Talking to the National Theater of the United States of America

n.t.u.s.a. headI met with the members of the National Theater of the United States of America after a performance of their show What’s That On My Head!?! on Friday, January 30th, in the office of their space at The Nest in D.U.M.B.O. In the room were Yehuda Duenyas, Jesse Hawley, Mark Doskow, James Stanley, Ryan Bronz, Normandy Sherwood and Jonathan Jacobs.

Kate: Why doesn’t somebody tell me about this space.
Yehuda: Ah, we were approached by Adrienne Campbell Holt because she had bartered a deal with the Walentas family, with the Two Trees realty people [Two Trees Management, the largest property owner in D.U.M.B.O.], and they gave her the floor of this building to have some different art spaces in it.
Jonathan: For a limited amount of time
Yehuda: For a limited amount of time.
Kate: So when do you guys lose it or when does it—
Yehuda: End of July?
Jonathan: End of July
Yehuda: It’s like July is the cutoff and I think it’s the end of July is when we’re supposed to get out—
Jesse: And they’ve been in here with the people that are gonna make it into condos looking around and they’re like, they look around and they’re like, what is this.
James: ‘What is this a theater’?
Jesse: They came in with like a team of contractors and people in suits
Kate: Okay, cool. And are you looking for another space after that?
Jesse: No, this is it, after this…
Jonathan: [into tape recorder] Yes, if anyone knows of a space, tell us. We—we’ll take it.
Ryan: Jon, there’s no one in there.
Yehuda: Yeah. There’s no one—there’s no one in here this is just– Kate is going to be listening to this.
Jonathan: But isn’t there a very rich man here who’ll be listening to this—‘Hmm, I wanna ask for a space.’
Yehuda: Um yeah we are we need a new—we need to put our stuff somewhere don’t we? And we need an office.
Jonathan: And we need to—we were talking about June, when we should start putting, moving stuff. ‘Cause it’s gonna take us two months.
Yehuda: Yeah we’re starting to, we’re in the process of looking for a new space.

