Monday, April 21, 2008

Interview: Jeff Lewonczyk of Babylon Babylon

Our next interview in the series building up to Friday's opening of The Accidental Patriot (our new swanky website for the show is up and running) is with Jeff Lewonczyk, creator of Babylon Babylon. What I love about Jeff and his collaborators and Piper McKenzie is that if you asked us to cite our influences, describe our processes, talk about our work, etc, one would think our respective companies would produce wildly similar work. Nope. Not even close. Ain't that grand?

Jeff and I had the pleasure of chatting a bit on the air when we podcasted together a couple weeks back, but we didn't have enough time to delve as deep into the conversation. I thought it'd be nice to continue it here. Enjoy! And go buy your tickets for his show and for ours! If you bring your Babylon Babylon program to the Accidental Patriot (and vice versa), you get in for only $10. Incredible deal, eh? At any rate, here's the interview:

1) Tell us about Piper McKenzie Productions and its founding. How does Babylon Babylon fit in with your overall mission and body of work?

For a company that’s been in existence in one form or another for ten years, we’ve been taking our sweet time crafting a mission statement. Still hasn’t fully come together yet, but phrases like “heightened theatricality,” “fascination with forms and content from the past,” and “the gray area between comedy and seriousness” all come to mind.

As for that founding, it was in 1998 in upstate New York, after my partner (and now wife) Hope Cartelli and I graduated from Bard College. We had produced plays together extracurricularly at Bard, and we never even really had a conversation about whether or not we were going to do it after finishing school, we just kind of started. Our first show was an ensemble-created piece based on vintage comic strips called “Piper McKenzie Presents the Tinklepack Kids in the Great Yo-Yo Caper,” which featured a magical Abraham Lincoln; it’s all been downhill from there.

2) I know that, like Stolen Chair, you and your actors work collectively to generate material. Can you talk us through the origin, from stage to page and back to stage again, of one of Babylon Babylon's scenes?

Well, it’s a bit more of a challenge than I’m ready for to pluck a single scene out of the roiling mass of humanity that is BABYLON BABYLON, but I’ll give you an idea of how the process worked as a whole. Even before we started working on stage, I gave the actors a raft of source material to sift through and start working with – selections from Herodotus, the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, some contemporary scholarship, and much more. While everyone was digesting this, we did a number of improv exercises dealing solely with the mechanics of the Temple of Ishtar, the seat of Babylonian ritual prostitution in which the show takes place. Over the course of the process these exercises got more and more particular, and I started introducing characters that I wanted to see, and then started being more specific about the character distribution until it pretty much bled into casting. After everyone had a role, we did some more improv, exploring in more detail the characters and relationships we’d be bringing to the stage. Throughout it all, I was working on script material both inspired by and often separate from the material we were generating in rehearsal. With everyone’s common grounding in the source material, the world developed as richer and stronger than it would have otherwise.

3)This show has a cast of thousands, live music, and combat. Have you ever played on such an "epic" scale before? Any surprising challenges? Surprising delights?

Every single moment of working with a cast of 31 is filled with surprising challenges – especially when you’re determined to give everyone a handful of interesting moments and not let any of the characters devolve into some sort of vague, mushy “ensemble.” And even though I knew scheduling was going to be a difficulty, well, let’s just say there are difficulties and there are difficulties.

Interestingly, I thought the sexually loaded subject matter was going to cause some leeriness, but everybody was surprisingly game – I suppose that anyone who wouldn’t have been comfortable with that kind of material declined the opportunity to do the show. The surprising delights are hopefully what you’ll be seeing onstage – the fact that everybody came together to put something this huge together with very little time, and even less money, is something that I’m immensely proud of.

4) In your press materials (and in our discussions), you've disclosed Demille's influence on your production? Did Demille's camera work influence the staging in any way?

The DeMille influence was first and foremost a question of scale and content – we were hoping to reproduce the epic historical sweep of one of his productions. It was secondarily a matter of sensibility – throughout the show, there are moments and characters that employ the grandiloquent speech and presentational style that ran through his films. In terms of camera angles, though, it was both impossible and inevitable to approach the show’s visuals on those terms. The audience, you see, is lining both sides of a long, deep stage, and the action plays out on every square inch of it, sometimes isolated into a small scene in some corner, sometimes all at once and all over the stage. With actors sometimes playing right in your face and sometimes at a significant distance, I’ve found that the experience is not unlike watching a movie that cuts between close-ups and long shots. And during the scenes where simultaneous action is taking place all around the stage, the audience gets to be their own camera operators and editors, cutting the shots, panning, making cuts, etc. The show is not the same from any two seats, so we like to think it will reward multiple viewings…

5) As a director, how do you balance homage with pastiche when you take on style work, especially film styles? To what degree do you strive for a purity/accuracy of the forms you borrow? How do you work to get your cast on the same stylistic page?

After a certain point – and a fairly early point it is – I usually end up letting go of all the striving for emulation of style, and let the show start being whatever it is. Rather than forcing the cast into a particular style, I tend to allow the style to develop according to the chemistry of the cast. I have certain quirks and tics and preferences that I’ll try to throw here and there, some of which just occur naturally, but in general all of our shows end up having a different feel, because different groups of people absorb the original materials (and my own direction) differently. In BABYLON, one of the big questions was how modern we should make it – should we have everybody walking around talking in faux-Babylonian cadences and strive for a supposed “authenticity,” or should we go fully contemporary and allow people to use modern slang and references in order to make the world feel more immediate? The result ended up finding a natural balance somewhere between the two. In the end, I like to believe that we go beyond homage and pastiche and create something new and unique out of the material we’ve digested – homage and pastiche being significant tools that we use to get to that point.

6) Where can we find out more about your company and this show?

Why, at,, or at our show’s blog – the Babylblog Blogbylon – at

7) What are you going to miss about this production when it goes to the great production in the sky? What's next for you and Piper McKenzie? Are you eager to do something on a smaller scale?

Every time I try to conceive of something small it just starts ballooning towards a larger scale, so I don’t know that I can be trusted to accurately answer the last part of this question.

What I will miss most, I think, will be the sense of community we’ve built – when you have this many people in the room at any given time, it becomes more like a functioning mini-society – with all of its pitfalls and rewards – than the typical cast of a show. The Monday after it’s finished I’ll turn to Hope and say, “Why is it so quiet?”

As for what’s next, I’m doing a staged reading of the new play by William Peter Blatty (he of The Exorcist) at The Brick’s The Film Festival: A Theater Festival. I say I want it to be a reading, but it might evolve into something slightly more ambitious. And we’re planning a winter production of a cycle of short plays that take place in an alternate Arctic reality, based on a one-act that was produced at The Brick a few years ago entitled “Granduncle Tells the Children a Story of Kisselsrite During the War.” It will have a cast of only five or six, but I’m wondering if that’s where the smallness is going to end.

No comments: