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In Conversation with Brooke O’Harra

By Kayla Fanelli

Aug 10, 2015

The acclaimed And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid by Jeff Weiss & Richard C. Martinez was presented at The Kitchen on July 14-16. Director Brooke O’Harra spoke with Curatorial Intern Kayla Fanelli about the thrilling and complex experience of reengaging this long-running, serial work.

Kayla Fanelli: When did you first encounter And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid?

Brooke O'Harra: I first encountered Jeff Weiss as an individual, not the serial drama. I moved to New York in 1999 and immediately started doing work at The Club at La MaMa. The Club is curated by Nicky Paraiso, who is a really close friend of Jeff’s and performed with him for twenty-five years. Nicky was one of the first people to perform with Jeff in And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid and Hot Keys. My company, The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, had a show at The Club in 2001. That same year, Jeff was acting across the street at the New York Theatre Workshop. Nicky, Jeff, and I went out for drinks after some of our shows. So I met Jeff as a friend, as another queer in the theater, before I really knew his work. We were just three queer people hanging out downtown. In fact, I never saw And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid. I didn't start to understand that part of downtown theater history until I was a more established New York artist. First I made the work, and then I found my place in a larger conversation.

KF: Was it in 2001 that you first saw Jeff perform? 

BO: Yes, he was performing in a play at New York Theater Workshop, which is across the street from La MaMa Experimental Theater Club. Around that time, Jeff had taken a break from his serial dramas because Richard, his partner of over 50 years, had developed Parkinson’s disease. Jeff and Richard had always lived on very little and worked extremely hard on their collaborative projects, but due to circumstances, Jeff had to find a way to take care of Richard. He approached friends—actors, directors, producers—letting them know he was up for working as an actor. He was immediately cast in Hamlet with Kevin Klein, and from that point on he basically had a full on SAG and Equity career, with roles in big shows on and off Broadway, as well as some TV and film. In a short time, he was able to build a small retirement. 

KF: How did the idea to revive the performance come about?

BO: I don’t think the idea is “reviving the production.” I think we’re staging the work. I’m resisting this idea that what we are mounting is what existed. The project itself was never that. It was not predictable and it was never the same, the scenes were used in different incarnations of the work, but often with new scenes added. “Revive” also feels like a medical word, something you do to someone who appears to be dead.
In the spring of 2015, Nicky called me in a panic because Jeff was in a bad space. In the early 2000s, Jeff and Richard had moved out to Allentown, PA to Jeff’s family home. Because Parkinson’s can be such a debilitating disease, Richard has been very ill lately. The stress of caring for Richard by himself took its toll on Jeff and he had a nervous breakdown. Jeff was hospitalized for over two weeks. And because Richard needed 24 hour care, a private nursing service was brought in. Unfortunately, this expense plunged them into debt. 

Nicky suggested we do a fundraiser by staging Jeff’s work. My initial response was, “That’s crazy, fundraising through production is a nightmare and hopeless.” So Sharon Hayes, my partner, and I got together with friends in New York and started a GoFundMe campaign. We raised $30,000 in twelve days! In the end, Nicky had already said something to Jeff about restaging his work to raise money, so Jeff had it in his head and wanted to do his work. I was personally interested in staging the work because I wanted to better understand it. It was a kind of research project for me, as well as a labor of love. 

When I thought about all of the venues where Jeff worked, they all seemed to want to claim a kind of ownership of the work. But what is clear, is that the work is so profoundly Jeff and Richard’s. I didn’t want this to be a tribute. I wanted it to be an event of this moment and in dialogue with it. I wanted it to mark Jeff in the historic and cultural record. So instead of binding this project to one of the many institutions he worked in and presenting it as a legacy of that institution, I wanted to find a space that could hold his work and him. The Kitchen was the perfect place because he didn’t perform there, but so much of his work was in conversation with work presented at The Kitchen and artists who performed there. 

KF: You have 4,000 pages of material. Can you tell me more about the editing process?

BO: Some would call the process dramaturgy, I like to call it curating. There’s nothing about the process that is straight forward and it took me quite some time to create a kind of logic. In the end, Jeff said my process was more logical than his, maybe not as a compliment, but he loves to tease. 

