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CHAIN REACTION

nytheatre.com q&a preview by Michael Selkirk
July 25, 2012

What is your job on this show?
Actor.

When did you know you wanted to work in the theater, and why?
I was 12 years old and trapped in what I called a Remedial Music class: for kids who didn't want to take Chorus or Band. This was a room full of thugs and shady characters, and I was very much a terrified fish out of water, getting pushed around every day before, during and after that class. One day the teacher asked if any of us were interested in transferring to Chorus because they were "working on a musical show or something." I jumped up with two of my also-tormented friends and ran out of there. After a brief and intense discussion in the hallway, I timidly led the three of us into the auditorium. There was a group of kids on the other side of this vast room listening to a man standing on a chair. That man was Eddie Roll, who originated the part of A-Rab on Broadway in "West Side Story," and he was directing an "improvised" musical bio of Scott Joplin. It's embarrassing to admit it, but the minute they all laid on eyes on me I knew. So I was driven into the theater by fear: I knew facing an audience could not be worse than getting my ass kicked three times a week.

Have you been part of FringeNYC in the past? If so, how did you particpate? (Be specific! Name shows, etc.)
Last year I starred in Tariq Hamami's THE TOWN OF NO ONE, directed by Leah Bonvissuto. It was a play that had been developed in Playsmiths' weekly Sunday workshops (as were our two shows in The Fringe this year: CHAIN REACTION and PROPHET IN PINK), and we had read it for Tariq from the first scene, so it was very close to our hearts. Set in no particular time or place, it was a wrenching story about the daughter of a corrupt gravedigger rebelling against her father and the status quo of their insular, brawling, drunken town. A strong production of a marvelously imaginative play with a great company of actors--only a hurricane could have stopped us. Oh. Right. Too soon?

Why did you want to write/direct/produce/act in/work on this show?
Well, the playwright Jonathan Alexandratos is a co-founder of Playsmiths, along with Ann Farthing, Chrysta Naron and myself. We've been working together since 2009 and I wouldn't say we finish each other's sentences, but we all have a strong consensus of what makes good theater, and that is: a good story, well told. I always joke, "Sure, it's a play about what a great guy Hitler was, but it is good play?" Cuz, you know, those Hitler jokes go over huge. I love history and I've been fascinated by World War Two since I was a wee lad. The mid-20th century is a big canvas to fill, but I think most of the great stories of that or any time are the small ones. CHAIN REACTION is set in the upper echelons of the Manhattan Project, a sprawling, epic effort to build the greatest weapon in history, but it's still a play of small stories--a man who doesn't know how to love, a son and a father who can't talk about anything but physics, a scientist so driven by ambition that he'll blow up literally anything to get recognition. The play gives history its due but still makes you go "huh," because the stories are the right size against this monumental backdrop. And I like comedy. There can never be enough comedies about war. (insert "Duck Soup" reference here to tie into the next question...)

Groucho, Chico, Harpo, or Zeppo?
What a fortuitous segue from the last question! In seventh grade, about the time I started acting, I met a boy named Peter Reddy. Peter taught me how to be funny, or unleashed the funniness that was inside me, or something like that. Anyhoo, he showed me a book called "Why A Duck?" which was a picture book of famous Marx Brothers routines. I soon possessed mine own copy and I memorized it--all of it. Peter and various friends of ours would recite these routines back and forth at recess. Now here's the weird part: this was before I had ever seen even a frame of their films. I learned the Marx Brothers by heart from a picture book...and then only a year later began actually watching their movies. My sister Anne can tell you for my 13th birthday I asked to be driven to a movie theater in Bedford, NY to watch--alone--a screening of "Animal Crackers." The projectionist actually called out to me, "Ready?" Groucho, of course. I actually played him--his character--in another "improvised" musical about a Presidential election called "Keep Your Sunny Side Up." The mustache was first made of electrical tape, but the adhesive gave me a rash and I soon switched to eyebrow pencil and greasepaint.

Theatre is a necessary ingredient in democratic societies. Do you agree or disagree, and why?
We've been gathering in dark places to tell stories to each other for thousands of generations. This is what we do, we humans. I don't think theater is necessary for a democratic society--it's necessary for ANY human society. Theater is communion, and like democracy we can't do it alone. But since theater can provoke social change, who needs it more than authoritarian societies? Finley Peter Dunne, speaking through the mouth of his character Mr. Dooley, said that a newspaper, among other things, "...comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable..." I think theater should do that. And I include the playwright in those groups of afflicted and comfortables. Your play shouldn't be a stale confirmation of your beliefs or anybody else's. It should provoke something, often you. I've helped a lot of playwrights over the years, and there are few things sweeter than that moment when they realize that they didn't write what they thought they wrote, and they ACCEPT it. They accept that the story is not necessarily what they started out with--that it's become something else. Something better.