“I’m so scared.”
These are the first words Joshua Conkel greets me with as we sit down for coffee on an early January evening. To be fair, he’s in the thick of rehearsals for his next show, The House of Von Macramé, a “pop-horror-fashion musical,” opening at the Bushwick Starr in a few weeks (the show runs through February 16). Between the dozen-and-a-half cast members, the (literally) hundreds of costume changes, and the gore effects, Conkel is still making tweaks to the script.
I’m meeting Conkel that day along with Michael Levinton, whose theater company Little Lord has the following slot in the Bushwick Starr’s season with Pocahontas, and/or America, March 6 – 23. (Full disclosure: I also work with Michael at Little Lord, as a dramaturg and producer.) I’m trying to bring them both into conversation with Eliza Bent, whose play The Hotel Colors will have its debut at the Starr in May, and figure out what, if anything, connects these three artists, and why they—we—all seem to have found an artistic home at the Bushwick Starr.
The Starr has existed, in various configurations, for the past 10 years, but only in the last three have they curated what could be called a “season.” In that time, though, they’ve quietly built a reputation as a proving ground for young artists on the rise. Each season, the Starr hosts a small group—only four mainstage productions each year—which allows the staff to give personal attention and marketing resources to each co-producing artist. Noel Allain, the Starr’s artistic director, explains that they like to give the first slot to a “headliner,” an artist who’s fairly established in their career (this year it was the Debate Society’s Blood Play, later picked up by the Under the Radar Festival at the Public) and then follow with some less recognizable names. The last slot in the season he likes to save for someone who’s a lot earlier in the arc of their career (this year that’s Bent).
So back at the coffee shop, I ask Josh, “What are you most scared of?”
Joshua Conkel: Where do I start. We’ve never used microphones before, I’m scared about that. The music is all synth, so we may have to mic all the principles and get away with area mics for the chorus, I don’t know. But I’m just also scared that things aren’t going to be done. So many costumes, 14 actors, the mics, the blood effects, everything coming together, it’s too much. I feel really dumb, for writing this! Next I’m secretly writing a really quiet, two-person play. I’m also just scared whether people will like it, frankly. Cause it’s big and loud and weird, and kinda crude.
Micheal Levinton: That sounds fun!
Conkel: I think so. It started as a serial, at the Flea Theater, where the audience votes on whether to keep it going. And it went for a long time at serials. You would find out usually on Monday if you made it to the next round, and then need a script on Tuesday morning, so I would get up at four in the morning on Tuesdays and write this 10-minute play, all groggy. Some of them are terrible! We had to cut some—it was a soap opera, there’s too much. But a lot of that stuff is still in there, the characters, some story lines. But that’s always the fear, right? That people won’t like it.
Levinton: That’s so funny, because I just don’t care if people like it or not! If I like it, then it’s fine. Right now I’m not sure. I call myself a Pocahontas knowledge-hoarder, ’cause I just have so much in my head.
Conkel: Are you guys worried about content in this show?
Levinton: We’re certainly doing outreach to native American organizations and artists. We’re trying to organize talkbacks after the show, about the “real” story of Pocahontas. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot internally. What was really great about the workshop at the Bushwick Starr we had this summer was we figured out this weird format for the play, of a roadside museum. And how we represent history, how these very personal, uncomfortable, weird museums, which are very much one point of view—they use artifacts that might not be the real artifacts or representation—how do you interpret that? So the play has become much more about how do you tell a story that’s not your story to tell? How do you represent a history that you have a lot of material from, but all from just one side, one point of view?
But what am I most scared of? I don’t know. Ask me at four in the morning, ’cause that’s when it happens. I wake up and take a Xanax and antihistamine and try to go back to sleep. Just it all happening at once. We have a lot of money to raise.
Conkel: We still have a lot of money to raise.
Levinton: And I have to finish writing the script!
Conkel: We’re still missing two songs! I think it’s funny that you say you don’t really care if people like the play or not.
Levinton: Eventually I will. But I guess that’s why I like producing, because I can’t just focus on one thing. If I’m not multitasking then I’m procrastinating. So I’ll be concerned with what people thought of it—in April, once it’s all over.
Sarah Bishop-Stone (Rail): But you want people to come.
Levinton: Sure, I want people to come, I want people to think it’s the most amazing thing ever. But that doesn’t keep me up at night. It’s whether I make a show that I’m really excited about.
Conkel: The stakes feel very high for me.
Levinton: I feel the same way.
Conkel: Higher than usual.
Levinton: Me too.
