend the whole day reading. But I think Dave always struggled with the whole, “Ok, bring two plays in every week.” He’s like, “I’m going to bring in something very well crafted that’s new and that’s sort of interesting like once every two weeks.” And when there are only 5 or 6 people, that just doesn’t work for this show. In a way, it almost sort of wasn’t the right fit. Like he needed more time or in a more perfect Dave Awl world where this was all that Dave was doing was writing. But I think the… for some people, sort of what I think a lot of us feed on. Like, “We do this and we do that and we do the other thing.” And for someone like Dave, Dave needs to just be a writer. That’s his process. The other stuff is just, I think where sometimes it’s intriguing for other people, is just a distraction for him. And I saw times when he was working 40 hours a week and trying to do the show and it just looked like it was killing him.
JP: I’m fascinated by Dave Awl. I love that man.
HR: One of my regrets, I can remember thinking, we were doing something and I was conducting, like… And I don’t think I said it harshly and I don’t think he took it harshly, but we were doing something. I think it was a play of mine and I was like, “I meant today, Dave! It’s got to be today!” And yeah, his work is a little more ponder-some. It just moves slow and I felt like he would bring in stuff that was like 6 minutes long. It’s like, “Sweetheart, that’s not… you can’t… this isn’t the show for that.” We just don’t have it and the time will run out. So in that way, it seemed like it was never quite the perfect fit. Dave’s material to me is like, you give Dave Awl a room, a little theater. Dave will write 10-15 minute pieces. That’s the Dave Awl piece. Whereas I think I really write 90 seconds. I can do that. And so Dave always seemed to be trying to pigeonhole longer material into this short thing and the frustration of how many times he had to hear something that was full, that was complete, that was perfect, right the way it was. And to have to edit that down, I can imagine that just wears on you after awhile.

[In a few interviews We talk about a big exodus from the company that happened during a series of reorganizing meetings, when it was discovered we needed a board to prevent ourselves from being shut down by the city. Alot of other shit went down during that time too. In David Kodeski's interview we talked about this thoroughly, because he was the first to leave directly after those meetings. Once again I feel it important to stress that these views of having a board are more based on the specifics that took place around 1999, and do not reflect accurately on the work that is being done currently.]
JP: There was a big exodus during the board discussions which we all sat through for hours and hours. Two weekends, Saturday and Sunday all day up until the cast had to leave to go perform the show, this alone took a toll on our willingness to accept the power shift that would have to occur with the type of board that was being offered to us at the time. Over the next year we lost Dave Awl, Diana Slickman, Anita Loomis, and David Kodeski. And actually me too, but I came back. That amount of people over a short period of time made recovering very difficult.
HR: It was big. It was a huge talent drain. I mean, that’s a lot of really great writers right there. It was. And I think some of the arguments were really valid. We lost a sort of sense of control. And any time you make something bigger, you sort of lose control of it a little bit. I think if I had the perfect world, I would make us a theater 30 seats smaller. And I would take the admission price down again, but I wouldn’t ever… If I were designing this or if something happens and you and I go to Ottawa and start Too Much Light up in Ottawa, I’ll look for a 120-seat theater that feels a little tighter than this.
JP: That is one of my biggest dilemmas with branching out, is the fear of losing intimacy. I just love the intimacy of storefront theater. I love the idea that I could reach out and touch someone, or grab them, that I could see the people in the back. Even in theater with characters, the proximity of the actors is very exciting to me.

