Reality Theater Creates Construction Reality

Our production manager Eric Nottke offers this insider’s perspective on Habit.

I’ve been building scenery for theater professionally since 1990, starting out as a scenic carpenter and welder, moving up to crew foreman, technical director and now production manager. I’ve built things for TV, film, Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway and so far away from Broadway that it’s actually the Hudson River.

All of these projects have had a common thread:  they have all been theatrical representations of spaces, places that look real from your seat or on your television. But if you were able to look closely or behind the walls you’d see the thin wood framing, faux-finishing painting (it’s not really marble, it just looks that way) and the bracing holding the whole thing up. That’s the way of theater; a skillfully presented picture of reality, made to last as long as the show is running and then go away.

Enter David Levine’s Habit.

Actors on a set for 8 hours at a time, never leaving the space. The script calls for someone taking a shower. The audience isn’t sitting in rows of seats, watching the action unfold through a proscenium arch, they walk right up to the set, peer through windows and doorways like a live version of some reality TV show. Clearly, theatrical convention isn’t going to cut it.

So now, 20 years in to my career I’m building the first floor of a house in the Hunter Center for the Performing Arts.  A house.  Someplace people can exist in for 8 hours at a stretch with all of the comforts of home. The walls are aluminum studs and drywall, not  1×3 wood rails and plywood covering. The lights are controlled by the actors with wall switches, not by the light board operator at the back of the theater. There are wall outlets so the TV and refrigerator can be plugged in and the actors can make a snack if they get hungry.

And there is plumbing.

Eight hours and they never leave. Think about that for a minute. Wouldn’t you want plumbing?

Now, water onstage is nothing new, it’s been done in countless productions in a variety of ways, but these things are normally done with garden hose run to a sink and the occasional small pump to increase pressure. Even a working sink can be done pretty easily, provided it doesn’t get a whole lot of use.

But these people are living in this set; living, cooking, sleeping, showering and, yes, using the bathroom in every sense of the phrase.

There is, indeed, a toilet.

So, hoses and pumps go right out the big picture window in the living room and actual plumbing comes in, just like in your house. That is a bit beyond my experience, so the pros come in and do it right, thank you very much.

The experience of making this show happen has been a very interesting and challenging blend of theatrical illusion and hard construction reality unlike anything I’ve been a part of before. But that’s why I love theatre and that’s why working here at MASS MoCA is so much fun. I never know what’s around the corner.

So thank you, David Levine, and designer Marsha Ginsberg for giving us this opportunity to do something none of us has tried in the past, the opportunity to blur the line between real and staged, scenery and house construction. I can’t wait to see it up and running.

Posted February 22, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Habit, Theater, Work-in-progress
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Hoffman, Brando, and Levine: Back in the HABIT

In 1976, a young actor named Dustin Hoffman was performing in the film Marathon Man with a veteran actor named Sir Lawrence Olivier. Hoffman was portraying a character that was under extreme duress having been tortured by Olivier’s character. To prepare for the scene, Hoffman purposely went days without sleep or a proper diet. He was obviously looking pretty rough, and Sir Lawrence, upon seeing him, simply asked, “My boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

I feel like the term “Method Acting” gets a bad rap sometimes—mostly because it’s often associated with stories like that. It prompts people to wonder why actors would push themselves to these levels if the consequences have the potential to be so severe. Most actors would say that the reason is this: “to make it more realistic

Acting didn’t always look the way it does today. In the mid-1800’s, the adage of the day seemed to be “the bigger, the better”—and acting wasn’t really meant to look like real life. It was meant to look like something bigger…something more dramatic. Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski thought real life was dramatic enough. So, he began to develop a process that would strip away the excess and leave actors simply listening and responding truthfully. The goal was simple: make acting look more realistic. The fad picked up and eventually playwrights like Ibsen and Chekhov were writing plays to be performed in that same vein… plays that took place in real time (no blackouts or scene changes allowed) with actors that ate real food and smoked real cigars… how edgy… how risky… how … contemporary…

This concept of truthful, realistic acting eventually made its way to the United States, where a group of actors (appropriately named The Group Theater) picked it up and ran with it. Now, here’s where it gets sticky: As this “method” spread farther and farther across the globe, it became exposed to more and more interpretations, and quite a few disagreements—particularly over concepts like sense memory/sense recall (the act of recalling a memory from your past and allowing yourself to emotionally respond to it). These disagreements eventually led to a rift in The Group and, eventually, everyone had their own acting school: There was the Stella Adler School, there was the Lee Strasberg School, there was the Sanford Meisner School…and they all had different approaches. To make things even more complicated, Stanislavski himself is purported to have changed his mind on a few key elements of his own original method. But, despite their differences, each method’s goal was always the same: make acting look real. And, to do that, we were left with a few basic rules for actors to follow:

