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 

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