Monday, April 6, 2009
Artist Interview: Co-Op Theatre East
This is the first of my ongoing series of artist interviews. I spoke with Ashley Marinaccio, Robert A.K. Gonyo and Casey Cleverly, the Co-Artistic and Literary Directors of Co-Op Theatre East, respectively. All graduates of the Performance Studies MA at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, they founded COTE in April 2008. Their production of My Name is Rachel Corrie is playing now at New York's Kraine Theater from April 4-7th. I spoke with them via Skype between shows as they huddled around a laptop outside the theatre before decamping to Tompkins Square Park for a stronger wireless signal...
JOE: Welcome and thanks for talking to me to today.
ASHLEY: Thanks so much for interviewing us!
JOE: No problem. I read about what you are doing and I was interested to hear more.
ASHLEY: Great! I'm here with Casey and Robby. Okay... we just threw a jacket over us so that we can see the computer screen because it's VERY bright outside. I’m having someone take a picture of us so you can see this craziness. We’re afraid to move because we don't want to lose our connection.
JOE: Ha. Okay. There is a metaphor in there somewhere, I think... So tell me about your company. This is your first season?
ASHLEY: Yes, we're just finishing our up our first season. MNIRC is the last show. We formed in April of 2008 (celebrating our first Birthday this month!) We formed this company because we're interested in making theatre that impacts social consciousness.
The three of us are activists in addition to performers/directors/playwrights etc.
And we want to create a forum for like minded people to come together and create art that influences dialogue about contemporary issues. We want to bring together the off-off Broadway community. There are tons of small companies out there and we would like to create a support network for these companies (and artists like ourselves).
We are also in the process of starting an alternative theatre ‘zine.
The zine (called the COTE Rack) will feature articles pertaining to current events and issues in the off-off community.
CASEY: We're also encouraging developing new works by playwrights who want to create social dialogue through our reading series "COTE TALES."
JOE: That's interesting. So before we talk about your theater work I want to know what you mean by "social consciousness".
ASHLEY: Social consciousness.... is making people think about the "community" as opposed to individual needs. We use community broadly... anywhere from the Lower East Side to the Global Community.
JOE: So you are imagining that alternative theatre can be used to bridge the various gaps between people and the vast space between local (LES) and Global?
Did I get that right?
CASEY: Yes, exactly.
JOE: So I suppose the logical next question is what you mean by "alternative theatre"?
ASHLEY: That's a great question... by alternative theatre, we're talking about anything that's not being seen by the mainstream commercial Broadway and regional houses and the "for profit" community.
JOE: So you are defining "alternative" as a business model almost? As a contrast to the commercial theatre?
CASEY: in terms of our business model, it can be both. I feel that for a theater to adopt a philosophy that entails creating new and interesting art before it considers profit also creates an environment that is an "alternative" to playhouses that consider the individualistic profits of the artists and playhouse.
We think of the issue before the classification... it's not so much art for arts sake, but art as a mode of expression for whatever issue we're exploring.
JOE: Interesting: so this is where the activism and the artwork come into contact for you? Almost as a form of social research?
I guess that brings us to My Name is Rachel Corrie. What drew you to this play?
ROBBY: It's a beautiful play about one person who cares enough about her cause to risk her life for it.
CASEY: We also love the fact that it's documentary theatre and developed directly from the primary source.
JOE: Did you see the original production when it played in New York?
ASHLEY: Yes - I saw it at Minetta Lane when it first came to NY.
JOE: Me too. I had mixed feelings about the production, although I agree the play was very moving.
ASHLEY: Our production is a bit different. We have 2 Rachels (a young Rachel and older Rachel) and our only set piece is a bunk bed.
JOE: Interesting. When I saw it I imagined a whole stage full of Rachels: what made you decide to split her in two? So to speak.
ASHLEY: I have been thinking about the loss of innocence... we have a young Rachel (age 12) and the older Rachel and we decided to split her in two to reveal a loss of innocence after experiencing life in a war zone.
I think a stage full of Rachels would be a great approach too. We had spoken (in the beginning) about having more than 1 older Rachel.
JOE: When the original production came to New York it was controversial. When I attended the theatre there were people standing outside, passing out fliers refuting the veracity of her testimony. I declined to take one so I am not sure what their individual points were, although I have read that the Israeli Army claims that the house that she was protecting with her body was above tunnels employed by terrorists.
ROBBY: We're confident that there is no way Rachel would have knowingly protected a "network of terrorists" so to speak. It's going to be disputed either way. What's important to take from this is that this girl believes in a cause so strongly she makes the ultimate sacrifice.
JOE: Have you had any problems with protesters? Or has anyone expressed disapproval over your inclusion of this show is your season?
ASHLEY: We've gotten a few angry e-mails but that's about it. All anonymous e-mails.
JOE: What was the substance of the objections in the emails? Was there a specific argument?