1. Don’t do anything unless something causes you to do it (AKA, the dreaded: “What’s my motivation?”)

2. Live truthfully in the moment—don’t add anything that doesn’t need to be there.

3. Embrace everything that happens, even if unexpected, as part of the world of the play.


4. Never break the scene—in other words, don’t stop “acting” until the show is over or someone tells you to hold.

Here’s an example from one of my favorite movies, On the Waterfront. During filming, Ms. Saint was meant to pull her gloves out of her purse and put them on her hands, but one of her gloves slipped and fell on the ground. Watch what Brando does and how Saint reacts:

YouTube Preview Image

Okay, okay, okay. So, what does any of this have to do with David Levine’s HABIT at MASS MoCA? Well, let me ask you: Knowing what we know about how actors work, wouldn’t you want to put them in a house and have them “live” for 8-hours straight in character?

Come on, you’re not even curious?

The concept is fairly straightforward. There is a house, three actors, and a script. Other than that, anything goes. Mr. Levine hasn’t staged the play. Instead, he channels that energy on making sure that his actors understand their circumstances and fully embrace their characters. That way, when those characters are placed within their own four walls, the real magic can happen—spontaneously, naturally, and truthfully. (You watch the situations unfold by peering through the windows and doorways.)

At the end of the day, acting is a game of house. When we were young, we had no trouble immersing ourselves in our own worlds and reacting truthfully to our playmates. Levine is essentially recreating these circumstances to cultivate those same adolescent instincts—instincts that most actors spend their entire careers to (re)develop.

I’ll end with a thought from one of my favorite acting teachers:

Sanford Meisner began some of his classes by asking his students to count every source of light in the room. When they were done, he would have a dialogue that would go something like this:

MEISNER: Did you count every light?


MEISNER: Are you sure?

STUDENT: Yes, I counted every light.

MEISNER: But, did you really count every light?

STUDENT: Yes, every one.

MEISNER: And, you were actually counting?


…and so on.

Meisner’s point was this: his students weren’t “acting” like they were counting the lights in the room, they were actually counting. He didn’t want his students to “act”, he wanted them to do. There is a line somewhere between “acting” and “doing” that often gets blurred… So, in closing, I ask you this question:

If we ask three actors to live in a house, where they are actually eating, actually napping, actually interacting with each other…when are they actually acting?

Come see for yourself this week:

Thurs, Feb 24, noon- 5PM

Friday, Feb 25, 2PM – 8PM

Saturday, Feb 26, noon – 8 PM

Sunday, Feb 27, noon– 5PM

Written by: Charles E. Jabour

Posted February 21, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Habit, Theater, Work-in-progress
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MASS MoCA is developing a “Habit”

If you’re reading this blog…chances are you are “in with the times” and have seen a reality TV show. BUT have you ever seen a reality show/theatrical production performed in a house built in MASS MoCA? Habit by David Levine will be performed at MASS MoCA on February 24 through February 27.

The Easthampton Star explains, “From the beginning, there’s plenty of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll piled on until the deep, dark secret is allowed to blow the whole thing apart. What is different here is that once it does, the action starts over from the beginning, following the same script but with different stagings, determined solely by the actors’ choices.”

We went into Hunter Theater to see how the project was coming along for the production crew.

The crew was busy installing the walls in which the actors will live within.

The house includes windows and peep-holes for the audience to peer into and watch the story unfold.

When we dropped by the theater the next day- obvious progress had been made!

The doors are real, the refrigerator is stocked, and the plumbing works!

The crew was hard at work! They continued to build the monstrous set throughout the day.

Here’s a pic of Tim, Matt, and Michael diligently working at a team. We love our crew here at MASS MoCA!

Now that you have seen a preview of all the hard-work put into this project come see Habit, an exploration of sensationalism and realism, at MASS MoCA!

Oh! And check out the pics from Rory Scovel! You can also see these pics on our Facebook!

Charles Jabour: Curator of Rory Scovel Comedy Show

Combo Za: Williams College Improv Group

Matt Kelly: Albany-Based Comedian


Cheers to Danelle Cheney for the photos! You just rock!

Posted February 11, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Habit, Theater, Work-in-progress
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A Night in the Old MoCA Place

Ladies and Gents, get excited for Frank London’s A Night in the Old Market Place showing on January 22 at 8pm!

(Manu Narayan as The Badkhn)

We were lucky enough to take a peak at the rehearsal yesterday and hear a couple of the eerily beautiful songs from the show.

Walking into the Hunter Theater, we saw a giant projector screen with animations that were taking place behind the actors; catching your attention and making you feel unsettled in the best way.

The band is visible to the audience! Instruments such as the grand piano, an accordion, a tuba, and of course, trumpet by Frank London, will pour out Klezmer-jazz music spelled out in minor key.

