Thanks-Giving Communiqué

November 30, 2015 / by Brandon Woolf, Fall Fellow


November 2015

Many greetings from Long Island City.

If you so desire, please allow Billy’s sultry tones to underscore what follows:

This past highly-turkey-stuffed weekend provided the briefest of pauses – my first since arriving in New York from Berlin – to begin, just begin to wrap my head around the wonderfully whacky whirlwind that has consumed my attention, spirit, life this fall. And before I know it – tomorrow actually – the whirlwind continues most gleefully as I continue preparation for my contribution to this year’s DirectorFest, which goes into full swing later this week. Though the end of my second assistantship at Queens Theatre transitioned seamlessly into stuffing preparation, the rote of the chop, the mix, and the measure opened just a speck, a simmer, a sparkle of mental room to engage retroactively with the broad range of thoughts and emotions that my myriad activities this fall have poked, prodded, provoked. And while I am quite certain that it will take me deep into the cold winter months – if not the spring thaw – to unfurl, untangle, more thoroughly engage, the feeling that did dominate this weekend of thanks-giving was a deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the great opportunity of an autumn in New York filled with fellowship – in the broadest sense of that word: new opportunities, new collaborations, new friends, new challenges, new questions. What follows, then, is just a first smattering of reflections, quotations, hyperlinks, as I begin to unpack all that has transpired.


apparatuses of fellowship.

A few years ago, my daily e-dose of HowlRound led me to an interview that Sarah Benson, the artistic director of Soho Rep., did with Bess Rowen. Midway through the piece, when prompted for a bit of personal advice to emerging directors/curators/producers, Sarah dispensed the following:

“I would encourage young people out there, to really home in on where they want to see their work on stage. A lot of young people when they’re starting out just want to work anywhere that will take them, and I don’t think that’s good for anyone. I would encourage people to seek out the places where they’re really excited about the work, where they want to see their work on stage at these theaters, where they feel at home, and feel an organic fit. And then to just stalk those places, go see their work, go see everything that they do. Track those directors they’re interested in, track those producers that they’re interested in. Get to know them. And just be focused on where you want to be rather than ‘who will take me?’ […] That’s definitely my personal take, and I know that the opposite approach has worked for many people—where they cast a wide net and amazing things happen from that approach too. But homing in has definitely been my approach. It’s the same as how I hate doing auditions. I like being able to say this is the actor I want to work with and I’m just going to ask this person to do this play. Similarly, I research like crazy and then I really stalk what I want to do and who I want to work with and get in a room with those people. You know, I interned here at Soho Rep, and I feel like it’s just been about being really focused on the people I want to work with. That’s kind of it.”

I am a longtime admirer of Sarah’s work at Soho Rep., both as a director and as an institutional leader. So when the time came to find a project to work on this fall, I pursued Sarah with some persistence, and she was very generous to grant me a spot on the team of her newest project. From the beginning of September through mid-October, I had the great opportunity to join Sarah, composer/writer/performer César Alvarez, and an incredible group of collaborators on FUTURITY. As Charles Isherwood exclaimed: “It’s finally here: a musical made for brainiacs! FUTURITY, an odd and often beguiling show written by César Alvarez with his band the Lisps, could send science geeks into the kind of swoon that befalls more traditional musical theater lovers at a great production of, oh, anything by Stephen Sondheim.” Though FUTURITY, in both its form and content, works hard to challenge and expand upon more traditional modes of storytelling, the piece is in many ways, again in form and content, a story of fellowship. Fellowship: between a fictional Civil War soldier (Julian Munro) and a real-life, legendary mathematician and early computer scientist (Ada Lovelace); between two of Off-Broadway’s best (in my opinion) theater companies, Ars Nova and Soho Rep, who joined forces to make this otherwise “unproducable” project a reality; between a vast ensemble of multidisciplinary artists pushing the bounds of their expertise. All worked tirelessly (and across time and space) to craft a larger-than-life, futuristic, dare one say “utopian” apparatus of collaboration, of ensemble, of interdependence: in other words, a giant Steam Brain.

Steam Brain is the show’s central conceit – for a third time, in both form and content. Within the bounds of the play, FUTURITY’s characters speak (and sing) of the Steam Brain in rather murky terms – as a “chance for the dance of the land lovin’ friends of the man made” that will generate “other options” in times of violence, both then and now. And as the piece concludes its narrative, the audience is left with the glaring silence (smoke and blood) of imagination cut down in its prime. However, and in spite of the piece’s darker narrative conclusion, FUTURITY’s makers (it’s real-life dreamers) managed to erect and sustain (through two extensions) a real-life apparatus that was quite staggering and extraordinary in its scope and beauty: a two-story, percussive installation activated, illuminated, and played by an ensemble of tireless performers, designed by the inimitable Eric Farber, Emily Orling, Matt Saunders, Yi Zhao, Matt Tierney, and Noah Mease, and maintained by an army of collaborators.

