The IndependentActor Interview: No Strings Attached

Welcome to the first in a continuing series of interviews with the independent creative professionals making work that is truly worth our attention. My goal with these interviews is to provide insight and motivation for all the Actors and Originating Artists who visit this website. What we do is never easy but, when done well, we know it’s something special. Enjoy this series and the opportunity to learn from the process, struggles and successes of our talented and tireless colleagues.

 Actors Casey Burden, Afrim Gjonbalaj & Kevin Perez of   No Strings Attached   by Manuel Igrejas. Photo: Joel Bischoff.

Actors Casey Burden, Afrim Gjonbalaj & Kevin Perez of No Strings Attached by Manuel Igrejas. Photo: Joel Bischoff.

Today’s interview is with the director, writer and cast members of the play, No Strings Attached, the Left Out Festival hit currently in an extended run at Manhattan’s Stage Left Studio. I spoke with director, Robert Teague, playwright, Manuel Igrejas and actors, Casey Burden and Kevin Perez.

IndependentActor: No Strings Attached is having a strong run for a true indie play. You're riding a nice wave of positive reviews and strong audience response. What were your original hopes for getting this play to audiences and how has this positive energy effected your future plans for the play? 

Bob TeagueThe business model for indie theater is so tricky that concepts like "future plans" almost become moot. For example, we had no plans for No Strings Attached after the Left Out Festival, but here we are in the middle of Round Two.

Our goal with No Strings Attached at Left Out was to see the play on its feet. As much as theater people wish it weren't true, the only way to know if a play has legs is to see it stand up. When No Strings Attached stood up, Manny, the Actors and I saw something that could grow. Then, Cheryl King with Stage Left Studios, suggested we bring it back for a longer run, and it seemed the obvious next step, so, here's No Strings Attached. Our goal with the longer run is to give the actors a chance to truly inhabit the roles without initial jitters or excitement or luck coloring the performances. It is a proving ground for the script. Are there areas that can be improved? Are there holes that need to be filled? The answer is always yes because, unlike a movie or a novel, you are never really done with a play. So the big question is does it continue to work? The answer, in the case of No Strings Attached is yes, it does. That's a good sign for the future, but for the present we are just going to continue the work. Manny has been at every show and is fine-tuning the script. The actors are constantly evolving and stretching. I am whispering in everyone's ear. It is actually a golden time.

Casey Burden: Outside of supporting and wanting success for Manny, I don't really have a stake in any future plans for this play. That being said, this is an important topic that he brings up. Even working my way through these questions, I've found that I tend to want to discuss my views on the struggles that the characters are facing rather than my approach to the piece as an artist. I think a show that does that deserves a life. I was lucky enough to be a part of one of the first readings back when it was called XYZ where I played the bad boy character. I've watched this show grow and evolve and I do hope that I can stay on this ride as long as they will have me.

IndependentActor: Tell me about the creation of this play, from inspiration to final dress rehearsal. How long was the timeline, how did you raise the funds to get it up and what were the major rehearsal/creative/production hurdles faced by the project?

 Playwright Manuel Igrejas

Playwright Manuel Igrejas

Manuel Igrejas: An early version of the play was done in 2011. It was called XYZ then and Casey was in it. As XYZ it was a semi-finalist in the Eugene O'Neill program in 2013 and a finalist in Pregones Theater Asuncion Project in that same year. With a new title, NSA, played two performances in the Left Out Festival in April 2014 and returns with the new title No Strings Attached.

The life of this particular production started in March of 2014 with an offer to participate in the Left Out Festival at Stage Left Studio. I reached out to actor Afrim Gjonbalaj, who I had worked with a few years ago, to play Luis and he said yes. Casey Burden was in my 2010 play Hassan and Sylvia and he had the warm quality I wanted for Monty and we snagged him. We had another actor pretty much cast for the role of Stefan but met with Kevin Perez anyway. He was so dynamic and charming that we hired him for the part. I knew Robert Teague from Truant Arts and liked his play, Chaos and Other Worldly Possessions and he wanted to direct this play.

We had a very harmonious three week rehearsal process in late March and April and ran two sold out performances. Got a good review from NY Theater Now. There was a good buzz about the show so the team met and decided to go for a 4 week showcase run and to call the play No Strings Attached, so as not to be confused with the government agency. Again, a very harmonious process. So here were are, right in the middle of it.

Kevin Perez: When I first received the script I was intimidated a bit. Here is a character who is miles a way from the person I am. It was also the first play in English I’d done in a long time. So, language was something of a barrier for me in the beginning. As soon as I got through this, and with Bob's help, I was surprised how many things I found in myself that I could lend to this character. Even to this day I still find new things. The power of stillness.  

