Wednesday, October 2, 2013

In a Word... Martin Chodorek on The Nefarious Bed and Breakfast

                                                                                                              (Photo by Joseph R. Adam)
The Season of the Geek
we'll serve up a can of pork and beans with a side of roast squash
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Martin Chodorek is a Toronto native and a graduate of Ryerson Theatre School's Acting program. In 2008, he, Tim Nussey, Brad Rowe, and D.J. Sylvis founded Monkeyman Productions, which calls itself Toronto's geekiest theatre company. Over the last five years, in addition to serving for a time as the company's artistic director, Martin  Chodorek has directed plays containing or referencing cult television series, interstellar travel, obsessive fandom, film noir, humans with supernatural powers, video gaming culture, and even Godzilla.

CHARPO:  I invented a term for the early works of Steve Galluccio which I applied to many, many Fringe theatre works: Gonzo Theatre. The way your company is described - especially the way you reference pop culture - falls into the category of Gonzo. So how do you separate your company's work from just off-season Fringe?

CHODOREK: It all starts with Monkeyman's approach to making geek theatre. I love Fringe theatre but, as you quite correctly point out, it has a season. Just like fruits and vegetables. And I'd say no strawberry tastes as good as a local one in-season. Monkeyman created a Fringe show in 2012 that fit the 'farmers' market' bill and another theatre company took that script and remounted it in a different festival this year, but that wasn't really a typical product for the company. I'll admit, when assembled, the list of pop culture and fandom we've explored as a company may seem Fringe-like on its surface. But, production-by-production, I wouldn't say they're imported strawberries. They're not even strawberry preserves. Pop culture references evolve, but they don't operate on a seasonal calendar. Generally, a Monkeyman show is built on a foundation with universal relevance, classic pop culture comfort food, if you will. We'll add something seasonal, though not necessarily Fringe-y. And we always leave room for something exotic. So, to complete the now-unwieldy metaphor... this Fall, we'll serve up a can of pork and beans with a side of roast squash. And a banana on the side. It'll be delicious.

The Nefarious Bed and Breakfast is a script that's been in development for longer than Monkeyman has been a company.

CHARPO:  Now more specifically about your company: how do you take content and form that sounds like a YouTube web series and make it theatre? (or is that even important)

CHODOREK: Our primary form has always been traditional theatre. New media for storytelling are great - they're getting better all the time - and I'm sure Monkeyman will dabble in them, but to-date we've only shared our narratives live. The content may, from time to time, be a trending topic. The process and product, however, are artisanal. We're fortunate to be creating theatre that references pop culture in a time when the average person can appreciate both 3D printers and hand-carved wooden smartphone cases. When you keep that in mind and set about making something beautiful, the choice to tell your story via theatre isn't at odds with someone who chooses YouTube instead. The media only affect how you tell it.

CHARPO:  Take us into the early stages of creating this production - what is the process? What does a brainstorming session look like?

CHODOREK: The Nefarious Bed and Breakfast is a script that's been in development for longer than Monkeyman has been a company. Because I've been involved in a number of readings of it and have collaborated with D.J. Sylvis, the playwright, over these five years, the early production process was mostly a matter of committing to the ambitious script and assembling the very best team we could. As a company, we've rarely worked with individuals who needed to be told their job descriptions. Monkeyman casts and production teams are comprised of people who also work on non-geek theatre. The only difference is our rehearsals and production meetings are probably more prone to lengthy digressions about video games, comic books, and the latest viral video. And bonding over those things is an important part of our process.

CHARPO:  Now you're directing - how do you corral the apparently off-the-wall energies and sensibilities of the team and give it shape?

CHODOREK: Geekiness isn't as off-the-wall as it once was. Today, the odd person out is the one who's never read a graphic novel. Or who isn't active on Facebook. Or doesn't take pictures or send e-mail with the portable computer he or she calls a phone. Giving a Monkeyman team shape, beyond 'beerhearsals' and traditional theatre practices, involves everyone indulging his/her own geekiness - bonding over common obsessions and introducing new ones to each other. We gather to work, but we make sure it never stops being fun. If there's an obscure pop culture reference made in the script, the safe environment has already been created to ensure no one feels like he/she can't ask to be let in on the joke. We try to extend that inclusivity to our audiences too. We love being asked about details after the show... if the audience member hasn't already Googled it.

CHARPO:  Now, in the selling of it - how do you convince a potential audience this isn't just a bunch of nutty ComicCon geeks chewing scenery?

CHODOREK: We involve theatre people in a theatre process and create a theatre product. Even when working on the shortest of plays in the least conventional venue, I'll never refer to it as a skit. It's always a traditional, conventional theatre operation with thought and energy put into every aspect of the production: performance, design, and promotional elements alike. To a comic book geek who doesn't frequent Toronto theatres, we'll say The Nefarious Bed and Breakfast is the story of a recovering supervillain. For a theatre person who has no strong opinions about DC or Marvel, we'll say it's a zany BandB farce set in a Toronto where superheroes exist. A potential audience familiar with farces knows that that sort of comedy isn't for rank amateurs or the faint of heart. And everyone involved in this production is up to the task.

CHARPO:  Do you want to be taken seriously? And if so, define what that would be?

CHODOREK:  I don't know. Creating theatre to be "taken seriously" makes as much sense to me as creating theatre to get rich. I'm in awe of  'nutty ComicCon geeks' and people who paint their face in their team's colours on game day. Those are my people. When I think about the time and energy and money that a person can invest in looking just like Rogue from the X-Men because of a connection to and a sense of ownership of that source material, I know that it's a labour of love. When someone cheers for and articulately defends the honour of a sports organization that hasn't won a championship in his or her lifetime, I have great admiration for that loyalty. That's my mindset when I choose my projects and my collaborators. External validation isn't as important as people celebrating each other's obsessions, whatever those may be. I really take that bit of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity to heart - what you are like is more important than what you like. But I do know that geeky, fanatical people like me care deeply. Life's too short for me to not to take what I'm doing seriously and too long and unpredictable to take myself seriously. If I'm able to project that and attract some people who want to tell or listen to marvellous and/or mundane stories with me, isn't that better than being taken seriously?

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