Talking Comics with Tim | Crystal Skillman & Fred Van Lente

Last Thursday, June 23, Crystal Skillman's play adaptation of Action Philosophers (the comic book series by Fred Van Lente & Ryan Dunlavey) opened its four-performance run at New York's Brick Theater, as part of the month-long Comic Book Theater Festival. Tonight starts the run of the remaining three performances (June 28, 29, July 1st – all at 7 PM). To mark the launch of the adaptation, I conducted a brief email interview with the wife and husband team of Skillman and Van Lente. Here's  the official play description: "The award-winning, best-selling comics series is adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Crystal Skillman and directed by John Hurley as the lives and thoughts of history's A-list brain trust leap to the stage in manic, hilarious fashion. Come meet PLATO—Wrestling Superstar of Ancient Greece! NIETZSCHE—The Original Übermensch! The torrid love affairs of AYN RAND! And more! From Impetuous Theater Group who brought you Hack! an I.T. Spaghetti Western."

Tim O'Shea: How long had you two been discussing a potential Skillman adaptation of a Van Lente-related project?

Crystal Skillman: For a while! Fred and I have been working together on a few projects still in the works – but this is really our first collaboration debut. I love Fred’s work, and his feedback on my own work has always been the most important to me. In general we’ve always acted as each other’s editors and sounding boards for ideas – I really take Fred’s opinion super seriously (as he’s the best writer I know besides being the most wonderful husband which I’m not just saying because he’s about to chime in here!) J But Action Philosophers! really came about because the original play Fred and I were working on wasn’t ready for the Comic Book Festival at the Brick. We realized this late in the game and had already started forming a team (including director John Hurley). In a pinch I suggested adapting Action Philosophers! which I always thought would make an awesome stage production and would be great for the team we were already assembling.

Fred Van Lente: Really, the drive was all Crystal's. I'm so flattered she wanted to do this from the moment we learned about the existence of the Comic Book Theater Festival in the first place. She's always been a huge cheerleader for Action Philosophers, recommending it to her friends (and total strangers) and I've been lucky she's always been supportive of my weird non-fiction comics fetish. ;)

O'Shea: What obstacles did you have to overcome before this project became a reality?

Skillman: After my most “genius” spur of the moment idea, it dawned on me that it was March, I had no script yet, and our show was going up in JUNE!  Also I was still working on rewrites in rehearsal for my new play Cut for The Management (which just ran May-June at Theater Under St. Marks and was an incredible production, luckily earning my first New York Times rave). Also – our rehearsal schedule was set to work around my director’s schedule as he just scored an awesome gig directing 39 Steps at Weathervane Theater in Ohio so we needed the script right away. Um, pressure! I originally thought creating the first draft would be so easy – I have all of Fred’s scripts (comic book and playwriting formatting are pretty similar) so I thought I’d start there and that we’d perfect the work in rehearsal with our ensemble. What I discovered is that there are so many ways to interpret this material AND each person in the room came to the table with their own ideas of what bringing a comic to the stage meant.

I realized my goal was going to be to encourage the manically funny in the room but keep the material “grounded” at all costs. Without caring for each philosopher I knew we were going to run into trouble - Action Philosophers may be super funny BUT the book only works because it has moments of genuine insight. I also always knew the trick was to create urgency with the material as the challenge of a playwright is always to keep their drama or comedy present – in the moment – the audience needs a sense of investment in what’s going to happen next. Unlike a movie (where if you get a big gulp in the middle of a scene no one looks twice) or a book where you can put it down and take that nap, theater has to hold you in your seat for a certain period of time. Capturing the driving force for what makes this not only an interesting graphic novel, but a play in itself, was challenging. I actually tried to weave the philosophers’ stories together at some point – cutting back and forth between their discoveries but it was way too confusing and got away from what the book really was.

(Seriously there was one version of the script where I looked up at a run through to see Rand shouting at Marx and I was like: good god! This is that play about famous people shouting at each other I never wanted to write!)

Thank goodness Fred suggested we put back the stories separately - and luckily because we had pared every moment down to its essence (in the earlier cutting back and forth script) the result was better than I thought - a nice, lean bouncy script that allowed us to follow their stories.

What’s hysterical now is that as funny as the material is the work was truly hard – and we were honestly like: does it work? What is this thing we’ve created? We opened last Thursday - and in festivals the first night is really your preview night but - I’ve never heard so much laughter for a comedy of mine. The house was packed and there were cheers for the philosophers folks agreed with and boos from those who didn’t!

And our take on using different genres for each philosopher – wrestling/everyman story for Plato, a Hollywood fantasy for Rand, Kung Fu movie style for Bodhidharma, Descartes's powerful revelation which becomes vaudeville, Superman comedy sketch for Nietzsche, action movie for the Rambo-estque Marx – really did work so well. To see such enjoyment from those coming fresh to the material as well as the die hard fans of the book in the audience is a truly exciting thing for us all.

O'Shea: Fred, did you and Ryan attend rehearsals, or did you opt to avoid attending? If you did, Crystal was that nerve racking for you?

Skillman: It sure was! Especially as the script kept changing so much – it was honestly the hardest project I ever worked on writing wise. I had never adapted anything before – my work before has succeeded or was created from my own words. It was hard not to be able to edit and shape material as freely – you eliminate a few lines and suddenly the philosophy makes no sense! In the middle of it I realized how difficult what I was doing was: I was ADAPTING the stories that Fred had created from ADAPTING. So in some ways, we created a game of telephone and had to be very careful not to lose the meaning that was so important to convey from the start. That and the pressure, really coming from the love of the material AND a real goal in wanting to bring together my two favorite worlds of comics and theater, not to mention the variables above, was intense. Fred was so patient it was insane. He let me discover but also was clear and honest when I was going down the wrong path. For the final draft he and I worked together on certain moments including the opening which is truly genius I think. Ryan and I have really been very close friends since like forever and he took was also so, so supportive. They both had lots of faith in our team as well (I work a lot with John and these actors) and we can’t thank them enough for that.

Van Lente: It was just amazing to see Crystal work with the actors in the room. I just offered a few suggestions here and there. Fortunately half the cast were already fans of the comic beforehand so they came with a respect and love of the material that really showed in the performances.

Skillman: I also want to say for the rehearsals that Fred attended he was invaluable. He was like the rockstar in the room to the actors which was so awesome to see. His insight with suggesting possible theatrical moments were dead on. I was impressed. It made me excited to work together on a play (one we create together from scratch!) again.

O'Shea: Crystal, what was it about Ryan and Fred's that attracted you to doing the adaptation? Fred, what do you most enjoy about Crystal's adaptation, what qualities did she bring out that may have not been as prevalent in the original comic?

Skillman: I love the philosophers as characters – Fred really captures their larger than life quality as they discover their philosophies in a really concise, yet unpredictable, wacky way that also has, as I mentioned before, really moving moments about their lives. In doing this, we see how their philosophy can possibly relate to our own lives so while these are stories from the past, they have great relevance today - the book has a wonderful contemporary feel which I feel strongly is very important in my own work as I’m a writer that likes to tackle big ideas in intimate ways. Ryan’s panels that bring Fred’s words to life are truly genius.

As a writer “unpacking” them was an exciting and daunting challenge for us all. In a barebones festival setting how do we show Jesus “bop away” after Rand sets him free? How do we show Descartes proving his own existence, seeing his own body appear? It was challenging and took a lot of playing in the room. What’s cool is that one of the unique things our play could offer was how all these different themes these guys were tackling with could transform and change, have surprising pay offs.

In our play Jesus is valued - and used -so differently by the different characters that he became his own character with a stellar exit when banished by Nietzsche that would make even a hardened criminal cry. It’s a genius moment that John found just a day before we opened and is one of my favs. I’m also extremely proud that we truly created scenes – there is no narrator in the play, which would have been the most easy and I think uninteresting way of adapting the material and would have perhaps put it in a more “children’s theater like” category. I wanted to keep it very adult and a guilty pleasure.

Adam McGovern in writing about the show mentioned that it has a “Ghost world” like take on it – the essence of the book was imagined in a new, creative way theatrically as opposed to the “Watchmen” take of transferring the work “panel by panel” into a different medium.

FVL: Ryan and I always joked that God was the main character of Action Philosophers because he turned up so much -- in the play he's personified by Joe Mathers' Jesus and his take on the Nazarene is... well... Is "respectfully hilarious" a political correct thing to say?

O'Shea: Roll call question: Who among PLATO; NIETZSCHE and AYN RAND are you most enjoying in the play?

Skillman: Ah indeed! As I mentioned in developing the play there is an underlying tension between them all in terms of who has the best philosophy which became such great conflict in the play.

This happens in the book too – as Fred and Ryan kept creating there are a few of the stories where other characters pop up in each other stories (Marx in Sartre, Nietzsche on Marx, etc) which happened more and more as the series went on I noticed.

