A Shared Alaska
BrickaBrack's Associate Artistic Director Amy Nielson sits down with Esther Van Zyl, Ensemble Member, to share stories in conjunction with our production of On the Flip Side. (Only one performance left, today at 2pm - Tickets Here!)
A: Some of the pieces in the show are incredibly personal, like “Vacant” for example - one of my favorite pieces, partly because of its genesis. It’s a wonderful collaboration. I remember brainstorming this piece for the January workshop just before you left to go back home to South Africa. We wanted a way to include you in the workshop, even though you were continents away - is that how we came up with the voicemail idea? Do you want to share a little bit about the backstory for this piece?
E: Yes, absolutely! I also love that this piece was created as a cross-continental collaboration for a show I couldn’t physically be in, but got to be a part of anyway. I remember I had actually improvised a monologue during one of our jams before I left last year, as if I was leaving a voicemail for my grandmother, whom I am named after. She had passed away and I had been unable to attend the funeral because I was in school in New York at the time. It was a huge loss for me not to be there with my family and to speak at the funeral, so I feel like when I got the opportunity to further refine this piece while I was home over Christmas holidays, it was like being able to give my gran a very personal last gift, in a way, to commemorate her life and the impact she’d made on mine. She always told me I was incredibly special, and that I was made for big things. And now, being able to be in the piece physically as well while listening to the voicemail – honestly it’s like getting to go to the funeral that I missed, in a way. It is very personal and intimate and I feel so grateful that I get to share such a special part of my life with audiences.
A: “New Zealand” is a personal piece for me. The postcard for the piece is the first bit of personal mail that I received upon moving to New York from California. So the card marks a very specific time in my life. It’s from my parents, who were on a bucket list trip to New Zealand. It was a bit of a crazy trip for them - they went just after the earthquake in Corpus Christi. They were supposed to travel by train, but most of the rails were damaged. So, they ended up having to rent a car and drive most of the trip. My mom was white-knuckled a lot of the time, and they had a very clean windshield. I’m very glad they were able to take that trip. It was a big adventure for them.
E: “A very clean windshield,” hahaha! I can relate, I STILL go for the wrong side of the car over here, even though I’ve been living in New York for almost two years now.
A: We are creatures of habit… In On the Flip Side, we have a piece called “What's your Alaska?” and it asks you to share a dream of yours - somewhere you’d like to be. Esther, what’s your Alaska?
E: Hmmm. Ok. I have a beautiful cottage-like house – you know, with knick-knacks and quirky personal items decorating the entire place in a sort of artsy, organized chaos, like a Wes Anderson set – on the outskirts of a genuine-peopled town somewhere between the woods and the sea and an hour’s drive from the city. There is a fireplace, and perhaps a kid or two running around, and my family lives close by. My mom has her own bakeshop where she serves South African desserts and other delicacies. There are spare cottages where other friends/artists can come stay whenever they like, and we can dream up and make work together. I have my own front room overlooking the beach, where I sit and write and dream up ideas and work on projects/roles until they are ready to be brought to life in the real world, and then I hop a flight with my crew to New York or Italy or wherever the film/play/other event is meant to come to life. Preferably in various extraordinary locations all over the world! What’s your Alaska, Amy?
A: My Alaska has loosely been dubbed "The Goat Farm." I want a house with a barn. But the house is actually more like a B&B and there’s a black box theatre in the barn. I want it to be a visiting artist residence—a place for artists to get away and incubate ideas. The other layer of this thing is a communal/Agriturismo idea, where the place would be incredibly self-sufficient and everyone would help out around the chateau, or haus, or villa. (In my dream, it’s somewhere abroad. My mother would prefer something more domestic…) Milk a goat, collect eggs from the chickens, bake some bread, etc… It could expand into a larger idea with guest chefs and the like. I just want a place were all my friends can share their talents and we can make theatre (or dance, or performance, or art in general…) Our Alaskas are a little similar—maybe we should combine forces!
A: I know film has a special place in your artistic heart. And I think BrickaBrack has a similar sense of whimsy to your film making style. How do you think your personal history relates to BrickaBrack’s aesthetic?
