A NICE AND FRESH sendoff: John Rosenberg’s last show in Philadelphia
February 28, 2014 – Christopher Munden
Phindie has been a long-term champion of playwrightJohn Rosenberg and his Hella Fresh Theater. There are pretty much no companies in Philadelphia focused on full seasons of original work, certainly none of the caliber reached in Rosenberg’s best plays, 2013′sHannah and 2012′s Alp d’Huez. After getting steady critical acclaim for several years, Hella Fresh was seeing growing audiences trek out to its Kensington theater space.
The company’s Spring 2014 production, Cana of Galilee, was already cast and scheduled when Rosenberg and his wife decided to pick up and return to California, where he grew up and they met. That show was cancelled, but Rosenberg is presenting a truncated version of the piece this weekend as part of SmokeyScout Productions’ NICE AND FRESH series, monthly performance arts events in Mount Airy.
The show also includes a play by Josh McIlvain of SmokeyScout, an aerial circus performance by former Cirque de Soleil performer Kendra Greaves with Cole Della, and “an outlandish modern-dance-theater-meets-hip-hop-hybrid” by Megan Mazarick and Les Rivera. If previous NICE AND FRESH events are any indication, seeing these eclectic entertainments in the same space will give added meaning and enjoyment to the strong individual pieces. Plus, there’s free beer.
As this marks Rosenberg’s final Philadelphia production, Phindie asked him to share some thoughts on his time in Philadelphia and his move to Los Angeles:
“A few weeks ago i went to a thing and ran into a dude I know who does [theater] stuff but differently than me. He heard that we were moving to Los Angeles and I said yeah, and he said, why would you move there, that place is soulless. I said I know, I am from there. we laughed and said a few other things and then we took our seats for the thing, which was a new play reading by a young dude who is nice and talented.
And the thing was a new edgy comedy, the thing was a staged reading and the audience really enjoyed the thing. It was funny, well thought out and clean. At the end, one of actors stood up and pointed at the author and said, that is one twisted dude.
And sitting there or maybe it was walking afterwards, I guess I understood what soulless meant to me. I guess soulless struck me as meaning safe. It doesn’t mean it isn’t good or funny or sad or clean or well-put together, it is just safe.
And this is not a judgement on anyone else’s shit. Everyone has a way of doing a thing. I realized watching the reading that I would never get my shit put on by someone else.
And i guess what made me feel okay for a little bit is to know a few things. It is just as easy to do souless shit in Los Angeles as it is to do it in Philadelphia. I am glad I got the chance to put on plays on my own terms and not wait in line and hope to one day get a reading for a thing at a theater in center city and hope to get put-on and politic and whatever.
I have no idea what will happen in Los Angeles, For the most part I am convinced it will all turn out terribly. It feels good what we did out in Philly and I guess I am scared of just being another person waiting in line to get put-on or stuck in the flurry of illusions going no where fast.
I guess the point being i could fail on my terms anywhere, why not where the weather is nice?”
Just so, it’s cold as polar bear balls here, but Philadelphia is losing a real talent. We’ll miss you John. Don’t miss his final hurrah. [Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, 5900A Greene Street] February 28-March 1, 2014, smokeyscout.com.
You’re Probably Missing Out
The defining moment of my travels to and from Kensington’s remote theater district thus far has been right outside of the Berks station on the Market-Frankford line. I had just left Walking Fish Theater’s American Fairy Tales. I hustled down the five blocks which separated stage and station, down dark and deserted streets, past empty lots and triple-locked houses. At the foot of the stairs to the station, I heard the train approaching, and dashed up a few stairs.
A man I hadn’t noticed, a few steps above me, spun around. His eyes were wide and his body squared, and I realized: “He thinks I’m going to jump him.” I stopped, nodded, and then brushed past while he ranted that, in this particular Kensington neighborhood, it isn’t a good idea to run at anybody.
I have rarely felt so much like a tourist in my own city.
The empty streets; the long, vacant lots; the securely locked houses and suspicious glances don’t scream “theater district,” not in the classic sense.
The performance spaces which have made Kensington their home (Walking Fish Theatre, Hella Fresh, Mascher Space, and fidgetspace) are remote, both financially and physically, from the city, yet still close enough to converse artistically with downtown venues and even to attract funding. But slouched in Walking Fish’s comfy seats watching bandits burst out of a crate to terrorize a drag queen, or crammed into a hallway in Mascher holding a bag of melting peas, I feel like an insider. I feel like I know something no one else does.
People from Center City, South Philly, and West Philly don’t venture out here.
So, theater companies: why Kensington?
John Rosenberg was basically given the building at 2825 Ormes Street by his real estate agent father-in-law. In 2010, the two of them put their backs and their funds into what is now the Papermill, home to Hella Fresh Theater, where Rosenberg’s gritty invention has free reign.
Rosenberg has produced seven plays since he opened his doors two years ago, addressing subject matter like drug-addled Berkeley students, Lance Armstrong, and revolution in Saigon. His style is brutal hilarity, his characters have sunk themselves into hideous situations — watch them try to get out. Isn’t that the making of great theater?
“I think it can be a challenge getting an audience sometimes,” says Rosenberg, addressing the topic of his theater’s location. “One critic,” he tells me, “was stopped [after a show] by the police because they thought she was a prostitute.”
“But how often do you get a chance to own a theater?” he asks me. Probably not often, I reply. Renting a place like Plays and Players for a short run can amount to over a thousand dollars, money John’s one-man operation couldn’t comfortably afford. And anyway, at the Papermill, he runs the show. He can chain-smoke cigarettes.
When Rosenberg et al were building the Papermill, Mascher Space, a dancers’ co-operative five blocks away at 155 Cecil B Moore, had been hosting new dance works for five years.
Member Annie Wilson says she isn’t sure how Mascher ended up in Kensington (all of the founding members have since moved on, some for lively careers in LA and NYC, others to West Philly).
She is sure that the low cost of the space creates freedom for members. “The thing that’s really amazing is that you’re paying $100 to $150 a month, whether or not you’re using the space,” she says. Unlike a rehearsal space you rent hourly, which you can only afford for the weeks leading up to a performance, Mascher is there for members every day. “That has been really critical to my growth as an artist.” For members, Mascher’s spacious, warm premises have become a home and an inspiration; Christina Gesualdi’s production of our nebulous motor was inspired by, and then performed in, the narrow hallway between the studio and the roof access.
The result is a culture radical experimentation, allowing for performances like Marcel Williams Foster’s recent gorilla-burlesque, #JaneGoodallDrama.
Right next door to Mascher is fidgetspace, a performance venue privately curated by Megan Bridge and Peter Price. They have hosted over 183 events since it opened in 2009, focusing mainly on local artists but ranging in theme from dance parties by King Britt to ThingNY’s This Takes Place Close By, an experimental opera about natural disasters, complete with umbrellas. They also give lectures, hold discourses and reading groups, and host their original work and well-known choreographers like Susan Rethorst.
Fidget was an accident, says Bridge. She and Price moved to Kensington out of Old City — again, for the price, and for the amount of space it provided — and once people found out that they had a dance floor and room for 45 seats, they couldn’t help renting it out.
Walking Fish co-founder Michelle Pauls tells a similar story, except that she and her husband Stan Heleva moved from Northern Liberties.