Set in a market place in an old rural village, three men are blaming themselves for the death of the young bride, Sheyndele, who hurled herself into a well 20 years ago. In efforts to redeem themselves, the men ask a gargoyle to bring back the young bride from her watery grave.

(Oh! It’s our PA Intern, Charles Jabour, filling in for the Narrator! )

The musical is currently a work-in-progress and is based off of the 1907 Yiddish play, Bei Nakht Altn Mark. The adaptation features music by Frank London (who has worked with artists such as Natalie Merchant, Ben Folds Five, and Iggy Pop) and book and lyrics by Glen Berger (who recently co-wrote the book for the musical version of Spiderman! Yea!)

(Steven Hrycelak-center)

The narrative story features dark comedy and ghoul-ish lighting that will send your imagination into a supernatural spell. Talks of corpses, cemeteries, gargoyles, and wonders give the actors the opportunity to play and tell a story. (The actors are playful. During a “hold” we could hear them singing silly tunes such as “On the Road Again” and “Crazy” by Patsy Cline.)

So be sure to join us on January 22 at the old market place! Visit MASS MoCA’s website for ticket info!

Photo Credits to Danelle Cheney!

Charlotte Cohn
Charlotte CohnGargoyle

Broadway – La Boheme (Musetta) dir. Baz Luhrmann, Ovation Award Winner; Coram Boy. Off Broadway – Cheri; Ambivalence; One Hundred Gates. Regional – A.C.T.: Happy End (Hallelujah Lil), Bay Area Critics’ Circle Award nominee; Centerstage: The Boys From Syracuse (Adriana); The Murder of Isaac (Talia). The Prince Music Theater: A Night in the Old Marketplace (Gargoyle); North Shore: Nine (Stephanie Necrophorus). Walker Art Center: Uncivil Wars- Moving with Brecht and Eisler (Nana/Isabella) Film/TV – Dandelion Man; Little Kings; The Danish Play; God in the Machine; Guiding Light. Recordings – La Boheme original cast recording; Happy End A.C.T. cast recording.

Photo Credit: Hoebermann Studios

Manu Narayan
Manu NarayanThe Badkhn

Manu Narayan is a New York based artist who crosses all mediums of the performing arts.In his career, Manu has performed in straight plays, musicals, on TV, Film, and in concert. Last Summer, Manu co-starred in Mike Myers’ Paramount Pictures comedy The Love Guru. In the film he appears as Mike Myer’s sidekick “Rajneesh” – the Love Guru’s assistant/ “Moral Compass”. Manu has just wrapped, Wall Street 2 (Oliver Stone), The Last Airbender (M. Night Shyamalan) and the independent film It’s All Been Arranged (Shailja Gupta) and can be seen starring in Quarterlife Crisis (with Russel Peters and Lisa Ray), Hiding Divya (with Madhur Jaffrey) and Two Men in Shoulder Stand. On TV, he has guest starred in the pilot episodes of Cashmere Mafia, Lipstick Jungle, Spike Lee’s Mayor of N.Y, and Geena Davis’ Exit 19. Other credits include: Nurse Jackie, As the World Turns, All My Children, Law and Order SVU, The Sopranos.

On stage, Manu is most widely known for originating the “hero” Akaash in the hit Andrew Lloyd Webber/ A.R. Rahman musical Bombay Dreams on Broadway; the Drama League recognized him for his work. Off Broadway, he was in the revival of Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia, and in Getting Home, both at Second Stage Theater. He also was Whizzer in NAATCO’s Falsettoland at the Vineyard and originated Siddhartha in SIDD: the musical at the Dodger Stages. Manu was in the world premiere of Pulitzer prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Park’s Fucking A with Mos Def and S. Epatha Merkerson at the New York Shakespeare Festival/ Public Theater and has starred with Cyndi Lauper, Fisher Stevens, and Garth Hudson (from “The Band”) in New York Stage and Film’s workshop production of Largo.

As a concert artist, Manu has been asked to sing and has performed for many distinguished dignitaries including Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles, Prince Andrew, George W. Bush and Senator Hillary Clinton. With Radovan Jovicevic (founding member of the hit European band Zana), their band Darunam ( brings together the melodies and rhythms from three homelands: America, India, and Serbia creating a Neo-world-pop sound. Their new album of Electronic Lounge/ World music with Canadian Clarinetist Milan Milosevic is “The Last Angel on Earth” and performed live in Vancouver for national broadcast on the CBC.

Manu grew up in Delmont, Pa a little town outside of Pittsburgh and in Chennai, India. He showed an affinity for music, dance, and drama at a very young age. Manu is an award winning classical saxophonist both in the western style – he has performed the Glazunov Saxophone Concerto with orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Pittsburgh- and in the Indian Karnatic style – he won the All India Radio music competition in Mangalore, India. He is the Karnatic saxophone student of Sri Kadri Gopalnath and is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University. From 2001 to 2005 Manu was a founder and co-Artistic Director of Rasa Theater, Inc. Rasa Theater was established to help develop theater artists of the South Asian Diaspora.

