5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Melba LaRose

Sanford Biggers, Infinite Tabernacle, 2017, all images courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery. This video installation shows a BAM figure being shot before the tape runs backwards and the figure is healed and made whole.

In the whimsically upside-down world of NY Artists Unlimited, whose mission it is to deliver professional theater to “under-served audiences,” bad theater can sometimes be good theater and the cringe-worthy can sometimes be highly alluring.

Melba LaRose with two Golden Pineapple winners: Tony Spinosa and Don Cummings

Founded in 1982, the organization is both a nonprofit touring company in inner-city neighborhoods, a fine harbor for artist-teachers in many genres (creative dramatics, improvisation and comedy, poetry writing and performing, among them) and the producer of Cringefest, an annual festival of — well, I’ll give you three guesses and you’d better nail it on your first attempt.

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NY Artists Unlimited also bestows something called the Golden Pineapple Award, an honor which, with full sincerity, is given to the true stewards of the theater. This year, for example, the recipients include playwright-actor-doyen Charles Busch, playwright Israel Horovitz, Off-Off-Broadway legend Doric Wilson, Back Stage Editor-at-Large Sherry Eaker and Ellie Covan, founder and executive director of the incomparable Dixon Place.

We wanted to talk to Melba LaRose, the organization’s artistic director, about Cringefest, though, because the name of the festival alone begs so many questions. For example, each evening in the festival is themed: the performances on July 27, July 31 and Aug. 4 are grouped under the banner of “Sex Encounters of a Disturbed Mind,” are directed by Robert Bartley, and feature the following plays: Melanie Wallner’s Chat Room; Bruce Post’s Would Ya?; Paul J. Lawrence’s Clean Up, Aisle Six; David Schrag’s Bagel Shopping and Phil in Customer Service; George J. Bryjak’s Jump!; Jon Brooks’ After Life; and Mark LaPierre’s musical Zombie Strippers. (The other thematic categories are “Psycho Bitch Party,” “Is That a Corncob in Your Pocket?,” “Sex, Thugs & Rockin’ Roles,” “Dow Jones Meets Deep Throat” and “No Holes Barred.”

Like I said, so many questions are begged. And that is to say nothing about the awards voted on by the audience — not just the Golden Pineapple but the Silver Tomato, the Bronze Banana and Jack Lemons for the actors. Whee!

Cringefest ’10 runs through Aug. 8 at the Grand Theatre at the Producers Club (358 W. 44th St.). For tickets or for more information, visit www.nyartists.org or call 212-242-6036.

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And now, 5 questions Melba LaRose has never been asked — and a bonus question:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“You’ve had a lot of pain in your life, haven’t you?,” which surprised me because [the show] was a musical comedy revue on changing social/ sexual mores of the 1970s called Get Your Rocks off and Roll!, a project I created at Lonny Chapman’s Group Repertory Theatre in L.A. I got together 20 women to write about the important moments in their lives: having your first orgasm (after 20 years of marriage and three children); sitting on a bidet in Europe; dealing with children who are more free-thinking than you are; free love, etc. It was simultaneously hilarious and poignant. Some of the women had never written before and went on to become professional writers. When my yogi told me we choose our lives before coming into this one, I was horrified to think I had chosen mine. But, in the long run, I’ve learned that all I have gone through has made me into the artist and person that I am today. Most particularly, it gave me quite the warped sense of humor about life.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
In regard to the Bad Plays Festival, which has since morphed into the International Cringefest: “When do the bad plays start?” I know the person who said this was trying to be complimentary, but in every piece of publicity that goes out, we explain that these plays are not bad in the literal sense of the word, that they are, in fact, good — they to be or we would be bored to tears and would have no audience. We think of it more as little children being bad. Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy has raised this to the level of High Cartoon Art. We’re just doing it with real actors.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
In my plays that tour to under-served audiences, there are always issues of importance to targeted groups. Generally, these issues concern discrimination in its many forms, the futility of war and the damage it does in the world, the intolerance we often demonstrate to others who seem “different” from us, etc. Voices of the Town — A Vaudeville Salute! was about the history of the American art form and what it did for African Americans, women and immigrants. The weirdest question was: “Immigrants — those are the people who come here and take our jobs, right?” It came from a 7-year-old African-American girl. I could only think: “You have to be carefully taught.” I was so thrown, I had to have one of the actors answer her.

