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.