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Making a Joyful Political Noise

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir

Whether protesting climate change, racial injustice. or overconsumption, Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping do it in glorious song

It’s going to be a very busy Thanksgiving weekend for the Talen family. For the holiday, Bill Talen, better known as political performance artivist Reverend Billy; his partner and longtime director, Savitri D; their young daughter Lena; and their Stop Shopping Choir are heading to Saint Louis, Missouri to enjoy an organic Thanksgiving feast on the lawn of the world’s largest biotechnology seed company, Monsanto. Afterward, they’ll bring food to nearby Ferguson activists, who have been protesting nonstop since a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the August shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown. Then it’s back to their home base of New York City on Sunday, where this self-described “radical performance community” continues their five Sunday Joe’s Pub holiday run of Monsanto Is the Devil, equal parts evangelical church service parody, musical extravaganza, town hall meeting, and call to action.

While those may sound like independent events, Reverend Billy sees a very clear through line. Although the Church of Stop Shopping’s original focus was counteracting rabid consumerism, Reverend Billy and his cohorts have spent the past year using their unique brand of musical activism to spotlight corporations’ insidious role in climate change, including a 15-minute protest/performance at a Manhattan JPMorgan Chase bank last fall that got the reverend arrested, not to mention lots of international media attention. To Reverend Billy, all of these happenings are theatre, whether they’re taking place on a stage, out on the street, or in the aisles of Walmart, and it’s a compelling way to bring the group’s message to the people. I talked with Reverend Billy and  Savitri D about connecting various sociopolitical dots, how they come up with their shows, and what they hope audiences take away from the experience.

Raven Snook: Consumerism used to be the Church of Stop Shopping’s core issue, but you’ve been very concerned with the environment of late. How did you segue from one to the other?

Reverend Billy: We didn’t! Consumption is among the primary causes of climate change: consumption of energy, consumption of fossil fuels that become products, etc. I would say that [the Church of Stop Shopping's] turn toward this end of the spectrum, concentrating on environmental issues, began in about 2005 around Hurricane Katrina. But we’ll always continue with our main mission. When we’re down in Ferguson, it will be Buy Nothing Day [a.k.a. Black Friday]. So we’re going to have to buy everything ahead of time and make sure we don’t break the boycott. These issues are never separate. Everything is connected.

Savitri D: We try to be current with what’s going on right now and still address our core issues. Consumerism hasn’t gone away. Americans and people in other countries are consuming as much as ever. The crisis has escalated in such a way that we have to tackle things more directly. There’s a larger issue they fall into: citizenship. The fact that there’s police violence in our city, that we’re still blowing up mountains in West Virginia, these things are connected by our not being able to respond through the normal democratic process. We are addressing climate change very directly now and we have in our shows for the past couple of years. In a broader sense, we’re trying to activate people. Don’t let this be normal! It’s not normal to just turn away from police violence, to accept mountains being blown up, so we’re trying to de-normalize those kinds of things. The problem right now for most people is not a lack of information. We all know about climate change, so that isn’t the focus of our work as activists. We want to inspire people to take risks in their lives, to change their lives and the lives of people around them.

RS: So you’re trying to find the intersection of art and action.

RB: Well, action is theatrical. Action is anticipated, framed, and packaged, but it’s hard to make one that people notice. I think the challenge of our time is how do we break not the fourth wall, but the 400th wall? We’re all dazzled in a hall of mirrors. This modern information age is making us passive and we don’t know where to look. So when something like Ferguson happens, when a bunch of teenagers in a little part of Missouri that nobody’s ever heard of rise up and say no and break that 400th wall and everybody looks over at them, they are theatrical. We went [to Ferguson] back in October on Moral Monday and now we’re going again. It’s the same feeling I had when we went to the Wisconsin protests in 2011. Our daughter, Lena, was six months old, and we held her up in the roar of people who had taken over the state capitol. That first day in Zuccotti Park: it was theatre, and I was floating on air. We look for it now, where is this kind of activist theatre taking place? The anti-war march in Moscow, the protests in Burma, the students down in Chile who did that massive “Thriller” dance. The activists of today have to find a way to break the wall. We have an imperative. We’re not sure the life systems of the earth will continue. Scientists are telling us we’re in trouble. 2030, 2050 2070, choose your apocalypse. Right now we’ve got a tremendous requirement as activists to run down the middle of the street and be planet criers.

RS: It’s one thing when audiences come to see you in a theatre and pay for tickets. But when you’re performing outside of a traditional setting, what kinds of reactions do you get from viewers?