Photo credit: Vlad Voloshin

Steven Hrycelak

Posted January 19, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Frank London: A Night in the Old Market Place, Theater, Work-in-progress
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Forbes Interviews the Two Men

Forbes just published a great article about Murray Nossel and Paul Browde’s business, Narrativ, and how they use storytelling to help people work better together.  See Murray and Paul at work next week when they perform Two Men Talking here on November 20.

Posted November 9, 2010 by MASS MoCA
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A look at the script for The Truth: A Tragedy

I adore Cynthia Hopkins’ work. MASS MoCA has been lucky enough to present several of her pieces either as work-in-progresses or as completed works throughout the past 11 years. Personally, I learned about Hopkins in college and then was floored when I had the opportunity to see the final piece of her Accidental Trilogy, The Success of Failure (or, The Failure of Success) at MM as a work-in-progress last year. I have always enjoyed seeing works that break genres and for me Hopkins is at the forefront of genre breaking. Although her work is most often tagged as theater, once you have seen her perform you will walk away praising her stunning singing voice and musical arrangements, her use of new technologies such as video and projections, and her amazing ability to gracefully move about the stage in a dancer like fashion. I think the New York Press captures these sentiments the best, ““Cynthia Hopkins is the definition of postmodern artistry. Her work… transcends single genres and mediums and defies definition.”

Needless to say, I was delighted to see that Hopkins was returning to MASS MoCA this fall to present The Truth: A Tragedy, a tribute to her father, which she workshopped here last December. Although all of her wok is personal, this time Hopkins really bares all her feelings and emotions relating to her relationship with her father and her interactions with him during the last few years of his life. Our press photos (like the one above) capture Hopkins in her full costume of her father’s belongings, including a skirt made of his ties. The script is beautifully written and captures in eloquent passages the true dilemma children feel as they become charged with the care of their aging parents and the pain and confusion they feel as they begin to process what will inevitably happen next. In true Cynthia Hopkins style the script is peppered with a variety of characters and hauntingly beautiful songs (Listen to Undertow now).

I don’t want to spoil the show for you, but for anyone sitting on the fence about attending this event on Saturday, October 9, I thought a few passages from the script might give you an idea of exactly what to expect from The Truth: A Tragedy. Below are a few passages of text from the script:

“My father never throws anything away,

not even if it’s used or broken beyond repair, not even if

it’s not the kind of used item you’d want to re-use, such

as a used q-tip. Some of the items he retains, however –

torn and used clothing, chipped dishware, old glasses

frames without lenses – ARE re-usable, so upon first

glance there appears to be a practical aspect to my

father’s retention of all objects, born of a childhood spent

during the depression, followed by an adulthood raising

a family on the paltry wages of a grade school English


“There aren’t that many people that I love. I’m as fickle as

my father, and as annoyed; as childish, crude, witty, self-

defeating, morose; as helpless, as romantic, and as

funny. But no one is exactly like my father, and that is

why it’s a tragedy that he is dying.”

“So you recognize that, right? It’s from ‘Onions’. But

maybe you don’t know ‘Onions’. ‘Onions’ was a musical

comedy my father wrote when I was a little kid, about a

man on a ledge, trying to get up the courage to jump off

the ledge and commit suicide. And it’s a bit of a struggle,

because he doesn’t have the… well as his secretary

Matilda puts it: “Ah Harold, you don’t have the ONIONS

to jump!” onions being a euphemism for balls or testicles

or… nuts. But maybe you don’t know ‘Onions’. It was

given its premiere and only performance by my father’s

10, 11, and 12 year old students at the Pike School in


“I like the theater, because everyone has

to sit down, and shut up. Ritual, repetition, reflection. His

thoughts and speech seem slow, delayed. He says

“you’re the best.” He asked Tom to give him a hug. Are

these uncharacteristic displays of affection due to brain

damage? I thought I was having déjà vu, and then I

realized: it’s just a repeat of the same situation, with

people saying the same things, over and over again. I

remember eating at a Mexican restaurant with him

before he was even diagnosed with Parkinson’s

Disease, and halfway through the meal he looked up and

said “is this Mexican food?” And it’s that kind of

comment that holds a zen-like charm for everyone

except his children, for whom it’s either mildly disturbing

or annoying, depending on whether you attribute his

bewilderment to insanity, or some sort of comedy


Cynthia Hopkin’s will perform The Truth: A Tragedy on Saturday, October 9, at 8 PM in the Hunter Center. Guests will also be able to peruse a small collection of Hopkins’ father’s belongings before and after the show.

Hope to see you there!

Posted October 6, 2010 by Brittany Bishop
Filed under BLOG, The Truth: A Tragedy, Theater
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