Editor’s Note: Many think of Rhinofest as a place to see more experimental theater-- on the edge. It might be hit or miss- but if you see several pieces there odds are great that you will have fun. And, for sure, Rhinofest is also a time when the various playwrights, actors, and directors involved in it get and give off a lot of joy. Read below this Picture this Post (PTP) interview with playwright ChrisVanderark (CV) and director Michelle Altman (MA) about their upcoming world premiere at Rhinofest – Minutes and Seconds.
PTP - We’ve seen short Youtube pieces with the same premise as this play—did you help make these or did they inspire you? What else was inspiration for this script?
CV: What first got me interested in the idea of the Sun disappearing (or, shutting off) was reading about the history of eclipses and how people thousands of years ago interpreted what an eclipse even was. The word for an eclipse in many languages comes from “devour” or “abandon” due to the thought that the Sun was being eaten by an evil entity, or just leaving. This ultimately led me to the exact youtube videos you’re mentioning which then inspired Minutes and Seconds. What would happen to the planet itself is pretty terrifying, but I wanted to zoom all the way in and investigate what would happen to a pretty average family. How would you use the last weeks/days of your life as you slowly freeze over?
Right before I wrote the initial draft of this play I had directed a production of Wendy McLeod’s The House of Yes which is similarly about an incredibly dysfunctional family trapped in a claustrophobic setting. Her absurdly dark humor and nack for bringing out the comedy in the most mundane was really influential to me as I wrote this play. After seeing those youtube videos, I attempted to write a first scene not really knowing who the characters were or where the play was headed. I just knew one character really wanted to get something off their chest before they died - - and from there, the play just fell out onto the page like a bunch of fucked dominoes.
What does MINUTES AND SECONDS as a script allow you to explore that other works aren’t as good grist for the mill?
(CV) What’s exciting to me about working on this type of play is getting to really experiment with genre. I love hoodwinking an audience into thinking they’re about to watch a specific type of play, and then switch things up halfway through. Messing around with tone, genre, and how a story is being told is my favorite part about writing a play.
During past workshops of this script I always checked in with the audience to see what they were categorizing the genre of the play. Sometimes they’d say it was a family drama dressed up as an apocalypse play - - other times they’d say it was an apocalypse play dressed up as a comedy. I rarely would get the same answer twice. How you interpret the type of play it is ultimately depends on what areas of the play you connect with. The characters you side with, side against, relate to - - all of the characters are deeply flawed, but also pretty sympathetic, I find myself relating to different characters depending on the day.
On the topic of “Apocalyptic Plays” as a genre, one thing that was fun to explore in this script was the grim reality of the situation and how that motivates the characters. A lot of characters in apocalyptic stories are heavily motivated by survival - - that’s not the case with this play. The Sun has shut off, outlooks are grim, they all know they will not survive this. When “trying to survive” gets removed from a character’s motivation, their energy shifted to some pretty wild places. Pair that with some pretty disturbing family dysfunction? Things get nihilistic pretty quickly.
How does writing sketch comedy compare to writing a script like this one?
CV: A lot of tools I would utilize writing sketch comedy I was able to incorporate writing a play like this. The conflict, the stakes, and the rules are put into place almost immediately - - there is virtually no exposition. Also, the play moves fast (and I mean fast). The pace and speed of this play feels very much like sketch comedy which can be really challenging considering that rather than a seven minute sketch, we’re looking at a sixty-five minute sprint to the finish line.
The cast is doing a really great job of leaning into the absurdity of the piece. The play definitely asks a lot from them. From the word “go” they dive headfirst into the play switching from fast paced comedy to some really dark material.
That’s one way that working on this play is very different from working on sketch comedy. We’re given much more time to unravel these characters - - what begins with a set-up, a conflict, and a set of characters slowly devolves into something quite dark, almost horrifying. Once the wheel starts rolling there’s no stopping it.
Themes of forgiveness, atonement and redemption are integral to many religious frameworks. Do you have religious training or background that creates an affinity for this topic in MINUTES AND SECONDS?
