Oh My God That’s Kevin Kelleher – Or, Does Specialness Only Exist In Your Mind? A Discussion with Tiny Little Band.
Were you a cool kid in high school? Or, how about, are you cooler now than you were in high school? Or, even, has anything changed since high school, really? And what was “cool,” anyway, other than a rung on the social hierarchy? The world felt smaller in high school. It was easier to tell where you stood – making sense of biofeedback was more obvious when you were the one getting invited to all the parties versus pulling yourself off the gym steps after getting surreptitiously shoved from behind. You were either cool – one of the “in” kids, or you weren’t. You were, instead, somewhere outside the circle of social influence. How you felt about being on the outside of that circle potentially has a lot to say about how you view yourself even now. Either you accepted your outsider status, or you didn’t accept it and fought actively against that hierarchy, or you were in a constant state of passing – trying to fit into a structure that didn’t seem to have the right place for someone like you – or, (a most interesting option) you wandered through high school in a state of relative social obliviousness, generally unconcerned with your placement. And if you were one of the cool kids, are you still cool? How does one define and refine that spotlight, that extra boost of specialness, especially if, according to Tiny Little Band’s upcoming show, Your Hair Looked Great at Abrons Arts Center, specialness doesn’t even exist?
Tiny Little Band, previously profiled by Culturebot here about their work Ghost Stories, is a theater company led by writer Jerry Lieblich (referred to at one point during our interview as “Zendog Millionaire,” which is pretty much perfect except I don’t think he’s a millionaire) and director Stefanie Abel Horowitz, who admits to being a cool kid in high school, or at least was aware of that perception, although she never felt like it was accurate.
We decided to meet down by the water in industrial Brooklyn in the midst of an unseasonably warm winter afternoon to watch the sun set and discuss specialness, perception, company making, and their upcoming premiere. Here’s a little taste.
Stef – Check the sunset
Jer – Incredible
Stef – Look, the north star!!
Jer – It’s an airplane
Stef – It’s a star!
Jer – It’s flying towards us
Me – It could be a meteor
It wasn’t a meteor and it wasn’t a star and it wasn’t an airplane. It was a helicopter. Which is to say, there’s a possibility that none of us are correct in our general perceptions, both regarding what’s hurtling towards us out of the dusk beyond, and how we are viewing ourselves and others. If we view specialness, success, and failure as concepts, or cultural tokens, it’s hard to shake the belief that these concepts objectively exist. That one person is actually more special than another person. Your Hair Looked Great seeks to act as a curative that will rejigger the way you look at things – yourself, other humans, belief structures – and give you an opportunity to see those things with greater clarity, even if only for a couple of minutes.
This is all I can reveal about the play, mostly because I refused to find out what it was about.
Stef – We’ll never tell you what the show’s about
Me – I don’t want to know anymore
Waves crash against the rocks near the bench we are sitting on. Relistening to the audio of the interview as I write up the more interesting bits is oddly calming. While by the water, we discuss what it’s like to work on overlapping projects (driven by the need to have a new piece to write a grant for, and also that it actually helps to be working on multiple projects with the same or a similar group of people, because it forces you to make a project-specific choice as opposed to the only choice you could think of at the time), and how working as a company informs our process, especially when we write in such a way that is for company work versus a stand-alone play. The quality of the writing tends to be different.
Stef – As a writer, you’re all excited about all the complications you’ve put in. But as a director, my one job is to make it make sense. That becomes a big point of crunchiness. Yeah, but I have to put it onstage.
Jer – I write a text that’s in service of the thought. Stef then stages something that’s in service of the text with respect to the thought.
So if you’re Tiny Little Band, you start with crunchiness, in conversation. First it’s just Jerry and Stefanie. They ask each other, “How do you feel about this? Does this feel like what we want to talk about?” Then the actors enter in. They join the conversation. They have breakfast together. The conversation starts around an idea that will, at least at the beginning, serve as a midpoint – a thought with enough heft that you can place in the center of the room in the hopes that – eventually – everyone who encounters it will have the opportunity to crash up against it and bounce off. What’s that like, to bounce off? What’s the feeling of going through a thought process?
Me – Tell me the kernel and nothing else
Jer – I remember talking about it when we were in kayaks
Stef – I was reading – I had read a book – now you’re going to know what it’s about!
Me – The kernel of the idea can not be what the show is about
Stef – I had read this book called Hatching Twitter. Which is something I never do – read. I just got in the mood and I read this book. And then I read the Steve Jobs biography. And I was talking to Jerry about how much I liked it, and he said, I think this needs to be our next show.
Jer – That got me interested in myth, and hero myth and Joseph Campbell. How we think about great people.
Rain begins to fall – weird big rain drops, despite the fact that the sun is still visibly setting behind the Manhattan skyline, and we retreat to what might be the most massive sports bar in Brooklyn to continue the conversation and get drunk.
Jer – These are amazing nachos
Me – I wonder if there’s anything else this article can do?
We discuss weirdness as an genre, especially in company settings. Which is to say, either you’re a bunch of actors who collected together in a company to do plays so as to avoid relying on the audition circuit, or you’re a group of multidisciplinary artists who are creating original work, and how the word “weird” is often applied to companies who make this work, even if it’s not necessarily the right word. Again, perception collides with objective reality. Is weird the new special? Does weird exist?
Stef – We’re not that weird
Me – You’re not afraid to be linear if you have to be
Stef – We are the least weird of the weird, although I still think we’re categorized as experimental theater
A second round of drinks follows, the now-empty plate of nachos is cleared away. The room is growing noisy, but we hardly notice. We are engaged in a thought process, the three of us. Stefanie and Jerry, in the midst of a mysterious project that I now know addresses (among other things) heroes, myths, and specialness, are experiencing, as a result of the process, a transformation in their thinking regarding such things. They crash up against me, like waves, like:
Stef – We’re getting close but we’re still not really talking about the play – but don’t you want to be Steve Jobs?
Jer – Yes you can! Yes you can!
Me – I don’t have the technical ability
Jer – Not with that attitude you can’t.
Stef – (oh my god this is a line from the play) People won’t remember your failures, they’ll remember your successes
Me – Do you think that’s true?
Stef – But this is what the play wants to do. If we can’t convince you right now that specialness doesn’t exist then the play is going to fail.
But the play can’t fail, because it exists within a theatrical environment which seeks to actively redefine failure, empathy, and specialness. Stefanie & Jerry reject that there is an intangible quality to specialness. There is no sparkle dust. You are not missing any part of what it takes. Star Wars, wherein you either have the force or you don’t, is wrong. So is Harry Potter. Our entire cultural narrative, built up on hero worship and transactional social influence, is constructed and fed and held up by us. The radical act? Instead of trying to elevate how others perceive us (which is, in and of itself, an ‘uncool’ act), lift each other up instead. How you share your energy has more to do with how people treat you than any hierarchical system. If specialness does exist, it’s borne out of the commitment to being one’s own spirit animal – how thrilling it is for us to see someone behaving as if they don’t care what other people think (in a way that doesn’t feel pretentious). We are all Steve Jobs. None of us is Steve Jobs. There is no Steve Jobs.
Kevin Kelleher, by the way, is one of the cool kids whose name Jerry still remembers from high school. I recall, from middle school, Ben Horken. Stefanie is currently dating one of the cool kids from high school. We remember their names. What does that mean?
Me – So, is your entire audience special or is your entire audience not special?
Jer – Yes.
Your Hair Looked Great opens on February 8th and runs through February 25th at Abrons Arts Center.