Bring the fire, bitches! Cino Nights

 The Premise


West Village, 1960s, long before the whitewash: when hippies were young, rents were cheap, and Carmine Street was still the realm of the possible. A former dancer by the name of Joe Cino set out to create a café for his friends to congregate. There was music and poetry before the playwrights wandered in, but as is often the case with a movement, no one knew at the time that they were making history. They were making plays.
Props were salvaged from the street, the walls were strewn with personal mementos, the action played itself out on the shabby chic of the café floor, and if any of this is starting to sound familiar—it wasn’t, then. Off Off Broadway was in the gritty, cash-poor, language-and-talent rich, critics-be-damned, lawless state of being born. (While careers of the likes of Sam Shepard, John Guare, Lanford Wilson, Maria Irene Fornes, and Doric Wilson were being launched).

Before every show, Cino himself would mark center stage and declare, “It’s magic time!”

Fifty years later, another guy with a seismic vision and a small bar in which to play it all out, is taking on Cino’s mantle, and not a moment too soon. In a market where experimentation has been virtually priced out of NYC, and many playwrights go years tumbling through the development mill without ever seeing their work on stage, Daniel Talbott, a man with a very different cri de guerre, has taken up the cause in Jimmy’s No. 43, an East Village bar where he will fully stage 17 plays by some of his favorite playwrights over the next 17 months. In the spirit of our many voices, four of us have come together to write an exquisite corpse of an article to evoke the proceedings.


—Emily DeVoti



The Space


I met up with Daniel Talbott of Rising Phoenix Rep in the fall of 2005 to discuss writing plays for a Lower East Side bar called Jimmy’s No. 43. We’d worked together before on some short plays and I was blown away by his direction of Mark Schultz’s dark play Gift at P.S. 122. Artistic associate Denis Butkus had recently answered an ad online looking for a residence company of artists to work at this place. I was going for the first time.
“Jimmy’s great, you’re going to love him. And wait until you see the place…”

Going down the stairs at Jimmy’s you feel like you really are going into another world. It’s memorable. To the left there are lights strung up on the side wall. On your right you watch the world disappear from view as you hit the bottom stair. Once you open the heavy wooden outer door and proceed in, there are antlers on the wall, beer kegs piled up over archways, dim lighting—you are somewhere else and yet there’s a strange feeling of home or as if you’ve known this place before.

I start looking around, see the kitchen, the long wooden tables, the bar.

Daniel leads me through another heavy door—we walk past a long, slender hallway, piled with things—into our destination—the back room.

A boxing poster on the wall, yellow beer pipes run along the ceiling, signed framed photos of actors, once-live animals, stuffed, mounted.

It might have changed since I began writing this. That’s the best thing of writing for Jimmy’s. Everything changes and you have to embrace it, keeping you on your writing toes.
“When the beer guy comes in, he’ll get stuff from here so you have to be ready, write that stuff in. The noise bleeds in from the next room so use it. I think this part of the room needs more clutter, right? More shit in it. Look at how crazy this is! Someone can be in here peeing.”

Daniel throws open the door to one of the small bathrooms gleaming with tile.

“What about the small stage in the corner?” At this point I’m taking out my Moleskine pad to write notes, a bit confused as to how this is all working.

Daniel responds immediately: “Oh. We’re not using the stage.”

I get it—the whole setting is the set. And in writing for this intimate setting one finds that the conflict just spills out in an organic, unique way as the drama unfolds in the room. I’ve seen it happen in all the plays written for Jimmy’s. Staged quickly, within a week, they have a pulse to them—they are current, intimate, and without judgment. They’re wild and natural at the same time, cuz in writing them the truth comes out. You can’t help it. And I think that’s what audiences there—seated as part of the setting itself, flies on the wall—love so much, connect with.

And there’s something about writing for Jimmy’s that gets into the bones of these plays. Birthday (my play produced at Jimmy’s last year) was recently done at the new Waterloo East Theatre in a festival in London, on a stage for the first time, and still everyone remarked about the intimacy of the play being unique. The opportunity for a writer to work this way—write for and with the best actors and directors in the city, knowing that the play will be done, while capturing something special that will live on in the play forever, is something that will change you.


—Crystal Skillman



The Moment


Opportunity. Freedom. Fun! Not the words that usually first come to my mind when describing making work as a playwright in New York. But these are exactly the words I (and several of my fellow playwrights) would use to describe why we jumped at the chance to be a part of the Cino Nights project.
The lamentable state of new play production and the life of the playwright has been the focus of much conversation of late (see Todd London’s Outrageous Fortune). Which is why the outright giddy feeling that Cino Nights has inspired is so welcome.

The things that often get in the way of production opportunities—money, questions of marketability, anxiety about critical response—have been taken off the table. Sure, no one will make any money, but no decisions will be made based on possible ticket sales either. No idea will be deemed too risky (or too traditional for that matter) to produce. We don’t have to jump through any hoops of approval, no years of development: no matter what we write, Daniel and Rising Phoenix Rep are—amazingly!—going to produce it. And, as all playwrights know, productions, no matter how small, are often difficult to come by and very hard won.

