STREAMERS' Brad Fleischer: Finely Free-Falling
This Veteran's Day, as the people of America take a moment to remember those brave men and women who have served our country, Roundabout Theatre Company opens David Rabe's award-winning and stirring war-time play, Streamers...
Brad Fleischer stars as Billy, a wide-eyed and sentimental young man fresh from bootcamp in 1965 Virginia. Billy and his fellow soldiers, Richie (Hale Appleman), Roger (J.D. Williams) and Carlyle (Ato Essandoh) struggle to understand their new life in the army as they watch the Vietnam conflict escalate. "Tensions rise over race, sexuality and class, culminating in an explosive act that changes them forever. Streamers is an unflinching exploration of the turmoil and confusion facing young men threatened by forces beyond their control," detail press notes.
Streamers won the 1976 Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, and was nominated for the 1977 Tony Award for Best Play. This production of Streamers is based on the 2007 Huntington Theatre Company production directed by Scott Ellis.
Prior to Streamers Opening Night, Brad Fleischer shared part of his afternoon with BroadwayWorld to discuss his involvement and focus within this poignant and jarring production...
Eugene Lovendusky: Congratulations on an extraordinary performance! What's it like bringing this play to New York?
Brad Fleischer: New York audiences are a bit more theatre-savvy, in terms that they are coming to see an event. Streamers is definitely a play that pushes boundaries and I'm finding New York audiences are more willing to go with it.
Eugene: How did you first become involved in Streamers?
Brad: I was on Broadway in Coram Boy (which got cancelled a little early) and Streamers was the first audition I had outside. Streamers is a play a lot of young male actors seem to read while they're going through school. I don't know how, but I had never read the play. I wanted to read for Scott Ellis, then met David Rabe and got the part. I'm from Boston, so I was excited to go back there.
Eugene: Where did you grow-up and go to school?
Brad: I grew-up in a small town, Dover-Sherborn, a suburb south of Boston. In college, I hopped all over the place. I wanted to be a basketball player and went to Hamilton College in upstate New York where I majored in math. Then I decided I didn't want to do math or work on Wall Street. I ended-up getting into the University California of San Diego for my Masters with Kyle Donnelly, the director of their theatre program. The people in my class were all exceptionally talented. I've been working since... one of the lucky few.
Eugene: How has Billy fit into your life today?
Brad: The more and more I work on Billy, the more close I feel to him... it's kind of insane! I've sort of always been a busy-body. I've always been that person that wants to hear all the stuff, to tell somebody my opinion to make them feel better, or get upset if I've said too much, or someone might judge me. It's been so interesting working on it! What makes David one of the best writers ever is, he asks questions that don't necessarily have answers and leaves it up to the actor to fill that in and ultimately hopes that you fill it in a way that leaves questions for the audience! A lot of the audience is leaving asking: What has driven Billy to the army? Is he gay? Is he straight? What's going on there? And what happened back then - with adolescence, sexuality, race - and putting it into a really confined space... lets everything implode on itself!
Eugene: Streamers is a very masculine story, but at the same time, very sensitive. What sort of insight did writer David Rabe provide?
Brad: David's insight into what that time-period was like became such an important thing. A lot of these issues, people still talk about today, like race and homosexuality. It's amazing! That he was able to write about these things in 1972 is baffling to me! I wasn't even alive then, I can't imagine the effect that had on people. For him, it was really important to understand that time-period and the difficulty of those subjects. Billy tells this story of his best-friend, a described "bad-ass." Because they had no money, they used to go to the gay bars and get these guys to buy them stuff they couldn't afford. And all of a sudden, his best-friend says: "I'm going home with one of these guys." To tell that story in 1975 is beyond taboo! The effect that that story has on a person whom tells it is what drives the rest of the play, for me. Why Billy is sick to his stomach... What he thinks people are going to think of him now... And what the audience seems to think of him! It's amazing that Rabe went at these subjects and doesn't give an answer. This is relevant in terms of everything going on in the Army, which has really come to light with Don't-Ask Don't-Tell.
Eugene: Do you think there would be much of a difference if this story were told in the barracks of Iraq instead of Vietnam?
Brad: Yes and no. We had a lot of discussion about this in Boston. After the show, we literally had people saying these issues weren't relevant anymore. We would ask "Are you kidding me?" I've lived in Massachusetts, New York and California... three of the more liberal areas to live in. But if you were to grab some guy from the middle of a red-state and throw him in with some black man trying to be straight and narrow, and another from the ghetto (who's a little off), and a gay Manhattanite? I have a feeling something would happen! Almost every veteran who has seen the show has said: "This stuff happens every day. People fight. They put us in with crazy people." Until I started reading this, I never stopped to think - especially during the draft of Vietnam - how close to prison this must have been. You're thrown in with people you don't know and forced to live with, and who says everyone's head is on straight? David wrote these characters that were able to articulate these questions that most people just didn't ask back then! Richie, Roger, Billy... even Carlyle. These characters are way ahead of the curve, in terms of dealing with this stuff. You boil-up that amount of fear, who knows what's going to happen?
