Published in Panhandler Issue 6.
As a founding member of Tectonic Theater Project, Andy has appeared in three productions directed by Moises Kaufman (Machinal, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project) as well as several workshops and readings. He is proud to have been a part of the development of the company and marvels at its continued success. Other credits include: Innocents (dir. Rachel Dickstein), Mankynde: The Musical (dir. Louis Scheeder), Proof (Playmaker’s Rep), Wit (dir. Josephine Abady), Twelfth Night (dir. John Rando), The Quiet Room (dir. Lucie Tiberghien), Red Noises (dir. Melissa Kievman), Phaedre (dir. Matthew Maguire), Indelible Flesh (dir. Randy Rollison), Quick, Bright Things (by Jesse McKinley), Cymbeline (dir. Mr. Scheeder), The Merchant of Venice, Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and Love’s Labours Lost. Andy has lent his voice to several books for Recorded Books Productions and starred in Smile, a Radio Play. He is a graduate of NYU. tectonictheaterproject.org. (Photo credit: Jojo Whilden)
November 16, 2011
Jason Schuck: How did you get involved with Tectonic Theater Project and what is your role specifically within that group?
Andy Paris: I went to the same school as Moises Kaufman who is the founder and artistic director of the company. We went to the experimental theater wing at NYU. He was a couple years ahead of me, and when he graduated they brought him back to direct a play. Most people go through as performers, and he actually knew he wanted to go through as a director. And this program is very physically based in its training. There was a lot of modern dance. There was Grotowski training. There was also six view points training, which is Mario Overlie’s way of working and developing work in a theater. Most of us were learning to perform, but he wanted to use it as a director, not as an actor. Anyway, when he graduated, they offered him a production slot the next year so he came back to direct a play. It was Machinal, by Lillian Hellman. I didn’t really know him well at the time. I knew his reputation. I auditioned for him, and he cast me and that was the first time that we worked together. It was really sort of the founding project that launched Tectonic Theater Project (TTP), the presentation of that show. We found we had similar sensibilities, and so he included me as an original member when he founded the company.
Maria Steele: What was it about the production of Machinal that created the foundation for the TTP?
AP: I think that Moises was already beginning to cultivate his style of presentation and his striving for beauty in all moments, He was using all of the elements of the stage in order to support the truth of the play. The costume and the lights and everything, we were all sort of working with it all together rather than working on the scenes and adding all this stuff. The formation and the structure that we were using physically was part of the creation of the piece. That is where that sensibility started. It was really quite a beautiful production.
MS: You mentioned moments of beauty. In The Laramie Project, there were literally “moments.”
AP: Exactly. We developed a way to work even more like that. This technique, which we’ve named Moment Work, really crystallized during the development of The Laramie Project.
JS: Is that where he uses the term “Tectonic” or “moment work”?
AP: He chose “tectonic” because he’s interested in how narrative in the theatre is created and structured. Tectonic is the art and science of structure. We’re asking, “How, in the theater, do you construct a narrative?” And we’re using moment work, defining moments in the theatre as units of theatrical time. We were building a narrative from these blocks of moments or units of theatrical time. That’s where the research comes in. How can we push theatrical form in order to discuss in a modern theatre whatever we are trying to say in that particular piece?
MS: A lot of people think of creating art, and particularly writing, as a solitary experience. What was it like to work with others to create a single, cohesive piece of work?
AP: I think what it allowed for was a unique theatricality behind the piece. So we were all in the room working with the tools of the theater in order to create the production. Sometimes, when a writer is alone in a room, I think there sometimes is a disconnect from it being in the theater. Working as a group and interchanging all of these elements that we have, the sets and the costumes, the lights, architecture, shape, color, etc.— provides a unique theatricality. The other thing about working as a group as a performer, your involvement allows for a sense of ownership of the material so that when you step out on the stage, you know every nut and bolt of this production. You know how everything is working, how every mechanism of the play is working. So it lends itself to a kind of confidence and company cohesion that is really palpable to an audience watching. It is very compelling to see a group of people who are so in sync and so knowledgeable about what story they’re telling. A lot of times when you see a production, that’s what you get from an actor. It is not necessarily what the words are but whether or not they know why they’re there. I think that this process lends itself to performers knowing why they are telling a story, and that is really powerful for an audience member.
