Prelude.12: An Interview with William Burke

“Yeah, it was 2½-to-3 years ago, I get most of my ideas from the New York Post, and there was an article that was a…a cookie monster got stabbed by another cookie monster in a dispute over turf,” said writer/director William Burke on Weds. Oct 3, speaking of the inspiration for his Prelude debut, Furry, a piece “for 1 Elmo, 2 imposters, a cowboy, and the general cookie monster mob.” The text itself is a dense and poetic 25-page monologue disclosing the inner life of a Times Square street performer working as an Elmo. Plastically “furry” in a mask hoodie adorned with shredded red T-shirt bags, actor Marty Brown performed the performer, a feat of memorization (“6 days”), with a caustic grace. Deploying ~70 Elmo hats and several Cookie Monster balloon bouquets, the solo slowly subsumed the spectator in the competition, alienation, and absurdity of pedestrian plaza affective labor. William and his wife Julia Sirna-Frest (of Half Straddle) chatted with me on the eve of the performance. 

WILLIAM: I’ve worked many odd jobs up in Times Square and there’s certainly a unique difficulty about it and that’s where I started from.  It’s for one actor and an army of cookie monsters, however you wanna manifest the cookie monsters.

JULIA (having gradually approached): I’m married to him I’m not just being creepy.

MAX: Oh, hi!

WILLIAM: And I just went from there. It’s a form I’ve used before, a solo thing with something backing it up. Sometimes its music, sometimes a crowd of people. This time, a crowd of people and a bunch of balloons. I guess it is about a lot of things, I think, but mainly what interests me is there’s somebody in a suit. There’s someone in the suit and you know you’re letting your kid get near that suit…I’m interested in how people make money.  Interested in people kinda being helpless and trying to not be helpless but still being helpless. Helpless in a role, helpless in kinda like this life or in America, specifically.

MAX: Did y’all see Agoraphobia that was in Times Square? You called in and listened to a monologue…there was a weird tension between that piece and the performance workers in costume where Agoraphobia was kind of interacting with them but also “taking turf” and bringing their own audience…

WILLIAM: It’s changed considerably since I was there 6 years ago, the amount of costumed performers, it was mainly just the Naked Cowboy and he’s in the piece. He’s an antagonist in the piece. It was just him then and if you wanted to have anything with a cowboy hat in Times Square, he had trademarked himself, you had to pay either 500/mo or 5,000/year to have a presence as a western themed character. But now Times Square kinda eats, eats you in a way and, I don’t know its an interesting backdrop.

MAX: Times square…the belly. I’ve never been in a costume like that, I bet it’s scary. It kinda erases the performer, like to a lurking presence…

WILLIAM: Yeah, I worked the Grinch Who Stole Christmas as crowd control. I had to wear a Grinch hat.  It’s really intense if you stand still in that area for long periods of time. It’s an entirely different view cuz usually you’re just moving and rarely standing still in that area. It’s kinda like an entirely different culture and world.  It’s a kind of an angry play, it gets a little bloody.

MAX: There’s only one performer?

WILLIAM: There is one performer and then there are some extra elements.

JULIA: There’s the audience.

WILLIAM: There’s the audience, the participation.

MAX: Does he play multiple characters?

WILLIAM: Just one. Straight up Elmo. And then the audience transforms. That’s also something I could talk about with my work. I always want the audience to start as the audience and then be inside the performance a bit, to transform in a way, to be kinda inside the circle.  You’re outside the line and that blurs and then you’re inside and it’s a very thick line and everybody’s there and talking and hopefully we can all come out with something to talk about.

MAX: Does it go to the point of being…interactive?

WILLIAM: I never want to put pressure on anybody to talk back. I think that’s counterproductive to what I’m trying to do. I just want them to realize they’re part of the piece and you can do whatever you want in that context. We’re trying to give people a license to feel like they’re inside the piece and there are elements that will enable people to do that. It’s subtler though, not like you must participate.  It’s more of, come inside this really strange house and sit for a while and hopefully you’ll be included in the brain. Like what Tina [Satter] was talking about in that manifesto like talking about making a play in her heart. I want everyone to be in my heart. I want everyone to be inside for a little bit.

JULIA: Yours is a little more of a belly.


JULIA: Inside the belly.

WILLIAM: (laughs) Yeah, inside the belly.

Upcoming: William’s work the devil wants his hat back will be a part of the Black Swan Lab at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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