The Debate Society
The Debate Society creates new plays through the collaboration of Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen and Oliver Butler. This development of new work relies on the writing and adaptation of actors Ms. Bos and Mr. Thureen combined with the rehearsal experimentation and direction of Mr. Butler. The trio began their work together with A Thought About Raya, which ran to sold-out houses and critical acclaim in New York City in April 2004. They have continued their work with their latest piece, The Snow Hen, based on a Norwegian folktale about a little girl who survives the plague and grows feathers. The Snow Hen was produced in New York City in February 2006.
Their most recent work, The Eaten Heart, was partly developed at chashama through chashama�s NEA sponsored Performance Development Residency last spring. It was then that Risa Shoup, chashama�s Programming Director and culturebot co-editor, met The Debate Society. She thinks they are one of the most innovative purveyors of theater around, and she recently sat down and asked them 5 Questions. 5 Questions whose answers she thinks you�ll find very entertaining.
Don�t forget to keep up with all the exciting theater The Debate Society has to offer by checking their website, www.debatesociety.org. They have a Sixth Floor Series reading on January 29th, 2007 and will present The Eaten Heart as part of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater�s Incubator program this coming spring.
How did you form your group?
Hannah: Paul and I had been working together on and off since about 1997. After I went to Grad School and Paul toured with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, we both ended up in NYC and decided to mount a reworking of our play A Thought About Raya which we had first performed in a squash court in college.
Oliver: I approached Hannah and Paul at the pickle and vodka reception following a preliminary reading of Raya in December of 2003 and brought up the idea of working together on the project. We knew each other from having similar friends and were familiar with each other�s work. Initially they weren’t interested in working with a director, but I guess I wooed them. We worked on Raya without any thoughts of making a company. In general we were a bit reluctant – -all the drama in theater company business can really take the fun out of the work. But after doing Raya, when talking about doing the next thing, we realized that to apply for grants, promote our work, apply to festivals, etc., we needed to have a name . . . other than Hannah and Paul and Oliver’s Theater-Show-at-the-Moment. So we spent a month trying to come up with names, almost broke up over it-
Paul: But not really though . . .
Oliver: and landed happily on The Debate Society.
Hannah: That one was my suggestion.
Paul & Oliver: We know.
Hannah: In my opinion-
Paul: Hush, now.
Oliver: Still, all of the company work is show based, and started show based, and I hope continues to be show based. There is not a whole lot in our company work that doesn�t have to do with the show we are working on–which at the moment is The Eaten Heart.
How do you identify and cultivate new ideas for performances?
Hannah: Something that the three of us have in common is that we are all collectors; constantly gathering stories, images, ideas . . . things that interest us that we bring to each other as possible starting points for new plays. For A Thought About Raya it was the strange collisions that happened in the stories of Russian Avant-Garde writer Daniil Kharms that was our beginning inspiration. In The Eaten Heart we�re starting with all the dirty, funny, mysterious goings on in Boccaccio�s 14th century novel The Decameron and 1970�s roadside motel culture . . . where there were also dirty, funny and mysterious goings on.
Paul: I think it�s going to be a very dirty, funny and mysterious play.
Oliver: Me too. With The Snow Hen, Paul had found this Norwegian folktale about a little girl who survived the plague, and began growing feathers. We all loved the concise weird folktale, and I think were interested in figuring out a world where that odd character could exist. Overall, our starting point just has to feel right–there is no formula for what we like.
Please give a basic breakdown of your rehearsal process (techniques used, personnel involved, etc).
Oliver: Once we have that starting point, then it is a lot of playing and exploring. Hannah has a great eye for design (Paul does too) but Hannah usually brings in loads of character and world based research for us to play with. Then we take all that stuff and play. I give them assignments to take home (we call them etudes) and sometimes there are etudes to create in rehearsal. Little scenes based on ideas. Hannah and Paul bring in writing, and we read it, and I try to find ways to work with the text and research to help create the characters.