JS: Do you aspire to move away from acting into directing your own productions and writing?
AP: I’ve been moving more in that direction. I’ve directed and written a few things in the last few years. And I’ve also acted in a couple plays. So I’m still doing both. It just so happens this year, I’m concentrating on writing and directing. I’m developing a show that is actually a senior thesis project at Amherst College. A student there had an idea about doing a show about public education, and I’m mentoring him through the process and directing the play in the Spring. I also have my own project in development called Square Peg, Round Hole, which is about Autism.
JS: Do you prefer acting to directing?
AP: I love creating new work. If it’s the right play, I’ll act in it. If it’s saying something important, or it’s fun, or entertaining, I will act in it. But honestly, with these two big projects that I’m working on probably through the end of next year at least, it’s gonna be hard to fit anything else in. I love to do both.
JF: To be fair, things like Hot Tub Time Machine do come up.
AP: It is new… [laughing] I’m not gonna turn down the money if someone wants to offer me a feature film. And you do end up getting compartmentalized in this business. If you’re not always acting, people think you’re doing something else. You really do have to keep putting yourself out there. But I’ve gone through these phases before where I’m like, “I’m a director now,” and somebody calls and all of a sudden I’m in a show and then that leads to something else, and all of a sudden I’ve been an actor for awhile. I gravitate toward people and new and interesting projects, in whatever capacity I’ll work.
MS: What was it like to interview people and then see their characters in a play? Do actors naturally sort of put their own spin on a character regardless of whether or not they have met the person?
AP: First of all, there is an enormous amount of responsibility you feel, having looked someone in the eye, having their trust and then turning around and stepping into their words. There is a tremendous amount of responsibility there, and I took that very seriously. So having said that, you’re in a production that has other characters in it, and you’re playing ten characters. You may need to create a gestural vocabulary for one character to differentiate it from another character. You have to make it work. The bottom line is always checking back in. Am I broadcasting the truth of this character, this person? As long as I am comfortable that the answer is still, “Yes,” then that’s fine. I can deviate from what may have actually happened. Because mimicry doesn’t always convey the truth.
I think there is always an amount of interpretation. On every page of The Laramie Project there are constant reminders that we are introducing these characters to you. This is not exactly who this is. We’re stepping into these characters to relate to you the truth of what we heard. Every time someone introduces somebody or every time someone changes a hat on stage it’s a reminder that we’re not saying, “This is who this is.” Were saying, “This is our interpretation of who this is.” And that was very important to us to keep the integrity of the piece.
MS: Along the same line, I thought you did a very good job not getting offended by certain opinions that were expressed during these interviews. I’m thinking specifically about the Baptist minister. I’m wondering how you, when presented with someone who gives stereotypical responses, how do you interpret that? Or navigate that stereotypical problem in order to avoid reaffirming stereotypes?
AP: Well, it was very important to us that we were able to express a wide range of viewpoints that exist in the town because we felt like right when we got there that Laramie could be anywhere. We felt like whatever conversations were happening, it could have been anywhere in this country, and so, we weren’t out to vilify Laramie or any individual. We wanted to just collect all of the viewpoints, what everybody wanted to say about this and reflect that back to the country or at least to our audience. We wanted to reflect back to our audience what we heard. We felt that the full net of what was said to us was important to reflect. In other words, the dialogue that was happening in the country was very black and white and simplistic and pretty polarizing. That doesn’t mean that you don’t include polarizing ideas, but they want to exist among the balance of all the other ones so you get the full fabric of what people are thinking.
