‘Balloons’ from The Set NYC. Reliving the Heyday of New York Artistic Chic-Poverty

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Columnist

People talk in hushed tones about the days of New York gone by. About Prohibition era New York, Golden Age Broadway New York, Beat New York, Psychedelic New York and Punk New York. New York in its modern state, particularly Disneyfied midtown Manhattan, can seem to pale in comparison. The old and the young alike long with anarchic nostalgia for the days of Patti Smith, Sam Shepard and the heyday of a scummier city where the streets were paved with poems, heroin needles and broken bottles of alcohol. I generally frown on Golden Age thinking, and this situation is no exception. You can still be poor and on drugs in New York, in fact it’s probably easier than ever before. Not that I recommend it, but the option is there. The grander idea amongst all this, however, is that the indie art-scene in New York has stagnated. And it’s just not true. It’s all just shuffled around. Its been pushed out of the village, and in to Brooklyn, Queens, and the Lower East Side. I know this because the other day I took in some of weird and wonderful New York at an event simply titled ‘Balloons' at The Lovecraft on the Lower East Side. A mixture of fine art, dramatic monologues, stand up and good company, organized by The Set NYC as a charity event to raise money for New York’s homeless. It did not disappoint.

As a theatre writer I’m not entirely certain I’m fit to judge this event (as much as any critic is fit to judge anything). I’m no fine art scholar, I’ve never done stand-up, I’m still not entirely certain what qualifies as installation art work and what constitutes a ‘happening’. So my glancing over a large portion of the evening may seem, glancing. If you are an arty art type and were there, do feel free to send us a postcard with your thoughts. I will not being going in to detail because… I don’t know how. The art on display featured the works of Leo Soto, JA Lex, CreatureCraftsNYC and many more. Everything from sculpture, to photography to watercolors. The general mode seemed to be pop-art, as is trendy to look at when you’re in a bar in a basement named after an occult horror writer. I took in as much as I could process and thought, as God did when he was at a loss for a thesaurus, that it was very good. Sitting in a space like that, surrounded by art like that, you can’t help but simultaneously feel cooler, and also that you’re about to be found out as a poser at any second.

Then came the performances, and finally I have something I can write about in my chosen field, even if for a split paragraph. A young performer by the name of Jonathan Vanderzon came on stage and spoke a monologue from ‘The Laramie Project’. Contrary to popular belief, you can still miss if you have good material. Watch a dyslexic fifth grader try and do ‘Hamlet’ and you’ll see what I mean. But Vanderzon proved the old truism that if you give a prodigy a Stradivarius, then the music will be sweet. His rendition of the piece was short, but measured, thoughtful and emotional. His easy connection to the material allowed him a quiet freedom with the text, and gave a simple honesty to his performance. His work was powerful enough that he drew a room full of noisy bar patrons in to silence by measure of his acting alone. Not a feat easily replicated. Like a flash in the pan, it seemed to be over, almost as soon as it began, but like that same flash, everyone saw it, and were not likely to forget it any time soon.

The evening then moved in to stand-up comedy, which was at once refreshing and jarring after Vanderzon’s dark, yet warm, digression in to the world of verbatim performance. As stand-ups go, they were a decent bunch, above average for a New York cellar, with one stand-out. I never wrote down his name, and I was never given a program, so I apologize for not crediting him here. He spoke candidly about his bi-polar disorder, and evoked, with his manic energy, the spirit of a young Robin Williams. Again, I’m not likely to be any good judge of stand-up. Like most people, I know what I like, and that’s about the limit of my expertise. But I definitely liked what I saw in this particular comedian. Whoever you are, nameless man, I look forward to your work going to bigger and better places.

So, if you, like so many, lament the artistic scene in New York and wish for it to be stranger, more mysterious and, well… artier, I advise following The Set NYC and working out how to get involved with them. They may not be able to transport you to the Chelsea Hotel and allow you to relive the heyday of chic-poverty that New York used to boast, but they do, at the very least, muster up that spirit of expression and myriad bag of ideas mixed with alcohol that went a long way to making those times what they were. Powerful monologues, great stand-up, impressive fine art… you’d be a fool not to go at least once to see what all the fuss is about. And believe me, there is fuss.

More information about ‘The Set NYC’, including upcoming events, can be found at their website www.thesetnyc.com.

This piece was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

World Famous ‘Citrus Singers’ Are Put ‘On The Spot’

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Columnist

‘On The Spot’ is the only show in New York City that combines the dulcet tones of cabaret, with frantic hilarity of improv comedy. It has been in existence for over a year, and will soon celebrate the six-month anniversary of its open ended weekly run at the Broadway Comedy Club. It has an excellent critical reputation, being described as “spot-on”, “fun-filled”, “top-notch” and “laugh-out-loud”. As well as being "a show that takes 'anything for a laugh' to new heights of bravery!” Audiences love it, and singers between shows love coming down between gigs to contribute to the fun. Guest artists have included Brian Falduto, better known as the hilarious young stylist 'Fancypants' in Richard Linklater's 'School of Rock', as well as Amanda Nicholas, one of the stars of cult Off-Broadway Sensation 'Bayside! The Musical!, and Billboard Top 40 singer Janine Berenson. It’s clearly a show with staying power.

June 6th sees some very special guests for ‘On The Spot’. Instead of local New York talent, this evening will look west and, for one night only, play host to the internationally-renowned ‘Citrus Singers’. As part of ‘On The Spot’s unique, critically-acclaimed blending of improv and vocal talent, this year’s crop of ‘Citrus Singers’, on the verge of their graduation, will join the regularly scheduled improvised mayhem, leading to an evening of unparalleled music and comedy. Appearing on behalf of ‘The Citrus Singers’ will be Carlene O’Neill, Delia Trear, Edward Little, Julia Iacopetti, Kelly Grandmaison, Kylie Molnar, Taylor Barbata, and Steven Federoff.

‘The Citrus Singers’ of Citrus College in Glendora, California are a competitive performance-based group that showcases the talents of young performers. Founded by Ben D. Bollinger in 1968, they were an instant hit, and have conducted successful tour after successful tour. In the late 70s, they were heard on KISS frontman Gene Simmons’ first solo album. In recent years, under the tutelage of Douglas Austin and John Vaughan, they have amassed worldwide credits to make even the most seasoned booking agent blush. These include shows accompanying Diana Ross, Pat Boone, and Billy Graham; not to mention the London Philharmonic and British Chamber Orchestra. They have had enviable billing at the Pasadena Rose Parade, Super Bowl XII, and some of Hawaii’s finest resorts. They have entertained American Presidents and foreign dignitaries, appeared on Spanish National TV, at the Hollywood Golden Apple Awards, and hold the distinction of being the only American choir to win the International Choral Festival in Spittal, Austria. On The Spot’s host and producer, Nathan Armstrong, is a former graduate and student director. The pedigree is obvious, and the evening is sure to soar.

‘On The Spot’ plays every Monday at 8:00 pm at the Broadway Comedy Club. 
Tickets $20 - $40.00. One drink minimum.

www.onthespotnyc.com

Starring: Patrick Reidy (College Humor, Funny or Die, UCB, The Pit), Chris Catalano (Trey Parker’s Cannibal: The Musical, National Commercials and Book of Mormon’s own ‘Lottery Dude’),  Andrew Del Vecchio (Solace Comics, LMAO Off-Broadway), Meg Reilly (Broadway’s Next Hit Musical, Freestyle Gangsta Rapper), Andy Scannell (Jekyll and Hyde, LMAO Off-Broadway), and Thomas Burns Scully (Award Winning Writer, LMAO Off-Broadway)

Musical Director: Andrew Whitbeck (One World Symphony Orchestra, Aaron Teitelbaum Orchestra)

Director: Patrick Reidy

Producer: Nathan Armstrong

The world famous Broadway Comedy Club is located on 318 W 53rd St, New York (Between 8th and 9th ave).

In Conversation: Discussing ‘To Be Seen Together’ With Star Gerome Samonte

Thomas Burns Scully

It is one of the quirks of the New York theatre scene, that it is simultaneously huge, and and surprisingly small. As a reviewer I’ve had the pleasure of turning up to an unfamiliar show to be greeted by the faces of old colleagues and friends. Other times, I found myself going to two or three completely unrelated productions in a row, and seeing the same actor in each show. I am currently working on a play with an actor who I reviewed twice in the space of a week before the summer. Thank goodness my reviews were positive. This kind of accidental theatrical stalking is what I have been doing this week. I have been shadowing Redline Productions’ in development show ‘To Be Seen Together’ (which will land on the stages at the start of next year), and, as a result, have, for the umpteenth time, had the pleasure of watching the work of one Gerome Samonte.

If Gerome Samonte sounds familiar to you, that won’t be all that surprising. You will have seen his name in my reviews of ‘Fairycakes’ and ‘Drunk Tank’, amongst others. If you are a native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, then you will no doubt have had the pleasure of seeing him perform in the Scranton Shakespeare Festival these last two years under the banner of Broadway’s own modern theatre-mensch, Douglas Carter Beane. He originated the role of Oberon in Beane’s ‘Fairycakes’, as well as playing the Captain in ‘Twelfth Night’ last year, and this year returned triumphant as Friar Tuck in Beane’s musical adaptation of ‘Robin Hood’. This list of his credits goes on and on, including film appearances, international musical tours in the Far East, and much more. 

