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Since director Oliver Butler saw co-writers and actors Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen do a reading in the Drama Book Shop basement just over half a decade ago, the three Brooklyn transplants, known collectively as The Debate Society, have earned virtually every accolade for which a young theater company could hope. Now six shows deep, including their biggest hit to date with this spring's clever, half-parody yet completely earnest police procedural, Buddy Cop 2, the trio seems poised for big things, and that much isn't up for debate.
The L: How did the three of you meet, and what made you decide to start a theater company together?
Hannah Bos: I don't know these guys. And I didn't know I was in a theater company. Weird.
Oliver Butler: You know us.
Hannah: Oh, yeah...You guys!
Paul Thureen: Hannah and I have been best friends since college and have been writing and performing together since then. Oliver we met through mutual friends and he came to a reading of our first play A Thought About Raya.
Oliver: I saw their reading in the basement of the Drama Book Shop and I loved the play. The friend who I brought with me said "You have to work with those guys!" So I approached them to ask them to let me work with them. They told me that they didn't want to work with a director—
Paul: We didn't.
Oliver:—but I courted them and they eventually agreed to work with me.
Paul & Hannah: We did.
Hannah: Oliver's a very good cook. So we did A Thought About Raya together and it went well so after that we decided to make things formal and became The Debate Society.
Paul: That was in 2004.
The L: If you had to describe your work in no more than two sentences, how would you describe it? Or rather: You have to describe your work in no more than two sentences. Go.
Paul: We do unexpected stories set in intricate, imaginary worlds. They are dark, funny and sad.
Hannah: Plays that are new made by the three of us. We try to make play.
Oliver: We make plays that start with a voice-over and end with a spotlight. The middle part is different.
Paul: Wow . . . that's actually totally true. I never realized that.
Hannah: Oh my God. Stop the interview. I'm going home.
Oliver: It's an e-mail interview Hannah.
The L: Many of your plays draw on other media and art forms (mythology in The Snow Hen, medieval literature in The Eaten Heart, film in Cape Disappointment, police procedurals in Buddy Cop 2); do you set out to deliberately create pieces that are in dialog with other works; do these relationships emerge through your writing, work-shopping, reading and rehearsing processes; or do these other texts just happen to be what you're reading, watching or listening to at the time?
Hannah: We collect things that interest us and that spark a new idea for a play...and that can come from anywhere; another story or genre, a painting or anything. And then text grows out of a long period of research and experimentation.
Paul: In the end it's not so much of a dialog with another form or existing work as much as it is a theatricalization of a mood or feeling or idea, the seed of which we found buried in something else.
Oliver: I think we also like to play with expectations of genre and form...for example, the title Buddy Cop 2 purposefully sounds like either a parody of, or an homage to 80s buddy cop movies—schlocky, ironic and over the top. But the audience shows up and it's a small town Christmas mystery, slow and metered, really detailed. It's never in service of ostracizing the audience, but I think we really believe that part of the enjoyment of the play is being surprised that the world or characters don't meet your expectations.
The L: In addition to these non-theatrical influences and sources of inspiration, which theater artists, movements or traditions have been particularly strong influences on your development as writers, directors and performers?
Hannah: For me, Steppenwolf, Piven Theatre Workshop and the Moscow Art Theater.
Paul: Hannah and I both studied in Moscow and I think that the dark humor, life and death commitment to the work and super richness of detail in performance that we saw there really has been a huge influence. And for me personally: working with Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis, with their focus on creativity and making magical theatrical moments.
Oliver: Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Darko Tresnjak—my mother is an actress, so I literally grew up backstage. She was always doing shows at The Long Wharf, Hartford Stage, some other theater in Boston. Mostly classics—Night of the Iguana, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tobacco Road, Madame Butterfly, Long Day's Journey into Night—and I was with her watching the plays from an empty seat (over and over again) or I was listening to them from inside the dressing room. Anyway, what I am saying is that while I love being a part of an experimental aesthetic now, I do have a very standard theatrical upbringing. I like a story that is told really well, but I also like experimenting with how a simple story is told.
The L: What are you working on next, and how do you see the Debate Society changing over the next five years?
Paul: We're just starting work on two new plays.
Oliver: Very early, but we can tell you the next play is set during the 1893 and 1933 World's Fairs in Chicago.
Hannah: And our next next play is a thriller based on a medieval myth.
Paul: In the next five years we want to tour internationally, get some permanent office/rehearsal space and make better and better plays.
Oliver: Yeah, I wanna be in Berlin with The Debate Society.
The L: If you could collaborate with any other New York City artist (living or dead), who would it be, why, and what would you create together?
Oliver: Regina Spektor. I want her to write the music for a TDS musical.
Paul: We're all really interested in Steele MacKaye right now, this actor/playwright/inventor who designed and built crazy theaters in NYC in the late 1800s.
Hannah: Stages on elevators, things like that.
Oliver: He figures into our World's Fair play.
Paul: He feels like our style. Someone we'd love to make something with.
Hannah: And the mole people.