Category Archives: Theater

Writing Craft, Vol. XIV: CORE Theatre Ensemble’s adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper


Cast members from the CORE Theatre Ensemble adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper rehearse at the Little Theatre of Norfolk earlier this month. The play opens on Friday. Photos by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — CORE Theatre Ensemble revives its excellent The Yellow Wallpaper adaptation at Little Theatre of Norfolk this weekend.

I’m excited to see it again, and excited to talk to some old friends about how they adapted the Charlotte Perkins Gilman work – and how the show has evolved. The short story, a late 19th Century exploration of an isolated woman’s deteriorating mental health, is a key work of feminist literature.

The story is structured as journal entries of Jane, who suffers from the control of her husband, expectations of society, etc., which effectively deny her the ability to think and control her own life. Core is well known for its physical performances, and some of the themes and suggested characters within the story are reflected in the embodiment by actors of the wallpaper.

The show has been performed locally before, as well as being taken on the road. It has involved casts of varying sizes, and the latest incarnation features all woman in portrayals of the isolated, thwarted heroine at its center and the wallpaper itself.

I talked with members of Core shortly before the first run of 40 Whacks. At the time, we discussed the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints training, CORE’s founding, and some of their adaptations and originals. This talk is with my longtime friends Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; and Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor and artistic associate.

The show runs at 8 p.m., Friday through Sunday, Nov. 30 to  Dec. 9, at the Little Theater of Norfolk, 801 Claremont Ave. in Norfolk. General admission is $15 or, for season subscribers, $10. FMI click this link or call (757) 627-8551. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: As you guys know, I’ve seen [and earlier production of] it, and I loved it. I really thought it was – I’d seen a lot of bad local theater when I saw it so  –

Ertugrul: [Laughter.]

Castillo: Okay.

Q: And I’m like, “Oh, I just paid eight dollars.” [Laughter.] But I really enjoyed this. I thought a lot about it afterward, thought about what you did, why you did it, and I thought it was a lot of strengths you guys have in a really great package. One of the reasons I talked to you about [40 Whacks], which I didn’t know going in, is that I liked The Yellow Wallpaper so much. So what I hoped we could do is talk about how you found that short story, and why you thought that might be material.

Ertugrul: I believe – It was long ago. [Laughter.]

Castillo: It was so long ago.

Ertugrul: We were trying to look for things to adapt. We wanted to do more adaptations. We had done some before and thought, “Well, what else can we do?” I had read this story when I was taking English classes in college, and I believe someone else had read it as well. And we said, “You know, that story resonates with me.” So we all went back and read it, and it was amazing how concisely and beautifully that story is written. Everyone kind of looked at each other and said, “Yeah, we can do that.” … There have been a lot of people who have done this as a show, but a lot of them do it as a one woman show. We did not want to do that. Just what we feel about –

Castillo: One woman, one man shows – [Laughter.]

Ertugrul: “A tour-de-force!” Of one person. [Laughter.]

Q: With that work, that isn’t really moving the ball that far.

Ertugrul: It isn’t.

Q: The short story is journal entries. It’s like journal entries for the stage.

Ertugrul: It’s like a giant monologue.

Castillo: That would be an easy way out with the story, that it’s one whole monologue, which technically it is. It’s a big monologue.

Castillo and Ertugrul

Ertugrul: We had seen another show’s [production stills] that had taken it very literally. … Someone was actually holding a roll of wallpaper behind the woman. … They were in period garb and things like that. I said, “The title of the story is ‘The Yellow Wallpaper;’ it’s not ‘Woman Loses Her Mind.’” It’s not anything like that, so we thought what if it’s this long piece of paper? And, if it’s this long piece of fabric that all these people manipulate, then they actually are all the people that she talks about. What if there really are women in the paper and we manipulate it as she deteriorates? If you give yourself four wall, or three in front of an audience, it kind of takes things to a – We opened up a door that meant we could put that door in the middle of a performance. It doesn’t just have to be the way that some set designer decided.

Castillo: Actually having people manipulate the same piece of cloth, you realize very quickly that if you’re moving one piece, then somewhere down the line [it affects another actor].

Ertugrul: Someone’s either got a lot or not enough.

Castillo: It’s a great physical dialogue between everybody holding the paper. They have to create this breathing entity, basically.

Ertugrul: We’re taught that everyone [in a cast] is actively crucial. The quickest way to make them even more crucial is to tether them together.

Q: How did you approach the journal entry structure of the short story when you determined what the text was going to be?

Ertugrul: We started as a monologue, because at the beginning she’s really trying to hold it together.

Castillo: There isn’t much cut from it.

Ertugrul: Yeah, we didn’t cut a whole lot.

Castillo: The story was natural to adapt for theater because its just first person. We made a compromise here and changed –

Ertugrul: A couple of things like tense or things to make it more conversational. Like we do have conversations between her and John [the husband of the main character and, effectively, her doctor]. We made that happen. Instead of her remembering a conversation with John, which is a very passive thing, we actually had the conversation happen. We just tried to have that conversation relived. It’s a little different in this production than it was in the one you saw.

Castillo: We’ve actually subtracted all the male [cast members].

Ertugrul: Someone would play John, but this time it doesn’t happen. It’s more of a choice. We came back to again and said, “You know, it really needs to be all women.”

Q: But why?

Ertugrul: What we’re going toward is that this really is inside her head. If there are no walls, if there’s nothing really tangible for her to hold on to, then we’ve got to start breaking down what’s real and what isn’t. From the very beginning, we’re in her perspective, so therefore these conversations really didn’t happen. Was she ever really in this situation? By not really nailing down our room, it opens up so many other interpretations. … With the original production, there was a person there in front of her that she could grab and pull and try to hug. … This is all head space.

Castillo: Really all you see on stage is the wallpaper.

Q: Was it a controversial decision to make the wallpaper plaid? [Laughter.]

Ertugrul: Yeah, the tartan. We had a problem last time when the MacCleods came. [Laughter.]

Q: Where did you get the idea to use fabric as the wallpaper?

Castillo: We were batting around a couple of ideas. I remember seeing this one production a few years ago and I thought it was really cool that they had pieces of spandex on one side of a room – a completely different play – but it was sliced up and down every, I think, six inches, and the actors would jump right through.

Ertugrul: [With fabric as the wallpaper], could be like cat’s cradle and you could be in it. [Moving her fingers.] So we found it in a remnant pile at one fabric store.

Q: Did you know the text at that point?

Ertugrul: We knew we weren’t going to change the text too terribly much. We said, “Read the story.” And then we met. We had the idea for the paper and we had two songs that we liked. We said, “This is the opening, and this is where things come. We’re in the middle of it.” And we said, “Do you want to do it?” And, as long as [cast members] bought into the idea that they we were going to choreograph this entire paper everywhere, and they were excited about it, they were the right people to have.

Q: The paper’s a character and plays characters. I’m not explaining very well, but it’s a setting but it’s also characters, individual characters. Am I explaining that right?

Ertugrul: Yeah, and then, how do you integrate that. As she starts deteriorating, the wallpaper starts talking back. … There’s a lot of choral work that goes on in it.

Castillo: It’s one character and then it becomes individual voices.

Ertugrul: [The actors in the wallpaper] have to speak as a chorus and also speak individually.

Q: But it’s not bat—-.

Ertugrul: [Laughter.] No.

Playing us out – because we are born of this land, and, like this land, immortal – is a tribute to Connor MacLeod that someone made on purpose.

 

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LitFest staged reading of 8 benefits ODU Out, American Foundation for Equal Rights


NORFOLK, Va. – In addition to the many terrific readings, talks, visual arts presentations and the like, next week’s 35th Annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival will feature staged readings of Dustin Lance Black’s play 8.

The performances run from Wednesday to Friday, and proceeds benefit ODU Out: Student Alliance and The American Foundation for Equal Rights. Black, a screenwriter who won an Academy Award for Milk, is a founder of the latter group.

The foundation has been fighting Proposition 8 at the federal level, where two elements of the judiciary already have sided against the state constitution amendment California voters passed in 2008, ending the right for same sex couples to marry.

8 is based upon testimony and arguments from the federal trial in 2010 before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which said Prop. 8 is unconstitutional. Proponents of the amendment are pushing the Supreme Court to overturn reversals, and there’s a possibility the high court may take the matter up soon.

The play debuted on Broadway last year, but it remains an incredibly timely work.

I traded emails with Bradley J. Bledsoe this week about the upcoming staged reading. Bledsoe, a junior majoring in finance, serves as director of finance for ODU Out. Here’s a quick Q&A:

Q: How did we get the staged reading here at ODU?

It was a combined effort that was initiated by ODU Out.  However – with the collaboration of the President’s Office, ODU Theatre Department and ODU Gay Cultural Studies – ODU will not only be producing the play 8, but also hosting a lecture for Dustin Lance Black for the President’s Lecture Series at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2.

Q: Where do the proceeds of the performances go?

Ten percent of all these proceeds will be going to the American Foundation for Equal Rights to help fight the Prop. 8 trials. […] The remaining proceeds will go to support ODU Out: Student Alliance’s mission:

  • To provide safe and reliable resources to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community;
  • Provide a voice for the LGBTQ community and its allies on campus;
  • Educate the University population about LGBTQ  issues; and
  • Work to promote and advance LGBTQ rights within the University community through policy.

Q: Why did you join ODU Out? How has it been meaningful to be part of the group?

I joined ODU Out nearly a year ago through persuasion of friends, faculty and advisors to effectively market and promote this crucial organization to not only the student body but to build lasting alliances of local LGBTQ organizations. Through this networking of organizations such as Hampton Roads Pride, Hampton Roads Business Outreach, LGBT Center of Hampton Roads/Access Aids Care and Equality Virginia, I found that ODU Out has built a stronger foundation for the organization to stand in order to successfully implement our mission statement.

Q: How can folks find out more about ODU Out and contribute directly to the organization?

We LOVE volunteers! For anyone interested in finding out more about volunteer opportunities or for more information on upcoming events, sponsorships and donations, we have an interactive website and Facebook page.

Black

Black speaks at 7:30 p.m, Tuesday, Oct. 2, in North Cafeteria at Webb University Center at 49th Street and Bluestone Avenue. Admission for the talk is free. Parking is free for literary festival events. Here is a fairly helpful map.

The staged readings of 8 are at 8 p.m., Wednesday through Friday, Oct., 3-5; and 12:30 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 3-4 at Old Dominion University Theatre, 4600 Hampton Blvd. General admission is $20; students $15. Parking? Still free, unless you go with a metered spot, which is on you.

Again, proceeds benefit ODU Out and The American Foundation for Equal Rights.

Lisa Keen of Keen News Service on Thursday noted that there is a significant Supreme Court session for LGBT issues coming up, and the Prop 8 issue is not alone. Keen writes:

Two of the nine cases include high-profile landmark decisions in federal appeals courts – one declaring the California’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, the other holding the core section of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional. Whether the court refuses to hear the appeals or takes them, the result will set up another landmark in the LGBT civil rights struggle.

