Alphabet City at Metropolitan Playhouse: An interview with director Chris Harcum


by Jody Christopherson · April 7, 2015


OBIE Award-winning theater company Metropolitan Playhouse will present the 11th Annual East Side Stories, a three-week celebration of the life and lore of the East Village featuring twelve new plays and solo performances chronicling such timely topics as real estate, rising development and the loss of old neighbors as well as historical events

For the solo performances, performer/writers are sent out into the city to interview those with a living history of the East Village, devise a script and perform their stories “in their own words”. Director Chris Harcum, has been an East Side Stories solo performer  in years past and is now working with a group of 6 (including me) to present two evenings of these works—“The Indelible” and “The Vanguard” April 15th through May 3rd. Read on for details.

 

The actors of Alphabet City: clockwise from top- Jason Brown, Lillian Rodriguez, Randy Lee, Brigette Barnett, Tammy McNeill, and  Jody Christopherson​ | Chris Harcum

In addition to being a director you are also a performer and have done many solo shows including a few in the Alphabet City LES Stories Series. Can you talk about your "take" on solo performance and your process? How does being an actor inform your directing and vice versa?

First, thanks for doing this interview with me, Jody. I like to begin any project with the notion that I don’t know what I’m doing or how something should be. To work from a place of curiosity and without assumptions. I try to go towards my fears and push myself to do things that are beyond what I know I am currently capable of doing.

I did my first solo show 18 years ago. Along the way, I’ve learned about some of the traps and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’m not blind to the fact that some people DESPISE solo shows. So I try to steer away from the things can cause this.

I’m not sure I have a take on the form because it kind of covers everything and anything you want to do in the theater. When it’s really great, you know it. In this edition of Alphabet City, which is two different evenings with three performers in each, there are six very different performers bringing to life six unique people. That was by design.

All the performers are new to me so I have to adapt quickly to each person and give enough to help set up the conditions so they can do their work as optimally as possible. My time as an acting coach and teaching artist has been helpful. Other than the danger spots I’ve learned about over the years doing solo stuff (self-indulgence, not switching things up enough, earning a dark or heavy beat) I put my solo show experience away so that I’m not putting my choices on people. Otherwise, it might as well be me up there and that’s not good for my collaborators.

My favorite thing as a director is coaxing or guiding someone to something they did not know they could do. I usually don’t say anything about it because that will make that magic thing disappear. But I’ll see it now and again.

What is it like to work with a living history? And with people who are going to be seeing themselves onstage?

Alphabet City is a unique project. The performers go out and find people who live and/or work in the East Village and Lower East Side. They interview the subjects, transcribe the recordings of the interviews, shape a 20-minute monologue, and then perform it as the person they interviewed. The idea is to honor the person who has volunteered to be part of this.

I first did this as a performer in 2005. Since then technology has advanced. We have access to information and entertainment in real time whenever we like. Documentary filmmaking and reality television, whether you are a fan or not, has developed a lot. That’s in part because of technology but also a hunger for authenticity. We’re now quite used to people confessing their inside voices to the camera.

When a performer is cooking while doing this work, the audience feels like they’ve really spent time in the room with this person giving parts of themselves. It is quite a special thing when that happens. It’s especially cool when the subjects are in the audience with friends and people they know. The listening and reactions are different. I was involved in this as a performer last year and on the third performance I was really choked up and I wasn’t sure why. When I went down to the lobby after the show, there was my subject. He was both overjoyed and quite emotional. The flood of memories did his heart good.

I don’t want to take advantage of a tragedy but I do think the recent explosion causing the buildings to collapse on 2nd Avenue brought home to me how special the East Village is. I feel this project captures the beauty, the grit, the passion, the creativity, the history, and the specialness of the people and the neighborhood.

Can you talk a bit about the audition process and philosophy behind it?

Beyond looking for people with skills and good training, I sought self-motivators, who would dig deep and be decent citizens. I sought a diverse group of performers. I had six spots and decided I would get four women and two men.

It’s interesting to note that the two male actors both are portraying women and three of the female performers are playing men. So there are four females and two males playing three men and three women.

The only real directives I was given from the Metropolitan Playhouse’s Artistic Director Alex Roe was to find people who seemed capable of capturing and portraying someone else’s spirit. It’s a tough thing. Some people are good actors, good writers, good storytellers, or good impersonators but not everyone can do what this project demands.  

