After a performance of Sibyl Kempson’s Modjeska Dispatches #1, #2, #3, #4, & #5 at the (now defunct) Gershwin Hotel, I went up to Stefanie Abel Horowitz and Jerry Lieblich to say hello. She was the director and he one of the performers, and, although I didn’t know them until then, I’m typically eager to let others know when I am excited by what they do. That was in 2012. Since then the three of us have traveled in and out of the same artistic circles and late summer nights at the Gym at Judson, as one does. In each of their own work, there is an inclination to coil the magnitude of the world down the size of a seashell, that is, to approach heavy ideas in really quiet ways. I was so excited when they began their own company, Tiny Little Band, because I believe theater artists should wear many hats and make their own opportunities. I met up with them recently at La Flaca, over beers and under dim Christmas lights, to discuss self-producing and their new show, Ghost Stories, which opened April 30 at Cloud City.
Eryk Aughenbaugh (Rail): You’ve created your new play using a model of devised theater. Tell me a bit about the genesis of Ghost Stories. How has your process influenced the shape of your work?
Jerry Lieblich: The initial idea was super vague. All we knew was that we wanted to make something with ghost stories, darkness, strictly diegetic design, and music. I’m not totally sure why that was what we started with, but we felt there was a show in there. From there we started making little exploratory pieces around fear, basically splitting into teams and trying to scare each other. We work with performers from the start. So we would take 10 minutes and a set of parameters and try to make something scary. And while we mostly abandoned the idea of trying to scare the audience—it’s often just manipulative, or mean—what we learned about fear and the fear experience has informed most of the larger and smaller structures in the piece.
Stefanie Abel Horowitz: We’re trying to find ways that the audience isn’t just watching someone have the feeling, but they’re actually having the feeling. So, in the play, the way it really works is darkness. When it’s totally dark you can’t watch someone else and be like, “Oh, my god, it’s totally dark in here.” You’re actually experiencing the darkness for yourself. And we are talking about that, or drawing your attention to it, in whatever way in that part of the show. So it’s your darkness as much as it is anyone’s.
Rail: Can you talk a little about your company, Tiny Little Band, and how it began?
Horowitz: Tiny Little Band is Jerry and me. Jerry and I have been friends for seven years. We met in a very bad internship, and we started working together then—he being the writer and I being the director. And at some point he said, “I want to try devising,” and I said, “Oh, I don’t know, okay,” you know. And then we made a show in seven days that was 17 minutes long, and people liked it, and we kept making work as a company. So we’ve been making work as Tiny Little Band for two and a half years, and we’re legal now. We are a legal entity. Shit is official.
Rail: What lead to the formation of a self-producing company?
Lieblich: I think for us it came out of looking for a way to make a different kind of work, or to make work differently. I got interested in devising because I wanted to try working in space instead of just on the page. But I think there’s also an aspect of self-determination in it for me—thinking about the piece as a piece (instead of as a script) means you’re thinking about production from day one, which also means you’re less beholden to the machinery of new play development/production. And I think that’s probably the great joy of having our own company, making our own work. I think for Stef a lot of the initial impulse was asking how she as a director could be involved in the process from step one, how she could take on a more authorial role rather than being a semi-expendable hired hand—as is often the case for freelance directors on new plays. So that’s why we started working together, at least. As for why we became an actual company (instead of just a collaboration), it was for a pretty silly pragmatic reason: we needed a clear way to bill us on a program. The rest of it has been just figuring out what we need to make our work.
Rail: What are some ideas that enter into your artistic practices?
Lieblich: Identity over time is interesting to me. What intimacy is and what knowing another person is. I think what those both have in common—that may be the overseeing thing that I see in my own work—is the idea of faith. It’s a very loaded word in some of the wrong ways, but, I think faith, or belief, is really interesting. What is the jump across a logical gap? How do I know you, and how do I talk to you, and how do I exist and think of my own identity and how it changes over time? Also, a lot of Ghost Stories is all about how to live inside of that logical gap and what it is [for the characters] to, at the end of the play, walk into the house knowing that it’s the wrong house and do it anyway.
Horowitz: I’m also interested in intimacy. That’s pretty much at the central core of everything I do. I love environments. I love tents and forts and caves and wombs. I like things that are delicate and small. Simple, unadorned. I love childlike wonder. Which isn’t to say all my work is childish, but I do like it. All my work is quiet. All my favorite things are quiet. Although, our new show is probably going to be very loud, but in like the quietest way that loud can happen. But at the core of it is how to feel special—and that’s very intimate and quiet. Specialness. How to want it, what it feels like, how to give it.
