Cucaracha Theatre by Betsy Sussler

Up for experimental theater? Try the Cucaracha Theatre company. Drama, death, dreams—they go there in conversation with Betsy Sussler.

BOMB 39 Spring 1992

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19


Cucaracha 01

Cucaracha: Martin Donovan and Mollie O’Mara. © 1992 Richard Caliban.

Eight years ago, Richard Caliban and David Simonds invited gifted performers over to do informal readings of Richard’s play, Internal Combustion, just for the hell of it. In Internal Combustion, a disillusioned boy falls in love with a performance artist who keeps changing her personality. The production went up with a $1,500 budget and broke even the first night. That production spawned the ensemble company, Cucaracha Theatre. Project-oriented, the company of actors and writers is talented and prolific. Just this season, they have come out with a deft and pristine interpretation of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, an ongoing Cabaret, a weekly theater called Underground Soap, replete with wrap party; and Richard Caliban’s acrobatic wordplay, Homo Sapien Shuffle, now at The Public. Actress Vivian Lanko joined David, Richard and me for lunch and, several sessions later, we put together the following.

Betsy Sussler David, Underground Soap is a send up of TV soaps, much wackier, much riskier, and performed live, on stage each Friday night. How do the episodes get shaped?

David Simonds We have a group of five writers: Patricia Scanlon, Todd Alcott, Jeff Taylor, Jennifer Houlton, myself. It’s experimental theater. We do a rehearsal, a tech on Wednesday, and then do it Friday night. And then Saturday, we have a script session—the upcoming episodes.

BS Are the actors involved in the writing, any improvising?

DS They are, actually. Each storyline is responsible for itself. There’s not an overall director, really. I write mine, for example, mount it, rehearse it, get it ready to go.

BS The audience sits in the center, and scenes from each episode intercut from stage to stage. Is having different stages a device to keep the action moving or an attempt to mesh story lines?

DS They intermesh a bit I’d like, by the end of May, for them all to tie in and have a unified conclusion.

BS A cliffhanger?

DS For next year, yeah.

BS Can the actors walk in and out, if they get other jobs?

DS Two of our actors are on Broadway right now. That’s why the “Soaps” start at 10. And after the show, there’s a party, which the audience tends to come back for.

BS So you have an ongoing audience as well?

DS Yeah, we do, a lot of regulars. And it’s still growing. People care about these characters. (laughter) It’s not intricate plot work, by any stretch of the imagination, but these are bizarre journeys that these characters take.

BS Still have that cowboy singer?

DS Kevin Trainer, Kenny James playing “Broken-hearted Dreamer.” He was a cameo but he’ll be back.

BS Does Cucaracha expand so you can do anything you want with anyone you want? Soaps at Cucaracha, Shakespeare at Home, Homo Sapien Shuffle at The Public, the Cabaret …

Richard Caliban We’re prudes. We have long courting periods with people before we work with them. David Becker and Mark Milbauer, who directed Two Gentlemen of Verona, did a guest artist workshop with us two years ago. A one week production. We do that as a first step to see how we get along, if we want to collaborate with someone. And we all did.

BS That wasn’t a rewrite of Shakespeare.

DS An adaptation.

BS It’s the first time I’ve seen the play where I actually thought, this is a comedy, and then at the end, when Vivian’s character is raped, it became tragic.

Vivian Lanko Tragic, yes, but more complete. But I think the original version is tragic in Shakespeare’s treatment of Sylvia. She seems to be a silent object, taken and given at men’s will. In the adaptation, the rape actually takes place, but Sylvia, through the use of Launce’s monologue, gets to give it back to the men, as if she were holding up a mirror. The adaptation was more complete. (After lunch)

RC When Vivian says, “Jump!” I say, “How high?”

VL Oh right! One of the nice things about working so often with Richard as playwright/director is that he is alive, on the premises, and will rewrite sometimes (if bullied enough). It’s what makes working at Cucaracha so exciting—those moments of collaboration, of creating something together.

BS Richard, Cucaracha uses all the visual quirks of the avant-garde, yet you’re writer-oriented.

RC I have been blessed with being able to work, over the years with a composer like John Hoge, with actors and designers I’ve come to trust and love. A language develops. It’s made all the difference for me, allowed me to compose pieces three-dimensionally. I think now of the script as just one component of the play. I want the sound and music—the taste and feel the visual imagery to not just support the text, but to speak as loud as the text. The people who really do this well—Robert Wilson comes to mind—are usually pretty abstract—not character-based. I’m trying to achieve that level of audio-visual intensity in work that ischaracter-based.

BS Vivian’s character, Wheeler, in Homo Sapien Shuffle, reminds me of the missing piece in Six Characters in Search of an Author. She tells your other characters what to do. Who is she?

RC Wheeler is meant to be ambiguous. At times, she is God, an angel, a director of some weird inexplicable project, an artist. Basically, she is responsible for what she is creating.

BS Is she a reflection of the writer?

RC From a psychoanalytical point of view, I guess she is. I don’t think of her as me, but in terms of “we,” humans creating this world, which I personify in this piece. I want to compare the idea of God creating a world and an artist creating a world and then how these worlds are seen from the perspective of the artist and the perspectives of the characters.