CV: While not religious myself, I was raised and schooled in a pretty strict religious environment. Because of this, forgiveness, redemption and other themes that have strong ties to religion sneak their way into my work a lot. However, given my negative history as a queer person growing up in a religious setting like that, themes of hypocrisy, elitism, and performativity also find their way into my work - - and in this play particularly.
A big part of this play is about being confronted with the ways you’ve hurt people, specifically the people you love, and how you choose to react to those realizations. For the characters, there are so many things that have gone unsaid for decades - and now that the Sun has shut off, must be dealt with immediately, or never dealt with at all. In the span of ten minutes, the spectrum of their lives has shifted from years, to days. What can they accomplish, resolve, or bring up in the final days they have. I think people wanting forgiveness, and redemption is very human and not just a “religious mindset.” But when you have days left, forgiveness isn’t really an option anymore - - how can you truly forgive when you don’t have the time to even process the way that someone’s hurt you?
How long has MINUTES AND SECONDS been in the works? What other scripts are you working on at this time?
CV: Minutes and Seconds first had a staged reading in 2016 here in Chicago. After that, it had a brief workshop with IATI in New York - - and then I left it in a drawer for a couple years. Honestly, it was one of those plays that I figured I’d put on a shelf and never really touch again.
Michelle and I got the chance to work together on a workshop this past summer of a play I wrote and we threw around the idea of putting up a show together. When Rhinofest applications came along, I figured I’d give it a shot and see about getting this play on its feet for the first time. We got the news that we had a slot, so I took the script and did a total re-haul of the play. I changed some big things about the script that took it in some wildly different directions than previous drafts. I’m very, very excited to see this play come to life for the first time. It’s a weird, f**king piece and 2019 seems like a fitting time to give it life.
As for other things? I’m trying to take 2019 really slow. I might write a new play. I don’t really know yet. All I know is that I want to take a break, eat a lot of good food and spend time with my cat.
And Michelle, as Director did you select /cast these actors because of work you’ve seen them do before?
MA: I had only seen Nathaniel perform before this. Everyone else was recommended to me or was someone Chris had seen. We had a casual invited audition where they each read scenes from an old draft and we cast the rest of the show based on that audition.
What are the main challenges in this script, from a director’s point of view?
MA: One wonderful challenge is that the script leaves a lot of room for actor/director interpretation. Sometimes a script tells us how everything should play out very specifically. Chris gave us a script with a lot of room to find these characters and build this world. It feels more like a gift than a challenge but I guess it gives us more work.
Another challenge is finding the balance between the realism and absurdity of the play. Telling a non-linear story automatically presents challenges because you have to make sure the audience can keep up. And also know that sometimes they might not be able to or might have to do a little more work and that's okay too!
Are you especially drawn to directing comedy?
MA: I love comedy in almost all its forms, and I do have a special affinity for dark comedies like Minutes and Seconds, especially since it revolves around a dysfunctional family unit. And comedy is such an integral part of life. But I'm always much more drawn to telling a story than I am to directing within a genre.
What are the pros and cons and special challenges of creating a short run work for Rhinofest?
MA: A benefit of having an extended run with multiple shows a week is we learn a lot about a show by doing it. So a challenge in this format is that there's less time to explore the piece in its entirety. Conversely, there's no worry that the show will feel stale or overworked, so it always feels alive.
One of the best parts about being involved in a festival like this is the experimental mentality. We set up and break down our show each night. It calls to mind the traveling troupes of theatre history--the original national tour. As an audience, we have a different mindset in a fringe festival. We are not necessarily here to see a particular piece; we're here to see what's new and different. For a festival that honors one of the most absurd modern plays, an untraditional, non-linear piece like Minutes and Seconds feels right at home.
Wednesdays during Rhinofest
January 23- February 20.
All Performances begin at 9:00pm.
3502 N Elston
Chicago, IL 60618
Photos courtesy of Rhinofest - cast and creative team for MINUTES AND SECONDS