At this year’s Helen Hayes Awards, Flying V Theatre was awarded the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company. Beginning on June 11th, the troupe will unveil its first production since that award brought the five-year-old company onto the radar of some theatergoers who may not yet have been aware of them.
The new piece is entitled Flying V Fights: Heroes & Monsters, and it continues a series begun last year with Flying V Fights: Love is a Battlefield. The current offering is described as “an original devised show, a theatrical album filled with shorter ‘tracks’ each focusing on Heroes & Monsters through fight choreography, dance, and movement.”
Jason Schlafstein is the Producing Artistic Director of Flying V and is one of the Co-Directors of Heroes & Monsters. He took a break from its rehearsals to answer a few questions about the show and about the company.
Christopher Henley: What was the impetus for creating this piece?
Jason Schlafstein: Last year, Jon [Co-Director Jonathan Ezra Rubin] had come home from a series of fight workshops and was itching to do more with all the skills and techniques he was learning and practicing across the country. As Managing Director, he was looking for more of a creative outlet in the company as well. We had done Best of Craigslist the year before and were really interested in exploring more devised work as a company.
I’m a huge fan of creating theatrical mix tapes, or set-lists, where a series of shorter pieces are arranged together to create a thematic or emotional, but non-linear, arc. So we decided to do Flying V Fights: Love is a Battlefield, which was a real mix of Jon’s love of stage violence and my interest in these short, high metaphor, burst movement pieces. We chose Love is a Battlefield as our first theme to explore, but always had Heroes & Monsters lined up as the next if we pursued it. I love the metaphors of Heroes & Monsters and we looked at this year as an opportunity to take what we had started last year and push it to another level of physicality and theatricality. Plus, our first chance to do full-on superheroes outside of a reading!
CH: How important is it to have seen Love Is a Battlefield to understand or appreciate Heroes & Monsters?
JS: This is completely original. It builds on the structure we created last year, both in how we devised it and how the finished product will look. But it is entirely its own beast in terms of content. The hope is that this show takes the vocabulary we were experimenting with last year to another level.
CH: The web blurb promises “Sonic Power.” Will there be loud music? Jon Jon Johnson, one of the cast, will play the violin, I learned from your material. Is other music created live by actors?
JS: “Sonic Power” is a nod to our love of music and how integral the songs we use are to structuring and creating the pieces. Jon Jon does play the violin, and his violin has a TON of power in that scene, though we’ve kept that moment special by making it the only sustained live music in the show. The rest is pre-recorded, but has such emotional resonance, and there were a number of pieces created specifically for the music – “Adventures in Solitude,” our riff on an older Superman dealing with loss, springs directly from the song of the same name from The New Pornographers. “Dinner with Albee” was always attached to “Gods and Monsters” by Lana Del Ray. And “Hurt” takes its name from the NiN [Nine Inch Nails] song, but the actual music we’re using totally transformed the piece. That happened last year as well with another piece called “Hurt.” That song is really evocative for a starting point, but it’s also so ubiquitous that we then take the inspiration and use new music to grow it.
First look at Flying V’s heroes and monsters
CH: What does Flying V add to the broader DC theatre scene?
JS: Flying V is your indie theatre, focusing on pop culture-infused work. We’re all about looking at the beauty of being human through the metaphors of our modern mythologies that have been created through comics, film, TV, etc. We do primarily (though not exclusively) original work, and our identity is rooted in our aesthetic, not our form, so we do musicals, movement pieces, scripted shows, etc. Heroes & Monsters is quintessentially Flying V: it’s original material that takes a look at the ideas of perception and transformation, and filters different takes on those themes through accessible pop culture metaphors. I think we are carving out our own place in DC theatre by creating fans who may have no background in theatre as an art form, but are into our influences: comics and wrestling and indie rock, etc. But it’s never simply novelty: it’s the intersection of the high concept with the intimate moment, the tension of something personally moving against the backdrop of vampires and aliens. Our whole mission is to make people want to live life more.
CH: The actors on your website seem to acknowledge the possibility of an overlap between the dichotomy “hero vs monster.”
JS: We chose Heroes and Monsters instead of Heroes and Villains very consciously. The entire cast, from the beginning, was incredibly interested in the idea of “two sides of the same coin.” I think I was the outlier, because I like my heroes bright and shiny and full of aspirational hope. But the group as a whole was really interested in what makes a hero versus a monster, and that’s how the show became an exploration of perception. The human soul, represented in our show by the human body, is a blank canvas. And our choices, and the perception of those choices, transform us into heroes and monsters.
CH: There’s an old saw that villains are more fun to play than heroes. Are you and your cast finding yourselves more engaged when animating the monsters?
JS: I’ve found that when working on the opening, which is filled with a lot of symbolic gesture, creating iconic monster moments was easier than creating iconic hero moments, because the physicality of monsters is so identifiable. Speaking only for myself, in the other pieces, I’ve seen and felt equal engagement. We have created all these pieces as an ensemble, so I think everyone has a lot of investment across the spectrum, and we have been striving for a real balance between hero – and monster -based stories.
CH: Something else promised in the blurb is staged violence; ”delicious violence,” Megan Reichelt (Dramaturg and cast member) calls it. Can you describe a bit what the audience will experience on that score? Will it be like watching a Marvel movie? Killer Joe? A Tarantino film? A kung fu flick? A mix of different things? Will the violence be funny, frightening, cathartic, impressive, all of these?
