Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Interview with J. Stephen Brantley of "Eightythree Down"

By Byrne Harrison

Photo by Maki Ueno
J. Stephen Brantley is an actor and playwright whose work has been commissioned by Lincoln Center Director's Lab and Performance Space 122, where his Distortion Taco was named a Village Voice Pick Of The Year.

Brantley has performed with Big Dance Theatre, Horse Trade, Mabou Mines, Cucaracha, Lucky Artists, and Emerging Artists Theatre, and at venues including The Sanford Meisner, Soho Rep, HERE, PS 122, The Brick, The Palladium, and Provincetown Theater. Brantley's award-winning one-act Break has been produced in Provincetown, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles and at the Absolut Dublin International Gay Theatre Festival.

Other plays include Blood Grass, Furbelow, Gatos Locos & The Ave Maria, Good God Enters Flossing, Hard Sparkle, The Jamb, Nevertheless, Shiny Pair Of Complications, and Struck. His Eightythree Down, which won the 2009 Georgia Theatre Conference Award opens September 1st at Under St.Mark's in NYC.

Brantley is an award-winning graduate of NYU's Experimental Theatre Wing, a member of TOSOS, and a quintessential Scorpio. He is currently collaborating with Theatre 167 on the final installment of their epic Jackson Heights trilogy. More at

First of all, I'm very excited to see Hard Sparks’ first full-length production.  What led you to start Hard Sparks?

It was time for me to take a leap, to do something completely ill-advised like start a not-for-profit theatre company during a recession. Really, it was about taking control. It became clear that if I was ever going to do the kind of work I wanted, I’d have to create a vehicle for it. I think it’s the future, artists making things happen for themselves.

Where does the name come from?

Hard Sparks comes from a passage in the Zohar, which is a two-thousand-year-old decoding of the Torah that serves as the primary text for the study of Kabbalah. It has to do with the gathering and elevating of the sparks of creation, of being a channel for divine light. That’s what theatre artists do.

Can you tell me a little bit about Eightythree Down?

Eightythree Down documents the final hour of 1983 in the basement bedroom of a closeted bird-watcher called Martin. Martin’s world is turned completely upside-down when his fabulous old friend Dina shows up just before midnight with a couple of very bad boys. What happens is pretty wild. I mean, this is not The Wedding Singer. This is a coke-fueled thrill-ride, it’s like looking back at the Eighties through blood-spattered Ray-Bans, it’s quite intense.

You've assembled a very impressive cast and crew for this production.  How did you bring them together?

Melody Bates and Brian Miskell
Photo by Daniel Talbott
Magic. Providence. Guts, maybe. I know a lot of great directors but hadn’t found quite the right fit until my friend Kathleen Warnock suggested I ask Daniel Talbott. I didn’t actually think I could get him, as busy as he is, and I was thrilled when he signed on. From there we built up a company piece by piece. He hand-selected a terrific design team with whom he already shared a vocabulary. Casting sessions combined actors we knew, actors recommended by friends, and actors discovered by our casting director Jenn Haltman. The quartet we ended up with is absolutely brilliant. Melody Bates, Ian Holcomb, Bryan Kaplan, Brian Miskell. What they’re doing in this show is just amazing.

You're an actor and playwright, and now you can add artistic director to your resume.  What is your theatrical background and how did it lead you here?

Well after lots of leads in high school and a regional production of Grease, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to be in theatre anymore. I was a little bored. But then I came to New York at eighteen years old and saw all this amazing stuff – avant-garde theatre and rock n roll and post-modern dance and poetry slams - and I decided I had to study at NYU’s Experimental Theatre Wing. So my early work was at PS122 and HERE, and with companies like Big Dance Theatre. Then I took a major detour into self-destruction and came back more playwright than performance artist. Honestly, it feels a little weird now to be doing naturalism. There are so many props. My next play may be a bit more meta. But then, I try to do something different each time.

What advice do you have for theatre students who might want to follow in your footsteps?

First, ask yourself if you love rehearsal. Not performance, but rehearsal. Do you ache to engage in the process of making theatre? Cool. Now make a pledge to respect yourself and your craft, and to never forget that what you do has worth. Theatre artists do extraordinary things and I just hate it when they allow themselves to be undervalued.

