Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Kamikaze: The Pre-funk Interviews Part 2: Basil Harris

I've been staring at the word 'pre-funk' now for so long I'm starting to think it doesn't mean what I think it does. I have a feeling this will happen a lot. Also? I desperately hate the sound of my recorded voice. I sound like I'm about nine. Maybe a nine-year-old with a pretty decent vocabulary, other than the fact I say 'awesome' way too much, so yeah. Nine. Awesome.

Back to where we left off...

While sitting under an art piece in Solo Bar that says ‘I am large; I contain multitudes’ and waiting patiently while I had issues with the amount of technology I brought along, Basil Harris, an insanely talented actor and musician, discussed his thoughts regarding Seattle theater and the upcoming festival. If you know Basil at all, and I'm sure most of you do, you know that I had so much more material than I could fit into one post. Basil really shouldn't be edited, but for this purpose unfortunately, it was required.

How long have you been in Seattle and involved in the theater community?

"I've been in Seattle for 18 years this November."

Acting steadily?

"Yeah - I guess the first five to eight years I was here I did nothing but rehearse or perform unless I was out of town, which was great. I'd talk to my friends in New York who were waiting to be invited to audition for a hole in the wall after five years of being there. It was one of the only things I could hold over their heads about Seattle is that when I landed I just started working. Seattle is great that way. I don’t have time to really do fringe anymore, but you can hit the ground and work. It’s not getting paid... but you know..."

How many times have you participated in 14/48?

"I don’t know. I lost count. I did it pretty much every time for a couple years - Belyea can tell you. I was doing them consistently because I was hooked. When I got through the first one and picked up my clothes and put my hair back in I was like 'Uh... what just happened?' I was like Christopher Lloyd from Taxi. [Makes face and gestures] Okey Dokey! I told Belyea this is theater crack. You get through it and it’s like holy shit, what did I just do? I couldn’t get enough of it. And that was the acting part. Then I got really full of myself and thought I could write [he tries to say all this through laughing at himself]. I was in a sketch comedy group at the time and was like I can write a ten minute play. Yeah no problem! And then I did the Carl Sander thing, went home, had a couple beers and then started writing, which is a bad idea because I'm not Carl Sander or Paul Mullin and I got really sleepy. I thought I don't really feel like writing but oh my god I have to get this in by 7am tomorrow. So I panicked for a while and fell asleep. I woke up at 4am with my finger on the g button and I'd written like five lines of gggggggg. And I crapped out this terrible play. I think everyone will admit on paper it was terrible. It was very idealistic, not at all grounded in any kind of message or theme or anything. I think it was about a strip club."

Truman asks if it was funny.

"Yeah," he says drawing it out slowly in more of a question than answer. "It was kind of an agenda play about body image... I think. It was so self indulgent and ridiculous. I totally shot myself in the foot. I didn’t prepare for it at all, which is funny to say about 14/48 because you can't prepare for it. But Anthony Winkler directed it and, in the style of 14/48, totally turned it around. He made it into this Wizard of Oz comedy and it was in a strip club and Imogen Love was in it and I think Jodi-Paul and they told me, 'Wow that script was dog shit. When we first read it that morning we were like what happened to Basil?' Then Anthony was like, 'Ok, let’s keep an open mind.' He called me and asked for permission to change things and I was like, 'Yeah dude. Just do whatever you can do.' I went to see it, again having had a couple of beers, and it was fine. He didn’t save it miraculously, but he brought it back up from the deep and put it in a lifeboat."

Truman asks if Basil's done any writing since then. I'm wondering who's asking the questions here... 

"I haven't and Jodi-Paul and Shawn and I have joked ooooh don't ever let me write again, but I kind of hope that I get drawn as a writer this time because I feel like I have something to prove again. No no, I got it now. I can do this. In my mind that'd be my comeback story... in my mind."

Truman asks if he intends on drinking Thursday night at all then. I seriously must not be able to talk and type at the same time.

"Since having kids, all of my time has been completely budgeted and structured so I’ll need to know I can’t put the kids to bed, I can’t have any beer or wine. I have to go do this and I have to be serious about it. And I’ll probably end up writing like a cancer play... or something about really heavy issues."

This seems unlikely to all of us.

What’s your favorite thing about 14/48?

"How do I frame this? 14/48 is no less than a systematic stress test for theater and I love that. It embraces failure as much as it embraces success. It’s not about succeeding or failing - in the moment - it’s about just getting up and doing it and that to me is the ultimate stress test. It does that with writing, directing, acting, design and music. I don't mean to get too grand about it, but it’s the electro-shock therapy that theater needs to continue to be valid and relevant. I don't know if they intended this when they started it, but it's a stripped down, balls out stress test that makes or breaks theater every time. It makes you realize, oh my God, there’s so much sound and fury that surrounds making theater that's completely unnecessary. I had a professor in college who's mantra was that actors talk too much. I mean in creating theater, people just looove to talk about how awesome they are and their ideas are and their process is and generally it’s b.s. It’s nothing but talk. What they hate is being called out on the mat, to testify, to actually walk the walk and 14/48 forces people through the system of the of the time constraint to... you're a director? Go direct. You're an actor? Go do that. Your process? Whatever, fuck you. Just do it. That’s a necessary kick in the pants for theater."

Truman asks Basil if he thinks it's changing theater.