Seven of the nine cases revolve around challenges to DOMA, one concerns Proposition 8, and the ninth is an attempt by the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage (NOM) to circumvent campaign reporting laws when it spends money to push anti-gay initiatives.

Here’s some background on “what’s next” in the Prop. 8 fight from The American Foundation for Equal Rights:

  1. If the U.S. Supreme Court decides to hear our case for marriage equality, the announcement can come as early as Sept. 25. AFER’s distinguished co-counsel Ted Olson and David Boies will file written briefs and present oral argument in the spring. A final decision would likely be issued by June 2013.
  2. If the Court decides not to hear our case, the announcement could come as early as Oct. 1. The Ninth Circuit decision that ruled Prop. 8 unconstitutional will be made permanent, with marriages starting as soon as the Ninth Circuit issues its mandate, likely within several days after the Supreme Court denies review.
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Theater: Karen Levy Newnam of RipplAffect on the local debut of Any One of Us


Karen Levy Newnam of RipplAffect. Courtesy photo by Andi Grant Photography.

NORFOLK, Va. — Norfolk marketing and communications executive Karen Levy Newnam has theater and non-profit roots, and these worlds meet in her involvement in RipplAffect.

Now in its fifth year, RipplAffect has produced a series of benefit performances of Eve Ensler’s plays, primarily The Vagina Monologues, to raise awareness and money for the YWCA of South Hampton Roads, among others, and support survivors of domestic violence and rape. RipplAffect has raised about $20,000 for the YWCA to date.

Three performances this month mark the local premiere of Any One of Us: Words from Prison, a collection of monologues conceived by Ensler and developed from writings by women serving in prison. LaToya Morris directs. Newnam, a founding member and principal of RipplAffect, produces and acts in the play.

We spoke by phone about a week ago for the following Q&A, which has been edited for clarity and length. As happens around here, I’m writing about a friend — and someone I admire for her heart, drive and commitment to the Hampton Roads community. Additional full disclosure: my wife, Cortney Morse Doucette, is a founding member of RipplAffect.

The performances are scheduled for 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m., Sunday; March 16-18; at The Perry Family Theatre, 485 St. Paul’s Blvd., Norfolk. Make reservations and get information by calling (757) 339-0578. Credit card ticket sales also may be made by clicking this link. Tickets are $15.

Donations to the YWCA of South Hampton Roads also are welcome. The performance is part of V-Day 2012, a response to violence against women.

I hope you’ll come away from this Q&A with a sense of how the arts can be used to support local charities, and I hope you’ll check out one of the upcoming performances. Additionally, Newnam speaks about some of the practical aspects of production — and about how conversations and ideas can become something that pays dividends.

There is one word below — hopefully, only one word — that may make you a bit uncomfortable. So you know.

Q: Let’s talk a little about RipplAffect. This is the fifth year, right? How did this start?

I was at a networking lunch with a group of women I met through Leadership Hampton Roads [now LEAD Hampton Roads]. We kept in touch and got together once a month. I was talking with Dorothy Dembowski, who is a friend of mine, just about plays that we enjoy and theater we hadn’t seen in a while, and just started saying, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be interesting to produce a play, and, if we did produce a play, why would we do it?’ And she had a lot of interest in women’s issues, as well. I did The Vagina Monologues years ago, a really great way to bring light to some of the issues facing women everywhere, but to particularly bring focus to issues in Hampton Roads.

I started talking to some of my friends in the theater. We said, ‘Okay, if we’re going to do this, why are we doing this?” We started talking about the issues that were important to us and the power of theater and the arts to really make those issues accessible. We weren’t interested in starting a non-profit to raise money that other people were raising or to start a non-profit to offer services that other people were doing a great job of. But we could certainly produce theater in an effort to bring more attention to what they were doing and help them raise money for the good work that already was happening.

Q: The first year you decided on The Vagina Monologues. Had you figured out you would be working with the YWCA before you decided on the play, or did the play come first?

The play had come first. I was at a fundraising luncheon for the United Way, and I ran into the executive director of the Y. I had been on their board in my early twenties. I said, ‘Some friends of mine and I would like to produce The Vagina Monologues, and we want to be able to partner with an organization that supports survivors of domestic violence and rape, and we thought of you and I wonder if you’d be interested.’ She said, ‘My goodness, we have an intern – her name is Denise Hughes – and she’s been wanting to produce The Vagina Monologues for the same reason. Why don’t I connect the two of you?’ So that’s really how it started. I connected with Denise. She’s amazing. She was a big part of the organization until she went into the Peace Corps. …  It just really came together.

Q: The first performance was at the YWCA, wasn’t it?

The first four were at the Y, actually.

Q: Some of the readers who aren’t from here won’t know the layout of the YWCA in Norfolk, but they’ve got this – what’s a wonderful meeting room, but not necessarily a wonderful theater space. But you guys kind of transformed it.

Exactly. We talked about getting theaters, and the folks at the Y said, ‘You know, it would mean a lot for us if we could bring new audiences into our building.’ So they have a very, very large multipurpose and meeting room …

We got in touch with fabric companies that support theaters, and we ended up ordering from a company out west. We ordered yards and yards and yards of black fabric and had it cut. I remember people with sewing machines and hemming and ironing, and we masked the entire space in black. Before that it was, ‘How do we turn this into a theater?’ That was one thing – let’s take the definition of the space away by masking the walls from floor to ceiling in black. Then we used some platforms to make some stage space, and actually that first year Natasha [Bunnell] directed, and she really had this vision of making the space even more vaginal. I think in between the black curtains we had flashes of red fabric. It was really something else. So when you bring the chairs in, you put a platform in, and you bring in the lights, and everything is black, it became a cozy theater.

Q: You have folks who are at, maybe, different levels of experience. I always found that the productions that you guys have done, that’s been really meaningful and informed the performances. Can you talk about the different kinds of people who have been involved in your performances over the years?

The first years, we really pulled a bunch of friends together, and said, ‘Hey, come do this with us.’ It was a phenomenal experience. We had some very talented actors. It was probably the second year that we had gotten a new director from outside of the group, and she brought in a bunch of women we didn’t know. So the group started getting bigger. The third year we actually advertised auditions. Little by little, new people entered the group. I think what speaks most to what it means to people was the fact that this year, besides myself and Cortney, the three young women – I say young women and I date myself – who are really instrumental in making this happen joined us along the way. [In addition to Morris, the director, they are Anna Sosa and Eileen Quintin.]

To some people it’s, ‘Oh, my gosh, I really want to do The Vagina Monologues.” Or ‘Oh, I need to do a play; let me audition.’ And then other people come into the fold, and it really touches them. Our director, LaToya Morris, has two jobs, and she’s doing this. She actually chose the play we’re doing, as well. This year we decided we needed a break from The Vagina Monologues.

Some people will do the show and be great at what they do and walk away. That’s fine, too. Other people, it’s the whole idea that through their acting they can elicit this thought process in people. They can open their minds to something that’s going on that they might not have thought about before and then hopefully give back in some way. It really has affected key members who keep coming back here year after year.

Q: You’ve had lawyers, students … Is it a challenge to bring people who don’t have theater experience into the story?

The year we did that the most, we were looking at it from a marketing perspective. How can we increase the audience? A lot of people, when they do productions as part of V-Day, will get members of the community to be involved. I reached out to folks, whether they were philanthropists or lawyers or radio personalities. That year, we pulled in a radio personality and a lawyer, and neither of them had acting experience. It definitely helped increase the audience, but it was an amazing process seeing someone who you consider a lovely person but is fairly reserved take one of the, I think, hardest monologues to do and get up on stage and, in character, talk about her vagina.

It’s pretty amazing. Challenging. You have a group of people and the director says, ‘You need to be off book by the 10th.’ Half the people are saying, ‘What does off book mean?’ When we have someone like that, we usually buddy up with them.

Q: The Vagina Monologues really does speak to people year after year. Could you please talk about why you think this material is something that is worth being performed and worth bringing people together in support of a community organization?

It amazes me, but at this point so many people haven’t heard it. It’s an interesting mix of humor, innocence, and just really, really in your face, dirty, ugly reality. I think for every moment of, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe they just said that’ or just horror at somebody’s plight in one of the monologues, the play also does a good job of bringing you around to the lighter side and just letting you enjoy a laugh, and then it wraps up with ‘I Was There in the Room,’ the monologue about birth, really celebrating women.

That’s one of the nice things with the new play, too. The final monologue in Any One of Us really wraps things up in a nice way. I think that’s why it’s successful.

We did The Vagina Monologues for a new group this summer, and I actually got into some intense conversations with one of the members of the board who was horrified and asked me to do some editing of the monologues and asked me to cut some of the monologues. It just got to the point where I had to say, ‘If you don’t think this is the right play for your organization, then you need to find someone else to do this for you.’ It’s not our mission to do easy theater. It’s our mission to make a difference, and this is how we make that difference. She had wanted me to cut [the monolgue] ‘Cunt’ and there were some other monologues she wasn’t comfortable with. We ended up doing the play, as is. At the end, she was just really touched. I think some of it probably offended her sensibilities, but I think she understood it. The audience, which was a different audience for us, was probably the best audience we’ve ever had.

Q: Any One of Us is kind of similar to The Vagina Monologues and some of the other theater work that Ensler has done. … This developed from workshops. [The project came out of a 10-year-old writing group involving Ensler and 15 women at a prison, according to V-Day.] Why did this play speak to your director and speak to the group as a whole?

We initially started doing this through V-Day, frankly, because it is easy. [If an application to do the play as a fundraising event is accepted by V-Day, there is no cost for rights.] They provide you all the materials for marketing. For people with full-time jobs, it makes it a manageable process. So when we decided to look at something else – that we wanted to do a different show –  the first thing we did was we went and looked at other pieces Eve had done and that were part of V-Day. And, also, we looked at other scripts. …

At the end, it really was the director who called our attention to this piece. I think the main reason was it was really eye opening. Once again, Leadership Hampton Roads – I guess it was a good thing for me – we did a tour of the Norfolk Jail, and we went through all the different floors. What really got to me was the women’s side of the jail. It wasn’t frightening being two inches from the bars where there were men. It wasn’t frightening being in the open areas where there were men. It was all fairly calm. But when you got to the women’s side, there was so much anger and so much aggression – and it wasn’t just bars separating, it was walls and windows, but it was palpable and it was, I thought, a very frightening experience. So when LaToya found this piece, it was the realization that, when you start looking at it, the numbers are staggering  –  women behind bars who are survivors of domestic violence or rape. Not making excuses for anybody’s actions, but we started realizing the correlation between the plight of these women and the causes we had been trying to bring light to.

Q: Is it a similar experience to The Vagina Monologues?

There are funny moments in the monologues, but I think the ride is a lot rougher. But, again, the final monologue is saying this could be any one of us. It’s not an easy ride. Not to say The Vagina Monologues is an easy ride, but this is entirely different.

Q: Why do you think this is a valuable experience for people to come and see? Why do you think this piece will speak to folks around here?

Hopefully, for me, it makes people want to help, want to support organizations like the YWCA that keep women from winding up in these places. I hope it at least makes them think twice instead of judging. When you think about neglect or you think about abuse, I don’t know that people often think about this side of it. I think making that connection is important.

Q: This production is going to benefit the YWCA again, but you’re not doing it at the Y. Why did you have the change of venue this year?

I just couldn’t see us getting on a ladder again and hanging curtains and sheets and begging for lighting again – not begging. The theater community is really warm. But every year we go out an say, ‘Can we please borrow your lights? Can we please borrow your platforms?’ Buying fabric when we don’t have it. And the idea of really being able to get in a space that already was put together and instead focus on the show itself was really attractive, and it’s been a much better experience.

Q: So the space has been pretty open about having you there?

Yes. We’re at the Perry Family Theater, [home of] the Hurrah Players. And I’ve known [Hurrah Players co-founder] Hugh Copeland since my time at Old Dominion University. Basically, I told him, ‘We ultimately will be looking to have a relationship with a theater where year by year we’re producing in their space. You’re probably not the space for that … ’ Not that Hugh doesn’t support it and believe in it, but they do family theater. It’s a very different audience. So they very graciously – I mean, they have let us rent the space for what worked in our budget. We don’t make any money. It all goes back to the Y. They’ve been great.

Q: Do you see a longterm relationship with this space, or are you looking for another space?

I think as long as they don’t get any backlash – which you never know – I think it’s a great space for us. It’s just a perfect space. We could produce there again. We’ll keep looking. There are other theaters we really need to be talking to and working with, and maybe their mission is a little more in line with us. I respect what Hugh is doing, and part of me does worry, ‘Is he going to get backlash for this?’ I hope not.

Q: Where do you see RipplAffect down the road?

I wish I could tell you. No one wants to let it go, but no one has the time to take it as far as we want to. In the perfect world I would have the money and create a non-profit and hire some of these fabulous women to run it for me. I don’t see that happening any time soon. I think this year we’ll be getting our 501(c)3, and we’ll make it official. And then I’d like to see us have a relationship with a theater so that, once again, every year it’s not running out to find a theater, find this, find that. I’d like to see it get a little more stable that way. In a perfect world we’d be running programs on college campuses. I mean, I think the mission is important, and it really speaks to the strength of the arts and to theater and the opportunity to really have an affect on people and the community.

Poster designed by Maya Elena Sosa.

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Writing Craft, Vol. VII: CORE Theatre Ensemble’s 40 Whacks


CORE Theatre Ensemble's 40 Whacks team: Edwin Castillo, Cayley Waldo, Steffani Dambruch, Paul Costen, Nancy Dickerson and Emel Ertugrul on the Little Theatre of Norfolk stage. Photos here and below by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — I caught up with members of CORE Theatre Ensemble this past week at Little Theatre of Norfolk while they readied their new play 40 Whacks, opening Friday.

Based on the Lizzie Borden murders, it runs for only three performances.

This talk discusses the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints training, CORE’s founding, and some of CORE’s past shows, including an adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper and the original piece You Vs.

The members of CORE are Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor, artistic associate and actor; Laura Agudelo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training assistant, artistic associate and actor; and Nancy Dickerson, artistic associate and actor.

The primary subjects are Ertugrul and Castillo, both of Virginia Beach and — full disclosure — longtime friends of mine. Sitting in were Dickerson of Chesapeake, as well as 40 Whacks actors Cayley Waldo of Norfolk and Paul Costen and Steffani Dambruch of the Beach. All were nice enough to humor my attempts at photography.

Showtimes are at 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 14, through Sunday, Oct. 16, at Little Theatre of Norfolk, 801 Claremont Ave., Norfolk. Tickets are $15 for general admission; $12 for senior citizens, students, and active duty or retired military; and $8 17 and under. The play contains unsettling images and some sexual content. Reservations are via (757) 627-8551 or at the Little Theatre site.

My thanks to CORE for the time — and for keeping it pretty clean. It had been getting a little salty lately in these Q&As. I’ll try to do better from here on out, Imaginary Mom Who Can Work A Computer. And of course call more. Love you lots.

This has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Can you tell me how CORE started?

Castillo: I guess this started because … we wanted to do it, really. (Laughter.)

Ertugrul: Well, we wanted to do a show that we wanted to make our own rules for. We didn’t want to do someone else’s piece. That’s usually what starts you with your own art, is deciding “I don’t want to do your art, I want to do my art.” So we did our art, and started involving people that – It’s not about finding people who agree with your art, but are willing to go along this way with you. It’s good to have people that agree with you just enough to feel comfortable to disagree and to make something beautiful. So that’s sort of how it started. It started with a conversation. And we’re still –

Castillo: Still at it.

Ertugrul: We’re still at it. I mean, five years later, six years later, we’re still doing it. It’s not like we started like, “You know what we’re going to do? In six years we’re going to be over there.” We did have a goal but it was much more immediate. It was about answering that first question, or answering that first desire of wanting to make our own stuff.

Castillo: And I guess our desire to create our own art, it’s not a slight against the theater scene around her at all.

Ertugrul: No.

Castillo: It’s just that we wanted to see something different out there.

Ertugrul: We wanted to do something different.

Q: From the start, there was a real emphasis on the physical Suzuki method. Could you talk about your influences? I don’t know if it goes back to (1990s performances at Old Dominion University performances of) MacBeth or (Eugene O’Neill’s) The Hairy Ape.

Castillo: Actually, it started with Hairy Ape. I met a guest artist Leon Ingulsrud (an actor and director  from SITI Company in New York) back in Fall 1997.

Ertugrul: Had you worked with “Bondo” at that point?

Castillo: I’d met him at ODU.

Ertugrul: Before (Ingulsrud), (SITI actor) Will Bond used to come down and work as a guest artist at ODU. One year, Will wasn’t able to do it and Leon came down to fill in, and then Leon kept coming back. Not every year, but for a good number of years.

Castillo: And the two of them belonged to the company in New York called the SITI Company, which was founded by Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki, who developed the actor method of Suzuki training.

Ertugrul: And they got together because Anne had been working on Viewpoints, which is a way of breaking down physical performance, any physical performance. It does stem from dance, but then they decided not only does it apply to dance it applies to theater, any kind of physical performance. She teamed up with Tadashi. (His) own company in Toga, Japan, does Suzuki, so they wanted to make a company that was utilizing both of these thing. That’s what SITI is now, and still is doing amazing shows. … Most of it is just about “Are you physically capable to do these amazing feats onstage?” Well, you can’t just walk on stage and do amazing things if you haven’t appropriately conditioned your body to do so.

Castillo: And the training itself, I mean, for practicality’s sake, the actor – the Western actor – does not have the type of training skills like other artists do. That’s why we believe in the training and also the SITI company. A dancer can always do their position one, two and three, and jete and all of that. … Musicians can do scales, singers, people who play instruments. But an actor really didn’t have any of that, except for memorizing a monologue and looking in a mirror. But there’s nothing physical to it. So the Suzuki method of actor training actually gives you something physical to work with that is really breaking down basic movements and seeing how exact you can be.

Ertugrul: What this training brings up for discussion is how do you know how to carry this character across the stage if you don’t know how your body walks? … If you don’t know yourself, then how do you put a character on top of that?

Castillo: In a physical sense.

Steffani Dambruch, center frame, during a rehearsal this past Sunday for 40 Whacks, opening Friday at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.

Ertugrul: This isn’t how to act. This is literally how do you carry your body as this character you’ve decided to play.

Costen: It’s like a precognitive way of deconstruction. I mean, there’s nothing intellectual about it whatsoever, but it’s something like deconstruction in that you break down the pieces and parts of what’s going on within your body and the space as it relates to your body and everything, but it gives you a greater understanding.

Q: Let me ask you about The Yellow Wallpaper, which, as (Castillo and Ertugrul) know, I loved.  … I thought that really married words that could have led to a melodramatic play into something really physical and visceral and interesting. How did that project come about? And I wanted to ask you specifically about the adaptation process (from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story).

Ertugrul: We sat down and said, “We want to do a show and we want to do it on our own and we … don’t want to buy the rights to do something.” The show that we had done just before that was something we had bought the rights to do and that’s fun, but we really wanted to make something that was completely our own.

Q: Was that Duranged? (Two Christopher Durang one-acts “The Nature and Purpose of the Universe” and “Titanic.”)

Ertugrul: Yeah. … After we had done (Duranged) we decided we wanted to adapt something. We sat down as a group and said what do you remember? What is the one story you really remember? And we came up with this list, and then we went back and we read them all. Just to see, “Well, is it really just my ninth-grade memory of it being such an awesome story. Or was it really a good story?” The one that won was “The Yellow Wallpaper.” And it really was the way that story was written — how it is done in journal entries — it lent itself so well to staging. From there we just started taking the actual words that she does as journal entries and started cutting it and making it into (the same) number of segments (as there are entries in the story).

Castillo: The fun part of adapting that was figuring out who were the characters. Really the story is just her, from her point of view.

Ertugrul: But the name of the story is “The Yellow Wallpaper,” not “Woman in Room.” So we decided that the main character in that story was the yellow wallpaper. The main character was it living and breathing and being comprised of more than one person. It looks different. It can sound different. It needs to be people doing this.

Emel Ertugrul, center, with Steffani Dambruch and Paul Costen in a rehearsal of CORE Theatre Ensemble's 40 Whacks.

Q: Can you describe how you took something to illustrate and used the multiple bodies of the actors to tell that story?

Ertugrul: One of the first things that happened with this training was we taught them how to move together. That’s the first thing, and that’s what the physical training does.

Castillo: The company for the show, for those who aren’t familiar, is a woman, the main character, and a husband, the other main character, but then we had a chorus of other people, was it six or seven?

Dickerson: It started as seven and then became five (when the play was restaged as a traveling production).

Castillo: So we had the chorus of people as the wallpaper and the binder between the chorus was this 80-foot piece of cloth, which we learned very quickly how to manipulate around the stage using the physical space of the theater.

Ertugrul: And the people.

Castillo: It really was just playing with how many ways can we utilize this cloth? As the story progresses, she becomes sucked into to wallpaper, and it becomes her psychosis of sorts because she sees people and talks to people in the wallpaper. So as the story progressed, we had the wallpaper on the outskirts of the space and it started intertwining.

Ertugrul: Into her world.

Castillo: At one point we’re actually holding her up.

Q: Can you talk about how you make decisions like that? Do you find that in rehearsal or do you know that going in?

Castillo: I say almost 90 percent of that is finding it in the rehearsal process.

Ertugrul: I think with that one we did have a completed script going in.

Castillo: But as far as manipulating the cloth and seeing how it works in different scenes, it was really trial and error.