HR: I can see that onstage how you’re performing in some huge plays, it’s just stops being people and starts becoming an audience. You know? You stop seeing people and you just see an audience. In our space we lost some of that intimacy when we stopped putting people on the floor.
[During the transition mentioned above, we also could no longer take the chance of over filling our space. We use to fit 50 more people in that space, and yes, you might think that that would make it less intimate, but as you will see in the following conversation, it actually made us much much more aware of their presence.]
JP: You couldn’t avoid stepping on them.
HR: Yeah, you’d be doing your play and you’d be like, “Excuse me,” and so I miss some of that. And an active board is very much about growing and looking at the future, and I have really mixed feelings about that. [But Heather is not one to just speak words, she actually was one of the middlemen between board and ensemble, she would go to all the meeting without any monetary compensation.] I don’t want to hold anybody back from doing stuff, but… I guess I just wonder what’s so wrong with what we’re doing now? Because if we go to this bigger thing, it’ll never be this again. I don’t begrudge the board or any of that, but I sometimes wish for a simpler time back when Too Much Light was the focus. Thank God we went from a four-show season to a three-show season. I believe it was your proposal. We were horribly over-programmed. As a company, we were burnt out and we were trying to do too much and I think that shows in the show when you’re flipping over all these people and different people are here every week as opposed to the same group of people for 6, 8 weeks. Some of them are running off to do a prime-time shows and others have rehearsal and you can’t give it the time. It’s the difference between having a monogamous relationship and sleeping with the entire football team. (Both laugh) And we try to sleep around a lot and pretend like we’re monogamous. You only get to have one or the other.



RANTING AS ENTERTAINMENT


JP: Rants as performance are hard to get away with without sounding like you’re just complaining to an audience. You often write plays in this style, and I think you usually get away with it, and make it entertaining.
HR: I think that I have a lot of anger and I’m good at ranting. I do, I get cranky about stuff and I’m really rant-y. I think that maybe I’m able to get away with it just because I’m a little bit weird and maybe I don’t seem that threatening. I think if it were somebody else maybe it would come off as harsh or mean. I had somebody come up—this was a play from years ago I haven’t thought of in awhile. You know how people come up and ask, “Do you still do that play?” and it’s a play from like 12 years ago and you’re thinking, “Did I do that?” So this woman was like… I connected with her on something and I haven’t seen her in over a decade and she’s asking, “Do you still do that play where you bitch at the audience about liking pistachio pudding?” And I was like, “Oh yeah, that play.” And she says, “That was so funny, it was really mean, but it was funny,” and she said, “You know, it always felt uncomfortable but it never felt dangerous.” And maybe… I don’t know. Maybe that’s it. Or maybe it was what I chose to rant about.
JP: A good rant carries with it an idealism which I think is admirable, but there also seems to be an acknowledgement of how ridiculous ranting can be.
HR: Yeah.
JP: Do you feel that’s something you nurtured growing up or is it in general that you had this sort of hostility and you had to…
HR: Sort of vent it somehow?
JP: Vent it, but also find the humor in it too?
HR: Yeah, I think you can. I think just by the nature of putting it on stage, you’re able to defuse it. And I think that’s really great and hopefully not just a like, “I need to spill my beans to somebody!” therapeutic sort of way. But if you can, I’ve found personally just in my relationship with David over 15 years, when I have something that really bothers me and I can put it on stage. Even David will admit that it’s fairly well-balanced. I don’t come in saying, “He’s a horrible pig and I hate him!” (JP laughs) But you know, that’s sometimes just helps to defuse any anger because then you can sort of laugh about it and see how common it is. There was a play where I think I referenced the fact that—this is clearly before the accident, because he’s really picked up since then—where I said something like, “It’s obvious you’ve never cleaned the bathroom because you don’t know where the bathroom cleaning supplies are located.” And somebody said, “I saw that really funny play your wife put on. It was on the website about how you never clean anything because you don’t know where it’s located.” He was like, “Show me that play.” But you know, I was like, “I got it out, in a funny way,” and so many people said, “(chuckles, then whispering) I don’t know where my stuff is.” And I think that that’s a great way of working through stuff. And whether that rants or what have you. And I think I also try to do a fairly balanced job of not putting myself either up on a pedestal or being a martyr, as if, “I was just doing everything perfectly and this bad thing happened.”
JP: Yes, I often feel that rants and even satire on our stage can often appear as righteous indignation. And this often happens because we may not understand that our outrage can also be seen as petty and humorless. There needs to be some amount of self analysis in every rant.
HR: Yeah, I try to, unless I’m purposely incorporating that attitude into the piece. Like the rant I had about the woman double parking in front of me. And that was fairly self-righteous. I mentioned how it’s my birthday and I’m feeling self-righteous and this woman double parks fight next to me. So I think sometimes you can get away that if it’s something that you are cognitive of. But other than that, I really think the best rants are the one where—Slickman would do this well. She would get really mad and she would, in the midst of it, mention she was probably at fault, but she’s still really really pissed off about it, even though in retrospect she should have never been there, but nevertheless. It’s just the willingness to show your own foibles.
JP: That’s why I liked One for the Ladies. Because it’s so true, the women in the audience rave about this play about women peeing on the toilet seat.
HR: The very same problem that they have.
JP: But even she’s allowed to take her rant to the comical extreme where she has to be physically carried off the stage.
HR: Exactly.
JP: “Wow, I’m just over the top. Maybe I’m taking this a little bit too far.”
HR: Yeah, exactly. And I think those are successful. I mean any of this stuff—and some of this works better than others—you get an idea that’s just this bald faced idea. It has to be couched in some sort of style or art. You’ve got to find, you know, are you going to take it and abstract it and make it with chairs? Are you going to make it metaphorical this way? Are you going to say exactly what happened, but you’re doing this non-sequitur movement with it? Or are you going to be waltzing? You know, what is it that makes it not just, “Bah! Here’s what happened today.” That’s the neat challenge of it, I think.

