HEARTBREAK at The Bushwick Starr
I interviewed playwright Ariel Stess and Artistic Director Noel Joseph Allain about Ariel’s new play, Heartbreak, which runs May 13-30 at The Bushwick Starr.
Noel first met the play three years ago, as a monologue in Dixon Place’s Little Theater series. He was captivated by Ariel’s wordplay—a deliberate poetry of homonyms, homophones and homographs. Ariel plays with the way words, places and relationships accumulate and shed meaning in Heartbreak, a post-modern family play about love, loss, and intimate spaces. In this process, they’re multitasking, Ariel as writer/director and Noel as artistic director/actor.
Our first interview was lost when my phone shattered against concrete, data unsalvageable. With the themes of loss and letting go in my head, I couldn’t help but note the ironic parallels—nothing is permanent, and it is impossible to recreate what is lost. One must simply start again. Last weekend, Ariel Stess and Noel Joseph Allain generously entered in conversation about Heartbreak, take two.
Lily Padilla: We’re gonna have a lot of deja vu.
Ariel Stess: Maybe I’ll be a little more eloquent.
LP: How’s rehearsal going?
Noel Joseph Allain: We’re getting it together.
AS: Lately we’ve been simplifying and stripping down a lot of the stuff they created— a revision process in 3D. With this process, we did a lot of talking about the different relationships and histories. There’s a bunch of company men and they’ve all dated each other, but they never clarify who or when. All that matters is that they did and it was a serious relationship. Maybe everyone was dating in serious monogamous relationships all at the same time! Everything’s contradicting itself without anyone reacting to the contradiction.
LP: Which forms of heartbreak are you exploring in the play and what do they have in common for you?
AS: They’re all about mourning. Mourning the loss of a person who’s still there, who still lives and is still in your life. Still sharing the world with them and small spaces with them, but you’re not together. There’s a line where the father says, “I’ve been doing a lot of early morning mourning”—M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G— which no one will ever know.
NJA: I heard that today!
AS: You did? By the father or the daughter?
NJA: Both. It was a technical thing. The second mourning was lower, it was in the inflection…I definitely heard it.
AS: Oh cool. I hope that happens.
NJA: That’s the kind of associative experience I hope an audience member has watching the play. Being a morning person, like in the morning and being in mourning. Both of those things get conveyed and your mind goes in two directions at once.
AS: Lately I’ve been thinking about responding to plays on a non-thinking level. You don’t think first, you shift first.
LP: Do you think that is based on the way you walk into the piece or the piece working on you?
AS: A little of both. There are so many people who go to plays, and it’s like they don’t know how to manage their expectations. You thought you were going to see something else, and you could either react as though everything is wrong, inauthentic and you were misled. Or, you have tools to adjust and learn from the play, learn its rules as they go.
LP: If you could have a toolbox to help people experience Heartbreak, what would it include?
AS: Have you read the article by Jeff Jones, Thinking About Writing About Thinking About New Plays? He suggests that strong critical writers write essays that the audience has the option of reading. So they can feel like they do at art museums. So they can orient themselves in the project or the person’s body of work and then can feel the payoff.
LP: What would your essay include?
AS: Ha. That’s really hard.
NJA: I won’t hold you to it.
LP: You can also jump in. You can be the critical essay writer.
NJA: I’ll let Ari start. And finish.
AS: I was thinking about this a lot. I guess…. it’s probably too hard for me to do right now. But I would like to…
LP: It’s striking me that a lot of what we’re talking about is really applicable to dating and relationships.
AS: (laughing) Managing expectations.
LP: Processes of letting go and coming to compromise.
NJA: I was reading this New York Times review of the Avengers. The reviewer said the most relevant thing about the movie is that the quality is completely irrelevant. The movie was designed to “crush box offices and bring audiences to submission.” All popular entertainment industries have gotten things down to a formula, like music— a hit song will have certain elements to make money. In business and consumer culture, there’s the age-old adage of “your way, right away.” You know what you’re gonna get at Starbucks. The struggle when you’re interested in creating something new, is that it’s the opposite. It’s like going to eat a type of food you’ve never had before. It’s like, “I don’t know what this is going to be, I’m a little scared. And I don’t know if I like it yet.” It’s an acquired taste. It might take time to start to like it, so you have to keep eating it. That’s what’s exciting about work that is adventurous and uncharted territory, but it’s also what’s difficult. Somebody has to be a willing participant. You have to have the mindset of wanting to experience something new.
