Blank, Gould and Rosenberg Create Sparks with The Fire Dept

The summer is gone and now we move into a change of season. And change is always a good thing because it goes hand in hand with growth. And growth in the area of theatre is beneficial for everyone. So the birth of a New Theatre Company is a welcome change to theatergoers and artists as well. And we can thank artistic directors Jessica Blank, Erica Gould, and Audrey Rosenberg, who recently announced the creation of a new theater company, THE FIRE DEPT (www.thefiredept.org).

THE FIRE DEPT is made up of established and emerging writers, directors, actors and designers who have come together to create and produce work that cannot be replicated inside a television box or on a movie screen. THE FIRE DEPT is dedicated to producing invigorating, visceral theatre that not only entertains, but also wrestles with questions of importance to our society and our world. The work of THE FIRE DEPT combines the rigor and structure of great narrative storytelling with the vitality of formal experimentation to immerse audiences in a total experience that leaves them awake, alive and transformed. Using traditional as well as alterNative Theatre spaces, the plays produced by THE FIRE DEPT will ignite questions, spark controversy, and respond to the urgency of our times.

The founding members of THE FIRE DEPT include a who's who list of the entertainment and theatre community including Kathleen Chalfant, Constance Congdon, Chuck Cooper, Anton Dudley, Peter Gallagher, Janeane Garafalo, Jeff Goldblum, Judith Hawking, Brian Keith Jackson, Erik Jensen, Toby Jones, Rajiv Joseph, Carson Kreitzer, Neil LaBute, Harry Lennix, Matthew Modine, Dael Orlandersmith, Theresa Rebeck, Jose Rivera, Jake Robards and Rebecca Wisocky. The Artistic Advisory Board consists of Peter Askin, Jill Clayburgh, Emily Mann, Lynn Redgrave, Marian Seldes and Sam Waterston.

The company's initial presentation , SpeakEasy, will take place at Joe's Pub at The Public Theater from October 22nd through October 24th. Staged environmentally, SpeakEasy features compelling new writing by THE FIRE DEPT founding members Rob Ackerman, Suzanne Bradbeer, Anton Dudley, Brian Keith Jackson, Rajiv Joseph, Laurence Klavan, Carson Kreitzer, Neil LaBute, Edwin Sanchez, Theresa Rebeck, and Sheri Wilner; with music by Nick Hallett and Stefania de Kenessey. Directed by Erica Gould, the 80-minute piece grew out of a short play by LaBute featuring Mos Def that Gould directed for the MCC Benefit at Circle in the Square in January, 2005.

The artistic directors have a diverse background from all the mediums of entertainment. Jessica Blank, an actor and writer who has appeared in film, television and theater, is author (with Erik Jensen) of The Exonerated, a play based on interviews they conducted with over 40 wrongly convicted death row inmates. The Exonerated won the Lucille Lortel, the Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Ovation, Herald Angel and Fringe First Awards, as well as awards from the American Bar Association, the National Council of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Amnesty International, Court TV and Death Penalty Focus. It was also nominated for the Dramatists Guild's Hull-Warriner Award and the John Gassner Playwriting Award. The Exonerated was listed by Time Magazine as one of the top 3 plays of the year and the New York Times as "the #1 play of 2002." It has been translated into Spanish, French, Italian and Japanese, and made into a television movie for Court TV starring Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover, Brian Dennehy,Aidan Quinn and Delroy Lindo.

Jessica has appeared on television in Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Rescue Me, One Life to Live, and Guiding Light; film credits include The Namesake (dir. Mira Nair), The Exonerated (dir. Bob Balaban, for Court TV), and the indies Undermind and On the Road With Judas. She has acted in theaters throughout New York City. Her play Liberty City (co-written with April Yvette Thompson) has been awarded residencies and readings at New York Stage and Film, Hartford Stage, ACT Seattle and 651 Arts. Living Justice , her book about the making of The Exonerated (written with Erik Jensen) was published by Simon and Schuster in 2005. Her first novel is forthcoming in 2007 from Hyperion.