E: Since I was five I have been taking drama classes in some form or another, and I remember even the first classes were very geared towards being inspired by something, an object or story, and then being given a little time and freedom as a group to create a short piece to show the class – which is kind of exactly how all the pieces for On The Flip Side had their genesis! South African theatre, in general, is very ensemble-driven, and there is a tendency towards telling stories with our entire actors’ instrument in several styles and coming up with creative solutions to telling incredible stories instead of building large sets and solving it with money. I also come from a strong movement and dance-based background. Lastly, my personal style as a creator tends towards quirky, magical realism, which I feel is a tone and element often present in the work BrickaBrack produces.
A: I really love the imagination element. There’s something so basic and pure about it—something that feels like it goes to the roots of theatre—to make something out of nothing, to create whole worlds out of the simplest elements, transforming them and transporting your audience. For me, that’s where my histories collide. I’m trained as a dancer and an actor. As I was training, most people would choose one or the other. But I wanted a place in between. That’s why I’m drawn to artists like Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson. I think all this variety of training and experience helps me be more articulate in my storytelling. I love how each of us have unique voices as artists that come together to tell these stories. That whole idea is really the spirit of BrickaBrack. What story might we tell next? And how will we do it? We could do anything…
On the Flip Side closes Sept. 17th - 2pm Show!
This Tender Little Moment in Time
A chat with Ensemble Member Clinton Powell and Guest Artist Kiebpoli Calnek during rehearsals for On the Flip Side.
K: Okay! I’m here with Clintonnnnn…
K: Powell. Why don’t I know your last name?! That’s so weird!
[Clinton and Kiebpoli have worked together several times, notably with Medicine Show Theatre.]
K: So, how did you get into the theatre?
C: The first show I did was in fourth grade. It was Mary Poppins. I was the first reporter who asked her if she had a word to describe how she felt before supercalifragilistic. And then I was also one of the bankers… Aaaand, I asked the teacher, I was like, “Well, which of the bankers is the really old banker?” And she was like, “We don’t have to do that.” I was like, “No! There has to be a really old banker!” (Both laugh.) So I did my own stage makeup in fourth grade and put lines on my forehead... Even in fourth grade I was a character actor.
K: Slash director.
C: Slash secret director. (They laugh again.) How did you get into theatre? This is a story I don’t know yet.
K: Ok, so I was a wee lass in middle school, and here in New York City and there was this drama teacher… and she was like, ‘Oh, you’ll never get into the School of Performing Arts’. And I was like, ‘OH YEAH?!?’ So I got my own monologue book and I figured out the monologue I was going to do and I memorized it and I auditioned for the School of Performing Arts and I got in and I did it.
C: Do you remember what that monologue was?
K: Yes! It was Tennessee Williams’ This Property is Condemned. “The sky sure is white. White as a clean piece of paper…” (Both laugh.) That was my favorite... I was like, wait, this is acting? You can say this poetry and, like, just pretend to see things that aren’t there and just be?
K: What drew you to BrickaBrack?
C: I was really drawn to BrickaBrack since they are an ensemble that uses Viewpoints. When I first came to NY I worked with a group called Synesthetic Theatre, and it’s been a long time since I worked with them, but that was kinda my artistic home when I first came to NY, so I was kind of wanting that Viewpoints/ensemble artistic home again… I enjoy the sense of community we have as an ensemble… We’re learning about each other as people. We work well together…
K: So, this is my first show with BrickaBrack [Kiebpoli joined BrickaBrack for this project on the invitation of Artistic Director GG - they’re colleagues from the Lincoln Center Directors Lab.]... but you did The Hope Frieze with BB. Do you happen to know why BrickaBrack uses audience participation?
C: Well, I don’t know what GG or Amy would say, but I find it interesting because we don’t normally view the world from one seat, with one perspective. We view the world many different ways and so I think changing audience perspective, or getting them involved in different ways in different pieces, helps make things more like how things are in real life. You know? How we have various perspectives on things.
K: Oh I like that, thank you.
C: So, let’s talk about On the Flip Side a little bit. Since this is what we’re doing.
K: This is what we’re doing.
C: This is why we’re here.
K: You’re a very good interviewer, by the way.
C: Thank you. (“Interview voice”) How would you…
K: Oh, Lord.
C: What’s your elevator pitch, or how do you describe the show to people?
