Fiasco Theater was founded in 2007 by graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Repertory Consortium MFA Acting program. The artists of Fiasco believe that the performer, the text and the audience are the only elements required to make great theater, and that only when artists are brave enough to risk a fiasco - a complete failure - can they create the possibility of something special.
Talking with Fiasco Theater Company founders and co-artistic directors Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, and Ben Steinfeld, I was particularly impressed by their passionate articulacy. Their individual acting resumes are equally impressive. Jessie has acted at the Roundabout, the Guthrie, and Williamstown. Noah has appeared as recurring characters on both All My Children and As the World Turns. Ben is leaving the current hit play Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson to participate as actor and director in Fiasco’s current production of Twelfth Night.
Steve: How you balance your successful careers with your commitment to Fiasco?
Noah: The good fortune of the company members’ careers moving forward independently of Fiasco raises a question that we need to determine as a company. Either we make Fiasco a priority and make those shows happen or the centrifugal force of our individual careers will pull the company apart. And there’s almost no two ways about it. The three of us are reaching more and more of those crossroads.
Jessie: There are some individual career moves that came after [the critically acclaimed 2009 production of] Cymbeline that were a direct result of Cymbeline. It helps Fiasco for us to be working in big places right now. It‘s helping the company grow as we grow as individuals.
Noah: Each decision has repercussions down the line. We’re making it up as we go, I guess.
Steve: I’m intrigued by your model of multiple collaborative directorship and the idea that your productions are “conceived by” the three of you.
Ben: When you do something that is received well the first time, the assumption is that that’s your “thing.” We did that in Cymbeline, which the three of us conceived and which Noah and I co-directed with Jessie playing the lead role. We share so many core principals, and it is when the three of us are in conversation that our ideas actually start to flesh themselves out as they relate to the events of a specific show. We spend a lot of time talking about the play, riffing on the intersection of the thematic stuff that’s interesting to us. The simple aesthetics and the integration of music and movement became core principals because we put them together in Cymbeline in a way we want to keep doing. We chose Twelfth Night because we felt we could use that same approach.
Noah: We recently had the opportunity to do a directors’ workshop with Peter Brook through Theatre for a New Audience. What was made explicit was that American theater directors don’t often get a chance to be in conversation with other directors while creating theater. We are never alone like that. I have some good ideas, Ben has some good ideas, Jessie has some good ideas. So where I’m weak it gets spackled over by their strengths.
Ben: We all always feel responsible for holding up our end of the conversation. But we have to realize that we’re not all going to feel like we’ve changed the theatrical landscape on any given day.
Noah: It takes an enormous amount of respect and trust. Working this collaboratively can be extraordinarily helpful. But you have to know when to let yourself pull back and receive. At some specific moment the actors need a singular voice.
Ben: One of the things that our actors love so much is the feeling that all voices are creating this together. There have been major suggestions from the actors which have affected the conceptualization of the show.
Noah: The reason that [Paul L. Coffey, Andy Grotelueschen and Emily Young] are company members is because we don’t just value them as actors but as collaborators and co-creators. We do share a similar training and vocabulary but we’re not dogmatic about working with Brown/Trinity actors. Annie Purcell, who plays Viola [in Twelfth Night], is an NYU grad. [The cast also includes Georgia Cohen, Elizabeth King-Hall and Haas Regen.]
Jessie: As an actor, it feels like the best of both worlds. I have a strong voice in the room and I trust these guys implicitly that when the time comes I can step back and know that they’re going to take care of me. And you only have that with a company. What is so beautiful about the way we work is that Fiasco is more than the sum of its parts. There’s a magical element that happens because there are three brains.
Steve: Why so much focus on Shakespeare?
Noah: I think what we all love is muscular language-strong, powerful, poetic, language in which people are living through the expression of their souls through language. No other English writer has ever done that or ever will do that like Shakespeare.
Ben: We’re all actors and on a caring level we want to play these parts because we think we can bring something to them. Every Fiasco actor has completely different skill sets and uniquenesses. We share core values and ways of rehearsing but what we do covers a large range of the acting map.
Jessie: There’s just nothing I enjoy more than working on Shakespeare with these two guys. It just doesn’t get any better.
