Talking to Nick Philippou and Todd Cerveris

todd and michael cerveris, peter nigrini“A lovely battlefield pieta cannot happen on its own… somebody must pose the bodies.” (The Booth Variations)

So says Civil War photographer Matthew Brady to Edwin Booth, brother of the infamous presidential assassin, in The Booth Variations. Brady’s images of Civil War battlefields and public figures were manipulated but not falsified, their content carefully chosen and edited to communicate a “higher truth” about their subjects – sort of the Michael Moore of nineteenth century. When an artist sets out to represent history, they’re also recreating it. In the sifting of stories, events, and images, the individual’s voice and experience filters what’s shown and what’s not; they effectively “pose the bodies” of the past, and the result is at once a display of fact and fiction, of real and surreal. The Booth Variations, the multimedia collaborative piece presented by the Moonshine Project this August, is the result of the collective story-sifting of Caridad Svich, Nick Philippou, and Todd Cerveris. Svich is a Los Angeles-based playwright, songwriter, translator, and editor; Cerveris is a writer and actor in New York; and Philippou directs in both New York and London. For nearly four years now, the three have been writing, workshopping, and relentlessly editing The Booth Variations.

in photo: Todd Cerveris, Peter Nigrini, and Michael Cerveris in rehearsal for filming

I was recently able to attend a rehearsal, in a studio space on 8th Avenue. The room was mostly bare; two small tables marked opposite sides of the performance area, and television monitor cables snaked around mixing board and camera wires upstage right. The Booth Variations fuses video, recorded music, live camera feed, and the actor’s physical presence to create a suspended reality that is at once historically grounded and entirely outside time. Two actors at the tables adjust cameras and push buttons on remote controls. Figures appear on the screens – an actor on a stage, a young boy in a dirty shirt, a fiery face in sunglasses – and intersperse their monologues with those of the piece’s main performer, Todd Cerveris, who plays Edwin Booth. (Booth, like his brother and father, was a stage actor in the mid-nineteenth century. He’s credited for being the first actor to meld together both his lives both on and offstage, unwittingly pioneering the emergence of the cult of celebrity brought on by his brother’s deed.) Throughout Variations, Booth is “haunted,” Svich told me over email, by these virtual characters, both real and prerecorded. One of these prerecorded figures is John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth’s brother, played by Todd Cerveris’s brother Michael. Michael was cast as John Wilkes in the musical Assassins – after he’d already begun working on Variations — and won a Tony Award for his role. He also composed and recorded music for the piece, which itself is divided into four sections, or “movements,” each defined by their own theme and scored by a different composer.

In this rehearsal process, the piece’s text is still being examined, interpreted, and edited; lines are scribbled out and rewritten, and discarded pages float to the floor. Nick Philippou and Todd Cerveris were able to have a conversation with me about their collaborative process and what, exactly, is going on in The Booth Variations.

Kirsten: How did you all meet in the first place and decide to collaborate on the project?

Nick: I was about to take a group of actors to Greece to work on a script of Caridad’s. It was a festival devoted to the work of Euripedes and what had happened to the work of Euripedes and how it inspired work, and she’d written a play based on the myth of Iphigenia [Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That was Once Her Heart (a rave fable)]. And I decided that I wanted to take a group of actors, British and American actors, to Greece, to this festival, and Todd had worked with Caridad before in a reading of her work so I asked Todd if he would come as one of the two American actors. And it was while we were working on that that Todd said “I’ve read this book, it’s called An American Gothic.” And that was….

Todd: It was four years ago.

Nick: Four years and two months ago.

Kirsten: What texts did you originally start out with, and how did you decide to structure them?

Nick Phillippou: Our first workshop was where we utilized text; studies in acting theory, parts of Hamlet, biographies of both the Booths, Gary Gilmore, of – what other biographies did we touch on there?

Todd Cerveris: …Muybridge studies of photography…

Nick: There came a point, which I think for me was most useful, when we imposed a structure on it which became a four-part musical structure. So people refer to these now as movements. Like symphonic movements. West, East, South, and North. And then we tried to find out what parts of the story, in a sense, attached themselves to those movements. So West was about the open body, was about the Dionysian open body, was about living through the body. And then that attached itself to the first part of Edwin’s story, which is historically true, that Edwin was a libertine, a drinker, a carouser, all in the first few years of his career, with his father and without his father. The next part was called East, which we then associated both geographically with a more internal, intellectual, reflective, Eastern seaboard kind of place. And that kind of attached itself to Booth’s discovery of love with Molly [his first wife], and what Brady in our imaginations was doing to the career of Booth by making him internal. So that actually what was the great presentations of Booth in Brady’s photographs are not as the great nineteenth century actor, but as a man. So we went into this internal place. South then started to become very strange for us because we became very obsessed with the journey of John [Wilkes] and Davy [his young accomplice] south after the murder of Lincoln. And the movement into the swamps. And that’s pure reportage, it’s within a verite format, really. And then North really became about Booth’s transcendence. And Booth transcending all of the terrible events that he had to deal with in his life – and there are more; his second wife was insane, as well – and to both accept and absorb the infamy of his life and transcend it into what he becomes as an actor. But I think finally what our question is: at what cost? At what cost both to him, and to the culture of theatre and acting, and what the actor now means to the public. Which is not to blame Booth, but to say that Booth, in a sense, was the first of the modern actors.

And we’re still playing with that structure. We’re still trying to find a way of understanding what the style of each movement is. One of the discoveries we made yesterday is, of course, there’s a composer associated with each part. Michael Cerveris, Todd’s brother, composed the music for West. Most of the stuff that’s used in the East is Brian Eno. Most of the stuff that’s used in South is music composed for us by a guy called Will Johnson, from a band called Centro-matic. And the last stuff is something I won’t say, because we’ll have to pay rights to it.

Kirsten: So when did the use of technology come into play? When did you decide you wanted to add that to the structure?

Nick: We knew that was kind of a given, I think.

Todd: It was a given for you.

Nick: It was a given for me because my work always winds its way there. I don’t suppose it was a given for Todd and Caridad –

Todd: I think what the early part of the process was was trying to figure out why we were interested in this story. We all read this one book, An American Gothic by Gene Smith, and it sparked interest at any number of levels, different levels, for us. And I had some resonance with actor/brother issue, and the idea of Davy had always intrigued me – how does a kid that’s just this pharmacist’s assistant get pulled into being one of four main co-conspirators who’s hung? And they even thought he was probably a little slow; he was not someone you’d expect to be stepping into playing a leading role, nor somebody that someone who was playing a leading role would come to rely on so heavily, like Wilkes. So I think we each found the material and the story resonating with different parts of us, and the first part was finding out what similarities and complimentaries – that’s not a word –

Nick: But I think it was also understood by Todd and I, as an actor and a director, that there were certain things we would not do in a one-man show. And I think in a sense that came before anything. Because when Todd approached me and said, “Let’s do a one-man show,” my immediate response was I would do it as long as we don’t go anywhere near these forms. And we’re still very clear about what those forms are, you know, that kind of solipsistic world of the one-man show where you’re interested in the color of my underwear. Or the letter I wrote to my wife when I was sixteen. And then what that reduced itself to was funny voices. We would never allow ourselves to do that one-man show where it was all about funny voices.

And, you know, in a sense to give all these characters their due, we’ve given them all their own worlds, in a way, so that they exist within technology in different places on the stage. And the interesting thing about the final refraction of character in the piece is that the moment came when we knew that Michael would play Todd’s brother in the play. And when we knew that, in a sense, that’s the logical extension of what we’d been doing anyway, which is that Todd played his own relatives on the stage, which he does, as well, but he does them using technology to refract them somewhere else. So it was always a given for me.

Todd: Which is one of the reasons I wanted to get involved with Nick, because I knew he would have ideas to do that kind of stuff; he had a facility with that kind of media work that was absolutely going to be ultimately necessary.

Kirsten: Have you had previous productions of it?

Todd: Workshopped it. One was at Denison University…

Nick: We had three residential experiences with it. One was at Blue Heron in New York, one was at Voice and Vision up at Bard College, and the final one was at Denison in Ohio.

