Doing fake shit is what theatre is: an interview with Brian Alford

For Decent Company August: loyalty, Brian Alford is writing and performing a piece about the artistic director of a theatre company who has some dirty tricks up his sleeve. Brian and Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman sat down to talk about artistic loyalty, abuse, and what happens when dangerous people ascend to positions of influence.

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JOSH BOERMAN: This is your fourth straight Decent Company show.

BRIAN ALFORD: Yeah. Wow. I mean, last one I was directing, but yeah, for three out of those four I’ve been writing/performing.

JB: You feel like you’re getting into a groove?

BA: Everything has been feeling very different. One thing I’ve been doing every time is I’m writing stories, fictional stories with a character that I’m playing. I still have yet to do an actual autobiographical piece. I thought about it for this one. I had a few different ideas roaming around, about three of which were autobiographical. And I started to write them, and I was like, “Fuck that.”

JB: Did any of that make it into this at all? Any of those themes or ideas?

BA: Definitely the same themes. It’s about an abusive theatre company. And I, and I’m sure most people in theatre, have had some experience with being a part of some kind of abusive environment. Because it’s really easy to do in theatre. It’s really easy to just grab on and take advantage of people. And, fun fact about you…

JB: (LAUGHS) About me?

BA: Yeah. You went to the same college as me.

JB: That’s true. I did.

BA: And we were both involved in the same college theatre company.

JB: That’s true, we were.

BA: Yeah, how about that? Bet you didn’t know that.

JB: I don’t know, Brian. You tell me.

BA: Yeah. We did stuff together.

JB: Oh, did we.

BA: What a weird place that was. It’s hard for me to even begin— and that’s why I couldn’t write an autobiographical piece.

JB: ‘Cause that’s where you had wanted to go with the autobiographical piece of it, was to talk about—

BA: Like, talk about this experience, and talk about this one play in particular that is so hard to describe to people: The Book of the Dun Cow, which is based on a book from 1978 that won a National Book Award and then everyone forgot about it.

JB: But we wanted— we being Calvin College, the groundbreaking institution, wanted to do a new adaptation, put our own spin on things.

BA: Yeah. We wanted to do a new adaptation ’cause the other ones were, according to the director of our production, not good at all. And so we were apparently supposed to hastily throw together a good version of a book that has no theatrical element to it.

JB: What I find interesting is that after you’ve left a place, after a long period of time, and even if it’s something where you had a bad experience, you’re very hesitant to say anything bad. And I think that in the show that you’re doing, you kind of show why that is.

You show how if somebody is presenting themselves as a leader, as a charismatic person who appeals to a broader sense of loyalty, that can be a very difficult thing to walk away from.

BA: Yeah. Right. And theatre, everyone has to work together. Everyone works really fuckin’ closely, especially the smaller the theatre is, the less literal space there is. Everyone is right next to each other. And you have to be able to get along with people and you have to be easy to work with.

And that’s something that was drilled into my head in college, was you have to be someone who’s good to work with because the theatre world is so small. If you’re ever bad, if you ever do anything that could be perceived as wrong, you will never ever find work, ever.

But of course, theatre isn’t a small world. It’s a bunch of little worlds. Like, if I fail miserably and, I dunno, kill somebody here in New York, I could still go to Chicago and it wouldn’t necessarily make a difference.

JB: Right. Well, and to the point of that, I mean, the piece that you’re doing is obviously inspired by the whole saga of Profiles Theatre in Chicago.

BA: Yeah. If you have not read it, you have to read that story. It will take you a couple days, but it’s something that everybody in the theatre needs to be reading because it is something that’s happening all over the place.

JB: And it might not be that extreme, but—

BA: Yeah. The SparkNotes version: this company had two co-artistic directors, was a non-Equity theatre for a very long time until just a few years ago, who would stage these really obscene and misogynistic plays, violent plays.

Many of these plays are very good pieces of theatre, but they would essentially use this plays so that the co-artistic director, Darrell Cox, who just happened to be cast as the lead in every one of these plays, could essentially just abuse the young women that they would cast as his co-stars.

JB: Right. It was basically a façade through which this guy could get access.

BA: Yep. And so there’s this whole record of him just constantly sleeping with his co-stars and manipulating them and using the idea of grit and reality to abuse his power onstage, and using actual violence against other actors instead of choreographed stage violence that keeps everybody fucking safe.

And it was this series, year after year, production after production, of flagrant violations. Of people’s space, of decent behavior, of good production, all of those things. And so having been in a situation that was not nearly that bad, I was hooked on this article, reading it all the way through.

And there was a point at the end where someone, I think she was the one who was in the production of Killer Joe that put the theatre on the map, said, “Yeah, this thing was fucking terrible. It was a nightmare. It was the worst experience of my life. And it’s the best role I ever had.” Like, “It’s the best work that I ever did, I think.” And how do you deal with that?

And this one production that I did in college, where we were getting other people’s blood on us because it was, like—

JB: Literal blood? Not stage blood?

BA: Yeah, actual blood. Yeah. There was this absolute breakdown of anything resembling sanity throughout that entire production. And so, yeah, people were getting injured.

And I wasn’t so much, because some people were crawling around in that show and I was walking around on two feet. And I didn’t get cut up as much as other people, but I remember one day walking home and seeing blood on my shin and being like, “Oh, I guess I cut myself” and wiping it off, and it was not my blood. (LAUGHS)

But at the same time, that is the role that it’s so hard to feel like I will ever be nearly as good as I was there. Even if I wasn’t actually that good, I fucking committed so much. And this person in the interview with Profiles, she believed in her role so much and got caught up in that insane cycle, that weird echo-y cavern of this horrible, abusive production, and thought, “This really is the best work that I’ll ever do, and I will never, ever get it out of my head.”