We really didn’t have time to get offended. We were, of course. We would go back home and think, “I can’t believe that person said that to me,” but in the moment your job is to ensure that people are safe to speak to you their mind. And they need a safe space to express what they believe. I think everyone deserves that: a safe place to say what it is they believe. Just because I don’t agree with it doesn’t mean that it is not important. Even if we collectively say that morally it’s wrong to say something like that or to believe that, in order to reflect that you have to have it be what it is first, and then people can decide what they think about it. If we’re already judging it, then people don’t really have to deal with it. They either have to believe what we say or think that we are being biased, and then we have already gone by the dialogue that we want to have. So it has to exist. Like when you get into campaigns and stuff, I don’t mind that people are radical. They’re standing at a podium and saying that most of the Muslims in this country are extremists, but someone should be able to say that so that people can react to it. I believe that.
JS: When you’re cast to play a narrator or something like that, do you run through different ways of saying those lines or do you read it as Andy Paris narrating?
AP: The short answer is, “No.” There is a character of a narrator who wants to find out something. So the reason that they are saying this to you is their quest for information to relate to the audience, and your job is to set it up. So if it’s just me, then it could be however I’m doing that night, and in the theater you’re looking for a performance that’s repeatable. You have to kind of find a hook as a performer of where you are and then find that every night. So I think there is a character. The other part of that question though is it’s not so much being a narrator as it is playing your role in the machine. If you think about these plays as mechanisms, every line, whether it’s a narrator line or a character line, has a very important role or action in the machine of the play. So your goal is to find out what that is.
JS: Could that change the way the lines are read on a performance basis? If you’re doing these plays on a nightly basis, does it change nightly?
AP: The idea is that it not change but also that it live as if it is the only time it has ever been done. So it’s kind of a paradox. I did like 500 performances of Gross Indecency, and it was a year and a half of eight shows a week. I don’t know what that adds up to, but the goal of every single one of those is to make it seem like the only time it ever happened, which is really the truth because no two performances were ever the same. The beauty of theatre is that what’s happening is only happening once in front of you. There is no way you can repeat it. It’s living, and I think that’s why the theater perseveres as a cultural art form. It’s a place where we can all go and breath together, and you’re in something where it’s the only time it is ever going to happen. So even though the play is done 500 times, each time it is done everyone will get something different from it.
MS: You just mentioned Gross Indecency, and I’m wondering how that experience with that play prepared you for the attitudes and emotions you encountered in Laramie?
AP: It didn’t really prepare me. I don’t think there was any way to prepare me for the emotions that came up while we were doing it. Matt’s beating and murder was just horrific, and then to live next to that for awhile, there wasn’t anything that could prepare me for that. As far as form and structure of theater, well, what we were asking with Gross Indecency was, “How can the theater participate in history?” In doing that, I think the next logical extension of that was, “How can theater add to the national dialogue of a current event?” So when this happened, and we felt so strongly about it, it seems kind of a natural progression to go from one to the other and carry over a lot of those forms that we had found—like holding a book and saying, “This is from The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.” People quote from it. It’s the same thing as introducing it. ‘Marge Murry, I talked to her in her home, and this is what she said.’ It is a carryover of that theatrical structure and form.
But as far as the emotional content, in Gross Indecency we were always dealing with real people, but we were also dealing with people who had long passed. There were times when people who were connected to the characters showed up at Gross Indecency—Oscar’s grandson showed up—but it didn’t compare at all to what we encountered at Laramie. I always find it somewhat ironic. We had just closed Gross Indecency a month before Mathew’s murder, and the theater company always gets a little bit of income when a commercial production happens like that. We basically used all of the money from Oscar Wilde for that first trip to Laramie. I kind of feel like Oscar funded this whole thing—kind of started us off, gave us some seed money to go and write this play about Mathew and what he went through. There’s something kind of ironically justified about that.
JS: You guys did such a great job with The Laramie Project as film. What was your experience going from the theater to film, and if you guys were working on any other films or do you have any in the works or do you plan on branching out into that?
AP: The company definitely wants to continue working in film. Tectonic is sort of going through a transition right now. It wants to become more of a producing organization rather than an incubator for any one play. There are a few things that are kind of in the works, and hopefully that will work out.
MS: It seems like the Tectonic Theater Project attracts a specific kind of artist. How have you seen the project shape—your art, you talked a little bit about that—but what about those that you work with, the writers and the performers? How have you seen the project shape their art?
AP: I can’t really speak for other people. But I will say, formally speaking, it’s allowed me to pursue plays about ideas. Rather than relying on dialogue and relationship and character, it’s allowed people to dream about ideas and to have a form and a structure for investigating those ideas. So, I think in that way it’s profoundly affected people’s work and what they decide to do. At least speaking for myself.
MS: Let me ask this too. Have you noticed that people who work with the Tectonic Theater Project have trouble going back to something more traditional?
AP: No, I don’t think so. I think each project—and I use that term very loosely (each production, each play, each film, whatever it is)—has its own journey. And I think whatever your role in that journey is, is the role you take in it. You can’t go into a rehearsal process that’s a more traditional rehearsal process and pretend everyone’s going to be able to do moment work or you’re going to be able to tell people where the lines are going to go. The structure of the workplace is set up in the beginning and you—unless you’re in control of that work structure—then you sign on for whatever someone else says it is.
I have, though, when I’ve trained students in moment work, I have had them come back and say, “Even when I go into the rehearsal process for something else, I’m really so much more aware of what’s happening around me.” And I think that’s really valuable for the American theater. For it to have performers trained in that way, to be aware in that way, and to be listening in that way, I think is really important for the American theater. We’re going into professional companies and universities and high schools, and we’re doing moment work with students and training them on how we make our work. I think whether they go on to do pieces that are about ideas or whether they go on to do pieces that are done—actually created—by moment work and are writing performance from the stage—whether they actually go on and do that—I think it provides an awareness for a theater maker, an interdisciplinary awareness of how the theater works, that then provides a new insight into what theater is, and I think does affect how the work gets made.
JS: We talked earlier about you growing up in Goshen, Ohio. I’m curious how you got involved in the arts, if there was a moment of clarity at an age out in Goshen where you’re like, “I’m going to be a theater actor”?
AP: Actually, before we moved to Goshen I had started to go to school at a place called Seven Hills. It’s inside the City of Cincinnati. I had a sister who was three years older than me, and she started doing some workshops with a theater teacher at our school. I saw what the teacher was doing, and it was really interesting and fun, and so when I was old enough I did it too. And the teacher used to do summer workshops, and she would also do work at the middle school, and she was teaching acting at the high school and doing plays. Her name was Patty Flannigan, and beyond being a brilliant theatrical mind, she was a truly marvelous teacher: She was teaching people how to be good citizens. She was teaching people what respect was, what professionalism was. She was teaching people how to think for themselves, how to think creatively, to have confidence in themselves as creative people in whatever they were doing. She was a brilliant, effusive, strong woman who was unafraid of authority, who was challenging always people’s set ideas. She was a dynamic individual. So, I just started doing plays with her and taking her classes, and it was a place where I felt comfortable.
But I had a lot of other interests. Coming out of high school, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into a training program. Patty was always very realistic with people about what a life in the arts entailed and what it meant. And so I went to Colorado College for a year to explore my other interests. I was always a kind of outdoorsy person, and I wanted go and experience that and be in a place that was close to nature. was a summer start at Colorado College. They used to fill out their summer program by sending a percentage of their freshman class early to school in the summer. So, six weeks after I graduated high school, I was on campus. And then you have the fall off. While I was there that summer, I met a theater company that was doing a workshop there, , and we got along well. I had nothing to do in the fall. So they said, “Hey, why don’t you come work with us?” So, my first semester of college, basically, I was working at a professional theater in downtown in New York City. It was an incredible theater that was full of different kind of performers. And I was learning to do everything: lights, stage-managing, etc. And I was meeting a lot of people. And yet still I went back to Colorado, and I thought, “Okay, I guess I’m going to go back to school now.”