This “we’re doing it no matter what” reality creates an environment for playwrights to write whatever the hell we want. And the incredibly fast production timeline means the writing will have an inherent urgency. As September 2011 playwright Daniel Reitz describes it, Cino Nights allows us to make “pure theatre—theatre for theatre’s sake—that’s dangerous and high-wire and immediate.” Gary Sunshine, who bravely goes first Oct. 3rd, says Cino Nights values “the ‘play’ part of plays—putting something up on its feet fast, before its instigating energy has dissolved over the course of readings and workshops." Mando Alvarado, October 2010, agrees, saying writing a play this fast to be presented under these circumstances “forces us to work from the gut.” Or, as Kristen Palmer puts it, Cino Nights is creating in her “the best kind of fear.  The kind with a deadline and a theater and an audience, creating a situation where something has to happen.” June 2011 playwright Adam Szymkowicz agrees, saying Cino Nights provides an opportunity for everyone “to make the art they want to make.”  

Of course, a few things that usually are a part of a production have been taken off the table, too: weeks of rehearsal, development time, designers, and budgets. Which is going to be incredibly hard. As December 2010 playwright Florencia Lozano notes, “What we are about to do is absurdly difficult so failure on some level is a given. But that, to me, is freeing. We have nothing to lose.” 

For me, going July 2011, it’s this immediacy that is most seductive. And the fact that the only risks the playwrights will feel are artistic ones. That my play will go up with all its raw, personal, from-the-gut newness is a thrill. Sure there will be flaws and problems. But, as October 2011 playwright Crystal Skillman says, “I need to know what the audience reaction is to the work to know if I’m successful in what I’m doing.” I couldn’t agree more. We need to see our work on its feet, in three dimensions, with the energy only achieved in performance with an audience to really see what it is we have made.


—Laura Eason



The Man


The following titles accompany Daniel Talbott on any given occasion:
Brilliant Actor; Fearless Director; Gutsy Playwright; Visionary Leader; Lovable Provocateur; Community Advocate; Facebook Junkie; Marc Jacobs Whore; Devoted Husband and Father; Champion of Theater.

Anyone who knows Daniel Talbott was probably not surprised to hear about Cino Nights. It’s the perfect vehicle to continue his mission to prove that great theater can still be done for $25 (total), a revolutionary stance in the age of rising budgets and star-studded casts.

“Theater is a peasant art form, by the people, for the people,” Daniel recently said in a rehearsal for his latest directing project, Keep Your Baggage With You (At All Times) by Jonathan Blitstein. Daniel’s company Rising Phoenix Rep has made that the core of their mission. Maintaining such a mission has meant giving up other ambitions (like fancy sets, huge budgets), but the result is a group of artists who respect each other and who have the space to connect to the art form they love for the reasons they love it. Daniel inspires excellence, encouraging theater that is full of guts, humanity, anguish, and humor (it is not uncommon for Daniel to scream out in the middle of a run-through, “Suffer bitches!”).

As an actor, Daniel has performed all over the country (from Berkeley Rep and the Magic, to Yale Rep and McCarter theaters, making stops at the Goodman and Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis along the way) and likewise up and downtown at home in N.Y.C.: from the Classical Theatre of Harlem to the Irish Rep. Nor does he shun film and T.V. (most recently The Big C, Pretty Bird, Buffalo Girls, Missionary Position, and Law and Order.) As a director and playwright, his work has been seen across N.Y.C. (HERE, Rattlestick, EST, Soho Rep, among others), in London at the Royal Court, and of course back home at Rising Phoenix Rep, where he is the founding artistic director (the company was the recipient of the 2007 N.Y.I.T. Caffe Cino Fellowship Award). As if that’s not enough, he’s a literary manager of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, too.

 

Like his energy, his credits and accolades go on and on. But the point is, Daniel Talbott is a kindler. He views life and art as one big campfire—a chance to gather around, share stories, laugh, and dream together. And even as Cino Nights begins, you can bet that Daniel is already finding another clearing, gathering the wood, and calling out behind him, “Bring the fire, bitches!”

—Jessica Dickey



Cino Nights plays will be fully produced for one night only on a monthly basis through December 2011.

The playwrights, in the order their plays will appear, are:
Gary Sunshine: October 3, 2010;

Mando Alvarado: October 24, 2010;

Courtney Baron: November 7, 2010;

Florencia Lozano: December 12, 2010;

Kristen Palmer: January 23, 2011;

Emily DeVoti: February 13, 2011;

Cusi Cram: March 20, 2011;

Daniel Talbott: April 17, 2011;

Jessica Dickey: May 22, 2011;

Adam Szymkowicz: June 19, 2011;

Laura Eason: July 17, 2011;

Sheri Wilner: August 28, 2011;

Daniel Reitz: September 18, 2011;

Crystal Skillman: October 23, 2011;

Megan Mostyn-Brown: November 13, 2011;

Charlotte Miller: December 11, 2011;

Keith Reddin: January 2012.


For further info, visit www.RisingPhoenixRep.org

Contributors

Emily DeVoti

Crystal Skillman

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN is the author of Cut just produced by The Management. Her adaptation of Action Philosophers! and her mini rock musical for Theater in a Van, Mrs. Perfect! And the Unexpected Visit of Evil!, will be a part of the Comic Book Festival this June. Her play Perfect is being produced by LiveGirls this summer in Seattle and her play Birthday, which is about to be released in a publication with Sam French alongside her play Nobody, will be done at the Camden Fringe Festival this August.

Laura Eason

LAURA EASON is the author of more than 15 plays, both original work and adaptations. Upcoming productions include: Sex with Strangers (Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (People's Light and Theater, PA), Ethan Frome (Lookingglass Theater, Chicago (also director)), and The Undeniable Sound of Right Now (Rising Phoenix Rep, NYC). More info at www.lauraeason.com.

Jessica Dickey

ADVERTISEMENTS