“I remember when we moved here [to Frankford Ave] there wasn’t even a coffee shop,” says Pauls. “People said we were crazy.” Since then, Frankford’s gallery scene has boomed and Walking Fish has become a neighborhood staple. Their broad range of programming, from children’s theater (often featuring amateur neighborhood performers) to titles like Blood Kegger on Monster Island and George F Walker’s Suburban Motel series, with Wednesdays pay-what-you-can night, have proven an accessible model, rarely failing to fill in their cozy proscenium space.
Across the board, when I’ve asked if these artists consider leaving Kensington, they’ve said no. Annie Wilson points out that just four years ago it wasn’t rare to see people nodding off in the streets, and even Girard was a sleepy avenue.
“It has changed so much, and that’s just in four years,” she says. “In five years, it won’t seem so remote.”
HANNAH (Hella Fresh): The glories of the sober mind
October 20, 2013 – Julius Ferraro for Phindie.com
In response to a story I wrote about LSD, a college creative writing professor told me that it’s never a good idea to give characters drugs, because if they’re high, they’re not acting like themselves. However terrible my story might have been, I knew instinctively that my professor’s claim was bullshit, but I was never able to prove it. John Rosenberg’s HANNAH, the latest offering of Kensington’s Hella Fresh Theater, offers a bold challenge to this statement, following innocent ex-sorority sister Christine (Francesco Piccioni) as she clambers down into her new roommate Hannah’s (Laura Sukonick) world of drugs, raves, and warehouse parties.
It is initially off-putting just how much of the play’s dialogue comes from drug-altered states of mind. Rosenberg, who also directed HANNAH, has such a lucid grasp of the babble of the narcotics-addled mind that sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the characters are high or not. As they fight, debate, and party, we begin to question the meaning of a sober state of mind. Rosenberg exposes both the silly-scary alienness of the drugged parlance and the meaning behind the meaninglessness. Thus, a line like “What is fuck yes? Alex” can be terrifying, funny, and a major plot point.
Rosenberg is exploring the danger and isolation of the drug-addled state. His characters are constantly transported from high to emotional high through the valleys of depression and horror. Unpredictable as they are, the conflicts are irrepressible and, in the eyes of the audience, unavoidable and unsolvable; particularly since they are potentially groundless, made up, and senseless. Yet HANNAH is much more than a warning siren against drug abuse; it questions the objectivity of perspective and the security and dependability of the sober mind, too.
HANNAH is funny until it isn’t, and Hannah’s life is hard to watch; she can be charming, frightening, and furiously self-destructive. Rosenberg and his impressive cast (Ben Grinberg rounds out the ensemble) depict the characters and their environment with precision (just look at the idiosyncratic set, with thrift store furniture covered in glitter paint, and the pseudo-revolutionary books and empty water bottles scattered across the various tables). But Hannah remains inexplicable; we see her actions, can judge them if we want, but in the end we have to decide for ourselves what she’s worth, what she really wants, and how much of her insecurities and motivations are or aren’t the same as our own.October 12-November 3, 2013, thepapermilltheater.com. Tickets here.
- Another take: check out Phindie writer Kathryn Osenlund’s review of HANNAH for Curtain Up.
- Christopher Munden gives a critical overview of John Rosenberg’s work
- Interview with John Rosenberg, and another one.
- More on John Rosenberg and Hella Fresh Theatre
- Don’t like leaving Broad Street to see shows? Hella Fresh once again offers their much-lauded chauffeur service, transporting audience members between Kensington and Center City. Performances November 2 and 3 will take place at 1714 Sansom.
A CurtainUp Review
A Berkeley student and raver, Hannah has recently sustained injuries from a boyfriend who ended up killing himself. Christina, her new roommate has arrived. Little is known about her except that at one point she was in a sorority. Both are blitzed from drinking whiskey before they started in on the drugs. Self-dramatizing Hannah repeatedly asks Christina to promise that she won’t kill her. A sweet Christina promises she won’t.
Anders, a former bf of Hannah’s, shows up fresh from a three-month trip to Thailand, where his head still seems to be. He’ll crash in the apartment with them. He claims he’s cleaned up his act, and it looks like he may prove to be a stabilizing influence. But wait, he’s managed to smuggle in ecstasy in powder form. Soon, along with the women, he’s smoking or snorting anything that’s lying around.
The three characters spend their time high on acid and ecstasy at Goa Dance Trance raves and parties, then return to the apartment where they continue with marijuana, crystal, and whatever else is available. The women more or less get around to their schoolwork for Berkeley. Euphoria and intimate sharing get tangled up with diatribes and sudden moments of anger, and then it’s all love again. A utility knife, Hannah’s protection against intruders, remains onstage throughout— like Chekhov’s gun.
I’ve seen only two of John Rosenberg’s works: The Gambling Room and Protection. The promise inherent in these two works is realized in Hannah. He’s particularly adept at catching the easy, slacker profanity that’s become endemic in everyday conversation, along with the motor-mouth natter of meth-fueled, manic temperaments. The prevailing “I’m like” worm has bored deeply into the fabric of the dialogue, and even the iconic “I’m like, Oh! My! God!” is uttered without irony.
With talk, a little goes a long way. No really, a long, long way. Even the characters realize it: Christina: Ohmygodyoutalkalot. . . Hannah: You’ve been talking for hours.
The positive thing about the tons of dialogue is that it’s fresh, real, and humorous, and it achieves the rhythms of regular un-staged life. It’s been worked from each character’s perspective , while allowing for impaired cognitive function on all sides. Still, a bit of Zen balance would be welcome, talk and not-talk.
Laura Sukonick is Hannah, Francesca Piccioni is Christina, and Ben Grinberg is Anders. These actors are so good it would be hard to imagine anyone else in their roles. Centered and well directed, they bring energy and skill to their roles. They’ve internalized all that dialogue and never once appear to have memorized a thing.
Unspecified time passes between brief blackouts and in between acts. Everything rolls together and there’s little sense of how much time has passed. A better understanding of the time in between encounters would be helpful for sorting things out.
The young people, the apartment setting, school stuff and drugs all remind me of This Is Our Youth (1996), the Lonergan three-actor play that ended up the vehicle for many young film actors who hoped to prove their stage chops. That story is different from Hannah, but both plays are full of inertia, compassion, anger, vulnerability, and youth-speak. And both plays favor character over plot. But Hannah is potentially the better play.
However, the attempt at a DIY three-person dance party tanks the end of the first act. Interest flags as the actors, barely discernible in the dark and immersed in their totally blitzed out characters, sort of dance, and mostly hang out for an extended period of time,. (One thing does happen, though: A truth about Hannah is disclosed.) > Then at one point Hannah says to Anders, “You must be so bored right now.” He says no. I say yeah. Some in the audience are, as the end of act one falls into a black hole.
After intermission the play comes roaring back. There’s a long, but key discussion about a paper on Double Indemnity. Christina feels used. Hannah believes Christina has insulted her intelligence. The plot eventually reaches a tipping point. Fissures open and the three amigos are no longer so compatible. Little betrayals, lines crossed, it’s all those kinds of things you can’t see, but are there, shaping lives while careless language floats on top. Anders is ready to get out. Christina is fed up with Hannah’s sympathy ploys and her ‘brave poor thing’ thing. Hannah clings to her rave junkie persona of “Glitter Girl,” a role we learn about late in the game.
