Honestly, without Wikipedia, without Youtube, I don’t think I could make theater. (A conversation with Little Lord)
A few weeks ago I had the singular pleasure of sitting down for a cup of coffee with the masterminds of Little Lord, Michael Levinton and Laura von Holt. Michael and Laura are making the kind of difficult, dense (but still raucous and joyful) theater that I more and more find myself searching for these days. Their play-making process is time and research intensive. As I understand it, they gather an ungodly amount of material, cut it all up into pieces, put those pieces through a blender/juicer/waffle iron, and then take the digested material (now tissue-paper thin) and layer it, carefully, tissue-paper layer on tissue-paper layer on tissue-paper layer on tissue-paper layer, until they’ve built a cohesive, deep, intellectually and emotionally gratifying palimpsest/collage/Cornell box of a play. Hearing them speak is like listening to a highly articulate in-joking two-headed dragon who eats, breathes, and bleeds words. They can somehow make talking about the headiest of subject matter feel like doing a bit.
Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our discussion, which (like any staggeringly wide-reaching Little Lord play) ranged from everything from Pop Tarts to Diedrich Knickerbocker to existential dread to the strange and difficult process of making a strange and difficult play.
Jerry Lieblich: How did you two meet?
Laura von Holt: We both went to Sarah Lawrence together. The first time I saw Michael he was on stage, he was in Cloud Nine, and he crawled up out of some girl’s skirt and pulled a pube out of his mouth. Was that your direction?
Michael Levinton: No, that’s in the play.
ML: So we knew each other in school, we were friendly, but we weren’t friends. But when I started making stuff with Target Margin, which was the birth of Little Lord, I pulled Laura in. And as it took off, Laura’s role has grown in it to be a co-writer, co-director, to be whatever: to be a Co.
LvH: I’m a Co.
JL: And what number show is this for you guys?
ML: Ten, depending on how you count. Let’s say ten.
JL: And where in that progression do you feel like you landed on what Little Lord is?
ML: I tend to say Pocahontas at the Bushwick Starr, which was 2013. But then I look back on Thirst, and I see us at that point starting to approach things the way we approach things now.
JL: And what is that approach?
ML: Not knowing if things are going to work, not necessarily scared if they’re not going to, but just going for it because we’ve done the work on it and we have the conviction that it should work. But Pocahontas was the first step of the trajectory we’re on now, where we’re taking this collective unconscious story and making it universal. With Bambi, people said that was really us growing up. And Knickerbocker, the new piece, is us dying.
JL: I’m so interested in collage as a form. And what I’ve found when I’ve tried it is I gather all this research and make all this material, and then ask myself “where’s the center of gravity? What’s my organizing principle?” And I always wonder whether I need that center of gravity, if I need that organizing principle. And if it’s not in the text, then do I need it in production? I’m curious about how you guys manage that tension between wanting heterogeneity and centeredness.
LvH: It’s tricky. Because when we’ve pulled all our research, and we have pages and pages of text, you do need an organizing principle, but you can’t use the one that most people would use. We always have this joke about “what would the Broadway version of this play be?” And then we do something else.
ML: There are times when the actors want to know where some piece of text is from. And if it’s important or it will inform the performance then I’ll let them know where it’s from, but for the most part it doesn’t matter. We know why we put it where we put it.
Like there’s a part in Knickerbocker where there are these slides and it’s the word “Mom” and then the word “Pepsi” and then the word “Melba Toast.” Which means nothing to anyone, but it means something very specific to us. If they want to know, it’s because we were talking about comas and missing parts of your life like Rip Van Winkle did, and we were reading these articles about people coming out of these comas and some of the first things they say were someone asked for a Pepsi, someone asked for their Mom-
LvH: Or Melba Toast.
ML: So for us there’s this emotional connection.
JL: How do you bring me the audience or the viewer into that emotional experience?
LvH: The hope is that there’s echoes of things. A friend of mine who’s not a theater person (she’s an economist) recently told me “I like your shows, but I don’t know what the fuck is happening.” And I think that’s ok – you’re not supposed to follow a narrative. Instead it’s that every single moment has a feeling, and the important thing is to feel that feeling in that moment.
ML: But you do follow a narrative. But not necessarily a traditional narrative.
LvH: You follow a trajectory, you follow a person or a story, but it’s not the same as a Story story. You’re not going to follow, like, Romeo & Juliet.
ML: Right. We make a play and it’s so researched, and it’s so dense with meaning, that we create different experiences for different audience members, who can follow an emotional journey.
