This Girl is on Fire

[Toilet Fire: Rectums in the Rectory, currently running at JACK, is a celebration and ceremony of the one thing that unites us all: our need to go. Using the structure of an ancient religious ritual to talk about matters of digestion, philosophy, and faith, Toilet Fire: Rectums in the Rectory explodes with song, audience participation, and unexpected textual twists.

Remaining performances are Friday, May 22 @ 2:15 pm and @ 8 pm; Saturday, May 23 @ 8pm. Tickets are $15 in advance or cash only at the door.]

TN: In addition to your emergence as a playwright, you worked for TCG for nine years, writing extensively about theatre here and abroad. You have performed with companies such as Half Straddle and Little Lord. And you assist Kippy Winston’s press agency. You exemplify a true lover of theatre in ALL its fun, painful, heartbreaking, oh-my-god-can-i-afford-my-rent-this-month vibe (you kind of give off this vibe that you are not from a wealthy family which I consider a good thing but if you are I mean no disrespect *1). I wonder, do you gravitate more towards any of the multitude of theater skills you possess? Would you call yourself one more than the other? Is there a way we can talk about ourselves as artists without sounding like we are more profound than we probably are*2?

EB: omg Teddy I don’t even know where or how to begin answering this AMAZING question. I love how you’re getting it all out in the open in one fell swoop. Even your take on my vibes (which is great). The interviewer is not objective! (what is objectivity anyway?)

Ok, to start with. Yes. I worked at American Theatre magazine, which is published by TCG, for nearly nine years. Can you believe it? I can hardly believe it. I spent my 20s there. [!] But it was obviously seminal to a lot of things I know.

And yes! I have had the good fortune to work with Half Straddle and Little Lord as an actor and also other esteemed companies like Van Cougar and Hoi Polloi among other groups and other individuals.

Kippy is a good friend, I do what I can.

I love that you pin point my middle class upbringing. I mean I am from Brookline, MA, which is not exactly blue collar .. but you are correct in your hunch that I am not in possession of a trust fund. #nothatthere’sanythingwrongwiththat.

To answer your first question about what I gravitate towards more theatre-wise (acting vs playwriting vs producing vs writing about theatre) .. Eek. I mean let’s be real. I am a Gemini. So I like to do many things. But I guess I gravitate more toward the performance end of things and the writing end of things. Like with Toilet Fire I have sort of shrugged off much of the writing because I knew I would get to perform it and that was kind of nice. I didn’t worry as much about the writing being “good” because I was/am attempting to make this crazy thing.  I feel like performing is a dangerous drug I cannot quit while the writing is fun to futz around with. Like a cat poking at a ball of yarn.

As for writing about theatre it’s very nice to contribute to the “field” in this way.

Har har*

I would say I am a Person of the Theatre who is a performer and a playwright. The two inform the other. And all the other stuff (writing for American Theatre magazine and TDF, being confused for Kippy Winston, helping out with The Radish, producing my own shows) that’s all a part of the background and DNA, etc.

To answer the other question about being profound well .. to quote a cement wall for the college literary magazine I used to work for: “I send the profundity of this question but I do not understand the profundity!”

(I think most of us, artists and otherwise, are pretty profound but sometimes it’s hard to express it.)

TN: Without using any of the language*3 you used in previous press materials for Toilet Fire, tell me what it is. Try to be as specific as you can be. Or not. Maybe a better way to phrase this would be, “Imagine I am a childhood friend you haven’t seen in over a decade. They ask you what you are up to and you tell them you have a show and they ask you what it’s about. What do you say to them?”

EB: Hey Teddy, my goodness has it really been 10 years?!

I am doing this crazy show. It’s kind of a shit show. No, really! It’s called Toilet Fire but if you come you won’t get *burned*. I swear. Pardon the puns but you know: it’s stronger than me.