ASHLEY: There was no substance actually, just anger. Some foul words.
JOE: So they were upset that you'd produce the play in the first place and that's it?
ASHLEY: Yes, which is disappointing, because there should be dialogue... not just empty cuss words
JOE: Wow. I was expecting some argument at least. Huh.
ASHLEY: I guess that's what their objectives were. More backlash wouldn't have surprised us, but I guess that's because the play has been done many times in NY.
JOE: You mentioned documentary theatre earlier.
ASHLEY: Yes! I LOVE documentary theatre.
JOE: In her essay on documentary theatre in TDR Carol Martin questions the form because it is derived from an archive--which is always an operation of power.
She specifically mentions My Name is Rachel Corrie as a flawed example--and argues that in compiling the documents that comprise the play Rickman left out anything that might make her unsympathetic. Or cause the audience to question her claims.
What do you make of these objections and how does that fit with your interest in documentary theatre?
ROBBY: The world is a structure of power. You can't escape it. Every play picks and chooses what it wants to say. WE (as individuals) pick and choose what we want to say. We're doing it right now.
ASHLEY: Carol Martin has a point, but it shouldn't invalidate the play (any play) or the words. Because, you can make that argument about any play (not only documentary theatre) and it's the same argument when discussing power structures in the media.
JOE: When I spoke with Ashley earlier about setting up the interview I mentioned Caryl Churchill's play Seven Jewish Children--which isn't documentary theatre--but was written in response to the assault on Gaza. It has also been controversial. Churchill has been openly accused of anti-semitism. Does it worry you that you are opening yourselves up to a similar charge by producing My Name is Rachel Corrie?
ROBBY: Of course! Rachel even says it in the play; "the toughest thing from any non-Jewish person in talking about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is that you will be accused of anti-semitism."
ASHLEY: There must be a firm distinction between "Jewish" and the policies of the Israeli Government.
There is a difference between someone who is Muslim, for example, and the policies of Iran or Saudi Arabia.
JOE: Have you talked among yourselves about how you'd handle it if something like that happened to you? Carol Churchill is one of the greatest living playwrights working in English and she has gotten a big backlash over this. You guys are just starting out as a company...
ASHLEY: We have to do work we believe in, we love this play and believe in it.
We believe that this play should be seen.
JOE: I agree about making these distinctions, especially because there are so many Jews who oppose the occupation. I think, ironically enough, that it is easier to criticize Israeli policies within Israel than it is in the US.
They get the distinction there a lot more easily than people in the US seem to.
ASHLEY: I agree with you! I was just in Israel a few weeks ago. I believe that MNIRC was done in Haifa before it even came to the USA. It went from the UK to Israel and then the USA.
JOE: So your company is driven by a sense of social engagement... you have talked about how that impacts what plays you chose for your season, but how does it change the way your work on them?
CASEY: We try to be collaborative in our projects.
ROBBY: In future works, we're interested in finding ways to further engage the audience.
JOE: I think in making work that has political content you have the added task of persuasion...above and beyond entertainment. How do deal with that?
Because we have all seen deadly dull political theatre, right?
How do you make it a great night at the theatre AND use it to build those bridges you were talking about earlier?
ASHLEY: It's not about persuasion... it's about encouraging thought. Theatre with the objective of only persuasion will fail... it will be trite and fail. Our object is to encourage dialogue, thought and to ask questions. Perhaps there will not necessarily be answers to these questions... but we want to ask them. We make it entertaining. Theatre is entertainment.
ROBBY: It has to be entertaining. Nobody wants to be lectured at. We know this.
JOE: You see the role of your theatre to...raise questions, then?
ASHLEY: There are all different kinds of theatre. Our theatre is to raise questions and encourage dialogue.
CASEY: There is a place in the world for pure entertainment, but that's not what we're trying to do or what we want to make with Co-Op Theatre East.
JOE: Have you reached out to any organizations here in NYC re: your show?
I got a message about it through ISM-NYC. (International Solidarity Movement)
ASHLEY: I am on a lot of the progressive NYC listservs so I usually send our information out there if there is something appropriate for it. However, we did not reach out to any one specific group for this show.
I sent it to THAW (Theatres Against War) and several Arab American listservs.
JOE: But you have made an effort to include the progressive community in your marketing?
ASHLEY We always do... we're progressives! It's nothing specific to this show... it's just who we are.
JOE: Cool, great.
Okay, I will let you guys get dinner and go do your evening performance.
Thanks for talking with me.
ASHLEY: Thank you so much! And thanks for including us and thinking of us for your blog!
JOE: No problem. My pleasure.
ASHLEY: Hope you can come see the show!!!!
We will comp you!
JOE: Lol, great.
ASHLEY: Have a good night! Ma'saalame!
JOE: Break a leg.
To learn more about Ashley, Robert and Casey and their work visit: