A Totally Great Way to Meet Someone

I had a chance to sit down with Sam Alper, the multi-hyphenate writer-performer-comedian and creator of the upcoming LOVEPLAY/PLAYMONEY, a double bill of interactive, immersive performances that promise a chance to find true love (really) and/or win a hundred bucks (really). Sam is thoughtful, articulate, and effortlessly open of spirit – he’s funny without trying, intelligent without being showy, and has an exciting sense of what his performance can be and can do. Plus he was wearing an extraordinarily cool Mickey Mouse sweater.

The following is an excerpted transcription of our conversation.

Jerry Lieblich: Let’s start with PLAYMONEY, which is the new show. Where did that piece come from?

Sam Alper: The genesis was that I saw Ivo Dimchev’s P Project in the Queer New York International Arts Festival. And that show is amazing, because basically he said “I have a thousand dollar artist fee, and I want to create a show that’s totally dramaturgically open. So I will be paying you to participate in the show, and I will be giving away that fee over the course of the show.”

JL: So he hires audience members to make the performance.

SA: Exactly. And the energy there got crazy, because it felt like everyone had license to be in this Other Space where you can win money and see people do crazy things, but you also never felt like it was cruel or out of hand.

JL: And so PLAYMONEY came from this idea of “I wanna pay the audience.”

SA: Exactly. So PLAYMONEY is a live interactive game show / talk show where somebody wins a hundred dollars every night. It came from that impulse, wanting to give away money, combined with thinking about the moment in your twenties when you start to get serious about careerism and start growing more conservative economically, and reconciling that. What are the tools that allow you to do it and how do you feel about it? It’s a little less emotional, it’s a lot more implicit, whereas LOVEPLAY sort of lays it all out in the text.

JL: So tell me a bit more about the structure of the show. Who’s competing for the money, the audience or the performers?

SA: The audience. But that’s all I’m gonna say. The rest is a surprise.

JL: Let’s talk about LOVEPLAY for a bit. This is a piece you’ve done before, right?

SA: So this will be the third Valentine’s Day in a row that it’ll be performed. I used to be the writer in residence for a group called The Collectin that started at NYU Tisch when I was an undergrad. They were doing a Valentine’s show in Hollywood, so I wrote the seed of LOVEPLAY there.

The play was a way for me to explore this tension between intimacy and performance. For instance being an actor and having a sense of self-consciousness in intimate moments – of seeing myself perform the expression of my emotions, even while I really felt those emotions. I would notice myself making performative choices. So the show is a way of coming to peace with that and even thinking “well maybe that can be great.”

And then once Knud came in [Knud Adams, director] there was a lot of rewriting. The version at Cloud City which he directed was initially a twenty-minute piece done by two actors who are actually single where they explain that thing thought intimacy that I was talking about and then just say “I’m single. That’s me, and I mean it. So talk to me after the show if you’re interested, because I really feel like I could meet someone. I think this is a totally great way to meet someone.”

JL: Did anybody meet anybody?

SA: One of them, Lily Spottiswoode, after the Cloud City run started dating somebody who did see the show on Valentine’s Day. But they had gone on a coffee date previously, so I don’t know if that counts.

JL: Woah! Even so that’s a pretty bold move on her part. I’m glad it worked for her.

SA: So now there are two new sections: a monologue that I do about being alone, and then a piece starring a real couple, Max Posner and Sarah DeLappe, which I’ve rewritten to be specifically for them, since the idea is to give a sense of what they’re like. And I drink a bit during my opening monologue, so then I’m sort of this tipsy emcee on the mike manipulating the couple.

JL: And are you really drinking, or is it pretend?

SA: No, I’m really drinking.

JL: What is that like?

SA: I think it’s freeing, in that you don’t have to work as hard to be honest. And I don’t think in most projects it works that way, but here it’s appropriate since I start with “Hi, I’m me, here’s me drinking, I’m talking about being alone, drinking, being not ready for intimacy.”

JL: It lets a real event happen on stage in your body, which gives a credence to everything else you’re saying. It gives it reality.