Ertugrul: I do think we knew when she was finally gone, when she was really part of it, and we worked from there. … Deciding which emotion would go there.

Q: What’s it like to play a role like that? Do you feel like you have a say in the process of writing it?

Waldo: I think they came in with the adaptation pretty much taken care of. We played around with who would say what when and when our voices would overlap. Creating the show physically, it had to be a group process because there was no director who could stand there and say, “Okay, now move the wallpaper downstage.” We had to figure out this labyrinth of cloth together. We were playing one character together.

Dickerson: I had kind of a unique experience because (when Dickerson joined the cast) they had already done the show and they were changing it because it was based upon who was available and could drop everything and go to Canada for a week. I was like, “Hey, I can do that.” (Laughter.) So I would up taking on parts other people already had done because we took (the chorus) from seven people down to five people. The patterns of the wallpaper had already been established and it was, “Well, we have to take this down to five people instead of seven, but we need you to be here.”

Ertugrul: There was a lot of modifications where it wasn’t you just filling another person’s shoes. It was combining two roles. It was a completely different configuration.

Q: Did you cut apart the text or move things?

Castillo: I don’t think we moved anything, but we definitely cut.

Ertugrul: We put a scene in there where it was full-on dialogue between the husband and the woman, which doesn’t happen (in the short story.) It’s actually told all from her perspective. We made that scene. I’m going to be frank: I have not read that story since we did our adaptation, and I don’t remember what we changed. (Laughter.)

Castillo: On the adaptation side, it really did start with: “Here’s this entry; let’s read it out loud.”

Ertugrul: And go: “Boring. No. Cut it.” Or: “That sounds good.”

Castillo: Or: “Who says that? Oh, she would say that.” It really was that process at the very beginning. Just read it aloud.

Ertugrul: We had much more of an issue with Poe, when we did (The Poe [n. proj-ekt]), because there’s a lot of things that sound great in your head when you’re reading but when you try to do it (aloud) it wreaks havoc on your mouth.

Castillo: And there a point of adaptation where it’s “well, should this be said or is it an image?”

Q: Do you give the text a couple of passes and then start to figure out the movement?

Castillo: Yeah.

Ertugrul: The short story’s job is to put those images into your brain. Watching something theatrically, we’re supposed to show you that image with our actors. So one of the key moments of adapting is going, “Okay, what are we showing and what are we talking about?”

Castillo: Normally the adaptation is not a pretty process.

Q: I don’t know that gothic is the right word, but there’s a kind of aesthetic to the stories you seem drawn to. Also, I had kind of assumed that this stuff is in the public domain so in adapting it you don’t have to pay somebody.

Ertugrul: That was another pull.

Castillo: Definitely.

Q: Is there a consensus about the kind of stories you do? You guys do a lot of dark material.

Castillo: Well, we definitely —

Ertugrul: Well, you can say that, but You Vs. was not dark.

Castillo: There are exceptions.

Ertugrul: And Three Penny Opera can be seen as dark because it’s Brecht, but it itself is hilarious. It’s a very funny show.

Q: You’re sometimes taking source material and you’re kind of assembling. Do you look at it as a group authorship or do people take the lead?

Ertugrul: It really depends upon the show.

Castillo: I feel like with every show we want to get the group involved in the writing. I know with this show, I asked the group to bring in text that’s related. We have text from the actual trial of Lizzie Borden. We also have text from —

Ertugrul: A 1960s novel that was about the women’s movement of getting out of the kitchen and into the workplace.

Castillo: We have text from a Mike Tyson interview. … And Antigone.

Dambruch: I brought in a lot of Richard III. We didn’t end up using it.

Q: Why did you bring that in?

Dambruch: Richard III is one of my favorite all time plays. It’s very dark. There’s something about him as a villain … that I thought would be interesting to put into the mind of a woman.

Castillo: The theme I wanted (the cast) to go off of was crime, and one of the central themes of the show is getting away with a crime and guilt.

Nancy Dickerson during a recent rehearsal for 40 Whacks.

Q: What was it about Borden? Was it just that this is gruesome and it might get people in?

Ertugrul: I had read about it once before and I thought about the brutality of what it takes to whack someone 19 times in the head. What that sounds like. Think about how long it would take if you had to sit her and listen to me whack something, hit something 19 times. Really at eight or nine, you’re going to go, “How many times are you going to do this, lady?” You know? And Abby got 19 — that’s the stepmother — and the father got 11. That’s originally what started it. It was me, Nancy and Edwin, and we were over at Doumar’s one day, and I was like “think about that” over our milkshake and fries. (Laughter.)

Dickerson: Eating ice cream.

Castillo: So where we really wanted to go with this was, she got away with it. She was acquitted of it. Now how do you live with it?

Ertugrul: If there’s any question of where we’re going with this, of: “Did she do it?” We’re going with: “Yeah.” (Laughter.) We’ve done a lot of digging. Don’t read the first Wikipedia entry that you come to.

Waldo: Even the transcripts of the trial, there’s a lot of discrepancies there, too. Either it’s people’s stories changing or people not documenting things correctly. It’s very hard to get a true handle on this story because of how poorly it was recorded at the time.

Castillo: How does Lizzie live with the guilt?

Ertugrul: If you don’t get punished, you may punish yourself. … And the way that we’re staging the show is as a recurring nightmare. This is the nightmare she has almost every night.

Q: Do you tie it into the act of punishing the people she’s killed?

Ertugrul: No. It’s all about punishing herself.

Q: Let’s talk about You Vs. There was a really unique way you found content for that play. Could you just talk about that process?

Ertugrul: It started with True Office Confessions. (Laughter.) Yeah. There is this website called True Office Confessions and it is a venting board where anonymous people can go on and complain about where they work and the people they work with. It is actually extremely funny and every now and then you get one that is heartbreaking. … It started with this notion of, it’s always you versus. The way you start out your entire life is you against something else, and then you against you. So that became the outline of the show.

Castillo: Then we branched off. The beginning lines and the end lines of dialogue, we started with what do you hear kids say? Why is the sky blue?

Ertugrul: And we came up with all this stuff that wasn’t on the internet. And then the end of it we decided, “Well, what are the actual answers?” And between that, what happens between you being a kid and being a parent? … What happened was we did this (the beginning and end) and we were still hashing out the middle portion of it, and went what are we trying to say to them? That was the question. And we all had to sit down and go what are we trying to say to them?

Dickerson: It was a whole rehearsal.

Ertugrul: It was a whole rehearsal talking about what are we trying to say? Why did I ask you to come in and sit down and watch what we just did?

Q: Were you concerned about tying it up in a big bow too much?

Ertugrul: Yes. … And then what we decided was: “Go for it.” And if you honestly believe what you’re saying it can’t be too sappy. If we were acting at the end of that and didn’t actually mean it, yes. But we meant it. And finding that poem.

Q: Can we spoil the poem (at the end of the play)?

Castillo: “Oh Me! O Life!” by Walt Whitman.

Ertugrul: Using that reinforces what we showed about life being cyclical. … Using something older (than other “found” materials in the play) reinforces that.

Q: My favorite sequence is the balloons. I knew there was going to be some killer movement stuff because it’s you guys but it was like a play within a play. There was like a story. Can I ask you to describe that scene for people who haven’t seen the play?

Castillo: That actually came from something created by Laura (Agudelo).

Ertugrul: We had created short pieces for something that was done over at ODU … and we were taking Wallpaper to Canada. Brant (Powell) and Laura were still local and we were able to work with them where they were able to build two pieces. One of them was the balloon piece.

Castillo: We had taken personal ads from Craigslist and Portfolio Weekly, like, years ago, and The Village Voice … and reading these personal ads we were struck by the amount of hot air. … So we just turned that into a physical thing. We created a balloon factory, where a balloon started at one end, was handed over to another person, which was blown up (with) a little helium tank, handed to another person, tied with a string, and handed to another person to hang up. That was the sequence.

Q: And what happened along that assembly line at certain points, and these were little stories, was reflected in how well the balloon is made, whether it pops or lasts.

Ertugrul: And each one was placed in such a way that: “Okay, this one sounds very perfect. This one’s not so perfect. This one is too honest.” And then the color of the balloon would change. … It went on the scale of perfect to whoa.

Q: It’s not just the stories. It’s the actions, and there’s a range of motions that the stories have and the people handling — in a way handling the story as they pass it along — and there’s all these ranges of emotions as they pass it along.

Ertugrul: It’s funny to see someone reacting to a popping balloon.

Q: You have to do all this stage business and there’s so much movement. I think what I haven’t conveyed in describing this is it’s a very intricate process.

Dickerson: There was a lot of making sure I did or did not do things to certain balloons that I was working very hard to keep straight. … We talked about it as we went through it: “Wait, are we the people speaking? Or are we third parties putting the words into the balloons? Do we look at each other? We want to look at each other. Let’s not look at each other. Okay, we are not the people speaking. We’re the little magic men in the ATM who make the money pop out. So we’re the people in the factory who make these balloons. What are the balloons?” We ended up being objective third parties working in this personal ad factory …

Ertugrul: It would probably astonish people how much we talk about really specific moments. … That’s the precision. This show alone, that opening is very precise about where everyone is and where they’re looking and what’s going on.

Waldo: The precision you were just talking about, whether it is the minuteness of how do we blow up this balloon or the elaborateness of some big dance that’s happening, I think that’s what the training really helps you to prepare for. I think there’s a misconception with Suzuki training that … you’re going to get on stage and stomp all around the place.

Ertugrul: What does someone call it? “Stomping and shouting.” Do you guys stomp and shout on the stage?

Costen: Only in my mind. (Laughter.)

Emel Ertugrul and Edwin Castillo of CORE Theatre Ensemble at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.


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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XIV: CORE Theatre Ensemble


NORFOLK, Va. — CORE Theatre Ensemble, founded by alumni of Old Dominion University’s theater department, has a new show, 40 Whacks, opening this coming week at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.

It is, you might say, a family drama.

With axe murdering.

40 Whacks is based on the murders allegedly committed by Lizzie Borden of her stepmother and father in Fall River, Mass. Though she was acquitted, the case continues to remain a part of American folklore. There have been a series of adaptations (including a musical), a museum in Salem, Mass., and a bed and breakfast bearing the Borden family name at the site of the murders.

The B&B gift shop even sells a Lizzie Borden bobble head. So, you know, break out those credit cards.

40Whacks runs for only three performances. Showtimes are at 8 p.m., running from Friday, Oct. 14, to Sunday, Oct. 16, at Little Theatre of Norfolk, 801 Claremont Ave., Norfolk. Tickets are $15 for general admission; $12 for senior citizens, students, and active duty or retired military; and $8 for kids 17 and under. The play contains unsettling images and some sexual content. Reservations are via (757) 627-8551 or at the Little Theatre site.

In an email, CORE offered:

It’s a lot darker than The Yellow Wallpaper and definitely not as light as our last production You Vs.

