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The Man Who Laughs

nytheatre.com q&a preview by Jon Stancato
January 24, 2013

What is your job on this show?
Director.

What is your show about?
Freely inspired by Victor Hugo's novel, equal parts horror, comedy, and romance, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS is a "live silent film," performed in grayscale with live music, about a man whose face has been carved into a permanent smile and his desperate quest for the world to take him seriously.

What type of theater do you like most to work on?
I love working on theatre that celebrates artifice and theatricality at the same time it provides an opportunity for audiences to experience both emotions and perspectives they don't get a chance to try on in their everyday lives. As an added caveat, though, I only work on theater that has been written by Stolen Chair's resident playwright Kiran Rikhye, so the simpler answer is that I like working most on plays she writes. Her work is always firmly grounded in playful but perfectly authentic reappropriations of genres, but no matter how thick the impasto of style, her unique voice always shines through. Without ever detracting from narrative or from (her always deeply and delightfully contradictory) characters, Kiran's writing always calls attention to itself as writing and offers up her own special brand of absurdism.

Complete this sentence: My show is the only one opening in NYC this winter that...?
...is performed entirely in black and white. ...tells a humorous and heartbreaking story without a single word of spoken text ...features a protagonist whose face has been carved into a permanent smile ...separates the stage action from the audience with a full-stage scrim

Why did you want to write/direct/produce/act in/work on this show?
The play gives me a chance to do everything I love as a director: highly stylized movement, fully integrated design, close collaboration with a musician, and a tone that ping pongs from tear-your-heart-out melodrama to zippy physical comedy. We first presented a workshop production on a budget of approximately $3 back in 2005, and I've been fantasizing pretty much since the final performance about how to give it the physical production it deserves. So this remount is truly a dream 7 years in the making.

Groucho, Chico, Harpo, or Zeppo?
Harpo. He created a whole world from the starting premise, "I will express myself without a single spoken word." That same premise drove the development of The Man Who Laughs, to explore what happens when you remove spoken text from the audience's experience and to discover what other elements must be intensified (and how to do so) to continue to amuse and move the audience.

Who are your heroes?
Moliere, Joe Chaikin, Charles Ludlam, and Ariane Mnouchkine for the very different ways they developed what it means to work in a theatre company and for their individual additions to the vocabulary of physical theatre. And I think in everything I do, I'm trying to resolve the contradictions (which of course are not really contradictions because everything is everything and all that) between two of the 20th centuries biggest physical theatre gods, Jerzy Grotowski and Jacques Lecoq. Both passed away by the time I graduated college, but I've studied with a number of their disciples, and, in my work over the past decade, continually look for ways to balance Lecoq's sense of theatricality and play with Grotowski's exploration of emotional extremis and catharsis.