Unless you’ve been living outside of New York City for the last decade or so, chances are you’ve either attended a Fringe show yourself, or you’ve at least heard about the festival. ”Fringe”, of course, means The New York International Fringe Festival and it is the largest multi-arts festival in North America, with more than 200 companies from all over the world performing for 16 days in more than 20 venues. It kicks off in just two weeks on August 14th, so right now everyone involved is getting their act together, so to speak, and preparing for Opening Night.
One very special show which will be featured this year at the Fringe Festival is Eli and Cheryl Jump, a poetic, haunting play written by Daniel McCoy. I got a chance to chat with Daniel and find out what it’s like to be part of the Fringe, what sparked him to write this play, and what he hopes it will mean to the audience.
KTL - Eli and Cheryl Jump will be playing at the Fringe Festival. Tell me what it means for you, as a writer, to have one of your works be a part of the Fringe.
DMcC – This is the first time that I applied, so I’m very excited to have had my play accepted into the festival. When I first moved to New York back in 2006 I volunteered at Fringe Will-Call to get free tickets; it was my little “Welcome to New York” experience so Fringe has been a constant for me. Having a play in the Festival is like coming full circle.
KTL – Well congratulation. Do you feel like you’ve “arrived”?
DMcC – It’s definitely a nice check mark. It feels like a bit of a right of passage, having a show at the Fringe. Maybe by the 3rd or 4th one I’ll be jaded. (Laughs). The Fringe Festival is such a brand and such an identifiable thing. When you tell people “Hey, I’ve got a show in the Fringe” everyone knows what that means, everyone knows when it is. It’s definitely a milestone for me.
KTL - What’s the most unusual thing that’s happened as a byproduct of being part of Fringe?
DMcC – I feel like everything’s gone by the book so far. Martha Goode from Ignited States has done a bunch of Festivals, and so has the other company she is involved with, MTWorks. They know the ropes. Martha’s job is to keep everything floating so that we can focus on pulling the play together. Oh, and Martha is the sound designer as well, so she’s pulling double duty! We’re just cranking though, getting ready to open. Of course, we haven’t been in for a tech yet or a space walk-though, so that will be an experience. We only get 2 hours for that.
KTL - Only two hours? Really?
DMcC - Yeah, that’s the allotment, twice the running time of your show, and we’ve got a one-hour show, so that’s what we get! We’re lucky, though, Eli and Cheryl Jump is pretty light on the tech so it’s not as difficult as some.
KTL - About the Title “Eli and Cheryl Jump” … it’s very evocative. And it could be taken as very cryptic or very literal. Or, it could almost be a last name. I must say, the first time I saw it I thought “Oh, Eli and Cheryl Jump” as in “Eli and Cheryl Smith”.
DMcC -(Laughs) Wow, really? No … it’s definitely a verb.
KTL - Well, I know that now, since I’ve read it. But what were you trying to put into people’s mind’s with the title?
DMcC – In the play there’s obviously a big reveal. But that’s not all the play is about. The events are not what it’s about, it’s the journey Eli goes through … this mythology that’s been created by his mom, created by feelings of his absent father, turning it from something that’s a curse into something he can use to empower and to aid in this moment of crisis he and Cheryl find themselves in. There are several reasons for the title, I also wanted to give away the game, so to speak, and not try to force a surprise. It’s still inherent, but placing flash forwards to the crisis that the 2 main characters are in, I wanted to go there right away, that’s why the play starts where it does. So the title was along those lines. It both keeps a secret and yet completely reveals. This is not a play about a twist or a surprise, but about a monumental action in both their lives. It has layers, physically and spiritually that hopefully work in tandem. Plus, at the end of the day, it was the title. It just was the title that felt right.
KTL - Of course I don’t want you to tell too much or give anything away, but what can you tell me about the seeds that started Eli and Cheryl Jump?
DMcC – I did a first draft in December of 2007, and then we did a workshop in Spring of ’08 with Crosstown Playwrights who are the writer affiliates of Ignited States; it’s a number of us who meet on a weekly basis. I needed a play for our Spring Forward Festival so I had submitted a few that weren’t working for me and all of a sudden I said I’ll write a play in a week, use whatever came out no matter what, and this is what resulted. You can’t always remember the first spark … it could be an image … there’s one pretty significant image that I could reference right now but I won’t … but I started writing the story that Eli’s mother is telling in the beginning of the play. It was almost written as a short story, about Eli’s life and journey. And it grew from that as it does in the play.
KTL – This play is very poetic – there’s a lot of mysticism about it. Why did you choose that voice to tell this story?
DMcC – I was frustrated and I wasn’t coming up with something so I basically posed 2 challenges to myself: to write in a style I’m not drawn to – a monologue piece with direct address. And two: I chose to tackle a subject which I felt I had no business approaching just because of my relative lack of connection to it in my own life experience.
