Recently, I was able to score an interview with the young, but already well-experienced local playwright and director, Josh Young. His play May 21st - Judgement Day opens for a three-show run September 1st at the Kraine Theater in the East Village. As Young describes, the play is story of a girl named Valentine who lives in an underground bunker. Valentine has been trapped in the bunker for 13 years by the sexual abusive James, who keeps her hidden there under the pretense that the world ended on May 21st, 2011 and that he's protecting her from the Holy War raging above on Earth. But Valentine is not completely alone. She has created two conflicting, spiritual personalities that may either keep her trapped in desolation or guide her in breaking free of her solitude and imprisonment.
Read more about Josh Young and his post-apocalyptic, psychological thriller, after the jump!
Before producing his own works, Josh Young worked with numerous different companies and theaters. A graduate of NYU'S Tisch School of the Arts in Theater and Cinema Studies, Young began freelancing right after college, working as a lighting technician, designer, and technical director. He has worked for the Chen Dance Center, The Fringe Festival, and designed in theaters such as The Kraine and Red Room Theater, LaMaMA ETC, and The Cherry Lane. He was also a film technician at Technicolor Creative Services before he landed his current job position as the Theater Technician at the Guggenheim Museum. ATFG is delighted and so thankful that Young took the time to answer our questions, illuminating us on the process of creating and producing an original theatrical piece.
ATFG: What motivated you to write this play? What were your inspirations?
Young: I originally wrote this play in 2005 as a one-woman dance and movement piece for a friend. The plot was the same as now but without the May 21st caveat. Both in 2005 and then when I re-wrote it, this year, I was in the same place; depressed. I was depressed at what I saw in human interaction both in my own life and what I saw from the people in the world around me. This year, partially because May 21st is my birthday, I became fascinated by how abusive and dangerous American Christian Fundamentalism can be. So I wanted to write and revisit a story that illustrated how other philosophies, such as Samurai ethos from Japan and Zen Buddhism, have created ways for people to rise above internal and external strife and conflict. As for the play, it is about rising above the deadly mob mentality that we see in modern day Christian Fundamentalism along with illustrating that everyone has the strength to rise above their awful circumstances and emerge a stronger person because of it. Especially if those circumstances were child abuse, no matter the environment.
ATFG: How do you decide if a piece you've written is worthy of being produced? Are you your own worst critic?
Young: Goodness, yes, I am very critical of myself. Over the years I have worked in the film and theater worlds in New York and I see a lot of vanity shows, or shows that go up because people just have the time and resources. For me, I wrote this show in 2005 and sat on it because it never quite clicked. It was very close to my heart, but it wasn't something that was needing to be told. Then when the May 21st/Judgement Day stuff started happening, it just clicked. After re-writing it, I believed deeply it was a good piece, and others who read it re-enforced that thought. So I started putting the pieces together to put it up. But it was something that involved me feeling strongly about the premise and purpose while bringing enough people on board so that they take ownership of the show and make it their own.
ATFG: Do you prefer directing your own written work or having others direct your plays?
Young: For these kinds of shows I definitely do. But the writing and directing are interlinked. I don't even consider the two acts separate. The last show I did that was like this was The Wolf From Recovery, Ohio and that was in 2008. I have worked as a designer and technician over the years so when I conceive a piece it is usually written so that the design and direction are part of the writing from the inception. The thing I like to do is give ownership to the other people involved. The play necessitates a collaborative piece. The actors have strong voices in the aesthetics, and have dual roles such as the dramaturgist. Then someone like my Stage Manager is essentially an assistant director or co-director. I would feel bad if anything I ever wrote became a vanity piece, something just for myself, so I try hard to bring everyone together and have them own the piece, as much as me, during the process.
ATFG: What was the casting process like? And tell us a bit about your cast and crew.