Kate: Tell me about the first Garvey and Superpants show. How did that come about how did the group form? Did it form then? Or after, or before that?
James: Well we–… well little man, in this machine, we’d been working together a lot, on different variations for a while, but then ah, um, I’d, I’d been working on some, these two characters called Garvey and Superpants. And the various situations that they got themselves into.
Jonathan: As a writer.
James: As a writer.
Someone: They’re not writers.
James: They’re not writers I’m the—I was writing it. And then ah, I started working with Yehuda and Ryan? In the, ah, in the Henry Miller theater, in this little room, way upstairs, this tiny room upstairs. And ah, so we thought hey, this would be fun to do, in this tiny room upstairs. And then we thought, ‘cause a the, it was abandoned, the whole place was abandoned and empty. And it was like a ghost theater. And so, then we got kicked outta there, then we moved into the—a real basement, in ah, Times Square.
Jonathan: And I had just returned from getting my, from getting my Mast.
James: Right, right. Jon had just gotten—left school, under dubious circumstances
Jesse: And Jesse had begged you guys to be in the show
Jonathan: It wasn’t dubious I just left school
James: Yeah, okay.
Jonathan: ‘Cause I wanted to.
James: Okay. You left school,
Yehuda: That was all at Chashama too.
James: At Chashama. Anita, Anita had given us the Henry Miller space and then, Anita Durst had given us the Henry Miller space and then it was like, oh shit my—my Dad’s coming [Douglas Durst runs The Durst Organization, a real estate development company], you gotta get outta here. Or something like I think Urinetown is actually what was starting to percolate then.
Kate: Mmhm.
Yehuda: So we had to leave and then, she gave us the basement of 111 [111 West 42nd Street]. Her and Chashama.
Kate: And were you all, like, who was working on that show were you all involved with it then, or
Yehuda: It was ah, James had written it, and then Ryan and I were sort of acting in it. Ah but James had also written these parts for these two lovers. And a waiter too which hadn’t been cast yet. And the two lovers, you know we’re like oh Jesse should, you know. Jesse thinks that she begged us to [Jesse is laughing] Jesse thought that she begged us to be in it but I don’t remember it that way I thought that we had always wanted her to be in it.
Jonathan: And I was reading Backstage one day and I’d been acting for about six years in New York. I saw that they were looking for a waiter character and I said well I’ve certainly waited tables quite a bit, I think I can do this. I felt that I nailed it but James gave me some adjustments, Ryan gave me four more adjustments.
Ryan: You were actually working at Starbucks right before that weren’t you?
Jonathan: I was working at Starbucks and I had a lot to, pull from. I also went to college with you Yehuda but we didn’t—know each other
Jesse: Or like each other.
Jonathan: I was a theater major and he was a theater major.
Kate: Uh-huh…
Jesse: But, no but then the other thing is that for, maybe just because James—
Jonathan: We didn’t know each other.
Jesse: Or like each other.
Yehuda: Huh? James what?
Jesse: James wrote it, right? But then you guys wanted to be in it. But since you were in it you couldn’t really direct it at the same time all the time? And then, everyone was in it pretty much because then James decided to be one of the lovers. And then
Yehuda: And then we needed a waiter, and Jon had just come back from quitting grad school.
Jesse: At Starbucks.
Yehuda: And we said, you just quit grad school and so we said hey Jon you should be in it and he was like okay all right.
Jonathan: And miles away, Normandy Sherwood was just being born.
Jesse: But can I make the point though, [laughter at Jon’s comment] no and the point of what I was making, what I was trying to say is that I think it turned out to be collaborative for that reason. Because it wasn’t like it was one person’s outside eye. It turned out to be like… And that was cool, that started something. [N.T.U.S.A. works collaboratively, without a single director.]
Yehuda: Also Ryan and I had collaborated on a piece in one of the window displays at Chashama. And that also sort of sparked this idea of collaborating on, on things instead of having there just be one director. So that was another element that sort of started that feeling of collaboration.
Kate: And how did you know Mark and how did you know Normandy.
Yehuda: Mark
Jesse: Who?
Ryan: Mark went to Skidmore with us
Yehuda: Mark went to Skidmore with us, Mark came and saw and Mark
Ryan: He had actually worked on one of the first collaborations with actually directed by Yehuda. That Jesse and James were in.
Jesse: And then later on Mark was in, we did another show together with Ryan and Matt Kalman [Kalman plays Maurice Tad Anderson in W.T.O.M.H.!?!] was in this show, so
Ryan: That actually goes back before X960 [X9601733, directed by Yehuda, presented at HERE in 1998) but Garvey and Superpants was, was the first sort of um
Yehuda: Collaborative thing
Ryan: Collaborative effort.
Kate: And then Normandy, how did you guys meet.
Normandy: Oh I was the intern on Placebo Sunrise I was
Jonathan: She was working at Chashama
Normandy: Working at, I was hired by Yehuda to work at both Chashama and for the National Theater. And then
Jesse: But then we loooved her
Ryan: Well it was the money, really. We lured her, the contracts and the trade negotiations we sort of
Jonathan: We told her it was, what’s that thing that’s not a midwife but it’s a funny word
Jesse: Doula
Jonathan: That she was a doula. And we told her it was a doula job, we tricked her. And now she’s doing great work for us.
Yehuda: And so we had worked on stuff before together. Ah and then Mark, Mark had gone to L.A. to become a film actor, and that didn’t quite pan out for him. And so
Ryan: It did he had bullets going off of him in a diner scene
Yehuda: I know I’m saying it didn’t pan out for him
Ryan: In the latest Danny Kaye film.
Yehuda: So he came, he was visiting and saw, he saw Episode 23 [Garvey and Superpant$: Episode #23, presented in the basement of 111 West 42nd Street in 2001]. He didn’t like L.A.
[Jonathan has to leave the interview]