We talk about the making of our work in very physical terms. Forging new parts. Scavenging material. There’s an aggressiveness to it. Where do the edges get sanded over, and where do we want that sharpness to remain?
JL: It seems like there’s this double thinking that you’re doing. On one hand there’s the meaning of the text, and on the other hand is the more sensual, experiential thing of “how is it as a piece of music, how is it an experience in time?”
LvH: And that’s the thing too when we’re picking the text that’s going to be on the page. It’s not just picking text. It’s also picking how we’re doing it. We’re always asking, “how can we make this mean four things at once?” The words are written down because people have to memorize them, but we’ll always have about four or five ideas happening on top of them as well.
ML: We’re not just collaging texts, we’re collaging performance styles and different experiences of live events. And that is just as important to me as the story as it tells. Because what happens if you’re watching something where everybody’s facing forward and there’s LED and they’re dressed identically, and then it suddenly becomes this nineteenth century melodrama taken completely seriously?
JL: How do you teach your audience how to take in the kind of work you’re making, where we keep being asked to take information in different ways?
LvH: We get really specific about the beginning of the show, because we want them to feel comfortable, we want them to understand that this isn’t a normal play, and they’re going to have to come along.
ML: Starting from the moment you first come into the space.
LvH: So that they understand that they’re in a slightly different environment. And sometimes the pieces can get really emotional or dark, so we want them to know that we’re taking care of them, too, it’s going to be safe for them here. So that’s why there’s things like Pop Tarts, because it’s like, ok, I know Pop Tarts.
That’s why for Knickerbocker there will be cole slaw and apple cider: “These are things I know, these are OK, so far it’s been weird but OK.” We lay that groundwork so the audience can come with us. It’s really hospitality. You’re just like “I know this is weird, we might be a little weird with funny clothes on, but it’s gonna be great – look at my underwear!”
JL: I want to talk a bit about density, since that seems to be something you’re playing with so much. The paradox of density to me is that you add all the colors together and you get white. And similarly, if you add all the emotions together, then if you’re not attentive to it, it can seem like you’re feeling nothing when you’re actually feeling everything.
ML: There’s this moment in the play where Knickerbocker is talking about the destruction of ancient cities, and we replaced one of them with a modern city as a joke. And our dramaturg warned me, saying “you know, people are going to laugh at that.”
LvH: And I was like, perfect.
ML: Exactly. But it’s not in there as a joke – it’s in there as part of that shifting experience, where you’re like “I thought I was listening to this, but wait I’m listening to this, and what happened to that?” And then suddenly you’re somewhere else completely.
JL: So you can’t click in and only take it in in one way.
JL: I feel like there’s so much art in general that’s almost surgically designed to make you one thing. People try to separate out the feelings so we can see them clearly, and there’s something lovely about that. But I also feel like more and more I want to practice the attentive skill of having density and having to pull things out, as opposed to having them given to me.
ML: We know why we’re making the decisions we’re making, but I don’t know how some of these things are going to play to different audiences. And night by night, maybe they’ll think this is funny, maybe it’s ridiculously campy, maybe it’s horrifying, maybe it’s all the things at the same time. But as long as we have done our work going into rehearsal to layer that, then it can be something different to everyone who sees the show.
Even when there’s jokes, they’re not really “jokes.” Even if there’s something you’re supposed to laugh at, it’s also something you’re supposed to be horrified about and then be implicated in. I love comedy, but I love jokes that can do five things at once. If it’s just a joke, then I’m not interested.
LvH: If it’s just a punchline, then that’s boring. But if there’s a wave, and then another wave, and then another wave, then that’s interesting.
ML: And also when we choose material, the stuff that’s incredibly obvious where it’s from, or very recognizably specific, we’re not interested in at all. Unless it’s important for some reason that you recognize where it’s from.
LvH: Sometimes when people hear something and they absolutely know what it is, then it gives them a moment of security and trust. It’s one of the ways we re-earn trust in the middle of a show.
JL: Can you tell me the story of how this show came about? Why Rip Van Winkle? Why the Catskills? Walk me through the development process.
ML: I love Greek mythology. I love mythology in general, and storytelling. I’m very obsessed with ancient Greek theater. I love the structure, I love the poetry, I love the rules and the chorus and the amount of actors. And I love the idea of taking of these stories that people should know and making them about the universe, but also about something very specific that’s happening right now. So I’m always really interested in finding those myths, or finding those collective, shared stories, and playing with them. Which is what Pocahontas was, and Bambi. After we did Pocahontas, we had this idea of doing a triptych of American founding myth plays – Pocahontas for the South, New York with Rip Van Winkle, and then maybe a Salem Witch thing, or something along those lines. So I started looking into Rip Van Winkle. Honestly, without Wikipedia, without YouTube, I don’t think I could make theater.
LvH: Seriously. I don’t know how we would do it.
ML: So we started looking into Rip Van Winkle, and the story is that Washington Irving attributed the story to this fictional character Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker also wrote this history of New York, and then started having this entire life of his own, outside the control of Washington Irving. And we thought that was really interesting. So we started reading it and thinking about it and working on it years and years ago.
LvH: We actually tried to make this piece before we made Pocahontas. Oh my god can you imagine what that would have been like?
ML: We didn’t know how to adapt Irving’s language. Because he will write paragraphs that are entirely one sentence, and if you take out one word then the entire thing falls apart – the joke doesn’t land, the five gagillion things it’s satirizing won’t land. And we ended up putting it away – I don’t think we were good enough to know how to do it.
LvH: We weren’t sure how to conceive of what dramatically it would be about. We just knew it was about New York and the history of New York.
ML: And Washington Irving, and myth-making in America, place-making in America, art-making in America
LvH: But that was all conceptual. There was no practical.
LvH: We could have been like “here are five sentences that this play is about,” but we couldn’t have made a play.
ML: And so then literally the day after Bambi closed we were meeting with Jay Wegman [former Artistic Director of Abrons Arts Center] and we were like, “can we just remount Bambi?” And he was like “No. What’s next?”
LvH: And we were like [squeals in horror]
ML: So we started working on the Knickerbocker stuff again, and over the summer of 2015 we started reading some biographies of Washington Irving, and these books about Knickerbocker and how he became a symbol of New York, and American myth, and Catskill memoirs…
LvH: We read Ecclesiastes.
ML: Prometheus Bound. And I think we got overwhelmed, thinking “maybe we’re still not good enough for this. Maybe we’re not old enough for this.” And we actually changed plays, and in the fall worked on a completely different play as a replacement. We even told Abrons we’re gonna do this other thing instead, Edward Lear meets Norman Lear meets King Lear. Because that’s easier, right?
LvH: It wasn’t easier. We tried.
JL: What is the physical work of making the script?
LvH: There are different phases, and for this one we went back and forth between the phases. There’s a lot of Michael and I at his apartment combing through source texts and pulling things that feel juicy.
ML: Many, many Google Docs. Google Docs that are bits that can happen, character thoughts.
LvH: Any kind of important person in any kind of mythology.
ML: Songs about New York. The document where we have the entire text of the history of New York. The document where we compare different versions of the history of New York. The document where we make choices in the history of New York but half deleted the history of New York. So the Google Drive is huge.
LvH: And we bring these things into a workshop room where we invent games and things to try to divorce some of the text from its original context. Then we discuss with people to see what it brings up for them, what references they have. Then we go back into combing through things again, collaging things, and then bringing them back in and maybe looking at a different bit of the source text, maybe a different way to collage…
ML: We try to work with people who aren’t all performers – we invite designers in, invite dramaturgs in, invite other directors in. And we’re very forward with everyone that they might not be involved with the final production, but we’re grateful to have them help us with the process. And then eventually I sit down and I put in stage directions and character names.
JL: And so what has this script turned into?
ML: It’s a hard thing to elevator pitch for. It’s Washington Irving, so it’s the father of American literature. It’s place-making, myth-making, art-making in America. It is about New York. It is about personal New Yorks. It’s about this character of Diedrich Knickerbocker, who was a pen name of Washington Irving, which is fun on all sorts of meta levels. So it’s also me as Washington Irving as Knickerbocker. Or maybe Irving as Michael as Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker was obsessed with fact, but at the same time loved the fantastical. So it’s the history of New York, but then you go up the river and there’s Rip Van Winkle and there’s Sleepy Hollow.
Then there’s all this stuff about Catskills and the idea of the Borscht Belt – Rip Van Winkle goes up the mountains and there are these Catskill Mountain gnomes who live there. And it started kind of as a joke, like “oh, it’s the Catskill Mountains, wouldn’t it be funny if there were some Jews from the middle of the century.” But then it became again this idea of immigrants coming to America, place-making in America, myth-making in America, memory-making in America. And then having that disappear, just like the Dutch culture that Knickerbocker is really obsessed with, and how that disappears, but is maybe still layered in somewhere, just like the Jews up in the mountains, which, the resorts there are all closed now.
And then in the third part of the play, which is now, our experience of New York, how are we carving out our piece of America? How are we carving out this New York for ourselves? What is our personal New York city history? Can we claim it? If in a hundred years nobody remembers us or the work that we made, does that make you want to make work even more?
