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by Michael Roderick
Welcome to 99 AND UNDER THE RADAR: A LOOK AT INDIE THEATER'S MOVERS AND SHAKERS, BroadwayWorld's new weekly series that showcases standout productions and production companies from the independent theater scene in New York City. Each week, independent producer Michael Roderick will be discussing the latest goings on in the theatrical wings, highlighting those with potentially bright futures.
This Week's Topic: Tackling the topic of "Guilt"
One of the greatest things about the Indie Theatre community is that it is always growing. It is not uncommon to find a new company with a premier any day of the week. It's often most exciting when the companies are doing something very different or working on something truly innovative. This week is an interview with one of those new companies; Fixitsolife. Co-founder's Anatol Yusef and Francesco Campari sat down with 99 and Under the Radar to discuss the start of this company and the first production.
99: How did Fixitsolife start? Where does the name come from?
Yusef: I appeared in an acting class that Francesco was taking and we ended up doing a scene together from Odets' Awake and Sing! An immediate connection was established. As actors and artists. When we begun to talk about theatre it was clear that we had similar ideas. More than that, I had found a 'brother in art'. Francesco was already at that time meeting regularly with a group of people that he had gathered. They were doing exercises, reading plays and talking about theatre. This impressed me. I knew he would like to start a company, and he knew it was something I wanted to do. But it wasn't until a few months later that we approached each other and started to put the wheels in motion. I think it was something we were always going to do. Two people from a rich Theatrical heritage, 'Aliens' in a city where theatre can be great and at times very much not the theatre we love, it was only a matter of time. We wanted to create something so we could do all those plays we may never get a chance to do. I'd been working as an actor for 8 years in London, and If I was going to do something like this it had to be soon. In Francesco I found the perfect partner.
We agonized over what to call the company and sat in my apt for hours looking through plays. We then went back to Awake and Sing! the play that had brought us together. The end of which Ralph says 'I'm gonna fix it so life 'aint printed on dollar bills'. Hence the name. It seemed to sum up everything we believe we can bring to New York theatre, and indeed our own lives. (This was just before the crash)
Francesco: When I met Anatol I already had a small wealth of knowledge about NY theatre. I had directed and produced a few plays between 2006-2007 and played some major roles in a few productions. By that time I knew that something had to change. I wanted to grow. I was looking for a place I could call my 'artistic home'. I knew I had to find somebody I could build with. In Anatol I found the artistic integrity and pureness of heart I believed this job always required.
99: What happened next?
Yusef: We were both on O1 visas. Which meant we couldn't be members of Equity. And we were constantly frustrated with the theatre we were seeing. Whether that was just envy or genuine desire to do better, I'm not sure. Most likely a combination of both. As we still feel that. So we started a company. We met with actors that we knew and read plays and talked regularly. But it wasn't until late 2009 that we really began to get serious. We launched our first playwrighting competition. Began to talk to theatres and started to plan our first full production, which was supposed to be a Shakespeare. We had put on a small production of 'Proof' at the Producers Club which was a huge success, people were queuing around the block to come. It gave us the confidence.
Francesco: 'Proof" was the sign to us that people still cared. They were eager to experience a theatre made of truth and empathy. This particular production taught me a lot. Most of all I learned how to listen. To myself and to others. I'm confident we will stage it again one day. It is too close to our hearts.
99: Explain your concepts of ensemble and why you feel ensemble theatre is important.
Yusef: Well for me ensemble theatre, the phrase, is a misnomer. All great theatre is ensemble theatre. All great acting is ensemble. Its merely where the sum is bigger than the parts. The play's the thing. Your focus is always on everything else but yourself. It really is just true listening, and moment to moment response. Something happened in commercial theatre whereby productions, and even plays were built around one person, or thing. ' You gotta have gimmick' And typecasting became the order of the day. Audiences grew to love personalities, rather than actors. And, for me, when I see that, the show, the production almost always suffers. This doesn't mean that you can't have plays with focal characters, of course you can. Some of the greatest plays are precisely that. I mean if you made Hamlet about the Gravedigger it'd be a bit weird. But Hamlet is a great ensemble play. And the best productions I have seen, have yes, had a great Hamlet, but so many other aspects of the production have to be great to make that possible. I think it was when doing Lear at the RSC (in my mind Shakespeare's greatest work) I realized utterly what great art really is. I mean, there you have a free form piece of writing that shifts through so many different styles, is driven by four or five different characters at any given time. Yet it's hailed as great art. Why? Because life does exactly that. Very few of us follow one thread all our lives, we are affected by and affect a multitude of different things that lay in our past and present and future. Hence life's rich tapestry.
I guess it becomes a rather philosophical question. Many think we are born and die alone. For me, the truth is quite the opposite, even when it doesn't feel like that!
The other aspect of 'ensemble theatre' that is most attractive, is having a pool of artists who work with each other continually over a number of years. So their relationships are thrillingly palpable on stage. That's not to say that can't be found in 4 weeks of rehearsal. But it's very rare.
Also, the audience becomes a part of the ensemble. As they must. Whereby they get to know the actors work and look forward to the next role or combination they will see. Not just because they were on TV. I was trained Classically in England, where the Rep tradition may be a shadow of what it was, but remains as the fabric of the theatrical culture. I believe in it utterly.
Francesco: 'Ensemble theatre' is the purest form of theatre. It is the art form generated by the union of many actors, who through an organic stream of psycho-physical actions, manage to create truthful responses to the imaginary circumstances which surround them. Picture a raft floating down the river. Only if all the people on the raft are selfless enough to reach for each other's hands and balance their weight, they will be able to prevent falling in the water.
