What’s it like to be in recovery? And, more importantly, what are the unique experiences of being a woman in recovery? Hope is here to tell you. And she brought a few friends. Tara Handron, the playwright and sole actor of her one-woman show, “Drunk with Hope,” which runs for five performances at The Unified Scene Theater, discards clichéd depictions of recovery and relies on stories with depth, poignancy, and humor to expose the raw emotions and experiences so many alcoholic women face. Tara portrays a woman named Hope, as well as many other female alcoholics (twelve, total: some sober, some not-so-sober) of various ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds. At times poignant, at times dark, but at all times (darkly and lightly) comic, Tara’s exploration of the numerous personalities and experiences faced by women in recovery will leave you both gut-punched and laughing, and, of course, filled with hope. In a five-performance run that evolved out of Tara’s master’s thesis research of female recovering alcoholics, comparing their experiences in traditional face-to-face 12 Step recovery meetings to online meetings, the play is a fictional compilation of many women’s stories along with her observations, experiences, and imagination. After premiering at Georgetown University in April 2008, she later produced “Drunk With Hope” at H St Playhouse in Washington, DC in February 2009 and in 2014 in Bethesda, MD at the Round House Theatre for a special one-night engagement. Since then, Tara has performed her play has been performed in a variety of cities and venues including festivals, recovery-related events, conferences, treatment centers, and jails (yep: jails!). We at The Unified Scene Theater are proud to bring her amazing show to our space. And we recently sat down with her to talk in greater detail about how she works, misconceptions about women in recovery, and how “Drunk With Hope” has evolved over the years:
TUS: What prompted you to create this extraordinary play?
Tara: It was 2007 and from what I could see the portrayals of people in active alcoholism and addiction as well as those of people in recovery were very limited and one dimensional. I had a very strong desire to create a piece that would more accurately demonstrate the diversity, complexities, and nuances of living in addiction and in recovery. I also wanted to honor the journey of the person in recovery or trying to recover.
TUS: You know that The Unified Scene Theater prizes improvisation and improvisational comedy, and that you yourself were trained at Second City. How much did your improv training play a part in the creation of the role? And, have you or do you find yourself making choices “in the moment” while performing “Drunk with Hope?”
Tara: My improv training played an essential part in my play’s creation and development. Ann Libera, a longtime member and instructor at Second City, said to us on the first day, “This work will change you.” And it definitely did. It changed me personally, creatively, and how I approach my performing. I would improvise by myself as I created characters. I also relied on my training for moments when I went up on a line. I had close to 20 pages of monologues to learn and memorize so improv helped me to not freak out is I missed a line. In the moment, while performing, I have discovered totally new stuff depending on the space and the audience. All those little catalysts would have been wasted had I not studied improv. Also, improv gets me out of myself which is so important for a solo performer and a person in recovery. Self-centeredness can take over very easily!
TUS: What are some of the misconceptions people about addiction and recovery in general? And about women in recovery in particular?
Tara: Well, I think one misconception about people with this illness is that everyone drank a ton, all the time, every day and then they ended up homeless on the street. That might be the case for some people but certainly not everyone. There are many different shades and manifestations of this illness. I think there might be a misconception that recovery means you are actively struggling day in and day out to not take a drink, that any little problem or crisis will send a recovering person back to a drink or drug. Sometimes we do struggle with life, just like any human being, but recovery means freedom and means we have a chance to really live life and do awesome things without the shackles of drugs and alcohol. I can’t think of misconception specific to women in recovery but I can say it annoys me when the misconception that all alcoholic women are super promiscuous is perpetuated. Sometimes that happens, but not always!
TUS: You play so many different characters in this play. How do you approach the creation of a character? From the outside in? With a voice, gesture, a way of moving or a verbal-tic, etc? Or from the inside-out? From how that character sees the world?
Tara: In the case of this show and because it is so character driven and research based, I used a variety of ways to discover and create my characters. In some cases, the character was based on a woman’s traumatic experience, sometimes that woman was a dear friend of mine, and in that case those intense emotions started my journey creating that character. In other cases, like a charter I based on a woman I met in a detox center, her body language and her speech patterns were how I developed that character and worked from the outside in. I have acting training in multiple approaches so I use what feels right at as I am working.