HEATHER'S INCREDIBLE ABILITY TO OVERCOME OBSTACLES

JP: So I want to end this interview talking a bit about the accident, or at least acknowledge the positive—not that we want accidents to happen to anybody, but you’re the one that definitely could survive such a horrible crash. For me it really intensified my belief in you as one of the strongest people I know.
[Heather was heading south on Clark. She went through the intersection at Foster and Clark during the green light and a car turned left directly into her and pushed her all the way up onto the curb. She broke many bones and shattered her wrist.]
HR: That was the thing David said halfway through the second surgery. He’s said, “How many people are going to tell you, ‘If it had to be somebody, it’s good that it’s you?’” (JP laughs) And I was like, “40,000 too many!” (Both laugh) Yeah, you know, in a lot of ways I was well prepared for it. I think if I hadn’t been where I was physically, I wouldn’t have come back so quickly. I was really lucky to have projects to come back to and to have a goal. I mean, it would have been terrible if I had been doing some show that was over in six weeks and I never got to do it or to come back. I mean, there are certainly many things that have been an adjustment and a change. Next week I will be starting school full time and not doing the show again for quite awhile. That is a choice that is driven by me not able to make my living as a trainer anymore. I’m doing prerequisites right now to get probably a Master’s in nutrition sciences and specifically, if I get a chance to a dissertation or a thesis I will do it on nutritional requirements menopausal athletes.
JP: What’s your end goal with these studies?
HR: I’m not able to do a lot of the stuff I was able to do before I was a trainer, just because of issues from the accident. One of the biggest things is I technically cannot train off site because I can’t perform CPR and my liability coverage doesn’t extend to a lot of the stuff I used to do. And there are a lot of formats I can’t teach anymore, a lot of stuff. For instance I can’t spot people. I can’t do some things like that. So hopefully working as a nutritionist will put me actually not any further ahead, but exactly where I was before the accident, which is able to work 20-25 hours a week and make… not a lot of money, but make enough money for me and make enough money that I can do theatre. Where I don’t have to worry about whether the theatre pays well.
JP: What does a nutritionist do? How is it different from what you do now? Is it more just counseling people?
HR: It is. But technically you can’t give a prescription as a personal trainer. Like I could say to you—and you probably heard me say this silly catch phrase when I was dealing with Daredevils, where I would say, “You should talk to your health care professional about whether taking flax seed would be a good idea,” or “You should talk to this person about that.” I can’t give you a prescription, I can’t say, “This is what you should be eating.” I do it to my friends all the time, but you can’t do that. As a nutritionist and you can do it with a fair amount of specificity. You can also get paid by insurance to do it. So if I could be making… if I could be making like $25-30,000 a year working 25 hours a week, then I’m free to this, maybe do some more shows with Theatre Oobleck, continue to do that sort of stuff. So that’s what all of this is about. Also, just the recognition. Now I’ve got some injuries that preclude me from stuff and I’m going to be 45, and I’m in a profession that is entirely physically based and I don’t know how much these injuries will limit me and just not wanting to find myself 50 years old with no skills and not even the ability to get a job at Starbucks because of my hand. So there’s a little of that, but also hopefully find some ways of incorporating it into… I don’t know, everything else that I do.