4) What’s the difference between the work in CringeFest and plain old bad theater? How do you assess the difference — and what is your expectation of the audience’s ability to assess the difference? Is there a kind of theater universally accepted as poor (as opposed to parodying)?
I think we all recognize what’s truly bad theater. Actually, I have a love of bad films and thought that’s what we were looking for in the beginning. As we read the initial submissions, we realized this doesn’t work, this is boring. Then the writers actually informed what we sought through their submissions — satirical, politically incorrect, naughty, irreverent plays and musicals that kept us laughing all the way. It isn’t even good enough to be funny in the beginning and then not so funny. It’s a tricky genre. Once the audience tunes out, they’re ready for something else. That’s why the material is limited to 45 minutes. The audience flags very quickly. You need to keep surprising them or they’re gone. We have had the unfortunate experience of writers who think they can push the envelope. Now, there are contracts they sign that state that they can be dropped from the festival if they go overtime. Shorter is definitely better. One of my very favorites in the current festival is less than five minutes long.

The cast of "Zombie Strippers"

5) What is the process by which you choose pieces for the festival? How do you make sure each evening doesn’t become a repetitive series of topical jokes or overly relies on certain techniques, like irony or satire?
Hundreds of submissions are read aloud by professional actors in my living room twice a week from January through April. They have to pass three times to be accepted, and there are different actors to discuss them each time. As visual as I am, I don’t always know what’s going to leap off the page. Once they are chosen, I review them and see what themes emerge. Then, I come up with a punny, titillating theme title. So, “Is That a Corncob in Your Pocket?” would include Small Talk; Red Dirt, White Trash; Whittlin’ Dixie; The Clothing Line and The Great Pig Robbery.

It’s like playing with a puzzle. Eventually, the plays fall in line and I begin to look at the collection and put them in order as if they are a full-length play, thinking of how the audience will experience them. It’s important that there’s a beginning, middle and an end, and that the evening is satisfactory as a whole. Of course, they still have to be distinct from one another because all pieces compete for the Golden Pineapple, Silver Tomato and Bronze Banana awards — and the Jack Lemons for the actors. This was my vision from the beginning of the festival in 2005. Last year, I was finally able to convince our stable of directors to take on whole theme evenings and use a basic team of actors in different roles so evenings could become smoother. It was so successful that we created a new award — Best Direction of a Theme Evening — which was won by Tony Spinosa. It was Tony’s second Golden Pineapple in a row. He’s now resident director on La Cage aux Folles on Broadway as well as our supervising director. Not bad to have someone bouncing between our festival and the Longacre Theatre!

Bonus question:

6) NY Artists Unlimited has worked to bring theater and art to underserved audiences for nearly 30 years. Who or what are underserved audiences? How has the definition altered through the years? At what point can a group measurably go from underserved to served?
Underserved audiences are people who, because of economics, geographical location, disability, age and the like, cannot afford tickets or gain access to thought-provoking entertainment. When I toured years ago with the Obie-winning New York Street Theatre Caravan, we went to these audiences in jails, shelters, domestic abuse facilities, etc. In many cases, these were dangerous places where we had to go through metal detectors to get to the stage. We performed at Atlantic Mens Shelter in the Armory when it housed a thousand men and killings were common. They would sit there and mock us as we put up the set. (Mind you, we were doing Marketa Kimbrell’s interpretation of The Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov.) By the time we finished, though, the audience couldn’t do enough for us — they took down the set, carried it out and wanted to join the company. They told their counselors we were the only company that didn’t insult them. As precarious as the settings were, these were my favorite under-served audiences.

Still, when I founded NY Artists Unlimited, I decided not to try to convince my actors to go into these places. Show business is tough enough. So, we book into nursing homes, senior centers, community centers, recreation centers, libraries, schools and sometimes colleges — all in areas where the population is one that is not offered free theater or perhaps do not know what theater could mean to their lives. It’s astounding that even in New York City there are young people who have no idea what theater is. We tour throughout the boroughs and the Northeast, trying to create a new audience for theater. The material I write is about validating and empowering these people. My latest play, Isaiah’s Dream — A Parade of Poets, is about a little Harlem boy who thinks poetry is stupid and could mean nothing to his life. He falls asleep and from his book arise three spirits who take on the guise of poets from around the world and throughout time. In the end, they help Isaiah find his own voice and he writes a stirring poem about Martin Luther King. It is based on a real illiterate boy in one of our children’s workshops who actually wrote the poem, having no idea he could write or that anyone would be moved by what he had to say. So in the end, I’d have to say that the under-served are now our children who have had art and theater taken away from them because of an under-funded educational system. If we can truly build an audience for theatre, then these children will go from under-served to served.

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