JB: I think that’s an interesting point because actors obviously, due to the nature of what acting is, invest themselves so utterly in their characters. Immerse themselves in that world and develop this massive emotional connection to the world that they’re playing in. But depth of investment doesn’t necessarily translate to a good performance.

BA: Right.

JB: An actor can think, “Well, this is really great work that I’m doing,” when in reality it’s just that they have become so mentally invested in the part that they’re becoming increasingly unable to differentiate between stage reality and actual reality.

BA: Right. Right. And, you know, for instance, look at the show that Will Arnett just had on Netflix, Flaked. It was this very intensely personal, semi-autobiographical show that he was writing, starring in. And it got thrashed. Once it came out, it just didn’t end up that good because he was too invested in it.

Like, it happens to writers and it happens to directors. When you’re too close to something, all of a sudden it evaporates. What makes it work, what will make it to connect to other people, isn’t there. And it’s just you.

So that could’ve also been what was happening with Dun Cow, although I dunno. (LAUGHS) It was a show where I played a chicken. The best role of my life, I played a fuckin’ chicken in a mask. And so we were doing this show. It was masks and it was puppets, and you get into the mindset that this mask is the reality.

You become like Rorschach, right? Like, you get the mask off, you’re like, “Where’s my face?” You start getting used to it. You’re looking just through these small holes, and you take it off and you have this weird tunnel vision even after you get the mask off where your brain isn’t really registering what’s on the outside of your direct vision.

JB: Well, and that sort of ties into the one other thing that I wanted to talk about, which was: when you get so into something that you’ve created, sometimes you lose touch with, like you were saying, how something is going to resonate or not resonate with an audience.

And that is another important component of loyalty if you are an artist. You have to consider how your work is going to be received. You can’t be, of course, utterly focus testing everything.

BA: Yeah. You can’t, you know, be looking out to the audience, “You gettin’ it? You gettin it?” Even though my play is me looking directly at the audience the whole time, so maybe that’s not a good example. (LAUGHS) But yeah, you can’t just make something that’s so fucking artificial that it doesn’t have any personality to it. But at the same time, you can’t make something that is so driven by your personality that it has no entertainment value.

JB: I guess I’m curious about the question of what do we as theatre makers owe our loyal audiences? Do we owe them anything? What does that relationship mean?

BA: When I want to see a play or a musical or a movie or anything, I want to be shown something new. More than anything else, I want to see something that I didn’t know I wanted. So to always be pleasing your audience, or to always just be living to please the people around you? You can’t. You can’t live your entire life like that. Because it does open the door to manipulation, right?

Like, pure human collectivism can’t ever exist because it will always somehow be taken advantage of by certain individuals. In the same way that pure human individualism doesn’t work because certain individuals will rope people into being a collective in service of the individual as well.

JB: Right. You have leaders who hijack things and then start to develop loyalty to themselves.

BA: Yeah. And so, like, mutual loyalty is absolutely something valuable. And I think it’s something that you need, and you have to thrive on. But because you want to continue working, because you want to make something good, because you want to follow the hierarchy of how things currently work in the theatre, you can very easily slip and fall in this hole. Where you’re doing the best you can and just the right person can come along and say, “No, it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough.”

And even though you’re still doing everything to please them, they’ll still come up with some way to twist that knife further and further and further so that you’ll do goddamn anything that they want you to do. And they don’t care about you, and they don’t care about anybody.

And those people are all over the place. And what’s really surprising is, and I guess it shouldn’t be, but after the Darrell Cox thing happened, after that article came out in the Chicago Reader, a couple more things could’ve happened, right? We could’ve just said, “This is Darrell Cox, this is Profiles Theatre, this is the problem.” Or we could’ve said, “Oh, this is happening over here, this is happening over here, I’ve been hearing this about that production. Let’s speak up.”

JB: It’s so much easier to pretend that it isn’t a systemic problem, that it’s just one individual or one theatre.

BA: And so far people have not been coming out and saying it. Like, there are some people who are saying, “Are we having this problem?”

JB: And even if it’s not the issue of that particular type of abuse, just the question of are people being treated fairly and equitably.

BA: Yes. And what’s really interesting is people are writing these articles asking that question, and no one’s saying anything back. And that’s concerning because a theatre like Profiles Theatre can’t just exist on its own. It can’t just happen that there is just one dangerous psychopath running one theatre in one city in America.

This is definitely happening in other places. And I think it’s more common sort of at the ends. Like, it’ll happen on the highest end, where you’ll see Hollywood producers that have abused young men and young women and things like that. And it’ll happen in the small places. It happens in community theatres. It happens in non-Equity houses. It happens all over the place.

And you have these people who will defend themselves and say, “You know, Equity is so sanitized. It’s so washed clean. It’s so safe. We’re doing something raw. We’re doing something real. We’re telling people the truth. We’re living real life on stage.”

If they say those words, get the fuck out of there! You’re never living real life on stage. You’re an actor. You’re on a set. There are people sitting in the audience. That is fake. That’s always fake. You’re always doing fake shit. That is what theatre is. And if anyone is telling you you’re doing real things, leave.

To purchase tickets to Decent Company August: loyalty, click here.

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