LvH: Or less.
ML: So it’s about many things. For a real elevator pitch, we say it’s Rip Van Winkle meets Dirty Dancing meets Existential Horror Show.
JL: How is your work going to be remembered in a hundred years?
LvH: They might not ever talk about it. If they found this text a hundred years from now, they would have no idea what to do with it. I don’t know how anybody could do our work without us. It’s not like you can publish it and sell it to a high school, you know?
ML: I think it’s a lot what Knickerbocker thinks about and fears. In writing the history of New York he keeps taking pauses to imagine himself in three hundred years where people say “that book was great, and it’s all because of you.” And the funny thing about that is that it really did happen for that character of Knickerbocker. It actually did take off. But then in Ecclesiastes there’s this idea of vanity of vanities, nothing matters. Nothing matters, but not in an “oh god nothing matters, go kill yourself” kind of way, but in a “nothing matters, it’s fine, there’s nothing new under the sun, but you have to decide what you’re going to do with that.” Are you going to keep creating? Are you going to keep making?
LvH: Are you going to shout into the void? Fall into the void? Become one with the void? Run with the void?
ML: When you really realize that you won’t be immortal, then what do you do now?
LvH: The shows that we make are about what they’re about, but they’re also about the creative process. So Bambi took the idea of a young Bambi exploring the amazing artistic world of Vienna, trying to make things that are really famous. But then this one is dealing with when you are making work as an adult. We spent so much of our youth trying to get the internship, and then make the play, and then get the grant, and then get the residency, you know all of this shouting into the void. And now that you’ve reached a certain level if your artistic career, it’s less the struggle of youth and more the acknowledgment that this is what I offer.
JL: You’re here. Now what?
ML: Which is also part of the reason for the title – Now is the Time. Now is the Best Time. Now is the Best Time of Your Life. This play is for right now. This message is for right now. In two years it might not work anymore, and that’s fine.
LvH: I’ve been thinking a lot about legacies. I used to think it was about hitting career milestones and then being so famous that you would be unforgettable. But my dad is retiring and he’s setting up his estate, and I’m realizing that legacy is something different. It’s about what you leave for other people to do with what you made, not about being the thing that everyone remembers.
ML: Which is a lot of what this play is. Washington Irving, in order to publish this book, did the first viral marketing campaign. He took all these ads out in the newspaper. He pretended he was a hotel proprietor, and he said “this crazy old man was staying in my hotel, but he’s gone missing, and he walked out on his bill. If anyone knows where he is, I need to be paid.” Then he takes out another ad that says “he left all of these papers here and I gathered them up and showed them to my friend the librarian, and he said it’s really good. So I’m going to publish it.” And the public got really into it. So they published the History of New York, which is “by” this crazy old man who’s gone missing like Rip Van Winkle. So he, after working and working and working, didn’t have any control over how it was consumed by the public. So that’s what a lot of the latter part of our play deals with. Not even Knickerbocker himself, but all of these other people writing as Knickerbocker, these clones, being like “this is the material of yours that I found, and this is how I’m going to present it.” And Knickerbocker basically being like “that’s not right! At all! That’s not what I meant!” But also, at what point is the work no longer yours? At what point do people like Laura and Michael say “that’s public domain, I can do what I need to do with it.”
LvH: The thing I like about the history of New York is that the history of New York is the history of the world. There’s erosion, there’s the universe and how the universe was created, how mountains are created and that becomes the Catskills, and then they erode and they become the Hudson River. So the story of New York is the story of everything. And I love that idea, because New York is the “center of the world.”
So the reason why Knickerbocker struggles is because he’s trying to tell the history of Everything through this lens of New York. But Everything is unknowable. And that’s also the thing you wrestle with as an artist – you’re going to tell this one story, but every story is about everything. So how do you tell a story at all?
ML: There’s a line in the play – “erosion to deposition to uplift to erosion to deposition to uplift to erosion to deposition to uplift.” Where does this type of theater fit into the grander history of theater? I don’t know. Is it erosion? Is it uplift?
LvH: That’s why we called it Now is the Time.
ML: This is what we have right now.
LvH: We’ve done so much work about nostalgia, about reveling in nostalgia and returning to familiar things. But I keep coming back to Ecclesiastes – everything is breath, everything is now, everything is the moment. And I think there’s a maturity to acknowledging that everything is breath and that even your art is just breath.
ML: And nostalgia is bullshit.
LvH: And nostalgia is bullshit. But we still love it.