He stars as Lucifer in ’To Be Seen Together’, performing a highly physical monologue. The show is comprised of five vignettes, and Samonte’s cut of the drama is easily the darkest. I spoke to him briefly, and when asked about playing the devil himself, he quipped “It’s the part I was born for.” He also added, “It’s very physically demanding, but, y’know, that just plays well for me. I like to thrown myself in whole-hog. It’s the only way to do it.” I’ve certainly noticed this in Samonte’s work over the years. He shaved off a full head of hair, Bryan Cranston-style, for a role in ‘Broadway’ by George Abbott. In ‘Fairycakes’ he was responsible for Beane’s decision to include a rapped segment in Oberon’s final monologue. A move that prefigured the Public’s debut of ‘Hamilton’ by almost a year. He has a bombastic, yet cooperative, approach to everything he does, and an excellent command of what he is capable of. “That’s just what I do, I guess. Stay respectful, but if you think you can add something, speak up. You have to bring yourself to what you do, whatever that means.” It’s no wonder that Douglas Carter Beane once said of him: “Your look and talent is something that is rare. Use it.”

All of the shorts in ‘To Be Seen Together’ have a Biblical bent to them. Samonte stars as Lucifer, other scenes move through the parables of Cain and Abel, and Adam and Eve. The dark, surreal futurism of Redline’s production is immediately striking and brings to light the sinisterness of Old Testament logic. All of this reflects on a Latin American influence, a ‘Day of the Dead’ macabre, and the magical realism of Marquez. This seems natural given writer A. A. Garcia’s heritage. Samonte seems like he comes neatly out of that same heritage, but as his bio tells us, he is from the Philippines. “Yeah, it’s one of those funny things. At drama school I got mistaken for Latin American a bunch of times, even by a Casting Director who came in to talk to us,” he responded, “You just gotta embrace things like that. If it helps me get cast, I’ll take it. It’s not personal, and anyway, it’s good for my career. It’s like that box you an tick on Backstage: ‘Ethnically Ambiguous’. That’s me, ambiguous.” He laughs. “It helped me get one of my first jobs, actually. In ‘West Side Story’ I played Bernardo. That was a lot of fun. What can I say? Good looks get you places.” He laughs again.

Talking to Samonte, with his easy personality and joking braggadocio, you can’t help but get the feeling that you’re about to be run over by a juggernaut. He has worked several times with one of modern Broadway’s premiere playwrights (Beane), he’s a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (noted alum include Danny DeVito, Paul Rudd and Robert Redford) and, like all good actors, he never stops working. “It’s what you’ve got to do. Jump on this project here, this show there, audition for everything, build your skill set. It’s not a science, but it is math, y’know, law of averages. The more you put in, the more likely you are to get something out of it.” In parting words, I asked him if he had anything else to say about ‘To Be Seen Together’. “Yeah, come see it! It’s going to be awesome. I mean, I know actors say that about everything they do, but we’ve got something really cool going on down here.” And there you have it, Gerome Samonte, and his first loyalty; a loyalty to whatever it is he is doing right now. An actor to the core.

For more details about ‘To Be Seen Together’ including show dates and ticketing links, visit: theredlines.org. Gerome Samonte can be found on Twitter as @Gercutio.

This article was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

1st Irish Festival Press Launch: A Wunder-Brew of Marvelous Irish eccentricity

Thomas Burns Scully

When you walk out of Grand Central’s North exit, you find yourself on one of the glitzier parts of Park Avenue. As you walk up the street away from the station, you walk past corporate headquarters after corporate headquarters, bank after bank, insurance firm after insurance firm. The giant Orwellian skyscrapers, and the hints of the Scrooge McDuck fortunes that lie within are enough to make you feel very small indeed. Normally these aren’t the sort of places I end up as a indie theatre-writer. Normally my press invites take me to hole-in-the-wall, black-box theatres and converted basements all across the boroughs. All lovely and charming in their own way, but it’s a different sort of day entirely when you get invited to the Mutual of America Building to attend the launch of a theatre festival. Which is exactly what I was doing on Wednesday. Origin Theatre’s ‘1st Irish Festival’ is unquestionably launched, and what an evening it was.