Kate: I think one of you told me once that you like had a problem establishing your name legally? Is that true?
Yehuda: Yeah.
Jesse: Yes.
Kate: Okay. But did it happen? I mean, but then you could do it?
James: No.
Yehuda: We found a loophole in the law.
Kate: Really?
Yehuda: Yeah. And what it, what, basically we couldn’t file under the National Theater of the United States of America because… it’s misleading or, it’s false in some way. And Ryan’s point at the lawyers’ that was one of my favorite days by the way it was the three of us at the lawyers’. Ryan’s like so let me get this straight. So, someone is gonna come to see the National Theater of the United States of America and then they’re gonna say, ‘That’s the Theater of the United States of America?’ We’re like, where’s the crime in that. But also they were talking about, in terms of, you know becoming a non-profit organization and soliciting money from people it being misleading
Kate: Thinking that it’s to the government?
Yehuda: …That we’re a government organization. And our argument was well there is no national theater so how do we become that blah blah blah. Anyway. So we decided to create a parent company called the Universal Theater alliance, and um under that we got—
Kate: But no one has a problem with the ‘universal’ theater.
Yehuda: No…
Ryan: It’s a gray area.
Yehuda: We asked them, what about the National Peanut Board? Stuff like that.
Ryan: It’s true.
Yehuda: And they said well…
Jesse: Or National Rent-a Car.
Ryan: American Airlines.
Yehuda: American Airlines, U.S.A. Rent, stuff like that they had no, they, they didn’t have a good answer for us.
Jesse: Or Welcome to America Deli Number 6.
Kate: That’s misleading.
James: These were good lawyers, too.
Yehuda: They’ve, I’ve never met two women devoid of a sense of humor in my life.
Kate: Really?
Yehuda: She had absolutely, everything that we were saying, every joke that we were firing out was taken at absolute literal face value.
Ryan: And we brought them chocolates and gave them t-shirts.
Yehuda: Yeah.
Kate: They should have been laughing.
Mark: You guys just aren’t as funny as you think you are.
Jesse: The woman that came to see the show—
Yehuda: Wait so the loophole is—sorry. Yeah. Yeah the loophole is that we got it doing business as
Mark: These are just people though, these were volunteer lawyers that didn’t wanna have any hassle in the future. So by deterring us from going forward in this direction they would have no work to do.
Kate: They thought, they thought you’d give up.
Yehuda: But they said, they said ‘you know what, guys this is just starting you off on the wrong foot. Let’s just pick a nice name’
Ryan: ‘Let’s pick it right now, real quick, and we’ll come up with something fun’
Yehuda: ‘We’ll come up with it’
Kate: They wanted to help you?
Ryan: ‘That everyone likes.’
Yehuda: Yeah, yeah. ‘We’ll come up with it’ they really said, yeah. ‘A nice name for you guys that everyone likes.’
James: Did you ask them what they would suggest?
Jesse: Yeah, we should have asked them that.
Ryan: Good Time… Players.
Yehuda: The Good Time Players. That, I wish we recorded that conversation. That was so hysterical. I got all dressed up for the interview. I was wearing this like white—I dressed like Garvey I was wearing this white cap and like these riding crop pants… It was really funny.

Kate: I wanna ask you about this show now. I was thinking about the whole idea of revising American history or, getting people to think about what actually happened and sort of deconstructing myths of American history and all that stuff do you think that that’s particularly important right now?
Ryan: I do think it has to do with right now.
Kate: Yeah.
Yehuda: Absolutely. I think I think people or a sensitive person or I’ll speak for myself not for the rest of the sensitive Americans. I’ll speak for, me the sensitive American, feel that level of sensitivity about being American, especially traveling abroad, and um, was curious to explore a little bit how, how maybe we got into this situation that we are in. And also something that’s really fascinating is when you open a history book, like a really simple one like Alistair Cooke’s America or something, starting at one end, and then you flip through it, you know you start at the beginning and you flip through it, the pictures just start adding up and skimming this book somehow, you get from nothing pictures of plains to like, huge cities and industries. In two hundred years. And that’s fascinating to me. That sort of accumulation was, I thought it was fascinating.
Jesse: One other thing was, at the beginning, Aimee [Aimee McCormick plays Roy Canard, Jr. in W.T.O.M.H.!?!] gave me for my birthday, a copy of Howard Zinn’s People’s History [People’s History of the United States]. And then… I don’t know, everyone read it, pretty much.
Ryan: Who happens to be backing Kucinich right now in case anyone’s interested.
Jesse: Well Yehuda flipped through it but there weren’t a lot of pictures so he didn’t get a lot out of it.
Yehuda: There’s no pictures.
Jesse: But that, I mean that was interesting, when we were going through from the beginning. To look at how, in some ways the situations have been similar, like strikingly similar and worse, even, in the past. A lot of us were thinking, oh how horrible everything is right now. And then it’s like, oh yeah wow, people were fighting for the sixteen hour work day as opposed to an eighteen hour work day and people were, you know getting shot for protesting something and, that was fine. It was interesting to see, you know patterns and put it into perspective a little bit.