JS: Every piece has violence. That is a core component of the work. And since there is almost no text, that means the violence is the text in many ways, which means its purpose and function has to be as varied piece to piece as words can be. So we have everything from all-out brawls and melees to the suggestion of violence. We’re using clown, puppetry, slapstick, dance, and many other mediums to keep the night and the violence varied and interesting, as well as the tone. It would not be a Flying V Fights show if the violence had one style. We really like variety.
CH: How was your cast assembled: by audition or by invitation or some of each?
JS: The cast auditioned. Everyone was asked to tell a two-minute story about heroes or monsters in any medium they liked: text, dance, etc.; and to show off a special skill, That could be in their story, or separate. We also had a group fight call. For this show, we were looking for people who could move and fight, but also tell a story through their bodies, and bring something unique to the table. For example, Jon Jon and his violin directly allowed us to create “The Devil at the Bar,” which we had in mind for over a year. In general, a Flying V actor is incredibly versatile and vulnerable, who can play six completely different characters in one play, two of which are inanimate objects or animals, and all are distinct in physicality, movement, and voice, but all totally genuine and filled with heart. It is a very specific energy that makes a great Flying V actor, and the needs of a musical are different than a fight show than a dance show. But versatility, honesty, and energy are always key.
CH: How long was the rehearsal period compared to past Flying V shows?
JS: We added an extra week onto this one to have more time to devise as a group before we had to start actually creating the specific pieces. In a perfect world, next time that devising week happens a month before, so the design team has more time to execute.
CH: I’m impressed by the pictures of your rehearsals. Where did you find that spacious rehearsal room?
JS: We are rehearsing at the AT-MTC [Adventure Theatre MTC] studio space in Wintergreen, and it is wonderful. We have a phenomenal relationship with Adventure. I work there, as does Jon, and many of our designers, and we are so thrilled to be there. They have four separate dance studios/rehearsal spaces of varying sizes which is ideal for a piece like this. Rehearsing there has been invaluable. [Adventure’s Producing Artistic Director] Michael Bobbitt is on our Advisory Board, and is one of my key mentors as an AD, and I can’t thank him enough.
CH: What, during the process of creating Heroes and Monsters, have you learned: about devised theatre pieces, about the company, about yourself as an artist?
JS: How valuable delegation is. We have an incredible team on this show, and our cast are all specialists. It took me a couple weeks to hand over certain pieces in full and take the role of editor as opposed to lead creator. But with fourteen pieces, it is essential, and sometimes it’s just what I’m better at, too. So Ryan [Tumulty] is choreographing “Dinner with Albee,” which is a dance piece. We go over story points and notes, but he leads the room then. I had Tori [Bertocci] do a dream ballet. Maddie [Madeline Whiting] led how to use the puppets. Realizing that it is responsible, and not laziness, for me to hand-off elements to specialists was a huge relief and benefit.
CH: Can you talk about The Writer’s Center as a venue; its challenges, its advantages? Do you see yourself still there in five years?
JS: Being at The Writer’s Center for the last five years has allowed us the advantage of a home, which is a luxury few theatre companies have starting off. So we’re deeply appreciative of having the opportunity to grow a fan base at a consistent venue. The Writer’s Center is looking to undergo significant renovations in the next few years, and we are growing as well. If those two changes mesh well together, we could make our home there for awhile. As for now, while we have no immediate need to leave, we are always looking for the best venues to create specific projects.
CH: Has the Aniello Award had a discernible impact on the company?
JS: I think it has provided a stronger sense of legitimacy for us within the theatre community. I feel like more actors now know Flying V than don’t, and may have a stronger desire to work with us now. It is great for grants. But I really think it is on us to use the award to benefit us. I have been a fan of pro wrestling long enough to know that you make the belt, the belt doesn’t make you. We need to hold this honor high and make it mean something to people who don’t otherwise know what it is, and it’s on us to creatively and successfully leverage it. We are reaching out to almost all of the past recipients to get their thoughts, and have been brainstorming with advisors on how best to use the recognition. I see it as a great entry point for Flying V: a new #1 issue, as it were. If you haven’t tried us out yet, now is a great time to get in on the ground floor.
CH: What are the biggest challenges for an emerging company like Flying V?
JS: Capacity is the biggest challenge. You need to prove yourself before anyone wants to fund you, which is totally fair, but it means you need to create great work. That is not only having great ideas, but also executing at a high level, which means bringing in great talent, and consistently. You want to offer that talent compensation. You also need to bring people in to see this great work to build buzz, and you have to be dynamic and innovative to do so. That is a whole different set of time and resources. And then you need to do this consistently, constantly punching at a higher weight class. And you do all this before you have the finances to make a living at it, because that is how you prove you can do it and are worthy of support.
So that is the greatest challenge: to create something incredible out of nothing; to create demand for your art by making your art essential to a group of people. Building fans. For future productions, we have a fifty-page document filled with ideas for shows, so we have no shortage of great stuff coming up. Right now we are at a three-show season, with supplementary readings and projects. I look forward to the day when we’re at capacity to do four or five a year. I have a lot I want to do.