Things kicked off with a reminder of the finer things in life: good food, good drink, good company, and a piano player turning out jazzy renditions of old favorites. Origin Theatre founder George Heslin was making his rounds of the room, shaking hands and taking photographs. Very much the man of the hour, and seemingly everyone’s date to the dance; he was impossible to pin down for more than two minutes of pleasantries at a time. I found myself chatting to Origin’s PR guru, Beck Lee, who talked effusively about the festival, “Tonight we’re visitors and hosts all in one… Expat Irish New Yorkers are waiting with open arms to welcome their friends and get this thing going.” When asked about what sets the 1st Irish apart, he spoke to the long-standing levels of good-taste in play-selection that Origin has been known for. “The great thing about 1st Irish, is it’s a well-curated festival. You can see just about everything in the festival without killing yourself.” Origin has always had an acute sense for good-programming. One of their earliest productions was ‘Misterman’ by Enda Walsh, then unknown in the States, now famed worldwide for his work on the book of Broadway-musical ‘Once’. The shows for this years festival are not to be missed. (Descriptions for all of these can be found in the preview article I wrote last week: http://goo.gl/8Nnrjq)

As the evening progressed, the gathering crowd was called to attention for the evening’s speeches and welcomes. A certain amount of proceedings was the obligatory thanking of sponsors and donors, but throughout there was the personal touch that the Irish, and, hence, Origin, are known for. “Even though we are now in our eighth year, we like to think that every year is the 1st Irish festival. It might be the first time a playwright has had something performed here in the States, it might be the first time an audience has seen a play or playwright produced. We like like to think that everyone gets a little ‘1st Irish’ during the five-weeks of September,” said Aisling Reidy, long time Origin Board member, and Senior Legal Advisor to Human Rights Watch. “This festival is one of the jewels in the crown of our annual programming.”

“The literature of the festival describes it as a cultural beacon, I think that’s very apt,” said Irish Deputy Consulate General, Anna McGillicuddy. She also mentioned Origin Theatre’s latest endeavor in to new writing “Origin isn’t only about staging. We were so thrilled this year to work with Origin and our friends at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on an emerging playwright competition inspired by Yeats.” Details of this competition can be found on Origin’s website, where they ask young writers to submit ten pages of a new play, inspired by the work of W. B. Yeats. 

“This festival shows the ability of the Northern Ireland artistic community to make an impact well beyond our very small shores,” Norman Houston, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau, said in his speech. “During the dark old day in Northern Ireland, when thing were really bad, in my view, the arts were the backbone of our sanity.” Patrick Tully (New York & National Director of The Young Leaders for the American Ireland Fund) added “No one is better at bringing Irish playwrights to New York than George Heslin and the 1st Irish Festival.”

George Heslin himself then took the stand, thanked everyone profusely, and shared the impressive statistic that Origin Theatre last year provided tangential free advertising for Ireland to the tune of eighteen million dollars (as verified by a sixteen page independent report). But as always, Origin is a theatre company first, and a corporation second. Heslin took the time to remind everyone of the festivals many successes including Morna Regan’s ‘The Housekeeper’ and Tim Ruddy’s ‘The International’ which both had premieres at 1st Irish. He then welcomed Paul Nugent to the podium, who will be starring in ‘Python’ in this year’s festival. “1st Irish has provided a place for the whole Irish theatre community in New York,” he told the crowd, adding “The entire Dublin theatre community would come to this festival if they could,” to gentle laughs.

With speeches over, the merry-making and meeting and greeting resumed. I spoke to Jenny Green, who will be presenting new work at this year’s ‘Breaking Ground’ event. She offered a a preview of what she’ll be bringing to the table, “This year I’m doing a devised piece that’s currently in a fledgeling form. It’s going to be a comedy based on dating stories from women who are slightly advancing in years.” When I was finally able to pin down George Heslin, he spoke passionately about the ‘Breaking Ground’ series, citing it as one his favorite parts of the festival. “Every year we invite about five or six artists to write ten to fifteen minutes of new work. It’s very much a laboratory, but some extraordinary full-length plays have come out of it, like ‘The International’.” When asked as to why he finds it so exciting, he replied simply, “I always believe if you give writers a deadline, something will happen. Of all the writers I’ve known all my life, if there isn’t a deadline, nothing happens… that’s what excites me most about the festival… the ‘new writing’ aspect.”

And there you have the 1st Irish Festival in a nutshell. A whirlwind of excitement, new writing, the intrinsic Irish ‘bon-temp’ spirit mixed with savvy New York intelligence. The 1st Irish Festival will be running throughout September, closing officially in early October. For OnStage I will be attending the shows and posting reviews, but I urge you to get tickets now, the lineup is most impressive (see my preview article or 1stIrish.org for full lists and descriptions of shows). This year features everything from runaway nuns to Chinese stand-up comedy. A wunder-brew of marvelous Irish eccentricity. You would be a fool to miss it.

Full details of 1st Irish shows, as well as ticketing links can be found at 1stIrish.org. My previous article on 1st Irish is available here: http://goo.gl/8Nnrjq

This article was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS