Behind the Scenes of “Tragedy in Spades,” Coming to The Performance Project

Tragedy In Spades

Our friends at The Performance Project have been featuring “Five Questions With Our Artists in Residence” on their blog.  Here is their most current post, an interview with Artists in Residence Director Katie Brook and Playwright Liza Birkenmeier, who are about to premiere TRAGEDY IN SPADES: A Crime Documentary

The show is a theatrical reenactment of a fictional 1994 documentary about a horrific murder in a tiny Missouri  town. They have cast University Settlement community artists (alongside Brook’s company members from Tele-Violet) as residents of the fictional community of Flier’s Thumb, Missouri. This interview is by The Performance Project’s Associate Curator Lisa Clair:

We pulled Katie and Liza aside for a quick game of 5 questions in order to learn more about their creative process and artistic inspirations:

1) It has been wonderful to witness how you two work together.  You seem to truly admire each other and are able to elevate one and other’s talents, building toward a unified vision.  How did you two come together as collaborators? What do each of you find inspiring about the other?

Katie: Liza just has this incredible, boundless imagination, and an unusual enthusiasm in collaboration. I think it also helps that we both used to act; we’re comfortable being in the rehearsal room together, speaking our minds, and being open to learning from each other and whoever else we’re working with.

Liza: Katie eases some of my great fears about creative work; she is fearless, trusting, forward-moving, and confident. She dares to try anything in the room, and encourages the rest of her collaborators to do the same. When I first worked with Katie, I admired her ability to put thematic or conceptual ideas in corporeal and spatial form—something I cannot do! Since then, I’ve gotten an even bigger sense of joy and boundary-less-ness in my work; it’s contagious.

Rehearsing "Tragedy in Spades" with Tele-Violet at The Performance Project. Photo by Katie Brook
Rehearsing “Tragedy in Spades” with Tele-Violet at The Performance Project. Photo by Katie Brook

2) In this particular iteration of TRAGEDY in SPADES, members of the University Settlement community team up with actors from TELE-VIOLET to create a fictional community.  How does the dynamic of your current ensemble of actors change or deepen the meaning and resonating themes of the show?

Katie: Any process yields a micro-community just through the act of collaboration and need for cooperation. We’re more conscious of this than ever now because the group is so large (12 actors and 6 behind-the-scenes artists like me and Liza) and so diverse. We look for common ground, and so far it’s been easy to find through the process of working on this material, both discussions about it and though building the conventions of this performance together.

Liza: The group feels seamless in certain ways, and is growing more daring in each rehearsal, creating their own sense of symbiosis and trust. With an ensemble of actors with varying approaches, training, and experience, it is impossible to forget that generosity has to be at the center of the work. They all drive the piece—conceptually and physically—absolutely as a team.


3) ‘True Crime’ is very much a part of our current cultural zeitgeist . Liza you described the show as “Making a Murderer meets your elementary school holiday pageant..”.  What is it about true crime that people are so drawn to? How do you think placing this genre in a “theatrical” and “fictional” context will affect or alter the way an audience is drawn in?

Liza: When I began writing this piece, it wasn’t as relevant as its grown in the past year and a half with the advent of binge-watch-worth Making a Murderer and the podcast Serial. These two pop-sensationalized crime pieces are similar to TRAGEDY IN SPADES in several ways that felt unnerving at first.

These are stories—or inside of these things are stories—of people with no backgrounds in criminal investigation going to the sites of gruesome murders and re-figuring what may have happened, who is guilty, and most importantly, who is innocent. That TRAGEDY IN SPADES speaks so directly to these two works is a great timing coincidence and pleasure. This genre—in my opinion—is intensely problematic but completely irresistible.

Putting a frame around it: theatricalizing something rather grim, in the guise of this documentary-style investigation, puts a filter between you and the irresistible crime scene. We (hopefully) must watch ourselves watch horror. We can’t help ourselves! And what we find most terrifying in these crimes says a lot about what we culturally value.

4) Speaking of theatrical, TRAGEDY IN SPADES (from what I have overheard eaves-dropping on your rehearsals) has quite a lot of singing (music composed by Chris Giarmo!)  and dancing (choreography by Katie Rose McLaughin!). One does not often associate song and dance numbers with murder documentaries.  What function does music and dance serve in your telling of this story?

Katie: The ‘original’ documentary, TRAGEDY IN SPADES, is about the murder of a teenage girl, so the footage includes a talent show, a church service, and a school concert. These are just part of the documentary, so I had to stage them! Liza wrote the lyrics, and Chris wrote the songs. The actors do their best to reenact them.

Liza: Yes—even the “archival footage” from this made-up documentary is staged! Some of my favorite moments are investigation-free, like when we get to live in a home video of a high school talent night.

5) You will have spent a full year embedded within the University Settlement community; from participating in SHARES, to rehearsing at Campos Plaza, to directly working with several of our community members on the creation of your show. How has this affected your creative process? What are some of your biggest take-aways from your time in residence with US?

Katie: There is a ton of talent and creativity I didn’t know about downtown beyond “Downtown Theater,” and I now have a window into it. I hope I’ll continue to work with the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet through this program.

Liza: Katie and I set out to re-create a place, time, and community. University Settlement in some ways feels like an anchor in New York City that is wholly representative of here and now—a bizarre reflection of the time and space of the piece (small-town Missouri, 1989-1994). Through varying programs and a huge spectrum of people, I hope we’ve been able to reflect some of what builds this community into the building of TRAGEDY IN SPADES, and while I feel like we began this community collaboration with stylistic and aesthetic reasoning, as it’s growing, it seems inherent to the piece itself and emblematic of the kind of work I’d love to do. There’s nothing illusory about the community we’ll witness when the piece opens. It’s genuinely built and has genuinely built the piece.

The Performance Project at University Settlement Presents Tragedy in Spades: A Crime Documentary Performed Live // University Settlement’s Speyer Hall – 184 Eldridge Street (at Rivington Street) // April 1, 2, 7, 8 & 9 // 7pm // Purchase tickets HERE.