When I heard playwright Jeff Lewonczyk was smashing together my two favorite worlds—comics and theater—to curate their latest summer festival of awesome at the Brick Theater, I geeked out. I’m not sure if I accosted him while he was eating dinner at Dumont or before a Vampire Cowboys Saloon show—my favorite places to corner friends with interrogating questions.
“Some might say that its a challenge to translate a two-dimensional art into a three-dimensional medium, but I disagree,” Jeff, who is also the writer of Bubble of Solace in the fest, entertains my excitement. “Many refer to comics as ‘sequential art,’ which requires readers to complete stories in their own minds by filling in the blanks between panels with their own imaginations. However, theater does this, too—you have a limited number of elements with which to imply an entire world, and the best and most satisfying work takes place within the viewer. They may have different kinds of gutters, but theater and comics both manipulate space and time.”
It’s what my husband, comics writer Fred Van Lente, and I always talk about. The worlds that we share when we pen either plays or comics are tied together by exploring the choices we make to tell a story dramatically within a certain space and time. Working through panels of characters is working through beats with actors.
I’m just one of the many theater artists (working alongside many personal friends from the indie theater scene, it seems!) tackling this challenge with a little superheroine rock musical Mrs. Perfect! for Theater in a Van and in adapting Fred’s comic with artist Ryan Dunlavey, Action Philosophers!, alongside director John Hurley (who directed my play, The Vigil or the Guided Cradle and Hack! for last year’s summer festival).
As the festival opens and runs all of June, it seemed like the perfect time to check in with my fellow creators—while the words may be theirs, I couldn’t help but fictionalize them in a comic book script!
JILLIAN TULLY on FIVE THINGS!
Jillian Tully (writer, singer, actor) sips coffee looking out her window. Of course she is wearing a fuzzy hat that has, uh-huh, cat ears.
JILLIAN: I’d been kicking this story around—the story of a disenchanted 30-something Brooklynite and her genius cat named Rhubarb—for about a year. Five Things is essentially a four-volume webcomic that exists in my head. The characters, the things they do, the places they go, their story, and the way it was written—it’s all very much borrowed from the style of webcomics such as Girls With Slingshots, Questionable Content, and the print comic Box Office Poison. Without giving too much away, what we’re doing with the staging, tech, and multimedia is basically showing you the comic as close to how it would appear on the page as possible... There are many stylistic nods to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in that.
Insert Crystal’s smiling head in a caption a la Stan Lee for an “Editor’s” note.
EDITOR’S NOTE: FACT: Some of the playwrights—like James Comtois—have tackled superheroes on stage before…!
JAMES COMTOIS on CAPTAIN MOONBEAM AND LYNCHPIN!
From the shadows, James Comtois emerges holding in his hand a deadly weapon: his new play!
JAMES: Captain Moonbeam and Lynchpin is actually very, very different from Colorful World. Whereas Colorful World is a fantasy that takes place in an alternate world where costumed crime-fighters and super-powered beings exist, Captain Moonbeam is a dark family drama that takes place in the recognizably real world where an adult who dresses up in a cape and tights has serious mental and emotional problems. I’m a big fan of both comics and theater, so I’ve always loved injecting certain elements from comics in my plays. However, they’re very different media: the former is silent and is experienced privately at the pace of the reader, the latter is audible and experienced communally at the pace of the performers. But I’m looking forward to using those comic book elements of stillness, silence, and intimacy in a live piece.
ROBERT ATTENWEILER on OUR GREATEST YEAR!
Robert, donning a vintage football jersey and making scrambled eggs, shares his latest adventure.
ROBERT: For me, The Adventures of Max Quarterhorse, spun off from my 2008 play, All Kinds of Shifty Villains, is all great, pulpy genre. Our Greatest Year is less obviously comic-booky—it’s about marriage and sports and (a little bit) about Superman. It was interesting to us because of that. The motion comics are essentially the third character in this play and we’re looking at them as a great way to expand the story world of a play that we’re going to approach very simply on stage. Hey, it is a Festival, after all. The early results look great and, while we haven’t married the live and motion-comic elements fully yet, I think it will be a lot of fun. With us, the biggest challenge is actually presenting a comic book as part of the play and having it work as theater. We’re doing that by making it a motion comic that will be voiced-over and projected on a screen and... we’ll see. It’s very similar to having a video or slide element to your play... but it’s not that. It’s a comic book page that you are trying to bring to life.
KEITH BOYNTON on GUTTER SPACE!
Keith Boynton uses his brute strength to push back brick walls on either side of him—not unlike how a “gutter,” the space in between panels in comics, supports visual storytelling!
KEITH: Our show involves actually representing comic-book panels as friezes onstage, and that’s proven to be much more challenging than I anticipated. Real people just aren’t as malleable as drawn people are, and panels are much harder to compose when you don’t have full control over the audience’s perspective. That said, I think the “panels” are going to look really cool in the end. Our lighting and set designers, Charles Forster and Alexis Forte, will be giving us a major boost in that area. The greatest joy has been forcing my cast and my director, Ben Kamine, to read all kinds of comic-book material as research. Ben found How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way useful, but he’s really loving Understanding Comics—which, as it happens, is one of the key inspirations for the Gutter Space script. Not to mention that, when we submitted it was only a hope, but the idea of working with an artist of Reilly Brown’s stature was irresistible. And we got him! Credit goes to Lauren Sankovitch for that.
EDITOR’S NOTE: FACT: Lauren is an awesome editor for Marvel! She’s edited many amazing books, including Taskmaster by Fred Van Lente! Reilly Brown has worked with Fred on a little book called Hercules that Fred writes with Greg Pak!
ADAM McGOVERN on FUNNYBOOK/TRAGICBOOK!
Adam in a Viking hat, drinking Stella, playing Donkey Kong at Barcade.
ADAM: Acting buffs still remember when Lawrence Olivier did an omnibus evening of French farce and Shakespearean downer, and comic-geeks still revere when Marvel put macho superspy Nick Fury and effete wizard Doctor Strange in the same anthology book. I liked that big-tent culture idea, and wanted to collide the worlds of serious art-comics geekery and frivolous super-fan geekery. Thus our moody historical fiction of a very familiar psychologist and dictator and our goofy saga of an all-too-recognizable space-Viking was born!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Adam is also the editor of the ComicCritique blog and the very cool Pood anthology!
KELLEY RAE O’DONNELL on ACTION PHILOSOPHERS!
Kelley, who plays Ayn Rand in Action Philosophers!, rises up before us–arms crossed with the weight of her objectivist theory…and of course of becoming a real stage star!
KELLEY: It’s fun and educational. American-Russian. Individual. Mostly philosophical. Smoke filled. A big adventure!
EDITOR’S NOTE: I have to ask her about being our lady philosopher in a room of overly think-y guys!
KELLEY: I’m Smurfette! Ha ha! Man actors Ben, C.L., Joe, Neimah, and Ryan, plus man director John, are all so much fun to work with and are all ridiculously talented. I’m a big fan of these guys. I will say that rehearsals smell different. Would you agree as the other lady in the room? All that testosterone! It smells like flowers, leather, and paper clips. Seriously, the process has been amazing. I love that we try so many different things—cut this, add this, dance here, etc. Action Philosophers! is awesome and huge, and selecting story pieces to focus on is nail-biting. But to do all of them would take two days with six 10-minute intermissions, I imagine. Maybe some AP theater sequels in the future?
JOSH MERTZ on BATZ!
Caped Crusader Josh Mertz, co-writer with Erik Bowie, with his Batmobile still revving, takes a sec to chat with us while stopped at a red light on Metropolitan Ave.
JOSH: Batz—I don’t want to spoil too much, but if you know Gatz, you can probably guess the premise. A man arrives at work to find his computer down. With nothing else to do, he begins to read aloud from a comic book, and his coworkers slowly begin taking on the characters in the stories. We differ from Gatz in that our show becomes a fast-paced, comic romp through several classic Batman stories. We were brainstorming for something unique to submit to the festival, and it just came to us! Gatz is probably one of my favorite shows I’ve seen in New York (and Gatsby one of my favorite novels), and Batman is my favorite character, so it just gelled in my brain somehow!
JON HOCHE & ERIC SWINDELL on GALATIC GIRL!
Jon Hoche, writer, and Erica Swindell, Galatic Girl, take time out from pushing random buttons in their spaceship to address us:
JON: Galactic Girl in: Attack of the Starbarians was written exclusively for the Comic Book Theater Festival. I knew I wanted to do something in space, and using fond memories of Barbarella and Flash Gordon from my childhood, as well as iconic, ?80s pop culture such as Transformers, He-Man, She-ra, etc. As a huge fan of comic books and theater, this festival is like my own Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. The comics are the peanut butter. Just in case you were wondering. I’m hoping that people come to see Galactic Girl in: Attack of the Starbarians and are instantly transported back to the fun and excitement they felt watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Had to ask about the costume! Which is pure, revealing spacegirl magic!
ERICA: The costume was sort of a collaboration of ideas between Jon and myself and then we pitched our drawings to our awesome costume designer, Candice Thompson. We knew since we were doing a babes-in-space play that it had to be fun and sexy, like most female superheroes. Wonder Woman hotpants anyone?
The Comic Book Theater Festival runs June 2–July 1 at the Brick (575 Metropolitan Avenue, between Union and Lorimer). Different shows run different weeks, so be sure to check the complete schedule. For further info and tickets to all shows ($15), visit The Brick Theater or call 212-352-3101 or 212-868-4444.
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.