What is next for Hard Sparks?

We’re producing Nicole Pandolfo’s one-woman play Love In The Time Of Chlamydia for festivals and touring. It’s filthy and fun. And then in 2012 we’ll do two more new full-lengths. Maybe another one of mine, but I’m also reading stuff from several other playwrights at the moment. I really want to develop plays that speak to important social issues and raise awareness of community-based organizations working on them. The one that keeps me up lately is homeless LGBT youth.

What's next for you?

Seriously considering cleaning my apartment. Past that? I’d like to get back onstage, do something really hardcore. It’s been too long since I played a villain. And I should probably work on one of the five unfinished plays languishing in my computer…

If you could say one thing to your potential audience, what would it be?

Not to sit back and relax. But with Eightythree Down, they really won’t be able to.

And finally, if you had the opportunity to be in any play with any actor, what and who would you choose?

I’m supposed to say Mark Rylance, right? You know, I know so many fantastic actors. I’m dying to act with David Drake. I would love to have my ass kicked all over a stage by Daniel Talbott. I’ve written something for myself and Jackie Sydney. Karen Stanion. Jenny Seastone Stern. Hunter Gilmore. There’s an amazing play by David Parr called Listening To Pluto that I want to do with Joleen Wilkinson. And I would do anything anytime with the cast of Eightythree Down. It’s occurred to me they’d do a killer Burn This. But I guess I’d have to play Robbie.

September 1-17 at 8pm
Come early for drinks!
Under Saint Marks - 94 St. Mark's Place between 1st and A

Sound byJanie Bullard
Scenery by Eugenia Furneaux-Arends
 Lighting by Brad Peterson
Costumes by Tristan Raines
Stage Manager Amanda Michaels
Assistant Stage Manager Alex Mark
Assistant Director Evan Caccioppoli
Fight Choreographer Laura Ramadei
Casting Director Jenn Haltman
Press Representative Emily Owens
Graphics Julia Bernadsky

 Ticket now available at SmartTix
or by visiting or 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Interview with Anna Grace Carter of "Prom Night of the Living Dead"

By Byrne Harrison
Photos courtesy of BITE

Anna Grace Carter ( is the Producer/Co-Creator of Prom Night of the Living Dead and the Executive Producer/Director of Brooklyn Innovative Theatre Experience (BITE) with Co-Founder and Artistic Director, Kris Chung ( Anna came to New York in December 2009 via Beijing, China where she has spent nearly half a decade producing, directing, writing, and acting in plays and musicals at the Peng Hao Theatre--one of China's only independently owned and operated theatres. Through workshops, festivals, and stagings of classic and modern productions from Shakespeare to Wit, her work in Beijing has helped create and maintain a vibrant independent international theatre community in China. Now, Anna Grace brings her unique views and experience to the independent theatre community of New York with the original interactive theatrical event, Prom Night of the Living Dead, based on a show first conceived and produced in Beijing. Anna Grace has also produced award winning shows in the Midtown International Theatre Festival and the Shortened Attention Span Horror Festival. Her regional directing/producing credits include Godspell, Annie, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Orphans, and the Diaries of Adam and Eve. She has also produced and starred in the Beijing premiere of Wit, a role for which she, naturally, shaved her head.

I've heard Prom Night of the Living Dead described as George Romero meets John Hughes.  So working that theme, in The Breakfast Club, which character did you most identify with?

Though I would like to say the Molly Ringwald princess, I think I most identify with Ally Sheedy's freak in that group. Our director/writer, Kris would probably say I am the mean old principal.

If zombies had attacked during that Saturday detention, who would have survived?

Definitely NOT the meanie principal! I guess that the freaks and geeks would last the longest. I suppose that Bender would find the most weapons.

Tell me a little bit about Prom Night of the Living Dead.

Prom Night of the Living Dead transports its audience into a Twilight Zone-like world, where they'll attend the Glendale High School 1962 prom with the graduating class -- best described in John Hughes archetypes -- jocks, princesses, geeks, and rebels. The night begins with plenty of dancing, drinking, and playing games. The story of the play involves a sensitive geek in love with the prom queen-to-be whose potential romance is cut short by an attack by the living dead, which the audience experiences firsthand with the survivors in a bloody battle finale.