TUS: This isn’t the first time you’ve performed this production over the last couple of years. What are the ways in which you’ve transformed it? Meaning: will those who might have seen it before here in the DC area discover something new?
Tara: Gosh, there are many ways I have changed the show since its first production. I would say overall it is tighter. I perform it regularly at places like the Kolmac Clinic in Washington, DC and so I get opportunities often to observe how my play is being received. I have taken out all the technology I was using to show what online meetings look like. Some characters stories have morphed sometimes because it is based on a real person and that person has evolved and so I felt compelled for their character to evolve. Depending on when a person first saw my show, they will see new characters this time. And lastly, I am very aware of what the addiction/recovery landscape looks like now versus when I first wrote this. This is subject is still incredibly relevant, and will be for a very long time in my opinion, while at the same time the world has changed and I have changed and therefore my play, in some ways, needs to change too. And that again is where the improv comes in.
“Drunk With Hope” runs for five performances at The Unified Scene Theater (80 T Street NW):
We at The Unified Scene Theater have simply run out of superlatives to describe the brilliance that is VI Lenin. They are slow, patient, intelligent, and stunningly, arrestingly funny. Their chemistry is palpable and apparent whenever they take the stage: three improvisational actors — Joe Uchno, Rich Nyman, and Nick Murawski — seemingly uncanny in their ability to sense the others, the perfect moment to heighten, raise the stakes, and bring their improv scenes and structures to completion in a way that’s so comedically satisfying you’ll wonder whether it was scripted. And, of course, it isn’t. We’ve said this before, and not because they’re a TUS House Troupe : VI Lenin is, quite simply, the best improv troupe in DC, bar none. We sat down with them for a quick chat.
TUS: How did you all get together? Where/how did you meet, etc. And, more importantly, what do you think contributes to your obvious group chemistry?
Joe: Rich and I met a while back when I got into JINX, a WIT troupe which he was already a part of. That was maybe 2006. I met Nick when the three of us were all in The Haddington Club together in early 2015, a group assembled by Pete Bergen. During rehearsals for that group the three of us hit it off. Rich and I had been kicking around an idea about a certain type of show that we were interested in — a slower paced, discovery-reliant kind of show. We roped Nick into that and it became VI Lenin. It just seems like the three of us have very similar approaches to improv. Whenever we talk about something it ends up that we’re all trying to say basically the same thing. In one of the first rehearsals we talked about what kind of improv we wanted to do. Then we did a few scenes and were like “Yep, let’s do that.” We each have a lot of experience but I think we’re all open enough to benefit from each other’s approach especially where we differ a little.
Rich: What Joe said. We have a common style that we aim for, and we generally enjoy each other’s company. Except for Nick. Neither Joe or I really like Nick.
TUS: We’ve described your style as “patient, but not slow” (we’re trademarking that, so don’t even thing about it). Is this a conscious stylistic choice? A reaction to game-focused “edit-and-heighten” UCB-style so prevalent in improv these days? Or just something you all naturally gravitate to?
Joe: I think it is a conscious choice on my part, at least. I like a lot of different kinds of improv from the breakneck pace to the more slice of life, monoscene stuff. So doing the kind of show we do, which is rooted in patience and discovery at the top of the show, was something I actively wanted to experiment with more. I think that collectively we liked the idea of starting in the middle of something and discovering what the show will be about as opposed to starting with a premise and trying to heighten it to the extreme. I think we enjoy the comedy found in the subtleties of personal interactions. The payoff can be bigger if you start out patiently and make discoveries along with the audience
Rich: It’s definitely style I choose to pursue and one that I did not start out gravitating towards. I like to do big characters and accents, and those still are a part of our shows, but we like to more than anything play slow and take our time so nothing gets dropped. It might feel like super-realism but that’s almost a side-effect of just taking everything in and as Joe says really discovering what we have already given ourselves. That is when I feel like I connect most with the audience, when I look around at the things that are happening, pick them up, bat them around, and honor the fact that they only exist because we are all there in that moment. We do speed up and play big and wild, we just try to always try to maintain that philosophy. (at least its in ethos).
Nick: For me, it is definitely a conscious choice AND it’s a style I naturally gravitate toward. I would much prefer to rip as much as possible from a scene and truly respond to what is being done or said then to cut a scene early because of a laugh. It’s quality vs. quantity.
TUS: What advice would you give the new student just starting out, besides the obvious principles every new student learns in an intro class? Meaning: what is/are some of the most important lessons you learned in improv that you *didn’t* learn in class?
Joe: Watch improv. Maybe that is part of what is said in an intro class but it’s the most important thing. Nobody can verbally tell you what improv is with any degree of completeness. There is no substitute for seeing improv performed if you want to do it. Something else I’m big on is that improv never has to be bad. Of course some shows are better than others and any group can have a bad show. But bad shows are not a necessary result of the fact that you’re doing improv. Bad improv is a result of doing improv poorly. If you’re not happy with what you’re doing in class or rehearsal or in shows just realize that, yes, literally anyone can do improv but if you want to do the best improv you can do, you have to work at it. And if you do work at it, there can be huge improvements in your game.
Rich: Take note of scenes in life and on stage/screen for things you can take with you to improv. The difference between a well-acted scene in a movie and improv is nothing. Slimming that difference down to nothing is the trick. Take note of how different scenes in movies start — is someone talking off-stage, on a radio, telling a story? Where are the characters located in relation to each other? Do any of them leave the scene? How/when do they come back. Taking note of those things, establishing some patterns and adding that to the group’s vocabulary can add some momentum to the work you’re doing.
Nick: See as much improv as possible. I think it’s also important to see different improv… different styles, forms, etc. If you can’t get out to a theater to see quality groups perform (which is a shame)… read about it, watch clips on the ‘ol computer and listen to podcasts. Immerse yourself.
TUS: Two of you have been on DC’s improv scene a long time. What are your thoughts regarding the scene today? What are its benefits? It’s drawbacks? What would you change, if you could?
Joe: Oh man. I have many opinions that run the gamut but the most common thought I have about improv in DC is that there is a lot of excitement and investment by people in the improv community here. And that’s unequivocally good and something that you can’t fabricate if it doesn’t happen organically.
Among the benefits are a lot of opportunities for stage time. Between the established theaters in town and the indie scene producing shows at bars and theater venues there are many shows to see and many opportunities to perform. There are almost 1,500 members of the DC Indie Improv Facebook page. That is insane. I think improv in DC is done by a lot of people who do not self-identify as comedians or actors. People come to DC for different reasons and they become improvisers once they experience the scene here and get hooked. If you go somewhere else (NY, LA or Chicago) the people doing improv there are often people who went to those places to pursue comedy or acting in some way. So I think the improv scene in DC benefits from the different experiences and perspectives offered by those who perform it here. The drawbacks are unfortunately the same as the benefits. In DC there isn’t the same competition for relatively few coveted performance spots that you see in other cities. So people get to perform shows earlier on in their improv career, which is great for getting better, but may not present the same level of quality to that particular audience. Everyone gets better as they gain experience. But in a lot of places that experience is gained in practice groups and in auditions, etc. before getting actual stage time. It can be a lot of work to sell enough tickets to fill up even some of the smaller venues in DC. I think that is partly because the people interested in improv here have full lives with time-consuming jobs, families and other hobbies. Like I said, in some other places the improv community is made up of people who have made life choices based on the pursuit of improv or comedy so they just go to shows by default. And if someone in DC who is a lawyer, or whatever, decides they actually want to pursue comedy, often times that means they move away from DC to one of the bigger comedy cities. So there is kind of a comedy brain drain that happens here. But if I’ve learned anything in the extensive amount of aging I’ve done so far, it’s that I don’t necessarily know very much. So while the scene in DC doesn’t get the respect I think it could and which I think it deserves, I guess I wouldn’t change anything because there is a good possibility that I would make it worse by mistake. And things are pretty good already.
TUS: Who are your improv comedy influences/idols/heroes? Who or what made you want to do this yourselves?
Joe: The first improv I ever saw was at the UCB Theater in New York when it was first getting going. There was a show called “Feature, Feature” which was great. They did The Movie format and used to do two shows back to back. Early Harold Teams there like Respecto Montalban, Mother, Monkey Dick and especially Optimist International got me hooked on doing improv. Other groups (which may or may not still be existence) that I think are great are: TJ and Dave, Four Square, 4Track, OneSixtyOne and The Reckoning. Those are groups that either got me excited to do improv or made me want to improve by showing me that it could be better than I thought possible.