Noah: There are 20th and 21st century writers whom we love. But there is a manifest difference in that Shakespeare’s people are using language to expose their souls and almost everyone since has written characters that are using language to obfuscate. It’s an incredible challenge and release to stand behind something that you say and really mean it. And having said that, Pinter is one of our favorite writers.
Ben: Also, with Shakespeare you can make the plays your own. We do a lot in terms of cutting and rearranging and reassigning language so we can keep the ensemble smaller, and the plays lend themselves to that much adaptation.
Jessie: What was so much fun about Cymbeline was making an epic story happen with six people.
Noah: We’re always asking ourselves how we can serve what we believe to be Shakespeare’s primary interest and intention.
Ben: And how do we make that matter to an audience? It’s about making that intention an experience that’s happening in the room for us and for everyone.
Steve: How did your current steampunk-inspired production of Twelfth Night come about?
Ben: We don’t usually like to get too specific about time and place. But when you conceptualize any Shakespeare you have to determine how people are going to behave. So you have to pick an approach that lets there be a world of the play in which people know how to behave even if you’ve only got a table and chairs as we do for this show. We got excited about the steampunk style because it mixes Victorian stuff with contemporary stuff.
Jessie: And it’s a romantic genre that fits the nature of Twelfth Night.
Ben: We got fired up about it because we were talking about weather in Twelfth Night, the “wind and the rain” and storms and the play opens with a shipwreck. It’s an offstage event for Shakespeare but we ask ourselves how we’re going make that thing happen. What is the storm? And then the storm leads us into talking about thematic stuff that’s going on in the characters, where everyone is being blown about by what’s happened to them…
Noah: The storminess of passion…
Jessie: As a metaphor for madness…
Ben: Or a metaphor for desire, or grief or whatever is driving the characters…
Noah: Blowing them sideways through life…
Ben: And that’s the kind of thing where all three of us go…”Put it on SmartTix; something has just happened here and we can follow this through.” The steampunk thing didn’t necessarily line up with the storm thing but visually it became appealing because it’s a way to suggest a moment that is not right now, which is always helpful for Shakespeare on some level.
Noah: It helps us and the audience to get distance because we are trying to experience this place of Illyria which is “other,” “outside” and is new and exotic to our heroine. We want the audience to have that experience as well.
Jessie: Another great thing about steampunk blending the modern and the old is that we never forget that we’re in a theater. It just doesn’t make sense to pretend like we’re not in a theater and that the audience isn’t there. Why ever do that?
Ben: It’s also just a great look. Everybody looks good in it. And we began to see that we could create character through that look with just one or two things.
Noah: The other thing we try to do when we create these plays and tell stories is that we don’t forget our partner in this which is the audience. We are actively engaging their imaginations; we are relying on them to create the rest of the world that we suggest. It’s actually more fun for everyone that we’re not putting it all up there.
Steve: I had the great pleasure of acting in a reading of Noah’s play, The Vexed Question, with Fiasco last fall. The play is an epic dramatization of the congressional debates over slavery in the 19th century, and crackles with intense emotion and rhetoric. How does The Vexed Question, a new play in a classic mode, fit in with Fiasco’s mission?
Noah: I had been grousing and griping for a long time, at least to myself, that we don’t have a strong canon of American history plays, although we have an incredibly interesting history of our formulation and our development as a nation. We sat down at dinner and Ben was excited about a book that he had just read about John Quincy Adams who was the hero of those nine years of congressional debates. And I said I can write this play. I am going to write this play.
Ben: This period of history feels theatrical—the power of debate, the power of language, all the stuff that draws us to Shakespeare. And the fundamentally fascinating thing is that the vigor and intensity and specificity and power of the language itself is on some level what kept the thing alive. So with the thing about which there is no argument, the argument itself becomes the event, and that’s what’s exciting. Noah invented over half the story. But what we know about history plays, whether they’re Shakespeare’s or anybody else’s, is that dramatizing facts is not actually what it’s about. It’s about using a historical moment to explore ideas. It’s an incredibly exciting play.
Noah: The response from the actors was the most gratifying thing. If the actors are excited, especially on such a long play, you know you’re onto something. [In the late fall of 2010 Fiasco will present a workshop production of The Vexed Question.]
Fiasco’s current production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night plays through June 20, 2010 at the Access Theater at 380 Broadway (at White Street) in Tribeca. For tickets visit www.smarttix.com. For more info visit www.fiascotheater.com.