KTL – So this style was a first for you …
DMcC – At the time, yes, it was. But I have noticed that, since writing Eli and Cheryl Jump I play more with that poetic style and form. A lot of my work previously was more straight, naturalistic dialog. Now I’ve been working in a more presentational, poetic style since writing this play and saw that it worked at least in this context. The subject dictates the form, and what I like, what I think is successful (I hope) is how it undulates back and forth, in and out. In the flashbacks, in the car with Carla Jean, to the scenes with Eli’s landlady, when he first meets Cheryl … those are all fairly naturalistic and take place firmly in our world. But then reality cracks open and we see the Id of Eli, in some cases, or the mythic figure he aspires to be (or run from) and that’s when we run into “story land”, the world that his mother created for him. That’s when that world becomes his reality, and ours as well.
KTL – Your play has several different characters but only 2 actors, there’s limited stage direction and you say there can be limited-to-no set design, so it’s all a very minimalist approach. Tell me about how you came to make those choices.
DMcC – Well, as far as having just one actress play all these women in Eli’s life, I felt it was very important to keep Cheryl present on stage. Chronologically Cheryl’s character doesn’t enter till the final 3rd of the play, but with the use of the first flash forward we meet her character right away. So you’re introduced to her at the start, but then she’s absent until the “third act”. And of course she’s important — the play is named after her, after all! (Laughs). So it was an interesting, fun, challenging way for her to be on stage; having one actress assume all these important figures in Eli’s life. And there’s no pulling-the-wool over the audience’s eyes, the actress simply assumes different body language and uses another voice. It’s fun for a really good actor to take on a part like that. It’s satisfying dramatically and keeps us invested in each of the characters. And this way a single actress becomes an equal player on the stage, as opposed to four smaller supporting roles.
As far as my reasons behind having a minimalistic set – honestly, it’s easily producible. I mean, we could take this play out on to the streets if we wanted to and perform it right there. Plus, I tend to enjoy minimalist production. It engages you. You, as an audience, get to meet the performers halfway and fill in the blanks. And certainly when you have a play like Eli and Cheryl Jump – one that changes location and time and goes in and out of reality – well really then it’s all or nothing. Unless you could bring in a turn table and fly things in and out, and have scenery on tracts, the only other thing to do would be to have absolutely nothing and and let imagination be the set. We also have great sound design to fill in a bit of that voice, it’s a pretty important element here, almost like a sound collage. Ultimately, I just really enjoy the rawness and honesty that worked for us with 2 actors and some chairs … doing what we were doing, creating this piece of theatre 5 feet form the audience. It’s very immediate … there’s no place to hide. It’s a very honest experience.
KTL – What do you hope people will take away from Eli and Cheryl Jump?
DMcC - I want the audience to have made that leap with Eli and Cheryl and be glad that they did. I think what’s going to do that is not the script but the absolute beauty and honesty with which the actors do the show. Charles Linshaw and Cassandra Vincent had the first reading yesterday and I was shivering at what they were bringing to the piece already. Nicole Watson, our director, knows how to navigate the play, how to make it pop and make it soar, it’s going to be on them to turn it from (again, I hope) a good read on the page to making it an experience. I want the audience to be shaken a bit but glad they went on the journey. I hope it’s a unique journey and not just another play.
KTL – Well, here’s my favorite part of the interview – Bonus question time. You can talk about any topic, no censorship, promote a cause, tell a joke, whatever you want. The floor is yours. No pressure.
DMcC - I also happen to be part of an ensemble called The New York Neo-Futurists who perform a show called Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind.
KTL - Hey, I”m going to review that next week for The Fab Marquee!
DMcC - Well, you are in for a wild ride! It’s a fantastic concept – 30 plays in 60 minutes. They’re all original works, written, directed performed by the ensemble. It’s a roller coaster of an hour. There’s always lots of yelling, lots of jumping around. I wanted to give a little shout out to that group because they’re terrific. I just joined in April.
KTL – How often do they mix it up?
DMcC – It changes every single week. Someone in the audience gets picked to roll a six-sided die onto the stage and whatever number comes up 2 through 12, that’s how many play come off the roster and how many new ones go up, so it’s consistently changing. You could go every few months and never see the same show twice, it’s a always completely a different show. This year we’re celebrating our 5th year, so it’s a great time. I’ll be back in it in September after Fringe, so I’m excited to get back to that.
KTL - Well there’s a lot to celebrate! Congratulations, Daniel, for you success with getting your play, Eli and Cheryl Jump into Fringe. I look forward to seeing it.
And the rest of you can check back here to see my review in a few weeks. Meanwhile, to purchase tickets for Eli and Cheryl Jump, or to find out more about the festival, visit www.fringenyc.org.
Eli and Cheryl Jump
The Players Loft
8:30pm Fri 8.14.09, 9:30pm Fri 8.14.09 with 5 other showtimes 8.14.09 through 8.29.09