“Would you say that vaudeville is all about comedy?” a podcast interviewer asked me recently, expecting an automatic “yes” but I had to demur, for vaudeville was just as much about the sentimental and the maudlin, and that is another reason I am drawn to it. I cry at deaths, weddings, communions, graduations, parades, news headlines, and honestly, major change of any sort. It’s not that I don’t want change to happen; often it is for the best. But I am wired to miss what’s passed from the scene. I am so nostalgic that sometimes it hurts like a toothache. Thus it was with a certain sense of melancholy that I read yesterday’s news in the paper of record that the torch of leadership of my beloved Brick Theater is being passed to a new generation. I have been connected to the Brick since it was founded, and began performing work there just a few months after they opened their doors. My most recent performance there was in March of this year.
I always referred to the Brick as “home”, and for a half dozen years at the beginning, it was deliciously so. My apartment was a five minute walk away, an incredible rare luxury that I reveled in. The geography of this immense city is so forbidding. Rent is high. Artists tend to live on the frontier, often meaning huge amounts of time spent commuting to venues, rehearsal studios, and so forth. But for several years, I could just fall out of bed and land at the Brick. Once, an agitated Jeff Lewonczyk, a frequent collaborator, phoned me: “Are you coming over?” “Yeah, I’ll be there in a minute!” The performance was due to start in minutes, and I was still in my kitchen in my underwear. I was seldom that cocky (or selfish) but, damn, it was a good feeling to be able to do that. My APARTMENT was my dressing room.
I’ll stop talking about the Brick in the past tense now! It appears to be in GREAT hands, and I hope to work there again many times, for I love its four walls, its tiny backstage, its cramped dressing room, it’s Lilliputian tech booth, its exhibitionist bathroom with its satellite sink behind the box office. I’ll say it again: the sink to the bathroom is located in the box office. The whole place is scarcely larger than a puppet stage. It’s easy to memorize its components. One hangs fire for hours in a theatre. I feel like I have eyeballed every cranny in my downtime. Eaten meals there. Napped there. Collapsed there. I’d like to be able to say that I once shtupped there, but no such luck (although I did bring the strippers to a bachelor party there once). And I did conduct a marriage ceremony there.
Most of us, plus some others, at the Hill-Johnson wedding, 2010
Which goes to the point that my true connection is to the specific people I worked with at the Brick, who still make up my primary circle of friends (and many of whom were already friends prior to the Brick’s founding). Most of them had already drifted out of the Brick’s orbit years ago. When I have performed there recently, it’s been different. A bit of “you can’t go home again”. So really what’s passed has already passed, this is just a formal milestone.
And there are causes to be happy. I am most happy for my friend Michael Gardner, the Brick’s outgoing artist director, a gifted, brilliant, meticulous, and highly original stage director…who seldom produced his own works in his own house because he was too damn busy running the place. The thought of him getting to focus on his own work makes me very happy. I am also very happy for the institution (for it is an institution by now). Young people should be filling the place with experiment, and young people should be packing the seats. Theatre must be vital or it is nothing. New blood, new energy, in the middle of a historical moment that will hopefully be conducive to artistic ferment. And furthermore, I have a lot of nerve “missing” all my friends — I’m seeing a bunch of them, literally, TOMORROW.
Anyway, for fun, I did a little inventory of shows I have produced or otherwise been involved with at the Brick over the years. This does not include, for practical reasons, the scores of shows I watched there as an audience member, many of which were just about as meaningful to me as shows I was actually in. Also, in the name of rapid response, I’m doing this hastily! I’ll subsequently add details (like cast members), etc over time. And if anyone has photos of some of this stuff, please share! Visit The Vault on the Brick’s website to learn more about most of these shows.
My first Brick show was a presentation of my noir parody radio play Cold Fire in the Brick’s Hell Festival, in the summer of ’04. It was a summer of protest in NYC. The Republican National Committee held their national convention at Madison Square Garden, largely for the September 11 symbolism. But the Iraq War was happening, and the Patriot Act was new, and the streets were full of protestors, many of whom were theatrical. I wrote articles about what was going on for the Village Voice and Reason. And I also presented a protest-themed vaudeville show at the Brick, featuring Reverend Billy, the Hungry March Band, and some of the Billionaires for Bush. In the fall of that year, I performed in a short one-act play by my then-girlfriend Lisa Ferber called Either the Cat Goes. I also participated in some readings of old Flash Gordon radio scripts that the Brick presented through 2005.