The company practices the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and the Viewpoints improvisation system. They’ve been involved in traveling shows, workshops and collaboration with college and non-college theater students around the world.

Past shows include The Poe (n. proj-ekt), Duranged (Christopher Durang one-acts), and their excellent adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper. Other productions include Frankenstein, The Threepenny Opera, and You Vs.

The members of CORE are Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor, artistic associate and actor; Laura Agudelo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training assistant, artistic associate and actor; and Nancy Dickerson, artistic associate and actor.

The Yellow Wallpaper is one of the best plays I’ve seen around here, and I greatly enjoyed You Vs. earlier this year. We recently traded email for this Belligerent Q&A.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

We are:

  1. Students. In every production we create, we learn from each other as well as our casts as to what makes good theatre. Theatre that doesn’t bore us or make us wish we were somewhere else. We don’t pretend to know all the answers when we collaborate on new projects. We use our casts to help us understand how each production works. There is always so much to learn from another human being. It’s artistic conversation.
  2. Teachers. What we’ve learned over the years with our actor training and experiencing theatre outside of the U.S. Is that we strive to instill a sense of discipline and commitment in everyone involved with our shows, both onstage and backstage. Sometimes it’s easy to think that acting and theatre is ‘fun.’  Which it is and can be a lot of times — but it’s also hard work. It’s a craft. It’s something that needs to be developed and questioned.
  3. Harsh critics. Of our own works and others’.

Q: Is the Suzuki method the one in which you slap around some smart guy right out of the gate so the rest of the mugs in your crew lay off their damned shenanigans and focus on the one last job you got to do so the Big Man will let you out of the life once and for all and you can finally go straight with your best gal, Sheila, maybe somewhere warm like Costa Rica? Or is that the other Suzuki method with the violins?

Yes it is … the first one. In a weird way, yes, that’s exactly what it is.

The second one is also true, but we don’t know anything about violins.

Q: Castillo, you’re a love struck shoe salesman enamored with a walk-in customer seeking pumps. Agudelo, you’ve seen worse looking men, but you’re really just there for the pumps. Ertugrul, you’re the shoelace supervisor carrying a torch for Castillo, but he hardly seems to notice you – even when you try to lace up Agudelo’s non-lacing pumps. Action, CORE Theatre Ensemble. Action.

Black stage.

A blowtorch is lit by Ertugrul. Its light reveals Agudelo who is holding a broken bicycle pump.  Castillo is revealed, holding a sock and gently weeping.

Ensemble (whispered):  This is not a shoe store.

Blackout.

Q: A life in the theater – why? To very loosely paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, aren’t you really just trying to hurt your parents?

It’s easy to be boring and a lot of other things in life are just that.

Mom and dad didn’t raise boring.

Q: Your new production, 40 Whacks, is based upon the case of Lizzie Borden. After your research, writing and rehearsal, where did you come down on the hot-button issue of axe-murdering?

 Two pro, two con — so you’ve really got a 50/50 chance of knowing what we’re thinking about whilst in conversation.

Q: Often a new work is made by a key line that captures the essence of the greater work, and drives it, oh so fiercely, into the audience’s collective ribcage. Presumably someone in the play has a line such as, “It’s cleavin’ time!” or “I’m gonna axe murder you so fast you won’t know what hit you; at this point you should understand that it will be an axe that hit you.” or “Heeeeeeeere’s Lizzie!” Were there any other lines that didn’t make the cut?

‘You can’t ax in here! This is the sitting room!’

‘Can’t get the candles today, Brendonna.’

‘Poor girl looks as if she’s been raised on promises’

‘That’s gotta hurt.’

‘Are you there god? It’s me Lizzie.’

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. What else would you like to say?

There’s always more.  No matter what, there’s always more.

In honor of Fall River, the New England setting of the Borden murders, I am proud to present the following video.

There are many things to say about this video.

  1. Due to a very unfortunate editing decision early in the video, it is not safe for work.
  2. It does actually exist.
  3. Somewhere in New England, a place I like to think of as the Greater Rhode Island Metropolitan Environment (GRIME), the people who made this video are probably planning sequels.
  4. The decision to mix social commentary, quasi-sexual patter, and warmed-over Chamber of Commerce messages was somehow brave.

Remember: The city, they’ve been fixing all the cracks in the pavement.

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Writing Craft Q&A, Vol. VI: Sean Devereux of The Pushers (Part Two)


Sean Devereux of the comedy and improv group The Pushers during a rehearsal at his condo in Norfolk, Va. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – This is the second part of my talk with Sean Devereux of comedy and improv group The Pushers.

Devereux serves as the group’s co-producer, manager and co-head writer. Additionally, he and fellow founding Pusher Brad McMurran teach classes on improvisation and comedy writing at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, and also are involved in Improvageddon, a long form improv competition between local teams. Additionally, he recently was featured here in a Belligerent Q&A.

This discussion includes some adult language and frank discussion of jokes you may find offensive. It is toward an end. Additionally, one of the video clips contains adult language and probably is not safe for work. This Q&A had been edited for clarity and length.

It helps to have read the first part for context. You can find it here at this link.

Q: How did you get into the group?

My wife and I broke up and once that happened there was about a six month period of time where I was moping on the couch, and then I picked up Portfolio and saw auditions for a play over at The Little Theatre of Norfolk, and I said, ‘You know, I might as well.’ I did theater in high school. I was always more on the tech side but I did some acting in high school, but at least going out and auditioning beats sitting on the couch. So I went out and auditioned and got the role. … I think I had two lines …

I was really immersed. Afterwards the cast would go out drinking and meet whatever cast was rehearsing at the Generic. I just really fell into that community theater world. … I was actually kind of surprised I did fall into it. The cast I was in was kind of an all-star cast as community theater goes for the early 2000s in Hampton Roads.

Q: That, by the way, is the most specific Wikipedia page.

(Laughs.) It is. Not even Hampton Roads — early 2000s Norfolk community theater.

Q: It’s just a list with no links.

Exactly. Through that I just met a whole bunch of people. … I was having a good time with that. I started dating a girl who was involved in theater. I started a run of like four shows in a row, which is probably like a year and a half, and had just gotten burnout. The second to last play I was in was where I met Ed and Lauren Rogers, who is now in (another Hampton Roads area improv and sketch comedy  group) Plan B. We struck up a friendship. Through them I met Brad and Jeremiah (Albers) and a couple other people who would actually go on to form The Pushers.

Q: Rob Wilson (now of Plan B)?

He came in pretty close to the beginning. In fact, I wrote ‘Justice Crusaders’ with Rob in mind. For his audition, we knew he was going to be in but made him audition anyway. I’m pretty sure he read the Captain Pirate role at the audition. I’d also written another role with him in mind. …

At some length, we then discussed a sketch from an early show. Devereux wrote a sketch featuring two new characters. The following week he wrote a new sketch featuring the same characters, thinking both the original sketch and the new sketch would make it into the show. When the original sketch was cut, however, there was no context for the recurring characters. The Pushers went ahead with the new sketch, which bombed.

Q: There was no context?

It was eight or nine minutes of crickets.

Q: What did you learn from that?

Number one, we weren’t as big as we thought we were. We didn’t have a loyal crowd who would come to every single show. We learned that when you’re writing a sketch that has a recurring character, which I think is something definitely SNL has learned, you have to write the sketch almost as (if) it’s the first time people are being introduced to these characters. Which is why it’s so easy to take the game of the scene and apply it to a different setting.

Here’s ‘Justice Crusaders,’ a sketch we will discuss in some depth. This is a repeat of the link from the first post, for context. Again, NSFW:

Q: I think the writing is good. How do you build that scene?

I started that with Captain Pirate. Brad and I, we always have a couple of notebooks to jot down ideas. (He pulls one out of a bag.)

Q: Your brand is Mead.

Actually, one brand I have Mead. (Pulls another one out, reads the cover.) Downtown Norfolk Council – I’m not sure how … that was actually a work meeting. Moleskines, I actually have a couple in there. Something I can just kind of stick in my back pocket. It started with Captain Pirate. I just thought that was kind of an absurd name for a superhero. …

From there it just kind of grew. I think we came up – We don’t do it as much today, but back then we would meet and just toss out ideas. I think somebody else actually came up with Low Self Esteem Girl. Another actor was going to play Aquaman. I did notice there are some cheap jokes, like making Aquaman gay. That only happened because Jeremiah was in it. Well, Jeremiah’s playing him so obviously you’re going to have to make gay jokes. You know, never has a gay man played a character where there weren’t gay jokes.

Q: Well, stop there a minute. There are couple things there. There’s kind of a throwaway moment where Jeremiah leaves where he says something to Low Self Esteem Girl, he says “bitch” and walks out the door. How do you feel about those jokes a few years later?

Some  of them are, I would have to go back to cheap. There’s another one in there with Low Self Esteem Girl, and the reason I say we need Captain Pirate is because he’s a minority and we need a minority in the group. And Low Self Esteem Girl, Sandra (Hernandez), who is Hispanic, says well I’m a minority, and I go, ‘What do you want? A medal and a taco?’ And nowadays I don’t think I would write (that). You get a cheap joke. It doesn’t really do anything to progress the story of the sketch.

Q: Did you talk about it at the time, or was the idea just to push push push?

At the time it was just push push push. Rarely did we ever – The only sketch we ever thought maybe this is too far was a sketch I wrote called the Terri Schiavo diet where it was kind of an infomercial. There’s a new diet plan and the way it works is, you know, get into an accident so you’re in a coma and then have your husband remove the feeding tube and watch the pounds just melt away. Yeah. That was the only time we were, ‘Maybe that’s a little too far.’ But we put it up.

Q: Wait so you –

Oh yeah. We did.

Q: See, for me, that would just be too much for me. (Schiavo’s brain damage and the resulting vegetative state may have resulted from an eating disorder; she lost 65 pounds in her late teens, then struggled to keep weight off, subsisting on liquids, apparently.)

Exactly. We debated that almost until the night of the show. That sketch came from my uncle’s kind of dark sense of humor.

Q: I guess I wonder when you’re writing a sketch are you thinking this is satire? What are you satirizing?

Back then I wasn’t. I was just kind of writing whatever popped into my head. Nowadays it’s definitely more of satirizing I wouldn’t even say social conventions. Now it’s finding everyday situations that kind of bug people and just kind of take it to the absurd. Like I’m a big offender of always being on my phone. It drives Brad up the wall. So right now I’m working on a sketch where it’s two couples out on a date and three out of the four people are carrying on conversations with each other that are strictly on the phone. …

Q: Sometimes when I’m writing and trying to write toward something, if I’m commenting on a social thing or something about a (racial or ethnic) identity, it just kind of reinforces the notions some people have about those groups.

I think it is a fine line. I think back in the day, I don’t think we cared. I don’t think we ever really thought about it. We did a lot of racial humor, which we would always run it by Rob or Saeed (Wilkins), who was the other black guy. That would be our litmus test. You know, if we turned in a sketch and they didn’t punch us in the face then you know we were good to go.

Q: But that’s not much of a bar.

It’s not. Again, I think we – We had no bar. It definitely got us a reputation that we’re trying to shake now — of doing things for almost like shock value. The ‘God is dead line,’ that character, I like the idea of a priest losing his cool in the middle of a sermon. We haven’t done that sketch in two, two and half years. If we were to do it again I don’t think we would go to the ‘God is dead’ line. There’s no point to it. There might be one atheist out there who thinks it’s funny, but the rest …

Q: I mean, what do you want to do? Do you want to make people laugh or – What do you want to do with your writing?

I would say, first and foremost, laugh. I would like to say that we’ve done some satire as of late. Our Ghent hipster characters. I did one video for AltDaily where I play a politician. I do like that. Every time I write something like that I have a fear of, you know, becoming pretentious.

Q: I’m not saying it has to have a message. … One of the things I think writing of all kinds doesn’t do well is address differences, and I’m very conscious about writing in a way that reinforces differences that have been inflicted on people, not developed within that community. So I guess what I wonder is when you’re writing, not just in that context, is there something you want to accomplish with what you’re writing? Do you want to just make people laugh or do you want to keep turning back expectation? One of the things about the ‘Justice Crusaders’ is I think it does take the expectation the audience has and turns it back and it builds. There’s another sketch I was going to ask you about where you play the dad and Brad’s your son and he’s got to be gay (because his dad wants him to be). I think that sketch is about expectations turned around and it kind of builds.

It is. That sketch started out as an improv scene I did with a girl when I was taking classes in New York at Upright Citizens Brigade, and I do like looking at political correctness. I think that is a scene of like taking I wouldn’t even say political correctness, but taking it too far. Now the hip thing is to have somebody gay in your family.  You know, Queer Eye For The Straight Guy and all that. … When Queer Eye For The Straight Guy came out there was like, you know, people I knew who would watch it who would be fag this, fag that, but thought it was a great show. It was that way, and by saying they watched that it was like ‘Oh, no. I’m cool with gay people because I watch Queer Eye For The Straight Guy.’ Again, it’s taking political correctness to the – I wrote another one for Rob where a woman takes home her boyfriend to meet him for the first time and they’re shocked not because he’s black, but not black enough. They start quizzing him on Malcolm X and you know the black power movement and black authors. …

Rob a lot of times would get upset that he would always have to play the black roles. Like he couldn’t just ever play a doctor or a lawyer. It was the black lawyer or the black doctor. I was guilty of it in ‘Justice Crusaders.’ He couldn’t be just a pirate; he had to be a black pirate. And this was a sketch where he’s just supposed to be a boyfriend bracing for the fact that because he’s black a white family might be upset that their daughter is not going to be dating a white man. But they’re like no, if he’s black we want super black. …

It’s weird for a white person, you know, giving my perception of something black people have to deal with, but it almost seems that if you’re black you have to know the history of rap and hiphop because that’s your culture.

Q: In the mind of white people.

Exactly. In the mind of white people. It was kind of an exaggeration of what white people expect black people to be.

Q: Let me ask about Upright Citizens Brigade.

I think the most training I got that has helped my writing has been at Upright Citizens Brigade. They’re whole main focus — and this is applied to improv though it could be applied to all comedy — is finding the game of the scene. Stripping away everything, all the characters and things like that, what is this scene really about. That’s not that you can’t have a really funny scene that’s nothing but a bunch of crazy characters, but it seems the ones that are most successful are the ones you can break down into a simple sentence – what is this really about?

I think that’s something that has helped me the most with my writing, you know, stripping away all of the fluff. Which is hard. Nowadays when we write a scene there will be a lot of great lines and jokes and whatnot but sometimes they end up getting cut because they really have nothing to do with the game of the scene.

What does this character want? … Do they get it? Even if they don’t get it, what are they doing to get it. This other character, is he there to help him out? Is he there to be the voice of opposition? …

My process is so I’m wearing so many hats now, I have very little free time to do actual writing. I have my notebooks. I would say normally 99 percent of my sketch is written in my head. … I write almost like the nuts and bolts. I do find that because I’ve been thinking about it so long a lot of the funny bits of dialogue come out while I’m writing. I try to get out at least the nuts and bolts of the scene and go back and write in jokes later. …

Usually my premises are more relationship based ideas and usually autobiographical. One of the last scenes I wrote was right around Valentine’s Day, the day before my girlfriend apropos of nothing said, ‘You know what I really want? I want you to write me a love letter.’ I had written her a love letter, but now I’m screwed. Now when I give you the love letter on Valentine’s Day, yeah you’re going to be happy that yu got it but you’re going to think the only reason I gave you this love letter is because you told me you wanted a love letter. So I wrote a scene were a guy takes his girlfriend to a really fancy dinner and right as he’s getting ready to get down on one knee to propose she says, ‘You know the only way this could get any better is if you proposed to me.’ And then it just becomes absurd. … That actually got a pretty good response.

Q: So how did Valentine’s Day go?

It actually went well. She’s very understanding. Luckily I had other stuff to go with the love letter. …

Q: What are you plans long term?

We would love to open our own performance space, possibly a 60-seat theater. During the day we could have classes, then at night sell PBRs for $2 a bottle and put up shows. We’d like to own a theater and teach classes. And this is the pretentious part – maybe legacy. We haven’t given up the whole some day we could have our own show, but it’s not something we’re actively pursuing. We’re pretty good being a big fish in a small pond. But teaching comedy and improv, it’s kind of like making my name go on. Even if the theater is something that doesn’t make it, it’s something people will remember. …

We’re teaching. … I got pretty lucky. Hopefully we’re going to be helping people who have a similar type of dream and point them in the right direction. And it’s just fun.

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Writing Craft Q&A, Vol. VI: Sean Devereux of The Pushers (Part One)


Sean Devereux of The Pushers during a recent rehearsal at his Norfolk, Va., condo. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – I caught up again with Sean Devereux of comedy and improv group The Pushers at Colley Cantina for a beer and a talk about writing comedy, improvising and how far a joke can push.

Devereux serves as the group’s co-producer, manager and co-head writer. Additionally, he and fellow founding Pusher Brad McMurran teach classes on improvisation and comedy writing at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, and also are involved in Improvageddon, a long form improv competition between teams.

And Devereux recently was featured here in a Belligerent Q&A.

This is a long talk, broken into two parts, but those interested in comedy writing and other forms of writing — particularly finding the core structure of a work — should stick around.

This discussion includes some adult language and frank discussion of jokes you may find offensive. That mostly in the next part of the talk, which I’ll post in a couple days, but there is some adult language below.

For those who may be coming to this blog for the first time, I write it to learn from other writers and artists. I appreciate their time and honesty, and I have respect for the direct discussions they agree to be a part of. So thanks to Devereux. And thank you for reading.

Without further ado, part one of the conversation …

Q: How did you start writing?

I’ve always been a comic book nerd and my mom has comics that I wrote when I was five or six years old. I’m not a very good drawer but I could trace my hand. I would then turn (it) into a character. She has just pamphlets and pamphlets of these pages that I would draw one drawing per page and then write a caption and staple them together.

I always was very interested in comedy. … (W)hen I was in junior high and even high school, I would write scripts for The Monkees TV show. … Say what you will about their music and whether or not they played their own instruments, but their TV show still holds up as pretty funny. It’s a lot of absurd humor. It’s breaking the fourth wall type of stuff. I’ve always been fascinated with how they were kind of playing exaggerated versions of themselves, and then there were times they would break that character and go back to their real selves. I was always a big fan of that. I was a fan of Saturday Night Live.

Q: Do you remember the first time you saw SNL?

No. I do remember always liking the Coneheads. I always liked Bill Murray, but I’m not sure if that was from Ghostbusters and Caddyshack first and then Saturday Night Live after. I guess by the time I really was kind of aware of him, he must have already been off Saturday Night Live … so I must have seen repeats.

They did a big interview with (the SNL cast) in Rolling Stone and I got that issue and I must have read it a million times. It was kind of around then I decided I really would like to write for SNL, which I had forgotten about until my high school reunion a year or two ago. A lot of people were bringing it up. ‘That’s so cool – you were always talking about writing for SNL and now you’ve got your own comedy group.’

Q: What was it about the show that you liked?

I have a very short attention span so I like the sketch format better than sometimes even a half hour sitcom. Again, I always gravitated more toward comedies than dramas or even action movies. There’s just something about laughing I really enjoy.

Q: Did your folks have a good sense of humor?

My mom has a very weird sense of humor and my dad was kind of a life-of-the-party, lampshade-on-the-head type of guy.

Q: What’s a weird sense of humor for a mom?

She was a very strict mom growing up, but then there would be other times when we would be eating dinner and she’d be like, ‘Wow, these mashed potatoes smell kind of weird.’ And when we’d go in to sniff them she would push our head into them, which if my sister or I ever did it to one another we’d get in big trouble. That was our biggest joke. She always liked doing that.

She’s not like a joke teller or anything like that, but she’s really good at telling stories. She’s from New York and worked for ABC Radio in the early to mid 1960s, and her office was two doors down from Howard Cosell’s office. So she has a bunch of great stories about going out with Howard Cosell. Not dating, but just everybody from the office going out. She saw, when the Beatles came to New York, she got to go to the concert at Shea Stadium. When they gave their first press conference, she was actually in the room. She was the assistant program director at one point in time. She has a horrible taste in music. I always wonder how many really good bands never really got their shot because my mom would just toss their stuff before it ever got to the program director. She just has a way of telling a story and making it funny.

Q: You got that from her?

I think I kind of did. I’m not a joke person. When people find out I’m in The Pushers they go, ‘Oh, tell me a joke.’ I don’t know any jokes. I know maybe one knock knock joke.

Q: The one with the interrupting cow?

Well, there’s the cow one and there’s the other one where you start it. Start the joke.

Q: Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Q: (Uncomfortable silence, then laughter.)

For some reason, that’s my favorite knock knock joke. … It’s more to get back at people asking me to tell them a joke.

Q: You don’t see yourself as a joke teller, but you have to write comedy.

My comedy is very situational, or it’s more about taking something in everyday life and just exaggerating it. With the exception of the super hero sketches I do, most everything I do is more relationship based. A lot of it’s usually based on something that happened to me, and then just retelling that in sketch form and exaggerating the hell out of it.

Q: So how do you get from wanting to write for SNL to forgetting all about that dream and then (to The Pushers)?

A failed marriage.

Q: A failed marriage?

Yeah. That’ll do it. One of the reasons is I had the desire but had no idea how to act upon it. I went to George Mason University and my first semester I was actually a theater major. I did theater in high school. I had no desire to be on stage, but it was about being around the kind of people I had a kinship with. Mason at the time had a pretty competitive theater program and I couldn’t get into any of the theater courses, not even intro to theater. The only one I could take was actually taught by the Religion Department. It was themes and motifs in contemporary theater. So after my first semester I switched to English composition with an emphasis on fiction writing.