K: That’s a great question. Let’s see. Hey, Kiebpoli, what are you up to? Oh, I’m doing this show called On the Flip Side. It’s this ensemble piece generated from postcards that have actually been sent. And so we are exploring, I guess, the life of this postcard, or the journey of this postcard. Whether we’re taking our impetus from the image, or the emotions that it evokes in us or, you know, just some improv based on that. But there’s this really nice…oh, that’s a very long elevator. (Nervous laugh.)
C: That’s okay. It could be to the 50th floor.
K: What floor? Cancel! Cancel!
K: Ok, so…on a more personal note, what’s your secret vice, Clinton?
C: I watch the soap opera “Passions” on YouTube.
K: Whaaat?! I didn’t even know there were still soap operas anymore!
C: No. It’s off the air. It’s been off the air… That’s my secret vice… What’s yours?
K: (gasps) I can’t share that on public internet! ...What’s your favorite place in NYC?
C: Well, it’s probably where Times Scare NY is now. It used to be Show World… Because that’s where I met my husband David. I met him at an audition for a show and it was in that building. It’s kinda the place where it all started.
K: Show World? Isn’t that a porn…
C: Yeah it was, but they had rehearsal studios above.
K: Of course they did. I have one more question here. When or where were you the most happy?
C: Probably, City Hall, on March 21st, 2012.
C: But, no, I mean seriously though, for not ever thinking I was going to get married…
C: …would be allowed to get married.
C: …to finally be able to marry David.
K: To the person you love.
C: …after 13 years. It was on our 9th anniversary.
K: Oh My God! This story gets better and better.
C: I know it’s another cliche answer but that was truly a special day.
K: So you’re a romantic, we get that.
C: Yes. Thank you. One more postcard question! If you could send anyone, anyone, a postcard right now, who would you send it to?
K: Oh, my gosh! I would probably send it to my friend Joy in Taiwan and I would send it to her because, because I miss her! And I feel like postcards are just like this tender little moment in time you want to share with another person… Thank you, Clinton. I love this “interview voice.”
C: My interview voice?
K: Yes. How many minutes was that?
C: That was five.
K: That was only five minutes?
On the Flip Side runs September 14 - 17 at HERE.
An interview with Ensemble Members Jamil Chokachi and DeLance Minefee during rehearsals for On the Flip Side.
Jamil: What first interested you in BrickaBrack?
DeLance: I was brought to BrickaBrack by a friend of mine, Angela Nahigian; she understood my aesthetic, you know, she thought it might be something I would be interested in. I came to the first audition and then sat down with GG afterwards and decided this was perfect, this is exactly what I wanted to do... once I saw what the plan was, the mission, and I jumped right in.
J: What do you enjoy most about working with the BrickaBrack Ensemble?
D: I really love ensemble work. I like the give-and-take, and the trust that builds between artists when we're working together towards a common goal, the creativity when everybody's firing on all cylinders. I like group work... I started out as a jock playing lots of team sports, football and basketball, so I’ve always liked working with the team, there's something about…
J: The unity…
D: Yeah, the unity of it…
J: What's the most memorable postcard you've received?
D: The most memorable postcard... I don't get many; I don't have many people that send postcards. So I guess the most memorable one would be from the first agent... I had an agent send me a postcard when I first moved to Chicago. I had sent all of these mass mailings a couple weeks before I moved to Chicago - and to get the first card from someone interested in meeting me… I guess that was the most memorable card only because, I still have it! But it was just like one of those, "Thank you for submitting, we’re really interested in you…"
J: They don’t normally do that…(chuckle)
D: (chuckle) They don’t normally do that... My favorite card that I've ever received from a friend of mine... We went to college together, she's an amazing actress/director, and she just loves to write. She's very diligent about sending out postcards and stuff like that. She sent me a card when I first moved to New York; it was the first mail that I received in New York. She sent me many cards, but that one really made me realize "Oh, I have an address in New York City!"
J: Cool!… If you sent a postcard right now, to whom would you send it?
D: Hmm... Send a postcard to anyone? Living or dead? I would send a postcard to my mom, just cause, she's my mom and I haven't talked to her in a long time…… Living? I would send it to my best friend, Daniel McElderry, we called him "Pale Face" growing up. He and I were best friends and I always keep in touch with him…
J: Where was this?