 Director Bob Teague

Director Bob Teague

Bob Teague: We were actually on a very tight rehearsal schedule for budget reasons and scheduling reasons. Rehearsal time needs space, which costs money. Also, theater people are busy people, trying to fit a lot into their lives. Add a two-performance festival piece to the mix and scheduling becomes a nightmare. So does the amount of time that the actors can reasonably be expected to spend in specific places at specific times.

We addressed these issues by expecting more pre-work from the actors. They got the script a month before rehearsals started. We did a table read and talked about what we wanted this play to become, and then the actors went away and did a lot of prep work.  

I think this is a model we are going to see more of in the indie theater scene, and I think it is a change for the better, because it respects the actors and the process. But, they have to do the homework. When we hit the rehearsal room, we aren't there to learn lines. We are there to work the play.  

IndependentActor: You've described this play as "off kilter". Does that description emanate from the subject matter of open relationships, gay love triangles or a style that breaks the fourth wall at times? What "off kilter" aspects of the play have been the most challenging to perform and which, if any, do audiences react to most strongly?

Casey Burden: Most of the "relationship" issues that are dealt with in this show are universal. There are plenty of straight love triangles and we've all seen the "closed" straight relationships that aren't really that closed and end up in scandal destroying all involved. For me, embodying the one character in the play that sees all the dysfunction yet still strives to hold on to the belief that there is an innate goodness to people is the most challenging and also has the biggest payoff in the end.

Bob TeagueActually, "off-kilter" was reviewer Martin Denton's phrase. It's the reviewer's job to find things like that in a show. In hindsight, he is correct, but I think during creation artists must avoid thinking in terms like that off-kilter or experimental or any other label, for that matter. For artists, to think in labels is potentially deadly because performances and staging can quickly become gimmicky.

For us, it was a story of three people in a love triangle wrestling for something that resembled happiness as each character defined the term. The script has memory elements and direct address and some odd shifts in time, perspective and geography and of course, the characters are gay. But for us, it was a story we were telling, plain and simple. We all came into the first table read from the same place. This was a play about love and sex, period. The fact that is was about a gay love triangle was less interesting than the ideas of fidelity and emotional love.

In fact, Jack Mauro, in a recent review for stagebuddy.com, pointed out that one of the impressive things about this production is that it is a gay play "where the gay is meaningless”. For me, this is one of the crowning achievements of this piece. If we can turn a gay play into just a play about people who happen to also be gay, we have really accomplished something.

The biggest challenge was the direct address in the piece. As a director and playwright, I always enjoy direct address. Having the audience in the room is what separates theater from everything else, so why not acknowledge the fact and try to capitalize on it. As an actor, direct address can be a bitch kitty to pull off. The challenge is that some audiences are okay with the idea of participating in a play and some, frankly, simply are not. When they are okay with it, there is no challenge. The piece just glides along. When they are not okay with it, when they expect theater to be akin to watching characters through a window, the actors have their work cut out for them.  

Manny and I were lucky because Casey, Afrim and Kevin are fearless actors. They are comfortable with the idea of following, guiding and coaxing the audience. This is not a normal trait, and the fact that it exists in all three actors is not something I take lightly.

IndependentActor: Indie Theatre usually entails performing in non-traditional venues for smaller - though often savvier - audiences: what adjustments in performing style, timing and staging have you had to make over the run of this play? How has audience size affected the actors work from performance to performance?

Casey Burden: Performing in a smaller, more intimate setting always brings it's own challenges. Particularly for a show where we directly address the audience so much and rely on at least some participation. It's not always easy to tear down that fourth wall and find an audience that, although appreciative, would rather sit quietly and just watch the play. With bigger shows it's much easier to keep that wall up and just do the show you know how to do. But then that's kinda the point, isn't it? You do it this way because it really becomes about the characters. The audience is way too close to try to hide any flaws. Sure, as actors, we'd like to believe that every performance will have the same impact and you will be able to get to the same place every time, but the reality, and for me the beauty of doing live theater over movies, is that when you get that audience that is anxious to go on the journey with you it reminds you of the reasons that you got into this in the first place.

Kevin Perez: Smaller spaces terrify me at first. But by the second performance the terror dissipates. At first it feels like I’m invading a space and by the second performance more like this is my space.  

Bob TeagueYou mentioned dress rehearsals earlier, and that's one area where things are different. We started this project in a festival setting, which meant no dress rehearsal and a two-hour window of opportunity for tech. There was no time to work out the production kinks and make the stage our home before we were facing a live audience.

Having this extended run has been great for us because we have been able to take command of the space. It has been a process of trial and error, but with every performance, the actors have been able to more fully inhabit the world of the play and Manny and I have been able to fine-tune trouble spots. Again, we have been incredibly lucky that we have a fearless cast. Fearlessness brings with it a necessary flexibility. If Manny makes an edit, we see it the next night. When I make adjustments an hour before the show, I can see if it worked immediately. It is priceless.