Erica Gould's recent/upcoming directing credits include development workshops of Jose Rivera's play Brainpeople at Playwrights Horizons (June 06) and Hartford Stage (October 06); the world premiere production of Neil LaBute's autobahn (Studio Theatre, DC, Jan/Feb '06) and the workshop production of autobahn w/ Bill Pullman in July '05 (Cape Cod Theatre Project);

What Light From Darkness Grows by Janine Carter, w/ Phylicia Rashad, LisaGay Hamilton, Harry Lennix (NPR�Gracie Allen/Golden Reel Awards); the premiere of LaBute's one-act play Stand-Up w/ Mos Def in Escape: 6 Ways to Get Away (MCC at Circle in the Square); As You Like It (The Shakespeare Theatre/ACA, DC); The Tempest (Fordham @ Lincoln Center); new short plays by Neil LaBute and Sheri Wilner (45 Bleecker/Hourglass); Gould's adaptation of Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars, Part 1 (Culture Project, also Williamstown, Yale).

Gould was one of the artistic directors and creators of Brave New World: American Theatre Responds To 9/11 (Town Hall). For Brave New World, she directed 2001: An Oral History; Special Price for You, OK?; and Adopt a Sailor w/ Sam Waterston, Amy Irving, Liev Schreiber, Len Cariou, and Bebe Neuwirth. Recent readings/workshops include Loons by Rob Ackerman (at Playwrights Horizons with Marian Seldes); Constance Congdon's new play Paradise Street (New York Theatre Workshop development residency, NYTW in NYC w/ Olympia Dukakis); Whorled by Edward Bok Lee (Ma-Yi Theatre); Pushkin w/ Harry Lennix; also plays at the Cherry Lane, Vineyard, NYSF, EST, Circle Rep, Naked Angels, Rattlestick. Gould recently returned from Serbia, where she worked with DAH Theatre company through a TCG/ITI grant. She is a recipient of the Drama League Directors Project Fellowship and the Senior Boris Sagal Directing Fellowship at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Her work has been supported by grants from Yale University, NYSCA/Blue Heron, the Tony Hawkins Foundation, TCG/ITI, and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. Her teaching experience includes faculty positions at Yale, NYU, SVA, Pace.

Audrey Rosenberg, an actor and producer, co-founded the theater company The Art Party with Alan Cumming and Nick Philippou in 2002.  She served as Executive Director of the company and producer of its inaugural production at The Zipper: Genet's Elle, featuring Cumming, Stephen Spinella, and Anson Mount.

Audrey recently worked as an associate producer with Killer Films and Warner Independent on Douglas McGrath's Truman Capote film Infamous, starring Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, Toby Jones, and Sigourney Weaver. Other producing credits include Where's Daddy, co-produced with writer/director Terry George (of Hotel Rwanda), and The Code, co-produced with Ina Mayhew. She has several films in development, including Beautiful, based on a true story of a homeless woman in TriBeCa, and The Wounding, written by Zachary Sklar (who wrote JFK for Oliver Stone). She is representing the film The Undeserved for distribution.

Audrey has also worked as an actor on stage and film. Most recently, she performed in The Vagina Monologues as part of V-Day 2006. Recent film credits include A Talent for Trouble with Marlan Wayans and Mekhi Pfeifer. Audrey is a teacher and career coach for artists, and has served as health resource coordinator to high-risk adolescents in the HIV Prevention Program at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. She recently produced a video for Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Camp Association (serving children with cancer and blood diseases), to be aired at The Kodak Theater in LA.

I asked the trio recently some questions to get some insight on the new company, it's inaugural production and plans for the future:

TJ: This sounds like a very exciting journey that is about to begin. Let me ask you, who came up with the idea for this company?

Jessica and Erica had known each other for a few years, initially through Jessica's husband, actor/writer Erik Jensen, and later through working together as actor and director in readings and workshops. This spring, Erica came to see a workshop of Liberty City, a new play Jessica co-wrote with April Yvette Thompson. Erica and Jessica were walking out together afterward and started talking about the kind of work they were interested in doing, and Erica said, there's all this stuff I want to do, and so many amazing people I know I love working with. I know it's crazy, but I keep thinking lately about starting a company." And then Jessica said, "You want to start a company?! I've been thinking about starting a company!" And Erica said, "no way!" Jessica said, "yeah, I've actually been thinking about it for a long time but could never find enough time away from my acting and writing to spearhead the whole thing by myself...." We agreed to get together and talk more about the idea.

The weird thing was that that very same night, Audrey Rosenberg-- a theater and film producer and actor whom Jessica had met when they were both speaking to a class of university students several months earlier--also came to see the workshop and she and Erica started talking. Erica was looking for a producer for an evening she was putting together at Joe's Pub that had grown out of an original Neil LaBute piece she had directed with Mos Def the year before at the MCC benefit. Audrey and Erica agreed to get together and discuss the possibility of Audrey producing the Joe's Pub evening.

We decided to compress those two meetings into one, and all three of us got together for dinner a few weeks later. We spent the evening working through bottles of wine and discussing what kind of theater excited us. We found a stunning amount of overlap and a crackling, electric energy. By the end of the night, we had a company!

TJ: How long has this idea been in the planning stages?

Erica had, thankfully, had laid a lot of the logistical groundwork for a non-profit company--501c3 application, etc--the previous year, so we got a running start. But the three of us have only been together as a company since this spring! It's been pretty amazing to all of us what has happened in that time.

TJ: Now, you've each got very diverse backgrounds, including theatre, film and TV. Have any of you worked together before this project?

Audrey and Erica hadn't met before that evening this spring; Audrey and Jessica had met speaking to those university students several months earlier, had then been cast in a play together, and since then had been looking for another project to work on with each other. Erica and Jessica had known each other professionally for a few years, through the relatively tiny world of Off-Broadway theater. But as soon as we all sat down at that table together, something clicked into place.

TJ: What do each of you see yourselves bringing to the table as artistic directors for the group?

One of the things that really excites us about this company is that it doesn't take the same form as a lot of other new companies. We're not a group of young actors looking for a space to "work out;" we're not an "auteur" company formed to serve the work of one director; and we're not a playwright's lab. We believe that there's something special and exciting about getting theater artists of different disciplines together from the start. Our founding membership is made up of actors, playwrights, directors and composers, and the three of us represent different disciplines as well. Erica is a director, Audrey is a producer and actor, and Jessica is an actor and writer. We believe that our artistic backgrounds provide a diversity of perspective that broadens our foundation and stretches each of us; and that those differing backgrounds enable us to most effectively support our shared vision.

TJ: Has it been an easy road to get to this point for the company?

Ha! Yes and no. Starting a theater company is an ENORMOUS amount of work. Starting a theater company in less than six months with a major launch production staged environmentally in a non-traditional space written by 11 playwrights and starring 24 actors, including some who are quite well-known, is....well, there aren't really words to describe the amount of work it is. We are undertaking an enormous project with very little infrastructure and even less money; everyone is working their butts off simply for the love of it. Luckily, Audrey previously started the theater company The Art Party with Alan Cumming and has a strong background in the incredibly complex and challenging world of independent film--she was an associate producer on the recently released Truman Capote film Infamous; Erica previously served as co-creator and associate artistic director of Brave New World, a theater festival at Town Hall for which some fifty major playwrights created new works that wrestled with 9/11 and its aftermath; the pieces were presented over three nights with casts including Alec Baldwin, Kristin Davis, Holly Hunter, Liev Schrieber, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, and Sam Waterston; and Jessica co-wrote the play "The Exonerated," based on interviews she and Erik Jensen conducted with over 40 exonerated death row inmates across America; those interviews and all the initial research for that piece were done on less than a shoestring and with a five-month deadline culminating in three major public readings featuring actors such as Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Richard Dreyfuss, Ossie Davis, and many more. So we're all familiar with what it's like to work on large-scale projects with ridiculous deadlines.

