Prelude.12: An Interview with Jack Ferver & Josh Lubin-Levy

One of the dependable pleasures of choreographer, writer, and performer Jack Ferver’s work is witnessing how he’ll explode the pop texts he uses as inspiration, from Poltergeist to Notes on a Scandal, blazing past self-conscious reference to sly and sublime theatrical possessions of these sources. For his latest project, All of a Sudden, Ferver has set those “mad blue Better Davis eyes” (as the New York Times accurately swooned) on Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (and its subsequent silver screen adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor) and brought his long-time dramaturg and collaborator Joshua Lubin-Levy into the fold as a performer. I spoke with both Jack and Josh about this latest experiment in their work together. Selections from All of a Sudden will be featured tonight, October 4th, at 7:00pm as part of the Prelude Festival at the Martin E. Segal Center, 365 Fifth Ave., tickets first come, first served.

What are the origins of All of a Sudden?
Jack Ferver: When Josh (Lubin-Levy) and I were working on Rumbleghost (P.S.122, 2010), he expressed interest in performing again. I said:  “We’ll make a piece together where that happens.”  Towards the close of Rumbleghost I knew what it would be.  The way we had worked together reminded me of elements of how a therapist has to handle a client.  I gave him [the script of] Suddenly Last Summer as the closing gift and said, “Let’s do this.”

What were your initial thoughts, Josh?
Josh Lubin-Levy: Initially I was curious about just how little actually happens in the play.  There’s a lot of drama in the story itself, but in terms of action it’s pretty sparse.  It’s almost more of an atmosphere that Williams unfolds than a narrative.  That also seemed to resonate strongly with this idea of a pair or partnership that we were hoping to stage (dramaturg/choreographer, therapist/client, etc) in which a relationship is established that can easily fall into it’s own familiar pattern, repeating itself, circling back – never really breaking its own mold.  It’s those kinds of relationships that produce entire worlds around them. So it seemed pretty fantastic to inhabit this environment that Williams had set up and to build a different performance inside of it.

One of the themes of this year’s Prelude Festival is “The Future of the Cinema is the Stage.” Films seem to be a pretty consistent inspiration for your work, Jack- is there something in each of the cinematic texts you work off of that sparks your interest, or is it something more general about cinema as a medium?
Jack Ferver:I think it is something more general.  Almost all of my works have film references in them.  My generation is the first generation to be able to watch movies over and over again from the convenience of home, as well as the ability to pause, rewind, etc.  That is a huge shift in the medium of film, and has influenced me heavily. And I find a link between the repetitive watching of films to that of rehearsal and performance.

Many of the films you reference (Black Swan, Cleopatra, Return to Oz) strike me as all having some shared undercurrents of queerness, at least in the context of your work. Do you think you are drawn to an underlying queer sensibility in them, or that your performances somehow highlight the queerness of these films?
Jack Ferver: Overall no, sometimes yes. With this upcoming work there are moments of that, which doesn’t just deal with Suddenly Last Summer, but also two films that I am currently abstracting and playing with in the work.

You’ve spoken some in the past about your extended work with Josh, and I know All of a Sudden is in part an exploration of the dramaturg/choreographer relationship. “Dramaturg” is one of those positions that people continually puzzle over, and Josh has been variously billed as a dramaturg, associate director, and collaborator in your work together. How do the two of you negotiate his role in each new process?
Jack Ferver:You are right about the “what is that?” position of a dramaturg.  In theatre it’s very clear.  In dance I think it is used so broadly, which is why we started using associate director.  Ultimately it comes down to time spent with the work.  He spent so much time with me for Two Alike (The Kitchen, 2012).  He watched rehearsals and was out there in the audience- giving me notes, pushing me harder, doing the lights with me.  That’s how I experienced his role. On this piece we are building and performing it together, which means we’re both on the inside, so to speak.  So the question remains about who will be, or even if we need, an outside eye.

Josh, how do you relate to the title of “Dramaturg,” generally but also specifically in your work with Jack?
Josh Lubin-Levy: Dramaturg is definitely one of the more enigmatic roles around.  I started calling myself a dramaturg when I was working with a series of artists, mainly because my focus is on honing performances of all kinds but not actually acting as a director (who I see as more of a leader).  In other words, my practice is about contributing to an already occurring process.  As I always say to Jack, I’ll never ask him what his work means, I’ll ask him what he wants from the work itself.  And then I see my role as helping to realize that goal.  I believe pretty profoundly in this kind of practice for a variety of reasons I won’t dwell on, but I can say that it takes different forms depending on who I’m working with.

With Jack, dramaturgy is really a “soup to nuts” kind of role that involves everything from discussing ideas and concepts, to running rehearsals, to making edits on the script.  Jack and I have very different performance styles, but what I think makes Jack especially rewarding to work with is that he is wide open to conversation and deeply curious about ways to push the limits of his own and other peoples work.  The best moments are when we discover something that isn’t working in the piece (which all performances have at one point or another), and we spend time trying to find a solution. Sometimes it take going in a direction neither one of us could have anticipated, nor found on our own.

Jack mentioned relying on you as an outside eye, but in this process as performers you’re both on the inside of it. Has your own process with Jack needed to shift in light of this?
Josh Lubin-Levy: Being inside is definitely a noticeable and welcome change.  I think Jack and I realized the majority of our conversations were in themselves attempts to move outside of the work, to gain perspective, to share my sense as the “outside eye.”  And so we became curious about what it would be like to go in the other direction, to dive deeper into the heart of the piece.  That is, what would happen if our dialogue occurred inside of the performance.  I think we’re still negotiating what that means so I can’t say what kind of shift that entails.  But I can say that we’re not simply doing performance based research or some intellectual exercise.  What we’re doing is taking a form that is deeply familiar to both of us, and exploring it from a different side.  My hope is that what comes out the other side is a performance that is familiar yet strange to both of us.

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