A child who speaks the language of birds, a babe born of an inanimate object, and a crone who can curse or bless in equal measure: what do these multicultural tall tales have in common? In the case of Theatre 167’s production of You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase, the answer is Jackson Heights, Queens. Set at the intersection of what is real and make-believe, Suitcase may require audiences to unpack some cynicism and suspend disbelief, but the payoff is to regain — however briefly — the sense of wonder that reminds us that New York City can be a magical place.
Playwright Jenny Lyn Bader (In Flight; None of the Above) is one of seven writers who labored over the course of eight months to creatively fill this Suitcase. True to Theatre 167’s mission — to embrace a collaborative process and to investigate “intersections, boundaries and borders” — the main threads of the story are inspired by folk and fairy tales gathered by the writers through informal interviews with residents of Jackson Heights, one of New York’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods. While the play is unapologetically a love letter to this community in particular, its themes easily apply to the collective that is New York City, touching upon such relevant topics as immigration, civility and social tolerance.
Co-founded in 2010 by Bader, Ari Laura Kreith and a core group of collaborators, Theatre 167 has made a considerable impact on the independent theater scene since its inception. In 2015, the company received the Caffe Cino Fellowship Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation in recognition of their continued outstanding work in the Off-Off-Broadway milieu.
Kreith conceived and directed Suitcase, which was co-written by Bader, Mando Alvarado, Barbara Cassidy, Les Hunter, Joy Tomasko, Gary Winter, and Stefanie Zadravec. Angie Balsamo served as dramaturg. The current cast — at The West End Theatre, where Theatre 167 is in residence (at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, 263 W. 86th St., 212-362-3179) — includes Tori Ernst, Nathaniel Gotbaum, John D. Haggerty, Kevis Hillocks, Mariana Cardenas, Derick James Sherrier, Jr., Mauricio Pita, Michael Markham, Nic Grelli, Pooya Mohseni and Elodie Morss. Scenic designer Jen Price Fick offers platforms and roll-away pieces for quick locale changes, and costume designer Jessa-Raye Court suggests at character and caste with a swath of fabric and the cut of a jacket. Simple, yet effective lights and sound are offered by Jason Fok and Andy Evan Cohen, respectively.
Serving as both artistic producer for the company and as a writer on all three plays in this trilogy, Bader has been involved with this show since its beginning.
Prior to this Suitcase’s arrival, the play premiered in 2011 in the school cafeteria at P.S. 69 in Jackson Heights — a testament to the fact that great theater can be found anywhere if one is willing to reserve judgment and look around. Part of a trilogy of plays, it was staged in rotating rep in Manhattan in 2013, and an immersive version was staged as part of the closing ceremonies for Queens Museum’s biennial, Queens International, in January 2014. The current production runs 75 minutes without intermission through Sun., May 1, then returning to Jackson Heights on Fri., May 6, at a site to be announced.
And now, five questions Jenny Lyn Bader has never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
It was, “Do you find yourself returning to a recurring theme in all of your plays?” The wording of the question acknowledges something important about the creative process: we collaborate with our subconscious mind over time. The questioner also asked it in an especially perceptive way. Recently institutionalized, he had the intense vocal timbre of the clinically insane, and somehow caused me to have an epiphany about my own subconscious themes. Appropriately enough, those themes had to do with the relationship between the conscious and the subconscious, intellect and intuition, science and art.
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
I once wrote a play where Act I ended amid lots of suspense and unresolved narrative questions, and then at intermission someone asked me if it was over. I thought to myself, wow, either this person missed something or he must be accustomed to seeing very unsatisfying plays… Maybe it wasn’t idiocy but rather he took a small catnap? These things happen.
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
In my play Manhattan Casanova, there is a compulsive seducer, John Casey, so named because I wanted an American name with sounds that recalled the Italian legend Giacomo Casanova. A well-meaning acquaintance asked me if I had named him after — and based him on — my brother John.
You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase is the second installment in Theatre 167’s Jackson Heights Trilogy (with 167 Tongues serving as Part I and Jackson Heights 3 a.m. as Part III). With the understanding that each play functions independently, why did Theatre 167 decide to remount this particular play at this time? How would you say this production differs from its original incarnation?
There is a lot of talk about immigration right now, but there is a hopeful element missing from that conversation. Our director, Ari Laura Kreith, wanted to revisit You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase in light of the refugee crisis, and we’ve looked at the play again through that lens. It’s a play about a melting pot community, full of people who are from somewhere else, and they encounter difficulties, but they also encounter joy and humor and magic. It’s set in an enchanted New York City. One character speaks 15 languages, including an invented one. We’ve made a lot of changes that we feel honor these characters and their journeys and will also surprise audiences who saw the first version.
Also, Theatre 167 has been in residence at The West End Theatre for two years now, in a neighborhood full of families, and we also wanted to bring our most family-friendly show here. We don’t see it as children’s theater, per se, but rather as a play truly for all ages. We love the way theater can bring people together — people of different backgrounds and different generations. Suitcase, with its international and fantastical elements, fosters that spirit of inclusion.
There were seven playwrights involved in the writing of Suitcase, with 18 playwrights in total credited for authorship of the trilogy. What was that process like for you? Was there anything surprising about your own independent process as a playwright that you discovered in working collaboratively?
Yes, I co-authored all three trilogy plays. Over time we found each play became increasingly collaborative. Co-authorship is not for everybody. It has its challenges. Working with a group of writers is different than working with just one co-writer, which I had done before. But I found that I’m a very collaborative person. Indeed, at times, I’m a little too collaborative. I’m often willing to contort a scene I drafted so it will mesh with other people’s scenes. I have to guard against that a little — sometimes with directors or designers, too — that instinct to rearrange my own concept to further someone else’s. At times my initial instinct or concept is worth protecting. It’s been illuminating to explore those limits with my fellow writers.
You were raised in a theatrical household. Knowing that all children rebel to some degree against their parents, what would you say were your greatest boons and challenges as a developing artist? How would you say that has shaped your work? And speaking of work, do you have any additional upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
I remember seeing a play when I was 10 years old, and telling my mom that I thought it was amazing because there were a dozen actors and every single actor in the play was great. And she said to me, “That means the play was well-directed.” I did have an unusual childhood, where I saw lots of plays and learned a lot of things like that, that you don’t necessarily learn in school, like how to tell when something is well-directed, things that help me to this day. Though I think when you grow up around people in the business, they urge you not to go into the business, and so do their friends, so that becomes a challenge in itself. For a long time, I did not consider a life in the theater an option for myself.
I am excited right now to be working with director Erin Mee on a site-specific pod-play set on the New York City subway. Previously her company, This Is Not a Theatre Company, produced Ferry Play by Jessie Bear, set on the Staten Island Ferry. Now, for This Is Not a Subway Ride, she has asked three playwrights — Jessie Bear, Colin Waitt and me — to write audio plays set on the subway. My play is set on the 7 train. Actors will record them, and then the plays will be downloadable on an app, designed to be listened to on the subway. The “ticket” price will be incredibly affordable and the plays will be self-scheduled. You need to take the train from point A to point B and back but on your own time. There is a great narrative challenge involved, as Erin has asked us to make the plays “reversible.” That is, the full play is a round trip but Act I is whichever direction the audience chooses, and Act II is the trip coming back, and our task is to make the same play make sense in either order. And of course there’s a great audience challenge as the throng of rush-hour commuters become part of the experience of the play. I’ve always loved radio plays, but felt I was born too late to work in that medium. So it’s a wonderful opportunity to think purely in terms of voice, and voices. And also to imagine about how much space a play can take up in the world.