[And If I know Heather, this is what she will do, she is one who really does believe in experiencing life through enjoyment and hard work and using this knowledge to forward her dedication to the art of performing.]

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Scott Hermes Part Two


Scott Auditions for Too Much Light

SH: I went to school with Phil, and the Theater School’s very small. Phil was an undergraduate when I was in graduate school, and my wife was an undergraduate. So I saw Phil in a couple shows, thought he was great, and then there was a big lounge, we’d hang out, smoke, eat lunch, and so you met everybody, everybody knew everybody in that school, it’s a very small school. Phil and I got along great. [laughing slightly] Me and Phil and this other guy Ted Rubenstien went off on a camping trip out in Wildcat Mountain in Wisconsin. Where, I don’t know why, but I decided that we should all run naked through the woods. [both laugh] So Phil took a Polaroid picture of me naked standing by the fire, luckily he sent it back to me. [JP laughs] So, yeah, good times with Phil. After Phil got out of college he started doing Too Much Light and he told me about it. [I laughed because this also reminded me of a story I heard about Phil. One night after the show, late, Phil said, "Let's go to Wisconsin." The gang thought he was joking, but he wasn't. They got in the car and drove to Wisconsin, bought some alcohol. And at one point, Phil jumped out of the car, I think while it was moving, and ran to hide. Moments later he was naked running on the side of the road. Eventually they caught up to him and took him home. But now it turns out after talking to Phil again, that I might be combing two stories and embellishing on the facts. Perhaps he stripped in New Orleans or perhaps he didn't get naked at all. I imagine such a story could have happened sometime during a late night escapade. So I will leave it's mention here, and now it is true, because it's in print. ]
Greggie K and I went together to see Too Much Light. In the early days of the Stage Left space, Mike [Tricoli] used to sit in the window, he was really fantastic. He would do basic mime work, but he was really good at it, sitting really still in the window, and suddenly moving. It was compelling, letting a cigarette burn and then suddenly he would move and scare the hell out of people. [JP laughs] Or Greg [Allen] would be out on the sidewalk, just basically asking people to come to see the show, trying to get people in. That space was very very very small and this tiny tiny lobby, so we’d spill out onto the street so it had this real air of excitement. I remember the first time I saw Lisa [Buscani], and just being blown away by her... I’d never seen a poetry slam or knew anything about that scene, and she’s just one of the most amazing performers I’ve ever seen in my life. Karen Christopher and the way that she did movement pieces, she really made the abstract accessible. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I didn’t care.


JP: You saw the show originally at Stage Left and then later you auditioned for the show at Live Bait but you never performed at Live Bait.

SH: No I never performed at Live Bait. At Live Bait Greggie K and I auditioned but he got in and I didn't. At the next set of auditions, when they were at their own space (The Neo-Futurarium), then I auditioned again and got cast. (September 25th 1992) I was told they were very interested in putting me in at the same time as Greggie K but they didn’t want to bring two big character-y people in at the same time. I was in the show ‘til the end of ’95, when I finally dropped out. My oldest daughter Nina was born January 31st, 1995. I tried to stick in the show for about a year, but it was really just too hard for me to perform in the show, work full-time and try to be a dad. I just couldn’t do it.

A MESHING OF STYLES AND NEO AESTHETIC

JP: Can you talk a little bit about your process from working predominantly with big characters in Cardiff Giant into the non-illusory aesthetic of Too Much Light?

SH: In Cardiff Giant we would spend months creating these larger than life, almost clown style Commedia, characters that we would try to make as real as possible, and everyone totally bought into the situation around them. So it was very different from the open simplicity of the Neo-Futurists.

JP: What aspects of the Neo-Futurists' aesthetic most interested you?

SH: The rawness, the immediacy of it. And again I would have to say Buscani is one of my favorite all-time Too Much Light performers. Her openness about whatever her mind was on was so real, the deep pain that she suffered in her life. We all have pain in our lives, so whatever things I’d suffered up to that point I kept inside me. Turning pain into theater and not into therapy, that really was a very strong draw for me. You could be very open about who you were and what you were feeling, what you were going through, and not have it be... icky. "Here’s what happened to me and it was a crappy thing, but here I am, so deal with it."
I think it was Greggie K, who said we started this stuff before the Internet was big, right? So, Too Much Light was the Internet of the times. "Here's what happened in the news. Here’s our spin on it." Now we blog about it, but during that time we would write a play about it.

JP: I have never been much of a reader of current news, but while I am in the show, I do feel that I am more aware of what is going on politically, my newsreel is Tuesday night rehearsal.

SH: Cardiff Giant did two shows at Cafe Voltaire called “Some Candy and Some Mo’ Candy” We initially started off as a living newspaper. We had set characters, but we’d take something from the news. We’d throw out ideas to the people in the audience, and say, "Pick something out of the newspaper, and grab the Sun Times or the Tribune, hand it out, pick something out, and then we’d just run with that. We tried to put some more immediacy into what we were performing. It was part of the tension of the group too, one of the reasons why it split up. Even though we were commenting indirectly on what was happening through our parallel world, they wanted something that was more immediate. I think I probably felt that too. That was one of the things I enjoyed doing in the Neo-Futurists, ripping stuff out of the headlines. I would save news up that I’d read all week, and then I would just write for three hours on Tuesday morning. ‘Cause we would come in Tuesday night to lay down what we were going to do that weekend. My goal, even from my first time walkin’ in, was I would always have a minimum of three completed plays to propose every Tuesday. Then I read an interview with Ralph Covert, he was the leader of The Bad Examples. [He now records children records: Ralph's World] In the interview he challenged himself to write a hundred songs in one year. I think he made 99 by New Year’s Eve. So after being in Too Much Light for about three months, I gave myself the goal of trying to get a hundred plays on stage in a year. I think I got 95. At one point, in the summer, I think... at least half the show was my material.


JP: Many Neo-Futurists believed that you raised the bar as to quality and quantity of plays brought in. Many of them believe, including Diana Slickman and Dave Awl, that their push to be better was initiated by your commitment. Do you think any of this external affect was intentional?

SH: I didn’t consider it that way, I just made it an unspoken goal. I didn’t start telling anybody that I’m trying to set rules for myself. I would never... campaign for my play for the sake of my play, I would always try to write to the weaknesses of the show. The show varies widely from week to week. Sometimes it’s all monologues and sometimes there would be too many scenes. So I would look at what the current show was, and I would try to find what’s missing. Looking at what the show needed would give me ideas for writing. I really just thought of it as a stimulus, a way to make me write, ‘cause I have a very competitive edge to me that I need. If I don’t have a specific goal or a deadline, I’m not going to do anything. And that is one of the great things about Too Much Light. I’d never really written anything before, everything I’d done prior was done collaboratively through Cardiff Giant using improvisation. I never really sat down by myself and written anything. When I had to write an audition piece for Too Much Light I was very anxious about my ability to generate that material. I was worried that I wouldn’t have it. And in fact I went from working full time to working part-time just to devote myself to writing for the show. So I didn’t really think of it in terms of other people, I wrote a lot of material because I didn’t want to just argue for my play because of it being my play. If I was going to make an argument for my play I would make it for the sake of balance for the show.

JP: You say you were influenced by Lisa, and you had somewhat of a crash course in staging the simplicity of honesty, but you didn't just drop the character work that you nurtured with Cardiff Giant, if anything I think you and Greg K may have altered the show a bit by incorporating large gestures and helping to ad to the idea that pretend can still be in the bounds of non-illusory. It's ultimately about all these people writing in all different styles. It wasn’t just people telling the truth on stage, it was still performance, it was still larger than life in some ways. The style and games that Cardiff Giant played like finding different ways to kill each other with imaginary objects affected the show and even broke the tension that occurs in long drawn out ensemble meetings.

