Continuing our coverage of the pairing of LaMaMa and Planet Connections Theatre Festivity for THE FLOOR IS LAVA, a full-scale run of a show that premiered as a workshop presented by the acclaimed Farm Theater Company. Opening May 9 and running through the 19th, at The Downstairs | 66 East 4th Street; Thursday to Saturday at 8PM; Sunday at 5PM; $25 Tickets; $20 Student/Senior Tickets. www.lamama.org or call 212-352-3101.
Playwright Alex Riad explained the show as the stress of having to succeed. With that in mind, we meet Sean, voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in high school, is not looking so successful a decade later. Reuniting with his high-school buddies at the launch party of their friend’s hugely successful app is certainly making his situation that much tenser.
We now meet John Gutierrez, a multidisciplinary artist originally from Washington Heights, a grad of NYU Tisch’s Experimental Theater Wing with a BFA in Drama. John was part of many NY Times “Critic’s Picks” including This Bridge Called My Ass at The Chocolate Factory, Panorama at La MaMa/Under The Radar.
As in the case of Kailah S. King, John and director, Glory Kadigan, have a theatrical history … and that history included LaMaMa Umbria. As David Diamond, co-founder of La Mama Umbria, will be leading a talkback with the artists of Floor Is Lava after the May 17th performance, it’s fitting to include it in our discussion.
How did the two of you meet and decide to collaborate together on The Floor Is Lava?
John: Glory and I met at La Mama Umbria during Erik Ehn’s amazing playwright retreat 2 summers ago. I don’t consider myself a playwright, not yet, maybe in the future, but Glory was actually one of the people who made me really feel like my writing could translate into that medium of expression someday.
Glory: We met at La Mama Umbria during a retreat with the brilliant experimental playwright Erik Ehn.
Tell me a little bit more about La Mama Umbria.
John: I know the phrase “magical place” is used a lot these days to describe everything from artistic/creative residencies to vacation getaways, but La Mama Umbria really is a magical place. It’s got a feeling, a particular type of presence. If you’ve spent time at La Mama you know that there is a sense of community that is imbued with humanity and artistry/creativity that is special and unique. This quality exists in Umbria as well, but is heightened because you are spending all of your time sharing yourself, your work, and your ideas in a beautiful villa that was re-designed for and created by artists who know what it means to need the space to explore. Being outside of NY also completely changes the energy of the work and experiences that are possible in Umbria. It’s as if anything is possible there because you realize, “I actually don’t need that much, this beautiful sunset, these beautiful people, this incredible food, I’m good with that right now.”
Glory: La Mama Umbria changed my life and if your an artist and have an opportunity to go there, I recommend going without hesitation. It’s a place where artists come from all over the world to create and explore theater together. I’ve met many wonderful international friends and have connected with so many amazing people. The program is run by David Diamond who is one of the kindest and most nurturing people in terms of the development of younger artists. He founded Umbria along with Ellen Stewart. At Umbria I’ve trained with some of the leading experimental La Mama artists including Liz Swados, Karin Conrad, Mac Wellman, Stephan Koplowitz, Erik Ehn, Nikilai Khalezin and Vladimir Shcherban of the Belarus Free Theatre, Dijana Milosevic, Marco Calvani, Hjalamar Jorge Joffre-Eichborn, David Diamond himself and many more. I’m so thankful for these experiences – and for the work that David, Mia, and the entire La Mama Umbria team do, to make that place what it is. Umbria is very special and I hope you get to go one day.
Tell me more about your previous experience with La Mama thus far.
John: La Mama is my home. I first came to La Mama when I was 17 years old. I was brought in to a rehearsal at Great Jones by the force of nature that is Liz Swados. If you don’t know her please look her up. No blurb of a description could ever do her justice. I was working as her assistant and was tasked with scouring the lower east side for “mirrors of all shapes and sizes”, Liz was working on a short musical version of the Narcissus myth. I performed at La Mama a couple times, but my first big show came 4 years later with The Shell Shocked Nut in The Ellen Stewart Theater directed by Marty Tornay of East Village Dance Project, another La Mama baby. All of a sudden I was the lead boy in an east village version of The Nutcracker, and I’d never really studied ballet. I remember Martha saying, “don’t worry, it’s easy I can teach you in three weeks”. 5 years later I’m still learning and taking classes from Martha. Performing this show was a dream come true. Fast forward 2 years, nearly 6 years after my first arrival at La Mama I was invited to join the Great Jones Rep Company which Liz was one of the founders of back in 1972.
Glory: La Mama is my home and for many years I’ve been a part of the La Mama community. This began when as a teenager, I first met Ellen Stewart. I resisted that call for a number of years. But, one day I did finally answer it. Every play I’ve ever written has been written at La Mama Umbria or within the context of La Mama New York. And as a director, I’ve met a diverse community that I continue to collaborate with in other venues across the globe.
