Friday, April 6, 2012

Mac Rogers Takes Us Into the Honeycomb

By Byrne Harrison

Mac Rogers is an award-winning Brooklyn-based playwright, professional writer, and performer.

Mac’s recent works include the darkly comic horror play "Hail Satan" (winner of the Outstanding Playwriting Award at the 2007 New York International Fringe Festival), "Universal Robots" (which won Best Off-Off Broadway Play from the New York Theatre Bloggers Association and earned four nominations from the New York Innovative Theater Awards), "Viral" (which won the Outstanding Play honor from the 2009 FringeNYC), and "Fleet Week: The Musical" (winner of the Outstanding Musical award from FringeNYC 2005). He also regularly appears as an actor in the independent theater scene in New York, and earned an NYIT nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in James Comtois’s "The Adventures of Nervous-Boy: A Penny Dreadful." As a producer, Mac is a co-founder of Gideon Productions, through which he has mounted a number of his plays to great acclaim.

As a professional writer, Mac has contributed columns to and New York Magazine’s Vulture site. His science fiction short story “Miss Emily’s Voyage” appears on At Length (

So we are in the second week of "Blast Radius," part two of your "Honeycomb Trilogy." For those people who might have missed part one, "Advance Man," tell me what the audience needs to know going into this.

First, let me say, you don’t have to have seen part one to follow this. There is a more detailed catch-up synopsis with the program, but the basics are these: "The Honeycomb Trilogy" is about the Cookes, an American family in Florida that that plays an important role in both triggering and battling an extraterrestrial occupation of the Earth. The father, an astronaut named Bill, made a pact with a race of telepathic insect-like aliens he met on a mission to Mars. Bill’s daughter Ronnie and his son Abbie were once very close siblings, but are now on opposite sides of the occupation. Before the invasion, Bill’s wife Amelia devoted a lot of her time to “raising” the fifth member of the family, an astronaut colleague of Bill’s named Conor who seemed to have a stroke on the Mars mission. But there was no stroke: Conor’s mind was accidentally taken over by the aliens’ Ambassador, and over the years this former alien insect has been learning to live in a human body. When "Blast Radius" begins, the aliens have ruled the Earth for 12 years, Bill is dead, Amelia is sick, Abbie and Conor (who have fallen in love) are the main ambassadors for the aliens, and Ronnie is rising fast in the human insurgency.

And all this takes place in one living room.

This isn't your first sci-fi play; in fact, you've had quite a bit of success with sci-fi themes. What led to your interest in sci-fi?

I discovered "Doctor Who" as a kid, which led to a wider interest in anything with aliens or a space ship or an imaginary piece of technology or time travel, anything like that. For the longest time I kept my sci-fi interests and my theater interests separate. I somehow bought into the odd snobbery that science fiction doesn’t have a place in theater. But fortunately there was a point earlier this millennium when I set aside autobiographical drama in favor of writing the kind of exciting genre storytelling that I love as a reader or viewer. In writing my play "Universal Robots," a sci-fi epic inspired by Karel Capek’s "Rossum’s Universal Robots," I found a way to tell these sorts of stories using specifically theatrical language – with no attempt to compete with film or television.

Were there any specific writers/movies/etc. that inspired this trilogy?

My first encounter with a hive-minded insect race vying against humanity for survival was the classic "Doctor Who" episode “The Ark In Space.” That’s my real touchstone for "The Honeycomb Trilogy." Then of course, I discovered a deepening of those themes in Orson Scott Card’s "Ender’s Game" and "Speaker For The Dead." There’s definitely some "Quatermass and the Pit" in there, and honestly, a lot of the trilogy is drawn from plots I wished they would have done on the more recent version of "Battlestar Galactica" but didn’t. What all these have in common is that they use collisions (both physical and mental) between humanity and some form of all-consuming Other to closely examine what it is to be human. That fascinates me.

I should also note that I got the courage to write this from watching Johnna Adams’ amazing "Angel Eaters Trilogy," a work of incredible imagination and audacity that was produced by Flux Theatre Ensemble a few years back. I wouldn’t have had the guts to pull the trigger on "Honeycomb" if Johnna hadn’t gone there first.

What can the audience expect from "Blast Radius"?

It’s a pretty full plate in terms of an evening’s entertainment. 1) It’s exciting: the whole play is built on a gradually escalating thriller plot that demands more and more from the characters as the story reaches its conclusion. 2) It’s very emotional charged: characters have to make awful choices – under a lot of pressure – about themselves and their loved ones. It’s action-packed, and there’s one fight scene that’s likely not like any you’ve ever seen before. 3) It’s romantic and sexy. 4) While it’s a dark and intense play, there are several funny setpieces as well as more low-key humor threaded throughout. 5) There are a few good cries in there, for folks who like that (as I do, for example). 6) The director, my longtime colleague Jordana Williams, has integrated these tones masterfully. 7) The design team (including my wife Sandy Yaklin who is the set designer) and the cast have delivered stunning work.

What about part three, "Sovereign"? Can you tell me a little about that without too many spoilers?

Well I don’t want to go into too much detail because I don’t want to reveal which characters make it out of "Blast Radius" alive. But I can say this: if "Advance Man" was family-living-room-play-meets-aliens and "Blast Radius" is war/resistance-story-meets-aliens, "Sovereign" is kind of like "Twelve Angry Men"-meets-aliens. It brings what’s left of the Cooke family and the human race in general to a major moral reckoning.

Do the shows feature the same cast and crew?

We are fortunate that the returning characters from "Advance Man" (the first installment) are played in "Blast Radius" by the same four wonderful actors from part one: Kristen Vaughan (Amelia), Jason Howard (Conor), Becky Byers (Ronnie), and David Rosenblatt (Abbie). Getting to watch the four of them build on what they’d already achieved in Advance Man has been a privilege for Jordana and me, and I think it’s a great payoff for audience members who saw part one.

On to some of your other work. I understand East Chapel Hill high school recently did a production of "Universal Robots," and that you had a chance to attend. How was it and what was the post-show talkback like?

ECHHS’s production was so lovely. To see that a group of teenagers had mastered that whole insanely difficult text, to see that they had engaged with it at the same level of intellectual and emotional intensity that we did here in our 2007 and 2009 productions was just so moving to me. Hope Hynes Love directed it exquisitely, and it was fascinating to see it realized with such a different production design that what we did. The most striking thing about the post-show panel, for me, was the questions from the students. They’d given the play such a passionate level of consideration that their questions to me were actually pretty challenging. The other two panelists, Dr. Kylon Middleton and the bio-roboticist Dr. Alper Bozkurt, were so brilliant I actually kept my mouth shut as much as I could. of It was a tremendous experience for me.

Any other out-of-town productions coming up soon?

New City Stage in Philadelphia will be producing my espionage thriller "Asymmetric" in May, so I’ll be sort of hurtling back and forth between that and Sovereign in May. It’ll be crazy, but hopefully fun too.

What else is coming up for you this year?

After "Sovereign" I’ll need to go back to my desk for a while. I don’t have anything else finished. I’d like to write smaller plays for a little while, three or four character plays, as well as plays that follow dream logic more than plot mechanics.

I mean, any “plan” for one’s future writing is laughable, so I’ll probably end up writing a 20-character epic with mummies in it.

Mainly, I want to focus on seeing plays rather than writing them and presenting them.

And one question just for fun. If you could meet any sci-fi writer or actor, who would you choose?

Man, with James Tiptree and Robert Holmes both passed on, I’m afraid I’d have to say Tom Baker, the actor who played the peerless fourth incarnation of the Doctor on "Doctor Who." As a kid it greatly reassured me to see him maintain such mirth and wit in the face of frightening alien menaces. All "Doctor Who" fans have to grow up at some point and realize the Doctor isn’t real, but you don’t have to stop wishing he was.

"Blast Radius" runs through April 14th.

The Secret Theatre
44-02 23rd Street, Long Island City
March 30, 2012 - April 14, 2012
For tickets call 212-352-3101

1 comment:

Greg said...

Damn. Wish I'd gotten myself together about plans for a weekend visit in time for this - it sounds great.