Young: I got very lucky with casting. First, I got a stage manager on board, Alex Gerdtz, who is studying at NYU. I wanted to bring in someone who I didn't know as my right hand person so that I wouldn't surround myself with "yes" people. Honestly, she was great from the get-go because she clearly didn't want to approach the show as a paint by numbers stage manager and wanted to be a part of the creative process. Next, I brought on a friend, Patience Baach, from the Guggenheim, as a promotion and fundraising person (and to co-collaborate with Alex and I). She doesn't have a theater background so I enjoyed the fact that she could look at the show from an outsider's perspective. The casting just grew out of how chemistry and interactions looked. James Tison was cast first as the male in the play. He was the only person I knew ahead of time that was right for the role and who I asked directly to be involved. Then we cast the others: first was Elitza Daskalova, who just came in and read perfectly for Hastur; then came Adriana DeGirolami who I was delighted to see read for me. I was already friends with Adri but had never worked with her so when she came in and read the whole crew just kind of knew she was perfect for Mary Anne. We had trouble casting Valentine; many talented actresses read for her but none quite could transform between naive girl to empowered and imposing woman. At the time, our costume woman, Natalia, kind of offhandedly asked to read for Valentine and when she did it just clicked with what we were looking for and the group that was already cast. Each piece fell in line with the piece before it. So I have to be grateful for the gift of being surrounded by such passionate and interested folks coming forward at the right time.
ATFG: What has the production process been like for you so far?
Young: Intense. This is a show that is physically demanding, emotionally intense, and heavily designed. The production work started off very chaotic and nerve-racking but has simmered down a bit. All of my strengths are technical and aesthetic. I know how to draft a plot, edit a video, direct actors, but had virtually no idea how to promote and fundraise. My last show was something I was incredibly proud of and it had a fair turn out, but only because of word of mouth. So for the first month and a half of this show I tried to learn about, organize, and focus on promotion and fundraising as much as possible. I have already learned more than I could have hoped. As for the directing process, it is really rewarding and wonderful. Again, my strengths are in framing a piece, so I am really delighted with the work the actors and crew are doing to make the show be what it should be. But it is intense. The show has dance, martial arts, blood effects, and the list goes on...
ATFG: What's been the most difficult aspect of producing this show and what's been the most rewarding?
Young: The most difficult is promotion and fundraising. For all I know, we will have sold out houses or mild houses, but in my heart I know people should be hungry to see what we are creating. I am just flummoxed by the pathways I have to navigate to simultaneously get the word of this show out there but to do it in an encouraging way. At the end of the day, I won't care so long as people see it because it has some really wonderful things happening in it. The most rewarding is seeing those things happen. Two days ago, our actress Adri discovered a character revelation. It was a moment that brought a dynamic to her character and to the greater piece that was intoxicating. That is just one small part of the larger whole, so if that little sliver alone is so enticing, seeing the greater work come together is sublime. So the creative process of the show is the most rewarding by far.
ATFG: Is the stress level of this show any higher than past ones you've worked on, due to the heavy nature of the piece?
Young: No. I think the stress is high for me for pragmatic purposes, as in, just the assembly of the whole piece. Certainly I know the actors have had challenges because they were worried about the heavy nature, but I think we keep the show in the right place in our collective process. I have worked on some pretty high stress shows...I remember being stressed during Isabella Rossellini's Brand Upon The Brain at the Village East Theater, or more recently working on Watermill with Robert Wilson at the Guggenheim...but nothing will ever compete with something that you are invested in balls to bone; something that your voice is heard in from the inception.
ATFG: Are you excited or relieved when a show finally goes up or do you miss the production or rehearsal process? Is it a bittersweet transition?
Young: Not bittersweet, but I certainly miss it. One of my goals with this project is to gain enough momentum to continue working on things closer to my heart and work less as a technician or freelance designer. Just dealing with the quotidian architecture of life, I wasn't able to put a show up since 2008. I don't want to wait that long in the future. My dream is to let this show be the impulse to continually work on theater and film projects that I can be 100% invested in at a creative level.
ATFG: What's coming up next for you? Can you tell us about any future projects in the works?
Young: Hopefully, if everything works out with this show, I can keep the momentum going and move right into other projects. I am writing a few things, but I would love to do two big pieces I already have written. I have written a show I am tentatively calling "Straight Outta Wompton." It's a dark comedy based, again, on things I have experienced first hand but filtered through the lens of shows like The Maury Povich Show or that Jersey show people watch. The other project will be a short movie called "Vanilla" which would be my attempt at exploring the darker sides of the issue of polyamory.
Thanks again to Josh Young for being such an honest and insightful interviewee! Don't miss his fascinating play May 21st - Judgement Day.
May 21st - Judgement Day
The Kraine Theater (85 East 4th St.)
Thursday September 1st through Saturday September 3rd, 8pm
$15 in advance, $18 at the door
Buy your tickets in advance here