Tom Ridgely: I’m glad you found us!
Hanna Cheek: I’m sorry, we got caught up.
No, I’m glad you got caught up! It’s hard not to here.
HC: We were in the lake! We went canoeing!
All three of you in a canoe?
TR: We circumnavigated the lake.
Arian Moayed: We went all the way around, and we went under the bridge, and we went all the way to the end.
HC: And we saw a blue heron. It was unbelievable.
Can you all tell me your names and where you’re from?
AM: I’m Arian Moayed. I’m from New York City.
TR: Tom Ridgely, also, most recently, from New York City.
HC: Hanna Cheek from New York City.
And how do you all know each other?
TR: Arian and I are originally from the Midwest. Arian grew up, mainly, in suburban Chicago and I grew up in Indianapolis. We went to undergraduate together and came to New York at the same time. A friend of ours knew a friend of Hanna’s, and pretty soon we got connected. We went to go see a show that she was in, and we were blown away, so we knew we had to work with her. That began a long, arduous courtship process.
So, tell me a little bit about Waterwell [their theater company].
HC: Take it, you guys, ‘cause they started it right out of school when they moved to New York together.
AM: Tom and I were in college together at Indiana University. We were getting cast in the plays and all, but in our junior year, we started studying other types of theater. We were reading all of this Peter Brook, reading Artaud; and we were reading Brecht, we were reading all that crazy stuff that you do in college! Even though we weren’t being taught that. We were taught a little bit of Brook. Mr. McGibbon taught us The Empty Space. Then, when we were doing that, we were really intrigued by creating our own theater; and a lot of the influences were Peter Brook and Julie Taymor, that book of photography of hers of the work that she’s done in Tibet. And all of a sudden, a key opened to a huge door and it was like, “Oh! You can do whatever the fuck you want!” [laughing] That’s kind of how it happened. “Oh, you can just do whatever! No one cares!” Or, they might, but that was really eye-opening for us. Then, we started creating theater, and that’s kind of how it happened. We moved to the city not knowing anybody, or very few people, and we wanted to do shows. So, we wrote the show! Then we acted in the show. Then we directed the show. Then we were like, “We want to do a musical! That’s so much fun but, like, we don’t sing? Well, we’ll just sing!”
HC: You just work it out.
AM: Yeah, we just worked it out! And that’s everything, really. Along the way, we got excited about working with these unbelievably talented people like Hanna and Kevin Townley.
HC: Well, your first stab after doing just stuff between the two of you guys, you were like, “And in our next season…” and also looking back, because I know you guys now, it seems like you’ve done great shows and you did the show where I was replaced with a puppet…”
TR: We replaced Hanna with a puppet. You can put that in the blog. Just a reminder on the blog: at any time, present or future, she can be replaced by a puppet again.
HC: This happens at the beginning of everything. They go, “You know we can replace you with a puppet,” and I say, “You know I can ONLY be replaced with a puppet.” [laughing] So, that’s the deal. But you know, then you guys said, “Now, in our next Waterwell season, we want to do one person shows.” Like, produce and direct one person shows that are done by other people. That was your first stab at, “We’re not going to be in these. We’re going to make them happen.” And that was with Rodney and myself.
How did you find people to start bringing into the fold?
AM: It’s pretty organic, I’ve gotta be honest. There’s basically six of us and it just melds with those six. The other thing I should say is, and this is a huge part of it that I left out, is that we’re all aligned politically. We wanted that in all of the work that we do. When Tom and I started it, we were like, and we still kind of feel this way, “We’re going to use theater to help change the world.” That was the thing, and it really hasn’t strayed from that. We were learning to do this thing during the most detrimental war of the last 20-30 years, and that was the spark. We said, “This has to be talked about.” And we still feel that way. Every show that we’ve done has had something to do with, like, “Wait! We’re not talking about feminism for Goodbar or who are our heroes for the Martin Luther King show.” Now, it’s like, “Why aren’t we talking about all of our veterans who are coming back, dying twenty-two a day from suicide? Why aren’t we talking about that?” That’s kind of like…
HC: …the running theme. But also, with that, the running them has also been, “Let’s talk about what we feel should be talked about and make sure that it’s above and beyond.” It’s been, “This needs to be entertaining.”
AM: Yeah, that’s right.
HC: The idea is to entertain and create discussion because it’s not just beat-over-the-head political theater which, nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what we do no matter how passionate we are about it or wanting to beat it over anyone’s head. It’s more than than that. It’s the joy of merging theater, what theater was originally, which was the town square and where you got your news. That’s not what theater is now. It’s all kinds of things, but what we specifically are interested in doing is: “What do you get when you take five people who are very different artistically but have a common goal of making something that is both flat-out entertaining and enjoyable and, while you’re in that receptive mode, there’s also information that is coming?” Right now, with this show, we’re talking about the invisibility of the war in Afghanistan and how different that is from how visible World War II was as far as everyday lives. There are so many reasons why it’s different, but there are also so many reasons why it shouldn’t be as different as it is. We should be more aware of what’s going on, and how do you do that with song and dance?
If that’s the running theme, how have things changed since you first started? Obviously, you’ve brought more people in, but what else has changed?
TR: Our process has changed a lot. At the beginning, it was really ensemble-driven and physical. We used to start projects off by picking a discipline or a sort of proxy-mentor, people like Brecht and…
TR: …and Meyerhold, practitioners who had different techniques and we would spend a period of investigation in those techniques while simultaneously researching subject material for our project. Then, those things would mesh to form the final thing. The combination of the exploration of the material and the technique would become our show. Anyways, they were really group-driven things with five or six people in the room together…
HC: For six months.
TR: …running around, sweating, and doing these things together. As it’s gone along, I think it’s interesting, one of the things that strikes me about how the company has evolved and how we as individual artists have evolved is that, in the beginning we all really needed each other because none of us had ever made a thing all by ourselves but we made so many things together that we actually got really good at developing our own voices and really got strong as individual creators. So, the creative units have shifted. Before this recent project, there had been smaller groups of us where two or three people go to work on one project while two or three people go work on another project. Now we’re starting off on this new thing and, what seems to be happening now is that the group is coming together again like we used to always but the roles have become more distinct. In the past, everyone was writer/composer/performer/director/everything. Now, in the group, we’re all coming together and creating together so it feels very similar in that way; but at the same time, now this person will write, this person will compose, this person will act, this person will direct, and this person will do all these other things.
What is this new project that you’re working on here at SPACE? It might be a big question.
HC: This is a big question. We’re at the very, very beginning and that’s why it’s been so awesome. We knew we wanted to come back together and create something, knowing that it was going to be a very different, um, a shifting of dynamics not a different dynamic, but a shifting of dynamics like we said, because we’re grown up a bit. We’ve branched off and now we’re like, “All right! Let’s see what happens when us as more fully-formed individuals come together to make something.” We started throwing around ideas, then we all latched onto this one. It’s about returning soldiers and PTSD, the invisibility of it and just the experience of it. All of this, and including how not right-around-the-breakfast-table wars are now if you’re not in a military family. We landed on Ajax, which everybody knows it or has had some experience with it, maybe, hopefully. In looking at it specifically with PTSD in mind, it’s staggering to realize that that’s what it is about, and this is ancient. This is early theater! It is so clearly about PTSD. That landed beautifully with all of us of like, “This is going to be a major source text,” and then with the looking at the entertainment and the many other layers that we like to fold in with what we’re looking at as we are… how far do we want to go with saying what we’re doing?
TR: We can say it! The main thing is that we’re doing an adaptation of Ajax and what we’re calling it is a live movie musical. It came about because a) there’s this very old play. It’s one of the oldest documents of literature that has survived, and it’s clearly dealing with something that looks a lot like what we call PTSD now. It’s a combination of that and these midcentury movie musicals, these big studio, MGM, movie musicals that also treated with the same experience, which is the soldier returning home from war. There’s a giant volume of movies made about that…
HC: Especially in the forties.
TR: Right after World War II, especially, and they obviously treat with the experience very differently than Sophocles did. And we would.
TR: And that we would now. We’re just beginning, as Hanna said, to figure out how those different presentations overlap and how they would exist together in a show.
HC: And how they could highlight each other and make a really interesting show. If we have the form of the 1940s movie musical, which is full of hope. It is all about, “Things are going to be great! Our boys are coming home! And they’re going to get back into their lives, and they’re going to get the girl, or they’re trying to get the girl, and they’re trying to get the job.” And it’s lovely and hopeful and wonderful, and then there are injections of, “It’s hard to get a job,” but for the most part, they’re very buoyant and hopeful. Then we’ve got the fact that for Ajax, it’s the difficulty of dealing with what you’ve been through in war and how that warps you. Then, in 2012, there’s what that means now. So, what does it mean, what would it look like, to lay these things on top of each other and use them all so that it makes the point of, “This has gone on forever and we should look at it?” So how do we look at it, taking these three stages of it into account, so that it becomes both entertaining but deeply affecting?
How have you been using your time here to work on the project?
AM: We’ve watched a lot of movies. [laughing] We’ve taken this opportunity to watch a lot of movies. Basically, we had a goal of finding an outline for it, and we did that. We did watch a lot of movies, and we discussed a lot about the play. We had a dramaturg up here, which was very useful and who was very, very intelligent. We also were looking at all of these articles that we’ve been emailing about for the last year about actual marines who have come back and who are dealing with PTSD, and they’re really the force of it all, I think. We want to tell their story. It’s kind of crazy, watching all of these movies and being like, “God, they really did celebrate the return of the soldier!”