SD: We’ve had people join the choir from the street! One Buy Nothing Day, we had a guy get off a public bus and walk back two blocks to join us—that’s one end of the spectrum. The other is extreme defensiveness of hyper-consumerism. We get where that comes from. Brand loyalty is deeply ingrained in the spirit of the American people. The response we always hope for is to open someone’s mind. In NYC, there’s an expectation of street magic. In other places, people are surprised, not just at our message but that we’re good at what we’re doing. We use our chops to open up doors. Of course, delivering any message in a public space is upsetting to some people, never mind what the message is. We’ve been mistaken for an actual Christian choir with people saying, “Don’t talk to me!”

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November 26, 2014   No Comments

Why Alessandro Nivola Loves “The Elephant Man”

Alessandro Nivola in The Elephant Man

Alessandro Nivola in The Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper wasn’t the only actor obsessed with bringing the Williamstown Theatre Festival revival to Broadway

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

When director Scott Ellis called Alessandro Nivola back in 2012 about playing the part of moralistic Victorian doctor Frederick Treves in a mounting of The Elephant Man at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the actor knew he couldn’t say no. After all, his old friend Ellis was responsible for his entire career in the theatre and beyond. “It’s true!” Nivola insists. “In 1995, Scott cast me in a revival of A Month in the Country opposite Helen Mirren. I was just one year out of college and that play was not only my Broadway debut but my first show in NYC. It was entirely because of that exposure that all the other opportunities came.”

In fact, so many Hollywood offers flooded in that Nivola’s stage career was immediately sidetracked. Although he and Ellis attempted to work together many times over the years, their schedules never aligned… not even for The Elephant Man. “I was filming a movie [Devil’s Knot] in Atlanta at the same time as rehearsals,” Nivola recalls. “I had to fly to and from Williamstown three times if that gives you any indication of my level of commitment. There was no way I wasn’t going to do this thing.”

The life of Joseph Merrick, a real 19th-century Englishman afflicted with mysterious deformities who was treated and befriended by Dr. Treves, seems to have a compelling effect on actors. Nivola’s costar, Bradley Cooper, who plays the title character, recently revealed that David Lynch’s movie The Elephant Man is what inspired him to become an actor. And when he discovered Bernard Pomerance’s Tony-winning play of the same name, he did it for his grad school thesis.

Nivola, similarly, was introduced to Merrick’s story through the film, but he was pleasantly surprised when he realized the movie and the play were completely different. “I remember loving The Elephant Man but it was so filmic, especially Dr. Treves, who was played by Anthony Hopkins,” he says. “The character was fascinating but so understated. I couldn’t imagine how it would translate into a great theatre role. And then I read the play and was struck by Treves’ main arc. He goes from having supreme confidence and conviction in his own beliefs and the cultural values of the time and place to just total loss of faith and self-loathing. There are hints of that in the film but nothing like what plays out onstage. I saw it as a huge opportunity.”

Thanks in part to Cooper’s movie star cred, The Elephant Man was an insanely hot ticket at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, so a Broadway transfer seemed like a no-brainer, especially since the lead actors and director all wanted to do it. It was just a question of juggling everyone’s commitments, which wasn’t easy. As Nivola explains, “We were supposed to do it last fall so I had blocked out that time but when it fell through, that’s how I ended up doing The Winslow Boy,” which was produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, where Ellis is associate artistic director (yup, him again).
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November 20, 2014   No Comments

90 One-Person Shows, Three Days, Countless Laughs

Peter Michael Martino, co-founder of Solocom at The PIT

Peter Michael Martino, co-founder of SOLOCOM at The PIT

How writer/performer Peter Michael Marino’s biggest professional failure led to the founding of SOLOCOM.

When Peter Michael Marino‘s splashy West End musicalization of Desperately Seeking Susan opened to scathing reviews in 2007 and closed a month later, the performer/writer/director thought his entertainment career was over. But after emerging from a year-long depression, he developed the no-holds-barred one-man comedy, Desperately Seeking the Exit, about the harrowing experience, which toured for two years to three continents and turned him into a solo show guru. After directing dozens of one-person pieces and teaching solo theatre classes at The Peoples Improv Theater, Marino and Toby Knops cofounded SOLOCOM, NYC’s only solo theatre festival dedicated to brand-new comedic shows.

For its second year, SOLOCOM expands from two nights to three, and 60 shows to 90, each presented for one performance only at The PIT. (The shows play this weekend, November 14-16.) In between producing 89 shows, and writing and starring in his own new one, Marino chatted about the differences between stand-up and solo theatre, the rewards of taking a chance on untested material, and the SOLOCOM entries he thinks could have a future.

Raven Snook: So let’s start with a serious question about a comedy theatre festival: How and why did SOLOCOM come about?