Rail: In addition to your shared interests of intimacy, I think there’s a connection in, Stefanie, your interest in childlike wonder and, Jerry, your interest in faith and belief and jumping the logical gap. It seems childlike wonder exists in this place outside the realm of the logical, and, in order to explore it, one must take a leap-of-faith. For many that territory is far too dangerous. So, I don’t know if childlike wonder would be within the realm of the unseen, but it would be for those who don’t dare explore that place.
Lieblich: For adults, when you know things, or think you know things, it’s a reductive act, like saying, this is this bench, this is this table, these things are as I know them and no more. As opposed to being a kid and saying, yeah, but maybe there’s faeries everywhere. There is something of opening up—what is that space, and how do we break the reductiveness of what we think we know—that is in common to what Stef and I are both saying. Stef, you might not say it that way.
Horowitz: No, I think it’s great, but, something happened when we were making this piece. I’m a believer and Jerry is a logician. And someone told me a ghost story (it’s the ghost story that’s in the show), and I came home and I was so freaked out, and I was like “Ghosts are real” and—
Rail: The hitchhiker?
Horowitz: The hitchhiker. And I went to rehearsal the next day and said, “You guys, ghost stories! Ghosts!” And I told them a bunch of ghost stories. One of them was that one, and Jerry refused to believe it, and I was so upset. Because we’re really close friends, and I felt like he was denying me. So that was like the fissure of us in that sense, what you’re saying about the logic and the childlike wonder or the belief. That’s something that we bounce off of each other. Which I think is good. He is more on the logic side. I’m also very logical but love the idea of being able to believe. Wanna believe. Want to go down that. This is the core of it for me.
Rail: It resembles a dialectic: idea A meets idea B, they’re opposing, then you both take this path and synthesize the two.
Horowitz: Which is what’s fun about having a company.
Lieblich: And I think that’s so much of where we find the juice: finding the thing that we actually deeply disagree about. I think so much of my process of writing is how to understand what Stefanie is feeling and how do I get to understand what I’m feeling. There’s something nice about making the act of communication—instead of just between me and an audience—just between me and Stefanie, at least for a while. How do we agree on this thing that we’re saying? It maybe makes the work—
Horowitz: More personal.
Lieblich: Yeah, more personal.
Horowitz: This is also how we know we have a show. We know we disagree. Strongly. And it feels important, and it feels like something.
Rail: Do you think openness to what, Stefanie, you called “childlike wonder,” must predicate a belief in ghosts, or, at least, an experience to be open to, to—
Horowitz: To the possibility.
Rail: Yes, to the possibility. To actually seeing. Or does one have to unlock something within oneself in order for one to have either an encounter or to feel a presence—to have an unyielding gut feeling?
Horowitz: I would say yes, in that if you don’t you’re more likely to finish that experience by saying, “Oh, no, it’s nothing.” Not being able to own that it may have been a not-nothing. But how many people go into meeting the ghosts thinking they already believe in ghosts? Because that’s the thing about it, right, is that, somehow, the encounter has to make you say, “Whoa! Something weird just happened that I wasn’t anticipating and couldn’t have really believed until I encountered it.” Which is how ghost stories get told. Everything’s really normal, everything’s so normal, normal, normal, normal. And then this thing happens, and I cannot explain it. And that’s when the idea, the possibility of ghosts, becomes the answer.
Lieblich: Just to bring him into the conversation, Hume very famously wrote this amazing argument against belief in miracles. I tell you that I saw something miraculous—I say a crippled man can stand up, or I saw the sky turn blood red and it hailed, or some other miracle. Right? For you to believe that, the rational thing to do is say, “What’s more probable?” That I’m not telling the truth or that thing which goes against the laws of nature happened? And almost always, it’s that I’m not telling the truth.
Rail: Does any part of the work deal with a struggle of ideology? One force attempting to silence another; or one party wanting to conquer the other with a certain line of thinking?
Horowitz: I think only internally. I don’t think there’s so much a character fight, but there is a character who struggles about that. Is struggling with their belief.
Lieblich: You can talk about it politically: how can we understand the beliefs of people who are very different from us. It’s similar to, “How can I believe in ghosts, or how I can I bring myself to that unknown area where this sort of thing is possible and communication is possible?”
Horowitz: It’s not so much that two people are in dialogue about that, but, more, the piece has a dialogue with the audience, it says both things to them.
Lieblich: Something the play does often is say, especially the beginning, “These are true things.” A lot of the play is taken from true stuff. Which puts that question of belief in the audience members’ hands rather than the characters’ hands. Ideally.
Horowitz: If it works. If we’ve done our job right.
Ghost Stories, written by Jerry Lieblich and directed by Stefanie Abel Horowitz, runs April 30 – May 16 at Cloud City (85 N. 1st Street, Brooklyn). For tickets and further details, visit www.tinylittleband.com.
ERYK AUGHENBAUGH is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn.