Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Interview with Jim and Paul Manganello: 'String Up the Moon'

Fratellanza's new show, "String Up the Moon," previews this Thursday at the PuppetART Theater in Detroit. Fratellanza members and Michigan natives Jim and Paul Manganello, who wrote and perform this piece, agreed talk to Damn Arbor about this show, clowning, Russians, and femininity.

Tickets for "String Up the Moon" are still available at the PuppetART Theater from September 5-8; at Michigan Legacy Art Park on September 14; at the Jam Handy at the Detroit Design Festival September 20 and 21, with a special performance with a Russian tea afterparty September 21.

DAMN ARBOR: Welcome back to Michigan! We’re excited to see you guys back in action together and performing at so many venues around the state. First things first: we want to know what you’ve been up to since we last saw you in The Mute Quire with The New Theater Project last summer. You were both off to adventures abroad, if we remember correctly. What have you been working on?

JIM MANGANELLO: I've been at a theater school called Lassaad in Brussels. But I think of it more as a samurai studio. Our teacher, Lassaâd Saïdi, gives us impossible problems and we try to solve them theatrically. We nearly always fail.

DA: Jim, can you give us an example of a problem you would be asked to solve theatrically? We can’t even begin to imagine what that would look like.

JM: We’re asked to be a lot of things that don’t have legs and arms. Natural things, musical things.

DA: We'll have to see an example in person. Another great reason see the show! Paul, what have you been up to?

PAUL MANGANELLO: I was in Switzerland all year at Scuola Teatro Dimitri. The school comes from a circus tradition, so I was doing acrobatics, mime, and theater projects with classmates from around the globe.

DA: What are you going to take away from your study overseas? Any moments that stand out in your mind?
PM: I realized that soaking in other cultures gives you a rich canvas of poetry, new ways of feeling. Spending time with people from other places, you learn new emotions. My Italian friend taught me exuberance and love... my Hungarian friend taught me cynicism. My French teacher taught me the weepy verse of Paul Verlaine. Yes, these are stereotypes but all of my research has demonstrated they are true. And they are all beautiful! And for a theater artist they are all wonderful territories of the boundless map of drama that we spend a whole life perusing.

JM: I’m with people from eleven different countries, and with the exception of the natives, we’re all speaking very poor French. So you very quickly learn how to communicate beyond human speech. There’s also a great freedom in performing in a language other than your own. It’s easier to remain simple. That said, it also makes you cherish your mother tongue as never before. It’s embarrassingly stereotypical, but most of my great Belgian moments involve large quantities of beer and chocolate. We have great potlucks with food from around the world. With a slightly higher brow, it was beautiful doing a version of King Lear in four languages.

DA: And how long have you been back in Michigan? What brought you back here?

JM: We got back in June and started right in rehearsing our new show. What brought us back? The team we’ve got here in Michigan: the performers, the musicians, artists, and then the audience. We had such a beautiful experience last summer with "The Mute Quire."

PM: I’m back in Michigan to work with my closest collaborators. Jim, Sango, Mike, Sam & Reed are five artists I believe in... it takes years to build a team like this and I was determined to return to Michigan to make this collaboration possible.

DA: The first time we saw a Manganello original work was in 2011, when Paul was performing "Zealous Whig" for Basement Arts, about the often-forgotten Founding Father Filippo Mazzei. It was a one-man show, but Paul talked about Jim’s involvement from its beginning stages, when Paul dressed up as the character on a visit to Monticello. And then we saw you last year together at The New Theater Project, in a show about Shakespeare and intellectual property issues--the energy between you two is absolutely electric. Is working together just the best of the best for you guys? Are your visions for a project usually in sync, or do your talents and interests complement each other in leading to a final product?

PM: There is great joy in working with people who are close to you, and there’s a lot of torment. Jim and I are two people, not one, so we must put our heads and hearts together without bashing them into each other-- and that’s hard when you’re moving fast. We are a very young group, so we are still figuring out how to steer the vessel. But my brother is a big source of inspiration, and there is power in the language we share.

JM: I’d probably answer this question more sagely when we’re not actually rehearsing--and we’re deep in right now! Everything’s bigger when you work with your sibling: the nastiness of the fights and the pinnacles of joy. Sometimes Paul and I finish each other’s sentences, it’s true. Sometimes I let Paul completely guide a moment because he’s onto something that I can’t see, and I think he does the same.

DA: Let’s talk about "String Up the Moon." Where did the idea come from? When did you start writing?

JM: Paul and I joke that we are constitutionally incapable of just doing a play--like, a real play that’s written by a real playwright. It’s not that we don’t want to, either. We had a beautiful play by Harold Pinter in mind for this summer. And then our minds started wandering, and we couldn’t resist building something from the ground up. I’ll admit to a certain irrational affection for the Russians. The last one I approached was Tolstoy, and that was a big, wild adaptation of "War and Peace." For this, we chose two shorts: “Diary of a Madman” by Gogol and Pushkin’s poem “Mozart and Salieri.” The short story form works beautifully on the stage. Because the structure is so skeletal, in the sense of bone-like, compacted over seemingly millions of years--so the playing of it becomes less about “this and then this and this and then this” and more about finding ONE thing and boring down. The question of writing is a mysterious one even to me. I know that we entered rehearsals in June with just the short stories and a bunch of other “references” on the table. And you just start picking away. Everything grows up at the same time: the set, the words, the music, the playing. And then at the end you hope you have something that holds up and that has a certain level of spontaneity.