Even with the unresolved issues mentioned, this is good theater. It’s unusual to find something of this caliber in the deep recesses of a marginal Philadelphia neighborhood. In my years as a theater critic and member of new play award committees I’ve read and seen hundreds of new plays. A handful of playwrights have something to say, have got the argot, and can pull it off. Rosenberg’s words cascade in a rush to get out as he traces along the fault lines of interaction, exploring the push and pull, and revealing the failings and desires that shape who people are.
A Philadelphia playwright you probably don’t know, but should
October 11, 2013 – Christopher Munden
A hilarious and affecting world premiere by one of the best writers in Philadelphia is opening tomorrow, and you probably don’t know about it.
HANNAH is the newest offering by John Rosenbergof Hella Fresh Theater, who has been producing works in a renovated paper mill in Kensington since 2010. It’s set in a student co-op in California in the mid-1990s “HANNAH is based on the years i was super fucked up in Berkeley,” Rosenberg says. “I had never seen a play set in that world, so I wrote a play about ravers and their lives in between parties.”
Rosenberg’s plays all take place in a specific recent past, backdrops which enrich rather than dominate the works. Alp d’Huez (2012) features an American cycling fan in Paris in 2003—George Bush is leading the country into an internationally reviled war and a U.S. sports star is cheating his way to Tour de France dominance, but the play is about a marriage falling apart. In Automatic Fault Isolation (2012), a young white woman and a young black man meet in a motel in 1960s Alabama, but it is a story about self-creation and youthful delusion, not race. Rosenberg aims for subtle readings of interpersonal relationships informed rather than enslaved by their setting.
So although HANNAH perfectly captures the ecstasy-driven “awkward, dazed, intimate scenes that seem to naturally occur after 1 a.m.”, (as Jake Blumgart put it in the Inquirer), it is not a play about drug use or dance parties. It’s about young people trying out personas and narratives, running away from past traumas while creating new ones.
Writing for the Metro, Bruce Walsh compared Rosenberg’s style to John Cassavetes’s, and there are certainly strains of Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence in Rosenberg’s scripts. His characters speak as people off-stage speak. Considering Automatic Fault Isolation, reviewer Howard Shapiro began “I say something, you respond, I respond, we talk, we go on and on, we get off into tangents, we lose a thread of thoughts when something triggers us to take a new path, to pursue another idea. That’s a conversation.” Writing for this publication, Phindie reviewer Jessica Foleyraved about Rosenberg’s “organically immediate text.”
Hella Fresh’s out-of-the-way Kensington location has prevented Rosenberg from attracting a local theater audience already averse to contemporary theater, but critical praise has been consistent. Shapiro praised the “striking insight” of 2011′s Queen of All Weapons, about a Baader Meinhof era German terrorist and two black panthers in San Francisco. In the City Paper, Mark Cofta described Rosenberg’s plays as “gritty, darkly humorous psychological dramas.” In the Philadelphia Weekly J. Cooper Robb called him a “playwright with a ferocious amount of talent.”
Because of the off-the-beaten track venue and Rosenberg’s lack of connection to Philadelphia’s theater community as a San Francisco transplant, his casts are made mostly of actors new to or on the fringes of the local scene. Some have shone in this setting. Talented actor Jennifer Summerfielddominated Alp d’Huez with a “scene stealing” performance. (See a video of an Alp d’Huezperformance here.) Sebastian Cummings gave hilarious comic performances in Automatic Fault Isolation, Queen of All Weapons, and 2013′s The Gambling Room (set in pre-Tonkin Vietnam).
HANNAH features perhaps Rosenberg’s best ensemble yet. Psychology grad student Laura Sukonick has worked with dysfunctional and addicted youths and brings an intimate psychological understanding and innate comic commitment to the title role. Francesca Piccioni showed her acting chops as a troubled teen in the stellar New City Stage Company cast of last season’s American Sligo. Pig Iron alumnus Ben Grinberg appeared in the recent Fringe hit Pay Up, and shows a physical command characteristic of the Pig Iron school.
Earlier in the year Phindie surveyed local critics for a “Best of” awards. Every respondent who attended Rosenberg’s Alp d’Huez nominated it for the list. On the basis of a final week rehearsal, HANNAH may rival this piece as Rosenberg’s finest work. You like new theater? You really have to see this. HANNAH runsOctober 12-November 3, 2013, thepapermilltheater.com.
By Mark Cofta
Published: 10/10/2013 |
John Rosenberg’s latest Hella Fresh Theater project is set in 1995 San Francisco, where part-time Berkeley students Hannah, Christina and Anders live by the covenant of Goa Dance Trance, a party scene devoted to collective consciousness, sensitivity and compassion — all fueled by mind-altering drugs. “When I went to Berkeley,” playwright-director Rosenberg explains, “there were definitely a number of wounded animals who were lost, spinning their wheels, or running from some-thing. … People who kinda fell into the cracks, some made it and some didn’t. I was one of those wounded animals.” He fell in love with a raver, who introduced him “to the world of trance, ecstasy, crystal and snorting things.” His self-produced three-person play is inspired by surviving eight years with “people doing massive amounts of drugs to dull trauma who are under the illusion they are on the path to spiritual consciousness and enlightenment.” Nevertheless, Rosenberg assures us, “It is fucking funny.”
Oct. 12-Nov. 3, $10, Papermill Proving Ground, 2825 Ormes St. (Oct. 12-27) and Papermill Theater Center City, 1714 Sansom St. (Nov. 2-3), 510-292-6403, hellafreshtheater.com.
From warehouse to playhouse
Francesca Piccioni (left) and Laura Sukonick share an apartment in “Hannah,” at Kensington’s Papermill Proving Ground.
POSTED: Sunday, October 6, 2013, 2:02 AM
On Saturday, in a dilapidated warehouse in Kensington, three young people will pretend to be three other young people in a dilapidated warehouse in San Francisco.
John Rosenberg’s Hannah is set in 1995, but the main characters’ conversations, barring the odd mid-’90s pop-culture reference, wouldn’t sound out of place today: Hip young white people discussing which inebriants to ingest, what it really means to be from a city, and what the appropriate term is for the impoverished African American neighborhood they live in.
The three characters are in their early 20s, as, it appears, is the cast. Laura Sukonick and Francesca Piccioni play two new apartment-mates, Christina and Hannah, one a spaced-out partyer, the other a former sorority girl. They quickly bond over past relationships with abusive men and a shared passion for chemicals. Ben Grinberg plays Anders, a former flame and drug buddy of Christina’s, just back from Thailand bearing the kind of wisdom gained from going to too many parties before age 25.
The play isn’t particularly plot-heavy: It’s all how the three characters bounce off each other, old relationships fraying, new ones developing with a rapidity borne of desperation. About midway, the three take ecstasy and the lights dim, resulting in the awkward, dazed, intimate scenes that seem to naturally occur after 1 a.m.
Rosenberg founded Kensington’s Hella Fresh Theater in 2011. Its stage, the Papermill Proving Ground, 2825 Ormes St., is just north of Lehigh Avenue and west of the Somerset stop on the Market-Frankford Line. “If you want a ride, we will come pick you up,” their website promises.
“Hannah” runs Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. from Saturday through Nov. 3. Tickets are $10.
The first three weekends are in Kensington, the final one at Papermill Theater Center City, 1714 Sansom St.
