Thursday, October 1, 2009

Interview - Rob Neill of Laika Dog in Space

By Byrne Harrison
Photo and Videos by the NY Neo-Futurists

Laika Dog in Space, the latest full-length production from the New York Neo-Futurists, opens this evening at the Ontological Theater at St. Mark’s Church (131 E. 10th St.).

Intrigued by the concept of a show about the first dog in space, and one performed in the Neo-Futurist style, I reached out to New York Neo-Futurist Managing Director (and one of the co-creators/performers in Laika) to find out a little more about the show.

The NY Neo-Futurists are best known for Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, the twice-weekly performance that strives to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes, but you've only done a handful of full-length productions. What led you to branch out into these longer productions, and do you plan on continuing?

Rob Neill: Many New York Neo-Futurists have sought out longer-form performance options once we had settled into cranking out TML every night. So we branched out somewhat gradually from 30 plays in 60 minutes to six 10-minutes plays to three 20-minutes plays to one 60+ minute play. And we even were awarded Outstanding Ensemble Performance by the New York Innovative Theatre Awards for our last mainstage (Not) Just A Day Like Any Other. Next year we're looking to do an extra show both in the spring and in the fall as we continue to grow our season beyond TML.

The story of Laika, the first animal sent into orbit, and the first space fatality, seems like an unusual subject for a play. What inspired you and co-writers Eevin Hartsough and Jill Beckman to tackle this subject, and what were your other inspirations?

A couple of years back the Vampire Cowboys invited me to write a short play for Re:Vamped that combined the genres of science fiction and fairy tale. I recalled Laika’s story and tossed in some Russian fairytales, parts of "The Little Prince" and elements from the TV show "The Prisoner," rounding it out with some original songs by Carl Reihl, direction and calder-esque sculpture from Eevin plus other neo-futurists elements. Once we looked to expand the piece to a longer format for the Ontological-Hysteric Theater Incubator, Jill, Eevin and I did more research on all of those elements and the space race, and then thought about how all this applied to our lives. Carl wrote more songs and we kept building it.

The Neo-Futurists are known for infusing their work with their own stories, life experiences, and reality, as opposed to playing characters. Will Laika be as much about you, Eevin, and Jill as it is about the dog? If so, what are you each bringing to the production?

Yes. For Laika we actually developed three tracks for the show: Space, Prince and Prisoner. And at first they were just place holders to funnel and focus all of the info we had, but the tracks evolved to be more specific to which performer was the lead on each one. We collaborated on much of the creation of the whole play; we had a google document for the script (for ease of sharing and seeing changes), and all did writing apart and then got together hashed things out. We made assignments for certain sections, and kept digging and writing more, finally finding what much of it meant to us - each of us now. Our director, Dave Dalton and AD, Chris Diercksen, helped hone and re-focus what we were delving into and Laika began to represent something different to each of us, I think, and that shows in the performance. For example, my Prisoner (& science) track lead me to deal with isolation versus community, and got me to think about how I have traditionally reached out to and connected with others through food and mealtimes, so among other things I make borscht in the show . . .

While many of the Neo-Futurists plays in TML incorporate music, this is the first play I can remember that has music performed by a non-Neo-Futurist (Carl Riehl and the Cake Monkeys). How did that come about?

We wanted more influences and options musically. Carl is not only a talented musician, but brought such solid and expansive work to the project. He was involved from the early stages as we knew he played a wicked accordion and was a composer. He, with the Cake Monkeys, make the show rock. By the way the Cake Monkeys are only a band for Laika Dog In Space; they all play in other bands outside the show, and have come together just for these few weeks to jam with us.

Laika is being produced as part of the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator. How did you get involved with the Ontological-Hysteric Theater?

We love the OHT. Thanks to Shannon and Brendan, we have performed for several of the Tiny Theater weekends, and filled in a week last year with Short Term Directions. It is a great space, in a great location with such a amazing history. So many vital performances happen in that space.

Do you feel a particular affinity for Richard Foreman's vision of theatre, or more to the point, do you feel that his "total theater" and Greg Allen's Neo-Futurism are complementary?

Yes and yes. Okay let’s see . . . we love the ritual, precision and layering of Richard Foreman’s work, and how rich the world he creates/manipulates is. His combining of audio, visual, text and movement are right in step with what Neo-Futurists do. I feel his work is very personal, yet disorienting at times. So is ours. We are not creating at his level, but we take some from him, some from other historical and independent theater styles, add the basic tenants of Neo-Futurism: ‘you are who you are; you are where you are; you are doing what you are doing’, toss in some audience involvement and there is our show. With song and vodka and borscht . . .

What is next for the Neo-Futurists?

2009 is a busy year for us. Our company has grown exponentially since 2004. It is pretty spectacular. After Laika, we have our 5 year anniversary benefit on November 9th, and of course we have our end of the year Best of 2009 shows Dec. 11, 12, 18, 19 at the Kraine. Then onto 2010 and producing TML, of course, two new main stage shows and expanding our touring and workshops.

Laika Dog in Space runs October 1-17. For a taste of what you'll get at Laika, please take a look at these videos from the NY Neo-Futurists.

Laika Dog in Space
Directed by Dave Dalton
Created and performed by Eevin Hartsough, Jill Beckman and Rob Neill
Additional performance by Jacquelyn Landgraf
Composer and Musician: Carl Riehl
Assistant Director and Dramaturg: Christopher Diercksen
Technical Director: Lauren Parrish

Ontological Theater at St. Mark’s Church
131 E. 10th St.
October 1-4, 6, 8-11, 13, 15-17 at 8p.m.

For tickets, call 212-352-3101

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