In a way that I feel we don’t right now.
It’s very much hidden.
AM: Right! We do the opposite. Under Bush, and I’m guessing it’s the same under Obama, you couldn’t videotape the coffins coming back. That was a thing. That was a Bush thing. Because it was too depressing.
But it should be.
HC: And that we should also know it.
AM: That this is what’s happening.
HC: This is what’s going on. This is our country. Patriotism includes all of this. It includes understanding. As far as learning that, what is it? Twenty-two soldiers a day commit suicide.
AM: That’s such a crazy number.
HC: To not be aware of that at all is to not acknowledge their service. They also have an element of dying in service, but it is not recognized as such because there is so much politics around, “Do you believe in the war? Do you not believe in the war?” the people involved get lost. To not honor them, especially if you don’t honor them because, “Oh, it makes it look like the war is bad because it’s bad for humans,” then it’s like, “Don’t talk about it.” Well, those men and women deserve to be recognized, that they gave so much that they were unable to really rejoin society when they got back.
Right. It’s not a reciprocal relationship. There’s a lot of service done by them, and we don’t treat them in the same way that they treated us.
HC: As far as the society within the barracks, it’s all about strength and adrenalin and following rules. That doesn’t leave much room for when you come back, you want to be just as strong and you want to be thankful to be home, but you don’t quite fit in your home anymore. You don’t quite know if it’s your home that’s changed or if you have changed, and the amount of suffering that goes on from just the best-case scenario, which is that it’s a little awkward but you get into a groove and you’re back. You’re a different person, but you find a community again. Then there’s the worst, which is that you can’t find it, and you’re eaten from inside. You don’t have that different kind of strength to say, “I need help.”
You haven’t developed those tools.
HC: You haven’t developed those tools because you learn to shut down, learn to do. It’s this fascinating and horrible disease. There’s that on top of looking at these homecoming movies that are like, “Our boys are back and everything’s grand!” is, looking at the facts we are now with that sheen, is a really interesting juxtaposition.
AM: We’re really interested in form. We’re trying to break form as much as possible. We think form is so underutilized, actually. The majority of theater goes into these grooves, whatever the groove might be, and it finds a groove of like, the three-person play or the two-person play or the five-person play. That’s the thing right now because no one wants to produce a ten-person play! [laughing]
AM: That’s the reality. Playwrights say that all the time. So, because of that restriction, the type of theater is uniform set, four-person play, micro-issues, you know what I mean? That have a thematic macro-issue. Our Ajax is hopefully with fifty people. [laughing]
HC: And mirrors, so it looks like five hundred.
AM: And high on the entertainment value! Also, they’re performers as well as being former marines. In the midst of all that, at the end of this play, Hanna is going to do a monologue of an original Greek text. Not in Greek!
HC: Well, maybe! We’re in the early days. That’s also another dual thing. Looking at theater is something else that interests us here. This is a very early play and as far as the Greek plays go, this is the only one where there is a suicide on stage. Not off stage. Often, it’s like someone comes running in and is like, “They just did it!”
This sounds terrible, but that sounds perfect for what you’re shooting for.
HC: Exactly! For what we’re talking about! Because it’s the most isolated person in the play, therefore in the world, is then publicly, privately, but publicly doing the deed. Offing themselves. A big draw for that will be both the text, the original Ajax text, but then also this soldier who killed himself very publicly with this unbelievable email or post, rather, that is very logical and very heartbreaking and very weirdly hopeful. He felt this was, in fact, the right and only answer. So again, superimposing these two, many centuries apart.
TR: There’s this eerie parallel between the two because Ajax, before he kills himself in the three thousand year old play, gives this long explanation to the audience as to why he’s going to do it. There’s this letter that Arian found from a soldier in the last five years who killed himself and left a note, or an email, or posted a blog or something, but he lays out the reasons for it in the same way that Ajax did. To see how little has changed about that, in terms of what the experience is, but how little humans have done to deal with it or to try to make that different for the people that have to do that is a big part of the reason we’re doing the play.
HC: We’re excited about that. On top of it all, we started looking into how female soldiers are misrepresented in literature, in art, essentially. The iconic…
TR: Hanna’s playing Ajax.
Yeah! I love it.
HC: I’m starting bootcamp next week. The iconic mental image for soldier is a red-cheeked boy. Somehow, it automatically comes up as those dudes storming in for World War II and saving the day. These young American boys. That’s what we see. Meanwhile, women have been in the military for a while now, and we read this article…
TR: Even more invisibly.