Zombies are everywhere these days.  Well, not real zombies - that would be horrible.  But zombies are on TV, movies, and stage.  What do you think makes them so popular now?

Photo by Elia A. Roldan
In Romero's early films, zombies represent simple-minded conservative society that infects and poisons the younger generation and only gets worse with time and cannot be defeated because it is so pervasive. (Many of Romero's zombies were symbols of society and authority like cops, teachers, parents, etc. -- our show features these old school zombies as well.)

I think with all the unrest and evil in the world, the things that zombies represented back in the 1960s from Romero's first film are as true today as they were back then. The '60s were a time of unrest and uncertainty -- a loss of innocence after the more prosperous times of the '50s. History is a cycle and perhaps we are feeling that same kind of restlessness that was so pervasive during '60s with the booming Reagan and Clinton years leading to the Great Recession, 9/11, and unending wars in the Middle East. These and many other things are the zombies of today.

This is an interactive play, where the audience mixes and mingles with the cast as prom attendees themselves.  What made you decide to present it in this format?

We wanted the audience to feel like they are part of the action in a three-dimensional way. By having them start the evening by attending a "regular" prom they get lost in the event of partying and playing games and then all of a sudden the zombies attack -- the doors are locked and the groaning and moaning starts to come from all sides. The audience starts to feel like they are in a horror movie, not just watching a play.

Any challenges so far in this type of staging?

Photo by Mia Moy
It is very difficult to do interactive theatre because we need to create a balance between party and play. It's hard to make it clear when the audience should focus in on an important scene between the two main characters and when they should party and dance with the rest of the cast. We also have to make sure they don't try to fight the actors playing zombies in the final battle.

What has been the best thing for you about this show?

Seeing the reactions from the audience as the zombies start to flood the stage. People are scared and/or shouting along with the main characters to "hit them in the head!" It's fun to watch everyone get scared and have a great time as well. I also enjoy watching the whole room do the hokey pokey!

Tell me a little about your cast and crew.

Many of our cast are from the original staging of the one-act version from last year's festival. It's great to have the old gang back because it made the rehearsal process go much more smoothly with all the stage combat we had to learn. As for the crew I truly believe we have a fantastically talented team! Our director/writer, Kris Chung, is the ultimate zombie expert and fan. He always has an answer for the cast on what to do in any given zombie situation and he always manages to find a balance between the intimacy and urgency of the play without compromising the fun party atmosphere of the interactive event. Our fight choreographer, Stanley Brode, has put together a beautiful and more importantly, believable zombie battle. And our dance choreographer, Dustin Cross has efficiently taught our cast nearly every '60s dance from the Stroll to the Mashed Potato. We've got some amazing talent in this young, non-union cast of 18 and I am so proud of each and every one of them!

What is next for you?

We are working on finding a permanent home for the Prom on Off-Broadway. After this successful run, we plan to re-open around Halloween to initiate a long-running show. If any dance hall/school gyms are interested in hosting us, please contact me asap! I'm also writing a couple new musicals based on my life in China. I hope to get those started in readings and workshops by the end of the year.

And finally, if you found yourself stuck in The Walking Dead or Night of the Living Dead, what would be your survival strategy?

First of all, I would try to get as far away as possible from NYC or any city for that matter. I would prepare as much food and water as I could carry and learn to use a shotgun with or without bullets for maximum head damage. Honestly, I don't think I would last too long in a real zombie apocalypse, I can barely make it through a scary zombie movie without my hands over my eyes! 

Prom Night of the Living Dead

August 18- September 4
Thursday - Saturday 8PM
Sunday 2PM

Review - "Frankenstein With Mary Shelley" and "Gabriel"

By Byrne Harrison

As part of their "Summer of Creation," Redd Tale Theatre Company breathes life into a pair of one-act plays inspired by Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."

