Interview: Director Andrew Neisler Making Sense In The Story Of MINDPLAY

The Geffen Playhouse is world premiering mentalist Vinny DePonto’s latest show Mindplay

By: Nov. 21, 2022
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Interview: Director Andrew Neisler Making Sense In The Story Of MINDPLAY

The Geffen Playhouse is world premiering mentalist Vinny DePonto's latest show Mindplay. The run (already started) plays through December 18, 2022. I got the chance to chat with Vinny's long-time collaborator director Andrew Neisler.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Andrew!

What mystical forces first brought you and Vinny DePonto together for Mindplay? Was it an introduction from Vinny's co-writer Josh Koenigsberg whom you worked with in 2016 in The Rise and Fall of Marcus Monroe?

Vinny and I have been working together since 2013. We were partnered up by the wonderful Ars Nova when I was their Director-In-Residence and they were producing Vinny's first Off-Broadway show, Charlatan. Josh Koenigsberg was also brought on to the team by matchmaker Ars Nova - and the three of us have been working together ever since. Mindplay is the result of many years of cooking up and testing out new ideas after Charlatan closed in 2014.

Did you have a say in picking The Geffen for the world premiere of Mindplay?

No, not really, but I was very excited to be premiering at The Geffen when we learned the news. Our wonderful producer, Eva Price, who had been helping us develop the project for a few years, was looking for a place to debut the show, and she really nailed it. I can't think of a more exciting place to launch a new magic-theatre hybrid performance than at The Geffen with their robust history of wonderful magic shows, an audience that appreciates them, and their staff's incredible knowledge about creating this type of work.

At what point in Mindplay's gestation period did you become involved?

Interview: Director Andrew Neisler Making Sense In The Story Of MINDPLAY Pretty much from the beginning. Like I said, we started talking about some of the ideas that are in Mindplay as soon as we were done with Charlatan. And Vinny and Josh and I have been developing it for years. It's gone through several titles and drafts, and pieces of it have been workshopped at various theaters and events, but it's been one consistent path to get us to the version of Mindplay running now.

What would your three-line pitch for Mindplay be?

We all spend so much time and energy trying to silence the voices in our heads, to control our fears, our memories, our minds, but it's an illusion - our minds control us. Mindplay is a mentalism show with an unusual amount of heart about sharing, and therefore enlightening, the heavy weight of what's going on inside your head. And it doesn't take itself too seriously.

What would your directing process for this show of magic be versus a scripted musical or play? Does Vinny present you with a list of his tricks and you define and refine the order?

Well, a big part of the special sauce of developing Mindplay is that it really is a play. That's what makes having Josh (and our genius Geffen dramaturg Amy Levinson) on the team so crucial. There is a lot more going on here than just a bunch of magic tricks strung together in a compelling order. We're telling a story, and as a director that's the question I'm always asking myself. What's the big story of the play? What's the small story of the scene?

Interview: Director Andrew Neisler Making Sense In The Story Of MINDPLAY It is, in very obvious ways, different from a musical - much smaller team, no dancing and singing (much to my chagrin, trust me I've tried) - but in maybe less obvious ways it's very similar. In a musical, I'm always asking myself what is the "event" of any song (often in deep collaboration with a choreographer). In other words - what and who changes over the course of the song? And I find myself asking the same questions about the tricks in Mindplay. What is the event and how is it supporting or moving our story forward? How are we changed after it? How is Vinny changed?

The most unique aspect of the process of directing this type of the work is the audience participation, and especially in Mindplay where the audience plays such a major role. Vinny is a mind-reader, and in rehearsal there are only so many minds to read (at this point he knows absolutely all my secrets). The real work begins when we start bringing in test audience members and in preview performances. Vinny has to synthesize the mentalist and the actor. And finding where the tone of that performance style lives is almost impossible without the audience.

Are you now accustomed to juggling with ease your duties as Interim Associate Artistic Director at Ars Nova and your responsibilities as co-creative director of your nonprofit arts incubation company Fresh Ground Pepper with your directing projects?

Accustomed to juggling, yes. With ease, hardly. Good lord, my inboxes. But I love it. And I have found in the last year that working as a freelance director deeply informs my practice as a producer and leader at Ars Nova which deeply informs my practice as a curator and new work doula at Fresh Ground Pepper. I am able to bring so much learning across disciplines, into different rooms and collaborations. It has made me a better listener and leader.

Interview: Director Andrew Neisler Making Sense In The Story Of MINDPLAY What project or event that Fresh Ground Pepper produced are you most proud of?

This year we held our tenth BRB retreat. For a month every summer FGP hosts writers, musicians, and multidisciplinary artists at Little Pond Arts Retreat in rural Pennsylvania as they build new collaborative relationships, jump start a creative project, develop their practices for listening and talking about new work, and experiment with co-creating while co-living. We started the program with just one week of eight artists back in 2013 and it has now grown to host over thirty-six artists over the course of a month. It is a magical time. Artists get a moment outside of the grind of creating a product to focus on the how and the why. They leave with a new community, feeling rejuvenated and refilled and ready to dive back in. We laugh, we cry, we learn, we work, we eat amazing food. It's a program that I know has had a big impact on the artists who have attended and the culture that Fresh Ground Pepper seeks to lift up. I'm incredibly proud of it.

What aspects of a show attract you to agree to devote your directing time and talents to?

The people. Listen, I love plays. I love musicals. I love those weird, wonderful projects that aren't either of those things (like a mentalism show). But the thing that ultimately attracts me to commit to a project is the people. That's why I'm a theatre director: I love getting in a room with brilliant, honest, warm, collaborative, funny people and listening. When you've got the right people in the room, the piece will listen itself into existence (to steal a phrase from the wonderful Mary Wright, who I met at Little Pond with FGP). If I don't like the people, or don't trust them - I'm out.

What's in the near future for Andrew Neisler?

Interview: Director Andrew Neisler Making Sense In The Story Of MINDPLAY The near, near future will be about getting back to New York, back to my garden and my little upstate house, taking a breath to catch up and water some plants, remembering that it's winter, picking up the work I've been neglecting at both Ars Nova and Fresh Ground Pepper. And I feel confident by the time I do all that it will be the end of the year. I've got a few projects on the horizon in 2023 - which I'm not at liberty to speak about (Wink!). But I look forward to the continued balance of supporting and producing exciting new artists through Ars Nova and FGP and developing the projects and collaborations that excite me as a director.

Thank you again, Andrew! Vinny and your show really blew my mind when I saw it last week!

For tickets to the live performances of Mindplay through December 18, 2022; click on the button below: