I recently sat down with Jeffrey Colangelo, the creator and star of playtime., a new play/performance piece which opens at the Magnolia Lounge this Thursday. He described a modern Clown Show that ends in an epic, hyper-martial pillow fight. In fact, he encourages audience members to bring their own pillows to the show. Who knows, you might get to join in on the fun…
So, the title. playtime. No caps…
I decided that I wanted to use that particular font, because I wanted it to read a little bit like a whisper. If you start with a capital letter, it suggests a different pronunciation. We want something a little bit…more mysterious. The period is there to tell the reader not to yell it.
It’s not “Playtime! The Musical!”
Right, it’s not “YAY! PLAYTIME!” But I also don’t feel that we see honest “play” in theatre enough. Playing for the sake of playing. For no other purpose but To Play. The imagination takes over. Something becomes a helicopter, then a basketball, then Godzilla. All for the character to amuse himself.
The description of the show says that the main character is “surrounded by happiness.” Meaning that everyone else is happy?
He’s surrounded by things that would make him happy. The character is inherently prone to happiness. He lives in a little cardboard box. He’s surrounded by bubble wrap and balloons and other stuff. Even the things the main antagonists attack him with are just pillows. He finds happiness in a lot of stuff. He has markers and CD players. But when he finds some happiness in those things, those figures come in and rip it away from him.
Where did you find the inspiration for this piece?
I was watching a friend’s production of 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane. It’s a dark piece. There’s this scene where the stage is covered in balloons and the actors play with them, pop them. As an audience member, there’s just this reaction of “oh look, balloons!” That’s where the idea started.
Of course, you don’t want to give away everything. But what do you feel you’re exploring in the show?
When I explain the concept to people, a lot of them want to relate it to something “real world.” All I want to explore is the idea of a person who will continue to search for happiness in the face of constant oppression. And then seeing what happens when he takes that search just a little too far.
What is the prose style in playtime.? Realistic? Is it meant to be symbolic?
Well, because there are no words, the world of the play is within its own Purgatorial box. That’s all that has ever been and all that will ever be.
Sounds a little like Samuel Beckett.
A little bit, yeah. Beckett without words. I was reading something that said Keanu Reeves is the best action star ever, because he’s the ultimate example of a “neutral mask.” And the reason we love him in The Matrix and stuff like that (even when we know he’s a terrible actor) is because we’re able to put ourselves in the place of the hero and go on that journey with him. I’m not saying I play Keanu Reeves, but I want to be that neutral mask. The story is simply the story, but I want the audience to bring their own experiences to the work and draw out the things that resonate with them. I want to invite a free interpretation.
So there’s a little Pinter in there as well. Like in The Dumb Waiter: characters in a neutral place, where the audience is left to fill in the blanks.
We all search for meaning in things that we see. I’m not asking them to “work”, I’m asking them to do what people naturally want to do anyway, in their minds.
One thing I didn’t know when we started talking was that playtime. is a wordless piece.
Oh, shoot! I should have said that!
Was that a conscious choice from the beginning, to tell the story without words?
I knew from the get-go that this would be a story told without “words.” I’ve done a lot of work lately that has relied more on action than words. Words put us in a different world, and I don’t think this character HAS the words to say to anybody. He’s able to interact, he makes noises. Speaks in gibberish, when he really wants to explain something. The character follows most of the rules of the classic Clown.
Speaking of the Clown, what are your influences?
I was taught Movement by Sara Romersberger at SMU. I love the classics. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Marcel Marceau. Some Cirque du Soleil. I’m drawn in by the honesty of the Clown. Without words, there’s sometimes more honesty. They’re funny because they’re deeply honest. I’m fascinated by that. I want to explore that tradition.
How “scripted” is the show? Is it fluid, or…?
The beautiful thing about the Clown structure is that the only way he can exist is with an audience. He can’t exist in a vacuum. While I do have stuff scripted pretty heavily and specifically, in order for the story to be clear, there’s an interaction and a dialogue with the audience. It’s the sharing of the successes and failures.
What has your process been with the other actors in the show?
It’s been interesting. I would consider this mainly a solo show until the end. Once I figured out the structure of the piece, I knew how the escalation was going to work. With these “Pillowmen” showing up over and over again. We had to do a lot of “freeplay” with the final confrontation. It ends in a hyper-martial pillow fight. I watched a lot of YouTube videos (there’s a million of them), and most of the choreographers have a few pillow hits in the beginning, but then they drop the pillows and just start hitting each other. I felt strongly that you need to keep the pillows throughout. We developed a lot of martial moves that could be possible, but only with the pillow. We figured out ways that you could punch a dude, but you had to place the pillow before you hit him. The pillows have to be “dangerous.” The weapon is the pillow.
We really sparred with the pillows, figuring out the tactics and the moves. There’s hanging parries, for God’s sake! And what we discovered was that you could introduce the idea of getting hit while you’re hitting someone else. That raises the stakes. This dude is fighting with these Pillowmen, and--even when he’s winning--he’s getting hit at the same time.
Where did you get your passion for fight choreography?
The moment it really started was when I was watching a high school production of Romeo and Juliet. I watched this Mercutio/Tybalt fight, and it was…the dumbest fight I’d ever seen. It completely disregarded a lot of things in the story to make stupid things happen. At one point, Tybalt goes to strike Mercutio, Mercutio stops him, envelopes him three times and slaps him in the face. Tybalt moves to hit him in the SAME place, again and again. As if Tybalt wasn’t this master fighter. He just uses the same tactic, over and over. It made no sense.
The fight choreographer has to give the performers the vocabulary they need to tell the story. And I felt this true love for telling the story. I wanted to fool people into thinking everything was real. That there’s real danger in the battle.
People are going to assign symbolism to the pillows and balloons. Is there a definable, tangible way you want them to be seen?
The balloons are really his friends. When bad things happen to them, he feels that. Then there’s the bubble wrap, which can be interpreted in a certain way.
Well, all three of the things you mentioned (balloons, bubble wrap, the pillows) are fragile and breakable.
That’s a good way to describe his condition. He ultimately controls that, throughout. Everything, actually. When music comes on, it’s because he pulls out a CD player and presses PLAY. He’s in full control of his world. And yet, these pillow figures loom…. Honestly, I’m really interested in seeing how the audience interprets the objects.
playtime. runs at The Magnolia Lounge in Fair Park from November 7th-17th at 10pm. Tickets are $10 and can be bought in advance at www.sihkbrothers.com/playtime or an hour before the show at the box office. For more info, call 407-766-9368 or visit www.sihkbrothers.com/playtime.