Monthly Archives: May 2012

Interview with Misha Kachman, Set Designer for Mr. Burns

The production team loads the car into the building for the set of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

About three weeks ago was the first rehearsal for Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, and as with most first rehearsals we heard presentations from the creative team—showing us their models and mock-ups and explaining their vision and what they’re going to be working on. When our Company Member Misha Kachman told us his set design for Mr. Burns was going to include the most amount of scenery he’s ever put on stage I was intrigued. Last week I spoke with Misha about what the process has been like so far.

Brooke Miller: When did you first find out you were going to be working on Mr. Burns, and what were your first impressions about the play?

Misha Kachman: I first found out I was going to work on Mr. Burns sometime last spring, that’s typically when theaters seek designers for their projects. Before I read the script I received about a three sentence synopsis and I thought wow I want to see that and be a part of that. I think also my friend Colin Bills told me about it—he said you have to be on this project, it’s a really cool idea.

BM: What is your process like for coming up with a set design? How much is your own brainstorming and how much is collaborative with the other artists involved?

MK: Well the process for this show was not a typical process because the needs of the play are incredibly specific. There’s poetic input on the part of the design team mostly about surfaces, textures, little things. But the play tells you what needs to be on stage at any given moment. The logistical challenge in this particular script is we need to find a way to get those things on stage in a way that’s elegant and practical. So it’s challenging but also very exciting—there’s three completely different locations in the play, very fleshed out locations, so how do you do that? Where do you keep all that stuff?  Some of the other brainstorming has been thinking about 80 years after collapse of civilization, what are shirt materials like? What kind of paint would still be around? What pigments haven’t faded? You have to be creative and curious and have to research those things.

BM: So building off of that, what sorts of research did you have to do for this show?

MK: Well we did lots of research about the iconography of the cartoon itself. People of the future don’t have visual evidence of what The Simpsons were like, everything is oral tradition. We studied how the imagery mutates—are the Simpsons recognizable 80 years from now? There’s this great book that playwright Anne Washburn recommended that the entire production team read, called The World Without Us. The author Alan Weisman wrote an exploration of civilization once it stops functioning—how it comes apart and what happens to materials, structures, and infrastructure in the future.

BM: At first rehearsal you told us that this is the most scenery that you’ve ever put on stage and you want the audience to wonder where we were keeping all of it. Can you talk a little bit about that?

MK: Yes, well in Act III the goal is to create a spectacle—to make the audiences’ jaws drop. In this scene the characters are resorting to the old forms of theater, such as baroque theater of 18th century. It’s idiosyncratic because we want it to be a spectacle but the visual elements have to look amateur and pathetic at the same time.

BM: I know you and our props master Jenn Sheetz had to travel to a junkyard to pick out car parts, what was that like?

MK: That was quite exciting, we needed the car to look very generic and it had to be compact and small, so we went with an early 1990s Toyota. The challenge was to figure out how to get into the building, it was just big enough to fit in the elevator. The real car was very heavy but they took out the engine, and now the car has to be “tricked out.” There’s a scene with three people dancing on the hood so we also have to make sure it can sustain that.

BM: What has been the most challenging part of designing this set for you?

MK: I think the most challenging part is ahead of us, getting through the tech rehearsals and putting this thing together. We have to find places to hide things on stage which is an exciting exercise in geometry…but I don’t want to give anything away. It’s a terrific script and at the end of the day it all comes to the words, if they’re funny and exciting and interesting.

BM: Is there anything else you want our audiences to know about?

MK: We’ve been cooking ourselves in this for awhile, for a year, so I’m looking forward to the reactions of people who don’t know the frame of the story, and the story is being told to them from scratch. I’m interested in finding out how this thing plays out for a person who doesn’t know or watch The Simpsons.

BM: So if you found out the world was going to end tomorrow, what things would you make sure to save?

MK: Well probably the tools of my trade such as brushes, paints, pen and ink, model making. I also think I would save my dog.

~Brooke Miller, Press and Digital Content Manager

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Post-Apocalyptic Survival Guide

“I ran into a guy in the Wal Mart.  We were talking about duct tape – there isn’t any left at the Wal Mart, of course, and I never got any before because I thought, well, really, what’s the use, and now I’m sorry because it’s handy…”
– Maria from Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

A great deal of scholarly meditation has been aimed at the questions surrounding our civilization’s demise. Many non-fiction tomes, academic articles, and well researched documentaries have examined the various ways all of humanity might perish and what that would mean for this planet we inhabit. But the most practical guides to the survival of human life post-apocalypse most certainly are found in popular fiction.

