Luka Kain, left, and Henry Yuk. Mask by Ralph Lee.

Luka Kain, left, and Henry Yuk. Mask by Ralph Lee.

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Opton, used with permission.

LaMaMa is New York City’s premiere avant garde theater and from March 31 to April 16, 2017, the venue will be hosting The Talking Band’s “The Room Sings.” This play uses several genres to tell the stories of four people whose lives interlock. True to its name, the play features a room in a country house that sings of the people who have lived there in a span of more than seventy years. The OBIE-award winning Talking Band is proud of this ninety-minute play and the fact that it was designed so that each timeline has a unique theatrical style. Paul Zimet recently discussed the show with AXS:

AXS: What inspired you to become a writer and how did you get into playwriting? 

Paul Zimit (PZ): I started as a Director and Actor.  From 1967-1973 I was a member of the Open Theater directed by Joseph Chaikin. We created new theater works collaboratively. Although we collaborated with playwrights such as Jean- Claude van Itallie, Susan Yankowitz, and Sam Shepard, in making these works, the actors also generated theatrical material -images and text. So, that’s how I started writing.

AXS: How would you describe your style? 

PZ: I like to work with music and musical language (i.e. poetry). I’m also interested in the way people actually speak - the music of everyday spoken language. And I’m interested in the way language is juxtaposed-  supported or in counterpoint - with strong visual imagery and physical action/ movement.

AXS: Growing up, what kinds of shows--plays, TV shows, movies, etc.--had the biggest impact on you? Why? 

PZ: As a kid I went to musicals - both new ones and  revivals of classic Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. I guess I loved being immersed in a story and theatrical world where people sang and danced.  Later as a teenager and young adult I was very affected by movies - the French New Wave (Goddard, Truffaut); Bergman, Hitchcock, Kurowsawa, Jean Vigo.

AXS: How did you come to associate with LaMaMa?

PZ:  In 1979, Ellen Stewart heard about a show, Pedro Paramo, which I directed for Talking Band at Theater for the New City, and she invited us to perform at La MaMa. The first show we did there was called Soft Targets in 1981, and since then La MaMa has  presented around fifteen Talking Band shows. We are one of La MaMa’s resident theater companies. 

AXS: How would you describe "This Room Sings”?

PZ: The Room Sings is composed of the interlocking stories of four sets of people that have lived in a country house over a span of seventy years. Each of the timelines have their own theatrical style. In the present time, the Sidney, Hope, and William's scenes are in the style of Chekhovian farce/tragedy. In the 1980’s, the Sal, Al and Loretta scenes have the flavor of Sicilian puppet opera, and then there is a Sicilian puppet opera sung by beavers (puppets by Ralph Lee).  In the 1960’s, Mr. Ma and Oskar's story unfolds in the style of a Chinese folk ghost story. And in the 1940’s, the old brother and sister are in a noir film.  The Room is also a character who sings of the seasons, and the people and animals who have lived in the house and left their mark. The visual structure  takes inspiration from the work of photographer Barbara Probst. She sets up multiple cameras and uses a radio-controlled shutter release in order to capture a single moment from different but simultaneous points of view.  Each point of view gives the observer an alternate perspective on the subject or the “story” of the moment. In The Room Sings there will be a multiple, fractured view of a place and the people who inhabit it.  Initially the audience sees the view from inside the kitchen/dining room of the country house. Through the windows we see a side porch, a lawn, and in the distance a pond with a dock.  In each of these settings different sets of people are simultaneously engaged in their own activities. As the play unfolds, each of these groups of people comes into the foreground as another recedes. The scenes move on rolling platforms, so the audience sees them not only from different distances but from different angles as well.  Soon the audience comes to realize that they are seeing the characters not only from different points of view but also at different moments in time.

AXS: What's your favorite thing about this play? 

PZ: It’s expansiveness. The time frame of seventy years, the accumulation of history of the people who have lived in one house, the way their lives and imaginations are particular to their own era and situation, yet unexpectedly intersect.

AXS: What do you hope people take away from this play? 

PZ: A sense of the passage of time, our own mortality and impermanence, and at the same time the importance of the moment we live in, and the vitality which we bring to it.

AXS: To date, how many plays have you written? Do you have a favorite? 

PZ: Around twenty-five. No one favorite. Ones that I’d like to do again (or see other productions of) include: Bitterroot,  Black Milk Quartet, The Golden Toad, Imminence, and Marcellus Shale which is being done this season in four different productions throughout the U.S.

AXS: So far, what has been the most rewarding thing about being involved in the theatre industry? 

PZ: Learning from and being inspired by other people.

AXS: Career wise, where do you hope to be in ten years? 

PZ: Alive. Continuing to create -as an actor, director, and writer. I hope my craft and understanding deepen. And that my work continues to entertain and surprise me and those who see it, and, in some way, enhance our lives.  

AXS: Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to mention?

PZ: Earlier, I mentioned Marcellus Shale a play I wrote and directed at La MaMa three years ago. It examines how a community is transformed and divided by fracking. With the help of grants from the Theater Communications Group and The National Endowment for the Arts this year a local communities in Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and Colorado are staging their own version of the play. Talking Band is also looking to tour Fat Skirt and Big Nozzle, a show inspired by the paintings of the surrealist painter James Ensor. The show is created and performed by Ellen Maddow and Louise Smith, and directed by me. And Talking Band is starting a new commissioning program. We are commissioning artists whose work excite us to create new pieces with and for the company. The first two artists we are commissioning are choreographer, Miguel Gutierrez and playwright, Clare Barron,

AXS: What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to become a playwright or director? 

PZ: I think everyone has to find their own path into it.  Mine was circuitous.  I didn’t go to theater school. I studied comparative literature in college and then went for a brief time to medical school. When I decided to devote myself to theater, I sought out people whose work and thinking interested me, and studied what challenged and stimulated me.  I think where your career go depends on a mysterious combination of will, interests, ability, and chance.

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To learn more, visit the official website of LaMaMa. To learn more about The Talking Band, see here.