'Ensemble Theatre' calls for empathy, sacrifice, relaxation and concentration. Only this way a universal truth can be unveiled.
99: How is this ensemble decided upon?
Yusef: It can only happen over time. We tried inviting friends to meet regularly. And though it was done with great fun and enthusiasm it never really sparkled because it was essentially a controlled experiment. A true ensemble happens organically, over time. You work with great people and you want to work with them again, and they want to work with you again. Vincent Piazza is an example of this in our current show.
99: Discuss your origins and what it's been like building this company?
Yusef: I trained at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school and left just over 10 years ago. I've worked extensively in theatre as well as film and television. I've worked with some of the great theatre companies and some of the great theatre directors in England. Like Peter Gill, Bill Bryden and Bill Alexander amongst many others. As well as some stunning actors who all come from the same rich heritage of great ensemble art. I've been very lucky with the work I've done and more so the people I've worked with. I've also been fortunate to do some Pinter in the U.S. as well as play Richard III Off-Off Broadway. And, of course, am delighted to be a part of HBO's Boardwalk Empire.
Francesco: I trained classically in Milan (Italy) at Teatro alla Scala and a few other private conservatories. Growing up in Italy gave me the chance to be in touch not only with my heritage but also to experience the clash of different cultures. I had the chance to learn the Suzuki method, get a taste of Odin Theatre and take part in a few productions of Commedia dell'Arte. Before I reached the legal age to vote in my country, I had already had 4 years of professional theatre behind me.
One of the people I remember the most of my time as an actor in Italy, is Mamadou Dioume. Being a former member of Peter Brook's theatre company, he taught the real value of a truthfully connected 'ensemble'. That's when I got fascinated by the energy of a company.
I started directing not long after that and never stopped. I traveled through different countries with different plays and reached out to every acting teacher I could 'grab'. I was eager to learn. I went on to work and study with some of the greatest such as Peter Brook himself and Yoshi Oida. During those years I learned that theatre can be called in many ways but that we are all seeking the same thing: truth.
I think I might be close to it here, in NYC with our company.
99: Why did you choose Jason Odell Williams "The Science of Guilt" to be the first production for the company?
Yusef: Well, it became clear that it would be tough to get people to come and see an unknown company put on another production of Hamlet. As well as fund it. And we had this play that had won our competition. To be honest more because of what we thought we'd found in the writer than the play itself. But we re-read it and agreed instantly that this is what we were going to do. And really that's all you need. It's a simple play to stage, a small number of characters, and perfect for a short run. 3 conditions that we had to meet for our first production. So many people we spoke to from great successful companies advised us to start small and hone our work. Which is exactly what we are doing.
It also allows us to carry out a little experiment of our own. We have this excellent play, thats hyper modern, super slick and sharp. That would sound pretty good in a reading. Exactly the sort of play that gets done a lot, and the productions of which never move us. But at the core of Jason's play is something very deep and bold and dangerous. It's up to us to get beneath the slickness and unearth it. Expose it. That is what we will judge ourselves on. It will be entertaining, it will look good. Such is the quality of the writing. But they are not our priorities. We want to elevate this play from any style or statement. Take something essentially episodic and modern, and show it's poetry and timelessness.
99: What has the process been like? Discuss development of the play etc.
Yusef: Well Jason has been ever present in out process. Which is what we want. And that has been invaluable. And will continue to be. Everyone has had input. Francesco, myself, Vincent and Sarah. We are now at the stage where all the parts have to come together to support the sum. It's a critical, but exciting time.We have a great team behind the production too. Brittany Connors, Bill Stonehouse, Anne Vincent, Arthur Wayne and many others.
Francesco: We approached this play with humility. We decided to let the impulses do the work and follow our instincts. I has been a huge challenge to put our egos aside and reach into our vulnerabilities. The struggle is far from being over but it can only resolve itself in a great success. There is a great value in what we have accomplished so far. Now it's time for the final sprint.
99: Explain your connection to Boardwalk Empire and how your experience with that show has influenced your process?
Yusef: I play Meyer Lansky in Boardwalk Empire. A fantastic role that I hope will continue for many years to come!
It hasn't so much influenced me as confirmed to me what I really believe in. Indeed it has given me huge confidence in what we are trying to do. There you have a truly world class ensemble, which is huge. From the cast, to the crew, to of course the writers. Everything about it is quality. And it all stems from the writing. Everyone listens to the writing and plays their part accordingly. From costume, to directing, from lighting to set design etc etc. I am over the moon to be a part of it.And of course, meeting and working with Vince has been a lovely bonus. We play soulmates, partners in crime, on the show, and life has begun to imitate art. Or the other way around, I'm not quite sure.
99: What is next for you guys?
Yusef: Next is a big Shakespeare. Hamlet or R&J. Next year sometime. All dependent, on who's available and when. And of course dependent on our old friend, funding.
99: What is the ultimate goal for the company? Where would you like to see yourself in five years?
Yusef: To have our own space/residency. To be doing a wide range of work annually. To be doing plays with large numbers of actors on stage at a time all talking over each other. To be working with our community. Be it in hospitals or schools. To be a stable, exciting and nourishing part of New York life. And at least once a year to get all our friends, in one room, and do a really bloody good play.
Francesco: We want to take this beautiful but damaged art form in our hands and "maybe fix it so life...".
Fixitsolife's first production begins performances this week and ticket can be found here.
Every time a new theatre company begins, we in New York are witness to a birth. Here's to a long life.
Read more of Michael's insights at www.oneproducerinthecity.typepad.com.