KATE BENSON, JESS CHAYES, CAROLINE V. MCGRAW and MIA ROVEGNO with Morgan Gould
From May 14 – 31, The New Georges Jam on Toast Festival (featuring work by the members of New Georges’s early-career playwright/director lab) will occupy the beloved Dixon Place, a well-known home to emerging artists of all disciplines. Both the upstairs lounge and downstairs theater of Dixon Place will host the 19 Jam members (all women) as they produce three world premiere productions, three major works in progress, three lounge shows, and some one night only events.
Five long-time Jam Members—Kate Benson (playwright/performer), Jess Chayes (director, Jam co-founder), Morgan Gould (director/playwright and also moderator), Caroline V. McGraw (playwright), and Mia Rovegno (playwright/director)—got together in a room with snacks, tiny cups of water, and a 2009 MacBook Pro. They recorded a conversation between them using GarageBand. This is what happened:
Morgan Gould (Rail): If suddenly you were rendered blind and deaf, and you had to pick one person from the Jam to transcribe your emails and phone calls to you, who would you trust most to do that?
Mia Rovegno: I’d say it was a tie between Kate Benson and Mary Hamilton because I feel that not only are they good at their jobs, but they’re both very responsible, efficient workers and they have very truthful vibes. But then also, there’s a sense of snarkiness that comes with these ladies. I feel like they would probably insert some side commentary into the mix, which would be totally entertaining.
Kate Benson: The Jam is full of ambitious women who are badass in different ways. Like if you picked Reese [Charise Castro Smith], I have a feeling it would be like you had a person in your corner. She’s a no bullshit person. She’s like, “I see through that and I don’t like it.” I would also say Lee Sunday Evans, because I sit next to her all day [in rehearsals for their current Jam Festival show] and she’s already transcribing something like my life, only putting it in a better language, like Italian.
Morgan Gould: My impulse was Pirronne [Yousefzadeh], because I have a really trusting relationship with her and she’s one of my favorite people in the world. Also, she’s an insane perfectionist, and she would never mess up. She’s someone who has a sense of stakes.
Benson: I think this question is demonic.
Rail: Pick one Jam member that you’re like, “I love this person,” and then convert them into a meal.
McGraw: I would say Mary Birnbaum, who I am working on my Lounge show with. I would say that she would be a pizza, but the fancy gourmet kind of pizza. I mean it would have arugula and duck, goat cheese and truffle oil—because she is so lovely and comforting to be around, but she’s also classy and sophisticated. Like, come on. She directs opera.
Benson: Pirronne is the side dish you get because you felt like you wanted to have something healthy, but really when it actually comes, it’s truly the only thing you want to eat for the rest of the week. Like the bok choy sauteed with just the right amount of oil, and a bit of toasted garlic. And there’s something else in it. I don’t know what it is but maybe it’s lemon. [Laughter.] And you’re just so happy you forget about whatever else you ordered.
Rovegno: Okay, so I feel like Portia [Krieger] is this woven basket of reeds that are gathered at a farm. And it’s filled with blueberries and freshly picked strawberries with the vine still on them. And your hands are getting stained from all the juice and it just feels very pure and delicious and awesome summertime. I feel like that’s Portia.
Rail: So a literary character or figure from any time period has to join the Jam. Who would be the most disastrous?
Jess Chayes: Neil LaBute.
Rail: Okay no more hypotheticals, I’m sorry. Only real questions from now on. What are you working on for the Festival?
Chayes: I am directing Primal Play, by Krista Knight. This is the third play we’ve done together. It’s a riff on Jane Goodall, who just turned 80. When she first went to the Gombe reserve in Tanzania, she was 26 years old and had no training. The government would not let her go without a chaperone and she chose to bring her mother. So Primal Play is very much about letting go of your parents and letting go of your children and becoming your own person, which is a scary process.
McGraw: I am working on my play The Vaults, directed by Portia Krieger. It’s about four American tourists who go to Edinburgh and one of them disappears in the vaults, these crazy, creepy tunnels that are under the old part of the city. So the disappearance happens at the beginning of the play, and then the rest of the play things unravel. It’s about the things I usually write about, which are the thin membrane that separates us from the supernatural world, how hard it is to know yourself, and the perils of adulthood.
Benson: I am working on a play called A Beautiful Day in November, on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes, which is a Thanksgiving play with sports announcers. And it has the most amazing cast. I can’t believe they were interested and willing. Lee [Sunday Evans, Director] is making something very special out of it because I—we—we’re trying something, ah, but I don’t wanna say anything and ruin it.
Rovegno: I’m working on a play called Nothin’s Gonna Change My World. It’s a series of meditations on a mythological place we like to call home. It’s kind of like a collage piece that bounces around the country and happens in all these different places with people trying to seek out how they can ground themselves and find a sense of identity, place, and home. Meghan Finn, who’s my amazing co-director, has been working with me on this project for the past year. One of the cool things we’ve discovered in the process is that we’re trying to figure out how we can create community in the room with the audience, so that there’s a sense of connecting with the characters in the play and being an actual community in the room. We brought in a house band, Sammy Tunis and Michael O’Neill. They’re an amazing cover band called The Point and they play music that is significant to the various people and places in the piece, but they’ve found a way to put a contemporary, electronic—almost fever dreamy—spin on it. And what’s really cool is that they’ve really started to become characters in the play too.