SA: Yeah. And that’s another reason I’ve been thinking about Ivo Dimchev and performance art a lot in this project. That kind of real act. The authenticity, that something really happened here, is really important. We’re really giving away money, the single people are really single and have assured me they would really love to meet someone this way, and the couple is real. So me drinking at the beginning is a way of saying “everything you’re going to see is true, and even though I’m going to ask these other people to do something real, I’m not above doing something real myself.” I tried to find the things I like about scripted, tightly directed performance, but also include some layer of reality and presence.

JL: What tends to be the audience reaction to that?

SA: Well I don’t know how it’s going to work for PLAYMONEY – this is the first time we’re doing it, so I can’t assume anything, especially since it’s a lot less of a tender topic. You want to get in a room with people and get on the same page about intimacy and emotion. Getting on the same page about careerism – especially at a downtown theater like La MaMa – I think that’s going to be a lot less comfortable for people.

A lot of the time when I see something, I think “what’s the one more thing I wish they said so I could feel like we’re on the same page?” Like when someone makes a statement in a play that’s at all a generalization, I also go in my head “yeah but also this.” And then not hearing the follow-up makes me feel a little further away. So that’s part of the idea behind the over-explained writing in these pieces, especially in LOVEPLAY. It’s an attempt to say “that thing you just thought is ok, in fact, I just thought something just like it too and we’ll say it.”

But as for proving the gesture is real, part of it is having people use their own names and part of it is having pockets of improvisation – a lot more in PLAYMONEY – that let you see that these people are talking in a way that is authentic to their rhythms.

JL: And how much of that is improvised? How much of it is you being present as a conversationalist and how much of it is scripted?

SA: In PLAYMONEY there’s a lot of structured improvisation alongside the scripted stuff. LOVEPLAY not so much, but it’s direct address and it chases a lot of thoughts down and goes through a lot of qualifiers. So we won’t hit on what every single person is thinking, but there are statements to the effect of “this is just me and I’m seeing it this way.”

JL: What’s been the process of making PLAYMONEY? There’s all this structured improv, it’s a game – how do you make that?

SA: I started out with this long monologue I had written about how hard it is to find something original to say about money, which I liked, but it felt sort of naive and not actually in tune with what I’m trying to think about and work on in my economic life. So I found a way of working the careerism stuff into the actual format of the show in the initial rehearsals.

Then there was a lot of conversation, a lot of improv around the talk-show format, bringing in scraps of text, trying out different guests on this talk show, trying out different acts.

For instance, we did a lot of experimentation with standup, bringing in money jokes I found on the internet and things I wrote about Sex and the City

JL: So you’re drawing on the tropes of a late night talk show?

SA: Talk show / game show. There are guests, people come to the couch and talk. There’s a musical guest.

SA: The idea is to have an action for each of the shows – something real that happens for each one. The goal is to create something interactive and participatory without demanding anyone to participate at all, without putting any of that pressure on somebody who maybe doesn’t want to be stared at or made to stand up, but who can still feel active.

JL: And even the choice to not be active has an activation in it – that’s a choice.

SA: That you’re going to reflect on.

JL: Exactly.

SA: And we’re trying to do it in a way that’s more carrot than stick.

JL: Right. There’s nothing worse as an audience member than to be told you’re doing something wrong.

SA: Or to be worried about being embarrassed. Rather, there’s a reward for participation.

JL: You mentioned that PLAYMONEY is trying to articulate a certain economic attitude shift in yourself. How has making the play affected that thought process?

SA: It’s helped me focus on it, especially since it’s a thought process I don’t like having. So having a place to play that out and discuss it, and also doing it with peers who can perform and are a group of people whose opinions I really respect – that’s been great.

Peter Mills Weiss, Ronald Peet, Zach Siegel, and Maddy Wise are doing PLAYMONEY with me. So having those people, plus Knud [Adams, the director], to talk that out with has been clarifying. I’ve felt less alone in it.

I grew up in LA, and when I was younger I did improv and comedy sketch and made short films, and it felt like “ok, there’s a hard-to-reach but real and economically remunerative career that I’m working towards, and the line there is pretty direct.” I had a comedy partner who lives in LA now and is auditioning and writing pilots, and when I graduated from school I went home for six months and we wrote a pilot based on our sketch characters. There’s a good friend of mine who I grew up doing that stuff with who has a web series that’s in pilot talks. Which is all to say that there’s a clear line from the stuff we were doing then to the stuff they’re doing now.

