Now through July 1st, Williamsburg's Brick Theater
is producing its first annual Comic Book Theater Festival
, with 20 original productions, screenings and readings. We talked to producer-curator Jeff Lewonczyk about the festival's origins and his own contribution to it.
The L: Comic book adaptations have become a Hollywood staple in the past decade, but less so on stage (Spider-Man notwithstanding); what are some of the inherent challenges of turning a comic book into a play, or writing a play about comics?
Jeff Lewonczyk: Well, people stereotypically think of comic books as superheroes, and they think of superheroes as action, in a way that seems most conducive to special effects blockbusters. Theater can certainly be visceral, but the fact remains that without millions of dollars you're not likely to make Spider-Man fly around the ceiling, which, in my opinion, is all to the good. Because the thing that most deeply connects comics and theater is that both require much of the action to take place in the imagination of the reader/viewer. No matter what you show on stage or in a comic, you require your audience to fill in the gaps and make a full world out of the humble materials you present them with—be they lines on a page or people moving around in a room. Hollywood can conjure pretty much anything it wants out of computers, but the very accessibility of this imagery takes some of the magic out of it.
Of course, we're doing comic-themed shows far beyond the superhero genre, which presents its own challenges. How do you take a delicate personal memoir and present it on stage as a comic, not as just a straight-up play? Is it the use of artwork and illustration? Is it the way you structure it, the way you play around with space and time? When you project panels on a screen with live voiceover, is it theater or just a slide show? These are some of the questions we're asking.
Comics culture is often portrayed as a very male-dominated field, but the festival seems to have a very good gender balance; was that a concerted programming decision, or did it just work out that way?
It actually just kind of wonderfully, beautifully worked out that way. Theater has much more proportionate gender numbers than comics, or at least mainstream comics. If anything, it's more weighted towards women (not in terms of professional production opportunities and leadership roles, per se, but that's a whole different conversation), so it makes sense that it landed this way.
You wrote and directed one of the plays in the festival, The Bubble of Solace, about a guy who runs a comic book store; where did that idea come from?
This was originally an idea I had a few years ago with my friend and frequent collaborator Jason Robert Bell for a web series about a guy who lives in a magical comic book shop and can actually enter into his comics. When the festival looked like it was going to be a reality I decided to run with the idea and translate it into a play. Bringing it into four dimensions actually made it a very different piece from what I was expecting it to be—a lot darker and stranger, about the dangers of obsessive escapism. But the play does feature insane comic book sequences, with full stories drawn by five different comic artists, so it's still a splashy experience.
Where did the idea for a comic book theater festival come from? Was there a particular play or comic that inspired the decision?
We've been doing themed festivals at The Brick since 2004—both festivals that invited artist to submit shows around a specific concept or image (the Hell Festival, the Moral Values Festival, etc.) and festivals that celebrated a specific medium (the New York Clown Theater Festival or next month's Game Play, a celebration of video-game performance art). The comic book idea has come up numerous times at brainstorming sessions in the past, but with comic-book culture becoming more and more influential in the world of entertainment, this was the year it made the most sense to do it.
Is there a hope that by tapping into the comics subculture you'll attract an audience that rarely goes to the theater?
Well, sure! We've had pretty good luck with that in terms of our Game Play festival. Last year, I wrote a show, Theater of the Arcade
(which is appearing at the Fringe this August) that reinterpreted classic arcade games (Frogger, Asteroids) as short plays by famous playwrights (Beckett, Brecht). We had a lot of gamers in the audience that didn't get the theater jokes, and a lot of theater people who didn't get the gaming jokes—but everyone seemed to enjoy it, and we sold out every show. That's what we're hoping for here—there's nothing better than a crossover audience, because different people bring different things to the experience in a way that makes it richer and more fun for everyone. And the more non-theater people we can get to realize that theater is a living, breathing experience that doesn't have to consist of boring sub-sitcom depictions of people simply sitting and talking in a living room or celebrity-driven big budget musicals, the better. It's a living laboratory of artistic ideas, presented with full volatility in front of a live audience—what could be geekier than that?
Some of the groups participating in the Comic Book Theater Festival have very little experience onstage, while others are more seasoned; would you say on balance that they're theater nerds trying their hand at comics, comic book nerds trying their hand at theater, or a mix of the two?
I think that this festival actually features more people rooted in the theater world than the comics world. Theater companies—whether they be new or established—are much more gung-ho about the idea of throwing together a full original production in a few short months than people with less experience or training in theater. Comics artists have their own challenges, but the hassle of producing plays is rarely one of them. That being said, there are definitely some folks driving shows who are more directly related to comics than theater (Carousel
's R. Sikoryak, Funnybook/Tragicbook
's Adam McGovern and Action Philosophers
' Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey immediately come to mind), and I'm hoping that this festival will be successful enough for more closeted comics artists with theater aspirations to crawl out of the woodwork for future installments.
In addition to many original stories and superheroes, the festival features a few well-known characters and comics; were there any issues clearing rights to those names and titles?
is being produced with the full collaboration of the original artists
, so no issues there. (Plus all those real-life dead people are public domain anyway.) Any other famous characters you might run across fall squarely in the camp of parody, which means the shows are protected by the law.
Widely held stereotypes of comic book and theater nerds suggest they're almost opposite types—awkward and anti-social vs. un-self-conscious and attention-seeking; were any such clashing personality types problematic in the process of working on the festival, or did everyone get along?
Funny, the antisocial stereotype of comic nerds is a major theme of The Bubble of Solace
, which is the only piece in the festival actively exploring the culture, rather than the forms and content, of comics. But that play presents an extreme view—the truth is that these stereotypes are simply stereotypes. Most of the nerds of any type that I know are connected by their enthusiasm for that which they're nerdy about—an enthusiasm that often transcends boundaries and categories. And theater people... well, yeah, I guess you do kind of have to be insane to do theater, especially on an indie level, where you're spending vast amounts of time, energy and money without much compensation other than the satisfaction of knowing that you're creating something special and unique that never existed before. I guess here's a big difference, sad but true: comics artists expect to be paid, while an overwhelming number of indie theater artists regularly work for free. I'm still mulling over what this even means...
Which comes first for you, theater or comics?
For now, it's definitely theater. I grew up with comics and had a big fanboy phase in my early teens, and then kind of left it aside when I discovered the more immediate thrills of theater. I didn't just collect but also created, and there was a period of my life when I wondered whether I'd be a comics artist or a theater person, but the instant gratification of theater kind of decided that for me. I've been falling back into comics more and more over the past few years, though, and this festival has intensified the connection. I actually did a number of drawings for the festival brochure, and I laid out the panels, did the character designs and drew the final images for one of the sequences for my own show. It's getting me psyched to work on more comics in the future, in all that free time I have when I'm not doing theater, working a day job and being a new dad.
(Photo: Alicia Stetzer)