McGraw: I am also working on a lounge show with Mary Birnbaum and special guest Melissa Lusk, who’s an amazing composer and songwriter and member of the band Boy Girl Party. We are workshopping Baby No More Times. It’s a pop album, an honestly feminist pop album that still has hot beats. You’ll dance and feel empowered and smash the patriarchy within one song.
Rail: Just riff on something you love about the Jam. Or what it gives you artistically that you can’t find in other places.
Benson: I hadn’t written a play before I joined the Jam so really, I learned how to write in the Jam. And I learned to write with all of these incredible collaborators around. Like Anna Moench [playwright, Jam alum]. The first time I brought in work—a play about Marie Curie—I thought I was going to pass out. And I was like, “Is it boring?” and she was like, “Yeah.” [Laughs.] And then we had this awesome conversation about the problems with writing about science, because she writes about science and she was working on The Great Eastern, which is a wonderful play, and so she was talking about the difficulty of taking an experiment and making it theatrical.
Rovegno: I was thinking about when we started work on the Mimi Alford project [a musical co-written and conceived by several Jam members based on the autobiography of Mimi Alford, JFK’s mistress]. We were all obsessed. We collectively decided we were obsessed with this woman and her story and the fact that we could get together and have all these amazing conversations about stories that inspired us as artists and humans in the world, and that spurred a bunch of work happening amongst us. That was really joyous.
Gould: I feel like the single most important thing to me about the Jam, and something that everyone in the group really feels deeply, is that a victory for one of us is a victory for all of us. When I was at Humana watching Pirronne’s play, I was in tears in the audience. I was actually wiping away tears because I was so proud of her, and I know how hard she works. Having contact with these amazing women makes it not like this amorphous person is taking jobs from you. It makes it feel like my people that I’m coming up with or something. And I really feel like if any emerging female artist gets something, I am like, “Yes!” Because it makes it more possible for other female artists to get things.
Rovegno: I don’t think that Meghan [Finn, director] and I would be pursuing our project [nothin’s gonna change my world] in the way that we are without our time in the Jam—I mean we’re both sort of co-directing and passing the reins back and forth in the rehearsal room, and we have musical collaborators who we’re asking specifically, “what are you interested in?” There’s something about that spark being lit underneath our butts that allowed us to say, “Let’s re-imagine a director role and a playwright role.” How can Meghan actually be a writer in the room even though there’s a text that I’m bringing to the table? It’s almost like we’re devising a piece together and it’s becoming a whole other animal as a result. It feels really good for me to be able to let and go and say, “Okay, we can work like this.” It doesn’t have to be, “Here are my new pages. I’m holding on really tight to my initial intention.”
McGraw: Jam on Toast is paying everybody.
Rail: Let’s talk about Susan [Bernfield, artistic director/founder of New Georges]. None of this would be possible without her.
Rovegno: Susan is like a fireworks display. She’s the most energetic, colorful, unique, supportive, bombastic artistic director force I’ve ever encountered.
Benson: I don’t know how you remain so aesthetically flexible and open-minded, but still so artistically rigorous, which she is. I don’t think I’ve ever made anything that she hasn’t actively, tangibly supported.
Gould: To Susan, we’re not like the bastard children who she feels bad for that she’s throwing a bone to, because let’s be real, that’s what a festival programmed with all female emerging artists would be in a lot of other theaters. I know it wouldn’t even occur to Susan to think of it that way.
Chayes: You know all of these projects in the Jam Festival are kind of fucking incredible. The reason they happened was because we looked around and it was like, “These people are amazing and they should have opportunities.” And Susan didn’t even pause. She was like, “Yes.”
The New Georges Jam On Toast festival, curated by Jess Chayes, Portia Krieger, and Susan Bernfield, runs May 14 – 31 at Dixon Place (161A Chrystie Street, Manhattan). For more info, specific show dates and times, and tickets, visit newgeorges.org.
Featured full length plays: A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of Great Lakes by Kate Benson, directed by Lee Sunday Evans; Primal Play by Krista Knight, directed by Jess Chayes; The Vaults by Caroline V. McGraw, directed by Portia Krieger.
Workshops: Lifted, by Dipika Guha, directed by Sarah Krohn; The Ladies of Salerno, by Mary Elizabeth Hamilton, directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh; Wildrose, by Anna Moench, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt.
Lounge Acts! Sofial Alvarez and Meghan Finn perform Did He Just Call Me Fat, culled from the autobiographical blog musings of Morgan Gould; Eliza Bent, directed by Morgan Gould in Fire the Hire: a work-related meta theatrical exercise in stand-up; Anne of Green Gaffney Bent Gables in which Megan Emery Gaffney is Anne Shirley and Eliza Bent is everyone else; Caroline V. McGraw directed by Mary Birnbaum in Baby, No More Times aided and abetted by Melissa Luske of Boy Girl Party!
Plus: It’s jammer vs. jammer when Katie Brook whips up a performance game called MOTHER!
And: nothin’s gonna change my world (meditations on that mythological place called home) by Mia Rovegno, directed by Meghan Finn and Mia Rovegno.