Rich: I didn’t know what longform really was until I came to DC. OneSixtyOne and Jackie were big influences out of DC. Teachers there were great, Patrick Gantz made a big impression and told me about TJ & Dave and I’ve been hooked on them ever since. ASSSCAT, Beer Shark Mice, Four Square, Cook County Social Club, Dasariski, Rare Bird Show, to name only a few and whole lot of shows I took in at festivals or different theaters. DC has such a great indie scene now though, I’m learning a ton taking in some of the new shows/people/formats right here in the District. It’s pretty awesome to see.
Nick: Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, TJ & Dave, Cook County Social Club, Tim O’Malley, Jet Eveleth, Mike Patrick O’Brien, Pat Reidy, Bill Murray
TUS: What are your thoughts about having found a home at TUS? What is it about the space, or its community, that makes it unique?
Joe: Being a part of TUS is really exciting. There is an energy and vibe to the theater, the neighborhood, the audiences that makes it really fun. I like that the space is intimate and that you’re very close to the audience during a show. You can see everyone; they are close enough that you could touch them if you wanted to. It kind of keeps you honest during a show because the people you are hoping to entertain are right there and the reaction you get from them is palpable.
Rich: Loving TUS and being a part of it, and that really comes down to Shawn and Kathy. They are amazing people and their devotion to creative expression in this town is the driving force behind everything that is happening there. College nights, house troupes, avant-garde, non-avant-garde, it’s all coming online. Shawn and Kathy are really pushing the envelope in terms of what they are putting up and we are excited to be a part of their mission.
Nick: It’s very nice to have a home and a consistent place to create.
Request for Protest : Pat Bragan, Mary Canter, Scott Hopmann, Emily Markle, Brandon McTavish, and Chris Rampolla. Character-driven and full of quirk, RFP’s improv comedy shows could be compared to a string of feral ponies high-stepping across the not-so-nice-end of the beach: a little unruly and a lot of fun, even with the strong likelihood of strolling over a used syringe. Since meeting in a DC Improv class in the winter of ’15, RFP has been taking DC’s improv scene by storm, playing several of the District’s mainstay comedy stages including: The Unified Scene Theater, DC Improv, ShawnMikael(s) in CoHi (Studio 1469), Improvapalooza (Source Theater), and The DC Arts Center.
They were also present at the creation. That’s why we at The Unified Scene Theater are fond of Request for Protest, and why they were named The Unified Scene Theater’s very first house troupe. They were supporting TUS when we had barely opened our doors. They were grateful and happy to be part of our improv ecosystem. And they loved – and still love – playing here.
Of course, that’s not the only reason we love them. They’re brilliantly, hilariously funny, possessing a palpable chemistry and trust that few improv troupes ever achieve, no matter how often they rehearse or practice. That’s why they’re so much fun to watch: because they are indeed having fun, enjoying each other’s company. And that’s why their monthly show routinely sells out. We sat down with four of their members – Mary Canter, Scott Hopmann, Emily Markle, and Chris Rampolla – to get to know them better. So you could get to know them better. And you should. And you should come see them at their next show.
How did you all get together? Where/how did you meet, etc. And, more importantly, what do you think contributes to your obvious group chemistry? And that name: where’d that come from?
Mary: Most of us met in in an improve class at The DC Improv around the end of January 2015; we picked up Pat in another class not long after that. Chemistry is tough to explain. I think we all initially recognized that we were similarly weird, the same stuff made us laugh. Getting together was pretty much a no-brainer. Keeping the magic alive though, that’s the tricky part. RFP likes sensual massage and butt loads of Rose.
Emily: Mary, Brandon and I were sitting at Mackey’s one night and the name Request for Protest just came up. I honestly don’t remember what we were talking about, but it stuck. Not sure everyone was in love with it in the beginning but to me it sounds like the name of some really shitty, punk band which I think is fitting for us. Minus the shitty part.
Chris: Chemistry can’t be taught. That’s what my old Chemistry professor used to tell me. He was a terrible teacher. However, in improv, either you have it or you don’t, and we have it. As far as the name is concerned we thought, “what would be a funny name for an improv troupe,” and then we picked the opposite of that.