Todd: There was also the Hourglass Group. That was one that Caridad and I did.

Nick: That was the pure writing one.

Todd: That was actually before Bard.

Nick: That was before Bard, and then we did Bard where we kind of had a lot of text but didn’t have a structure, and then Denison gave us the opportunity to actually do it. So actually, in a sense what you see here, we had discovered two years ago at Denison. So what’s very interesting to me now is that it’s just become text now. It’s a text that needs interpreting like any other text. And I have a kind of distance from it that allows me to say “I don’t understand what that’s about.” Which is fantastic, and it’s a particularly American advantage that we have. Because the idea of developmental work is so much stronger here than it is certainly in Britain. Because the residency and workshop isn’t really a thing; people go off and they do their stuff in their rooms and they come in and do them.

Kirsten: It seems like you’re still in a very intense editing process; when do you think, if ever, it’s going to be a finished product, or do you ever want it to be?

Todd: The day we close.

Kirsten: The day you close?

Todd: It’s a very auditory piece, and relies very heavily on good performances and the voices of people involved. So as those skills change based on who is involved, and as those skills become more attuned to what we need to do, we know better how the piece should work according to them. I think there will always be little bits of the thing that will be shuttling back and forth – a little bit of this, a little bit of that – but the solid, main structure is definite. We know there’s the four movements; we know that these issues and arguments happen at these points and these times.

Nick: I mean, the piece also changes in a shifting political context, as well. One of the great issues that’s hit us since we last did it is 9/11 and the Iraq War, and the whole idea of what the public are allowed to see of the truth, and how that then becomes mediated to them through art, or not through art. The greatest surprise for me about the piece is that it’s actually become about representation. And I think that that more constant shift – I think it only takes a line shift to shift meaning within a piece like this.

The other thing that I think will shift is Todd. Because it’s a piece made for him, and he’s of an age now. And if he does the piece when he’s fifty, the relationship that he has with the point he enters Edwin’s life is different. And I think then that becomes really interesting. So in a sense the piece’s development is kind of internal. It’s almost like you can have a symphony by Beethoven but the Eroica Symphony can mean something different depending on what’s outside it and who the people are who work to do it. But it’s a very personal piece, as well, and I realize that more and more.

Todd: For all of us, I think. When we began we were all composing different parts of it or choosing different sides and we got back at the end of the first year, 2000-2001, and I had been on the road, and I sat down and looked at the section we had written on West, on the tour, and thought, “Of course that’s why I had to write what I did,” why we both ended up doing that, Caridad as well, and Nick was on the road all this time, and at the time was splitting his time between New York and London. So we were all very peripatetic in our homes. We sat down and looked at a lot of these pieces of this script and our lives and said, “Oh, that’s where that comes from.”

Kirsten: That’s really interesting, because you’ve talked so much about the public and private life of the artist and actor. So that’s definitely worked its way into the creation of this?

Nick: Yeah. I’d done a piece before this in New York called Elle [by Jean Genet] which was about photography and celebrity. And those were issues that were really profound for me. And we worked this piece, and then Peter [Nigrini] and I did Elle together – Peter was the videographer on Elle – and we found that we had the same images repeated in this. And we made this before Elle. But the Genet piece absolutely has these images. The Pope is in front of a camera being photographed and he questions which part of him is being photographed. So there’s a kind of language we spoke about before that connects that work and this work, in my mind. And the next piece is a work I want to do about the representation of art, and also how sex is used in the representation of art. And I’m sure if Caridad were here she’d give you her shopping list of things –

Kirsten: – to work through –

Nick: Yeah. I mean, her great interest in her work, and I know her work really well, is the virtual world. And it seems to me that the place of John in the piece, which we’re beginning to discover, is as a kind of virtual interloper into the world of this nineteenth century theatrical complication. He kind of insinuates himself into the piece, which we’re only starting now to discover, in terms of how these interludes work. And the interludes are, in a sense, the final thing. I think we’re still far away from the interludes – we have been for two years. We’re getting closer to them. Of course the next big stage is that Michael’s energy will be placed in between the pieces.

Todd: It was the weirdest synchronicity when we’d been working on this script for three years and Michael gets cast as John Wilkes. We all sort of shuddered a bit. I just gave him all my dramaturgy.

Nick: And that then he should win a Tony, and then that he should end before we get on. We thought that the reason we had to video him before was he wouldn’t be available, but of course now he is, but now it’s too late because we’ve got him on video.

Kirsten: Did you decide to cast him because he was your brother?

Todd: We always thought it would be great to have him play John, and we’d always say “It’d be great if Michael could do this, it’d be great if Michael could do this, God knows what Michael’s schedule going to be like,” and then… there you go!

Nick: Actually the decision we’d made long before that was that Michael should write music, and Michael’s contribution to the book was a kind of song in ballad form which we call “The Ballad of John” but we can’t call “The Ballad of John” because Sondheim’s is called “The Ballad of John.” But this is a kind of sweet, Southern folk tune that tells the story of the brothers Booth. Because of course that connects for us in terms of the piece in relation to story, and story-telling, and myth-telling, and myth-creation, and whether myth creation actually does ever represent the truth. In the same way, by the same manner, we ask the question “does photography ever represent the truth?”. What is truth? Is it documentary truth, or being truthful, or poetic truth? That’s become very interesting for us as well.

Todd: Michael’s initial involvement as a composer, writing music and underscoring the first part, was probably his favorite. He’s got an album out now, and he’s been doing a lot more performing and recording his own music. And that was another example of how we all just contributed what we loved best to the piece.

Kirsten: I know in this space it’s hard to get the entire effect; I was just curious as to how the actual space is going to be set up, and how you’re going to have the technology working and creating a presence?

Todd: The small TV in the back is going to be a projection on the whole back wall. We will have two tables that will be only slightly more sturdy-looking. I think Nick’s general idea is one of having all the seams and wires exposed and all the technological points. So you will see technicians pushing buttons and turning pages and fixing mic stands and you will see, as an actor, you will see me stopping in between characters and using a direct address to the audience and walking back into a scene and walking out. So there’s always a conscious attempt to show the intentionality behind the performance as well.

Nick: We had a big question about where the piece should be going, because there’s a lot beyond this three-week presentation in New York. And the conclusion you come to is that you should be able to do the piece anywhere. You find two tables, you bring four TVs and two DVD players, and you come do the play. And if you can do the play anywhere, the box of the theatre – the first line of the piece that he speaks is “the theatre is a box” – that if we find the right box we can do the theatre. And so we spoke a lot about how complicated the scenery is, and what can we do, and as with all the best decisions, it’s just simplified into nothing. It’s literally two tables. And I think the audience’s sense of being in the theatre must never leave them. We could as easily do this piece on the stage of the grandest proscenium arch theater… I mean, one of our dreams is to take it back to the Ford Theater, where Lincoln was shot.

Todd: That’ll be the production with John Stamos.

Nick: [Laughing] No! John Stamos wouldn’t be able to do this. And we went there, and we sat and we saw where the box was, because the architecture of the theater is implicit in the design of the piece. So that there are certain ideas about what’s on the left, and what’s on the right, and the voices that operate in stereo on the left and the right resonate in the kind of architectured way he jumped from the box to the stage. Which you can still see, how hard that was to do, how unbelievably – not just foolish, but difficult, which is why he broke his leg. So I’d love to do it there; I’d love to do it in an open-air environment, where we create the theater. There’s not really that much more to see. I think the experience can be as powerful here… we just need to get the right sized projectors.

Kirsten: The way that chair kept rolling over the wires….

Todd: Yeah, there’ll definitely be a lot of that.

Nick: A lot of chairs rolling over wires.

Kirsten: Electrocution…

Nick: Tripping over wires…

Todd: In every case, it’s meant to be! It’s blocked that way.

* * * * *

The Booth Variations runs from August 5-22 at East 59th Street Theatre, New York City.
Tickets: $30,, or 212-279-4200.
Further info:
For more historical info on the Booths, see the article on the piece in this month’s Brooklyn Rail.

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