Stories Within Stories: The Talking Bands The Parrotby Lizzie Olesker
It is told and retold
told and retold
One story seems to end
and a new one unfolds
Then it’s told and retold
told and retold
The stories never end
The stories never end
—from The Parrot, by Paul Zimet
Paul Zimet and Ellen Maddow are the founding members of the Talking Band, an experimental theater company that I’ve known and worked with over the years—as a performer in their 1989 piece New Cities and participant in their ongoing Performance Lab, where a wide variety of theatrical questions are explored without the pressure of a production. Because of our shared experiences, language, and sensibility, The Talking Band feels very much like my theatrical/artistic family.
I spoke with Paul and Ellen at their kitchen table in their Mercer Street loft, where they live and raised their two children, Anya and Isaac. Their home embodies what the Talking Band’s work is often about—the interweaving of a quirky, detail-filled domestic life with a rich and varied tradition of experimental theater techniques. Paul and Ellen’s work focuses on the music, poetry, imagery, and heightened theatricality contained in the ordinary yet extraordinary small, lived moment.
Paul and Ellen’s creative work and home life have always been deeply, integrally connected. I have three children of my own and find that the work of parenting and being a playwright is a continually unfolding drama in itself. I asked Paul and Ellen about their own experience with having kids and creating theater, and how this relates to their upcoming show for children ages ten and up, The Parrot.
Lizzie Olesker (Rail): How did The Parrot come to be?
Paul Zimet: It was commissioned by New Dramatists (an organization for playwrights where Ellen and I are currently members) and the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis’s Playground Project which encourages writers who don’t usually write for children, to write for them. The Flea Theater heard a reading of The Parrot and wanted to present it.
Rail: Where did the idea for the play come from?
Zimet: It came from a collection of Italian Folk stories by Italo Calvino, from one of the stories called "The Parrot." The form was like Sheherazade—in order to keep alive, you keep telling stories. There are stories within stories within stories. In the original Calvino version, there is a king who has to go away. He is worried that his daughter will be taken away by a suitor. In order to keep her from going away, there is a Parrot who talks and tells her stories. At the end, when he runs out of stories, the Parrot reveals himself as a prince.
We were also inspired by a story in the New Yorker about these feral parrots who are living in places like Brooklyn and Chicago—these cold, northern cities. How they got here is amazing—it’s assumed that they got loose at the airport, or something, en route to pet stores. And how they survive is a mystery, a weird phenomenon that intrigued us.
Rail: How did you adapt those stories into your own?
Zimet: The play is set in a contemporary place, Queens, and the feral parrots—they’ve become the Parrot Chorus. They live outside the window like pigeons. And instead of a princess, there is a feisty contemporary girl named Bela who doesn’t accept everyone’s plan for her. Her mom works and her boss’s son, BB Junior, wants Bela to go out with him but she refuses. And BB Junior has a sidekick, Grovel. They’re a comic duo. BB’s not too smart and Grovel, though not as rich as BB Junior, is the smarter one of the two.
Rail: How was writing a play aimed for children different than writing plays for adults?
Zimet: Our own kids go to the theater all the time. They saw all this really sophisticated stuff when they were very young and could always explain it, sometimes understanding difficult performances better than I did. So, I don’t like to differentiate too much between what’s for kids and what’s for adults. I don’t know if there’s such a big difference.
Maybe The Parrot is more lighthearted—in the writing of it. I didn’t struggle about the big meaning of it. The idea is that it is highly theatrical and about transformation. A house turns into a forest that turns into a ship. The refrigerator hums—it transforms into the backup singers. There is a lot of magical transformation. The set will do that, too. A lamp becomes a tree.
