Germinal Theatre and the Women of New Georges, NY

February 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

Sarah Cameron Sunde directs "Diary of a Teenage Girl"

February 11th marks the debut of a new series at The Cornelia Street Café, The New Georges’ Trunk Show, featuring the work of New Georges, the downtown theatre company long known for its edgy, original work, and for the strong relationships it’s fostered with some of New York’s most important theatre artists.  We recently had the chance to talk with Susan Bernfield and Sarah Cameron Sunde, New Georges’ artistic director and associate director, respectively, about the company’s history, how they work, and what we can expect to see on our stage on the 11th.

Tell us a little about how New Georges started, and what its mission statement is.

Susan: Basically we produce and develop unusual, ambitious, highly theatrical plays by adventurous artists (who are women), and support those artists in a variety of ways.  (We put the women thing in parentheses cause first and foremost it has to be about the work.) Like lots of people, I formed a theater company right out of drama school (I was an actor). And we incorporated and did a few shows and then, again like lots of people, it kind of fizzled out. A few months later I took a commercial class (as in, for actors who want to be in commercials) which happened to have only women in it. An ongoing conversation started happening there about going in to audition for nothing but stupid bimbo parts, stupid other-stereotype parts… So I hooked up with a few people from that class, offering that first company’s incorporation and bank account, and we decided we wanted to do something about women. We weren’t sure what, though — maybe produce plays by women, then maybe there’d be better roles for us?

But then I couldn’t FIND any plays by women! I’d go to the Drama Book Shop and comb the shelves, couldn’t find a thing. So I thought, well, there must be women like me, who care about the kinds of things I do, who wanna write plays, so how do you find those people?  I had no experience with new plays whatsoever, it was a completely different idea of theater than what I’d grown up with or thought I’d ever do.  I’d never met a playwright in my life, could barely conceive of it. Now I am one.  And a lot of the resources for new plays or even the focus on new plays that there is now, I’m not sure it all existed then — or it did, but not in the same way and certainly not in a way I had access to. But very soon I realized that producing new work and getting to know the people who made new work was the most creative, most interesting, most obvious path. Of course the company and its mission have evolved a lot since then, and so have I.

New Georges is famous for its homebase: “The Room” – a rehearsal and performance space, where new plays and projects are brought to life. Can you talk about the process of creating theatre there?

Sarah: Sure! The Room is basically just that…a nice neutral space to create theater in. We’ve got blue “mondo flooring” that’s ok to be barefoot on, green acoustic panels so that we don’t hear every word of the rehearsal next door, and we’re very proud of our big floor-to-ceiling windows, because natural light is very important for creativity – and sometimes, you know, the most inspiring is to watch the business men and women across 8th Ave go about their days. No joke!

Every process is different, so The Room is changeable to suit our artists’ needs. We like to challenge our peeps by giving them space in The Room to develop whatever they want to develop. We find that this allows the artists to be free and create their best work!  Sometimes having “a room of one’s own” is all one needs to get the creative juices flowing…

Susan:  And by making our primary space a workspace, I think we put some extra emphasis on the fact that the best way to make plays is in 3-D – not just to read them out loud, but to get them on their feet!

New Georges has been around since the early nineties. I’m curious how you feel the theatrical landscape has changed in New York over the years?

Susan:  I think it’s changed a LOT.  As I say above, there seems to be a very different awareness of new plays, many many more opportunities to make and to see them, on all levels.  Ironically, at the same time as the audience has by all accounts diminished!  But there’s a much broader range of outlets for a variety of work – festivals and play development opportunities have proliferated, there’s no time of year nowadays where there isn’t plenty to see, used to be there was some down time.  I think one of the reasons is that people start earlier.  They seem to have very different theater experiences in college than we had, much earlier exposure to new plays and the people who make them, and they enter the professional world already very clear, at least it seems to me, about what they want to do and how they want to do it.  And the Internet of course has made it much easier, I think, to disseminate information about shows and opportunities, so that’s changed the way the theater as a community operates, as well.   It used to be like I felt I knew, or knew of, or COULD know, all the women playwrights, for example.  Now – no way.  Just so many of everybody.  Which amazes and inspires me.

What can we expect to see at The Cornelia Street Café on the 11th?

Sarah:  A surprise! We’re calling our series the New Georges’ TRUNK SHOW because it’ll be an eclectic mix of material.  We’ve challenged our artists to think outside the box. There will be old stuff and new stuff flying out of that ol’ trunk. You can expect experimentation, new collaborations, and some of our all time favorite performers! There will be music, maybe some dancing, testing of big ideas and intimate moments. Most of all it will be fun, fun, and more fun!  We hope to see you there!

How about in the coming months? Anything new projects you want to preview for us?

Susan:  We’re having a very unusual season, we’ve kind of exploded what we usually do in order to jumpstart the development of a bunch of new plays.  We like to do big fat crazy impossible plays, but we weren’t really reading as many of those as we’d like.  So we started this thing called THE GERM PROJECT; we commissioned four playwrights we’d known a long time but had never produced to write new plays of “scope and adventure,” dream plays, unproduceable plays.  To challenge us as producers, that’s what we told ‘em.  We paired the playwrights with directors, and have asked them to make their development processes “collaboration-driven,” rather than text-driven, in order to focus on the theatricality of each project as much as anything else.   Then in June and July at 3LD Art & Technology Center, we’re going to produce 20 minutes of each of the four plays as a single evening of theater.  We’ve asked the collaborators to try and pick the 20 minutes they think would be the most difficult to stage, or the most difficult technically….  After that, we’ll keep developing the plays and over time, we hope, produce the full-length versions.  The artists have really embraced the idea, and the plays are pretty exciting!  We actually have a blog where people can read more about the process, it’s http://www.thegermproject.wordpress.com.  And of course you can find out more about it on our website, http://www.newgeorges.org.  Follow the GERM!