Q: What did you want to do with that?

I had no idea. At one point I thought about teaching. I still harbored thoughts of eventually writing for TV in some form.

Q: You didn’t want to write short stories or the Great American Novel?

No. I love reading those things but for some reason the actual mechanical act of writing I’m not a big fan of. Which is why I think I love sketch writing. It’s only four or five pages. … I did do a lot of short stories. I would still kind of dabble in script writing. I also ended up getting a minor in film and media studies, but it was in their Communication Department.

During my junior year, myself and some friends decided we were going to do our own TV show, kind of interview program, like a very localized The Larry Sanders Show, mocking the late night TV format. I wrote five scripts for that. We actually started filming pieces for it. The problem was, instead of going with other communication majors to help me do this, I had my friends who had no idea what they were doing and as soon as exams rolled around they abandoned the project to go study.

Q: So what was an early sketch?

Early sketches were a lot of mocking Mason campus life. They had just unveiled a new bus system that students could use, but it had weird stops. It wouldn’t stop at the Metro station, so if you needed to get to D.C., you’d stop like a half mile away and you’d walk. … Essentially they spent all this money for this new bus line that nobody ever bothered using. So we’d do live reports – it had some kind of name, like the Tide – so we’d always have a roving reporter trying to interview people on this bus. There would never be anybody on it. …

The summer between my junior and senior year, I got an internship at Channel 13. I started in the news department, because I gave a brief thought at trying to be in journalism. Two weeks in the news department, I realized that journalism really wasn’t the thing for me. You had to stick with facts. I do like exaggerating. My version of the story was always much better, or I thought was much better than what actually happened.

Q: And they frown on that.

Yeah, they do frown on embellishing. So after two weeks I moved to the production department. … So a lot of it was going out to Harborfest or Bay Days and handing out t-shirts. I went back to school and graduated and had planned to move to New York with two really good friends. My girlfriend at the time who was a year behind me had visions of the three of us going roughshod all over New York City, so if I moved up to New York she would break up with me. So I picked her over New York and moved back home to Virginia Beach.

Q: Do you know how many women they have there?

I know.

Q: Just putting that out there.

Yeah, it was not one of the smarter moves I’ve ever made.

Q: Well, I’m sure at the time it was very noble.

I don’t think so. It was sheer stupidity on my part, and then I had to go and marry her. So once I moved back here, I had no idea what I was going to do. I went to Regent for about two semesters. They actually really have a good program.

Q: Masters of communications?

Yeah. It was going to be with an emphasis in screenwriting, but I quickly found I had to start editing some of the work I turned in. Nothing against their form of Christianity, but it is very strict. I thought I could fake it for the sake of getting a degree and using their equipment and stuff like that. I only lasted probably a semester and a half before I decided to drop out. …

For me, I didn’t mind it so much at first. I come from a pretty strong Catholic family. I had an uncle who was a priest. So the fact that you had to pray before every class, I was okay with that. Not really my thing, but I was okay with that. I had a script analysis class, which was actually pretty good and then one day the professor never showed, and then the next day, the next class, she was very apologetic, but (a family member had been injured; and this incident became a distraction for the class). … We had to spend the rest of the class praying for her (relative) and by that point in time I was pretty tight on money so I started calculating how much money I was wasting by praying …

Then I was taking a television scriptwriting class, and I loved the class. The guy actually had credits to his name. … He was really cool. There was probably 40 people in the class, and the first week or two we had to pitch him ideas. We had to take an existing TV show and then pitch him ideas for possible scripts, kind of like you would do pitching –

Q: In a writers room.

Exactly. On the first day he shot down every single idea that anybody came up with. He was very harsh and mean about it. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really weird for Regent.’ So the next class, like half the people dropped and we had to go through the same process, pitching him ideas. This time a couple people would be close to him saying, ‘Okay, that’s a good idea.’ Then something would happen and he’d say, ‘No, that sucks. Give me your next idea. No. Horrible. Move on.’ Finally, at the end of the class he said, ‘A lot of you had really great ideas, you know – things a producer might actually pick up, but when you go into a meeting  with a producer it could be right before lunchtime. He could have just been chewed out by his boss. You know, you could have the best idea in the world, but if this guy’s having a rotten day, there’s a good chance your idea is going to fall on deaf ears. … I’m going to get you ready for the real world.’

Devereux later dropped out. He had written for class, among other things, a script for Mad About You, but lost much of his Regent writing when a computer virus software apparently ate the disk.

Q: Are you sure it was the virus software?

It could have been God.

Q: He’s gotten pretty tech-savvy in the past few years.

He has. I have an uncle who was a priest who died a while back, so I’m assuming that he’s up there looking out for me. Although he had a pretty weird sense of humor, too. … I remember a Christmas, and, again all my family was in New York, and his parish was in Brooklyn. We’re all at my grandmother’s house, and my mom is one of six kids who all had pretty large families. Every Christmas was just a mass of people at my grandmother’s house. We’re all starving but we’re all sitting around the dinner table waiting because we can’t start eating until Uncle Marty came. He ended up showing three hours late. My grandmother made no bones about it that Marty was her favorite because he was a priest, so we were all kind of annoyed when he finally showed up. My mom was like, ‘Where the hell were you?’ And it’s like, ‘I’m really sorry, but a family in my parish, you know, the husband died this morning so I had to be with the family.’ And my mom was like, ‘Oh my God that’s horrible, what do you say to a family who has a loved one die on Christmas Eve?’ And without blinking his eyes, straight-laced, he’s like, ‘I hope you saved the receipts.’

So my uncle the priest had a very morbid dark sense of humor, which I’m a big fan of as well.

Q: Were you an altar boy and the whole bit?

Yeah, I was an altar boy, in Sunday School, I taught the youth group.

Q: I still have my cassock. I put it on every now and then.

Really.

Q: No.

When we first started, Jeremiah (Albers) would play all the priest roles. Back then we were always going for the cheap (jokes), so the fact that he was gay, you know, naturally he would be the one to play the priest. Now that he’s out of the group, I’m regulated to all the priest roles.

Q: Have those jokes died down?

They have. The priest character I have is an angry priest … We have a recurring series of sketches where Brad plays a kid with Tourette’s. With sketches that have recurring characters, the game of the sketch is always the same. It’s just the situation that would be different, kind of like John Belushi with the samurai character. … So Brad does this character, this kid who has Tourette’s, and either it’s at a wedding or at a funeral or just a church service where I’m giving my homily and he keeps on interrupting with more and more profane outbursts, and my character is trying to keep his cool until he finally loses it and berates the kid in front of the whole church.

Q: So what happens?

It always ends with Brad having one last outburst … so I repeat it, and my out line is always ‘God is dead.’ … and then I toss the Bible at him, and it always hits the actress behind him.

Q: Wow. A little hardcore.

Yeah.

Q: How did it play?

It’s, ah, there’s always a shock when I say it, but then when I toss the Bible it always hits the girl smack in the face and she’s a pretty good physical comedian and falls over the back of her chair, that cuts whatever – because people like watching other people fall down. … Whatever moral indignation they had at me saying God is dead is quickly forgotten by a girl getting hit in the face and falling over the back of a chair.

We discussed how Devereux came to work at a local news station after working in retail and doing freelance production assistance, which led to a full-time job. The interview picks back up with how he returned to writing.

I was writing for work. Occasionally I would come up with an idea of like, ‘Oh, this would be a good movie or a good sitcom.’ And I would jot it down, but I was really not writing other than for work for a long, long time.

Q: What would you do when you had an idea?

I would put it in a notebook. A lot of times I would start working on something. At the time I had a work ethic when it came to writing. I would write and if I would get to a sticking place instead of plowing through and keep on writing I would stop and then go back to the beginning and reread what I wrote … and I immediately would start editing myself. I can’t write directly onto a computer. I have to write longhand first. I would just start rewriting. So I have an amazing first 15 minutes of a movie because, you know, I’ve edited the hell out of them, but nothing past that. Nowadays, even if I getting to a sticking point and it’s crap I just keep on writing and then go back and start rewriting.

Q: Did you ever want to try to write a comic book?

Yes, I thought about it. I actually met an editor back in the late 1990s. … We went to the San Diego Comic-Con, and this was right before it blew up to what it is now. … There was one point in time where I had a drunken conversation with an editor from DC Comics and I don’t know how we got into it, but I actually pitched him a couple of ideas, which he was receptive to. He was actually pumping me for information. But it was almost like – not work, but it made me look at comic books with a more critical eye, which I really don’t want to do. It’s a guilty pleasure, and I kind of want to keep it a guilty pleasure.

Q: One of my short stories is about a guy who gets out of the Navy and opens up a comics shop in Norfolk.

During the period when I was kind of directionless in my writing, the one idea I kept going back to was, and I probably had close to 90 pages written, was a screenplay that is kind of a cross between High Fidelity and Clerks set in a comic book shop. A lot of it is kind of autobiographical, which is I guess is the same as the idea you had, which is the guy has a lot of great ideas for comics but he’s afraid of failing. So it’s one of those things, if you don’t try, you know. …

Today, because of the interview, I pulled up the ‘Justice Crusaders’ sketch. I don’t think I’ve seen that in a couple years. … I don’t know if it would ever make it in The Pushers these days.

Q: Why not?

It’s long. It’s like eight minutes long. Right now we’re down to if you had something five minutes long, maybe that would make it in.

Here’s ‘Justice Crusaders,’ a NSFW sketch we will discuss in some depth in the Part Two of this talk, especially some of the jokes about race and sexuality:

Q: Well, let’s talk about that sketch. I think you were here when I was talking to (McMurran and Albers) about it.

Well, let me ask you what is it about the sketch that you like?

Q: It’s got all kinds of little crises, which I like in comedy. It’s interesting and it’s absurd. Number one that all these people would answer an ad and show up. It’s got these layers of absurdity, and then I don’t want to say that it’s obvious but it’s, the setup is … Aquaman shows up, there’s a reveal that it’s Aquaman, and they don’t want him to be in the group. Which is funny.

It is. It’s Aquaman and no one wants Aquaman in the group. All he does is talk to fish. That’s not a new joke.

Q: But it’s also funny that he’s the only person who is an actual superhero.

Right. Exactly. I’ve always had a love-hate with that sketch. I think I told you this before, but when I joined a group it was strictly as a writer and then I got thrown into the performing aspect as a necessity. The entire first summer of the group I was always playing little bit parts. That scene, I wrote it, but it was the first time I essentially had the lead and was the one driving the sketch. I was scared shitless walking out on that stage. …

I think I noticed in the video today that I started out with a really kind of geeky voice and halfway through the sketch I ended up losing the voice I created for the character. Going back to what I said about comic books, where I said I never wanted to look at comic books with a critical eye, I’ve gotten to the point now where I do look at the sketch and sketch comedy. I can still enjoy it, but when I watch Saturday Night Live now, it’s never I can kick back and relax. It’s always, ‘Oh, I see what they did there. Oh yeah, that didn’t hit as much as it should have.’