SH: We always raised stakes up high in Cardiff Giant we always killed each other at the end. Greggie K and John Hildreth were sort of the people who were best at it. And I’d trip them up, [Scot grabs nothing from thin air, twists it into a small weapon and whips it at an imaginary person at the table. Being an improviser myself I wonder if he had thrown it at me, if I would have reacted, spasm to my own death in this Thai restaurant, or would I just take on the role of journalist and just look at him and say "Uh huh." I did not have to make this choice. He chose to kill an unarmed invisible man instead.] We just created more and more exciting ways to kill one another. I think we probably looked for ways to bring that in. Another guy who influenced me was Gregg Reynolds. He was in an improv show with me called Naughty Monkey [Pups] that we did before Avant Garfielde. He was always great because he’s somewhat of a contrarian. He was the guy who drove me to the idea of looking at what’s there and looking at what’s not there, to try to find the thing that’s missing. Like you said, if it’s all about people talking about themselves and their feelings, what are we missing? Something loud and obnoxious. The big thing that I got from Gregg Reynolds was audience “penetration,” he called it. Whenever I’d look at the show [Too Much Light] I’d say, "How are we making the audience drive this show? How are we... even involving the audience as props or something." One of the most important things in Too Much Light is the dissipation of the fourth wall. We also did this in Cardiff Giant and Avant Garfielde. We would still be in our world, but the stage would always extend beyond the proscenium. We would go in amongst the audience all the time ‘cause it’s very exciting to an audience when the performers suddenly show up amongst them. It raises the energy in the room.

JP: That’s one of my favorite things about intimate theater in general is that all the action is write up in your face.


SH: They’re right up on you, yeah. Well I remember from Revenger’s Tragedy...


[SH and then JP laugh]

[Scott is referencing the first show I ever saw at the Neo-Futurarium. In this show Scott climbed into the audience and on to me. He didn't know me at the time. I was also lucky enough to be at the performance where one of the "dead" bodies on stage farted, and caused a laughing dead domino effect. This is talked about in detail in Greg Kotis' interview which will be out in a couple months.]

SH: I was up on top of you there.

JP: I hadn’t even seen Too Much Light before I auditioned. The Neo-Futurists' version of The Revenger's Tragedy is what made me want to audition for the company. I specifically liked the way you, and Greg K and a few others were able to maintain a character and then all of a sudden turn to face the audience, or even physically step out of character and direct your attention to the audience. It allowed me as an audience member to experience a duality of believability of character but also that these are actors who can acknowledge me at any moment. Those moments of stepping out of character with big specific gestures really impressed me. [This piece we refer to was directed by Greg Allen. Just recently he directed Strange Interlude, a six hour play by Eugene O'Neil. This play gave me the same giddy, theoretical feel I got twelve years earlier.]

SH: That’s something I got out of the Theater School, making those specific transitions, those specific choices. One of the great bits of feedback I got was from an acting teacher at the Theater School who said that when I didn't know what I was doing, when I was lost on stage, my hands would go berserk. So when I’m physically involved in what’s happening on stage, I have an activity, but when I'm not involved my hands are doing some weird thing, they start twisting off by themselves.

JP: One of the key techniques that I feel is often ignored in improv training is grabbing and holding objects, and how this can lead to creating your whole environment, instead of talking yourself into a word plagued non-space. If you are lost in a scene it can help just to reach out and grab an object. That’s what worked for me at Jimmy’s a lot. "I don’t have time to try to think of something smart I just have to reach out and grab something."

SH: Yup. And that was the basis of a lot of what we did. You can work off the environment. You don’t have to worry about being clever. That was the biggest lesson out of the improv experience from Avant Garfielde and Cardiff Giant, that if you immerse yourself in the activity, if you immerse yourself in the relationship and the environment, stuff will come to you, and you have to trust that.

MORE ON THE PROS OF TML

SH: The ability to write in a lot of different styles, the ability to be immediate with the audience, I just connected to that a lot. And I think that if you have improv background you’re very comfortable with the chaos

JP: It is interesting to be accepting of the chaos but also one who helps to control the confusion. Many Neo-Futursits who worked with you have said that your intros to the show were some of the best, that you could give information, make it interesting, and keep it succinct. The intro is very important, there is information that needs to be imparted, but also the potential to drain or increase the energy heavily weighs on how one handles these first few minutes in the theater.

SH: That's one of my pet peeves, man.