How would you describe your particular troupe “style” or format?
Chris: A long-form hybrid, we tend toward the absurd without prompting. Our humor can be dark, with character driven scenes that are “quirky.” We have no idea what we’re doing.
Mary: As snow, rain and wind move down across the pristine splendor of the Adirondack Mountains, so begins the transformative journey of what will become crystal clear sparkling comoedia.
Emily: We used to describe ourselves as a pack of wild ponies and I still think that fits.
Scott: Classical with a mix of Gangnam.
You’ve been to a couple of festivals now — which can sometimes get a little wild. What’s been your favorite experience so far at a festival? What’s been your favorite alcohol-influenced experience at a festival?
Emily: My favorite memory from The Charleston Comedy Festival thus far is when Scott and I, hereby referred to as the 24 year olds, were taking care of Momma and Poppa RFP members, Mary and Brandon. Those two partied like no other and at the end of the night, the 24yearolds had to tuck our lil elders into their beds. Also, Mary, who typically eats vegan fair, consumed a whole Cheesesteak.
Mary: Hoovering a chili-cheesesteak on the streets of Charleston, SC after consuming a butt-load of Rose was pretty fun.
Scott: Smoking cheap cigars with Brandon aka Mister McTavish each night in Charleston and waking up with a phlegm-based cough.
Who are your improv comedy influences/idols/heroes? Who or what made you want to do this yourselves?
Mary: Oh man, so many. I have to give props where they are due—if not for some SUPER talented folks right here in DC, I wouldn’t even have an inkling that this improv stuff was possible. I remember going to my first ShawnMikael(s) show and thinking, “Wow. I wanna do THAT. How do I do that?” And I’m continually WOWed and inspired by DC players. Also, the magic of a good show is the highest of highs–accomplishing it with people who are literally some of the funniest people you’ve ever met is such a privilege.
Rumor has it that you guys might be working on a sketch show. Is that the case? If not, what’s next for Request for Protest?
Emily: I think one of our 2016 New Years Resolutions is to get more sketches on the web and hopefully put together a sketch show. That’s definitely something we’re all interested in and we have a lot of ideas floating around just gotta hunker down and do them.
Chris: Everyone in the group is individually very funny, so there have been a lot of great ideas floating around for skits, sketches, videos, and podcasts. RFP will be branching out in some interesting directions this year, but first we need to really concentrate our efforts on just one thing at a time. This sort of sounds like we’re breaking up with you. Sorry.
What are your thoughts about having found a home at TUS? What is it about the space, or its community, that makes it unique?
Mary: Thoughts about having found a home at TUS? Allow me to share some excerpts from a team email upon being invited to join the TUS family:
“WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE OMG OMG OMG OMG SO EXCITING!”
“I’m tearing up a lil. This is awesome. We gotta celebrate!!!”
“Guys this is AMAZING.”
“I am so so proud to be in this group. You are all super talent and challenge me to be my best. I also have never had so much fun in my life.”
“WEEEEEE FK YA.”
So, yea. I’d say RFP is pleased as punch to call TUS home sweet home. We feel incredibly lucky to be supported by Uncle Shawn and Aunt Kathy. With them it’s easy to follow the fear, do more of what’s weird, chase bliss. What a special gift that is and—SECRET—they want to share it with everyone. Really. TUS rocks because Team Westfall rocks.
What are your pre-show rituals? Do you get nervous before a show?
Emily: Pre-show everyone but me will take a PSP (pre-show poop.) Then we will each chug a beer while we sing various made up songs. One of our classics is “Tell Me About Your Cousin Rumpelstiltskin.” If we don’t move forward with the sketch show, we’re definitely going to be releasing an improviser’s warm up CD so be on the lookout for that.
Some horror movies are great, some are good. And some are so bad that they result in unintended hilarity.