At the same time, in a certain sense this has been easy. All three of us are stunned by the momentum this company has created in less than six short months: the attention the company has received, and most importantly, the incredible artists who have come on board. Our founding membership includes Kathleen Chalfant, Constance Congdon, Chuck Cooper, Anton Dudley, Janeane Garafalo, Peter Gallagher, Jeff Goldblum, Toby Jones, Rajiv Joseph, Neil LaBute, Harry Lennix, Josh Lucas, Matthew Modine, Denis O'Hare, Dael Orlandersmith, Aidan Quinn, Theresa Rebeck, and Jose Rivera. It's been amazing to us to see what happens as we've reached out to our respective communities of artists and provided a framework for them to come together. The collaborations that are already brewing--through our launch production, SpeakEasy, and otherwise--are thrilling!

TJ: It's quite a unique concept. So, do I understand that FIRE DEPT will be presenting works that may not necessarily be mainstream?

Well, it depends how you define "mainstream." One thing that is really important to all of us is storytelling--using the rigor and structure of great narrative to really take our audiences on a ride. So it's probably safe to say that we won't be making work that is "avant-garde" in the traditional sense--we all love plays, and above all we want to entertain and tell great stories. However, we're not stuck in living-room drama, either--we believe that it's possible to utilize the vitality of formal experimentation to serve and augment a really great story. We're interested in alternative spaces, but also in beautiful theaters; we embrace environmental staging as well as the proscenium. We make work that combines the best of all worlds--we believe we can have it all!

TJ: What type of subject matter do you foresee for future shows for the group?

In keeping with our insistence on embracing contradiction and "having it all," we are most interested in work that is socially engaged--and at the same time engaging . Too much of theater these days is either stuck in its own little universe, devoid of real engagement with the larger world, or else agitprop: work that preaches about societal ills without drawing audiences into real, human stories. With The Exonerated and Brave New World as our inspiration, we aim to create a space for work that addresses the ways in which our current accelerated, high-stakes political realities have real, individual, human consequences--and to do so in plays that tell great stories and are entertaining! We believe that theater has a special ability to evoke empathy and spark dialogue by embracing both the diversity and The Commonality in human experience; the plays you will see from THE FIRE DEPT will tell great stories that respond to the urgency of our times.

TJ: Will you be soliciting new works from up and coming writers or be working with strictly in-house writers?

A little of both. Our founding membership contains some really extraordinary playwrights, and we're very interested in several of the things that they have up their sleeves. At the same time, we are not a closed group, and there are a lot of writers in New York doing a lot of great work that we're interested in discovering and learning about.

TJ: Who are some of the playwrights that will be working with THE FIRE DEPT THEATER?

Neil LaBute, Theresa Rebeck, Jose Rivera, Rajiv Joseph, Anton Dudley, Carson Kreitzer, Constance Congdon, Dael Orlandersmith, Sherri Wilner, Suzanne Bradbeer, Rob Ackerman, Brian Keith Jackson, April Yvette Thompson, and Laurence Klavan are all among our founding membership.

TJ: Why the name "THE FIRE DEPT"?

The plays produced by THE FIRE DEPT spark questions, ignite controversy, and respond to the urgency of our times. We're interested in starting fires, more than putting them out! We believe in theater that is vital, electric, and alive; that is a trigger for controversy, dialogue, and change; and the image of FIRE encapsulates all that.

TJ: It seems that there are a lot of new companies coming into their own off Broadway. How do you see your company fitting into the mix?

We believe that there's a space in New York for new work that is actively engaged with the dynamics and politics of the world we live in--and at the same time truly entertaining to its audiences. There are a few theaters that are dedicated to presenting that kind of work (though not many!) but, as far as we've seen, no companies expressly dedicated to making it. We intend to fill that gap. We also intend to create a space where established and emerging artists can truly cross-pollinate and forge new collaborations, and where established artists can do work that they cannot do elsewhere (for example, we have a few extraordinary established actors on board who've been itching to try their hands at directing!)

TJ: OK, you have an amazing group of people behind the scenes as well as in the company. How did you get so many "heavy hitters" such as Janeane Garafalo, Peter Gallagher, Jeff Goldblum, Neil LaBute and Matthew Modine, to mention a few of the founding members, involved in the formation of this New Group?

Honestly, that's been a very organic process. Nearly all of our founding members are people we've worked with on other projects--they're part of our artistic communities. When we decided to come together as a company, we reached out to the theater artists in our respective communities--both well known and less so--whom we respect and value and who we felt would connect with the company's mission and goals.

TJ: Your first production is called SPEAKEASY. Tell me a little about the piece.

SpeakEasy has been created through an incredible collaborative process. This summer, we brought together eleven playwrights and two composers to create an evening made up of several short plays that also make up a cohesive piece with a larger story arc. Our writers have been working together these past few months to create an evening that reflects their individual sensibilities as well as the sensibility of the group, and tells a great story in the process. We've never seen a creative process that looks quite like this. The idea for the evening grew out of a short play by Neil LaBute featuring Mos Def that Erica directed for the MCC benefit at Circle in the Square in January '05. That piece is now part of a larger play, written by 11 playwrights including LaBute and others, that tells the story of the SpeakEasy: a "magical world, long dormant, where nothing is as it seems. The audience enters, the doors shut, and the ride begins. In a New York City something like our own, a performance space awakens and sees itself. Strongmen, snake charmers, showgirls and musicians turn neo-vaudeville on its head and surround the audience with things strange, unexpected, and full of odd delight. But other forces are at work tonight....."

TJ: And I see that you have Kathleen Chalfant and Janeane Garafalo in SpeakEasy? Chalfant is of course a well known stage actress yet Garafalo is known for her stand-up comedy and her film appearances. I think it is a wonderful opportunity for audiences to see their favorite performers expand their horizons and show another side of their personas. Can we expect to see diverse casting like this for future shows as well?

Absolutely. It's part of our mission. We are dedicated to providing a space where artists can stretch, move outside the boundaries they've previously inhabited, and do work they might not be able to do elsewhere. And we love cross-pollination, so we are thrilled to see great artists from different worlds come together and collaborate!

TJ: Now, this will performed at Joe's Pub from October 22nd through the 24th. Will Joe's Pub become home for the group?

We adore working with the Pub and would love to have an ongoing relationship with them. We hope to have many more FIRE DEPT events at Joe's Pub in the future. At the moment, we're not tied to any one space. There are so many incredible theater spaces in this city, both traditional and alternative, and we are most interested in finding the most appropriate and exciting home for each individual piece we do.

TJ: What's up next for FIRE DEPT and who can we expect to see on stage?

THE FIRE DEPT Salon Series will include cutting-edge theatre and stimulating debate which go hand in hand. Presentations of brand new plays that raise challenging questions and address compelling contemporary issues are followed by an intimate discussion with the artists, audience, noted thinkers, activists and individuals whose life experiences speak to the issues raised by each play.

It's an exciting time for theatre with the announcement of this new company and to be sure, audiences will be entertained by some of the best of the best in theatrical entertainment and thought provoking works. Check out their website at www.thefiredept.org. Tickets can be purchased at The Public Theater Box Office or through Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.

 


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From This Author TJ Fitzgerald

TJ Fitzgerald TJ Fitzgerald has been interviewing theatre’s finest talent with BroadwayWorld.com since January 2006. He has been active in the New England Theatre scene both as (read more...)

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