This week, the play Stand-Up Tragedy opens in the East Village in Nativity Church, the actual church where the final scene takes place and where the playwright Bill Cain, who is also a Jesuit priest, once ministered. The concept of both play and production is interstitial—using the idea of stand-up comedy, but standing it on its head, telling a fact based story of a new teacher in a Lower East Side Catholic school where “You can tell the new residents of the neighborhood by how high they jump when a gun goes off.” The young priest has ideas of “starting a new religion…. One that doesn’t use a dead young man as its logo,” but encounters challenges in reaching out to the students to whom he is striving to connect. The play moves beyond genre, drawing not just from stand-up comedy, but from hip hop music, comic book art, and a variety of dance traditions to create an entirely new work which nonetheless has deep roots in the community.
Interstitial blog readers might be familiar with the work of comic book artist Rick Veitch, who is doing the illustrations and poster art for the play. When artistic director David G. Schultz first contacted Veitch, he said, “I really want to work on this show because I was that kid with the rotten family who was making comic books to escape.” Schultz said, “Rick actually sent us sketches of work he’d done when he was a kid, and it was very much on the themes of the kid in Stand-Up Tragedy. His comic book was called ‘Hero!’ and this one is called ‘Saga,’ but the same theme — the hero saves his family. What was amazing about him, aside from the great work he did, was that he said, ‘Find me a student from the school,’ and he made that kid’s work the centerpiece of what he did.”
When I spoke to the director of Stand-Up Tragedy, Nicolas Minas, he also elaborated on the theme of apprenticeship—using students in the production. Minas, who first studied Acting at Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts in California—a regional theater with a training program — believes the future of the arts lies in apprenticeship “It’s the history of where we’ve all come from in the arts, and especially in theater. It’s the strongest way of training.” It was at the Pacific Conservatory he first saw Stand-Up Tragedy. “I had no idea theater could be modern, I didn’t know it could have hip hop music, I didn’t know so many things about it. It changed my idea of what theater could do and how you could tell a story.”
Like many interstitial artists, Minas, who ran his own theater company for ten years in Chicago, has found he had to create his own opportunities. “If I want to do something, I’ll find a way to do it, raise the money and find people passionate enough about it to make it happen. We weren’t — I’m not — interested in doing a genre of theater, being a community theater or experimental theater. People kept asking us, what’s your niche, what’s your niche? But it actually took us years to figure out, and what we figured out is that we don’t have one.”
When working as Arts at Education Director at the arts center of the Chicago YMCA, he saw potential in an unused dance space, and the opportunity to create an apprenticeship opportunity, bringing kids and professionals together for a production of Stand-Up Tragedy. When both he and David Schultz, who had acted in the Chicago production, met again in New York, the idea of doing Stand-Up tragedy came up again, and were excited to do it in the space where Bill Cain had once said mass.
“David has a mission to bring theater into space the community already has a relationship to and say, “What can we do to develop new audiences for the theater? So that has led to us being here in the actual corner of the world where many scenes take place and to have a relationship with LaSalle Academy —many of their students play students in the production, as well as professional New York actors. And there’s a larger apprenticeship going on — just like the kid who helped created our poster actually got to work with the comic book artist who created the artwork for the show. A student who is interested in music is working with the sound designer and musicians to create some of the beats that we’re using for the hip-hop sections of the show. So there’s a bigger thing going on here, bring kids in to do the things they are interested in, not just acting on stage.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the production, in addition to the many sources it draws on, is how the director, actors, and musicians, are using the space to enrich the work. As Minas said, “Just walking into this space, you fill the history of this space, and the energy here. And that the final scene, the graduation scene — they actually did do graduations here. This room is such a big part of the community, and of where this story took place.”
Stand-Up Tragedy will run April 15 through 20, April 24 through 27, and May 1 through 4 (there will be two shows on May 4, one at 2pm, another at 8pm). Friday and Saturday performances at 8pm; all others at 7pm. Tickets are $18. At Nativity Church, 44 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10003. You can purchase tickets at: http://standuptragedy.brownpapertickets.com/. For more information please go to: http://categoryseven.org/.