Interview: This Summer, It’s The First Ever Comic Book Theater Festival

When you think of comic books and theater, you think of two similar, yet highly fractious groups of nerds and geeks, both totally into their own disciplines, with no patience or respect for the other, right? Okay, that may just be me. But imagined separation or not, the wall between the two has slowly been breaking down, from live comic book talk shows on both coasts, to a big budget Spider-Man musical, to, er, three other Spider-Man Musicals.

But the biggest theater/comics collabo is yet to come, as this Summer, the Brooklyn based theater company The Brick will present an entire Comic Book Theater Festival. To find out what the heck is going on, we chatted with Jeff Lewonczyk. The Brick’s head comic geek. Oh, and threw our own hat into the ring, while we were at it:

MTV Geek: Tell us a little about the comic book theater festival. First, how’d the idea come about?

Jeff Lewonczyk: Well, we’re all geeks at The Brick, and we also have a history of producing themed festivals, so in a sense it was inevitable. It all started on a lark with a The Hell Festival in 2004 – a tongue-in-cheek concatenation of infernal-themed shows – at which point we realized that a festival is a great way to cram as many artists into our small space during a single month as possible.

We’ve done summer festivals broad satirical themes (e.g., the Moral Values Festival, the Pretentious Festival, etc.), other annual festivals highlighting a specific genre or discipline within theater (the New York Clown Theatre Festival and Fight Fest, devoted to stage combat) – and, most recently, a performance series called Game Play, which presents shows based around video game themes.

This last one has proven to be a particular success, both as a reflection of The Brick’s unique pop-meets-profound chemistry and with the gaming community at large. There seems to be a hunger these days for work that explores roots or themes dear to geeks, and, since we love work like that, the circumstances just seemed fortuitous.

Geek: And what’s the basic idea of the festival? What will people actually be seeing on stage?

JL: They’re going to be seeing a lot of different stuff, much of it difficult to categorize. On one end of the spectrum, they’re going to see “straight plays” that riff on comic book themes using traditional dramatic tools. On the other end, they’re going to see things like a special edition of Bob Sikoryak’s Carousel, an evening of performance in which comic artists do live, projected readings of their work.

In the vast space between those two approaches is where a lot of the magic will happen: shows that use theatrical techniques to simulate the experience of reading a comic; shows that feature actors interacting directly with projected visuals; shows that stretch our definitions of where theater ends and comics begin.

Geek: Are there productions that either you, or some other theater company produced that provided the impetus for this?

JL: As a creator, I don’t think I’ve done a single show that hasn’t referred to comics in some way, shape or form – they were my first love, before theater, and I still constantly use them as visual or narrative reference points. The first-ever show created by my own theater company, Piper McKenzie, was an exploration of old newspaper comic strips and an attempt to translate ideas from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics into a theatrical medium.

But in recent years, our friends in companies like Vampire Cowboys and Nosedive Productions have been rocking comic-themed material in a very overt and exciting way, and artists like Ben Katchor and Art Spiegelman have been translating their sensibilities to the stage as well. And of course, there’s this little Broadway musical you may have heard of…

Geek: They seem like two very incongruous media – one’s still pictures and words read by one person, the other is live performance, meant to be shared with a lot of people. How do you reconcile the two?

JL: Well, as far as I’m concerned, theater and comics are both media that rely on perceptions of time and space. In comics, the placement of the panels on a page combines with the time element of the reader tying those panels together in his or her own mind to create a unique aesthetic experiment. In theater, the time and space element is embodied directly in front of the audience – performers literally move around in a space and during a period of time.

The difference is that in comics, the reader is more or less in control of the experience, while in theater the performers are. Finding out where these differing (but possibly complementary) views of time and space meet up is going to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the festival.

Geek: You’ve opened the Festival for submissions… What if you don’t get any? I mean, I understand that’s always a fear, but here the Fest is so specific; do you think there’s a critical mass of comic book/theater crossovers? Do you have a few aces in the hole, in case those don’t pan out?

JL: Well, we’re going to have an amazing roster of shows, and the difficulty has been figuring out how many we can actually fit into our limited time and space. In truth, I was a little worried at first – the majority of what we were receiving initially was superhero-themed, and I definitely did NOT want this to be a superhero theater festival – if that was the case, I would have named it the Superhero Theater Festival. Luckily, we got a lot of fascinating submissions later on that broadened the pool and made for what I hope will be a diverse and interesting festival. But rest assured – there will still be plenty of superheroes.

Geek: Talk about what makes a comic book/theater crossover successful on stage.

JL: I think it’s going to amount to the same qualities that make either theater or comics successful on their own – an experience that allows the viewer to project his or her own imagination on the proceedings in a way that equals more than the sum total of its parts.

Geek: What kind of outreach are you doing to the theater community?

JL: We have a press rep, and we’re using our usual tools – social media, e-blasts, website, word of mouth – to spread the word. Additionally, each of the individual artists will be doing the same within their own (often overlapping) communities.

Geek: How about the comic book community?

JL: We’re working a lot with Gabe Fowler, proprietor of Desert Island, the Williamsburg indie comic shop which, not coincidentally, happens to be located right down the block from The Brick. We’re also going to be in attendance at the MoCCA Festival to spread the word, and, as you’ll see when we announce the shows, many of the artists have excellent connections within the comics community as well. It can actually be less of a challenge to get people who AREN’T part of the theater community into a theater, especially when the work involves themes they’re passionate about.

Geek: Will you be engaging comic stores in any way? Will comics be on sale at the Festival?

JL: As mentioned above, we’re working with Desert Island in particular, and we’ll be doing outreach to other NYC stores as we move forward. And we’re definitely looking for opportunities for the comic artists associated with the festival to sell their work as part of the whole thing.

Geek: Were/are you a comic book fan? Is this a way to bring your two loves together, or does it just seem like the right time for this sort of event?

JL: Short answer: yes. I am in fact a comic book fan, but an odd one. I’ve always been steeped in comics, and in some ways they’re among my most favorite things in the world. My heyday as an actual, spend-all-my-money-on-them collector was in middle and high school in the early 90s, but I soon ended up getting sucked into the theater and leaving it all behind for a while.

But over the past 10 years or so I’ve returned to them with a vengeance. I’m not a mainstream fanboy – the Marvel/DC stuff looms large in my mythology, but I’m not really an active reader of those titles anymore. My tastes run more to the vintage, the indie and the obscure. Gabe’s store is like the inside of my head, if I took better care of my skull. I have a stack of anthologies, collections and graphic novels next to my bed, and I read dozens of pages a night – not a day goes by that I don’t think about comics in one way or another

Geek: Let’s say Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark wanted to perform at The Brick – would you let them? Or would you not want to put the audience in that much danger?

JL: They could put on the show, but there’d be some ground rules. First of all, they can’t hang anything from the ceiling, so the flying is right out. Secondly, they’d have WAAAAY less time for tech. It would be a very different show – and, frankly, a much better one.

Geek: Would you be willing to do a performance of the Captain America musical? It’s just me though, performing it one-man show style.

JL: Hells yeah – if you got the chops, have legal permission (or a broad enough approach that we can qualify it as parody) and a kick-ass application.

Geek: I have none of that! Let’s be honest, though: this is a way to trick people into putting you in a comic book, isn’t it?

JL: A dream already realized, alas. Back when I was drawing comics regularly in middle and high school, my signature character was Captain Nifty, a sort of reluctant meta-superhero who had these incredibly self-referential adventures somewhat based on my life. In the middle of the first adventure I was displeased with the way things were going, so I introduced “Jeff Lewonczyk” as an omnipotent, Chuck-Jones-in-Duck-Amuck manipulator who kept changing the rules on the characters. The comic was doomed, but my future as an indie theater auteur was sealed. That being said, I’d be THRILLED if someone wrote me in as a character somewhere!

Geek: More seriously though, and just to wrap up, what’s your fondest hope for the Festival?

JL: That we all become rich and get production deals that don’t force us to compromise and spend the rest of our lives telling the stories and creating the experiences that we’ve always dreamed of. Failing that, that we have a good time, create some stuff that didn’t exist before and enjoy cheap booze together after the show.

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