The show begins with me as a bunch of characters staging a ritual about digestion. Basically it’s a holiday in this made up religion but the show borrows structures of real religions. There is fake Latin. And a golden cape. There’s music. Some of which might be familiar to some people. The bewitching Alaina Ferris tickles the ivories. Then there are these things called The Conflushions when people (characters I play) tell tales from the toilet. There’s also this old man character I play who wears a MacDowell hat. More than one person has commented that the detail of the MacDowell hat is “sick” and I wonder “Would they call that hat ‘sick’ if they saw me wearing it while playing tennis?” MacDowell is so amazing. But I digress.

The show morphs in form, from Conflushional stories, to a lecture, to a solo show ending where the real Eliza Bent emerges from the bathroom at JACK and explains some stuff and tells the truth. Or something. Ooh and I eat a few cheezeits and some chocolate babka. Mmm. Babka. The audience gets a small nibble too.

TN: Italy is a predominant theme in your work and it manifests here several times. What does Italy mean to you, and not just as a country but as an idea? Why Italy?

EB: Oooh I love this question. Italy is the ultimate escape and also the ultimate reality. It is, quite simply, where I came of age. I spent a year in Rome teaching English and tooting around after finishing college (having previously studied a semester in Parma).

Looking back on the adventure is amazing to me. I had a little envelope and, at the start of the month, after I’d paid my rent, I’d put the remainder of my salary in there. A little envelope of Euros. How Dickensian! I had a compact disc! This was in 2005, another era.

It was in Italy that I realized I needed to make theatre. I took an acting class, in an attempt to “improve” my language skills, and that led to another acting class. And the teacher spoke to me alone one day and basically said, “What are you doing here? You love theatre and you need to honour this part of yourself.” He wasn’t saying, “Go back to America.” But he was pointing out, gently, that I would only ever get cast as the foreigner if I were to stay and live in Italy. And I feel like I could really hear this from him because he was a good actor and had previously lived in Germany where, of course, he has always been cast in a non-German-born role.

And I mean speaking Italian. That is so major. Putting on another language is like dressing as a goth or as a Republican. It’s the ultimate costume to live inside, in a way, but also the ultimate reinvention of who you could be. And at the same time, speaking another language exposes you. When you don’t know all the words you’re forced to use the ones you do know. You become more direct out out of necessity. This is terrifying and freeing.

When I had tiffs with my paramour I would always fall into English and that’s when I knew I needed to say something essential and this always fascinated me.

TN: Toilet Fire is a riff off a Christ-based church service. Your playful distortions of language reminds me almost of the writing of Dr. Seuss or the atonal guitar tunings of Sonic Youth; familiar yet off kilter, hilariously wrong and demented. The specificity in the details of the service is spot on. [I was haphazardly raised Roman Catholic until my mother cursed God and became lapsed and so the ceremony you’ve mimicked is eerily familiar to me, like a childhood monster.] How did you arrive at the crossroads of scatological humor and religion?

EB: First I must say thank you for the “hilariously wrong and demented” categorization! This I consider to be a high compliment. 😉

Indeed, Toilet Fire is based on a Christ-based church and more specifically, a Roman Catholic Mass. But of course there are elements of Judaism that bubble to the surface. Rugelach and Babka are served instead of a communion wafer. The holey moley text appears in the form of a toilet torah. There is a voicemail with a chorus of Dayenus.

But to answer your question, I’ve had the toilet stuff bumping around in my head for years. And early versions of the show were really quite toilet focused but then, about a year ago, I was on this crazy residency in Lawrence, Kansas. And I revisited the early text and was horrified. It needed to be more than what it was.

I did a bunch of writing in these little coffee shops in the dead of winter. And the toilet writing kept turning to my youth and how I was raised Catholic in a town of secular Jews. So this seemed curious to me. Then I realized that the whole thing, the play, needed to be staged like a Catholic Mass and this sent a shiver down me spine! [That’s said with a tough of brogue, mind you!]

So the show is a sort of a “coming out” about the fact that I was raised Catholic but am always trying to “pass” for Jewish. And how my dualistic upbringings as a cultural Jew and religious Catholic are, in part, responsible for the guilt I feel over my digestive ailments. And Jess Barbagallo and Kevin Laibson were enormously helpful in shaping this thing.