Whether it’s an alien robot invasion or someone forgetting to turn off all the lights at your local nuclear power plant, radiation will probably be a big problem in the post-apocalyptic world. But thanks to Battlestar Galactica I know what to do. Just take anti-radiation meds. Keeping a supply of potassium iodide around is probably a smart move for the apocalypse prepared. Is that headache dehydration or slowly building damage from radiation? You may not know until it’s too late, or you find a geiger counter. Either way the smart move is to just have those thyroid saving pills on standby now.

If you survive long enough to escape the fallout, you will probably have exhausted all the non-perishable food you were able to throw into a wheelie suitcase as you scrambled towards the evacuation route. So now you will be hungry, and if Into the Wild  taught me anything it’s that growing great facial hair does not mean you will automatically know a poisonous Pokeweed Berry from a delicious Blackberry. Luckily there are tons of travel size edible plant guides that will teach you how to get nutrition from the natural world around you. I would Amazon overnight one and put it in that emergency backpack you keep by your front door right away.

There are of course plenty of plausible apocalyptic scenarios where your primary concern may not be finding food, but instead you might find yourself trying to not become food. Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, The Walking Dead, and Scooby-Doo have all made it clear to me that our public school system’s failure to teach “Zombie Apocalypse Preparedness” is probably the single greatest problem in modern America. Luckily there is a great piece of extracurricular reading available to all of us, The Zombie Survival Guide. This must-read is full of useful information that could give you the edge you needed to remain living when the Living Dead rise. Who else is going to tell you to put down that shotgun and pick up an easy to use machete?

So there you have it: two books, a bottle of pills, a machete, and duct tape. All the tools you will need to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, no matter what hideous disaster destroys civilization.

~Cameron Huppertz, Literary Assistant

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Fandemonium: Super Fans and Building Communities

Fandom—the mental, digital, and physical space for fans to enjoy the heck out of a piece of pop culture—gets a bad rap sometimes. But the truth is, diehard Trekkers (never Trekkies, please), Potterheads, Whedonites, and their peers aren’t just connoisseurs of a given body of work.  Whether dressing up for San Diego Comic-Con, reading fanfiction at the Archive of Our Own, or just proclaiming the awesomeness of a given movie, book, or TV show, fans’ allegedly geeky pursuits are all directed towards the same endpoint: community.

It’s not hard to love something in your own mind, but where’s the fun in that? When you stumble on a character you want to learn from (or at least speak as wittily as), or you start to wonder how much of the story is happening offscreen, or you see your own world reflected on the page, you’re all but guaranteed that someone else feels the same way. And together, you can explore whatever has you both so intrigued.

Those connections aren’t just the start of individual friendships. The power and potential of whatever we’re watching, reading, or listening to brings fans together and gives fandom shape. That’s the gateway to the best kinds of superficial excitement, new realms of academic thought, and creative exercises beyond what the original authors and creators could have imagined. There’s value in pop culture beyond entertainment, and having fellow fans to share (or debate) your discoveries with only compounds that value.

That’s the reason so much fandom action happens online. Not only can fan communities connect at the click of a mouse, but everyone has a voice on the Internet. It’s also the perfect place to build movements around a common interest—look at fans of NBC’s Chuck rallying for Subway sponsorship of their favorite TV show, Hunger Games aficionados banding together against real-world hunger, or Browncoats screening their favorite movie in support of its creator’s favorite charities.

Of course, Mr. Burnshandful of “post-electric” survivors don’t have Internet access, or even much of a fanbase on hand. But even still, their appreciation for The Simpsons brings them together in spite (or perhaps because) of the world around them. They welcome a new member to their circle when he offers up some trivia they’d forgotten. In later acts, the act of being fans—of recalling and retelling Bart’s adventures and considering what these stories mean to their audiences—literally becomes our heroes’ livelihood*. And throughout the play, fandom gives the group a common cause to work off of—for basic survival, for income, and for the rebuilding of humanity.

Because, at its heart, fandom is about building community.

*Of course, in the event of an actual apocalypse, you may be better off having fans of the Terminator franchise or I Am Legend on your team.

~Allison Ehrich Bernstein, Working Group Member

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The Civilians and the Development of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

Founded in 2001 by Artistic Director Steve Cosson along with a group of associate artists (including Mr. Burns playwright Anne Washburn and composer Michael Friedman), The Civilians is the center for investigative theater. We support artists who are creating new plays from investigations about real-life topics. Our artists find topics that they are passionate or curious about, and head out into the world to find some answers. Their methods can include conducting interviews, research, community residencies, and other activities that allow artists to explore their topics in an in-depth and personal way. They find people with unusual perspectives on their topics, which can include writers, business owners, spiritual leaders, politicians, cops, people on the street, and sometimes each other, seeking the stories that we don’t see on TV and that the mainstream media misses. In other words, they get the real stories as experienced by the people—by the civilians.

In 2008, a group of Civilians Associate Artists set out to explore the notion of a post-apocalyptic Simpsons narrative. Playwright Anne Washburn, director Steve Cosson, and six actors got together for a one week workshop focused on the topic. They did many different kinds of improvisation exercises, one of which was focused on recreating the Cape Feare episode of The Simpsons from memory (and as it turns out, our Associate Artist Matt Maher was incredibly good at this). Anne Washburn then took her notes and audio recordings and started writing what is now Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. The Act 1 recollection of the Simpsons episode is pulled almost verbatim from these exercises. The rest of Act I, and Acts II and III were created by Anne, although very much inspired by the energy and capacity of the original actors and by her discussions with Steve. The characters share first names –and some share a few characteristics—with the actors in the original workshop. We’ll leave you to find out who is who, and to guess which qualities match up with their real-life counterparts!

The creative process that led to Mr. Burns combined elements from a lot of these projects, along with a few totally new approaches to investigative theater. The company’s first show, Canard, Canard, Goose? found our artists up in the Adirondack mountains examining alleged geese abuse connected with the feature film Fly Away Home. They conducted interviews without tape recorders and reenacted their conversations immediately after they were finished. Recent projects using verbatim interviews have explored Evangelical Christianity in Colorado Springs, the community fight over the site where the new Brooklyn Nets stadium is being built, and the Occupy movement. For our recent project, You Better Sit Down, four artists interviewed their parents about their parent’s divorces, and then played their parent (or parents) in the verbatim conversations. The company’s investigations about the environment and the adult entertainment industry have inspired playwrights to work on fictional narratives inspired by research. One thing is for sure: our investigations have never taken us past the Apocalypse before!

~Rosalind Grush, Development and Communications Associate, The Civilians

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Digiturgy

From UrbanDictionary.com:

digital [dij-i-tl] adjective 1. Describes any kind of information that is stored as a sequence of bits rather than as the kind of information stored without sharp differences like a flow of sound on tape or ink on paper, which are examples of analog record. The analog information is susceptible to noise, aging and corruption during copying much more than the digital media. 2. Slang for cool, awesome, boss, pro, wicked, rad, gnarly, nasty, crazy, sweet, etc…

From Dictionary.com:

dramaturg [dram-uh-turj] noun – specialist in the craft or the techniques of dramatic composition, especially one who acts as a consultant to a theater company, advising them on possible repertory.

From My Internship at Woolly Mammoth:

digiturgy [dij-i-tur-jee] noun – 1. the gnarly examination of the wicked cool craft or technique of dramatic composition using awesomely boss information that is stored as a sequences of bits.

When I got to Woolly Mammoth I had never actually been a dramaturg on a show before. However I was a borderline unhealthy social media consumer and amateur blogger, which turned out to be pretty useful when I started work as the Assistant Dramaturg for A Bright New Boise. John Baker, the lead Dramaturg for the show, was interested in creating an online version of the Actor Packet dramaturgs typically produce to help contextualize a production for the actors. The wealth of images, videos, and This American Life episodes we felt could be useful for the actors was just not going to be easily shared through the standard paper packets Woolly had been using previously. A blog however, is the perfect format for sharing and organizing all the information we wanted to share.

So I got to work building us a Tumblr page. At first the blog was just a great tool for sharing and organizing the type of content that you can’t print—videos, large images, links to webpages, and audio clips, but John and I decided to make the most of this experiment. Instead of viewing this page as just an online version of the paper packet we started to imagine ways everyone involved in the production could interact and build a shared sense of purpose around the show.

Managing Director Jeff Herrmann’s trip to a Hobby Lobby

We did little things at first, like posting images the cast and Woolly staff took when they visited Hobby Lobby stores. Once we extended the invitation to interact with the blog to the whole Woolly team people started bringing me things specifically to post on the blog—my favorite moment was finding a flyer at my desk detailing exactly how the world would end. As the set, props, and costumes started to take shape in the shop, I would go and take pictures of the progress to post on the blog, and again everyone got very excited about contributing to the blog, seeking me out when they had something cool for me to photograph.