JP: What was your approach?

SH: At Jimmy’s we would rotate off doing the introductions. You’re seeing tons of theater and people are giving curtain speeches, you know. I think I know what makes a good opener and what doesn’t. The problem with the Too Much Light opener is that thirty, forty percent of the audience has been there before, but the other sixty or seventy percent is completely clueless. So you have two challenges: one is to convey the necessary information so that people who’ve never been there before understand... maybe not completely, but a good enough understanding of what their role is, and also to do it in a new way every night so that the thirty percent of the audience who’s seen it before is not going to see you saying the same thing you said before. And also to try to do that in a economical fashion.


INTRO TO THE BEAST - A HARD CONVERSATION BUT NECESSARY

JP: I was surprised to find out that Too Much Light had gone to the HBO Comedy Festival in Aspen Colorado. I have come to know this show as the theater experience purely made for theater, and that it would be hard to grow it into something larger, perhaps for TV, the Movies, or large capacity stadiums. But there must have been an inkling of stardom that ran through those days of "No one can stop us."



SH: [The HBO Comedy Festival] was my first exposure to the beast, to the entertainment beast. We’re doing this little show, at that time it was a dollar plus the roll of a die. We’re an under $10 show, and suddenly we’re thrust into the corporate arena, and even though they’re supposed to be offbeat, still it’s HBO that’s there. This is a lot of people’s meal tickets. People there who were hungry and desperate to get in on it or were on their way out. Remember Short Attention Span Theater, on MTV, Mark Maron? His show had just been canceled, so he was one of the guys who had sort of lucked into the meal ticket, and now was on the outside and hoping to get back in. Bill Maher was there, and also: Chris Rock, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac, Mr. Show, Tenacious D, and Kathy Griffin. All these people who were fightin’ to get on the air... all talented people. I just never had been around that sort of scene, and it was very interesting because there was a meeting where we decided our set (TML) before we went out, and there was a meeting where someone said “I don’t feel I’m represented enough in this show, and I want to put one of my solo pieces in. It doesn’t show me enough, that’s what I feel..” We never had that really happen before. We were a collective, right? So we had to say, "Okay." We didn’t have to but that’s what we said. "If you feel strongly about this, then let’s take out one of the pieces and put one of yours in." I don’t know if that made any difference, in their career or not. It was just that first look of... whoa, we’re not... just all friends having a good time together. There’s a career arc here. Even through the Tuesday selection process sometimes someone says, I don’t feel my voice is represented in this show, right, and that’s a valid thing to say. "Get it in here." But this, it was clearly because of the commercial pressure. "There may be someone in this audience who’s looking for someone like me and I want to show them my best me." That had never happened before. We all write for the show. The show is supposed to reflect the whole, and if there’s not enough of my written work in the show, it was a valid way to get a piece in the show to say, I have one piece in here now. I know this is not the strongest piece that came up this week but it’s mine, and I would like it to go in the show. And you can say yeah, let’s put it in. ‘Cause this show’s supposed to be a variety of ideas.

JP: No matter how much we might want it, the show is not a vehicle to stardom. Of course you can get recognition and it opens opportunities that you have to work HARD for, but the show works best once the performers put their effort into the collective. I sometimes feel much of the stress and hard feelings that can occur would not exist to the extent that they often do if our own egos and need for the spotlight didn't get in the way. There is plenty to learn in the show that you CAN use to help in a career.

SH: The important thing is it teaches you to try to find your voice, to try to find out, to experiment with who you are as a writer. You try on different skins very quickly, and, and the penalty for failure is negligible. Right, ‘cause if it’s not any good it either won’t get in the show, or if people say let’s give this a shot, put it up, then the worst thing is that people don’t like it. And it’s done.