But I went to Brown and studied playwriting and started writing poetry and started digging more experimental performance, so these shows are me doing the complete opposite of what everyone I grew up with is doing.

And that’s been great. But now I’ve been starting to wonder, well, what’s next? What leads to what? Do I want to make a life in theater? And I don’t have a ton of great answers now, but I’m at least approaching it.

JL: Would your choice to go back to that LA world of sketch and film/TV be because you love that form and want to work in it, or because there’s some amount of money in it?

SA: It’s always both. It’s stuff I love doing, but it’s really different from this stuff. And if I had to choose in a perfect world, I would do a little bit of both. And hopefully that’s always something you can do in your life.

JL: How has thinking about money, thinking about financial stability, affected the way you think about making this work?

SA: It makes me cherish it more. Because I know that I’m not always going to be making exactly what I want. Some portions of my life are really going to have to be devoted to finding an income stream. And as I get older that’s going to need to be larger. I know I want to have kids, I love kids. So things like that mean you need money. Unless some opportunities come that I don’t even know exist, making this work will not be my whole life, in terms of the amount of time I wish I could put into it. So it makes it kind of precious.

Which is not to say that after the show I’m done, or that people shouldn’t do this. It’s just understanding what the choice to pursue it is.

JL: And you’re putting up this show, which has a certain kind of financial morality to it as well – where is the money coming from, who is it going to, how do you value people’s time?

SA: And that’s part of what I’m excited about in PLAYMONEY. Because when people come to the couch and chat with me they’re themselves and we’re talking about exactly that.

JL: Are you paying the performers?

SA: Everyone’s getting a $200 stipend. I don’t feel terrible about it. I wish it could be more. But it’s a big group, and that’s just money we’re fundraising. I’m running my first Kickstarter.

JL: Has that worked its way into the show at all?

SA: Yeah, in a sense. There’s a lot about PLAYMONEY that we’re still figuring out. We’ve made a lot of stuff right now, and I’m not positive what goes and what stays.

JL: Anything else?

SA: I’d like to shout out all the people.

JL: Shout out all the people.

SA: Knud Adams is directing – he’s a genius. Because I’m writing and performing and it’s very personal, it’s really good to have somebody with strong opinions, who will tell them to me, and will argue with me. And he both really loves and cares about the project and doesn’t hold any particular piece of it to be untouchable.

LOVEPLAY has the couple – Max Posner and Sarah DeLappe. I love them. Max is an old friend, and I met Sarah through him. They’re great, and they’ve been really game about the process of bringing in a section that I originally wrote for another couple very different from them and talking through rewrites, finding a way to put themselves in it that feels comfortable to them. They definitely pushed me, and we arrived somewhere that I really like.

Ned Riseley and Allison Brainard are the Single People. Allison is an amazing, amazing performance artist, and Ned is a really great actor, he’s been with this piece forever. He’s told me that I cursed him to be single. He’s got six chances though! How could he not find love? They’re both super eligable, they’re gorgeous, lovely people.

JL: We’ll be sure to link to some great pictures.

SA: And their section is tricky, because there’s a long monologue that they do in unison, but speaking as themselves. And the way they do it is pretty virtuosic – it’s very technically tricky, but they’re really good at it. And that’s a lot Knud too.

And PLAYMONEY has been really collaborative, to the extent where I’m not even sure I can say that I wrote it. I mean I did write parts, and I’m selecting and rewriting and structuring, but so much of Maddie [Wise], Zach [Segel], Ronald [Peet], and Peter [Mills Weiss] are in it. They’ve all been so giving. And they’re all just really good.

JL:It sounds like a beautiful, lovely process.

SA: It’s been crazy and fun and messy.

LOVEPLAY/PLAYMONEY is playing Feburary 13-22nd (Fridays and Saturdays at 10pm, Sundays at 6pm) at The Club at LaMama. You can get your tickets here.

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