Joshua Rebell is a playwright and Spoken Word Curator at the Cornelia Street Cafe. He is also fluent in Jazz and speaks several dialects of LA. Eager readers, speakers and performers can show love and petition him for stagetime at jazzrebell@earthlink.net

Seeking Dishonesty, One True Story at a Time

September 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Andy Christie might have the best job off broadway: he gets to direct The Truth. “I try to tell people who’re telling the truth not to act like they’re lying,” says Christie. “The temptation of some performers is to look shifty; I tell them not to do that.” Ever since he began his series at People Improv Theatre in 2006, Christie has been playing with Honesty–and getting his audiences to play along with him. “I used to go to The Moth and was always curious how many grains of truth were missing from stories. People would hang around after and ask questions to this effect, and I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to make that part of the act? Why not ask those questions while the show’s going on and get it all out in the open?”

The Liar Show has had the same format since inception. Four storytellers tell four stories. Three of them are telling the honest-to-goodness truth; one of them is pretending to. The only rule is that truth-tellers cannot embellish too many non-truths and liars cannot blend in too many true facts. This is critical during phase 2: the interrogation. “There’s no panel of experts, the audience just yells things out. It tends to start slow, but then two or three questions in it just picks up, and everyone piles on other people’s questions. It can get heated sometimes, particularly when you’re really grilling somebody who’s telling the truth!” At the end, votes are taken by show of hand, and whomever uncovers the Liar is rewarded with a t-shirt and no small measure of satisfaction.

It turns out the exercise is cathartic for all parties. “It’s kind of a kick in the stomach for some performers when they tell the truth and they’re doubted,” posits Christie, “particularly when your whole currency is telling the truth. It makes them think about what sounds true in their work and what doesn’t.” Plus given the paucity of straightforward, unadulterated honesty in, for example, some of your more prevalent media, the show gives people the opportunity to experience the thrill of unmasking dishonesty. “We’re all small potatoes compared to the people who’re really lying out there. Folks can come here and speak out.”

So who’re the best liars? “Fiction writers, not surprisingly, tend to be the best. It’s not about the performances as much as how easily they can rip themselves away from their real lives; lots of folks concoct a lie that turns out to be 90% true. People who’re used to make things up can do consistent, legitimate lies very well.” Humor, excitement, BS-calling kicks, and even deep thinky questions about the meaning of veracity all await the Liar Show’s truth-seekers. Christie and his band appear downstairs Saturday, September 25th at 6pm. Call 212/989-9319 for reservations.

New Folk City

September 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar have been sweethearts since out of College, falling in love on tour with The Mammals, where they learned every edge around oughties folk. Today they tour under the marquee Mike and Ruthy and release great, sweet-sad hudson valley tunes on their homegrown Humble Abode label. Tomorrow night they inaugurate a new fourth-wednesday series at the Cafe: Mike and Ruthy’s Folk City.

“We wanted to do a festival,” Ruthy says with a laugh. “Two hours is a good start.” Whichever the format, their vision for the series was clear–sort of. “Amidst the cabaret and jazz, we want to keep something folky/acoustic/bluegrass/americana/going.” They are committed to all of the above, and won’t be pinned down. “We’re not fond of drawing divisions between genres. It’s not really what we’re about.”

This month’s episode showcases Jefferson Hammer and Nina Violet, and is promised to conclude in a festival-worthy grand finale. “Crazy thing mike and I just realized, we have eleven performers. And we’re trying to have a finale with everyone on stage at once.” Luckily, our stage runs on optimism. “We’re opening with a bang, and it’s going to be awesome.”

Reservations via phone-212/989.9319

Richard Hoehler

March 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

After a brief haitus, 29 Cornelia Street returns with a shift in focus: from the events of the underground to the artists, performers and extended families that populate our stage and salon. As their lives and works intertwine, they knit together the reverberant community that makes the Cornelia Street Cafe a space apart.

Last Wednesday, Richard Hoehler–playwright, actor, and arts educator, duly published and veteran of countless performances everywhere from off-Broadway to on TV–came Downstairs to break new personal ground amidst old friends. For the first very first time on stage, he read poetry. The work was from “poemz for dayz”, a forthcoming collection inspired by his experiences teaching theater to New York City high schoolers. Before new work greets its wider audience, Hoehler brings it to Cornelia for experimentation and the special feedback that emanates from its intimate audiences. “I’ve done talkbacks and such,” he explained over the phone the following day, “and it’s never quite the same. The comments are from the head, and by the time you hear them, their moment has passed.” In a room just larger than a Cadillac, performers acutely experience their work’s peaks and valleys as it leaves the stage to permeate those assembled. “It’s more than just if jokes draw laughs. It can’t be explained, but you learn to feel where you’ve got attention and emotion, and where things fall.” So it was both times Hoehler was developing his one-man shows, so it has been with each appearance since he was first brought to Cornelia for a reading years ago by Susan Chacko. His performance that night caught Robin’s ear, and he was invited back to recur regularly. “Cornelia Street Cafe is a safe place,” he said. Like so many who appear here, he was ushered in by a friend of his and came to be a friend of Ours.  Hoehler returns in August to debut a new one-man play; his poetry will be findable soon on his website.

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