I presented my solo show Misshapen Jack: The Nebraska Hunchback in the Brick’s Moral Values Festival. It was so hot in there my makeup melted! I also appeared in another Lisa Ferber play, The Return of Toodles Von Flooz, as well as a holiday themed play Damn Teddy Bears by my then-new friend Alexis Sottile, directed by even newer friend Dominic D’Andrea. We also had more fun with radio. I was in a faux serial featuring a bunch of the Brick people called Whispering Crystal Gossamer Bayou. This evolved into a regular radio variety show called Brick Radio Crashbox, which I hosted, and which ran until sometime in 2006.
I presented a small scale sketch-variety show called Trav S.D.’s Health and Wealth Elixir Program in the Brick’s Sell-Out Festival. A cherished moment from that production is captured above: Angela Lewonczyk tap dances to an all-seal version of James Brown’s I Feel Good.
In October and November: very big stuff (for me). I was in the American premier of Vaclav Havel’s radio play Guardian Angel, directed by Jeff Lewonczyk, in Untitled Theatre Company #61’s Havel Festival. Guardian Angel might have been my first serious dramatic role since coming to NYC. It meant a lot to me to get to work on it. And Havel himself and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright came to the Brick! Then through the holiday season, myself and a bunch of the Brick crew workshopped Dominic D’Andrea’s stage adaptation of the movie A Christmas Story.
I presented my one man show Nihils in the Brick’s Pretentious Festival in June. In the same festival, I appeared in Art Wallace’s play Between the Legs of God. In December three of my plays were in Dominic D’Andrea’s brand new One Minute Play Festival. His festival has grown to epic proportions over the past dozen years; it’s huge now! A couple of my plays in this festival were directed by West Hyler, who is now the Producing Artistic Director of the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
This is the first year I didn’t produce a show in one of the Brick’s zany themed annual festivals; for the next several years I produced larger scale shows at bigger venues. But I did act at the Brick that year. I played William Randolph Hearst in the live stage serial Penny Dreadful, created by Bryan Enk and Matt Gray. Penny Dreadful went on for months; I wasn’t in every installment, but I appeared in it sporadically throughout its run into 2009. Enk is now focused on making horror films (he was one of the producers of The Moosehead Over the Mantel, in which I appeared a couple of years ago). And Gray is now the General Director of American Opera Projects. Later that year, I acted in a reading of William Peter Blatty’s play Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing, directed and organized by Jeff Lewonczyk, who’d recently had a Fringe hit with Blatty’s John Goldfarb, Please Come Home.
That year and the next, I also appeared in Suspicious Package, Gyda Arber and Aaron Baker’s Brick-based, handheld device-enabled, street theatre thingy. A couple of years later, Aaron became our first Brick funeral, a sudden loss that shocked us all.
In December, I had a brief cameo as the Station Master in Michael Gardner’s Ninja Cherry Orchard, an adaptation of the Chekhov play enhanced by martial arts choreography.
I served as the wedding officiant at the marriage of Ian W. Hill and Berit Johnson, which was presented at the Brick as a piece of theatre (there were five performances, I think). Later that year, I appeared in Ian’s play Spacemen from Space. Other than Peter Brown (whom I first worked with circa 1990), Ian is my oldest Brick friend; I first met him at Todo Con Nada in 1996. He and Berit produced at the Brick for many years with their company Gemini CollisionWorks, and served as the theatre’s tech staff. They’ve just launched this great new podcast!
In October of this year, I appeared in Art Wallace’s play Brown Clown in the Brick’s Tiny Theatre Festival.
I played President Zachary Taylor in a video promoting the Brick’s Democracy Festival, contributed a scene to “Dainty Cadaver” the Brick’s version of Exquisite Corpse; and hosted the Brick’s benefit for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
Hosted a fun evening of performances of friends performing selections from Beck’s Song Reader, organized by Gyda Arber, and gave a talk on silent movie clowns in the Clown Theatre Festival.
2014-16: Nothing at the Brick for three years? Is that possible? Sadly, it just may be. I had moved to Park Slope in 2011 and getting to Williamsburg was now a bit more of a shlep, although I certainly ATTENDED shows there during this period!
Appeared in Alexis Sottile’s play Small Dinner in the Tiny Theatre Festival, along with Hope Cartelli and Jorge Cordova, and co-hosted a benefit for the victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, organized by Alyssa Simon.
Presented my solo show workshop Tall Tales in the Brick’s Festival of Lies
Acted in Jason Trachtenberg’s musical Me and Lee in March.
Who can tell-?