5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Paul Zimet

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As a critic, student and theater practitioner, I feel my most formidable challenge is opening up to dramatic approaches that defy my sense of the known and secure. After all, we tend to gravitate as if by instinct toward the familiar in many areas of life. Yet it is only by consciously exploring the unfamiliar that we, by definition, reveal new artistic pathways, broadening our scope of familiarity.

Bianca Leigh and Steven Rattazzi in "New Islands Archipelago." Photos: courtesy Talking Band.

This is philosophic doggerel, I grant you, and not terribly insightful. But I wanted to type that out because there is something about the Talking Band, the interdisciplinary performance group that has anchored New York’s gyrating avant-garde theater community since 1974, that reminds me how much ecstasy lies is discovery, too.

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I first encountered the Talking Band, I think, with 1991’s Fata Morgana. I haven’t seen all their work but I’ve been taken with a few pieces: The Blue Sky Is a Curse (1993), Betty Suffer’s Theory of Relativity (1995), Painted Snake in a Painted Chair (2003), Belize (2005). Founded by Paul Zimet, Ellen Maddow and Tina Shepard, all alums of Joseph Chaiken’s legendary Open Theater, the Talking Band’s unifying aesthetic is astral faith in the surreal, the unmoored, the unclassified. I’m most intrigued by the notion that they reimagine their process for each piece they create. For it’s more than knitting music, text and design, or exerting a kind of jaw-dropping vise-grip on visuals. It’s diversity of theme, of knitting sarcasm and whimsy, of place and time fitting in with the moment yet dropping in from another world.

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The Talking Band’s latest is called New Islands Archipelago. Courtesy of press rep Ron Lasko comes the description:

New Islands Archipelago is at once a real-estate scheme, a tropical dream of new beginnings, and the accidental destination of the passengers and crew of the cruise ship, S.S. Azure. The action takes place on the ship’s deck, within the various rooms of the ship, in the sea, and within the characters dreams (which are rendered on video). Each person who has embarked on the cruise longs for a change and, as the voyage progresses, the passengers begin to enter one another’s dreams. Thrown together with strangers in increasingly unfamiliar surroundings, they find their lives propelled forward and unfolding in ways they hadn’t imagined.

Starring Todd D’Amour, James Himmelsbach, Kristine Lee, Bianca Leigh, Steven Rattazzi — and Maddow and Shepard — Zimet has written and directed the piece, which features Maddow’s music, Nic Ularu’s sets, Nan Zhang’s lighting, Olivera Gajic’s costumes, Hilary Easton’s choreography and Simon Tarr’s video. And, of course, there is the band: Harry Mann on saxophone and keyboards and Beth Meyers on viola. And, of course, Julia Funk’s stage management.

Ask me to define what the Talking Band does and how it does it and why the work feels transporting and I stumble over inadequate, almost antiquated words. Yet the more familiar I become with their s work, the more I see how much more there is to discover.

But I did think Zimet would be a great person to ask to about it.

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New Islands Archipelago begins previews Thurs., May 20; opens Sun., May 23; and runs through June 6 at the 3LD Art & Technology Center (80 Greenwich St.). For more information, click here. For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or click here.

And now, 5 questions Paul Zimet has never been asked — and a bonus question:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
When I worked with the Open Theater, its director, Joseph Chaikin, often asked, “Why create theater?” Just because he had always made theater, he didn’t assume it was the most important thing to be doing. He asked himself what kind of theater he was making, within what structure he wanted to work, who was it for and what its purpose was. I think it remains a question that’s worth asking myself when I start out on a new project.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
After a show an audience member asked me, “How many (vocal) resonators did you use in your performance”

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
During a scene in Pedro Paramo, one of the characters is being hanged. An elderly man in the audience suddenly stood up and screamed, “Why doesn’t anyone stop this?” I think he had fallen asleep and awakened to what he thought was an actual hanging.

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Tina Shepard and Kristine Lee

4) When creating a new piece, what is the bigger challenge, devising theme or narrative? Which comes first? Are they, indeed, separate elements? What came first for New Islands Archipelago?
I, and my long time collaborator, Ellen Maddow (who wrote the music for New Islands Archipelago) are interested in using different starting points. For example, my play, New Cities, started from the image of a string quartet and the way the players relate to each other through their playing, and Ellen’s upcoming Panic! Euphoria! Blackout! (at HERE in the fall) was inspired by the hands and faces of moneylenders as depicted by the early renaissance Dutch painter, Marinus van Reymerswaele. With Imminence, I started with a theme and a structure, which juxtaposed human time against geological time. Ellen’s Flip Side started with Anna Kiraly’s set design for which Ellen wrote her play. The starting point for several of my plays — Star Messengers, Bitterroot and Belize — were historical events and personalities.

New Islands Archipelago started with a list of action verbs. I got the idea from Richard Serra who, early in his career, made lists of verbs and created sculptures by enacting these verbs — to crumple, scatter, hide, bend, erase, etc. — on a material. So, my collaborators and I chose a number of verbs and explored how a single action can become the impulse for character, movement, scenery, costume and music. These explorations took place within the Talking Band Performance Lab over a period of two years. Based on the theatrical material generated in these workshops, I wrote the story. The theme emerged out of the story. Regardless of where I start, the theme and story are ultimately entwined so they can’t be viewed as separate elements.

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5) To judge from the press materials, New Islands Archipelago recalls a play from long ago — Sutton Vane’s 1923 Outward Bound. What is it about the sea that invokes images and introspection? At what point did you know where in your piece to integrate video?
When I was 20, I traveled across the Atlantic on a freighter. In the middle of the ocean, with only water, sky and horizon around me, I lost my ordinary points of reference and my habitual behavior. “At sea” is an apt expression. I felt lost, but I also felt a new sense of possibility. I felt I was becoming another person.

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It is this feeling that startles and moves the characters in New Islands Archipelago.

At night, in their cabins, the characters in the play dream. Their dreams begin to incorporate other people they meet on the cruise, and also begin to intertwine with their waking lives. Video was a natural medium for these dreams, and also, at times, for blurring the distinction between the waking and dream worlds. The technology that is available to us at 3LD Art & Technology Center, allows Simon Tarr, our video artist, along with the set designer, Nic Ularu, and lighting designer, Nan Zhang, to explore different ways of integrating the video with the other theatrical elements in order to tell the story.

Bonus question:

Tina Shepard, Kristine Lee, Bianca Leigh and Steven Rattazzi

6) Do you believe making theater is a political act? Is your work, do you think, more or less political today than it was when the Talking Band first started working in 1974?
All theater is political. It is political either by choice or by default. If the theater you create reaffirms what is most shallow in our culture, then its absences of criticism, or lack of imagining alternatives, makes it unconsciously political.

Some our earlier work — like Worksong (about work in America) and Soft Target (about an anti-nuclear-weapon activist) — had political subjects, but more often our work is not as directly political. It’s politics is in the way we present people: the way they act, think about themselves and the world, relate to each other, and also in the theatrical forms with which we tell our stories, which are different from mainstream theater and most film and TV. Last fall I directed part of Taylor Mac’s epic extravaganza, The Lily’s Revenge. What was most political about that work was not its subject but the audacity of its vision and ambition, and its attempt to create a community with the audience and performers. I think, right now, I’m still under the influence of that work’s optimism. And so, in New Islands Archipelago the characters shed their stuck, isolated lives and open themselves up to change, to new possibilities, and to joy.