BWW Interview: Alex Vlahov Shares Secrets from A SIMPLE ART at 777 Theater
I had the pleasure of chatting with the bold and innovative artists - the New York Neo-Futurists about their newest work, "A Simple Art." This is a gripping, full-length true crime documentary play created by Alex Vlahov.
Based on Raymond Chandler's 1944 essay, A Simple Art is a live true-crime documentary looking at the 2014 New Year's Eve murder of Vlahov's high-school priest, Father Eric Freed. By syncing up interviews taken from Humboldt County with storytelling, dance, onstage analog devices, and repetitive tasks, the cast of NY Neo-Futurists ensemble members scrutinize the human need for narrative through the lens of noir. This new play "investigates" the region's history, the marijuana industry, the Catholic Church, police procedure, and the crime itself, all in an attempt to explore why (and how) we construct stories from the chaos of reality. Do we embrace the mystery of life or try to solve it?
Alex, Nessa Norich, Kyra Sims are the band of performers behind this fascinating play, and they shared a bit about the piece and their highly unique process of creating it.
A Simple Art was inspired by Raymond Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder." How did you initially become drawn to a detective story? Did you immediately think of it as the makings of something theatrical?
I was living in London and missed California so I picked up The Lady In The Lake at a thrift shop and became hooked. First of all, there's the thrill of a basic page-turner, I mean look at what sells in airport bookstores- crime novels. People love them, and I'm totally susceptible to this brand of entertainment. But secondly, Chandler wrote about this seedy California that I wasn't familiar with, having grown up in the suburbs and used to a very sunny, pleasant area (the Bay Area). It drew me in and made me wonders about nefarious pockets/corners of the state, especially distant areas (like the desert around LA or the dense woods of the north, where out story takes place). So it both made me nostalgic for home, but made me want to look closer at this place I called "home". And no, I did not immediately think of it as something theatrical.
Describe your artistic process. What's your favorite part of it?
I don't really have one. Apologies for this- to say I did might veer toward sound pretentious. I tend to write what I think is interesting, and these days especially, what I think is funny.
How long have you been working on A Simple Art?
Started in 2014 as a one-man show at The Tank, then I let it go until the Neo-Futurists (which I joined in 2015) were looking for a primetime show to produce, so last summer (2016) I mentioned this show I did back in 2014, how it could be more fleshed out now that the murder trial was over, and it got some positive feedback/people seemed interested, and here we are! So on and off for three years, with long breaks in between (working on classical work, standup, film stuff, all sorts).
But really, what is a "simple art?" What do you feel is simple about theatre? What is complex?
The only thing I find simple about theater is you only need a lightbulb and an audience, and sometimes not even a lightbulb, and sometimes (like some of Jack Smith's famous late-night performances in his apartment) not even an audience. I think theater happens in every day life- say, a car accident witnessed. Or someone on the train acting dangerous- the shared glances of relief between passengers is theatrical/performative. Or gossip being shared- the performed reveal or "lean in" to listen. To distill that and bring it to the stage is what makes it a mirror, and a very fun mirror to play with, because humans pick up on human behavior. But then to make it slightly askew from day to day- to perhaps add some ridiculous element, or even having a knowing-wink to the audience which breaks the fourth wall, or simply kicking a banana into the crowd- this is what makes theater both simple, that it's another facet of life where we're allowed to see life examined/scrutinized. Yeah it's a reflection but it's also part of life and I think should be treated as such- you go to a doctor, you drive a car, you go see a play. I see the job as "theater-maker" a bit as "bricklaying- you just build the best piece you can, and if you find it entertaining, you'll hope an audience will meet you half-way (or full-way, if you're lucky). That being said, I've never been a bricklayer. There are things expected from the work, and I think the quality of thought should be there, and there should be a connection with the audience while playing to the top of your own intelligence as a writer or director because the audience will often go on that journey with you and "get it". But the same quality and thought you'd hope from a doctor, or a traffic system, I hope to find the same when I see theater or make it- some sort of larger picture, or theme, or driving goal, or practical end point, which sometimes is as simple as telling a story effectively. That also being said, I hate preaching to audiences or giving them a lesson so perhaps "goal" isn't the word I want.
The simple art has to do with the art of living and accepting the mysteries that occur every single day, in every single life, everywhere, I suppose. Still figuring that one out.
In the article you referenced to make this play: "The detective story for a variety of reasons can seldom be promoted. It is usually about murder and hence lacks the element of uplift." How do you feel that relates to your work on this piece? Is there a sense of uplift? Are there elements you feel can be promoted?