THE MAGNIFICENT HERMES RAISES A FAMILY

SH: When I graduated from theater school in ’89, the theater school sent us to New York City to audition. A week before that I auditioned for a company called Looking Glass Theatre, they were just a small theater company then. They were doing Of One Blood. I got a callback from them. They were a local company just like any other storefront theater at the time. We were doing this thing called TLC, Theater Link Chicago, where everybody from this graduating class was gonna go out to New York City. "We’re gonna do our monologues, man, in New York City! We’re gonna be in front of the agents and stuff!" So I blew off the local guys and went with DePaul Theatre School out to New York. I did my audition bit, and out of the group of around forty students, there were about two or three of us that didn’t get a single callback, and I was one of those. I was devastated. So I didn't get a callback I went out to Long Island and visited some friends of mine. They had just had their first kid, one of the first people I knew that had a baby. And so I saw them hanging out, living their lives, being them, with their baby, and that planted that seed. At some point I knew I wanted to have kids, and then I hung out with another friend who was my age, and she’d had her first son, and I was able to see, "Oh yeah, I think I could do this." Wendy and I decided, we’re gonna have kids no matter what. "Let’s just do it, and, you know, if it means I have to give up theater to be a good parent, then I will." And eventually that’s what it had to be. I couldn’t juggle them both. I couldn’t, I couldn’t do those two things.

SCOTT'S LAST TOO MUCH LIGHT PLAY

The last TML play I performed on the Neo-Futurist stage was This Play Can Only Be Performed On a Sunday. I had to amend it later to a Sunday Evening, because somebody called it on Saturday night after midnight. [both laugh]. Unless you want me to go home and wake up my daughter [JP laughs], this show ain’t gonna happen. I talked about why I was leaving the show, how much great fun I had, and then I would bring Nina out. So at eleven months old she had her first performance. I’d bring her out on stage and I’d play with her, show the audience. "This is why I’m leaving. I can’t do both. I can’t, I can’t stay up ‘til three in the morning, and then be woken up at six a.m. I can’t do it." ... Yeah. So that’s why I left it.

[I tried to write a sentence here about the flood of emotions that last paragraph made me feel, but no words could express the complexity of how I felt about his choices and commitment, except this very reaction you are reading right now.]



JP: But you've still been writing. You still do the occasional solo show.

SH: Yeah, It’s difficult. When I’ve gotten older, it’s harder to write, harder to focus. My kids still... you saw, I got texted while we were having this interview about ‘where’s the firewire cable?’ [JP laughs] so that she could transfer her video onto her Mac. Um. It’s difficult. All that time away is time away from my kids. Nina will be fourteen at the end of this month. So in four years she’s gone. And she’s one of those... there’s different kinds of kids, some kids want to stay home, she’s not that, she wants to leave now. [JP laughs] I know I’m not going to see much of her after she leaves. Any time I spend away from her is sad to me. On the other hand, I still have this great desire to do stuff. I have been able to do some performing, but I was kind of in a funk after leaving Too Much Light. I wrote but I couldn’t get anything together. I hadn’t written anything before Too Much Light, and I didn’t write anything after for a long time that I was able to complete because I didn’t have that deadline, that real deadline. So finally, what happened in 2001, the company I was working for was bought out by GE, and I got a six-month severance package. Full salary. So that was sweet. John Hildreth did an adaptation of Cat's Cradle, so I tried out for that and did Cat’s Cradle at Lifeline Theatre and Phil was in it as well. And then I tried out for Jeopardy, and made it. I kept a journal of my experiences of going on Jeopardy, ‘cause I’m a big game show fan and loved Jeopardy as a kid. So I go on Jeopardy and I [laughs a little], I don’t come in first on Jeopardy, and it’s devastating to me again. Then a while after that Dave Awl contacts me, he’s doing the Partly Dave Show, and he wanted me to do something. And so again, I have a deadline, right, so I have to do something for each show. It was supposed to be a ten minute piece. I was a poor judge of timing. I thought I had ten minutes, and I had twenty-five pages, so it’s like twenty-five minutes worth of material. People were just dying, they were dying [Dying from laughter, of course.] It was a big hit. So then I turned it into an hour and fifteen minute performance and did it at Live Bait. Now I’m working on a variation of Little Red Riding Hood, called “Cry Wolf”. And that’s just a real pisser, I’m having trouble getting an ending on it. It’s, you know, again, there’s no deadline, right?

[I am happy to say that Scott had a stage reading of this script recently at the Neo-Futurarium, and from what I heard, it received quite a bit of praise. So keep your eye out for it.]