Supporting creative work by women
Works by Women interviews two talented women working on The Skype Show at the New York International Fringe Festival: Jody Christopherson, who created and performs in the piece, and Natalie Johnsonius Neubert, who is the sound designer. Their bios are below along with their thought-provoking answers about creating a show across Skype.
JODY CHRISTOPHERSON is a performer, writer. Her work as an actress has been seen at: The Kitchen, Lincoln Center, Ensemble Studio Theater, the Public Theater, PS122, the Humana Festival, Classic Stage Company, the Bushwick Starr, Bowery Poetry Club, Philadelphia Shakespeare, Nebraska Rep, As a theater maker she has been awarded grants from Philadelphia Shakespeare, Bowery Arts and Sciences, commissions from Blue Box productions and the Exquisite Corpse Festival. Jody is a blogger for The Huffington Post and the editor and creator of New York Theatre Review, an indie media source for indie theater.
NATALIE JOHNSONIUS NEUBERT: As an actress, musician, and curator Natalie has worked with such companies as Target Margin Theater, Performance Space 122, Galapagos Art Center, Ensemble Studio Theater, The Culture Project, Nashville Shakespeare Festival, The Ohio Theater, The New York Public Library, the New York Botanical Gardens, as well as at the Bridge Lane Theatre in London. She received a bachelors degree from Sarah Lawrence College with concentrations in music (piano and saxophone) and theatre (acting and directing); and is currently in the school’s MFA program where she studies sound design with Jill BC DuBoff.
WORKS BY WOMEN: Tell me about The Skype Show. How did it come to be?
JODY CHRISTOPHERSON: The Skype Show is a multi-media full length play with music that takes place in 13 scenes over a live streamed Skype call. It’s based on the true story of Michael de Roos and my current artistic partnership. Previously, we lived together in Crown Heights Brooklyn, made theater, music formed a band (Greencard Wedding) until Michael’s visa expired. Generating work together is our “green card wedding”- the thing that unites us and makes it possible for us to keep working anywhere. So we decided to continue to work over Skype in order to find ways to bring us back into the same room.
WBW: How are time, place and technology challenges and/or enhancements for creativity?
JC: Writing music & this play, over Skype– sometimes at 6am NYC time, sometimes at midnight in Amsterdam where Michael is currently based– is essentially writing two different settings. The inability to physically be in the same space has been very challenging- our ability to harmonize like we do in much of our music (Skype has a delay) and to feed off of each other’s energy, experience the same given circumstances has changed. Beat boxing has really begun to feel like what we are going through- working against an opposing yet channeling force while trying to sync different rhythms. The need to connect gets stronger and sharper depending on distance.
NATALIE JOHNSONIUS NEUBERT: The Skype Show is the perfect example of how time, place and technology can all work together to create a truly innovative theatrical experience. The script itself delves into the relationship between a young man and woman living in different countries as they desperately try to remain connected using Skype. Throughout the rehearsal process we have experienced the opportunities and challenges that the Internet has opened for artists collaborating from different locations. We have had several of our production meetings over Skype, and it never ceases to amaze me that no matter where we are in the world we can all be together working on the show. Sunday, for example, we had a production meeting where I was in California, Michael in Amsterdam and the rest of the team was in New York. Without modern technology that just would not have been possible. Of course, working in this way presents its own challenges. The WiFi will go out; or if there’s an evening rehearsal in New York that means it’s the middle of the night in Amsterdam. One night last week, Michael was Skyping in at 2am…poor guy looked like he was about to drop, but it made for great acting in a scene about two people trying to stay in synch with each other across time zones.
As a sound designer, technology has completely changed the way we use sound and music in productions. It used to be that a sound designer would schlep around cases of CDs and cassettes with various sounds to try out; and if you didn’t have access to expensive recording equipment or a studio, those clips would have to be fairly generic sound effects. Then, when it was time for the show, the sound op would have to fumble between multiple cassettes and CDs to play the different cues. Now, we have access to an infinite number of sounds on the internet and have access to affordable editing and playback software like ProTools and QLab. The technology makes it possible to mix and enhance those sounds it in so many ways- to make it sound exactly the way it does in your head. For example in The Skype Show, there are obviously many instances where one could simply insert ringtones from Skype. But with ProTools on my laptop, I can alter those highly recognizable rings to not only tell the audience “Oh, she’s getting a Skype call” but also reflect how she feels about getting the calls and direct the audience into the emotions of the next scene. It changes the whole job of the Sound Designer from being a kind of technician providing a way to playback sounds to being another creative voice in the production.