Jordan Hirsch likes those the best. A devoted horror movie aficianado and dedicated, talented, and brilliant improvisational comedian, Hirsch is the producer of a monthly show at The Unified Scene Theater called “Oh, The Horror!,” a show combining his two passions, improv and horror movies. When it comes to horror movies, Hirsch knows the good from the bad, and the bad from the so-downright-awful-it’s-unintentionally-hilarious. The cast of improvisational comedians in “Oh, The Horror” takes that unintentional hilarity and makes them intentionally hilarious. Throughout the show, clips selected randomly by Jordan (but not revealed to the rest of the cast until they’re shown) from some of the worst horror movies he can find are played to both the actors and the audience. After viewing, Jordan and the rest of the revolving monthly cast take the stage to finish the scenes in laugh-out-loud, improvised ways. Simply put, there’s no other show like it in the area. And again, it’s all the brainchild of Jordan Hirsch (as well as his former “Gas Station Horror” castmate J.W. Crump), who’s been studying, teaching, and performing improv since 2005. He’s a founding member of Washington Improv Theater’s JINX and iMusical, and has performed improv all over this land, including a 5-year stint in New York City. While in NYC, Jordan performed regularly at the Magnet Theater and the People’s Improv Theater, where he co-created the wildly popular “Gas Station Horror,” upon which “Oh, The Horror” is based. The Unified Scene Theater sat down with Jordan to chat him about the origins of the show, and about what is it that makes a horror movie so bad that it’s, well, actually good.
The Unified Scene: Tell me briefly about the history of “Oh, The Horror!” What were the show’s origins?
Jordan: When I was living in NYC, former DC improv scene mainstay were J.W. Crump and I were talking one night about our mutual love of bad horror movies. Not long after that, I happened to stop at a gas station just off I-95 during a road trip where I purchased a 4-DVD pack called “Backwoods Butchers.” Given the price point of $2.99, you can imagine the quality of these films. So of course I called up J.W. when I got home and said “we’ve gotta hang out and watch these together.” After our movie night, J.W. reached out with the idea of doing an improv show based on these “films.” The idea was simple but powerful: we’d show short clips of the non-horror part of the movie (think teenagers packing up the car to go on their doomed camping trip), then have improvisers take the stage to finish the scenes in new and hilarious ways. Naming it “Gas Station Horror,” we debuted a few weeks later – thanks to J.W.’s persistence and hard work – at the People’s Improv Theater (PIT) in New York City. Over time, the show grew in audience and quality, as we nailed down the core of our rotating cast and discovered what worked best in our format. Gas Station Horror is still going strong with a monthly slot at the PIT, and has received tons of great press since its inception.
Sadly, I had to leave the show behind when my family and I moved to Washington, DC in the summer of 2015. Once I got my feet under me in DC, I realized how much I missed the show – and I decided to take advantage of the incredible wealth of improv talent in this city to launch a new version of it for a new city. I started making clips, reached out to some of DC’s best improvisers, and Oh, The Horror! was born.
The Unified Scene: You’ve a bit of a horror movie buff — not surprising, since you helped create this show. Give us a couple of your favorite “bad” horror movies — the ones we can’t help but laugh at even as they’re trying to scare us. And your top three actual greatest?
Jordan: My all-time favorite bad horror movie is definitely Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 masterpiece, Basket Case. It’s the touching story of a young man making his way in the big city, armed with nothing but optimism and a picnic basket containing his hideously deformed, homicidal twin brother with whom he shares a psychic link. Other favorites include C.H.U.D. (1984), featuring a young John Goodman and exploring the nuclear mutants populating New York City’s subway system, and the original Silent Night, Deadly Night (also 1984), which opened the same day as Nightmare On Elm Street but was pulled from theaters a week after its release due to its “unsavory” depiction of Santa Claus as a homicidal maniac. Go figure.
Top three greatest? Not an easy question, but: Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), Evil Dead (1981), and Martyrs (2008). Oof, Martyrs. That’s a tough one to watch.
The Unified Scene: You were already a veteran of DC’s improv scene when you moved to NYC and became involved in improv there, gravitating between a number of theaters. What do you think the main differences are between DC’s scene and NYC’s? How has DC’s changed since you’ve returned?
Jordan: Both scenes are jam-packed with talented players, coaches, producers, and more. The biggest difference is the size: NYC has 3 major improv theaters, several up-and-coming ones, and more indie teams and venues than anyone could reasonably keep track of. When I moved to NYC in 2009, I was shocked at how big the scene was based on what I was used to back home. Upon my return to DC in 2015, I was shocked again – this time at how much the scene had grown here in DC. Not only were there more groups, more players, and more dedicated venues, but the overall quality of shows had gone up, up, up. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of talented players whom I’d never seen before who have agreed to be a part of this show and are making it consistently hilarious.