The Gambling Room
By Shaun BradyPublished:
Life and death decisions in ‘The Gambling Room’
Growing up in Los Angeles, John Rosenberg had a fist-pumping, Rambo-inflected pro-U.S. stance on the Vietnam War. “I was super-Mr. America,” Rosenberg recalls, “and then I grew up and stopped being an idiot.”
In 2009, Rosenberg and his “ladyfriend” traveled to Vietnam, where her sister was a journalist in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, before relocating to her native Philadelphia. (“Maybe she was preparing me for what the East Coast was like by taking me to Vietnam,” Rosenberg jokes.) While there, the couple visited Reunification Palace, the home of the president of South Vietnam during the war. Rosenberg’s attention was captured by the gambling room, where the powerful would gather to unwind.
“It’s a very beautiful, comfortable place where powerful people made decisions about life and death,” Rosenberg says. “Something about it really captured my imagination. I really wanted to do a play that took place in the room, but then I realized that there was something strange about an American dude writing a play that took place in a Vietnamese palace.”
Instead, he wrote “The Gambling Room,” the story of two brothers in the U.S. diplomatic corps attempting a coup d’etat in South Vietnam in 1963. “I usually write plays that take place somewhere historically, but they’re all very personal stories,” he says. “So within a story that takes place during these coups and backstabbings and betrayals, there are beautiful things about families or relationships that I was able to dig into and discover and play with.”
The play premieres this Saturday at the Papermill Theater, Rosenberg’s intimate space in the Papermill Arts Collective, a five-story warehouse in Kensington which also features artist workspace, a gallery and a community library. Maintaining the space allows Rosenberg to premiere his own work on a DIY level.
“I don’t want to write plays and send them out and hope they get produced at some point,” Rosenberg says. “If I’m going to put that much work into writing a play, why not fully develop it? I’m just some dude; I can’t expect other people to put on my bullsh— work, so I might as well do it.”
If you go
“The Gambling Room”May 18-June 9
2825 Ormes St.
“It is awesome there are people who do plays about Nixon and Kissinger in a hot tub, but I write the play about guys waiting for Nixon and Kissinger.”
The Gambling Room opens May 18 at the Papermill Theater in Kensington. The play is the newest work written and directed by John Rosenberg of Hella Fresh Theater, and is set in Vietnam in 1963. We caught up with John to find out about The Gambling Room and its creation.
FringeArts: Why is the show title The Gambling Room?
John Rosenberg: The Gambling Room is the recreation room of the . It is a real place, my favorite place in the whole world.
FringeArts: What’s the premise of the play?
John Rosenberg: Set in the fall of 1963, the tumultuous days leading to the falls of presidents, the play witnesses the end of a diplomat’s family and the birth of a new era in Vietnam. Two young Americans attempt a coup d’état from a rooftop in Saigon. John and Jack, rising stars in the US diplomatic corps, carry out their father’s final command: meet the embattled President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, and furnish him with a list of American journalists to be silenced.
FringeArts: How did the idea for this show come about?
John Rosenberg: Me and my ladyfriend went to Vietnam for a month in 2009. We were visiting her sister who lived in Ho Chi Minh City—the former Saigon, capitol of South Vietnam. We visited the Presidential Palace and I saw the gambling room, which is on the second floor of the palace. I was just captured by the space. I visited it a number of times and took photos and wrote a very short play while we were there. The short play was a part of Cheap Guy HOF which I performed in the 2010 Philly Fringe. However, it was a story and a space I wanted to revisit, and this winter I thought it was time to do a full length version, so here we are.
FringeArts: What interested you about the time period and the history that surrounds this play?
John Rosenberg: I was super pro-war when I was a kid and was pissed at my dad that he didn’t serve in Vietnam. I used to put Marine Corps bumper stickers on his car. Amazing I didn’t accidentally drown when I was a kid. So there was an interest that grew out my childhood, albeit for different reasons.
Visiting the Palace in Vietnam, it is this ode to and bluff of power. It is now an empty building, a trophy for the Vietnamese of their victory over hundreds of years of colonialism. I saw the room as this comfortable place from where violence is meted out. I had never really seen anything about the days before America really thunderfucked Vietnam and thought it might be interesting to capture the palace then. Doing research, October 1963, it is regarded as something straight out of Shakespearean tragedy—factions vying for power, coups, backstabbings, betrayals. I thought it would be an interesting place to set a story.
The final piece was of course the story, which is about two brothers dealing with death and the question of carrying on the family mission at what cost. And so for me, the story of the two brothers and what they attempt embodies everything else going on at this time.
FringeArts: Who’s acting in it, and why did you want to work with them?
John Rosenberg: I write my plays specifically around the actors involved, so it is important to find actors comfortable work shopping a play into existence. For The Gambling Room, I am lucky to be working with Dan Tobin, Sebastian Cummings, and Calvin Atkinson. I met Calvin last year, he read for the last play I did, Alp d’ Huez. He was super talented but young for the part. I kept Calvin in mind and when I started writing the full-length, I told him I wanted him for the lead. He said okie doke I said hooray. He is super busy, so I had to write a part that would allow his schedule. (He is currently in the production of Eastern Standard which is being put up by Quince Productions.)
I met Dan Tobin in December, who responded to a craiglist thing looking for actors. I thought he had a great look and was a nice dude and I could tell he was talented. He is also the tallest actor I have ever worked. So the play in my head was about two brothers and I left them alone and I started writing it. When I got a semblance of a script in February, I found out they had totally opposite schedules. As in, impossible to make it work schedules.
But I thought they were really good so I decided to rewrite the script and structure the play so I can use both these talented dudes. Such is the blessing and curse of doing shit on your own, you can do whatever you want but you are the only one whose fault it is when it sucks. It popped into my head how I could work the play, so I got Sebastian Cummings. I have worked with Sebastian a few times, this is the third full-length production he has done with me. In essence, I created his character on the fly. I like to give Sebastian strange challenges in each show, this time he is playing a 43-year-old man. [Sebastian is in his early 20s.]
FringeArts: What does setting a play within a specific historical time period and historical events do for you as a writer?
John Rosenberg: It is awesome there are people who do plays about Nixon and Kissinger in a hot tub, but I write the play about guys waiting for Nixon and Kissinger. The more courage you have, you can do whatever you want. And I get my courage from actors. They have given me an opportunity to create something that will be very different, special and compelling. Or maybe they won’t show up opening day and then I will see what we will do.
Thank John, we’re looking forward to the show!
The Gambling Room
May 18-June 9, 2 p.m., $10-$20, Papermill Theater
John Rosenberg’s Hellafresh Theater, a DIY venture gaining a loyal following, is well worth the trip to Kensington’s Papermill Arts Collective. The writer-director’s latest is inspired by his 2009 vacation visit to South Vietnam’s presidential palace, preserved in its pre-conquest glory. “It was stunning to see this piece of America, this projection of power that now stood as a trophy of victory over America.” The sumptuous gambling room caught his imagination, Rosenberg recalls, because “there was something so ridiculous and obscene about this comfortable place where violence was decided on.” His play evolved into a tale about theend of a family’s influence and power, as two brothers (Calvin Atkinson, Dan Tobin) and their late father’s liege (Sebastian Cummings) wrangle in October 1963, just before the U.S. overthrew the Vietnamese president. It’s a time “straight out of Shakespearean tragedy,” Rosenberg explains, with “factions vying for power, coups, backstabbings and betrayals” — which led, of course, to America’s long-est, and first losing, war.
Alp D’ Huez (2012)
John Rosenberg’s latest play “came about in a horrible way, unfortunately,” he says. “A few years ago, a woman I know met up with her husband on a vacation — he had gone a week earlier — and upon arrival the husband informed the wife he had met someone else and she should find her own way home.” Rosenberg, who also stars in Alp D’Huez opposite Jennifer Summerfield, was shocked and “tried often to imagine the hell she must have experienced that day.” The theatrical entrepreneur, who produces plays in a Kensington neighborhood arts center, sets the action at the 2004 Tour de France and calls the play “an exploration of strange passions people have, the connections they make with other like-minded people, and the willingness to abandon love for a shared connection.”
Oct. 13-Nov. 4, $10, The Papermill Theater, 2825 Ormes St., 510-292-6403, thepapermilltheater.com.
Mark Cofta- City Paper
PW- Alp D’ Huez
Despite their many similarities, sports and theater don’t tend to mix much. Bucking that trend is promising Philadelphia playwright John Rosenberg’s Alp d’ Huez. Named for the legendary mountain that often proves to be the decisive climb in the Tour de France bike race, Rosenberg’s drama takes place in a Paris hotel room where a married man is forced to choose between his wife and a woman who shares his passion for cycling. Set in 2004 during Lance Armstrong’s attempt to win a record sixth consecutive Tour de France, the production by Hella Fresh Theater begins with a short film, which is available at thepapermilltheater.com. Inspired by a friend’s disastrous vacation, Rosenberg says he wrote Alp as a way to “explore strange passions and the willingness to abandon family and friends because of a shared connection.” And if you can’t ride your bike to the company’s Kensington theater, Hella Fresh offers theatergoers in Center City rides to and from the show for a mere $10. -J. Cooper Robb
Alp D’ Huez runs October 13th through November 4th, all shows Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. $10. Papermill Theater, 2825 Ormes St. 510.292.6403. thepapermilltheater.com
Automatic Fault Isolation June 2012
Automatic Fault Isolation
Through June 24, 2 p.m., $10, Papermill Theater, 2825 Ormes St.
[ THEATER ]
Hella Fresh Theater creator John Rosenberg takes DIY pretty far withAutomatic Fault Isolation, which he wrote, directed and acts in at Kensington’s Papermill Arts Collective’s 50-seat space. The first offering of his Hella Fresh Theater’s second season, AFI locks a Yankee middle-aged math tutor and aerospace engineer in a motel room with precocious Alabama teen Bretaigne (Anna Flynn-Meketon), with promises to let him “kiss you with my tongue and press against your chest.” She’s got other plans, though, leaving him exasperated: “You’re a parlor game,” he complains, but he can’t stop playing, even when exotic Sebastian (Sean Cummings) invades their tryst.
Rosenberg’s homemade aesthetic complements his gritty, darkly humorous psychological dramas like last year’s Queen of All Weapons, and he’s not afraid of Big Issues: Automatic Fault Isolation explores the forced racial integration of Huntsville, Ala., via NASA’s mid-1960s space race in a claustrophobic, discomforting, tension-filled tale.
Through June 24, 2 p.m., $10, Papermill Theater, 2825 Ormes St., 510-292-6403, hellafreshtheater.com.
Review: ‘Automatic Fault Isolation’
POSTED: Monday, June 4, 2012, 12:33 AM
By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
I say something, you respond, I respond, we talk, we go on and on, we get off into tangents, we lose a thread of thoughts when something triggers us to take a new path, to pursue another idea. That’s a conversation.
It works in real life.
Not so much in theater.
Normal conversation can, in fact, can be deadly in theater, where the trick is to make focused dialogue sound normal. So after the first 15 minutes of John Rosenberg’s new play, Automatic Fault Isolation, I was wondering when thing would come into focus after a long round of drifting conversation by characters — a man who may or may not be an astronaut and a woman who may still be a girl.
The play opened Saturday and is being performed on weekend afternoons at Papermill Theater in Kensington, where Rosenberg heads the company called Hella Fresh Theater. The plot finally did come into its own way too late in the 75-minute production, as compelling in its last 15 minutes as it is aimless in its first 15.
In any case, the bulk of the production is well acted. Rosenberg, who also directed, plays an employee of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where Automatic Fault Isolation takes place in 1965. The title refers to an actual space engineering project.
Anna Flynn-Meketon portrays the high-school girl — at least her character seems to be one — who has lured him to a motel, and Sean Cummings solidly plays a character who comes into play during the last part of Automatic Fault Isolation.
Rosenberg plays his role as a befuddled adult who doesn’t know how to relate to the girl he is with. That’s apt — he’s written her as tempestuous and senseless, with the skills of a manipulator far beyond her age. In Flynn-Meketon’s portrayal, she is shrill enough for her dialogue to sometimes garble in her higher decibels, but she plays the part for all it’s worth.
What she cannot overcome is her too-old appearance: Flynn-Meketon looks far more like an adult than a kid. Yet the way Rosenberg wrote his play, the audience must guess for a long while at her relationship to this outer-space worker, and unless she’s obviously much younger than the guy, we haven’t a chance of being anything but confused.
The play works after it gets to the point — that the girl has an ulterior motive in asking him there. It also gets steadily better as it picks up tension, but I never could figure out what would attract even a very lonely adult to this capricious, dangerous kid. She’s far too much of a risk for a tryst — especially in the South and in the ‘60s — and, as Rosenberg writes the character, the mouth you have to put up with is not worth so much as a kiss.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
Automatic Fault Isolation: Presented by Hella Fresh Theater at Papermill Theater, 2825 Ormes St., through June 24. Tickets: $10. Information: www.thepapermilltheater.com.
AUTOMATIC FAULT ISOLATION HAPPENS: A HELLA FRESH CHAT WITH JOHN ROSENBERG
A little over two years ago John Rosenberg, then a San Francisco bookkeeper and self-producing playwright, quit the west coast and his full-time job to try his luck in Philly. In 2011 his Hella Fresh Theater made a name for itself with four critically acclaimed original shows, exploring themes as diverse as faking HIV for dramatic purposes,American involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia, and good old down-home jealousy and deceit. This Saturday, Hella Fresh’s 2012 season opens with another original play, written and directed by Rosenberg, Automatic Fault Isolation. As describe in its advert: In a city (Huntsville, AL) rocketing towards the mysteries of racial integration and outer space, a teenager, her NASA crush, and Negro love collide. We caught up to John to find out more about the show.
Live Arts: Why is the title Automated Fault Isolation?
John Rosenberg: A gentleman I know, Barry Milberg, worked as an engineer on the NASA Apollo space program in Huntsville in the late 1960s. In passing he mentioned he was listening to the audio feed when Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee burned to death during a test of Apollo One at Cape Canaveral, Florida. At the time he was working on a control engineering project called Automatic Fault Isolation. The thought of an engineer working on a control problem listening to astronauts burning to death hundreds of miles away was the starting point.
LA: Tell us a little about the story.
