Beneath the Theater of the Apes

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t feel like they’re being chewed up by the Cuisinart of history at the moment, on all fronts. It feels bad (rotten) most of the time: unsettled, disruptive, hard to navigate. But sometimes out of all the tumult, good and welcome smash-ups happen. It’s like the moment when Dorothy is riding at the top of a tornado in her house, and all this shit goes flying by the window…then suddenly a couple of fishermen in a rowboat pop up and greet her with a friendly wave. For me, a few weeks back those friendly fishermen were Ayun Halliday and Greg Kotis.

I am an almost exact contemporary of these guys; our lives have played out in parallel in many ways over the last couple of decades. We both came out of the downtown theatre scene in the 90s. We both started ‘zines around the same time (I stopped producing mine in the early oughts after I started getting published in major papers and magazines and now I blog instead; Ayun still produces her’s, The East Village Inky). We both have associations with the New York International Fringe Festival; Kotis’s 2001 show Urinetown, which went all the Broadway, was the bigger hit by orders of magnitude than any of my offerings, however (my biggest claim to fame ended up being my first book a couple of years later). We both had kids around the same time and had to face the challenges of making art while parenting. We both used to live in Brooklyn. We both have hired Tony Millionaire to do postcard art for our shows. We have both produced shows about Santa Claus at the Kraine. And I think we share artistic sensibilities. Those guys are funny and surreal and subversive!

Despite all that we have in common we have only known each other at arms length all this time. Kotis and I were featured in the same Time Out New York piece about ten or a dozen years ago; and he was nice enough to write a blurb for the dust jacket of No Applause when it came out. And I’d seen some of their stage work, of course.

So I was thrilled at the chance to get to know them better in the form of an assignment for The Villager, as they have a lot of cool things in the works. And then, guess what? That old Cuisinart! After a lovely interview with the pair of them about a week ago, the NYC Community Media papers for which I have written for nearly a decade (The Villager/ Downtown Express/ Chelsea Now/ Gay City News), having been acquired by a larger chain, fired all their editors but one, and cancelled assignments, and will almost certainly be reducing their arts coverage to a prohibitive degree. It’s an especially ironic development given the fact that the last thing Greg and I chatted about was the decline of print coverage of the arts. Guess we jinxed it!

Anyway, this marks a sea change for me, a welcome one in many ways, truth be known, but we’ll talk about that at a later time. Today, our topic is Theater of the Apes. The piece I was working for The Villager is now a Travalanche piece.

The most urgent bit of news is that tonight they present the latest edition of their monthly variety show Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. If you take nothing else way from this piece, take that, and go see the show! Each month, they “pluck a long forgotten volume from the shelves of the New York Society Library and resurrect it as a low budget variety show.” The New York Society Library, founded 1754, is New York’s oldest library.

The beauty of a blog is that I’m a lazy-ass and now I can present our conversation in raw interview form without having to invent paragraphs! So here it is. I spoke with Ayun first.

Tell me about Theater of the Apes

Ayun: We’re dedicated to creating offbeat, hopefully always comic, performance that bigger theatres won’t take on. With cheap tickets! It’s a labor of love. We’re a long time couple, who started out with the Neo-Futurists in Chicago in the ’90s, now trying to continue our artistic passion from our 20s, and keep it still going into our 50s. The company was originally formed for the first production of Urinetown. We had a two year old at the time. It took us a while to figure out how to make art happen while raising kids. But now one has gone off to college, and the other’s a teenager and so we’re reemerging. Last March (2017) we presented our show Zamboni Godot at the Brick, and in November we did a punk version of Animal Farm with a bunch of home schooled high school kids, including my son Milo, at the Tank.

And what about Necromancers of the Public Domain? 

Ayn: We launched this series in February of this year. It came about because we were looking for places to write and a friend told us about the New York Society Library. Greg went in and bought a membership. It’s this wonderful and weird old mansion on East 79th and Madison. Half the rooms are, like, grand ballrooms with huge fireplaces and oriental carpets. The other half contain the stacks, with these industrial metal shelves, folding chairs, and fluorescent lights. It’s very old fashioned; they have tea every day at 3pm. They’ve been incredibly supportive. They’re happy to get people interested in their collection.

I love to rummage there, always on the prowl for the next book for the series. It has to be one without too much text, as all the participants in the show have to read the whole book, or at least skim it and read one section in depth. It needs to have lots of pictures, as some of the artists do things with slides and projections. I like to pick weird, old books it looks like nobody has checked out or even flipped through for decades. And then we make a big fuss about it. That’s the “necromancy” part — bringing the books back to life.  I’m always the host. I give these over-the-top introductions to the books. The show is very informal. The performers sit out in the house. Sometimes they chime in from audience. Sometimes the audience chimes in! My goal is I want every audience member to say “Wasn’t that amazing”, and every act to feel they were amazing. Each show is a brand new maiden voyage. When it’s all over, the audience solemnly recites a section, and we return the book to the vortex.

Tell me about tonight’s book Physical Training for Women by Japanese Methods (1904) by H. Irving Hancock. 

Ayun: This book is off the hook! It’s about jujutsu. This guy [Hancock] lived in Japan, and was very impressed that women were training alongside men. This was 1904, when western women worse corsets, were thought of as “the fairer sex”. It was thought that wouldn’t couldn’t or shouldn’t walk long distances or lift boxes. The book has these photos of women in black tights, bloomers, and sleeveless sports shirts. The publisher probably knew (even if the author didn’t) that these photos would sell books!

What some other stuff you have coming up? 

Ayun: I’m turning my seventh grade diary into a puppet piece, and I have a solo show Nurse, about the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet telling her version of events, which we’ll be presenting in spring 2019. Immediately next though is Greg’s play The Truth About Santa [at the Tank December 5-20], and I’ll turn you over to him for that:

Greg: The Truth About Santa is a revival of a show we first presented at the Kraine about ten years ago with [NYC Fringe co-founder] John Clancy directing. The “war on Christmas” was being talked about then; it’s an even hotter issue now. It’s part of the broader culture wars, I think. I was curious about the mythology of Christmas, and I researched it. It’s really an American creation. In my play I sort of combined Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol” with the poem “The Night Before Christmas”. It’s sort of a secular institution with religious elements. And we explore it in a hopefully funny way. We treat Santa as a sort of an Old World God who has special powers. He’s not omnipotent, but not quite human either, like Zeus or Odin.

About Theater of the Apes? 

Greg: Ayun and I come out of do-it-yourself, storefront theatre. We started out in Chicago with friends. Basically we just said, “This is a theatre and this is a play: come see”. It was still kind of possible to do that when we first came to New York thanks to guys like John Clancy and Aaron Beall. You create a space and people show up. And you cut a deal with venues for a door split or whatever. But, now for the past 18-21 years, Ayun and I have focused primarily on being parents. Parenting in NYC can be a tricky endeavor and it pretty much consumed us, though we did stuff when we could. Now we’re emerging from that period of more active parenting. And we’re exploring the question of, “Can we do whatever we did when we did whatever we did?” And the answer will either come back, “No, it’s too expensive or impossible or whatever” Or, “Yes, this is fun! It’s hard but we’re not too old, and it’s not too impossible trying to put on a play.” That’s where I’m at in it, anyway. Ayun’s all in. I’m less sure. (laughs) I just follow whatever she says!

Stay on top of exciting new developments from Theater of the Apes here.