But I got into a couple of plays, and I just realized during that spring semester that all my energies were going to the theater. I had all these other interests but I was kind of letting them go, and I was putting all my energies into the theater. So, not wholly satisfied with the theater program at CC, I decided to transfer. And so I transferred to NYU the following fall. Patty had always been a proponent of physical training in theater, and she used to talk a lot about Grotowski and his work, and we would do some work in that vein. She knew about this Experimental Theater Wing; a lot of people had come out of our high school and gone straight into this program. And so I already knew a couple people in the program. When you get to NYU undergrad, you have a lot of different schools that farm you out to different programs. There’s a Strasburg Studio and there’s an Experimental Theater Wing, and there’s Atlantic Theater, and then there was Adler, and there was a musical theater program. And so there were all these different programs. Most of the time, they place you—by audition or how they need to fill out the numbers or however the matrix of the way that they do it. I don’t know what it is. But I said specifically I want to come here, and I want to go to the Experimental Theater Wing. They placed me there, and so that’s how I kind of decided that this is going to be a career.
MS: You mentioned that this past year you’ve been doing more writing and producing. I’m just curious. Can you talk a little bit about what inspires you—books, plays, things like that?
AP: Definitely seeing work inspires me. I think there’s just no substitute for that, for just seeing what people are doing, what images are coming, what other people are interested in. It doesn’t really matter what you’re seeing. There’s always something to be gleaned from it. What inspires me is what’s happening in the world—trends, conversations that are happening. There’s always something that’s sort of caught fire, that people are talking about. I was really excited when Amherst approached me about this play about public education because it’s part of what’s happening. It’s sort of one of those lightening rods, like Gross Indecency was. When Oscar’s trial started, it started all these things, an explosion of conversations about their values, about their laws, about where they were as a culture.
Public education is one of those hotbed issues, where you start talking about demographics and education, you start talking about money and economics, and you start talking about values and teachers and relationships. It’s all of this stuff, and people get really passionate really quickly about their school and charter schools and what that means for their kids and it really is at the forefront of what people are talking about right now. That excites me. That really excites me. It makes us question what our values are, and when you do that in the theater, I think it really creates a lot of sparks. It’s motivating to make work about something that is really important to people and what people are talking about.
JF: We have about ten minutes left. Gabriela or Sarah, do you have any questions?
Sarah Kuhl: I had a couple, actually. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the reaction of the people in Laramie when you first came to the group’s being there. Did you have to negotiate sort of being very formal and taking lots of notes and recording and things like that versus just trying to carry on natural conversations? I was also wondering what their response has been to the production and the media surrounding it and all the attention that it’s received.
AP: When we first arrived…basically the media really targeted and swarmed this place, and they were everywhere, and everyone there felt very misrepresented by the media. They felt like they were portrayed as rednecks. Everyone across any kind of political spectrum, or economic spectrum or anything pretty much felt like the media got it wrong. When they saw themselves reflected in the news while all the trucks were still there, they pretty much shut up. They backed off, and they said, “We’re not going to talk to you anymore.” Once the initial fervor died down, the funeral happened, and people started to leave, they were still very wary of talking about it at all with anybody because they didn’t know who would overhear it and broadcast it all over the news. We got there about a month after all that had occurred. It wasn’t like we planned this. This is just what happened. They were letting down their guard, and they really needed to talk about this, about what happened in their town, about their feelings about it, including what happened because of the media but also what happened to Matthew. So, we came in, and we were very inexperienced at interviewing people. We were kind of bumbling. We didn’t really have any agenda. We weren’t asking very targeted questions. We just really wanted to know about their lives and about what their thoughts were, and so it allowed for a kind of spilling out of everything they had been keeping close to the chest for so long.
That’s the general overview of why I think a lot of people did talk to us. I will say that there was great resistance in people talking to us, and people who quite literally wanted to run us out of town for even opening this up again. It was something that a lot of people wanted to go away, and we were representative of this onslaught of talk—of negative talk—about their town. So it was all sorts of reactions. It was like, “I’m so glad you’re here. We really need to talk about this.” It was, “Get out of my town. What are you doing here? Who are you? You’re from New York? We don’t like New Yorkers.” And then there were some people who were like, “Oh my God, thank God. You’re from New York? I love New York.” One of the things the play says is that you can’t say what Laramie is. You can’t say what Laramie says. You can’t say what Laramie does, because it’s full of individuals, just like this country is full of individuals, and so “America is this” or “America is that,” you can’t say that, even though a lot of people want to say that. So, there were all—the whole rainbow of reactions. I happen to get a lot of negative reactions when I first started, and that was something I had to overcome to keep going.