At the auditions, I did some non-verbal games that got increasingly more difficult to see how people would play and if they might give up. I didn’t care if they could do the exercise well so much as I wanted to get an idea of how they would work during difficult times. Then I ran a workshop on the many different ways one might approach performing as someone else. I had someone, who was not auditioning, tell a story and then had each of the participants take a turn performing this one person’s story. Everyone’s approach was different. Then I paired people off and had them take turns telling a story that the other person would present to the group.

The people I chose are wonderfully talented and bring something no one else in the project does. It’s my first time working with any of them and I’m very proud of all of them. This project is not for the weak. They’ve all worked hard and it shows when they run their pieces for me. It’s a marathon putting the piece down on paper, a marathon to learn and refine it on its feet, and a marathon to perform through the festival.

Favorite places below 14th Street to get inspired?

I always feel a difference when I cross 14th Street. The people just come alive. I like walking the East Village at night early in the week and when it snows. Those times when I feel like the area is mine and mine alone. I like getting coffee from the Mud Truck or having a late meal at Veselka. I eat Thai a lot on 2nd Avenue. Over by the Metropolitan Playhouse, there’s a nice Italian place called In Vino. I’ll knock back some suds at Queen Vic or Fish Bar. I’m not inspired and do not patronize places that have that New-Brooklyn-reclaimed-wood thing happening. I don’t know what you call that trend so I call it New Yuppie.

As far as places I go to see things, there’s the Kraine, Under St. Marks, La Mama, Anthology Film Archives, Angelika Film Center, and Clemente Soto Vélez.

Why make theater?

I agree. Thanks for the interview, Jody. :)

THE INDELIBLE

Three new monologues based on interviews with our neighbors, told entirely in their own words

Lillian Rodriguez as Jonas Mekas
Directed by Chris Harcum
Jonas Mekas founded the Film-Makers' Cooperative in 1962 and the Film-Makers' Cinematheque in 1964, which grew into Anthology Film Archives, one of the world's largest and most important repositories of avant-garde cinema.

Jason Brown as Jeanise Aviles
Directed by Chris Harcum
An account of Hair Artist/Color Specialist/WigMaker/Performance Artist/KnitBomber Jeanise Aviles

Tammy McNeill as Jimmy Webb
Directed by Chris Harcum
The story of Jimmy Webb, “The Punk Peter Pan”, trailblazing manager and buyer for the iconic Trash and Vaudeville

THE INDELIBLE will be presented on the following dates:
Wednesday, April 15 at 7pm
Saturday, April 18 at 4pm
Monday, April 20 at 7pm
Friday, April 24 at 7pm
Sunday, April 26 at 4pm
Tuesday, April 28 at 7pm
Saturday, May 2 at 7pm
Sunday, May 3 at 1pm

THE VANGUARD

Three new monologues based on interviews with our neighbors, told entirely in their own words

Brigitte Barnett as Alex Harsley
Directed by Chris Harcum
Alex Harsley is a visionary and photographer who is founder and director of the Lower East Side’s 4th Street Photo Gallery

Jody Christopherson as Clove Galilee
Directed by Chris Harcum
A glimpse of Clove Galilee, experimental theater artist, choreographer, Mabou Mines Artistic Associate and daughter of Lee Breuer and Ruth Maleczech

Randy Lee as Corlie Ohl
Directed by Chris Harcum
Corlie Ohl is your friendly, bossy, sassy and giving real estate agent

THE VANGUARD will be presented on the following dates:
Friday, April 17 at 7pm
Sunday, April 19 at 1pm
Tuesday, April 21 at 7pm
Saturday, April 25 at 1pm
Sunday, April 26 at 7pm
Thursday, April 30 at 7pm
Saturday, May 2 at 1pm
Sunday, May 3 at 4pm

Ticketing Information for East Side Stories

East Side Stories Festival Passes granting admission to all four programs for the discount rate of $50 are available by visiting www.MetropolitanPlayhouse.org or calling (800) 838-3006.

Single tickets ($20 for adults, $15 for students and seniors, $10 for children under 18) are also on sale.

 

 

 

 

More about the playwrights in this article:
Broken Bone Bathtub
After being asked who is comfortable with audience participation, we are lead one by one into the small room and guided to our seats. A young woman sits amid pleasantly floral scented bubbles, face turned away from us.
Broken Bone Bathtub
After being asked who is comfortable with audience participation, we are lead one by one into the small room and guided to our seats. A young woman sits amid pleasantly floral scented bubbles, face turned away from us.
Adapting: Five Takeaways
The fifth (and last) in a five part series on adapting a play from a novel as it occurs.