Q: I always remember liking the late sketches.

Me too.

Q: They take a risk. It’s like when you go to a jazz show and the polite people stay for the first hour and leave, and the musicians open up.

I always loved the last sketch. The first sketch is always some recurring character they know is going to hit. I was really disappointed with the Betty White episode. Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and all the girls came back and it turned out to be – the Dana Carvey episode turned out to be the same thing. It was nothing but recurring character after recurring character. There was nothing new. You know, I have a stable of characters that I play, but I’m more about writing something new or trying to take a character out of a standard format. …

I’m trying to find out where can we put this character and make it work.

Part two is on the way …

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XII: Comedy writer and actor Sean Devereux of The Pushers


At left is Sean Devereux, producer and co-head writer of the Hampton Roads improv and sketch comedy group The Pushers. In the foreground at right is a custom Ed Carden-shaped Chia pencil holder. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – During a recent rehearsal for The Pushers’ upcoming show at The NorVa, members of the improv and sketch comedy group ran lines and worked out blocking in Sean Devereux’s Colonial Place condo.

A duo worked on a musical number on the patio. Several other cast members practiced a sketch in the living room. One ducked into the kitchen to seek out a prop magic wand for her role as (spoiler omitted) in a sketch about (spoiler omitted) in which a (subject noun) thoroughly (verbs) an (object).

I can’t reveal the details of these sketches in progress before the show, because (a) that would involve translating the strange marks on a notepad into real words and (b) The Pushers might retaliate by coming to my kids’ school and working blue. My family gets enough of that at home.

Through the rehearsal, Devereux worked on sketches, handled scripts and coordinated with colleagues. Numerous sketches were in play for the show of all new material. The group is meeting throughout the week to get ready. Several guests and some surprises are promised.

The Pushers has a rep for pushing the envelope, as the name suggests, but in a recent talk here at the blog founding member Brad McMurran discussed the work the group has done to hone its craft as an improv group and a collective of comedic actors.

Devereux, also a founding member, wears a number of hats, including as the group’s co-producer, manager and co-head writer. He happens to have written one of my favorite sketches, which I’ll discuss in another post soon, if my planned schedule of posts holds up for once. And he’s even bylined an interview with himself.

More on that in a moment.

The show is at 9 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 10, at The NorVa, 317 Monticello Ave., Norfolk. Tickets are $15 ($21 via Ticketmaster).

FYI, this Belligerent Q&A includes brief adult language.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

Not to sound pretentious or anything, but I see myself as true, modern-day renaissance man. Aside from being one of the stars of The Pushers, I am a multi-Emmy Award winning writer-producer. I have inadvertently amassed the largest collection of Wonder Woman memorabilia in Colonial Place … if not all of Norfolk. And I can also name all eight of the Bradford kids on Eight is Enough.

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

I felt The Pushers had started to rely too much on old sketches instead of generating new material. In the summer of 2009, I instituted the ‘no repeat rule.’ It is still in effect with a few notable exceptions. When former Pushers return for a show, we will resurrect an old sketch or character. We also try to perform one or two ‘Best Of’ shows a year.

Q: In addition to being the producer and co-head writer for The Pushers, you teach young people how to express themselves through improvisation and sketch comedy. Why not teach them to turn that music down, cut that long hair, and get a job already?

Children respond to kindness. One of my goals in life is to become a modern day Fagin. I have found that by training kids in improv and sketch writing they are much more likely to join my roving band of pick-pocketing street urchins.

Q: You effectively are the manager of The Pushers. How much of your time is spent getting McMurran out of scrapes and/or solving mysteries?

Ah. You are obviously referring to our latest adventure, ‘Brad and Sean and The Case of Bluebeard’s Treasure.’  That one was a little scary, until we realized the real culprit was Old Man McGillicutty. Brad and I are very much like the Hardy Boys … only older, fatter and drunker.

Q: One of the things I’ve admired about some of the sketches you have written is the clear patterns of reversals – both of the expectations of characters within the scene and also of those that seem to be held by audience members who then find themselves experiencing the unfolding of not just a mere joke but a fuller story of such a specific design that it energetically unfolds from the stage into the audience and back upon itself, compounding all that has come before into all that will come, until the laughs emerge from character and dramatic action and a purer place, a special place, and it’s a place we can only get to if we work together. What does that mean, this thing I just typed up here?

It was my understanding there would be no math … during these debates.

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

By eliminating our ability to repeat sketches, we eliminate our safety net. Now, no matter what, we are forced to write 90 minutes of pure comedy gold every show.

Q: The Pushers seem to revel in Star Wars and superhero references. If Star Wars and superheroes were to be referenced within the same sketch, would something cataclysmic happen — like when the guys in Ghostbusters cross their proton streams?

Two forces of awesomeness coming together like that could only lead to one thing … me ascending to nerd nirvana where I would be heralded as a geek god. The only reason it hasn’t happened is because I’m not quite ready to leave this mortal realm.

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

The Pushers had fallen prey to what I like to call ‘Fat Cat Syndrome.’ By going back to the well too many times we had gotten stale and lazy. We were one repeat away from being found dead on a toilet. I feel the ‘no repeat rule’ has invigorated us comedically and sexually.

Q: Roughly a year ago, Splash Magazine contacted you about an interview, and then asked you to interview yourself. Is journalism more effective now that Splash has removed reporters from the equation?

At times I can be a very self-centered, vain egomaniac. I applaud Splash Magazine for realizing the only person truly qualified, truly worthy enough to interview me and The Pushers was … me.

(Present interview excluded of course.)

Q: I mean, did they even send any questions? Not even a few questions? Even one question asked over and over again, so it at least looked a little bit, if only initially, like they were sincere in their efforts to interview you?

See, that’s where the interview went off the rails. While Splash Magazine clearly had the vision and insight to realize I was the only one who could interview myself … they failed to realize I am a lazy schlub with a tendency to drink too much. My brief stab at journalism was not a pleasurable one.

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

No comment.

Q: In one interview you described The Pushers as like Saturday Night Live, but funnier. Why the faint self praise?

I grew up with Saturday Night Live, I know Saturday Night Live, I’m friends with Saturday Night Live … and Saturday Night Live, you’re no Saturday Night Live.

If Lorne Michaels is reading this interview … just kidding. 🙂

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

Since instituting the ‘no repeat rule’ we have written close to 600 sketches. We have at least five seasons worth of material and are just waiting for some eager TV executive to sign us. I have come to realize that I have a face and body for television. I mean let’s face it — nothing says ratings bonanza like me, Brad and Ed in high-def.

Q: When is repetition funny?

Only when it is done in threes.

Q: A bit more seriously, there are so many other things to do in this world besides create something. Why do you bother? What do you want to get out of this?

I honestly don’t know. There’s just something in my gut that compels me to do this.

When The Pushers formed I was just a writer. I love writing. It’s like therapy. If something bothers me at work or at home I can turn it into a funny sketch. Somewhere along the way I became, for lack of a better word, the group’s manager.

Dealing with the individual personalities of The Pushers is pure hell.  Dealing with all the nuts and bolts of putting a show together sucks.  Having to be the somewhat responsible one in a group full of dipshits blows. But for some reason, the 90 minutes we’re on stage — making people laugh — it doesn’t seem so bad.

Q: Does it have something to do with the Wonder Woman poster at your condo?

Okay — let me set the record straight. I’m a comic book nerd. I think Wonder Woman is pretty cool. Lynda Carter was the first woman I had a crush on. Years ago I bought some crazy, psychedelic 1960s Wonder Woman comics at a flea market. I happened to mention my purchase to a couple of friends … and — BAM! — suddenly I’m the Wonder Woman guy. Now when ever a friend or family members comes across something Wonder Woman, they buy it for me. I have an insane amount of Wonder Woman stuff. I like Superman better.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you would like to mention?

Come see our show at The NorVa. When The Pushers started we were a bunch of potty-mouthed morons who had no idea what we were doing. Now, six years later, we are a bunch of potty-mouthed morons who know how to put on one spectacle of a show. I think our writing has matured. We really have some clever sketches for this show. That said we also have some really dumb sketches. If you haven’t seen us in a couple of years or if you have some preconceived notion (either good or bad) of what we’re about … check us out at The NorVa. I think you’ll be surprised at what you’ll see.

In closing, here’s are two videos.

The first, a Pushers spot from last year, features Devereux. I hope to have a longer talk with him about comedy writing in the near future.

This next one’s going out to Devereux, a real sport.

Look out, Wonder Woman — dude in the bushes is packing heat — and wicked bad bronchitis:

For more information on the show at the NorVa, click this link.

If you go, there is paid garage parking at Monticello and East Freemason and on the Nordstrom side of MacArthur Center; valet parking on the Monticello side of MacArthur Center; and some metered street parking nearby. The Tide has nearby stations at Monticello or MacArthur Square, though it stops running at midnight.

And please check out the Belligerent Q&A archive.

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Updated: New play by Core Theatre Ensemble debuts tonight at The Venue on 35th


NORFOLK, Va. — Core Theatre Ensemble’s new play YOU VS., billed as an exploration of communication and truths in a time of “constant social interaction,” debuts tonight at The Venue on 35th.

Via email, Core co-founder Edwin Castillo has this to say about the new play:

On our new show YOU VS., it’s the feel-good theatrical event of the summer that blends the best parts of Heidi and the worse parts of The Wild Bunch with a little bit of Song of the South mixed in.

Not really.

It is a bit of a departure from our darker works such as The Poe Project and The Yellow Wallpaper. Conceptually we’ve taken text from several different websites – including Ehow.com, Craigslist, Old Dominion University’s homepage, McDonald’s homepage, etc. – as well as classic TV commercials, personal ads from The Village Voice, and other sources, and created a show that tries to find the meaning of life.  YOU Vs. is about figuring out who we listen to and what we believe in throughout our lives.

And its pretty funny.

I haven’t seen as much theater as I’d like recently, in part due to having young kids, but Core’s adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper is one of the best productions I’ve seen around here.

The new play’s run, part of Norfolk Summer Play Fest 2011, is from tonight to Aug. 13. Shows are at 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, at The Venue on 35th, 631 35th St., Norfolk, Va. Reservations at (757) 469-0337. Tickets are $12. There’s limited seating. Usually there is plenty of unmetered street parking near The Venue.

For more information on Core, visit their site.

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Aug. 5, 9:15 p.m. — I saw the play on opening night, and recommend it.

It’s certainly funny, and it features many of the strengths of The Yellow Wallpaper, which I loved: Core’s focus on disciplined, purposeful, focused movement, and writing that builds toward a series of understandings and payoffs.

Good show, and only a few left to see. At least for now.

Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to talk with Core about this show and their upcoming project in the near future.

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