SK: This is the first time I’ve encountered a theatrical production that is also documentary-based and seems to place importance on documentary work, and I wondered if you could say a little bit about does theater bring something different to the idea of documentary work, and particularly maybe the moment work that you were talking about?
Because when I think about documentary work, I think about documentary photography or maybe StoryCorps or something like that’s just in a sense very straightforward type of documentary work. And in my mind, I can imagine—and you’ve talked a little bit about this—the sort of creative liberties that actors have to take to maybe even convey a greater truth than simply the black and white mimicry. And so, there is a little bit of liberty there. I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about what theater itself can bring to documentary work?
AP: We sort of chafe at the word “documentary” a little bit because that’s not what we’re doing. We are constructing a narrative. We are constructing character. But we are not there to be a mirror. We are constructing a story of this play from events that actually happened. Sometimes that can feel very paradoxical and contradictory, and then sometimes it feels like there’s no other way to do it. There’s no way to be the mirror. I don’t know how you would even do that. There wouldn’t be enough time. You wouldn’t be able to get to enough people.
SK: Or if that’s even possible.
AP: As an artist in the theater, it’s our job to take what we soak in and interpret it and make it exciting for an audience to witness.
SK: Thank you. Well, you talked a lot about being an artist and of course working in the arts, and I wondered what you might offer to someone who’s interested in pursuing a career in the arts, given that it’s very difficult and there’s not a lot of money, not a lot of support as say the STEM areas or something like that. What would you say to kids and students or just anyone that’s interested in theater or any other type of artistic pursuit as far as making that a priority in terms of their career? Has it been difficult?
AP: It’s very difficult. Difficult in ways I couldn’t even have imagined when I was younger. Difficult in ways where everyday I have to make sure that this is actually what I want to do. Because if any day I wake up and I don’t have to do this, if there’s something else I can do, I’d better go do that. It takes a kind of twenty-four-seven attitude toward the world. You have to be all in. This is not a nine-to-five gig. If you’re going to survive, you have to go after it all the time. That conflicts with family. That conflicts with other things that might be really important. It’s going to take a lot of sacrifice and hard decisions.
SK: Thank you.
JF: You were speaking yesterday about how the value of an arts education also frames your entire worldview—that it’s not just about the utility of the job.
AP: Well, that’s right. Having said that, I think you were asking how people who really want to, go into the arts as a profession, but the value of an education in the fine and performing arts is valuable beyond any profession. It goes beyond. It’s important for cultural growth, and our economic growth and our growth as a nation and in the world. I think it’s beyond important.
JF: Gabriela, did you have any questions?
Gabriela Bustamante: I was curious, out of all your works, which would you say has had the biggest impact on your life or on your career as an artist?
AP: I think The Laramie Project would have to be that. It’s 2011 and this happened in 1998, and there hasn’t been any year that I haven’t invested some time and energy into the production. Whether someone is doing a production or needs help, whenever you do that, you’re always reconstructing your own work, and it always means something different as you get older, or as your life changes. It’s been something to reflect back to because it’s always been so present for all these many years. And also I was involved in the construction of that play from beginning to end and that doesn’t always happen as a performer. At that time, I wasn’t really doing much writing or directing, and so to have that experience, I think, kept percolating throughout the years to the point where I realized that when I had things of my own to say, that I had a structure and a basis and a way to do it.
I also think it taught me something about the power of what this is. People used to come to Gross Indecency and leave and say, “This changed my life,” but I never really believed them because they would kind of go away, and you would go, “Oh, they had a good time at the theater, and they’re being very dramatic.” A lot of the audience is dramatic too. But I think when you talk to people at length about a work like this, and throughout the years, it actually—very humbling and kind of surprisingly—has had a real lasting impact on people and people’s lives. I think I was always a little bit cynical about, “Oh yeah, the theater can change people’s lives, ha, ha, ha,” but I think it does have that power. I think it can do that. Living with that responsibility and that opportunity I think has changed the way I view my career and what I do.