La Mama typically supports experimentation in terms of story telling and/or in terms of the rehearsal process. How is this show unique in terms of process or storytelling?
John: I think this show is unique to La Mama, well… what La Mama is today, what we think is La Mama today, because it is an echo of its past. Ellen’s original mission was to help playwrights produce new works! They were experimental works, or what we think of today as experimental, because La Mama has always been the home to many freaks and runaways 🙂 I believe all theater can be experimental! For me theater is pushing the envelope or introducing a new way of seeing something that’s been done for a very long time. This play finds its way back to that relationship between La Mama and the playwright. You hear Ellen say this all the time in interviews, “welcome to la mama, we are dedicated to the playwright and all aspects of the theater”. I’m an experimental theater artist, I drank the cool-aid, so going back to a a more “conventional” narrative play structure and process has become experimental to me. What I love about this play is that these characters speak the way I do and are talking about things I’m only just beginning to understand in the past year or two. It is a play about me and my generation, but also about how we all struggle at this time in our lives. The world labels us millennials and people have their biases and stigmas around what that means, but at the end of the day we are talking about humans dealing with human problems in a world that has become almost unrecognizable by its technological advances. Millennials are in the middle of that evolution, we benefit from it, but we are also held to a different standard because of it. I believe we are seeing what that standard is doing to the emotional and psychological state of our country, I think Alex is brilliant at bringing these voices, new voices, to this medium.
Glory: Well we’ve been having an experimental process to develop a play that is more linear then the typical La Mama play. But, La Mama has always been a company that has nurtured artists of all backgrounds and ages. And, originally it was “dedicated to the playwright”. Alex is someone whose work I’ve always admired. We took a playwriting class together with Padraic Lillis and I knew – pretty early on during that class, that Alex was an artist I wanted to collaborate with. I’ve always identified with Alex’s work. To me this process has partially been one of finding the balance between “The world of La Mama” and “The world of Alex”. I think….when those two places merge and intertwine, something completely unique and captivating happens for an audience. The task of encouraging that merge is part of what I do in the room every day for both sides of the court. And I think we’ve gotten there. Alex is brilliant at bringing the voices of the millennial generation to the table, in a way that they can be heard by other generations. Frequently, when this is done by other millennials it’s, been more “millennials presenting for other millennials” – which can alienate other generations. Alex’s plays are accessible for other generations besides his own. And I think that’s one, of many things, he is brilliant at.
Speaking philosophically and specifically, what makes a good team in the arts?
John: Hmmm… I think respect is an incredibly powerful tool in art and teamwork. Respecting the space, the work, the history, and especially respecting the individuals that have signed on to bring all of themselves to do something that should otherwise be impossible. It’s hard enough for me to come to a decision about what to eat for lunch, let alone what a play with multiple characters, scenes, scenarios, costumes, props, lights, etc should ultimately be like.. and yet we do. I believe when artists are allowed to be the artists they have carved themselves out to be in the world and can come together to collaborate on an idea incredible things happen. We all have a unique contribution that no one else can contribute quite like we can, when that is not only allowed in a room, but made space for and encouraged, something is created that is unlike anything possible with a different group. This group has that. In rehearsal I see the artists interpretation of the script, of the world of that character and play, partnered with a director that lets us play with that idea and contributes to that development. It’s an amorphous thing constructed from collaboration and conversation. La Mama is an incubator for this type of development. We are all artists here.
What’s next for the two of you?
John: Together? I don’t know. I didn’t realize before this process that Glory directs many of Erik Ehn’s works and I’d be so down to do something like that. Been wanting to work on something written by Erik for a long time. Loved his retreat and working with him before. We’ve talked about it briefly, but also my schedule is really crazy right now. I’m currently, like as we speak and I’m doing The Floor is Lava, working on two maybe three other La Mama projects at the same time. Just got back from touring Panorama with The Great Jones and Motus, working on a Paul Foster play, Balls, with Great Jones and Culture Hub which is another super cool experiment, and some other work, We May Never Dance Again, going up at the Invisible Dog with the feath3r theory in June before touring a completely different show, This Bridge Called My Ass, with Miguel Gutierrez mid to late June. Everyone at La Mama is working different projects and is all over the place, I think that’s part of the beauty of being part of the La Mama family.
Glory: I’m working on a couple of new Erik Ehn plays. One at Sheen in June and another with Rising Sun in July. Also, Vivian’s Music 1969 will be playing in DC for four weeks so, I’m about to jump back into rehearsals for that. I know John and I will work together again – not sure when but, at some point. I’m heading out to La Mama Umbria this summer again – hopefully our paths will cross out there. You know, tgere’s always something special about artists who have trained out there together. Sometimes you don’t see them for months, and then you see them across a hallway at a rehearsal studio doing something and – “you know they know”……all the magic that a place like that, can give you – when you’re open to receiving the generosity of it. So….I guess I”m ready now. Took awhile but, I’m ready.