JR: In a motel room in 1965 Huntsville, Alabama, precocious 17-year-old named Bretaigne flirts with her middle-aged math tutor, an unstable aerospace engineer and World War 2 veteran from the North. But unknown to the engineer, Bretaigne’s plan is to use his room for an arranged meeting with the boy of her dreams: Sebastian, a Negro rock and roller who arrives thinking they will be alone.
LA: How did the idea for the play first come about? What compelled you about the characters/situation/story?
JR: I wanted to write a play about a racist white girl. After I did California Redemption Value, I told [the actor] Anna Flynn-Meketon I wanted to write a thing for her where she was a racist little white girl. She said hooray! Combined with what Barry told me about Huntsville in the late 1960s, it had a start.
Automatic Fault Isolation is set in 1965 Huntsville, Alabama. Unlike many places in the South dealing with the blood cancer of racial bigotry, Huntsville was an anomaly because the presence of the NASA Marshall Flight space center. Huntsville, unlike Selma or Birmingham, desegregated under pressure from NASA and the Federal government. It is important to note of course, NASA was not doing it out of some moral exceptionalism, its rocket division was led by Dr. Wernher Von Braun, a German scientist who developed V-2 rockets for the Nazi Party.
The last thing that really moved it to the thing it is was my best friend. On consecutive nights she cussed out the Philly police for harassing Occupy protestors, and then screamed at Occupy protestors for wasting their time and made jokes with the cops about the dumb white kids protesting.
LA: What’s been the process so far in creating this work?
JR: I wrote a one-act version last year and performed it in November. There was something more to the story and I was lucky enough to get the actors I wanted and here we are with the full-length version.
LA: What’s the set like?
JR: Well, there is what you want and there is what you can do. It is awesome to be able to produce your own work in your own space. I wanted to build a real motel room with a ceiling and put everyone in the actual room. But the fact is our shit is champagne taste on a beer budget . . . I couldn’t find a set designer interested in the project, so I made do with what I got, which is money from paychecks and help from my family. The most important thing is the audience is still right on top of the action, which is great.
LA: You developed a lot of this play in tandem with the performers reading lines, and even working off of the performers’ own identities. Can you give a couple examples of that?
JR: A lot of the play is derived from who the actors are. I have been very fortunate to find two actors that are incredibly talented and are interested in creating work—Anna Flynn-Meketon and Sebastian Cummings. I have done a full-length with each of them last year, I trust them, think they trust me…it just seems right to write parts around specific actors instead of writing something and then having to compromise to just put it on.
LA: As you’ve begun writing for specific performers in the past year or so, how has that changed your approach to making work?
JR: I have done plays I wrote with these actors before, what is different is they demanded I respected what was written and not change shit. I think it is annoying but they are happy so hooray.
LA: Who are your actors—tell me about them.
JR: Sebastian Cummings is a young actor living in the Philly area. He studied theater at Rutgers-Camden and I had the fortune of working with him last year on Queen of All Weapons. He is incredibly smart, talented and handsome.
Anna Flynn-Meketon is a musical theater major in her junior year at Temple University. My ladyfriend used to be her babysitter and she introduced us. Last year, the Philly Inquirer noted her as “the future of independent theater.”
LA: Because the Papermill Theater is somewhat off the beaten path in Kensington, you’re offering a special to and fro ticket, with food and talk. Can you tell me about that?
JR: The theater is right by Kensington and Lehigh Avenues, familiar to anyone who frequents Kensington, Fishtown and the Walking Fish Theatre. However, since we have only been around for one season, I think it is heehaw to have the expectation of people to come see work at a place they might not have been to before or in an area they are not yet familiar with. I thought, picking people up and driving them to and from, it would be neat to get to know people and talk about shit, theater or otherwise. They never have to worry about getting to the theater late or getting lost or whatever. They can smoke in the car or ask me to stop at Wawa on the way. Who doesn’t want to get chauffeured to the theater (in a mid ’90s Toyota Camry)?
Automatic Fault Isolation runs June 2nd, June 3rd, June 9th, June 10th, June 16th, June 17th, June 23rd, and June 24th, at the Papermill Theater.
The Papermill Theater is at 2825 Ormes Street in Philadelphia.
All shows are at 2pm, tickets are $10.
For more info on how to get chauffeured, click here or call John at 510-292-6403.
Philadelphia Weekly Pick June 2012-
Automatic Fault Isolation
Disparate and highly combustible elements are mixed together with explosive results in playwright John Rosenberg’s new drama Automatic Fault Isolation. Rosenberg’s story of self-discovery focuses on Bretaigne (Anna Flynn-Meketon), a young woman in 1965 Huntsville, Ala., who is attracted to two entirely different men. One is a white, middle-aged NASA flight engineer named Kevin and the other a radical black rock ’n’ roller named Sebastian. Ultimately a story of one woman’s search for identity, Bretaigne arranges a potentially violent encounter between the men in the hope that the incident will reveal whether her path in life is to be (in Rosenberg’s words) “a martyred daughter of the Confederacy or an explorer on the edge of a new frontier.” The first production this season from the small company Hella Fresh Theater, Fault is playing at the Papermill Theater, a 50-seat theater that occupies part of the five-story warehouse used by the Papermill Arts Collective, one of the many enterprising arts organizations that have made Kensington the city’s new cultural hot spot. -J.C.R.
2pm. $10. Papermill Art Collective, 2825 Ormes St. hellafreshtheater.com
Queen of All Weapons- 2011
“I always hated the 70s when I was a kid because I was dumb,” and other words of wisdom from John Rosenberg, writer-director of Queen Of All Weapons
California born and bred, now entrenched in Philadelphia, the playwright-director John Rosenberg debuts his latest work Queen Of All Weapons this Saturday at 2pm at the Papermill Theater (2528 Ormes Street) in Kensington. I first met John about a year ago at a play reading of his I hosted at the Walking Fish Theatre, a bunch of strange, brutal, and funny shorts that would later appear in his 2010 Philly Fringe show Cheap Guy Hall of Fame. I later cast John in my Christmas showMerry Fucking Christmas, in which he excelled at being creepy, and had no fear of cajoling the audience to say, “I love Al Qaida” in order to win a donated trip to Miami that did not actually exist. This past winter, also at the Papermill, which John runs, he presented California Redemption Value, an autobiographical full-length about his drama-teacher mother, and the needy castaway drama students she supports under her roof in Los Angeles.
Queen Of All Weapons is quite a different play. Set in the 70s, it concerns a German terrorist (Anna Watson) who comes to San Francisco and teams up with members (James Tolbert, Sebastian Cummings) of a fading Black Panther movement to defeat capitalist scum. I caught up with John to get the lowdown.
Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority: Your new play Queen Of All Weaponsopens this Saturday July 9th (at 2pm), can you tell me about how this show came about?
John Rosenberg: I met Anna Watson in your Christmas show [Merry Fucking Christmas, SmokeyScout Productions]. She is German and fearless. I asked her if she wanted to be in a play I was writing which I had not written and she said yes. Then I had to write a play starring her. I had never written a show built around an actor and it was a great experience. We would sit in her apt and talk about Germany, a subject I didn’t know anything about.
PPAA: What was it that having a Nazi anarchist revitalize the dying 70s San-Fran Black Panther movement that appealed to you?
JR: I don’t know shit about Germans or black people outside of the racist shit tv and America inculcated me with so I thought it would be great to write a play about people I didn’t know about.
