Friday, August 14, 2009

Fringe Q&A With Alex DeFazio of 1-900-SELFPLEX

By Byrne Harrison

Name: Alex DeFazio
Show: 1-900-SELFPLEX

How did you first get involved in theatre?
In college. It was something I always wanted to do, and my high school had a wonderful theatre program, but I was so intimidated by the theatre kids and completely terrified of acting.

In college I began to sort of inch my way into theatre. I took several courses where I studied plays as texts. Gradually, though, I met students who wanted to perform, direct, and design actual shows. I experimented with acting and directing, but I’d been writing steadily since high school, so it wasn’t long before I tried my hand at playwriting.

Who are your biggest influences?
Most of my big influences come from literature – Lewis Carroll, Tom Robbins, Anais Nin, Anne Sexton, Hermann Hesse, William Blake, Erica Jong. It’s a real hodgepodge, but I love every one of these writers and learned so much from each of them.

Once I fell in love with writing plays, I also fell in love with Tennessee Williams, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, and everything by Shakespeare.

I also had some very important personal influences: my high-school librarian, my senior-year English teacher, two high-school friends – Erica Kutcher (who passed away a few years ago) and Wendy Wisner (an amazing poet) – and Jody P. Person, the director of 1-900-SELFPLEX, with whom I’ve been collaborating for over ten years.

What is your show about?
1-900-SELFPLEX is about the power of storytelling, or storytelling as power.

The lead character, Alberta Lesalle, is an artist in her early forties who has never had professional success – as a writer, a singer, a "sexpert," or in any of the other careers she’s pursued. In the first scene of the play, there’s a boy in her apartment. Only she can see him; he’s like a piece of psychic furniture she isn’t sure where to place. However, once she starts talking with him, she realizes he’s a character from one of her unfinished stories. He’s HIV-positive, a hustler, the victim of many years of sexual abuse, and Alberta makes a very conscious choice not only to finish writing his story, but to write as him – to assume his identity and impersonate him over the phone. The boy becomes famous, and the play is about the lengths to which Alberta will go to sustain the deception.

What inspired you to write it?
Two things: Susan Blackmore’s essay, "Meme, Myself, I," and the unmasking of J.T. Leroy – who was supposedly an abused, transgendered, teenage boy – as the literary invention of a middle-aged female author.

Blackmore’s essay inspired the theme. Her idea is that none of us possess a "self" that is essentially or uniquely ours. Instead, she writes that our "self" is nothing more than a collection of stories or "memes" – a manufactured, artificial thing; a patchwork of fictions.

The J.T. Leroy scandal inspired some of the characters and circumstances of the play, but it’s not a play about J.T. Leroy any more than it’s a play about Susan Blackmore’s theories. It’s about a woman who consciously exploits this lack of "essence" in all of us – the fact that we are, all of us, forever playing characters. I find this idea intriguing, even freeing. At the same time, I also find it kind of frightening that I – or you, or all of us – may be nothing more than the sum of other people’s stories. I started writing the play because I wanted to see how this idea would play out in action, and the characters evolved from there.

Who are your collaborators and how long have you been working with them?
I already said something about my director, Jody P. Person. He’s been directing my plays for over ten years, from my first play in college to this one, and I am truly so lucky. We have very different tastes and approaches to the work we do – he’s a very physical person, for example, and trained for many years as a dancer, while I tend to be much more internal. I think we complement each other really well in this respect, and he’s instrumental in the development of all my work.

Two of our cast in 1-900-SELFPLEX – Deena Jiles and Michelle Wood – worked with us in 2007 on our FringeNYC production of my play, To Be Loved. They are both powerhouse actresses. Really, I’m so grateful they haven’t been swept up into the for-profit/commercial theatre or film industry – at least not yet – because it means they’ll work for us simply for the joy of it.

This is our first time working with Patrick Martin (who plays the boy) and Jennifer Joyce (Alberta’s partner, Max), and I’m equally grateful to have them. 1-900-SELFPLEX is Patrick’s first show in NYC. He has an astonishing presence – quiet and vulnerable, but tuned to such emotional rawness, it almost feels naked. Jennifer has been acting for many years. I have yet to get her to fess up to her full bio, but I know she’s acted with Christine Lahti and other established performers. She probably has the most experience of us all, but she’s gracious and wonderful, and the real emotional center of the play.

I should also say that everyone in the cast and crew of 1-900-SELFPLEX is somehow connected to Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, NJ. Jody coordinates the Theatre and Dance Programs; I teach for the Theatre Program and English Department; Deena, Michelle, Pat, and Jennifer are all MCCC alumni (Jennifer also teaches there now); and Robert A. Terrano, our lighting designer, is the Coordinator of the Entertainment Technology Program. Jody, Robert, and I are colleagues at MCCC as well as collaborators outside of it, and everyone involved in the production shares a common experience of working as students or instructors to make theatre happen at the college.

Fringe shows are notorious for their short rehearsal schedule. How has the rehearsal process been?
Fantastic! Yes, it’s been short, but we made a decision this time around to limit rehearsal time. Obviously we want to be prepared – and we are – but there’s something about the energy of just enough rehearsal time that keeps everyone lively and on their toes. In the past we’ve over-rehearsed, and that can be simply deadly.

What's next for you after Fringe?
More writing. And teaching. And writing.

And finally, if a genie were to grant you one wish, what would you wish for?
That these kinds of opportunities to present my work and collaborate with people I trust will never end. Genie or no genie, I honestly can’t ask for more.

Elixir Productions Theatre Company
Written by Alex DeFazio
Directed by Jody P. Person

The Studio at Cherry Lane
Mon 17 - 2 PM
Tue 18 - 5 PM
Thu 20 - 8:15 PM
Sat 22 - 4:15 PM
Thu 27 - 9:15 PM
Fri 28 - 4:45 PM

Visit FringeNYC for more information.

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