TN: I’ve noticed in your performance style, particularly in your solo work, that you inhabit the personas of these, for lack of a better word, complete weirdos. Are you drawn to weirdness in life? Would you consider yourself a weirdo? And how would you describe your approach to performance, particularly as it relates to Toilet Fire?

Photo by Sarah Hylton

Photo by Sarah Hylton

EB: I am always drawn to weirdness in life. I consider myself a weirdo. I consider most humans, when you scratch the surface, are weirdos underneath!

My approach to performance in the Toilet Fire show is quite instinctual. These are characters who have been bubbling and burbling within me for a long time so it’s fun to unleash them. I am reminded of my (in)glorious days as an improviser (no, really I used to be on a “house” team at the PIT!) and so Toilet Fire is in many ways a marriage between my past as an improv nerd and my present as a playwright. Or something like that.

TN: One final question. Talk to me about music. There’s a lot of singing in the show, yes? How would you describe its relationship with the language? Or a better way to ask this might be, “These songs, did you write them? Where did they come from? What does the music of your brain matter sound like?”

EB: Oh Teddy. The music in my brain is so hard to get out in real life! In another era I’d have been a composer. Heh. Wish I’d kept up with the piano lessons…

(When I try to talk about music I never know the right words to use. I don’t speak music language .. I only feel it! Perhaps there is some slight synesthesia there for me, as people have had hearty chuckles over my descriptions of music, but this is a chat better suited for real life…)

Half of the songs in Toilet Fire are songs that are familiar to me from my youth when I would go to church with my family. So the tunes are deeply embedded in my psyche. The words have of course been changed to fit the Keester service that Toilet Fire celebrates.

The original songs “But All I Ate” and “Explosion Implosion” are songs that swirled about in my own brain. And these original songs are bursts from the character of Eliza in the show. They are bursts from my brain.

Eliza Bent is a Brookline, Mass. born and Brooklyn-based performer and playwright. Writing credits include The Hotel Colors (Bushwick Starr, May ‘13), Toilet Time with Eliza Bent (performances at Catch!, the Great Plains Theatre Conference and “Little Theatre” at Dixon Place), and Blue Dress Reduction (undergroundzero festival at PS 122); adaptations of Hari Kunzru’s short story “Magda Mandela” with She of the Voice(undergroundzero festival at PS 122) and Daniil Kharms’ collection “Today I Wrote Nothing” with Karma Kharms (Or Yarns by Kharms) (Target Margin Lab at the Bushwick Starr); international collaborations/performances include Pen Pals Meet (Iranian Theatre Festival at the Brick, Brooklyn/Tehran) and Parallel Borgarfjordur Estri (Dionysia residency in Borgarfjörður Eystri, Iceland). Bent is a MacDowell Colony fellow, a Bay Area Playwrights Finalist, a New Georges affiliated artist and the recipient of a U.S. Embassy grant for her work in Iceland. She is a founding company member of (and frequent performer with) the OBIE-award winning ensemble Half Straddle. Bent holds a BA in philosophy from Boston College and MFA in playwriting from Brooklyn College where she studied with Mac Wellman and Erin Courtney. Bent frequently writes for American Theatre magazine, where she was formerly senior editor, and likes to speak Italian.

FOOTNOTES:

*1 I just feel the need to talk about class here for some reason–maybe this should be omitted.

1 REPLY: No, I am obsessed with this acknowledgement b/c theatre, like so much in life, is in a way rigged in terms of who has money / connections / cultural class / capital. Etc etc. Right? I mean probably the reasons to omit are the reasons to keep it IN.

*2 This is a direct critique of my own language in this Q&A. For some reason it feels somewhat coldly academic. I don’t know why. C’est la vie!

2 REPLY Academic? Pas de toot !! Just nice and smaht.

*3 But you must use the English language, s’il vous plait.
3 REPLY: Bien sur mon ami! Or as I like to say in ‘Merica: “Bean Sir”!

*I am saying Har har and putting “field” in quotes b/c let’s be real about how we talk about the theatre. The field? Best practices? What funny language has sprouted up around theatre!

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