I don't really know, to be honest. Wish I had a better answer for this. I just think we've always loved crime stories as people- some of the earliest stories told are crime stories, whether they are wrongs committed by gods/humans in mythology or within Bible stories. All the way through Jacobean drama and up to To Kill A Mockingbird.
What do you love most about detective stories?
With Chandler, it's the style. There's a hardscrabble, particularly masculine style in these books. And though gender is a construct, I come away from these stories wanting to take a slug of whiskey and address any wrongs in my life with cynical, curt responses. I feel heavier. It's like how if I watch The Sopranos, I suddenly cuss more and want cigarettes. Or if I watch too much standup, I'm constantly pulling jokes out of stuff my friends say. Also, Chandler has the most damn bizarre metaphors. And as mentioned, there's the very human page-turning element.
Would you feel multidisciplinary theatre adds to the interpretation of a play?
We don't have to act these roles out (those interviewed), but are allowed to create a sort of live mixtape of the event. I like to think of this play a bit like a Rauschenberg piece- a bit of this, a bit of that, and it's hopefully a new way of approaching a horrible murder. Man, that sounded pretentious, but there's truth in it so whatever.
Are there any spaces for improvisation in A Simple Art?
Not much, but there's some variation night to night- a different record played, a line said differently.
What do you feel is, as you say, "the human need for narrative through the lens of noir?"
Again, crime stories are ancient and true-crime podcasts/documentaries are very popular right now- I think it itches this side of us that knows how thin the barrier between life and death is. To think that some people go there or walk that line is morbidly fascinating to us (or me, at least). Noir is more of a stylistic trapping and springboard for what is the more important part of this play (as you cited): narrative and our reliance on narrative to get through life.
I think your four basic principles are pretty much the embodiment of being present. How do you relate that to doing a film noir piece, or a detective story?
Well it becomes a different story each night, for each audience member- an audience will hopefully be touched by some of the passages we read or conversations we have, and come away with new sights/sounds/smells that one can't get from the medium of film or literature. And their experience of it is their own story, which is one of the ultimate points of the piece.
How does A Simple Art align with your mission to make new experimental plays?
I honestly don't know. I haven't seen a play like this before. I'm sorry if I've said "I don't know" a few times- trying to be honest.
You are always writing and creating. Is that why you're drawn towards a detective story?
Nah- it's the human interest in the morbid and grand crime page-turning story that draws me in, plus originally being homesick for CA. It's the ability to clearly express what I'm thinking or experiencing, in exactly the right words and space, that I'm more drawn to. Using the dexterity of language and (onstage) sonic or visual cues to communicate an idea.
Are there elements of sketch comedy in this play?
A bit. We play with the noir trope.
Where is the comedy in detective novels?
The very weird metaphors. There is a line in the show actually: 'He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.' That's a Chandler line, from Farewell, My Lovely, my favorite of his books. It's just so damn bizarre.
Where do you find the humanity in detective stories?
That we're each a sort of detective in our life, picking up on clues, or ignoring them, or trying to ignore them, or reconstructing the past to make sense of the now. I think this is why self-help gurus are so popular- we need to think we're on the right course, or at least want something to blame if we aren't. And the idea of somebody having the "answers" makes us even more of a detective.
What other sources did you draw from to create this?
Bit of Twin Peaks, bit of podcasts (S-Town, Serial), bit of Wooster Group- used to intern there so some of their pieces are a direct influence. Plus I love clutter and noir-style offices tend to be very cluttered.
How long have you been working on this?
Since end of March.
Where do you see the future of this play? What are you hoping for, ultimately?
Getting this in front of an audience is enough for now. Would love a transfer, but who knows.
You've compared being in the Neo futurists as in a band rather than a cog in a wheel - total theatre artists, director, performers, designers, etc. Can you describe each of your roles in creating A Simple Art?
Facilitator and overseer with this project in particular. In the ensemble as a whole? I don't know really.
What did you learn about yourself in doing this piece?
That other people make my work better. I kind of knew that, and Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips once said something to this effect (I think, wouldn't want to misquote the guy) but I think collaboration makes my work stronger and this piece is testament to that.
Catch A Simple Art this month at 777 Theater: 777 8th Ave (btw 47th and 48th).
(PREVIEW) Thursday, June 1 - 7PM
Friday, June 2 - 7PM
Saturday, June 3 - 2PM
Sunday, June 4 - 2PM & 7PM
Tuesday, June 6 - 7PM
Wednesday, June 7 - 7PM
Thursday, June 8 - 7PM
Friday, June 9 - 7PM
Saturday, June 10 - 2PM
Sunday, June 11 - 2PM
$20 General Admission
$16 Students w/ valid ID