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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Object Lesson—an interview with director David Neumann

by Morgan Green

Where making art is concerned, David Neumann believes that “the free flow of ideas should always be encouraged rather than obeying some hierarchical relationship that supersedes creative freedom.” His track record indicates a healthy disrespect for said hierarchical structure: David Neumann, a choreographer, trained as an actor and is now directing The Object Lesson in the Next Wave Festival.

I caught David on the phone as he dashed between rehearsals to ask about his work with Geoff Sobelle on The Object Lesson. In addition to being a highly sought-after multidisciplinary collaborator, he is also a terrifically nice guy.

David Neumann’s BAM debut was in 1991 when he danced in the Warrior Ant directed by Lee Breuer.

How did you meet Geoff Sobelle?

David Neumann: I met Geoff working on The Elephant Room—I choreographed some sections of that piece. Geoff’s work is so wonderfully disturbing and we seemed to get along very well; that was a very collaborative process. He and I seemed to share some sensibilities right off the bat.

The actors who made The Elephant Room came from an improvisation background, and they're completely comfortable just going with it. So, when I came to rehearsal the first time, they just went into a thing, and I was totally taken aback. I was like, what the hell is going on? I didn’t know there was a run-through going on, and they all had fake teeth and facial hair, and I thought it was completely nuts and really fun. And then I thought, this is a joke, this is crazy, this will end soon, and then we’ll talk about it. But they just kept going. For maybe 45 minutes. And they could have gone all day long. Then it dawned on me—oh, they're working. They’re working.

They were essentially in character and just talking about the show, and then watching each others’ magic tricks. They were showing me, the choreographer, some of the stuff these guys did.

Geoff’s magician was particularly creepy and wonderful. You loved him, but he made your spine tingle in a “don’t let him near children” way—those types of feelings he really embodied.

Geoff Sobelle in The Elephant Room at St. Ann’s Warehouse.
Geoff’s humor is subversive. It subverts your expectations; he really lives for that. Not in an annoying way—in a truly generous way. You know how people are like, “oh yeah, check this out,” just constantly proving how intelligent they are (which is just, so annoying)? He does it in a very generous way. He discovers it in front of you, so you can’t help but be charmed with his ability to go with the flow and find new angles.

How do you and Geoff collaborate?

DN: It’s like tag-team wrestling. We wrestle with it for awhile, then I’ll watch him do it, then I’ll have an idea, and I’ll just get up and show him. We discover together, you know? It’s great for me as a director to go through what the performer goes through a little bit, because I have a much better way of helping them through. That way when Geoff feels like he needs help, he can reach out to me and I have a little bit of experience and empathy.

Will you talk about the idea behind the title, The Object Lesson?

DN: This is really Geoff’s brainchild. The title comes from him suddenly encountering a brand new perspective on all the crap he owns. I think he was in the middle of a move. He was confronted with all these things, and they were each tied to very specific memories, feelings, times in his life, and he found that really compelling and wanted to play with that idea and that actual experience. Some of the stuff he discovered in his own basement wasn’t his—he was finding things with no attachment. He didn’t know what the hell they were.

Part of the idea is that this is an installation—people can actually rummage through boxes of things and think about another person’s life and how it relates to their own, and their own use of objects.

Many of the objects actually belong to the Geoff. I thought it was important that they are not all just theater props.

Geoff Sobelle in The Object Lesson. Photo: Jauhien Sasnou
What about your own work? How is it similar or different to the way The Object Lesson is being created?

DN: I have a piece coming to Abrons Arts Center in April in 2015. It's similar to The Object Lesson as it deals with very personal events in my life. Both Geoff and I are exploring true events and, in a way, dealing with those events through our work. My piece is centered around the experience of the death of both my parents. The process of dying—I became just fascinated with that.

Formally, aesthetically, I combine a more formal approach with theater-making. I have a container for the ideas in the piece, which is an adaptation and response to the Noh theater of Japan. The structure of it helps give focus to my piece in a way that I find really compelling. Noh theater is already a really beautiful, multi-disciplinary performance art: music and singers and a very specific movement vocabulary. In no way am I trying to imitate Noh; I’m using the structure the shape, and inspiration.

What are some other places that you take inspiration from?

DN: The New York experimental theater, handed down from Richard Foreman, the Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, etc—the concerns about making theater and responding to a complex view of our humanity and our culture resides in my work. I am deeply influenced by that history. And then anyone and everyone I’ve worked with in the past: various choreographers, Big Dance Theater, Susan Marshall… anyone I’ve worked with has had some impact on my work.

My parents were members of Mabou Mine’s company, and it wasn’t called experimental theater. I didn’t have a context to see it as other. It was theater. It was what my parents did. I went to staged plays, sofa plays where people walk in and they say something and pretend the audience isn’t there, and I thought that was the craziest shit ever. Like, why are you pretending we’re not here? This seems like total bullshit to me. This is weird! So, I had the exact opposite experience than a lot of people.

Eventually I went to acting school where I was told to talk and listen and be real and connect with my scene partner. And that was all very helpful—though I was doing that already instinctually—but I found the experimental work in the city (dance, theater, whatever), much more interesting to be part of. I found myself... bored isn’t fair, but not challenged in a way that I found compelling. I wanted to break that mold, too. I found it… moldy. [laughs] You know, just kind of sitting out too long on the counter. And everyone recognized it was good work, but it was just the same; it didn’t grab my attention.

Dance gave me the permission to be physical. I was very physical growing up, so that was a really good discovery for me. I grew a lot as a performer through dance. As a choreographer and/or director, making dances gives one a lot more to work with on your palate in terms of structure. There is a real kind of narrative, the piece unfolding, but you are not beholden to chronological time or cause and effect in dance and you know, that’s huge. Ugh, what a relief! I can go to where my imagination goes, or I can go to, frankly, how I experience the world—and it’s not the sitcom format.

The Object Lesson will be at BAM Fisher from Nov 5—8. 

Morgan Green is a Brooklyn based theater director and co-founder of New Saloon.

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