When Jeff first gave me material, he gave me 2,000 pages of what he called scenes. I was expecting scripts, but he really did just give me hundreds of scenes that were not sorted or ordered in any way. It was both surprising and maddening. It immediately felt like an impossible task. At first, all I could do was become familiar with the material. I was able to start to identify plot lines and then to figure out possible sequential orders for stories. There were also scenes that were kind of one offs. I later learned some characters only existed for one scene because they were written for specific actors performing on specific evenings. Once I began to better understand the material, I went back to Pennsylvania and picked up three more boxes of scenes. In those boxes, Jeff had little sheets where he had written the names of the scenes down, the songs that followed them, and the casts. There would be ten scenes on a piece of paper and then he would number them on the side, but then constantly shift them. There was no real order. I also learned that during a 1983 performance of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, the scenes were literally picked out of a hat. In the end, all of this information gave me a sense of liberty. I went from feeling shocked and panicked, to feeling liberated and playful. 

KF: How did you determine the collaborators for the revival? 

BO: Half of the cast are people who had been involved in the projects before and half of the cast are downtown actors that have some kind of relationship to Jeff’s work. So there are some people who worked with Jeff and Richard and hold the history and form of the work, and then there a lot of these young, queer performers who bring a new eye and voice. The people that had been in Jeff’s show before requested specific scenes that they had performed in before, which provided specific direction for the evenings. I hired an assistant, Sarah Streat, and together we pulled the scenes that related to plots Jeff told me to definitely include and those that actors had requested. Nicky Paraiso and Kate Valk have had very specific roles in the development of the project. Kate helped me cast because she had a real memory of the process and she was in previous performances with Jeff. Nicky was absolutely necessary as the music director and actor. He knows the work better than anybody. There are tons of songs, both original and found in the archive. At some point in the process Jeff and Richard introduced a Glee Club to the performances. Nicky was always in charge of the Glee Club. Mark Bennett, the Broadway composer and sound designer, has also been an important part of the project because he scored all of the original songs and helped us get the music together. Their guidance, commitment to the project, and intense historical memory really made us a viable team. 

KF: What’s it like to work with 50 people?

BO: In the past, Jeff gave actors scenes a week in advance and the actors had to find each other and rehearse on their own. They would meet up, do one run through and then he would give them notes and they would do the show. If a scene wasn't ready he would cut it. For this show, I can’t tell you when and how often the actors have met. 

KF: Have you adopted the same process?

BO: It’s the only way. There are 50 actors and 42 scenes! I scheduled everyone for some rehearsals, but there aren’t enough hours in the week to see everyone’s scenes before tech. It has to be what it is, and Jeff really believes in that. The actors will know and be the spirit. Jeff has always said, “There’s not a director,” and I feel that. 

KF: Why is the staging relevant now?

BO: There’s a lot of interesting material in the show. As a radical queer and a feminist, I’m interested in how our culture and society deals with identity. We have a cast of many actors that are in their 60s playing the roles of 20 year-olds. It’s not like anything that has ever been made before. A lot of the material has to do with AIDS. At the end there a scene where Pinocchio is dying of the “taint”, which is AIDS, and you know he’s the character that wants to be a real boy. He’s played by a transgendered actor. They go to Disney. It’s really dealing with America, consumer culture, and prejudice. There isn’t anything in the show that isn’t contemporary. 

In the 1980s, while working at the Performing Garage with the Wooster Group and other performers, Jeff met a dancer/choreographer named John Bernd who was one of the first gay men in that downtown community who was diagnosed with AIDS. He died shortly after the run of the show. Ron Vawter, another cast member, participant of the downtown theater community, and brilliant artist, also died of AIDS. So many people were dying at that time. So this this work really began before people even knew what was happening with the AIDS crisis and continued to grow and change throughout that period. I don’t think it’s past its time. It does mark a historical moment, but it also is about communion. I think it’s really great to put this show out there and to have people say this is scary and uncomfortable, but to also allow them to feel wrapped inside of a special kind of love and community.

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Kate Valk and Nicky Paraiso.

Photos: © Paula Court

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