IndependentActor: The characters in this play all possess what could be described as highly flexible, individualized moral codes. How did you create a level of internal authenticity to ground your character that you could reliably bring to performances?

Kevin Perez: It has been a process of learning to trust what I have inside to make the character more grounded. Bob has been a wonderful guide in this whole process. 

Casey Burden: Grounding Monty has been an ongoing challenge for me. For a reason that, honestly, came as a shock. When I first read this version of the script I instantly related to Monty. I actually share his traditional views on what is possible in relationships and marriage. Gay or Straight. I know marriages are hard work, but the payoffs always outweighed the struggles or are supposed to. I was excited that Monty seemed to be me. This was going to be a character easy to get into and understand.   As we began working however, I started to discover how my own views about Gay relationships have been beaten down through the years and I started to see Monty as "living in a fantasy". A view that is rarely a strong choice for a character. Manny and Bob have been wonderful through this whole process and allowed me to take that journey through my own head to discover that my personal struggles really aren't that different than Monty's after all. Every performance I find more and more strong aspects of Monty and his unwavering belief in his family. It's amazing and completely scary to work on a project that hits so close to my heart. 

IndependentActor: How has your work in No Strings Attached informed and potentially deepened your acting and directing skills? How has it effected your professional profile and new opportunities?

Kevin Perez: Stefan was a very challenging character for me to balance. I feel I was really stretching some acting muscles I never even knew existed. This will inform every upcoming project I'm in. As far as new opportunities coming from this play, too soon to tell.  

Bob TeagueEvery time I step into the rehearsal room I have two goals: one, make the play a little bit better, and, two, let the actors and playwright push me to be a little bit better at my job. With No Strings Attached, I was blessed across the board. Manny, Casey, Afrim and Kevin all shared those goals. Every day we all made the play and each other a little bit better.

I don't know if this will create new opportunities. The future is way too fickle a beast. But I do know this experience has strengthened my resolve to trust the talent in the room and push for more by being pushed.

Casey Burden: There are a lot of things you learn from acting classes and school.   Acting 101. Listen. It's the simplest and hardest lesson to learn how to effectively do.   But when you get into a show like this those 101 lessons become the most important.   Not that it's any less important in other shows, but for me, No Strings Attached really brought that to a different level since the subject matter is so very personal to me.

IndependentActorWhat are your next career steps beyond No Strings Attached? Where can audiences see your work next?

Kevin Perez: I'm in talks to act in an indie horror flick in Spanish. Then filming a movie around fall or winter about a Puerto Rican couple in New York City. It’s directed by the very talented Xavier Medina and acting opposite the also very talented Aris Mejías. Very excited for this one.

Bob TeagueI'm a playwright as well as a director, so it is time for me to write a new play.  

Casey Burden: Honestly, no clue. I do know that I don't want to stop.

IndependentActorHaving immersed yourselves in New York Indie Theatre with this project, would you do it again with a new play? If yes, what would you do differently? If not, why and what would you do instead.                     

Kevin Perez: Yes I would! Every project is different so I'm sure I would do it differently.

Casey Burden: I come from the world of Musical Theater and Cabaret. I have always had an appreciation for this type of theater, but for whatever reason never really got a chance to do it as an actor. I would absolutely do it again. To me, this type of setting is perfect for new plays. However, I'm afraid that I've been spoiled with Manny and Bob. I now assume that all playwrights and directors are as supportive and open as they have been.

Bob TeagueI got involved in this project because of my previous commitment to new work. Truant Arts, the theater company I co-founded a couple of years ago with my partner Jamie Rosler, is focused on the act of creation. We believe creation is where artists should live, and we try to present playwrights, directors and actors with the opportunities to always be living there. We do this through collaboration starting as close to the source as possible. The success of No Strings Attached has only strengthened that mission.

IndependentActorIs there anything else you would like to share with fellow actors and directors?

Bob TeagueI'd like to add one last thing, if I may. Because this is a blog for Independent Actors, I'd like to take this opportunity to say for all of us on the other side of the stage as directors and playwrights, we need you. We need you well-trained and fearless. We need you to see acting as a noble art rather than a chance to shine. We need you to know that you are as much a part of the creation as the playwright or the director, that you are not just meat puppets to be moved around a stage. These aren't self-evident facts, given the dictatorial terms director and playwright, which carry with them ideas of control. We aren't in control. As playwrights, we build the blueprint. As directors, we guide. But it is ultimately the actors, on the stage and in the world of the piece, who create. Embrace that and train for that. The state of theater will be better off for your efforts.

IndependentActor: Well said!

No Strings Attached is playing now through August 16th at Stage Left Studio, 214 West 30th Street, 6th Floor. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm. You can buy tickets at: http://bit.ly/1v4PNV8

My thanks to Dani Lynn at Propaganda PR for facilitating this interview.