Photo by Kelly Van Dilla
PXP got in touch with Matt Minnicino and Elizabeth Nearing, the playwright and director of Marvellous, and asked them some questions:
1) Complete this sentence: Marvellous is the only play in Fringe NYC that…
M: tells a story about a storyteller who has to choose between telling stories and telling his story. Say that three times fast. Also, I’d bet money there’s never been a Fringe show that contains a character who has two eye patches, or such an excruciating use of puns per capita.
E: so directly confronts its own narrative and draws from so many multitudes of stories to weave together this one. Also most certainly the only one with a character named “Poop Jones” .
2) What was the inspiration for Marvellous?
M: One of the most sublime wordsmiths of our age, the late Seamus Heaney (a poet not too familiar to younger audiences), was a student of the magic of myth — his translations of Beowulf and adaptations of Sophocles and Ovid are, to me, definitive. One of Heaney’s collections contains a remarkable, simple poem about a legend in which a flying ship gets its anchor stuck in a Medieval Irish Abbey. The monks below watch a sailor climb out of the ship to untether it, and realize that he’s “drowning” in their reality. The concept struck deep in me when I first read it. The sailor is of course helped by the monks and, as Heaney says, “climbs out of the marvellous [sic] as he had known it.”
Heaney’s stories are all about stories, and the layers upon layers a story must have in order to be worth telling — not just good characters and plot, but a reflection on what storytelling is, and quiet but powerful messages about the world in which we tell stories. He composed verse for children that, according to him, he wished he’d been able to read when he was young. Marvellous emerged from this desire to weave a yarn about myths that allowed its audiences to understand why we tell stories and how to use language in exciting, energizing, entertaining ways, and to cast a spell with simplicity, vigor, creativity, and love.
E: As a child I was drawn to stories that challenged me and sparked my imagination. I was charged with directing a play for young audiences and I found myself unbelievably frustrated with many of the plays I was reading. This is when I started talking to Matt, a brilliantly creative human being I’ve known since we were kids. We started talking about what drew us to creative lives and collecting inspiration for a piece. Looking over our correspondence, I found this Roald Dahl quote-“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” I think for me, the play started somewhere in there.
3) Tell us about a memorable experience from the creative process of Marvellous!
M: The whole thing has been one long, unbroken, yearlong memorable experience. One fragment sticks out though — I, a playwright tending towards very adult subject matter, incest and abuse and war and grief, had a lot of trouble seeing a future for this little play about stories and growing up. The incredible director of Marvellous, Elizabeth, arranged a reading of the play through The TRUF Theatre Company to keep me excited. I remember being in an abysmal mood that day, feeling spectacularly unhappy with myself, and the last thing I wanted was to be confronted by something I’d created that I found inadequate.
But the evening turned out to be magical, with a bevy of randomly selected folks from a small audience in a bar in the East Village doing a cold reading of the first 3 acts. The audience was ebullient and responsive, and I suddenly felt like there was some magic I hadn’t noticed, brought out only through collaboration and made real by an audience of open-minded, good-hearted people. Elizabeth said we needed to actually do the play, and for the first time, I truly agreed.
E: The most memorable moment has to be when we were unloading our set from our U-haul onto the sidewalk of a crowded 14th street before getting into the theater for our quick tech. I distinctly remember turning to someone and saying “I hope no dogs decide to mark there territory here” and mere moments later we turn around to see a dog lifting its leg and doing just that on one of our set pieces. The owner was completely oblivious of what was going on. Needless to say we washed it off and moved on.
4) What are the difficulties presented with working on a show in the New York City Fringe Festival?
M: Ha! Plenty, I’m sure, but as a playwright I’m left mercifully unawares. I think the biggest challenge is probably the crazy timing for shows — it can be a fair bit of work to get people to see a play at 9:00pm on a Tuesday, or whatever slot you might be given. But it’s a fascinating challenge.
E: Time is the biggest one. We put the piece up with seven rehearsals and one quick three-hour tech. Having almost no time to workshop the text, the process was all action and wildly fun, challenging as it may have been. As first time Fringe participants, we also learned a lot about working within the guidelines of such a large festival.
5) What do you hope audiences will take away with them after the show?
M: A little magic. A few answers to questions they maybe haven’t thought about in a few years. And some terrifically bad puns.
E: An amazing teacher I had once told me that hope was the key to great theatre. And that is what I’d like people to take away from this piece- a little bit of hope that in this crazy time there is still magic. Athol Fugard once wrote that “there is only one truly winged aspect of our natures that allows us to escape the confines and limits of our own personal experience and penetrate others that we never have— the human imagination.” I find myself going back to that quote often. I hope this play reminds people of that power.
6) Who are the unsung heroes involved with Marvellous and what were their contributions to the finished product?
M: A wide support base of loyal friends whose sponsorship made Marvellous happen, a selfless cast (but that’s obvious). Though hardly unsung, I can’t underrate the incredible work of Daniel Dobrosielski, our Puppet Designer.
E: There is not a person who worked on this production who doesn’t deserve an incredible shout out. I could not imagine a more wonderful group of people to create this piece. For the unsung heroes- I would say the friends, family and coworkers who donated time, space or money, spread the word, and all of the little seemingly insignificant gestures that pull together the community around a production.
7) What would you say to someone who thought theatre wasn’t for them?
M: Theatre isn’t for everyone! Maybe theatre isn’t for you! But give it a chance. Don’t let the word theatre scare you away. Think about the word play instead. Theatre is a playground, and if you allow yourself to play with everyone else, to take a risk on a weird story, you might. A bunch of people is telling it live just for you in a way that will never be the same for anyone else. Go see a Shakespeare play done by a bunch of kids on no budget who have only passion and nothing else. And then let me know what you think.
E: Theatre can mean a million different things and one of the greatest things about it is that there is no ONE kind of play or story. Like Matt said, you may not think it’s for you. But if you give it a chance you’ll get something amazing out of it.
8) What would you change about New York City theatre to make it more accessible to young people?
M: Challenge them! Treat them like adults and don’t lock them out of the adult world! So much of the spark for Marvellous emerged from seeing the innovative and mature ways in which organizations like Pixar, Jim Henson, and Disney deal with “family” stories. When I was young, I could see brilliantly exciting family fare on the big screen or in books, but for theatre I had to turn to plays nominally for adults (Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde) to see something onstage that would push me. We need more plays for young people that are willing to be as challenging in language, plot, character, and structure as the things kids are getting on the page and the screen!
E: Again, I think Matt may have said it best. We can’t teach people that theatre is distant. Like teaching anything, we can’t apologize first. We have to invite them to join in.