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Real Feelings in a Virtual World

Ben Rosenfield & Sophia Ann Caruso

Ben Rosenfield & Sophia Ann Caruso

How Ben Rosenfield plays an avatar in The Nether

There are two worlds in Jennifer Haley’s The Nether. One is reality—a dark, cold place. The other is The Hideaway, a Victorian manor filled with light and color and trees.

The latter universe is part of The Nether, an immersive virtual space that people obsessively visit in this perhaps not-so-distant future.

However, Laura Jellinek’s set for MCC Theater’s production, now at the Lortel, is primarily an interrogation room. It’s only when the windows and doors open that we get glimpses of The Hideaway, which means we have to imagine the rest.

For actor Ben Rosenfield, imagining The Hideaway is especially important. His character, Woodnut, is an avatar—an online alter ego for someone who exists in the real world—so to ground his performance, he needs a clear mental picture of where Woodnut lives.

In order to prepare for his role, Rosenfield watched a documentary called Life 2.0, about the online virtual world Second Life. “Virtual realities are getting more and more dynamic as time goes on, and it can really consume your life,” he says. “Ultimately what the play deals with is individuals who are addicted to it. So that was something that required a certain amount of research. But addiction is broad and you can be addicted to a lot of things. There’s a throughline of what those emotions are.”

However clear they are to him, though, Rosenfield has to be careful about how he communicates his character’s emotions. The Nether is structured as a mystery, so there are complexities and motivations that can’t be revealed too early. Woodnut, for instance, is actually a detective in the real world, and he can use his virtual ambiguity to his advantage. “A good detective wouldn’t make it obvious why he’s there, so it’s a balancing act of trying to tell this story of a detective and at the same time not giving myself away to the other actors who I’m supposed to be hiding my true identity and motives from,” Rosenfield says. [Read more →]

February 27, 2015   No Comments

If You’re Only 40, How Do You Play an 80 Year Old?

Elizabeth Dement (rear) in Social Security

Elizabeth Dement (rear) with Cynthia Hopkins

Inside Elizabeth Dement’s transformative performance in Social Security

Actors are often told to make a character “their own.” But what exactly does that mean? And how do actors put themselves into a role when they’re playing someone who’s almost twice their age?

For the 40-year-old performer Elizabeth Dement, who stars as an 80-year-old retiree in Christina Masciotti’s Social Security, at the Bushwick Starr Feb. 25 – Mar. 14, the first entry point was speech patterns.

Masciotti’s play, which is being co-presented by the Bushwick Starr and terraNOVA Collective, follows June Willitz, a retired pretzel factor worker who has recently lost her husband, and the character is based on Masciotti’s real-life neighbor in Reading, Pennsylvania. “Christina gave me voice recordings of the woman whom June is based on,” says Dement. “It was so intense. She’s deaf, she has no teeth, she has a Pennsylvania Dutch accent, and she’s 80!”

Any one of the vocal traits would be hard to capture, but all four proved nearly impossible, especially in terms of sustainability for a theatrical environment. Nevertheless, Dement initially found “mimickry was the only way in.” Over time, she shifted her character’s voice so that it is supported and healthy for performance, but the residual effect of those early imitations remain.

Another huge element for bringing June to life has been exploring her physicality. “That’s the part that comes most naturally to me,” says Dement, who is a trained dancer and choreographer.

Since June is an octogenarian, Dement describes creating her physicality as “a stripping away of movement.” Even though June doesn’t leap across the stage, Dement has considered “how her joints would feel, how she sits, what her posture is like, and where her injuries are.” Capturing the right physicality is an ongoing process. “Sometimes I catch myself turning my head too quickly,” the actress says. “It’s not that June doesn’t have energy. It’s that it doesn’t get out of the body in the way I know. There’s something about stillness that we don’t have, as younger people.” [Read more →]

February 26, 2015   1 Comment

When She Lectures, You Laugh

Mary Louise Wilson in On the Twentieth Century

Mary Louise Wilson in On the Twentieth Century

Broadway veteran Mary Louise Wilson breaks the fourth wall and brings down the house in On the Twentieth Century

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

When Mary Louise Wilson urges the audience to “Repent, repent, repent!” in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of the screwball musical comedy On the Twentieth Century, everyone bursts out laughing. That’s because her character, a seemingly sweet little old heiress, Letitia Peabody Primrose, lets us in on some secrets, including the fact that she, too, was once a hellion. As she sings, “Until one night I saw the light, and heard salvation’s call. I’m so glad I didn’t hear it, until I’d done it all!”

That last Betty Comden and Adolph Green lyric could also apply to Wilson herself. Born in 1932, approximately the same year On the Twentieth Century is set, she’s made her living as a character actress for more than 50 years, earning an Obie as fashion icon Diana Vreeland in the solo show Full Gallop (which Wilson also cowrote) and a Tony as bedridden eccentric Big Edie in the musical Grey Gardens. But 2015 may be her busiest year yet: In addition to performing on Broadway, she’s releasing a memoir, My First Hundred Years in Show Business, and is the focus of the documentary She’s the Best Thing In It, which is currently making the film festival rounds. It’s no wonder she slept through our original morning interview time.

“Once I get home after the show at 11pm, I can’t go to sleep before 2am!” she explains. “We’re all exhausted doing eight shows a week. For any actor it’s a killer. It’s very, very hard to keep the joie de vivre all the way through.” Of course, that becomes even more difficult as one gets older. Yet Wilson isn’t one to let her age get in the way of working—when asked if she’ll ever retire, she jokes, “Lust doesn’t die; neither does the wish to perform!” Still, she admits she initially had qualms about taking on Letitia. “Imogene Coca, who did the role originally, was a soprano, so I thought, ‘How the hell am I going to hit the high notes?’” she remembers. “I’m like a baritone normally. But the musical director, Kevin Stites, helped me to vocalize and enlarged my range. I also told Scott [Ellis, the director], ‘I don’t think I can do the matinees.’ And he said, ‘Yes, you can. We’re going to have a little chair to sit in here, a little chair to sit in there.’ He had faith I could do it. I did get on the treadmill more. And I started learning my big song ["Repent"] way before rehearsals began because my memory isn’t as quick as it used to be. But I seem to be fine, knock wood.” [Read more →]

February 25, 2015   No Comments

Your Off-Off Broadway Spring preview


A taste of the hundreds of productions arriving this spring

As the snow melts on the streets of New York, we’ll have easy access to hundreds of productions aimed at every imaginable audience member, all delivered by New York’s adventurous Off-Off Broadway artists.

There’s no shortage of audacious and affordable fare, and TDF’s Off-Off @ $9 program offers tickets daily for an eclectic variety of work. Below you’ll find a small sample of what’s available. Keep checking Off-Off @ $9 listings to see what else the Off-Off community has to offer.

Bold New Works

There’s always something fresh and off-beat at the historic La Mama, and this season won’t disappoint. Check out Noodles Astray, a comedy using puppets, sinew, and video to create a world held in the littlest hands; or Judgment on a Gray Beach, created by Teatro Dramma and written and directed by Elia Schneider, known for hauntingly visual productions that transcend language with strong imagery and a dreamlike fresco of movement and design.

You’ll find an eclectic mix of styles presented at Theater For the New City. Look for Rosario and the Gypsies, a celebration of anger, rebellion, truth, and the power of art, rocking out to an acoustic band and songs that are a combination of street pop and 60′s-70′s rock. For the kids there’s The Magic Garden, or The Princess Who Grew Antlers, an ensemble creation cheerfully concocted from Czech fairy tales. Exploring the intricacies of inner-city violence is When Black Boys Die, a drama surrounding a teenage girl’s journey as she tries to understand the madness of gun violence. And for lighter fare, there’s Under the Knife: A Farce, from the brain of Peter Zachari, who brought you last season’s hit Parker & Dizzy’s Fabulous Journey to the End of the Rainbow.

For Brooklynites, terraNOVA Collective and the Obie-winning Bushwick Starr present Social Security, the comedic journey of June, a retired pretzel factory worker who finds herself deaf after forty years with machines, not to mention widowed and stranded in the urban muck of Reading, PA.

At Dixon Place, catch The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. Written and performed by James Lecesne (and adapted from his YA novel), this solo show follows various characters in a Jersey shore town as they struggle to understand what happened to 14-year-old Leonard Pelkey. Lecesne is co-founder of The Trevor Project, the only national crisis intervention and suicide prevention lifeline for LGBT and Questioning youth; he wrote the screenplay for the Academy Award-winning short film Trevor, which inspired the founding of the organization.

And finally, what better way to celebrate the season than with a Spring Fling? Back for a fifth time from F*It Club, this New York Innovative Theatre award-winning collection of world-premiere plays returns with six brand new commissioned selections, this year on the theme of “Anniversary.” (Look for it at the IRT Theater.) [Read more →]

February 24, 2015   No Comments

WATCH: Meet Lesser America

Welcome to Meet the Theatre, our film series about interesting theatre companies in New York City! Today we’re featuring Lesser America, which celebrates the USA’s cultural underbelly.

This video features Lesser America’s co-founders — Laura Ramadei, Nate Miller, and Daniel Abeles.

Watch the other Meet the Theatre films.

This film was written and directed by Mark Blankenship, TDF’s online content editor. It was shot and edited by Nicholas Guldner.


February 23, 2015   No Comments