D: Arkansas, he's still in Arkansas. He - although he's very creative - he went into plumbing and settled down with a family. He's still my best friend, but we just don't see each other, so I would send him a postcard: "Hey - what's up, how's the kids? From the Big City, waiting for you to come visit!" Yeah Dan McElderry a.k.a. "Pale Face"... (laughing)
J: (Laughing) What profession would you attempt if you had to get out of the entertainment business?
D: If I had to get out of the entertainment business? I think law. That was my initial idea in the first place, I really wanted to do criminal defense. But then I realized, those guys are just actors in a court room with someone's life at stake - and I'd rather not have someone's life at stake while I'm acting. I always thought that I wanted to be a teacher, but I teach some now and I don't know if I would do it knowing what I know now. Probably law, something that makes a lot of money; marketing. I feel - no - I know that if I were in any other field with the drive that I have, the accomplishments that I've made, if that translated to another profession, I would be at the top of my game. Anything where there's competition; I even thought about the military for a while. The hierarchy has always been a draw to me; I like climbing to the top. I like being the best.
J: Do you have a Travel Bucket List?
D: Oooh, Travel Bucket List! Japan is my number one place. When I was a kid Japan seemed like the furthest away from Arkansas. In my head that was the other side of the planet; so far removed from everything that I grew up knowing. I was intrigued by Japan's culture and their theater and cinema... I remember one of first movies that I really watched was this film series called Zatoichi - it's about this blind swordsman who travels from town to town, kind of a vagabond. Like one of those Westerns where the old ranger is walking around doing good but accepting no praise. I remember watching his acting, thinking, "Oh my gosh, to be blind..." Because he's not blind but he's acting like it, and his nuances really intrigued me. And there was some point where I had watched it so many times that I stopped reading the subtitles, and I knew it by the intonations. I don't know Japanese at all but I could just turn the subtitles off and watch the movie. It's always been a goal of mine to go to Japan. There was an essay contest when I was in high school to do a foreign exchange with Japan, to go over there and study for six months. I entered, and they told me that I was the only African-American to even apply. And it came down to me and one other person, and they really wanted to give it to me, but I had too many misspellings in my essay….
D: (Laughing) So Japan is still number one; Seoul number two; number three is probably Brazil. Number four is probably Amsterdam, maybe Switzerland...
J: I love Amsterdam…
D: Number five I guess would be South Africa. I've always liked South Africa... I've always been intrigued, the caste system and the politics - apartheid was a big awakening for me. I found it the same time I found Malcolm X. I'd like to go and study the culture as opposed to a vacation. Know what I mean? Japan is top though... Right before I got accepted into graduate school [DeLance attended the A.R.T. program at Harvard], I had applied to teach English in Japan. I had plans, I talked to the company and had it set up; and then I got the acceptance letter and I was like, "Well, I've got to go to grad school!"
J: No doubt…
D: But if I hadn't gotten into grad school, I would probably still be in Japan.
J: That’s crazy how life turns…
D: Just a complete divergence…
J: Okay, so, last one: If you could send a postcard to yourself right now, to a point in time in your past, to what age would you send it?...
J: And why? What would you advise?
D: Huh, wow….
J: Whether or not it would change anything or enhance anything...
D: Oh I'm pretty sure if I got a postcard from myself from the future I would definitely take heed… I'm a big believer in science fiction and if I got something from the future, it's time to listen! Umm... I think I would send a card back to freshman year of college and I would tell myself, "Transfer to a bigger school in undergrad." I went to Henderson State University, which was a great school. I loved the program and I everything that I got out of it, but I feel like I could've gotten a little bit more had I been at a bigger program in a bigger city. After I graduated, I had to take an extra step to figure out how to live in a city. I went to Chicago first and then came to New York. If I was going to college in Chicago, I feel like I could've skipped the step. But that's not saying I would want to relive my college years. I just think that if I had gone to a bigger school when I had the opportunity, then it might've given me more motivation to do more on my own. Yeah, send that postcard to a younger me in college!
On the Flip Side runs September 14 - 17 at HERE.
Musings by the BrickaBrack Ensemble