Little Lord’s Recipe of Peanut Butter, Kool Aid, and Zoodles

Photography by Maria Baranova

At the start of Little Lord’s Skinnamarink (entitled The Peanut Butter Show during the company’s stint at Target Margin Theater in October), a high, mounted analog wall clock abruptly plummeted to the floor. I’ll never know for certain whether this haunting opening moment was intentional, and frankly, I don’t ever plan to find out. All I know is that I felt immediately capsized. Throughout my first encounter with Little Lord’s peculiar and demanding work, I continued to be challenged, delighted, alienated, and, ultimately, scared. Below, I speak to Little Lord’s Artistic Director, Michael Levinton, about his company and the inspiration for Skinnamarink, which runs March 8-23 at Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop.

Sam: What is your internal rubric for making work with Little Lord?

Michael: It needs to start with source material I’m intrigued by. If I’m not excited about the material, and don’t feel like I can go further and gather and pull related content, it means nothing.

Our work is part-adaptation, part-new writing, part-collage. I’m very interested in the collage part—whether we can find it first, rather than write it. There are so many good things out there already.

How can we take something we feel like we know and subvert it slightly, or even in big ways, so that the audience sees the source material through different lenses? Little Lord is after this idea that there can be a different experience for everyone, and so everyone has access to the work. There have to be many ways in. I once described Little Lord shows like a rollercoaster. At the end we want you to realize how far you’ve been, how far you’ve traveled, even if you were just sitting still in your seat. Hopefully you’ve questioned your assumptions about things you thought you knew. Layering source material helps us do that.

Photography by Maria Baranova

At the showing at Target Margin, it seemed as though the notion of instructions, of being instructed, was at the core of this work. What is your greatest hope for how the audience feels positioned in Skinnamarink? How do you hope the audience feels prompted by your work?

Skinnamarink comes from the texts of these lesson books, “McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers,” which were used from the 1830’s until today. These books were for the teacher as much as they were for the student. They were used in homeschooling, as well as in one-room schoolhouses.

I went to a very weird private school in Baltimore, where I’m from. We used homeschool curriculums and taught ourselves there. There was one teacher for fifth grade through eighth grade who would check in on you, but for the most part you were on your own to teach yourself. Our manuals with spiral binding would give the daily instructions. Each day was categorized and laid out.

To me, it’s extremely intriguing that in the schoolhouse, the teacher isn’t necessarily the authority. The authority is the instructional mystery book, and no one knows when it was written, and yet we the students are following this book slavishly. We are following the book slavishly, and yet, we are the ones who are responsible for it at the same time.

We’re asking so many questions in the piece. Who is authority? Is it the voice of the teacher? Is it the voice on the intercom? Was it recorded years ago? Was it found? How do we as a community choose which voices to listen to, to receive instruction fun? And how is that voice of authority disassociated from reality? Is the voice Mom? Is it God? When do you follow it? When do you assume the authority in the room versus letting your peers have it?

The books, though, are so interesting. It’s like, oh, you just turned this story about a peach into a story about modesty instead. What’s so beautiful about the books is the simplicity. And what’s so sinister is also the simplicity. The simplest choices have served us best for this piece.

Can you talk a bit about Skinnamarink as an event, and how it’s changed over the course of its life?

When we did our shows at Target Margin, the space felt so large, almost like a multipurpose-room-gym-cafeteria, which allowed this piece to have a lot of air and space inside. Target Margin’s industrial lights feel grotesque, and the space itself is beautiful in its grotesqueness.

Now, we’re putting the piece into a space that feels like a black box and has very low ceilings. And we can’t just replicate the piece there; it wouldn’t work. We’ve done a straight remount of our own work in a new space before, and it very much did not work. I’m a super space responsive person, and I started reconsidering Skinnamarink’s ground plan. We’re taking advantage of Next Door’s small size, and playing with claustrophobia.

Photography by Maria Baranova

Can you talk about the importance of bodily fluids in your work?

We were very inspired by kids being gross, by the visceral-ness of having peanut butter on your face, as well as the sweatiness and sticky feelings of childhood. It’s the age at which you’re the most vulnerable. It’s when you have blind faith in authority.

Of course, with the fluids, there are also the connotations of Kool Aid and Jonestown and whatnot. I went to the “Psychiatry: an Industry of Death” Museum in Los Angeles. It’s a full museum about psychiatry and how medicine is terrible. It was a frightening experience. There were a lot of interesting things there, but I was most interested in this diorama setup about school shootings and overmedicated students. It was a classroom setup with the tennis balls on the chairs. And there was also this little tray of medicine shots. All the kids were lined up to take their Ritalin!

