Your play, The Man Who Laughs, is based on a novel by Victor Hugo. What's the story's about, and how did you first came across the novel?
It’s funny; Jon Stancato (my co-artistic director at The Stolen Chair Theatre Co.) and I actually each independently came across Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs while doing research for personal projects. The story’s protagonist is a man whose face has been carved into a permanent smile, and the pathos and theatricality of that image (not to mention the terrific acting challenge it presents), seemed too good to pass up. As a child, the protagonist finds his way into the wagon of a traveling player who adopts him and the blind foundling girl he has discovered in his travels. As the children age, they fall in love and join their father on stage in the roles of clown and ingénue, respectively. The trio lives happily together until their performances catch the attention of a debauched Duchess, whose lust for the disfigured clown threatens to tear the family apart. Jon and I both ended up pitching the story to each other, which in and of itself seemed like a very persuasive argument in its favor!
The Man Who Laughs is Part 1 of your CineTheatre Tetralogy. Tell us more about that project, and how The Man Who Laughs fits into it.
The CineTheatre Tetralogy is a four-year project of The Stolen Chair Theatre Company: Four years, four productions, four classic film styles. Beginning with The Man Who Laughs, one production of each Stolen Chair season will be dedicated to adapting a film style to the stage. We began with 1920s silent film—the inspiration for The Man Who Laughs—and, over the course of the next three years, will move through the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Coming up next will be Kill Me Like You Meant It, an absurdist film noir for the stage that plays with the politics and conventions of 1940s film noir. After that, we’ll see what films of the 1930s and 1950s have to offer!
You are the Co-Artistic Director and Playwright-in-Residence for The Stolen Chair Theatre Company. What is the company's mission, and how did it first get started?
The company was founded in 2002 by a group of graduates and students of Swarthmore College. Our first project was an offering for the Philly Fringe Festival that we pulled together on a $50 budget. Somehow (we still don’t know how!) the piece developed quite a buzz, and became the first show of the Fringe to sell out. After the Philly Fringe, the company relocated to New York, where we have been based ever since. We’re a laboratory theatre dedicated to creating new works and original adaptations of classical texts. I think something unusual about the company is our commitment to making bold stylistic choices (for instance, staging The Man Who Laughs as a silent black-and-white “film for the stage”) without abandoning traditional narrative—our pieces have all the familiar qualities of good old fashioned character-based drama. The company is also committed to treating even the heaviest subject matter with a light touch and to finding a place where the ironic and the earnest can happily co-exist. I guess you could say that a big part of our mission is to create a space for our audiences to have strong sentiments with feeling sentimental.
What does the company's name stand for?
Our name was actually taken from a scene in the movie Molière, which was written and directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, co-founder and director of the French theatre company Théâtre du Soleil. In the scene, young Molière, having left home and joined a troupe of traveling players, returns home to his parents’ house to steal a chair from his living room. When his disapproving father finds him, Molière explains that he and his troupe need the chair “for Act II,” and runs off with it. Not only are we proud to link ourselves to Molière and Mnouchkine—two extraordinary artists who are inspiring examples of how far an individual artist can go with the support of a company—but we’re proud to wear our commitment to artistic theft on our collective sleeve. Stolen Chair steals pretty freely and shamelessly from just about anywhere we can. In The Man Who Laughs, for instance, we stole a story from Victor Hugo and a playing style from silent film, combining them to create a unique theatrical experience. This theft and recycling is at the heart of most Stolen Chair shows, and our name reflects that mission.
Your bio states that you grew up in "a family of devoted theatergoers." How devoted are we talking about?
Let’s just say that my mother cried when Charles Ludlam of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company died, my sister declared herself an opera buff (actually, an “opera buffalo”) at the age of three, and one of my father’s favorite sayings is ripped off from an adaptation of Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, a novel about an actor in Nazi Germany. So I guess the answer is: pretty darn devoted.
What's up next for you?
Kill Me Like You Mean It, our absurdist film noir for the stage (and The Man Who Laughs sequel in the CineTheatre Tetralogy) opens in January of 2007 (check out killmelikeyoumeanit.com for more details), and the company has plans to remount The Man Who Laughs in the Philadelphia area in June. After that, we’ll be developing the first new piece of our 2007-2008 season, whatever that may be…
Interview with Kiran Rikhye was conducted by Michael Criscuolo November 2006.