Rail: The stakes thing is really interesting to me. You’ve both produced before, and self-produced before. Why is the Bushwick Starr different?
Levinton: For us it’s who is going to produce us? I really don’t know what is coming next.
Conkel: My agent was like, “Are you sure you want to be doing this, is this how you want to be spending your energy?” And I’m like, not really, but who else is gonna do this play? There are some plays that my agent can send to theaters, and there are some plays, or ideas, that no one would ever do. So I have to do them myself if I want to do them.
Levinton: Does Eliza feel like this is a big thing?
[I talked to Bent separately—between Conkel’s rehearsals for Von Macramé and Eliza’s tech for Half Straddle’s Seagull (Thinking of You), we couldn’t all manage to be in the same room at the same time. So here’s her answer to this question:]
Bent: It’s exciting for me. For me this is the start of my career. Or it’s the start of a career. The things I’ve done before have been in festival contexts, for three or four performances, or part of undergroundzero, or a thing as part of Little Theater at Dixon Place, or CATCH—so I feel like this is my debut as a New York playwright. So it’s totally the start. And perhaps the end, too! Like, I might not be a playwright. I don’t know. It’s funny to me because the work I’m involved in as an actor obviously, with Half Straddle and other groups, feels much more generative, and the thing I’ve written feels a lot more like a play. I’m hoping and I’m fairly certain that the process will be reflective of the work I do as an actor. But I certainly don’t want to perform in it. This is like, me being a playwright.
Levinton: I don’t think Bushwick Starr meant to freak us all out so much! I guess we just put all the pressure on ourselves.
Conkel: Now that I hear about Eliza saying that, I’m like, “You’re so young, it’s just one play!” How is that true for her and not for me?
Levinton: Right because it’s not you. “What, you don’t have two songs, Josh? You’ll be fine! I’m on page 34!” But obviously, it’s also a personal thing. I’m, what, 32 now—
Conkel: Me too.
Levinton: And I’ve been here [New York City] for over 10 years, and what am I doing here? This is what I’m doing. Do I want to keep doing this?
Conkel: I feel the same way. And in the past year, I’ve just seen all my peers’ careers just take off, in really dramatic ways. I keep seeing this happen, and I think, one, when is it going to be my turn, or is it going to be ever?
Levinton: Right, I get incredibly jealous of people, but then what they’re doing is not what I want to be doing! Why am I jealous of you? Maybe what I want to be doing is something else, and I just have to figure out what that is. I mean, it involves making things, obviously. Period.
I’m always talking about what I want to do, and I always talk about space, I want to have space. And then be able to do my own stuff in the space, and also bring in other artists to do theater— or seminars or lectures or cooking classes! I want to make a community center, and I don’t see how I can do that in New York. It’s too big to build a community.
Conkel: Well, Bushwick Starr did it.
We all pause, and agree. Bushwick Starr has done it. As Allain says, they book artists, not productions. “We shy away from the word ‘experimental’ theater,” he says, “I don’t like the associations.” But if the artists have something in common, it’s an “energy of communication,” something they want to say to the audience, and build a relationship there.
These three pieces could not be more different: Bent’s is “a play play,” an aquarium-like view of an ad hoc group of Italians spending a night in a Rome hostel. Bent’s language hews entirely to Italian syntax, peppered with untranslated slang—“Ascoltami. You are making an ugly figure in this manner.” Conkel’s musical grew from the concept of fashion runway as theater—and the serendipitous connection with composer Matt Marks, who, like Conkel, had the idea to write a musical about “the Dating Game” killer Rodney Alcala. And Little Lord’s Pocahontas, part roadside museum, part historical-patriotic pageant, reflects Levinton’s magpie tendency to omnivorously consume and reflect huge swaths of pop culture and theater history. But they’re all super psyched to be there.
And only slightly terrified.
The Management’s House of Von Macramé, book by Joshua Conkel; music and lyrics by Matt Marks; directed by Nick Leavens, runs through February 16th. Little Lord’s Pocahontas, and/or America, written and adapted by Michael Levinton and Laura von Holt, directed by Michael Levinton, runs March 6 – 23. Eliza Bent’s The Hotel Colors runs May 7 – 25.
All performances at the Bushwick Starr (207 Starr Street, Brooklyn [between Irving and Wycoff]). More info at www.thebushwickstarr.org.
SARAH BISHOP-STONE is a producer and dramaturg living in Brooklyn. She makes work with Little Lord (a theater company) and works as the Cultural Engagement Associate for Peak Performances at Montclair State University.