Everyone loves a good war story, and Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen and Oliver Butler--the dynamic trio otherwise known as The Debate Society--can tell a doozy. Not five minutes into our conversation on the sunny roof deck of The Bushwick Starr, where they’re rehearsing Blood Play, which opens next week, they were deep in horrifically happy reminiscence about their first Brooklyn production, The Snow Hen.
At the now largely defunct, unheated theater in Williamsburg, where Snow Hen premiered in 2006, they made crock-pot hot chocolate to warm up the audience, and cut up large pieces of fabric from Materials for the Arts to serve as impromptu blankets. They had to beg audiences to come to Brooklyn, which was complicated by the fact that the L train shut down on weekends for much of the play's snowy tenure. There was also some trouble with the fake snow they used in the show.
Paul: That cat would poop in our snow machine.
Hannah: There’s this moment in the play where it snowed from the ceiling, and I’m looking up, and it’s like this [sticks out her tongue]...
Paul: And like, she's eating the snow, and this cat’s shitting in it.
Oliver: Because it’s just a big open box of shredded plastic.
Hannah: I mean, I’d poop in it.
Since those chilly early days, The Debate Society has gone on to produce a number of well-received shows in heated spaces. Their last full-length play, Buddy Cop 2, was marked as a critic's pick by The New York Times in 2010 and Blood Play garnered the group a preview piece this time around. “I feel like in every capacity we have had just two really big years,” Bos said. With several new funding streams, including an invitation to create work at last year’s Sundance Festival, a Six Points fellowship, an OBIE award grant, and two pieces in near-simultaneous development (in addition to Blood Play, they’re working on a soon-to-be-titled play inspired by the World's Fair), she’s not kidding. Still, they've stayed scrappy. Amidst the throng of world-class artists at Sundance, they referred to themselves as the Brooklyn hobos. "It was like Annie," Bos recalled.
Like all of The Debate Society’s work, Blood Play is a collaboratively devised piece. Bos and Thureen, who began working together in college, write the text and perform (in this case, alongside additional actors). Butler, who joined them shortly after graduation, directs, but their collaboration overlaps more tightly than the usual writer/director/actor roles might suggest. Creatively, they function as a buzzing hive mind, formulating and troubleshooting each piece as a whole. Thureen spoke lovingly about the genesis of their plays, saying “We come in and pitch ideas to each other, and you know that it’s when you say, ‘YES, I want to spend the next two years of my life thinking about [that],’ and we’re sending songs and research back and forth to each other, that’s the time when we find that rich moment.”
“There’s never a time when two of us are like ‘YEAH’ and one person’s like ‘nah’,” added Butler. “The only time it’s really fun is if everyone’s running toward it."
For Blood Play, the starting point was the anti-Semitic medieval belief that Jewish men menstruated, and ate Christian babies to relieve their menstrual symptoms. “It has come very far from that first initial idea," Bos allowed. Butler insists that they’re not trying to fan medieval prejudices, that the play is an exploration of “how fear-mongering, and how fear of the other can potentially allow us to believe terrible things about other people.” Fear not, Blood Play is neither an afterschool special nor a consciousness-raising workshop. “Message-y plays,” are not TDS’s thing, Bos explained. “It’s more about real people, and the way we tell the story…we have hyper-realism on stage in our sets, but then there’s always some kind of magic.”
Blood Play takes place in a newly developed Jewish suburb of Chicago, a “tiny community where everyone knows everyone, and the story happens [during] a night of small coincidences, that end up resulting in a fantastic party occurring in this basement bar,” Bos summarized. Meanwhile, one of the children of the partying grownups camps out by himself in the backyard, where darker things are found.
One of the most satisfying things about watching a Debate Society show is the feeling that care has been taken—no half-finished thoughts or lazy workmanship will intrude on the experience of watching the play. This perfectionism is something that they all take joy in, creating physical and emotional environments that are, as Thureen describes “unique and detailed and special and unexpected, but…sort of layered and right.”
Smart set design serves as the foundation for the layered feeling that permeates The Debate Society's best work. Bos, Thureen and Butler seem to have found a theatrical soul mate in set designer Laura Jellinek, and she works in a similarly nerdy, research-heavy way. Their design collaborations have resulted in memorable visual and aural environments that make creative use of small spaces. Butler described the set design for Blood Play, as “pretty ambitious given the logistics of this space.” He didn’t want to give away the details, but he described it as indoor-outdoor, saying that it echoes and redirects the interlocking interior areas of Buddy Cop 2, also designed by Jellinek. At the Bushwick Starr, they’ve also had the rare luxury over the course of two residencies and an in-house rehearsal period, of creating a set that has grown into the theater over time.
In an experimental theater scene that can seem adversarial to the uninitiated, The Debate Society principals are firmly on the side of the audience. They make plays they’d like to see, that are layered but never incomprehensible. They create characters who never wink ironically at their own cleverness, and they trust the audience to lean in to the story and have a good time. In those closely examined details, a shared warmth arises, and a bruised privacy. And it works. That unheated play with the hot chocolate and the makeshift blankets? Still remembered by many devotees as a favorite experience.
Blood Play runs Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Oct.3-28. Don’t miss it.
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