"I don’t know if that’s its job as an institution. I definitely think it's the job of the artists involved to take that away from 14/48. I definitely have. What if, in fantasy land, every play had a two-day rehearsal period? That’s ridiculous, but what if? What if every artistic director had a day to pick a season? What if we just said fuck it and constrained everybody to ridiculous parameters? Just because... do it. The building's on fire, what are the three things you're going to take, right now make that decision, go! In theater, luckily the building isn’t on fire, it's not a life or death situation, but what if it was? What if you had to defend your life with the choices you made in the next three minutes? Those are the kinds of things that make theater exciting. Where it falls apart is where people get too full of themselves and think they're having this brilliant idea for the first time ever or perpetuating their own sense of nostalgia because they think that's where theater belongs. Am I editorializing too much?"

We all laugh...

"14/48 helps transcend wherever they are, use those instincts and gifts and problem solve. It's creative problem solving at its best and it’s great to see people make crazy choices that hit a grand slam."

So what’s the hardest part about it?

"For me the hardest part has become finding a new way to get my heart rate up. I know that I’m tempting the gods right now, but writing a shitty play and fretting about that and acting in shitty plays and getting over that or making it work... being in a band with people of varying abilities... there's something to it. I've been through the process wearing many different hats. What I'm kind of craving is the next big high. I don’t know if that exists and that’s fine because I really believe 14/48 is a great thing. And even if I can’t get a big high from it every single time, I can still do good work and I can commit to it. But the unfortunate side effect of a huge hit up front, the further into it I go, the less likely I’ll get that huge hit again. When you ride the roller coaster 17 times, it becomes less of a thrill than the first time but that's not to say it’s not a great roller coaster. I mean I've done four out of five disciplines... so unless I pull a design role, I’m going to be familiar with every aspect. Not to say good, but familiar."

What position do you hope to get out of the draw of the Kamikaze hat?

"I kind of actually, weirdly, masochistically hope I get design. In the spirit of 14/48, if there’s a place for me to fail, this is it. It really is seat-of-your-pants problem solving. And having kids is really helpful because it makes you think alternatively. But when designers hit it out of the park, it's because they've taken an idea and translated it into a way you wouldn’t have thought of with just a suggestion or hint and the audience goes, 'Oh they're on the side of a mountain,' with very little materials. I think the audience is way smarter than people give them credit for. You don’t need all those things that prove you're in a drawing room. Just have the character say, 'Here in the drawing room...' Boom. The best parts of 14/48 are when all those disciplines come together to solve the issue at hand. When we're all sort of allowed to contribute what needs to be done and tell the story in the most effective way."

Of the veterans chosen for this 14/48, who are you dying to work with? 

He hadn't seen the list. I show him the roster.

"Hate her, hate him, he's a disaster, she's ridiculous... good luck keeping clothes on her... oh my god, no, those are all... wow. I'd have a hard time not making out with any of those people."

I then tell him what Trick said about him earlier that day. Big laugh.

"Wow, that’s really sweet. I like 'leader' better than 'a fucking know it all.' Um... as an umbrella, I'd love to work with some of the kids in New Century Theatre like Hans, MJ, Peter Dylan O'Connor, Dara. They happen to be a group of people I like working with and I've worked with some of them before. But there’s like a whole faction of the kids from Cornish, the hot shot kids. I’d like to know who’s up and coming and work with them. Not that I'm trying to regain some semblance of youth. I want to know what’s happening. I want to be in the mix. I don’t want to be stuck in something that was 80’s. The great thing about college is that it leaves you often times thinking you know everything, which, on the one hand, can be irritating and obnoxious, but on the other hand, sometimes you do. Sometimes, you get a kid out of college that's hitting all the right buttons and he can be an arrogant s.o.b. but those are the people that we watch and keep track of. I'm sorry, we don't watch the people doing the same thing as everyone else. And if they're getting a lot of love from The Stranger and a lot of shit from The Times, you know you’re watching the right person. I don't want to take what they have and make it my own, but I want to know that it’s happening because it’s my job and I want to make sure I’m not becoming irrelevant. I forget what your question was."

As did I a little bit. Basil can tangent off pretty much anywhere and we'd both gladly follow him.

Truman asks of those Basil has worked with, if he's curious to see any of them in a different role. 

"I'm curious to see Hana Lass do anything because she's demonstrating a female presence in theater that’s always lacking. There’s still a lack of female voices in acting and character. Writing is one thing, but to be a woman on stage doing a role, it’s very hard to get around the I’ll-do-anything 20-something, the eternal ingenue. I think it’s too much to say she’s a genius or she's the next big thing. She’s a Great. Theater. Artist. She's a great worker, exactly what theater is and needs. She does her work and she does it well and thoughtfully, creatively and surprisingly and I’m always happy to watch what she does on stage. I want for her to be challenged and pushed in other ways, not that it matters what I think, but as a friend and theater artist, I want to see her lead as an example. I think she’s a wonderful person to work with. She's very open minded, smart and intuitive. Like her stupid, ugly, untalented husband, Connor Toms, who has not been called 'the future of theater' by The Seattle Times or anything. But Hana is an example and there are several people in town that are getting work but not enough work who could potentially be game changers, set the tone for the way people - I don’t mean to overstate like oh my god, they're going to redefine theater - but in the world we live in right now, I want more people like Hana. That's why I'd like to work with 'the youth of today and leaders of tomorrow' because I’d much rather talk about the people doing good work and promote that. There are so many opportunities to cut people down and be cynical and mean and I’d much rather promote the stuff going right versus the stuff that isn't working. I don't think that makes me naive or Pollyanna-ish. I think it helps change the way people think and behave and the more you put that out there, the better everybody gets. I don't know. Life is short. We're making theater and it's art and it's fun and it's silly and ridiculous. We're not curing cancer or dodging bullets."

We aren't? Right, right... no... so in that case, who's getting thirsty? We're just TWO DAYS away from the official welcome and, more importantly, the keg tap! Either I've got carpal tunnel from writing this post or I'm all tingly with anticipation. Can. Not. Wait!

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