As for time period, I didn’t know anything about the time around I was born (1976) and wanted to ground a story there. I always hated the 70s when I was a kid because I was dumb. When you get older and start linking generations you see the crazy shit that happened. The time after the great social upheavals of the late 60s and 70s and what became of that movement is fascinating to me and tragic and that is where I wanted to set the play.
This is a play about things I know nothing about.
PPAA: Why have set the play in San Francisco?
JR: Well, I miss California and don’t know shit about out here. And a way to be closer to there is to write a play about it. As for the subject matter, I went to school at Berkeley. I knew people who were involved in protest movements whist I was getting high. It is amazing to think that people put themselves on the line for something larger their selves.
PPAA: Have you written plays for specific actors before?
JR: No, but I like it. I see a future in writing scripts around actors. It is fantastic. I want to forever now write plays around specific actors.
PPAA: Since you were writing this play even as you had begun rehearsals, how much of the rehearsal process influenced the writing of the play, or was it completely separate?
JR: Everyone has a way, but I wrote this and then when rehearsals started shit change based off the actors. Nothing is worse than watching actors uncomfortable saying shit.
PPAA: What did you enjoy most about writing this play?
JR: The actors making the play their own .
PPAA: Who are your actors? I understand they all have German connections.
JR: Anna Watson. She is from Germany. James Tolbert who starred in Starlight Express the musical in the early 90s in Germany. Sebastian Cummings who was born on a military base in Germany. All three of them were in Germany at the same time. Freaky as fuck.
PPAA: What’s the week like before opening a show?
JR: It is always different. This time, it is drunk on Yuengling. Haha. It is 3am right now and we had a party and I am watching Golden Girls while working on this.
PPAA: Is Queen Of All Weapons family-friendly?
Thanks John, and see you at the opening!
Queen of All Weapons
Written and Directed by John Rosenberg
Featuring James Tolbert, Sebastian Cummings, and Anna Watson
July 9, 10, 16, 17, 23, 24, 30 + 31 at 2pm
2528 Ormes Street $10
For tickets and more information go to www.queenofallweapons.com.
City Paper Review- Queen of All Weapons
It may seem inappropriate to call a play that takes place entirely in one room disjointed, but that’s the best way to describe the only real problem withQueen of All Weapons. Over the course of 90 minutes, a meandering storyline is rescued by engaging, multidimensional characters and clever dialogue, with plenty of uber-depressing jokes to go around.
John Rosenberg’s three-person play (the subject of a feature in this week’s City Paper) brings two drug-addicted former soldiers into close contact with Anna, a renegade member of the German terrorist group Red Army Faction. The war in Vietnam has just ended, and although both men served, their experiences are as different as their personalities. Mean, callous Maceo is still fresh from “the shit” in Vietnam, while romantic Kevin spent the war in Europe. When Anna shows up at the pair’s San Francisco apartment after being shunned by her friends and husband, Maceo disappoints her by revealing that regardless of what Kevin may have said in his letters, the closest the two have ever come to a revolution is selling drugs to Black Panthers.
In the arguments that follow, Rosenberg’s script explores the concepts of revolution, failure and jealousy, all while weighing the pros and cons of ardent dedication to a cause. Unfortunately, while these themes are well-developed, the way in which they’re discussed results in an episodic quality that pervades the entire play. I almost expected the text slides from Clerks to pop up during scene changes.
This does not, however, sound the death knell of the piece. The tension among the three characters was enough to raise my blood pressure, and James Tolbert’s gritty performance as Maceo simultaneously breaks and adds to the tension, such as when he masturbates to movies on TV, or when he informs Anna that although he made a Nazi joke earlier in the evening, it is still “too soon” for her.
As Queen of All Weapons draws to a close, it’s unclear whether the characters have learned anything or just spent a night talking and getting high. But since the play suggests that most revolutions amount to little more than people sitting around making big plans, maybe that’s just as well.
Queen of All Weapons runs through July 31, $10, Papermill Theater, 2825 Ormes St., 510-292-6403,queenofallweapons.com.
Posted by Andy Polhamus
A well-interpreted script at Papermill Theater
By Howard Shapiro, Inquirer Staff Writer
POSTED: July 11, 2011
John Rosenberg’s intense new play is set on his birthday in 1976, but has nothing to do with him, only with the era. A week before his October birth, the leaders of Germany’s terroristic Baader Meinhoff gang killed themselves in prison, and Rosenberg’s Queen of All Weapons takes place in San Francisco, in the immediate aftermath.
In its 75 minutes, the play considers a number of themes – deceit, jealousy, revolution, the American involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia – by looking at the lives of two wasted black addicts and the white German woman terrorist (or revolutionary, if that’s how you see it) who appears at their apartment door because one of them has misled her.
It turns out that long ago and far away, she bedded with one of the two men when he was in the service, and he has been writing her deceptive letters over the years, posing as a revolutionary. Now that her German colleagues have killed themselves, she has come to join him. She slowly discovers – but never grasps – that the ’60s power-to-the-people movement is supplanted. It’s now a culture of dopers.
That’s the striking insight of Rosenberg’s play, which is being performed on weekends at Papermill Theater in Kensington, where Rosenberg heads Hella Fresh Theatre.
The play, as a whole, doesn’t rise beyond the level of a curiosity; its drug-snorting, heroin-shooting guys have little cogent to say and say it mostly in repetitive expletives.
After a short while, all this would be easily dismissed, but Rosenberg manages to trump his script as the play’s director; he makes the interpretations of the characters likable, and uses three actors who flesh them out and make them seem everyday-natural.
Sebastian Cummings is the man whose letters attract the woman to appear at his door; James Tolbert is the snorter who shares the apartment (he has an easy laugh that drives his character), and Anna Watson – a German-born actress who lives in Philadelphia – is the woman.
All are compelling and serve up an example of how a script, well interpreted, takes on extra value.
Playwright-director John Rosenberg and his theater company Hella Fresh Theater debut his latest work, Queen of All Weapons, this Saturday July 9 at 2pm for an eight-show run (weekends only) at the Papermill Theater, a performance space he created on the first floor of an old paper mill in Kensington. The show concerns a German terrorist who joins the fading Black Panther movement in 1970s San Francisco. The production features actors James Tolbert, Sebastian Cummings, and Anna Watson–Anna will appear in Lady M at the Live Arts Festival this September.
We caught up with John to ask him a few questions.
Can you give us a brief run-down of the QOAW story?
Queen of All Weapons is the story of a West German terrorist who invades San Francisco in 1976 to re-ignite the world revolution against capitalism, imperialism and anything else standing in her way. Her first stop is the Macy’s department store in downtown San Francisco, where she lights a fire in the true spirit of the Red Army faction.
How did the creation of this play come about?
I met Anna Watson, who is German, and thought she is an incredible actor. I asked her if she wanted to be in a play. Had no idea what it was about. She said yes. That was in January. We met up for a few months and now we are about to open. Hope it doesn’t fucking suck.
Who’s in the cast, and what have they brought to the creation of this work?
Anna Watson, who really was the inspiration for the play. James Tolbert and Sebastian Cummings are the two other actors in the show. All three of them are fantastic and bring their own ideas and thoughts to rehearsal everyday. It is wonderful to work with them. We started with a play I wrote and then developed it into a hard-charging, wild ride in mid-70s San Francisco. They are as responsible for the beautiful shit in the play as I am.