When we started talking about cults in relation to the work, the experience of a cult felt very far from everyone. But, throughout the process, some company members are having realizations about how close each of us is or was to joining a cult at different points in our lives.

One actor has this great story about Glee Club in school, and how a parent of a Glee Club kid would volunteer to host these 48-hour rehearsals with sleeping and eating. But, in the middle of the night, the Glee Club teacher would randomly wake the kids up to sing. She said her memory of Glee Club with friends suddenly felt like she had fallen prey to some super crazy people.

It’s so easy to believe in these unbelievable things when we’re in a group context.

Talk to me about Little Lord as a family. What do you all keep in your refrigerator besides peanut butter sandwiches?

It’s me. It’s Laura, who has co-founded, and has stepped out and is coming back in. It’s Morgan, who joined a few years ago. And then there’s a group of core collaborators and the cousins and the extended family that you can call on when you need them.

I always feel like the weird-elementary-school-dad-slash-creepy-uncle in the family. I always come in with these children’s books or weird things I found online. The company always trusts me, or at least trusts the project.

Zoodles are in the Little Lord refrigerator. That’s the dish we made up in Hudson when we were at Drop Forge and Tool in 2017 working on some stuff. In making the dish, someone gets to spiralize, and someone gets to squeeze out the water. It feels like Little Lord. It’s expected but there’s a little twist. It’s not exactly what you wanted, but it’s delicious. And maybe it’s even better than pasta.

Photography by Maria Baranova

What’s your relationship to queerness in your work?

My work is inherently Jewish and queer because that’s who I am and that’s the energy I put out into the world. I’m always subverting and challenging people. It’s actually not something I think about much. It’s just where I go because it’s what I’m interested in.

Skinnamarink is the most gendered piece we’ve ever done. Something in these children’s books made very clear the story of boys and the story of girls. To have girls in skirts and boys in pants feels very irregular for us. I’m fond of women playing men. It felt weird to pay homage to how gendered the source material is this time around.

In what ways is Little Lord counteracting traditional playmaking and play viewing?

I gather people in the room because I trust them, because they’re excited about process. The work is devised, and it’s also not devised. Sometimes we just read a preexisting text and discuss. Sometimes I set up elaborate multi-part games to put the text and the company through different acts of translation. Sometimes we do our huge games and then only glean two lines of text. But often those two lines are super great and we wouldn’t have gotten there without the games.

In terms of play viewing, we’re making performance for people who don’t normally go to performance. Food has always been very important to us. We’ve served sandwiches, pickles, and coleslaw. There was a pop-up Viennese coffee shop in BAMBIF*CKER (2015).

If there is one thing you could magically change about the current theatergoing landscape overnight, what would you change?

I think about producing models the most. I take issue with the model we currently have, which is mounting something for five shows or three weeks, and then taking it down and being lost at sea again. It’s not just about needing space and time as artists. We need different kinds of producing models, and we need different kinds of support.

Little Lord is now twelve years old, which is a lifetime for a theater company. The idea that we should mount a show, and then start from zero again, is exhausting. We have to restart after every show by trying to find support, and press, and energy, and attention, and grants. It’s so easy to feel like nothing’s next.

We’d want a big sweeping change with more funding and more sympathetic people in charge of money. We’re so set in an institutional model of producing. But in Argentina, for example, a place that’s very into serialized producing approaches, they’ll do a show one night a week, but run it for a full year. There are other good models out there. Unfortunately, in New York City, the vibe is “put it up for four weeks and start again.”

I don’t know what the answer to this is. It would require symposiums to solve. It would require a lot of thought and a lot of buy-in. But the truth is that there are a lot of people who are exhausted. I am exhausted. And to think about mounting a new show, and do it all over? Do it again?

What I would change is everything!

I know what Michael means because I’ve felt similarly about how New York places disproportionately rigorous demands on self-producing artists, especially from a financial standpoint. Though, I’ve never thought to diagnose prevalent New York City producing models as a primary ill (above, say, lack of resources or space).

At the end of our long phone call, I mention that I’m coming down from a hopeless feeling. Art making feels like mourning our own big and little deaths over and over again. The second you have this illusion of building momentum you’re out in the wilderness to fend for yourself the next day.

Luckily, it’s in that state of being lost, of desperately fending, that the creativity starts to steer more vividly toward something that might build some kind of a home, even if it’s temporary.              

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