Paul: We try to feel what it was about the original concept that spoke to us in the first place, its subconscious vibration, and then somehow try to physicalize it or speak it or write it. Theatricalize it. That�s what I really enjoy about our process: we�ve certainly developed concepts and exercises and techniques that we revisit during development, but for the most part with each new project it�s the creative challenge of figuring out what that specific world is all about and what it needs. That becomes our job: inventing the unique process that is perfect for creating these specific characters in this specific world. A lot comes out of taking through ideas together and then a lot comes from just immersing ourselves in ideas and research and images and sounds and then intuitively creating. Then we look at what we just created, try to figure out what exactly it is, and follow that path in the direction that that leads us.
Oliver: For my part, I am hoping that there is something that I can do in rehearsal that gets them excited to go and write. Some ideas are total transplants from rehearsal, and sometimes there is some side idea that Hannah and Paul pick up on and the next day we have a whole scene. Sometimes a whole new play. That was what happened with The Bathroom, a short piece that we just did at P.S.122. We were working with a couple of ideas that weren�t really going anywhere, and then we spent about half a rehearsal laughing about a running joke that we have about me as the director giving what starts out as just a quick pre-show speech-
Hannah: “My name�s Oliver Butler, thanks for coming to our workshop performance, the exits are here and here . . .”
Paul: And then he just gets carried away, and for the sake of clarity ends up giving away all the secrets and surprises of the play the audience is about to see.
Hannah – We call it The Ruining. He even demonstrates how stage slaps work (just so the audience won�t be worried).
Oliver: The next day, Hannah and Paul showed up with pretty much a completed script that starts with a five minute monologue of me ruining the play. And then an awkward attempted performance of the ruined play by Hannah and Paul.
Paul: We cast someone else as Oliver.
Oliver: Hannah and Paul asked me if I wanted to play the role, and I had to make one of those hard directorial decisions; I was not actually the right person to play myself. I am a very complex man.
Paul: We cast Michael Cyril Creighton.
Hannah: He funny.
Oliver: It�s been fun to have the chance to make a few short pieces in a short amount of time. We made a new play for a festival in Martha’s Vineyard, The Bathroom for Avant-Garde-Arama, and the beginnings of a play for The Brick. Usually though, we spend about a year on a project when we are creating a full-length play. The fear of God really gets us creating so we usually schedule some readings throughout the process, so that we have a few concrete goals. I like to get the designers involved early to support our work, and let them simmer with ideas for a long time. Was this all supposed to be brief? Sorry.
Paul: Hannah and I both spent time studying in Moscow, and something that you�ll see in plays there is unbelievably thick detail in the environment of the play and the relationships among characters. It comes from training together and working together as an ensemble for many years and also really really epic rehearsal processes. That interest in detail has become important to The Debate Society, and is dependent on our long development process. At the same time, it�s been really exciting to flex a different set of creative muscles by being forced to create these short plays really quickly.
What is the hardest part about trying to develop new work in NYC?
Oliver: Not enough money, working day jobs, scheduling rehearsal around day jobs, high rent, expensive theater rental . . .
Hannah & Paul: The Paparazzi . . .
Oliver: Yeah, it�s really pretty sick. They don�t leave us alone. It�s getting to the point where it�s difficult to ride our bicycles.
Hannah: Oh, and movies cost $10.75 in New York City. That�s hard.
Why do you make work in NYC? Is there something you feel you can do here that you can’t do anywhere else?
Oliver: I just figure, if you are going to break your back making a play–which in my experience is any production–even the high school musicals break people’s backs–you might as well do it in the center of everything. We have created and produced each of our plays in different neighborhoods (Village, Williamsburg, Harlem, Midtown, Tribeca) and I think that we love being able to move into another part of the city each time. From a producing standpoint, I think we all love really getting to know the people in a neighborhood, and getting them to the show. Having access to all these vastly different places really affects the work.
Hannah: Is there something you feel you can do here that you can�t do anywhere else? Yeah, poop on the street.
Paul: I think that about covers it.
Hannah: And pay $10.75 to see a movie.
Oliver: Ladies and Gentlemen: The Debate Society.