Working with Sarah, César, and the rest of the FUTURITY team, I had the great privilege of experiencing the ways in which a Steam Brain might serve as a very material metaphor for a theater that pushes at the bounds of the possible and begins to understand itself as a radical public laboratory. I believe that as a laboratory of existential experiments the theater – at its best – represents one of the most vital civic institutions we have. It helps us to reckon with the state of things as they are, as they’ve been, and as they could be. It helps us – or even forces us – also to reckon with each other, in all our similarity and difference, as a citizenry, and as a public. I believe that theater makers, therefore, have a unique opportunity to provoke us all to reimagine just what that public is and what it can do. As I watched them talk, toil, move, sweat, and play each day, FUTURITY’s many makers seemed to me deeply committed to the radical ideas, images, and sounds theater can bring to diverse audiences, and also to the lived practices of working and dreaming together that it offers to those who engage it – as collaborative ensemble. I feel very grateful to have been one tiny cog in FUTURITY’s great machine.



Another great privilege of spending the autumn in New York has been the opportunity to collaborate with a few friends (some old and some new) who have very exciting projects in the works.

In September, my longtime collaborator Stew and his writing partner Heidi Rodewald invited me to join their band the Negro Problem (in this instance, the Wagner Problem) on a new project at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. In honor of composer Richard Wagner's 200th birthday, the Kennedy Center commissioned Stew and Heidi to make a new song cycle – titled Wagner Max! Wagner! – that would most irreverently explore the surprising connections between the music-myths of both Wagner and the blues, blending Wagner's best-known melodies within an eclectic mix of new music. "Both [Wagner and the blues] have been said to directly and indirectly reflect aspects of their respective cultures that many would like to forget," explains Stew, referring to the Nazis' use of Wagner as well as the blues' echoes of slavery. "The show examines our fear of both." Stew and Heidi generously invited me to do a bit of dramaturgy for the production and also to perform in the piece. This was an incredible experience: it was a privilege to play such a room with such a talented and versatile ensemble of musicians (a 14-person ensemble that included drums, keyboard, bass, guitar, cello, bassoon, accordion, English and French horn, even a sitar). It was also wonderful opportunity to continue to explore – in ways and means different than FUTURITY – different modes of storytelling and different modes of (music) theater-making.

After the premiere, Stew wrote about the experience this way:

“Saturday night at the Kennedy Center was a highlight of my life. The true highlights are never awards, "career achievements" nor money. Those things are all cool but a real highlight is the moment(s) the music itself reminds you of why it holds sway over your life, when an oboe or a bassoon solo over some simple changes tells a story that you thought was only yours, and when this all happens in front of witnesses and they see that YOU are as taken by it as they are. Wagner was missing the point by hiding the musicians. The drama is in the player. There is nothing more inherently dramatic that a bunch of musicians onstage looking upwards towards the next rung and going for it in front of witnesses. We don't need 5 year development processes and endless script workshops to make the rough and beautiful theater we made last night. We just need brilliant players like we had last night. We are moving towards creating real Music-Drama, actual MUSICAL Theater, where the music IS the theater, the drama is in the player and the "playwright" is just a guy that knows how to throw a good party.”

And a local review of the performance worked to flesh out his meaning somewhat:

“Stew says that he originally began writing a piece that tried to undo this psychology by separating the myths and histories from the music. The plea he repeats over and over is “The artist is human/ The artist is basically just another jerk/ The artist is not their work.” In the course of working on the piece however, he discovered it simply wasn’t possible, because the history is not just collective memory, it is stored in the music itself. The strength of Stew & The Wagner Problem lies in their blatant juxtapositions. Wagner, Max! Wagner! examines these numerous contradictions not by smoothing them over, but by shouting them out. […] These dissonances create the harmony of form perfectly mirroring content. Stew is quick to clarify that this piece is not necessarily meant to be educational or to spell out the connections between Wagner and the Blues, but it is rather these artists’ exploration of the entanglements between the two. A work-in-progress that will be different each night, as the musicians improvise, develop, and experiment on stage. With so much to learn with every new iteration, you’ll wish you could see it three or four times.”

Then, in October, Ben Gassman, another playwright friend of mine – and a new collaborator – asked me to direct a short work-in-progress for “Little Theater at Dixon Place.” Little Theater is a more-or-less monthly presentation of new theater, dance, performance, and media works curated by Normandy Sherwood, Frank Boudreaux, and Jeffrey M. Jones. I really like Dixon Place. I have such respect for the work they do and their long-term commitment to serving as an invaluable inter-arts-incubator in New York City. Ben’s play, Yap Yap, is a piece about street hustle and geopolitics. Working with a group of four talented actors – Jordan Baum, Eshan Bay, Mia Jessup & Rivka Rivera and a fabulous Afro-Cuban percussionist, Javier Ramos – we conceived of an assembly-line of Cuban-sandwich-makers who take a rather farcical look at the break between revolutionary impulse and revolutionary actuality in this Year 57 of the Revolution and Year 56 of the Embargo. With lots of lechon and live bongos, it was a delicious evening of experimental storytelling that strove to be somewhere – if we are most generous with ourselves and our sandwich-making – between Allen’s Bananas and Brecht’s The Mother.



There is, of course, so much more to report. A second assistantship: at Queens Theater with the fabulous Rob Urbinati (a former Fellow). A first reading of Max Flaum and my new play, The Summer Way, about which I posted about little bit in a previous blog session. An exciting design and casting process for Sam Shepard’s The Rock Garden – my contribution to DirectorFest 2015. And rehearsals that are set to begin imminently… I hope to return to all of this before long. But before I do, I am hoping that any and all reading this had a joyous, healthy, and peaceful Thanksgiving.

Sending all my very best, and until soon.