The first, Frankenstein With Mary Shelley, is an adaptation of Shelley's work by Virginia Bartholomew, who also performs the piece.  This outstanding one-person play has Bartholomew at turns playing Shelley, Victor Frankenstein and his Creation, as Shelley recounts how the story came to be and brings it to life for her audience.  Bartholomew is a versatile actor and seamlessly moves from character to character, bringing a remarkable depth to her performance.  Her tormented Creation is particularly moving and effective.

Ably directed by Redd Tale Artistic Director Will Le Vasseur, Frankenstein With Mary Shelley is a wonderfully atmospheric piece, dark and somewhat creepy.  Le Vasseur's set and Jason Richard's lighting for the show successfully recreates the feel of a dark drawing room where supernatural things are bound to occur.

Across the board an excellent play, Frankenstein With Mary Shelley will no doubt be brought back for future productions (and if that isn't already in the works, it should be).

The second play of the evening is Gabriel, Will Le Vasseur's take on the Frankenstein story.  In it Le Vasseur plays Henry, an exceedingly wealthy man with a scientific bent, who discovers an astounding secret in human DNA.  With the unwitting help of his colleagues Susan and Pierce (Cameran Hebb and James Stewart), he is able to leapfrog human evolution by 2 million years.  The result is Gabriel - not a monster, but like Shelley's original, something unique, out of place and lonely.  To add to the sense of otherworldliness, Gabriel is played by two actors; Michael Wetherbee, who performs Gabriel onstage and Michael Komala, who voices the telepathic Gabriel from offstage.  It takes some getting used to, but it is an effective portrayal.

Le Vasseur's Gabriel is intriguing and does a good job of bringing the Frankenstein story out of the age of electricity and reanimated corpses and into the modern era of molecular biology and space travel.  The exploration of the ethical implications of creating something so different and strange is fascinating and well thought out by Le Vasseur, not to mention his exploration of the bonding that occurs between creator and creation, between a lonely man and the lost soul that he has brought to life.

The acting in the piece is strong, with particular praise going to Wetherbee for his child-like Gabriel, and Hebb for her comic timing.  Michael Komala does an excellent job with a potentially difficult part (playing a disembodied voice is no doubt challenging).  Stewart and Le Vasseur acquit themselves well, as usual, with Le Vasseur doing particularly effective work with Henry's longing - whether it be for love or to create a legacy.

My only issues with Gabriel have to do with its length and the juxtaposition of this play and Frankenstein With Mary ShelleyFrankenstein With Mary Shelley draws much of its atmosphere from Gothic horror.  Gabriel is a much lighter piece, with dry humor and even some moments of farce (there is a wonderful bit of comedy between Hebb and Stewart after Hebb's Susan is accidentally put into sexual overdrive by Gabriel's telepathy).  This is a stark contrast to the creepy and intimate Frankenstein With Mary Shelley, and it is a bit jarring, even with the intermission between the two pieces.

But more to the point, Gabriel is a bit overstuffed.  Le Vasseur has a lot that he wants to explore in the play, and as a result some of the show, especially the love story between Henry and Gabriel, feels rushed.  This is not to say that Gabriel needs to be cut, rather that Gabriel deserves to be explored and nurtured into something larger.  I, for one, would like to see a full-length version of this play where Le Vasseur has time to fully explore his characters and themes.

With the loss of Nicu's Spoon Theatre, this will be the last full performance from Redd Tale this year (though I hold out hope that they will continue their one-off sci-fi movie festivals, radio shows, etc., until they find a new performance space), but they will be back with full productions in 2012.

Frankenstein With Mary Shelley
Adapted by Virginia Bartholomew
Directed and Edited by Will Le Vasseur
Featuring: Viriginia Bartholomew (Mary Shelley/Victor/Creation)

Written by Will Le Vasseur
Directed by Lynn Kenny
Featuring: Will Le Vasseur (Henry), Cameran Hebb (Susan), James Stewart (Pierce), Michael Komala (Gabriel's Voice) and Michael Wetherbee (Gabriel)

Set/Lighting/Website Design - Will Le Vasseur
Stage Manager - Brittany Ray
Assistant Stage Manager - Michael Komala
Poster Design - Graeme Offord
Ligting Design/Production Photos - Jason Richards