Also, we’re working with puppets—it was great to work with Ralph Lee—we’ve worked with other wonderful puppeteers in the past—like Janie Geiser and Julie Taymor. There’s that sensibility when you’re not working with human beings, when you’re changing scale. The puppets do something that humans can’t do—there’s something enchanted about that. In The Parrot we use Bunraku sized puppets. The puppeteer is always seen. The Parrot is a puppet so there’s this theatrical moment when it’s revealed that the bird is really a man. We’re having fun with the theatricality of it all. In the language of the piece, too, there are rhymes and puns. And Ellen’s music—it comes from transformed everyday things like plastic salad containers and rubber bands.
Rail: Is there a more childlike part of you that enjoyed working on this?
Zimet: I always feel that the Talking Band’s work is very transparent. It’s all about spinning stories—stories within stories. But The Parrot is about storytelling more than our other works. It’s about the power of stories—the power that the Parrot’s stories have in fending off the character of BB Junior, the power to fend off the material world. Stories and art have the power to fend off that world.
Also, the last few years I’ve been writing historically based plays that demand a lot of research. It was a great relief to write The Parrot, a play that was all made up.
Rail: How did your own kids influence The Parrot?
Zimet: Well, Bela is like my own daughter Anya, who’s now in college. I couldn’t have written about a 16 year-old without having had that direct experience of living in the house with a teenage girl. The way Bela is on the phone with her friends—several friends at once—Anya would do that. Or how Bela desires something else—all these things are happening to her but she’s feeling that something else should happen to her.
So, in making The Parrot, I was drawing a lot from my experience of my kids, particularly my daughter, creating characters directly related to them.
Ellen Maddow: And the parakeet who died.
Zimet: All the things the Parrot Chorus says came from this bird we had, our parakeet. Like that line, "I’m a bird! I’m a bird!" and "So annoying, so annoying!" Our bird said those things. We incorporated a lot of direct quotes from our parakeet. Bird behavior was ever present in our house.
Rail: I always think of you and Ellen when I think about raising kids in the theater. Your kids were so much a part of your work, and vice versa; the work was so much a part of your kids’ lives. What about that?
Maddow: When Anya was born, I suddenly had a sense of what was important. She put everything in perspective. It freed me—I wasn’t so worried if it was good or bad, it wasn’t this life or death thing anymore. And I only had a moment—what felt like a moment—to do it, to actually work on anything. So, I didn’t have the luxury of a lot of time—I just had to do it, that’s all.
I could go on for hours about it. There are positives and negatives. The negative thing is the time and how to deal with childcare. But the positive thing is having them there. A whole community of people became a really strong influence on my kids. You have this other family of adults who you work with who become a family for your kids, too. Instead of our kids being a burden to the process, they’re included.
They saw a tremendous amount of theater—were at so many rehearsals and shows. Our son, Isaac, traveled with us on tour to Russia when he was 4 and by the end of the run, knew the entire opening monologue, every line. And when Anya was about 5, she came to Europe with us when we were making and performing The Furies. She knew the entire play by heart. She said she didn’t want to be in it because there could only be one Electra, and she was already cast. So, she’d sit in the audience every night in her costume and speak the lines to herself.
I think it was really good for the kids, too. We weren’t so focused on them but at the same time we were around a lot.
Rail: What do you hope for from a production of The Parrot?
Zimet: I hope that a lot of young people and their families will come. The more young people that can be turned on by theater, not just "children’s theater," but theater, the more we will create new audiences. We need to make inventive stuff for kids now—interesting permutations.
The Talking Band’s upcoming production of The Parrot, written & directed by Paul Zimet, with music by Ellen Maddow, will be presented in January 2004 at the Flea Theater, 41 Walker Street, in TriBeCa.
For further information, call the box office at 212.226.2407 or visit the Flea online at
Lizzie Olesker resides in Brooklyn, with her family, near the Gowanus. She will perform her new play SHRINK, with another actor and a series of small objects. Other plays have been developed/presented by Clubbed Thumb, New Georges, the Cherry Lane, and the Public Theater, among others. She also teaches playwriting at NYU and Swarthmore College.