WBW: What’s been the most fun about developing this show?
JC: Seeing this idea become a reality that is going to be staged. Michael and I are dreamers. We think of silly wild stuff that only magic could make happen. We ignore the rules. Because the rules aren’t for dreamers.
I’m part pragmatist so it amazes me that this is actually going to happen. There were many reasons it could fail. The support we have received from our community re-affirms my belief in people’s ability to trump their circumstances. It’s fun to see a solution emerge when you can’t imagine an answer. Sometimes it just takes one person to say yes to begin a chorus.
WBW: What can audiences expect to see?
JC: A live streamed Skype call. Video shot by our audience at concerts, a personal and honest narrative. Laughter, new music. Some Shakespeare. A non-traditional love story. That’s mostly not a love story. Cupcakes.
WBW: What excites you about being part of FringeNYC?
JC: This is the first major production we’ve had accepted without submitting a script. Fringe gave us a good amount of blind trust after reading our proposal to make this work. The ability to see so many artists gathered in one location from all over the world and see their work, share ours. The opportunity to launch what we hope will be a show that can reach a wider audience.
NJN: For me working in the Fringe this year has been an exciting opportunity to collaborate with Jody Christopherson again after many years of friendship. We did our first show together more than ten years ago, and have worked together off and on in so many different ways over the years. As women, these types of ongoing relationships are crucial to our development as artists. We develop a kind of short-hand of language and experiences we share, and we understand each other’s perspectives and motivations as we continue to evolve as women and as artists. This is particularly important in a production like The Skype Show as it explores one young woman’s journey into being a strong, powerful, independent musician. Another exciting element of FringeNYC, for me, is that it gives artists the invaluable opportunity to explore new areas theatre in which they don’t usually work. While I have always been a musician and sound has always played a big part in my shows, I am thrilled to be making my “debut” as a Sound Designer for The Skype Show.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
NJN: The challenges women face in American theater seem to be an amplified version of the challenges all American women face today. In acting school they used to tell us that there were very few roles for women in between Juliet and Lady Macbeth. Meaning, either you’re the sweet, beautiful yet kind of naïve girl-next-door, or you’re the powerful but ultimately kind of evil older woman. Sadly, in the “real” world the same philosophy plays out. We are taught from as little girls that it’s best to be young and beautiful. But what happens as we get older? We get our hearts broken. We get a few wrinkles. We learn from our mistakes. Really, we become more interesting individuals, but, historically, those transitions were rarely reflected in the roles written for women. Then, what happens when you take time off to start a family or switch careers? How do you get back in the scene now that you are no longer a fresh, new face? These are challenges all working women face, but in theater it’s just much more obvious because it is such a public medium.
JC: The ability to be perceived as human, complex, defy gender roles. There’s this idea that you must be tough, smart, never make mistakes or you won’t be taken seriously as a young woman or artist. That’s damaging for anyone. I like seeing vulnerability on stage, failure in a rehearsal room.
It can be challenging to create a safe space to work when you are fighting to be seen as/tell stories that/ work on projects where women are seen as 3 dimensional people who have empowered human narratives. Women leaders are still threatening to many people, unfortunately, and judged harshly, more harshly than their male counterparts. There is an expectation that women must self-deprecate, apologize for their success and opinions, be sweet. There is an idea that we think differently than men.
Being the only woman in a room during a creative process I often feel that I am treated differently than when there is a group of mixed gendered people. That’s hard when you are the writer on a project and need to be sure your narrative is being heard. Michael and I are partners and we challenge each other but above all we listen to each other and make decisions together. We each have equal voice.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
JC: There may be a lot of straight dead white men getting produced. But it’s mostly women who buy theater tickets. We need to support each other. By voting with our dollars we can help to create a theater that truly reflects the stories of our time.
NJN: First, and most importantly, women are becoming more and more supportive of one another, and working together to change the way women in theater are perceived. There are more and more female playwrights and directors and producers. Women are writing strong, independent, roles for themselves and other women. Women are producing and directing thought-provoking plays dealing with topics that are important to women. And people are talking about new female voices being presented onstage. The New York Times, for example, ran a fabulous article last winter on influential women directors, and female artists are being given better opportunities to create work at venues across the country. There’s still a long road ahead of us as we try achieve equality with our male counterparts, but, at least, it is getting better.
For tickets to The Skype Show, which runs through August 25th, visit www.fringenyc.org.