Because of that natural conflict in sharing their stories, for me in working on each story I felt like they were fighting to be my favorite. I honestly love them all and think they all tap into funny but heartbreaking moments we all relate to: Plato trying to belong (Fred’s line: “Plato do anything just don’t want to get real job!” is still my favs); for Nietzsche in the play we use a superman spoofy story which starts out super funny but really exposes how Ubermensch myth is misused and the weight of that upon him, and of course Rand’s struggle to reinvent herself in America.

At the end of the day, Rand’s story is the one that I connected to the most in terms of just shear drive and vulnerability. I feel like for all the crazy, at the end of the day Rand just wanted to be heard. The line that Fred captured in her story originally, her actual quote “Everyone –the world - has been all this time - indifferent to my ideas” is so moving. At the end of the day we found this is what all the philosophers were struggling with in their own way: to not only discover their ideas but fight to have them stay in the world in some way – which is wonderfully dramatic stuff.

Van Lente: It really speaks to how well Crystal adapted the material that each story gives its lead actor a chance to shine -- every philosopher gets to enjoy his or her time in the spotlight.

O'Shea: For the two of you, what would you say makes John Hurley the ideal director for this play?

Skillman: John directed my play The Vigil or the Guided Cradle which won last year’s NY Innovative Theater Award for best play and my comedy Hack! an I.T Spaghetti Western which sold out at the Brick’s summer festival last year. He always brings a great sense of tone and theatrical innovation to his staging so he was the natural and first choice to help bring Action Philosophers! to life of course. He shaped the play from the get go with his genius casting choices: Ryan Andes (Descartes!), Neimah Djourabchi (Bodhidharma!), Benjamin Ellis Fine (Nietzsche!), Joseph Mathers (Marx!), Kelley Rae O’Donnell (Rand!) and C.L. Weatherstone (Plato!). We choose them as they were a perfect fit for their philosophers. And it was a true joy to watch them develop the slew of secondary characters they each play as well which audiences are really enjoying. From Neimah’s take on the snarky Know-It-All Professor (from Plato and Marx, and we also double him in Rand), Joe’s interpretation as a very happy Jesus, Ben’s small but big hearted Math Nerd Leader, Ryan’s Big Lewbosksi Socrates, Kelley’s Emperor Wu and C.L.’s hysterical monk struggling to pacify his mind - the play is full of comedy jems they’ve created. I couldn’t be more proud of their work as a team as well as John’s incredible directing eye - hats off as well to Joe who not only created such great characters as an actor, but assistant directed as well. A big fan of the comic Joe provided a lot of great ideas that were really helpful in developing the play along the way as well.

Van Lente: It seemed like a no-brainer since John did just a spectacular job in directing two of Crystal's plays beforehand. He corrects really well with the physicality of the material. Which sounds nuts when you're talking about a play about philosophy, but it's true...

O'Shea: Anything we should discuss that I neglected to ask you about (or any questions you'd like to ask Robot 6 readers)?

Skillman: My 10 minute crazy fun rock superhero rock musical Mrs. Perfect! is playing once more on July 1st (so you can go see Action and Mrs. P the same night!) As much as I love being in production, I’m thrilled that After Action Philosophers! closes I go back to the “writing room” incubator. I’ll be developing my new play Geek for Vampire Cowboys, inspired by my traveling with Fred to comic book conventions actually -- it’s set in a Jampanime con where two teenage girls who are racing to get the signature of their childhood idol - in the mist of a Dante’s Inferno like insanity - are forced to face the truth of how they’ve used fantasy to avoid the true problems of loss in their lives. The play is slated to be publicly developed this year and produced in upcoming Vampire Cowboys seasons. I’ll also be at work on my new full length trilogy about a family of failed rock stars struggling to come back together (Another Kind of Love, Sex & Death in London). Both plays are personal to me, and I’m excited as to where they’ll lead. I’m thrilled my plays Nobody and Birthday, which will debut in Chicago at Side project this year, will be coming out in an amazing Sam French publication this July which is just gorgeous. And London again will be rockin’ my work as Birthday will be directed by Sharon Willems in the Camden Fringe this August! But most of all I’m excited to have some summer fun with Fred as I can get back to museum-ing, picnicking, gardening, and not to mention cooking which we both love.

Van Lente: And Ryan and I are still cranking out the funnybooks -- Expect Comic Book Comics #6 toward the end of July.

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