Kate: Having [some] people in this show who hadn’t performed before, was that, how did that affect anything or do you think of them as regular performers
James: They totally weighed us down.
Yehuda: Yeah it’s weighed us down a bunch
Someone: They were awful.
Ryan: It was a huge mistake.
Kate: You were like, take some acting classes.
James: Yeah, yeah.
Yehuda: We had to stop and make them go to acting classes.
Kate: Well was that a conscious choice or did it sorta just happen, that you had people in it—
Ryan: Ah, just wanting to work with people that we like, you know, and I think that the nature of the, of the piece is such that, it has that sort of, ah,
Yehuda: Awkwardness.
Ryan: Awkwardness, no, every person kind of feel I mean it’s very much a, it has a spontaneous feel and it has sort of a fresh, um, I don’t know how to describe it but
Yehuda: Did you say an every man feel?
Ryan: Yeah. Every person.
Jesse: There’s also there’s a place for like individual characters. There’s like room for a lot of variation I think in what’s there. And in some ways people
Ryan: Well no on that we draw from what, what the natural person is bringing to it, that actually influences their character greatly so it’s not about a non-actor trying to fulfill or fill a specific role or a specific type that anyone wrote, but actually really present themselves in these situations and there’s a couple of characters that actually use their own name in, in the piece.
Yehuda: Couple of three.
Ryan: Yeah. And so it’s really just sort of like embracing the qualities that they bring as they are and making sure that they memorize their lines and don’t bump into anything which is Jesse’s grandfather’s main impetus for stage work
Jesse: He’s seen a lot of community theater.
Yehuda: I think we like to, we like to work with people because we like them and because their personalities… click in a way outside of just acting and rehearsal
Jesse: But also that they’re interesting performers, they’re interesting people on stage, you know
Ryan: And that they wanna do it, and that they’re enthusiastic about our work, and about being involved. And that they’ll work for free, yeah
Yehuda: Because they’re amateurs, such hard-core low-level amateurs
Ryan: We don’t really, you know we don’t want anyone involved
Kate: They’ll do anything I bet
Ryan: We don’t want anyone involved that doesn’t want to be involved.
Yehuda: Of course.

Kate: You’ve worked with people outside of the company [see N.T.U.S.A. members’ bios], how does that, how does that affect what you do here?
Jesse: In some ways it makes you want to do your own thing.
Kate: Uh-huh.
Jesse: I mean there’s a lot of great things about being in somebody else’s thing they’re… making it and all you have to do is show up and try and do your part. But then, there’s another part of it that’s like, wait a minute. I know what I want to do. I don’t wanna wait around for someone to come up with something interesting.
Ryan: It’s a real forum to have the freedom to do your own stuff, you know whereas you might ah, you might not be able to in someone else’s work.
Jesse: Yeah. But also I think that it’s important that, that we all have other experiences and that we kinda come and go even as we work together to keep it, keep it something that’s getting new input.

Kate: What does the future hold for your theater company.
James: We wait until the grant applications are due.
Kate: Okay.
Yehuda: The night before, we decide.
Ryan: ‘Anybody have any good ideas?’ Well let’s pick a play that someone else wrote for a change which is what’s on the table now. Is discussing other friends’ work. And ah, they’ll remain nameless but we’re looking at plays, I think.
Yehuda: Moliere.

Kate: Are you gonna to watch the Superbowl?
James: I would love to watch the Superbowl.
Yehuda: When’s the Superbowl.
Ryan: We’re gonna be here, doing a performance.
Jesse: I thought football was during the fall.
Kate: Good answers.
Yehuda: Yeah who’s playing.
Jesse: I know who’s fighting, I know who’s fighting. Wait. Dragon versus Unicorn.
Ryan: Hey they asked that question on ah
James: Brooklyn Raiders versus a dragon. I’d watch it. A dragon.
Kate: They asked that question on what?
Ryan: Letterman last night.
Yehuda: Isn’t it the Los Angeles Raiders?
Jesse: The Los Angeles dragons.
Ryan: People on the street he was asking like foreigners in Times Square? And they were like, ‘We hope they both win’.
Yehuda: We’re sold out.
Ryan: That’s a tough act to follow we’re sold out on paper.
Jesse: I think that we should tell people—
Yehuda: ‘Oh we made those reservations two weeks ago I forgot it was the Superbowl.’
Ryan: ‘Dude, we’re not going to see that show.’
Jesse: I think we should—
Ryan: ‘But we bought twenty tickets!’
Jesse: We should put on our answering machine
Mark: My understudy’s performing so—
Jesse: Oh no. The Dark Moskow will be performing?
Yehuda: [to Mark] Will you talk about your time in L.A. acting for a second?
Kate: Yeah we could make a little addendum you can have your own little section. Um.
[Mark never talks about his time acting in L.A. Instead, people start talking about something else.]

What’s That on My Head!?! has been extended and will run through February 29th, 2004. See the N.T.U.S.A. website for more information.

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