HC: Yeah! Tom found this article…
AM: No, it was Ann!
HC: It was Ann.
AM: Our board member. Am I right about that? Yeah.
HC: Yeah. This article was talking about this experience, of women in the military. One thing that struck us was the very simple thing of coming home with your fellow soldiers and being in the airport. You’ve got gear, you’re in your suit. People would come up and say, “Thank you for your service,” to the man standing right next to her and not acknowledge. It’s less that anyone is doing this for the acknowledgment but you come home, and you’re in a new world that was once your world, and it has got to be jarring in a way that none of us can possibly imagine. That’s already the case! And then on top of it, to feel like you’re not even included in the outsider group, so you’re a ghost in this world. Then learning more about the traumatic symptoms of PTSD or any version, any gradation of that is much more, I would imagine, when you feel that you are also pushed out of the iconic group. That really caught us on fire and made us like, “We want to do this. We want to put all of this together and see what happens.”
AM: In a musical!
HC: In a musical! In a movie musical, ladies and gentlemen.
Once you leave here, what’s the next step for the project?
HC: We’re doing an excerpt in September as part of the Green Plays, which is part of the…
TR: Gowanus Art and Production.
HC: Thank you. Gowanus Art and Production.
AM: Who is doing it? Who are the companies who are doing it?
TR: Youngblood from EST.
HC: Youngblood from EST, Naked Angels, Studio 42, the F It Club. I think that’s it.
TR: That’s it.
HC: Everybody is doing ten minutes of either a short play or they’re doing an excerpt of something they’re working on or have worked on. Something like that. It’s going to be an event and an evening. That’s coming up!
AM: We’ve just gotta write it.
HC: So, what’s amazing as far as what we’ve done here: in two days, which we all wish we were able to stay more for so many reasons, but in two nights and three days we were able to, after sending around emails with all kinds of research, we were able to sit down and say, “Let’s map out the backbone of our show.” And we did that, which is unbelievable! We meet in New York and try to get work done, but being able to get away into a place like this where there’s nothing to do but take a deep breath, exclaim at how gorgeous it is, and then say, “Okay, so let’s get artistic!” We sat there and we actually created our cards, which is how we do stuff, and those are going to get rearranged over the year; but this was a huge accomplishment to get those down in order and watch movies that inspired what we want to represent in each act or each chapter. We narrowed that down, and also what we’re going to focus on for this next month to perform as a condensed chapter of what the show will be all about. We’ll do that in September. So, it couldn’t have been a more productive three days. Couldn’t have been.
One more question after this very serious interview. If you were reincarnated as a farm animal, which farm animal would you be and why?
AM: What’s the hairiest farm animal?
The sheep are pretty furry.
HC: Not what you would be reincarnated as, but what you would like to be.
Either one! Whatever you think embodies you.
AM: What’s the king of the farm?
TR: I would be a horse.
HC: Oh, I like that.
So, why would you be a horse?
TR: I feel like it’s the most…
AM: Because you look like one?! [laughing] Did you get that? 'Cause he looks like a horse!
HC: What would I be?
TR: I feel like the horse is the most majestic and indispensable of the animals.
AM: Indispensable… [laughing]
HC: There is no horse on this farm.
TR: It needs one!
HC: I do like the ducks because they seem to laugh at everyone as you walk by.
[well-timed duck “laughing” in background] [everyone laughing]
HC: See? It’s amazing! I do also love that one chicken who always knows where to get the scraps. Even when we were playing cornhole, she was monkey-in-the-middle-ing it! I nearly accidentally hit her, so maybe I don’t want to be a chicken.
Arian, have you decided?
AM: I just don’t know.
AM: That’s not me!
TR: A pig is the filthiest of the animals.
AM: You could be a snake.
TR: A snake is the most devilish.
There are barn cats! There are collie dogs who herd the sheep.
AM: Ohhhhh! Yeah, I’m a dog.
HC: What about grasshoppers. I want to be a lightning bug!
That’s a great one.
HC: I just discovered that. I just learned that about myself.
Why are you a lightning bug?
HC: Because you’re the magic of the night.
And why are you a dog?
AM: 'Cause everyone loves the dog. [whispering into the microphone] He’s the most handsome. HC: Arian’s a dog. 'Cause he’s a dog. [laughing]
Thank you so much, you guys.
TR: Good luck editing it.
AM: Here are some adjectives that you can use to describe me: handsome, handsome, really handsome, super duper handsome.
Interviewed by Arden Armbruster.
For more information about Gowanus Art and Production Presents! The Green Plays visit: www.gowanusartandproduction.com/calendar/2014/9/10/gap-presents-the-green-plays