It’s been almost a year since you’ve been producing work in the Papermill Theatre, what have you learned most during that time? Have your ideas about how you want to use the space changed?
I have learned how to illegally heat a large space. Haha, I think what has happened is the identity of the theater is really taking shape. The Papermill is a theater space dedicated to creating and producing new works. I have my company putting up four shows a year and are now looking for other writers who want to produce their own work. This October we have Courtney Baia producing her own show. We are looking for others who want to do the same. And it really was born out of the spirit of the first show (Cheap Guy Hall of Fame) we did last year, the Philly Fringe one.
Thanks John, we look forward to the show!
California Redemption Value 2011
Mark Cofta for City Paper-
“Champagne taste on a beer budget” is how San Fran transplant John Rosenberg describes his new Hella Fresh Theater, in residence at the also-new Kensington-based Papermill Arts Collective. The five-story converted warehouse features artist workspace, a gallery, a library and a 50-seat theater, where Rosenberg’s autobiographical California Redemption Valuepremières. “It’s a one-bedroom apartment full of comedy and tragedy,” he explains, “Shakespeare and Tom & Jerry.” A drama teacher and her charges trade lies that hide their weaknesses and express their dreams; they “choose to believe or reject a commonly held California notion, that saying it is as good as doing it.”
On this episode of Talkadelphia, we had the privilege of speaking with local playwright John Rosenberg and rookie Eagles wide receiver, Riley Cooper…
When John Rosenberg came from San Francisco to Philadelphia, the writer, director and actor was determined to make his mark in local theater. But when he couldn’t find a company to produce his plays, he decided to do it himself. So Rosenberg set up shop in Kensington’s Papermill Theater, auditioned actors from Craig’s List and got to work on California Redemption Value, an autobiographical play he wrote about himself, his eccentric drama teacher mother and their experiences living in a one-bedroom apartment in California. Rosenberg talked with us about the writing process, his family’s reaction to the play and how he set about producing the play.
Twenty-three year old rookie Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper grew up in Clearwater, Florida, but this multi-talented sportsman first piqued the interest of Philadelphia in 2006, when he was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies straight out of high school. However the young Cooper decided to stay in school until 2010, playing both college baseball and football until he was drafted by the Eagles just this past year and signed a four-year contract with the team. Gino caught up with Riley to talk with him about his favorite Philadelphia foods, Philadelphia girls and of course – football.
I got a chance to catch up with playwright/director John Rosenberg of Hella Fresh Theatre whose show California Redemption Value is in the middle of its run at The Papermill Theatre in Kensington (Sats and Suns at 2pm till Feb. 6). The play is based on John’s experiences growing up in Los Angeles with his sister, his drama teacher mother, and the random, emotionally damaged drama students his mother would care for and let live in their tiny home.
PPAA: You’re in the middle of your run right now, how’s it going, and what’s the audience reaction been? Any interesting post-show feedback?
JR: It’s going somewhere . . . haha. I think it is going well. Good crowds, audience reactions have varied, some crowds are live, others are quiet. As for post-show feedback, my mom absolutely hands-down fucking hated it. Hate hate hate hate hated it.
PPAA: This is the first full-length you’ve produced in Philly, having previously produced stuff in San Francisco. Is it a different experience doing it here than in San Fran, besides the shitty weather?
JR: It is definitely same and different. My ladyfriend works the box office, so that is the wonderful constant from San Francisco. She is the brains behind what I do and can’t do it without her love, brains, looks, and support. Theater in San Francisco was good training. In San Francisco we rented a theater in the Tenderloin, which is a distant cousin of Kensington. I haven’t had to kick anyone out of the audience, which I had to do a few times in San Fran. Running a theater has a whole different set of problems than just renting one, but it is a learning process for us.
We are surprised by the press we have gotten in Philly, it was a battle in San Francisco to get reviewed. Let’s hope I didn’t fuck it up by mentioning it.
PPAA: Your show runs Saturdays and Sundays only—how do you keep your actors in shape between weekends?
JR: I leave them alone so they show up to the performances. I work them very hard in rehearsal; we went nearly two months six days a week. When a run hits, they are so happy they don’t have to see me. I send them notes during the week, but they put in all the hard work and the shows are their time to play on stage.
PPAA: Have your ideas about the play changed during the run as you’ve watched it—what the play means for you and what themes have become more striking that perhaps you hadn’t thought about before?
JR: I really don’t know yet. The emotional core of the play has shown itself in flashes, but there is a savagery and sweetness that we haven’t fully found yet. And I don’t mean that negatively towards the actors at all. It is a puzzle that we keep trying to put together. I sent some notes to tweak it to see what they come up with this weekend.
Our interview continues after the jump!
PPAA: When I saw the play, I could help but feel the anxiety of such a crazy home life. But one of the things I’ve always found interesting is the normalization of crazy—that insanity becomes the norm when it’s your daily life, and somehow basic functioning persists. Does it seem crazier to you now, or when you lived through it? Or does it not seem crazy to you at all?
JR: One of the actors asked my sister if it was this crazy in real life and she said in real life we were way crazier. There were more than five people living there. My mom was teaching, and at the same time [she was] feeding and sheltering a bunch of kids, there was structure and homework done and chores. It was an apartment filled with love and happiness. My sister was the valedictorian. I always think of “Love and Squalor” from Nine Stories.
However, there was a crazy side to the place. Lots of personal problems and attempts to shape identity. It’s not like there were knock-down drag out fights and suicide attempts every single day. I personally was out of my mind. There was the time my mom’s dog got hit by a car and she threw up when it happened and I couldn’t stop laughing. I put the dead dog in my backpack and walked around the neighborhood and found a trash can to dump it in. I will always remember how warm the dead dog was on my back. It seems very crazy to me now.
PPAA: You have some great young talent in your cast. I often see young actors, in their quest to be taken seriously, act so earnestly that they never realistically portray a 20-year-old, even if that’s how old they are. In California Redemption Value, their performances are painfully real. Did they need much coaching to get there? And is it weird being in your 30s telling a college student how to act like a college student?
JR: The actors are just fantastic. I loved working with them and love what they bring to the show each time. What you saw was their unblemished natural talent. What coaching they got was telling them what they didn’t need to do.
PPAA: Having grown up in L.A., what are some of the weirdest misconceptions people may have about the city, and what it’s like to live there?
JR: I dunno, I probably have more weird misconceptions about the place and I grew up there. Living in Los Angeles is great. No one has a job, everyone drives drunk, the sky is always dodger blue and the Lakers are god.
PPAA: Hella Fresh Theatre has a full season for 2011, can you tell us what’s in store?
JR: We got Jericho Road Improvement Association in April. It is a play about race, law enforcement and how nothing in the world is more dangerous than well-intentioned white people. Queen of All Weapons in July. It deals with the brutal end of the black power movement, Cointelpro and the birth of a Fourth Reich in 1970s San Francisco.
We finish the season with Cheap Guy HOF, Blaze of Glory which we will run during the Fringe. It will be a series of short plays about Cheap Guys that go out in a Blaze of Glory. I am gonna play that bon jovi song hella.
PPAA: What’s the best thing you’ve gotten out of putting up California Redemption Value?
JR: The beautiful, truthful moments the actors create. I sit in the light booth and cry.