PM: We had a few ideas for a summer project, and I knew if we returned to the US there were a some wonderful collaborators we could invite along. "Diary of a Madman," a Gogol story, seemed like a piece that opens itself to a lot of design elements -- music, visual beauty and puppetry -- and this was the kind of show we wanted to do because of the collaborators we had in mind. Since we’re taking existing texts, the “writing” process hasn’t involved sitting and writing dialog, but instead transposing a short story into a living piece of theater. This is difficult. In fact, there’s more writing to do when you adapt a non-theatrical text, because you’re not just writing what the characters say, you’re also writing what they DON’T say. Gogol stories make good reading but not necessarily good drama-- in order to put them on stage we’ve needed to mine for the theater, which often isn’t in the words.

DA: Who are your collaborators this time around? How did you find them? What are they bringing to the project?

PM: Michael Malis is the best young musician in Detroit. His work has no boundaries, and he’s curious about all of the arts. Both Jim and I have known him since middle school. When we were both students at University of Michigan, I noticed he was reaching into many genres, from hip-hop to traditional Greek tunes. Like a good theater artist, his work grows out of a love for human beings. On this project he’s focused the soundscape by limiting himself to a handful of instruments -- it creates a sharp line through the show. I met Reed Esslinger at U of M. After seeing her final MFA work, I knew she had a wonderful sense of how art can really HAPPEN in time, as opposed to just sit there static. Her work unfolds before you, inviting uncertainty and suspense. She has immense craft and has explored many corners of the earth. For this show she’s created a massive structure that roots all of the action. As thick-headed actors we actors think we are manipulating it, but the joke’s on us--it is the godhead that dictates our play. I also met Sango Tajima at U of M: we did a two-person play in which we both emerged from potato sacks, got dressed, brushed our teeth, checked the time, then went back into the sacks. Breathing in that putrid burlap, I somehow knew I’d found my soulmate. As a performer she is full of wonder and as a collaborator she is frighteningly perceptive. On this project she’s brought important perspectives on the shape of the piece and the flavor of Gogol’s world.

JM: Sam Blake, who graciously agreed to direct this project, is a college theater friend with whom I’ve been trying to hatch projects for a few years now. Everything lined up for this one, and he’s come to Michigan from Chicago for two months to be on the team. He’s shown extraordinary patience with the ensemble dynamic. Which is completely chaotic. Most people within “traditional” theater would have stormed out after the first rehearsal. Sam not only stays, he roots in and I think has a good time.

DA: Your previous shows have always done a great job tying together extensive research and fresh writing and storytelling, with an eye toward making historical issues relevant to a modern audience. Can we expect more of the same in String Up the Moon?

JM: We do tend to branch out pretty far. For this show, I’ve found myself bathing in paintings by Chagall, music from Mozart to techno, youtube videos of squirrels, pictures of old furniture, and of course lots of Russian lit. But the goal is never to do a “mash-up” or a variety show. It’s to use all of these things to create our world, which has its own internal rules and tastes and smells. I’m a sucker for history--it was my major at U of M--but in the Russian tradition, this show, more than any of our previous ones, poaches itself in history for the shortest possible duration so we can break and soak up the raw human yolk.

DA: Are you trying out anything new in "String Up the Moon"? What’s most exciting for you about this show?

PM: There is puppetry in this show, which is new territory for us. Breathing life into fabric is a difficult craft that requires love and persistence. When we do it well, another soul appears in the room. It’s astounding and rare. But beyond creating “normal” puppets like dogs and people, we’ve started to think of all our scenography as a kind of puppetry -- even the walls and ceilings are turned by the desire of actors.

JM: Embarrassing confession: we’ve got women working on the show for the first time! Paul and I are about as feminine as you can get as a man in Michigan--so the troupe was never a bro-fest. But performer Sango Tajima and designer Reed Esslinger are phenomenal. They have brought a sensibility completely different from our previous endeavors, less testronal, but never less intense. More mature, and it’s easier to find the calm--which is essential for creating. Just before the "The Mute Quire" opened last summer, we had a terrifying moment when we looked around at our entirely male cast and creative team and realized that the only female characters in our show were played by plastic chairs. I thought there might be a riot or something involving fire. Nobody noticed.

DA: We cannot stress enough how happy we are to see you back in Michigan. Are there challenges unique to putting together a performance around here that you don’t confront in cities like Chicago? Was it difficult getting "String Up the Moon" off the ground? Do you see many Michigan shows in your future?

JM: Things are certainly steadier in a place like Chicago. You know exactly who you need to get in touch with, who to pay, who to invite. Here it’s more free-form. You can surprise people. And that’s what theater should do. That also comes with a great expense. There’s a very unhealthy cynicism about the arts in Detroit. It’s partly the capitalist, utilitarian mentality that industry has carved out. It’s also that arts organizations haven’t done their share in integrating with existing communities. Specific to this show, I think that there are some very interesting resonances with the city in which we’re performing. Especially with the Gogol. Gogol’s world is peopled by craving, almost madcap dreams and ghosts and mysteries. That sounds a lot like Detroit to me. I do want to continue to create shows in Michigan, but as things stand now, that must be a smaller part of a larger career. I don’t want to fight all the time. I want to do the work and cart it around to as many people as I can.

DA: What’s next for both of you?

PM: There’s some Harold Pinter in my future. I also want to develop a project in Japan, which will involve traveling there to cultivate a story and a “world,” then going somewhere else to create a piece of theater. If any shamisen players are reading this, do get in touch.

JM: There’s a Faulkner novel I’d love to adapt for an old plantation in the South. Anna Karenina calls out, and I’d like to do a double-bill with my War and Peace. And also a show about Palestine and another about young folk finding their roots in other countries. And of course I want to change millions of things about all the shows I’ve done in the past and remount them in a 2.0 version. But in the immediate future, I’ll be returning to Brussels in October and continuing to work with the group there. Must leave a certain amount open so that I can say “yes” when something unexpected comes up.

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