BS Do you all believe in God?

VL I do.

RC I don’t.

BS Richard, I don’t see you as an atheist.

RC I believe that we, en masse, create life. In a sense, I believe that we’re God. I believe that we collectively create this world, in exactly the same way I create a world when I dream myself into a dream at night. I’ve always had a sense of me and this life being—I always feel like a secondary being, like I’m being projected here by a greater self. In the same way I project myself into a dream, I project myself here. I’m an extension of myself.

BS This idea of being projected …

RC It’s something I’ve grown up with. I’ve had a recurring nightmare for years that this guy comes into my room and shoots me. And I experience falling down. I bounce on the floor and I hear his foot steps walking away. It was always a pleasurable experience, and then I would get up and we’d do it again. This began at an early age, before I really knew what it meant, that I was acting in an incredibly complex drama. I think dying is exactly like waking up from a dream. That’s the way it makes sense to me. I create a world for myself at night in dreams and we collectively create this world for ourselves and when we die we suddenly see the overview.

BS You mean our spirits?

RC Yeah. We wake up and look at the nightmare and go, “Oh, that was interesting.” And that’s what I’m getting at with Wheeler. She’s someone who dreams these lives but, to her, all they do when they die, is wake up.

BS Wheeler’s first line is a flash forward, “Our final configuration.” The final configuration is a shooting—death.

RC It could just as well be birth. It is the dramatic moment, as if they were taking that moment in time and were going to lay it out for us as though it was a painting. This guy just got his head shot off, a random, makes-no-sense moment. And for the characters in the drama, looking at it as if it were a real human event, it is a tragedy. Looking at it from the outside, as if our lives were projected into a dream, it becomes interesting. There is value to a nightmare, to a tragedy. If we’re in Macbeth and not aware of the bigger picture of looking at it from the outside, it’s a horrible experience. I’m talking about looking at life from the perspective that “all the world is a stage” literally.

BS Is Wheeler’s crisis that she stops seeing them as characters on a stage and herself as a device?

RC Her crisis is that she begins to empathize with the characters and to see life from their point of view. In other words, if you were a creator, you’d get used to thinking of life as tragedies and comedies of equal value. They’re all part of it. But once she looks at it from the characters’ point of view, the point of the view of getting shot, she feels compassion. One of the actresses in the play gave me an epiphany, that what the play is ultimately about is the inability to be in life or the ability to be in life as opposed to watching it. Wheeler is suddenly feeling what it’s like to be in the moment rather than someone who has always looked at things as if they were art. Suddenly, she doesn’t have the ability to look at it from the outside.

BS As you’re talking, I’m thinking, this is a writer’s dilemma. How is this different from a writer?

RC It’s not. That’s the point. We write tragedies and comedies, so why wouldn’t God, if he were creating this world, do the same?

BS That’s what I want to ask you.

RC We’re obsessed with making everything good and better, and we want the world to progress, we want heaven on earth basically …

BS Why God allows evil to exist, free will, is a religious debate.

RC This play takes the position that God is good, so why does he include evil in his repertory? By the way, every time I say God, I really mean us.

BS I know, you don’t believe in God.

RC We humans include it … in our dreams, in our art. Something in us wants both sides of the spectrum, the most wonderful and the most horrible.

BS But do you think we have a choice?

RC This is where it gets complicated. Our souls want us to experience the whole range. And that means we have created the most horrible things because we want to live through it, and after all, why not? But we don’t have the overview, we can’t step back and say, “Ah, it’s all good, this is what life encompasses.” Wheeler is looking at it from the point of view that it’s all part of life, then suddenly she’s looking at it from our point of view, we who are in it and who don’t want to see their heads blown off!

VL People find the character Wheeler so intriguing because they do question why people are starving, suffering, dying unnecessary deaths …

RC It’s also a way of structuring the hierarchy. If God’s at the top and in control of everything …

VL And it’s supposed to be a benevolent God …

RC … Then why is God creating or allowing evil? Or it’s not that way and God’s the good force and the Devil is this other force and they’re at war. In that case it’s not God’s fault. But if God is on top and responsible for all things, then it’s much more interesting.

BS So Wheeler is the one who can step outside of the dream.

VL … and find beauty in tragedy.

RC Her problem is that she can’t get into it and our problem is that we can’t get a view out of it.

BS When she gets into it, she questions her motivation to act.

RC She gets a taste of what it feels like to be in it, then she questions, “Wait, why don’t I just give them heaven on earth?”

VL It’s in my hands, I can change this.

BS Richard, you are directing this.

RC When I first began directing my own plays all kinds of people conveyed to me one of the standard wisdoms of theater: playwrights shouldn’t direct their own work. The chief reason being that we don’t have any objective eye. But over the past eight years of directing my stuff at Cucaracha, I’ve come to believe that the last thing I want is an objective eye. I want my work to be intensely peculiar to my particular perspective on the world. That’s what makes art compelling. That’s what we like about Van Gogh or Poe they’re intensely, insanely lost in their visions. Who cares if they’re full of flaws—Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is a great big mess of a play—how come it’s so wonderful?

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BOMB 39, Spring 1992
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