This spring, Tisch Drama is thrilled to welcome visionary theatre artist Carlos Armesto, Producing Artistic Director of theatreC, as our spring artist in residence. Over the past several weeks, Armesto and Co-Director Attilio Rigotti have collaborated with students to develop and direct 'Urinetown,' the rough, raunchy, quirky, comic musical about greed, power, love, ambition, greed, corporations, and greed (did I say greed?).
Inspired by Brecht and Kurt Weill works, the TISCH DRAMA STAGE production of ‘Urinetown’ will be presented via live-stream in the same vein as the NBC and Fox live musicals, with some performers telecast from the studio, and others coming in through Zoom. Tisch Drama recently caught up with them to discuss the project:
Thank you for taking the time to chat. Can you start by telling us a little more about your unique approach to theatre making?
Our company theatreC is dedicated to creating unique theatrical experiences. We’ve been focusing on this methodology for the past 12 years. We started off creating theatre that blended various forms of expression into plays, musicals, and concerts. Before there was Hamilton, we created a hip-hop rock/salsa musical about gangs. We incorporated gymnastics and shadow puppetry for The Who’s Tommy. But in recent years, we’ve focused more on immersive work—we created Retro Factory, and LGBT Dance Party Series in which our guests enter a space reminiscent of a past queer-friendly venue and are greeted by characters from that era, inviting them into special rooms and taking them on an intimate journey. We’ve also launched a new division called Pitchblack Immersive Experiences, creating theatre in complete darkness—audiences experience a story through smell, scent, sound, and touch. We like to challenge the notion of theatre and explore how we can create work that evolves the medium.
Obviously the pandemic has presented new challenges to theatre artists. How do you feel you’ve evolved in the current moment?
We leaned into the virtual theatre movement. We had two major events scheduled for 2020, but because of the pandemic, we had to shift gears. We were fortunate that we had on staff people like Atitlio Rigotti who were excited about exploring the virtual side of our medium. Our first production from Pitchblack went from a live experience to an at-home virtual experience. You experience the event as if you were opening an in-flight box, and the smells, tastes, and textures of the story are available to you while you listen to a binaural surround-sound streaming narrative. We changed our Retro Factory Party for Pride to a virtual one with intimate breakout rooms, performances, and music videos—showcasing our guests as we moved through the two-hour at-home dance party. We did a concert of a musical we are developing called Cubamor as a video streaming event.
I think that all humans—including theatre artists—should try to do more than one thing well, or be open to learning on the fly. When a debilitating event like COVID-19 strikes, we must have skills—or the desire—to be able to adjust and work in new ways. We were used to doing video conferencing in meetings, so when the pandemic forced us to collaborate via Zoom, we were able to continue creating. I hope that students can take that lesson from this year and allow themselves to explore new aspects of their skills and talents.
How has your experience working at Tisch Drama been so far? What have our students brought to the conversation?
Well, I just want to commend Tisch Drama for leaning into our new reality and finding a way to create an exciting presentation for the students to explore theatre that melds the world of film and television. Because we are putting this together like a live televised presentation, students have to adjust to a new process of theatre-making—one we are devising day by day. It’s a monstrous project, but one that the students have been embracing wonderfully. This kind of process tests our abilities and makes us learn how to change at the drop of a hat—regulations change, we might have to cancel rehearsal because of a health concern, people need to social distance, you can’t sing or scream in the studio, etc. The list is endless, but we have adapted, knowing these new parameters have only enhanced our choices, not inhibited them. The students have brought an openness, a willingness to experiment, and a joy to the process that has been one of my favorites in my career.
With Urinetown, can you tell us about the origins of the project, and your vision for the piece?
This project was originally going to be a live theatrical experience. I was ruminating on how to make it an immersive experience for the audience. Instead of presenting a show we sit back and watch, it would be an event the audience participates in. All that went out the window when COVID-19 struck. When we started thinking of a video presentation of the piece, we wanted to get a sense of how to best tell this story and give the students as much of a hybrid live/online experience as possible. Some would be in-person. Others would be fed in through Zoom. And the audience would experience the whole piece through a streaming platform.
In creating the world of our Urinetown, we wanted to embrace our real-life situation, yet set the piece in a time that creates an alternate history from our own. It is set 20-50 years after the 1918 flu pandemic struck the world. Everyone wore masks. But in our Urinetown, the disease never left. As time past, a drought left the world desperate, and it continued to evolve based on that. Technology, for example, is very different from the devices we know. We derive inspiration from the films of Brazil, The City of Lost Children, and The Hudsucker Proxy, and video games like Fallout and others. It’s a dark and dreary world, inspired by steampunk and full of slapstick comedy. The music has an electro-swing influence in its orchestrations, and the darkly comic world allows us to view the events as a warning to what could have been.
What has been your favorite part of this collaboration at Tisch Drama?
The best part of all of this has been finding magical moments of creativity with the students, both in design meetings and in the rehearsal studio with live and zoomed-in actors. The bursts of creative abandon as we have worked together have been utterly exciting to share, and I’m very excited about what they will be bringing to the industry when they graduate. I’ve also had the pleasure of having a dialogue with the original creators of Urinetown, and with dramaturg Una Chaudhuri, who’s kept me on my creative toes from the beginning of the process. It’s been a godsend to be able to create on this scale and we at theatreC are very blessed to have had a residency with the students as we create this delicious show.