Eugene: Throughout the course of the play, we see Billy demonstrating some level-headedness. We see him being very self-aware. We see him get angry. And we see that he is very naïve. Is Billy smart?
Brad: I like to believe Billy is very intelligent. At the same time, for 1975, when somebody was 24 they had the mind of an 18 year-old. It's not like nowadays when you see this stuff everywhere. This stuff wasn't talked about; they didn't see violence. The funny thing is, they're about to go off to war where they're about to kill people. These kids had no idea what they're getting themselves into! To me, it's the difference between book-smart and street-smart. Billy says he wanted to be a priest because priests help people and take away what hurts them. Ultimately, he thinks that's what he wants to do. But toward the end of the play, when everything starts to happen, in his mind he asks "Why am I lowering myself to these people's level, because this is what I get! Two guys are making-out in my room and I get stabbed in the hand!" He has that naivety that he can help everybody, but the reality is that everybody has their own way of doing things.
Eugene: It's an incredible group of men... How did you guys start working with and trusting each other with this material?
Brad: David and Scott have been amazing... Not only do we have an amazing ensemble, but we're all shooting for the same thing: To make David proud. It started in Boston and extended, now that Scott brought us to New York. I was very close to J.D. immediately, and that helped us in the play. He comes with an open-heart to everything. Hale is so willing to do anything and go anywhere. And Ato? What he brings to Carlyle (a character everyone is scared of) actually makes people feel something for him. John Sharian and Larry Clarke are veteran actors who have led by example. I get excited to see what happens every night they walk into that scene. For me, Streamers is a whole different thing - more grounded and realistic. Getting to work with these gifted actors, I don't want this to end! I don't know how Scott does it, bringing us all together.
Eugene: What a wonderful testament! One last question... We learn that a "streamer" is the name given to an unfortunate paratrooper whose chute doesn't open when airborne, and he plummets hopelessly to the ground. Why is this relevant?
Brad: For me, this is exactly what happens during the war... You're told to do something, you do it, and you don't even know what the consequences are going to be. Everybody's free-falling. Everybody's parachute opens except one guy, who is left there, flies by, going right to the ground. The monologue at the end of the play is a reference to Vietnam - a car that nobody's driving. At the end of the play, this awful thing happens with two people, then some guys come to clean it up and everybody goes about their business. When you stop to think about it, that's what war is! Tons and tons of talking with nothing happening; followed by an immense explosion, people die, and everybody's expected to go on as if nothing happened. A "streamer" is such an ultimate thing, something so beautiful, described as a "tulip that won't open" - but at the same time, someone is falling to their death and there's nothing you can do about it. This play is about war, but it also serves as a backdrop to what these kids are going through - and probably what a lot of kids are going through right now in Iraq.
Eugene: Brad, I said that was going to be the last question, but you've got me rolling! [laughs] I have to ask... About that final monologue, I found this overwhelming theme of a "little-thing leading to a big-thing." A man shoots a sergeant in the ass and then there's a grenade down a spiderhole. A fender-bender leads to a Cadillac careening down a hill. Billy throws a shoe and you know where that ends-up... Is Billy a little-thing or a big-thing to the rest of the world?
Brad: First of all, thank god you caught all that! [laughs] I think what you just said is the difference between Boston and New York audiences. Not to make Boston sound simplistic, but in New York, you know people are searching for something within this play because it's in good hands! I guess that's a question to leave to the audience. It's such a difficult thing for me. This play is about war, and so much of it seems pointless in the end. Obviously Billy has just as much importance as Richie, Roger or even Carlyle. I think about all the people who have gone to war, to endure all these struggles, who maybe had something to do or a message to say that we're never going to hear.
Eugene: You're breaking my heart!
Brad: [laughs] I just hope a lot of younger audiences come as well. When I was 20 or 21, I wished I could have gone to a play like this because it gives you hope to know that there are plays like this out there; and gives you a reason to be a good theatre actor.
STREAMERS - Roundabout Theatre Company presents a new Off-Broadway production of David Rabe's award winning drama, directed by Scott Ellis. Opening Night is Veteran's Day Thursday, November 11 at the Laura Pels Theatre (111 West 46th Street).
Tickets available at 212-719-1300, online at RoundaboutTheatre.org or at the box office (111 West 46 Street). Streamers plays Tuesday - Saturday at 7:30PM; matinees Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday at 2PM.
Photos, top-bottom: Brad Fleischer (2008, headshot); Brad Fleischer as Billy (2008, Joan Marcus); Brad Fleischer and Ato Essandoh (2008, T. Charles Erickson); Hale Appleman and Brad Fleischer (2008, Joan Marcus); J.D. Williams and Brad Fleischer (2008, Joan Marcus)