LP: As someone who’s seen a lot of work over the years, what keeps you going back to the theater?
NJA: Those experiences, when it inspires you, one, me. I’ve definitely gone to a lot of things where I left depressed about what I do. You have to shake those off and look for the inspiring experiences, which happen. I’m excited when something about myself is revealed to me. Which can be a dangerous experience too, because oftentimes you didn’t want to know it. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to have fun. It’s valuable even if it’s painful.
LP: What does this play reveal or challenge for you?
NJA: Certain things about my family history. It’s partially therapeutic in that way—not therapy but can be therapeutic—but partially painful. It’s why it’s funny to me—I like anxiety humor, humor that’s painful. There’s something great about laughing at the parts of yourself that hurt. For me it makes me feel less alone with a problem.
AS: The play is for lonely audiences because it connects you. You connect through the thing that hurts, even if it’s not the same thing that hurts. I always feel really good when I’m watching a play and a character doesn’t realize anything or get wiser or understand a moral, she’s like totally confused or overwhelmed by something so specific and I’m like “fuck yeah, you don’t know how to handle it, I don’t know how to handle it, we don’t know how to handle it, that fucking sucks! Ah, what a relief.”
LP: Your play shows characters at different phases and pivotal moments in their lives: retirement, coming into adulthood, moving. How does transition organize in your brain and how does it translate to the play?
AS: Maybe this is something that might be in a toolbox— how it was written. Words and images were leading me to other words and images. I didn’t sit down to write a story, it’s a bizarre result that now there’s a story for a bunch of different characters. I wrote it during several different time periods. I’ve separated the play into the chunks based on the times they were written. That’s why it feels like chapters or phases, coming as waves. Sitting through and being there for each one of them. The order is important, it’s accumulating.
LP: Did you move while writing this play?
AS: Like from my home? Yes! It’s the loneliest scariest thing. What’s scary is how people will eat each other alive. The mix between a house as an intimate space, with a family inside of it, of some kind. Then, the act of moving and putting down money and getting manipulated and tossed and turned and spit out and misled and tricked. And this is the process for obtaining an intimate space for you and your loved ones. It doesn’t make any sense. Thinking about intimate spaces and then I guess thinking about capitalism. Business versus intimate spaces.
LP: Last time we met, you told me about intimate spaces that rooted you in a memory or a time in your life. I don’t want to recreate them, but if you’d like to share whatever comes to your imagination in this moment.
NJA: The one that comes to mind right now is that I used to live in a little lofted room down in the theater. Sue lived there and Jay lived there*.
AS: You were all in the same space with little lofted beds?
NJA: There were many phases.
LP: How big were the rooms?
NJA: Small, close to the ceiling, like a little place to go get into bed. It was like a treehouse. I moved in there my final year at Juilliard and basically went through this very intense transformation, where a very long term relationship just ended, I was finishing up school and wasn’t sure what my life was gonna be like, starting this career as like a commercial actor which didn’t really work out, probably not surprisingly in 20/20 hindsight. But also discovering this opportunity and kinda running with this idea of like, let’s do something with this space we have our hands on and it’s just sitting here! And that turned into this [The Bushwick Starr]. It’s also when Mary and I, my now wife, started our relationship. So, I remember after I had moved out, going back up there and sitting down and having this very intense emotional experience, with all the history that had happened in that year and a half of living in that little tiny space. It was just a couple of platforms up on some pieces of wood up in the air. Now, the platforms are gone, you know, it’s now just an area in space. I used to live in that… (Noel gestures to the ceiling) right here in the air. All this stuff happened when I was living… (pointing again) here.
*Noel is referring to Sue Kessler, now Executive Director of The Bushwick Starr and Jay Maury, Senior Technical Advisor. More info on The Bushwick Starr’s evolution here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Heartbreak opens May 13 at The Bushwick Starr, tickets here
Written and directed by Ariel Stess
Featuring: Noel Joseph Allain, Seth Clayton, Paul Ketchum, Keilly McQuail, Mary Rasmussen, and Richard Toth.
Scenic design by Meredith Ries; Costume design by Tristan Raines; Lighting design by Eric Southern; Sound design by Chris Giarmo; Props design by Patrice Escandon; Production stage manager Eric Marlin; Assistant director Jordan J. Baum; Line Producer Amanda Kate Joshi; Production Manager Ann Marie Dorr.
Heartbreak is presented with New Georges.