Another difference is that in NY, most people you play with are looking to go pro. It’s a tough town in which to be a hobbyist with a day job. The way that difference manifests here in DC is that here, this is our fun time – we’re not doing this to get discovered, we’re doing it for the love of the game. So I’ve found that people here tend to put more of an emphasis on having fun, and are more invested in something if they’re having a good time doing it, as opposed to how “far” it might take them (which is not a knock on the NY scene, it’s just different!).
The Unified Scene: You have a revolving cast of talented performers. Did you go looking specifically for performers who share your passion for horror movies? If not, besides talent, what do you think was the key component for rounding out the OTH Repertory players?
Jordan: A passion for horror movies is ideal, but is also surprisingly hard to come by, at least so far. So instead what I’m looking for when I cast the show is talent and diversity. It’s a particular kind of show – essentially a unique short-form game exploded into a long-form format, and it takes a certain kind of player to make it work. You need a good sense of short-term gameplay coupled with an eye for what’s going to be a great callback in 25 minutes. Diversity is something I’m striving towards as well – I’d like the cast to feature improvisers of all colors, genders, shapes, and sizes.
The Unified Scene: What are your thoughts about having found a home at TUS? What is it about the space, or its community, that makes it unique?
Jordan: I am thrilled to have found a home at The Unified Scene. This is a new show in DC, and it’s not your typical improv show. It has multimedia, short-form and long-form elements, a DVD giveaway, and a midnight movie vibe, so it makes sense to me that it’s at a space like TUS that doesn’t feel like other spaces. The place hosts a range of improv and comedy shows as well as showcasing local artists and more, and the layout gives the show an intimacy that’s just right – it feels like huddling up on your couch with the lights out to watch something scary…and hilarious.
The Unified Scene: What if I don’t like scary movies? Will I like this show?
Jordan: Yes! We don’t show the gory or scary parts of the movies, we show parts that showcase the incredibly poor writing, acting, lighting, production, sound, and overall filmmaking that you tend to find in low-budget (and even some high-budget!) horror movies. That said, if you’re a fan of horror, you will like this show – yes, we’re making fun of these movies, but the guiding force behind this show (me) is a genuine fan, who has whiled away many an evening taking in some piece of crap or other – and always coming back for more. The humor comes just as much from a real love of this stuff as it does from recognizing – and playing with – the material’s shortcomings.
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“A girl, a diva and a mother are trapped in a world without voice or color. In this clown-noir piece they are forced to confront their insecurities as well as the expectations and boundaries society places on women.”
That’s the premise that informs “Silent Reflections,” the latest show being brought to you by Women From Mars and The Unified Scene Theater next week for two performances only (Tuesday January 12th and Wednesday January 13th), the first “scripted” production ever mounted at The Unified Scene Theater. But this description doesn’t really do justice to all the theatricality Women From Mars has managed to cram into their 45-minute show. Combining physical theatre techniques, animation, projections, comedy, modern dance, music and drama “Silent Reflections” is a fast-paced, take-no-prisoners multi-media exploration exposing the inherent struggles in three stages of womanhood. In addition, the production is written, staged, directed, and acted entirely by women. Shawn Westfall, Artistic Director of The Unified Scene Theater, sat down with two members of the cast, Francesca Chilcote and Echo Sibley, to discuss the origins of Women From Mars and “Silent Reflections,” as well as the unique staging and themes of the production:
Shawn: What were the origins of this production? What was the shared common vision the three of you had that compelled you to mount this production?
Francesca: Echo Sibley and I met at a theatre Festival in Italy in 2013. We immediately connected over the type of theatre we wanted to make, and the issues we wanted to tackle. Over that week, we conceived of a show that would examine the contradictions within the “Diva” type: an extremely powerful woman, but a power derived entirely through sexuality. We immediately brought in our mutual friend and collaborator, Dory Sibley (also Echo’s sister in law). Together, we settled on our “Clown Noir.” In the early days of generating material, we were concerned with telling personal stories, of when we felt diminished, less than, or othered, whether it be by an outside image or expectation, or our own sense of inferiority. The best example is a reference to the title, the ridiculous, harrowing experience of examining yourself in a mirror while alone.
