Just Like GRANDMA Made…
I am sitting in a conference room on Wall Street, twenty floors above the bustling, touristy madness that makes up a summer Saturday in lower Manhattan. The building is, I imagine, usually teeming with designer suits, power lunches and other select iconography of corporate life. I am not opposed to it but I also find myself feeling slightly uncomfortable in a polished office high above Wall Street. Sitting on either side of me are fellow artists Ben Gansky and Peter Mills Weiss, half of the performance collective GRANDMA (the other members are Tim Platt and Michael McGee). We are meeting a few days before their work-in-progress “make people (Part 1),” premieres as a part of ANT Fest at Ars Nova.
There are things said in this interview I imagine would fit in well in any generic conference room setting…
Peter on the fever dream that led to the collective’s name: “The opposite of War isn’t Peace, it’s Grandma!”
Ben on the aesthetic of GRANDMA: “[It] is mostly a product of all of us putting our heads together and pushing as hard as possible.”
Peter on turning personal stories into the ones we hear in make people (Part 1): “These stories are all true, but we’ve doodled in their margins.”
The space is granted to them as a part of a Work Space residency through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which offered support for GRANDMA in the weeks leading up to their performance. It is a conference room, yes, but it has been a rehearsal studio, a think tank, a place for storytelling, stand-up and failed attempts at improvisatory humor. It seemed an oddly fitting incubator for this particular performance—a show embracing so many connotations; drawing from both personal and universal; able to be absurd and poignant all at once.
A packed crowd piles into the tunnel-like interior of Ars Nova and Peter, playing the character of Peter, steps center stage: “I wanna tell the story of how my father got his driver’s license.”
The onus was now on us to absorb his storytelling as we may. I listened on secretly hoping, albeit selfishly, whatever he said was going to shed some light on what I did not know about my own father. Why have I never asked him? Why is he telling me this? Why do I care?
That is the thing with stories: they make customary acts the matter for extravagant narrative.
What follows is an interconnected journey through Peter’s high school and college years. Onstage, he has a friendly persona—knowingly telling his story, pausing for comedic effect, and oscillating between the rhythm of adolescent anecdote and spoken word poetics. For all the awkward teenage angst he embodies, he also has a smooth, nuanced swagger that allows even the lamest parts of this story to hold my full attention.
In many ways, Tim Platt, the other performer, plays a necessary doppelgänger and mischievous offset to Peter. Both morph into varied personas throughout, able to be both narrator and character, spewing commentary and driving the tale forward. But, where Peter is cool and confident—at one point breaking into a fantastic beat box interlude—Tim is often dorky and modest, one of those kids who is wholly unaware of the appropriate volume to speak at.
Stories, in this sense, work as the HD cameras of life: zooming in and out of an experience with ease and capturing meaningful instants along the way. That is also to say that where we end up is not where we started. There is a point in this coming of age tale in which the characters recall Peter’s triumphant role in a high school musical version of West Side Story, complete with a zombified, heavily auto-tuned version of “Maria.” The most compelling detail of the story (and, perhaps, the entire show?) is a description of the queso dip served at this quasi-fictional cast party; a seemingly minute detail that meant so much more. This was the measure of accomplishment to a high school aged boy, early in his community theater career, and I felt it—every creamy, cheesy, queso-filled second.
GRANDMA, throughout all of their absurd and honest storytelling, reminds me that meaning is rarely apparent at first but, more often, crystallizes over time. This is how life works. What is meaningful to us is not always the grand lesson or a perfect score or getting the job or knowing whether or not your dad’s illicit and questionable act of attaining his driver’s license is worth retelling to a crowd of strangers. Stories should unfold as life does: messily, imperfectly, and in possession of odd details.
“What I am interested in is reacting to what’s happening in front of me,” Peter says during our conference room interview. These are the puzzle pieces of existence; these are what make people.
GRANDMA will present a fuller version of make people in early 2016. More information at http://www.wearegrandma.com/.