The blog didn’t just act as a site for interaction and conversation around the production, but really became a resource for the rehearsal room as well. When an actor would mention an article or video they thought really resonated with a particular scene, I was able to find it online, post it, and anyone working on the production could find it there. Not only did this crowd-sourced dramaturgical research generate a wide variety of high quality information, but it also gave more people a sense of ownership about the project, that I think contributed to the consistent number of daily visitors to the page and the amazing conversations about this show that took place in the rehearsal room and all over the theatre.

Based on this success, I was very interested in continuing our digiturgical experiment as the Assistant Dramaturg for Woolly’s production of Mr. Burns, a post electric play. Since Mr. Burns takes place in three acts over 82 years, pulls on pop culture references that span over a century, and takes places in a post-apocalyptic world inspired by books like The World Without Us, “time” presented itself as a really clear way to organize actor packet information. That lead me to Dipity, a site that lets users generate online timelines.

I plotted each of the play’s acts, the origins of the major cultural references, predictions about the “post-electric world,” and historical examples of nuclear disasters and abandoned cities on two Dipity timelines and embedded them in a blog, so that each timeline entry linked to a blog post with more images, videos, and information about each event. Then I added tags to every blog post so that the whole site could be easily organized and searched by topic. This thing is heaven in blog-form for my inner nerdy kid.

We are just now entering the second week of rehearsal, so it is early to make any judgments about the success of this Mr Burns blog. Hopefully this way of organizing information will be a helpful resource for the cast.

~Cameron Huppertz, Literary Assistant

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Mashups

In the music industry, it is common for artists to practice “sampling,” which is taking a portion of one sound recording and reusing it in a different song or piece. Some popular examples:

Queen/David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” in Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”

 

Rick James’ “Superfreak” in MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”

 

Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” in Destiny’s Child “Bootylicious”

 

John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” in Jessica Simpson’s “I Think That I’m in Love with You”

 

One step beyond this is the “mashup” which has become popular recently. In a mashup, two or more songs are performed together in a row or intermittently throughout the piece. The TV show Glee (yes I still watch it) even had an episode entitled “Mash-Up” in which Mr. Schuester attempts to create a mashup wedding medley for Emma and Ken. There are also a bunch of mashups that the Glee kids have performed, here is one of my recent favorites:

 

Perhaps the most famous mashup-er is Girl Talk AKA Gregg Gillis. A former engineering student, Gillis often mixes a dozen or more samples from different songs to create a new song. Here are some examples:

 

In Mr. Burns, a post-electric play make sure you pay attention for some mashups of pop hits from the past ten years. Do you have any favorite samplings or mashups?

~Brooke Miller, Press and Digital Content Manager

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The Tradition of Storytelling

There is nothing worse (or more meta) then attempting to write a blog post about storytelling… and trying to avoid telling a story. Or trying not to sound trite. Or too heady. And suppressing the urge to start with “once upon a time…”

Great—now that the bad ideas are out of the way…

I got to thinking about the tradition of storytelling after reading Mr. Burns, a post-electric play once through and feeling two things:

  1. Flabbergasted. “SERIOUSLY? Of all the great stories of our lifetimes, The Simpsons will be the ones getting the human race through the apocalypse?!”
  2. Deeply assured. Even in times of peril, I feel confident that the human race will continue to tell stories in every way necessary and imaginable.

I could pretend to be a history scholar and trace back storytelling to ritual dance and cave paintings, but that would be terribly false of me. What I will say is there are many ways to tell a story (spoken or through song, illustrations, and written word) and there are many reasons we, as humans, tell stories. I know I personally tell stories to entertain; to put a smile on someone’s face. My mother, an Irish Traditional flute player, tells stories through song; carrying on the rich cultural history of a country hundreds of miles away and preserving it for the future. Others tell stories to caution, to inform, to glorify, to memorialize, to move, to energize, to ignite… I could go on.

Some of my favorite storytellers:

Frank Warren of Post Secret

Post Secret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously to Frank Warren on one side of a homemade postcard.

Rober Krulwich & Jad Abumrad, hosts of Radio Lab podcasts

Radio Lab is described as “a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.”

Marie de France, a poet and troubadour popular during the 12th century, famous for The Lais of Marie de France

As you watch the journey our human society takes in Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, notice the ways in which the stories told around a campfire for comfort and hope can evolve. How do they propel us into the future? How do they hold our threads of humanity together? The simplicity of the story is sometimes what makes it the most powerful.

~Melanie Harker, Connectivity Assistant

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