Your play, The Adventures of Nervous-Boy, boasts the subtitle, "A Penny Dreadful." Tell us a little bit more about that, and about the play in general.
“Penny dreadfuls” were lurid pulp serial stories from the 19th Century, each part costing a penny. Although The Adventures of Nervous-Boy is a satire of modern New York living, I wanted to indicate that it’s more of a lurid and horrific satire of city life than a winking tongue-in-cheek one. Aside from a lot of “obnoxious cell phone user” gags, there are a number of supernatural and horrific elements in the play that the “penny dreadful” subtitle alludes to. Also, without giving too much away, in one sense, I saw the play as a modern-day “Jack the Ripper” story (Jack the Ripper being a popular subject in many penny dreadfuls), which gave me the idea for the subtitle.[ Photo by: Tanya Lacourse]
Where'd you come up with the idea for The Adventures of Nervous-Boy?
I came up with the idea from a number of places, mainly from just observing the people walking around on the street. In 2004 I was freelancing and having serious financial trouble and feeling very cut off from the rest of the working world. New York, which up until that point had been my source of inspiration and energy, started to feel like a prison. The irritating aspects of the city were getting amplified to me. I saw people on the streets with their cell phones glued to their ears and obnoxious drunks spouting incoherent gibberish in bars and they all seemed like ghoulish caricatures. I was having a tough time relating to most people and feeling simultaneously sad and relieved that I was so alienated from the rest of the world. The following year, when I started writing the script, things got back on track mentally and I was able to look at that time in my life with some objectivity.
When I wrote it, I was on a big Daniel Clowes and Harvey Pekar kick, reading a lot of their Eightball and American Splendor comics, which feature a lot of peripheral characters throughout the books as bizarre caricatures. There was one story in particular in Mr. Clowe's Eightball comic, "The Death Ray," where the main character spoke his thoughts out loud (i.e., he was using dialogue balloons rather than thought balloons) and I wanted to see if I could do something like that onstage.
I’m also a huge fan of horror films of the '70s, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, The Last House on the Left, which were not only scare/gorefests, but also scathing commentaries from the filmmakers on their culture. I wanted to see if Nosedive could try to stage a horror play in that vein without being ironic (in the way that, say, Evil Dead: The Musical is). So, I used a bunch of these elements above and here we are.
You are one of the Artistic Directors of Nosedive Productions, the company that produced The Adventures of Nervous-Boy. How long has the company been around, and what was the impetus for starting it?
We staged our first play, Monkeys, in February 2000. Originally, Nosedive Productions was formed so that I could get my plays staged and Pete Boisvert (Nosedive’s other co-artistic director and resident director) could get directing work. Pete and I knew each other from high school but hadn’t kept in touch during college. We independently moved to New York in 1999 and met up through a mutual friend. At the time, I was trying to find out how to get my plays staged and wasn’t wild about the options originally presented to me (namely, submit my plays to competitions where the first prize would be a staged reading a year later). That seemed to me to be a waste of time and backwards way of doing things, but since I was brand spankin’ new to the city, what did I know?
Pete was simultaneously trying to find directing work but found out that nobody hires directors straight out of college with no track record. So rather than wait for what looked like would be years for a company to give us the time of day, Pete and I thought about teaming up and putting up a play ourselves. He had asked to read a couple of my plays and, luckily, he liked them. He wanted to direct one called Allston. I actually wanted him to direct Monkeys, because I wanted that play to be my “first” in the city. So, Pete agreed to direct Monkeys, working on the implication that if I liked what he did on this show, he could direct Allston.
We had two mutual friends who had been acting in Off-Off Broadway shows for a few years — Adam Heffernan and Dave Townsend — help teach us the basic nuts-n-bolts of staging a small Off-Off show for very little money. So, with their help and through trial and error, Pete and I figured out how to hold auditions, rent theatre and rehearsal spaces, print promotional postcards, and run rehearsals. We split the costs of the production 50/50 (we were just out of college so we had a bunch of new credit cards) and ran Monkeys for eight nights at the Surf Reality House of Urban Savages (which no longer exists). Since we had so much fun staging Monkeys and we nearly broke even on the production, we got right to work on Allston.
We never originally saw ourselves as a company; we had a specific goal of staging these two plays. It wasn’t until we were prepping for our third show, The Awaited Visit, that we considered Nosedive to be an actual theatre company. Pete and I were pretty surprised at how quick and easy it was to stage a play: the time between our very first meeting and opening night was about four months. After mounting 12 productions as a company in a little more than six years, we’re still a little perplexed as to why so many companies spend years (Years!) developing one play and, more to the point, why so many playwrights seem fine with this. It seems like a whole lot of unnecessary foot-dragging that can be easily circumvented.
How did you decide on the name Nosedive Productions?
The joke answer I give when I’m asked this (and I’m asked this a lot) is: “We call ourselves Nosedive Productions because ‘Artistic and Financial Failure Productions’ is too long to fit on the promotional postcards.” Unfortunately, the real reason is less interesting. Nosedive Productions was the name of a fictitious production company I came up with in high school that I’d doodle on my notebook covers. When Pete and I got to work on staging Monkeys, our friend Adam Heffernan said that we needed to put a company name on the promo postcard to seem “legit.” I said it’d be Nosedive, since…well, why not? Considering we didn’t see ourselves as a “company” at the time and we had bigger things to worry about, it seemed as good a name as any.
You also have a theatre blog of your own. What's it called, and what exactly do you write about in it?
It’s called Jamespeak, and it’s at http://jamespeak.blogspot.com and also on Nosedive’s Web site, www.nosediveproductions.com. I write pretty much whatever’s going on with me at any given time, although I try to keep it as focused on theatre-related issues as possible. I write about what’s happening with Nosedive Productions, plays I’ve seen, rants on what I see as stupid or good trends in the theatre world, things like that. Every now and then I write about some film I’ve seen or gripe about the L Train or confess my infatuation with American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee, but I mainly write about theatre and Nosedive. I’m sure I’ll be nattering about this Plays and Playwrights book for a few entries.
Your blog is part of a larger and constantly growing circle of New York theatre blogs. What do you think blogs can contribute to the indie theatre scene that other outlets can't?
Well, the theatre blogs seem to be quicker to respond to what’s happening in the indie scene than most mainstream outlets, and that’s probably because the people maintaining the blogs are the ones making theatre in the indie scene. I should point out, however, that the theatre blogosphere is in the toddling stage, so I’m very curious to see what it looks like when it reaches adolescence and adulthood.
What will we be seeing next from you and Nosedive Productions?
A new play I’ve written called Suburban Peepshow, a flat-out silly comedy that will go up every weekend in April at Horse Trade’s Red Room.
Interview with James Comtois was conducted by Michael Criscuolo February 2007.