Peter Michael Marino: As someone who works almost exclusively in the solo show genre, I was seeing a lot of solo theatre festivals in NYC that didn’t have much comedy in them. The United Solo Festival, the All For One Festival, the Sola Voce arm of the EstroGenius Festival, they’re all great but comedy isn’t their thing. While teaching my Flying Solo classes at The PIT, when I added the words “funny stuff” to the description, I suddenly got all these people who wanted to take their unhappy childhoods, battles with various diseases, coming out of the closet stories, all of those clichés we tend to see in solo shows, and find a way to make them funny. I thought if I created a festival that was about presenting only comedic solo shows, it might change the way people view the genre.

Raven: And how do you think the general public sees solo shows? As these dire, depressing performances or Karen Finley covered with yams? [Read more →]

November 10, 2014   No Comments

The Rhythm of Grief

The cast of brownsville song

The cast of brownsville song

Playwright Kimber Lee asks audiences to mourn for a murdered up-and-comer in brownsville song

Though not a tuner, brownsville song (b-side for tray) has a musical sensibility. Hip-hop frequently blares from the speakers, and the characters deliver impassioned speeches that often sound more like lyrics than lines. In fact, the searing soliloquy that opens Kimber Lee’s new drama at LCT3′s Claire Tow Theater features a chilling sort of refrain, as a grief-stricken grandmother who recently lost her grandson to a senseless street shooting defiantly repeats, “He was not!” over and over and over again.

“I was actually supposed to be working on something else at the time and that first monologue just came pouring out of me,” remembers Lee. An amateur boxer just like Tray, brownsville song‘s promising but ill-fated 18-year-old protagonist, Lee was inspired to write the show after reading a blog post by a fellow female pugilist. “She was coaching at one of the gyms owned by Teddy Atlas, who’s a pretty famous boxing trainer,” she says. “It was out in East Flatbush in Brooklyn, and they lost one of their kids to violence. He was a rising boxer and getting ready to go to college in the fall and had won a scholarship from a local community organization. Even though I didn’t know him, I couldn’t stop thinking about his family and what they were going through.”

Despite similarities between the real-life victim and the character of Tray, the family at the heart of brownsville song is purely fictional. But in a country where the murder rate for African-Americans is four times the national average, Lee believes the play reflects a grim reality, one that should make citizens sit up and take notice. “There are young black men dying every day in struggling neighborhoods,” says Lee. “We all get news of horrible things like this but they’re in our consciousness and in the news for a very short amount of time before we move on to the next thing.” And yet this tragedy got stuck in Lee’s head—almost like a song. “There was something about this story I couldn’t shake. It just kept coming back. I felt very helpless but I thought letting it drop would be an admission that it didn’t matter… but it mattered to me.”
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October 28, 2014   1 Comment

Debt-setting Around the Country

Ben Rimalower in Bad with Money

Ben Rimalower in Bad with Money

Solo artist Ben Rimalower uses his lifelong financial problems for laughs and insight in Bad with Money

In the age of oversharing in life and online, it’s not surprising that many autobiographical solo shows take a no-holds-barred approach. Yet while there are countless one-person pieces about a writer/performer’s struggles with sex, substance abuse, food, or alcohol, there’s one major issue that’s rarely explored: crippling debt. Now chronic confessionalist Ben Rimalower is breaking that taboo by putting his overspending issues in the spotlight in his new solo show Bad with Money.

Best known for his hit 2012 solo play Patti Issues—about his complicated relationships with his gay father and two-time Tony Award-winner Patti LuPone—Bad with Money has a similar, casually comedic vibe with super-serious undertones. Born with what he calls an “addiction to more,” the charming chatterbox admits to some astonishingly reckless behavior in his quest to acquire, including borrowing, embezzling, and even prostitution. Though he had no personal qualms about divulging his unsavory secrets—”I’m really into exposing my garbage to the world in an almost compulsive way,” he says—he was concerned about tackling an ongoing problem. “Everything I talked about in Patti Issues had been resolved in my life,” he explains. “I felt a safe distance from all that strife. In Bad with Money I don’t at all; I’m still in the throes of it. In a way that’s the point of the show, that money issues are tough to fix, but I wanted to make sure I gave the audience a sense of a journey with an ending of some sort.”

Bad with Money, which performs at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre, actually grew out of Patti Issues. “At one point while developing the first show, I was calling it Patti/Daddy/Money because there was a lot of financial stuff in there,” he remembers. “But as I worked on it, I realized that wasn’t what that show was about, and I was left with all this writing about money. Aaron [Mark, the director of both shows] kept asking, ‘So when are we going to do the ‘money show’?”

As Rimalower began working on Bad with Money in earnest, he felt the need to try to contact some of the folks who were negatively impacted by his behavior—especially the ones name-checked in the show. “I know some of the edgier stuff might be difficult for my family and close friends and people I had financial dealings with,” he says. “I’ve tried to do it in a way that feels respectful of their privacy. It’s been stressful figuring out how to navigate all that in the most conscientious moral way, but also making sure I was writing the show I wanted.”
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October 14, 2014   No Comments