It was very important to us to examine what women do to themselves, not to spend the show placing blame, and to tell our stories with a sense of humor, lightness, and hope.
Women From Mars
Shawn: Your production ambitiously unites a number of different media: dance, mime, commedia del’ arte, music, theater. What is it about “Silent Reflections” that warrants combining all of these different theatrical tropes into one visionary production?
Francesca: The style of production reflects our backgrounds as artists. Dory and I have an MFA in Physical Theatre from the Accademia dell’Arte, and she and Echo are accomplished musicians and singers. I also think the combination has something to do with the restrictions we put on ourselves. It is a silent piece. We turned to our most physical, most emotive resources when stripped of language.
Echo: I think the beautiful thing about devising work is that it is an art form, there are techniques, but there are no rules. And as a group we have a diverse background and there is no reason to not use all of our skills as long as it serves the narrative. Sometimes dance can portray a moment better than dialogue, for example and when we chose to make a dialogue free show….a show where we not only explore how women have been silenced, but we do so in silence ourselves, then it frees us up even more to use video, music, etc.
Shawn: The role of women (as well as how they’ve been silenced throughout history) is an important theme of this production. This area is obviously important to the three of you not only as women, but as actors. Was there an inciting incident or anecdote, either experienced individually or collectively, that drove you toward creating “Silent Reflections?”
Francesca: I think the strongest motivating factor for us was to make a beautiful, entertaining, and most importantly, funny piece about being a woman that spoke to truth and personal experience without bashing the audience over the head with our opinions. We all have opinions, but very few of them ended up in the show. We made a conscious effort to express very deep and dark aspects of being a woman in a funny way.
Echo: We all had very personal things that we wanted to explore. Through our conversations we realized that not only have we been silenced in our lives by significant others, by social media, by society, but also by ourselves and other women. I know that for me this was the problem and idea that inspired me the most, how we allow ourselves to be silenced and how women judge and hurt each other and can support the system that keeps us down.
Francesca: We ended up doing a lot of research separately and as a group. Because I play “the Girl,” I was preoccupied with the things that are lost in the transition between being “a girl,” and being “a woman,” a realization of all that society expects of you, and a feeling you’ll never be good enough. I will say that we came up with the ending before everything else, and its something I am very proud of. But, I won’t give it away here 🙂
Shawn: What about your production is entirely unique? In other words, what are audiences going to experience from Silent Reflections that you feel they can’t or won’t be able to get anywhere else?
Echo: The show is beautiful, set entirely in “black & white” like a silent film, with gorgeous music created at OrangeHomeRecords. This in of itself makes for a unique experience, but also you get to see three female clowns exploring dark subject manner in a comedic way using moment theatre techniques, projections, dance etc. This is really different. I think when people hear “women’s issues” sometimes they freeze up. But this show is approachable for all audiences. I think everyone can relate to the problems we look at. We’ve had people come up to us after a show crying,because it felt so personal to them. We’ve had people who couldn’t get over the comedic moments. It has it all.
Shawn: If you could have audiences take away one thing from seeing “Silent Reflections,” one new way of understanding the roles of women historically, culturally, and theatrically what would that be?
Francesca: What seems to have struck audience members the most is our staging of traditionally very private moments for women: checking their appearance in a mirror, monitoring appearance and body language, struggling over whether or not to eat the piece of cake, and blowing them up into very simple, over the top clown bits. Although we are working within an antiquated world of silent film, the issues and characters stuck within are very modern.
Echo: For me, it would be simply that we have to the power to be heard and the power to create and we also have it is us to not give that power away! We should not allow ourselves to be silenced!!
Shawn: What’s next for Women From Mars? Where are you taking “Silent Reflections” next?
Francesca: This show will be the kickoff for our US Southern tour. We will be teaching and Performing at Furman University and Catawba College, and performing in North Carolina as well. After that, we are looking forward to future tours in other parts of the US and Europe.
Performances: Tuesday January 12th at 9:30, and Wednesday January 13th at 8:30
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