Whenever one talks to or about New York–based hyphenate theatre artist Daniel Talbott, the subject of family comes up immediately. And keeps on coming. Take, for instance, his work as a playwright, in which broken homes and absent or deceased family members proliferate. In Talbott’s Slipping, a family is fractured by the violent death of a parent. His two-hander What Happened When reunites a pair of recently separated brothers for a night of reminiscence and revelations. And Yosemite, which premiered at New York’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater this past season, focuses on three siblings trying to bury a grim family secret in the snowy Sierra Nevada foothills.
Talbott’s work as a director also gravitates toward families, both immediate ones and those manufactured by friendship—and more often than not exposes how prone they are to dysfunction and betrayal. In J. Stephen Brantley’s Eightythree Down, which Talbott directed for Hard Sparks and Horse Trade Theater Group last fall, a young man left home alone on New Year’s Eve by his emotionally distant parents must contend with a trio of dangerous interlopers led by his closest friend. Keep Your Baggage with You (at all times) and Squealer, a pair of Jonathan Blitstein plays that Talbott directed for the fledgling company Lesser America, centered on the disintegration of a long-standing friendship and a backwoods lothario’s destructive romance with both a mother and her teenage daughter.
Considering the bleak-sounding résumé, one might assume that Talbott is your typical tortured artist. But, in person, he is quite the opposite, radiating warmth and humor. Armed with live-wire energy and seldom seen wearing anything other than his standard uniform—black T-shirt, jeans and baseball cap—Talbott, 35, meets the world with a ready smile. He’s eager to talk shop at the drop of a hat, toss out a pop music reference (he loves Nicki Minaj and Rihanna) or engage in some friendly, profanity-laced conversation (he uses curse words like adjectives). His enthusiasm and ebullience are unmistakable signs of a full-throttle love for the theatre.
Talbott will tell you how much he treasures family, be it his real one or his theatrical one. Of course, for him there’s little difference. He is artistic director of an up-and coming company, Rising Phoenix Repertory, which he runs with his wife of 10 years, actress Addie Johnson, and several close friends he describes as being “like family” to him. Talbott and Johnson are parents to a six-year-old son, Bailey, who is fully indoctrinated into theatre life—the couple tag-teams looking after Bailey whenever one of them is busy with rehearsals or performances, and they sometimes bring him along as well. When neither is an option, they call upon their extended theatre family to work a babysitting shift. “I feel blessed to have this extended family,” Talbott says with evident affection behind the words, “because even though we’re all really different, we all work in different ways—and I always feel like I grow so much in the process, because they’re honest with me.”
For the better part of the past decade, Talbott and his Rising Phoenix collaborators have generated a body of work tailored specifically to their longtime home, the dimly-lit back room of the popular East Village pub Jimmy’s No. 43, a venue that only seats about 20 to 30 people at a time. The audience’s close proximity to the action—never more than just a few feet—forces them to become a part of it, making Rising Phoenix shows an immersive experience that emphasizes intimacy and emotional intensity. Encountering a naked man asleep on a bar room floor, in Talbott’s staging of Daniel Reitz’s Afterclap, or watching the female protagonist of Napoleon Ellsworth’s Don’t Pet the Zookeeper assaulted by a masked male thug, has added impact in such close quarters. The coziness of the space also heightens tender moments, like two strangers at the end of their respective ropes forging a late-night bond in Crystal Skillman’s Birthday.
As both writer and director, Talbott is fond of keeping audiences offbalance, which he achieves at times by utilizing unexpected venues and at other times by making bold aesthetic choices. The cast of Stephanie Janssen’s The Umbrella Plays, which Talbott directed at the New York International Fringe Festival and later Off Broadway, poured buckets of water over themselves to signify that they had been rained on. Reitz’s Rules of the Universe, for which Talbott won the 2007 New York
Innovative Theatre Award for outstanding director, was performed entirely in two adjoining restrooms at Jimmy’s. Talbott’s own Yosemite tested audiences with its deliberate, lifelike conversational pauses, and then set them back on their heels when one of its young actors urinated onstage. The only thing predictable about Talbott’s work is its unpredictability.
Many of Talbott’s hallmarks converge once again in his latest directing effort, Balancin’ Productions’s premiere of Follow. The play, the director’s sixth collaboration with playwright Skillman, is a Beckett-inspired work that catalogs the separate visits three family members pay to a dying relative. It runs through Nov. 3 at Horse Trade’s Fanfare space in Manhattan’s East Village, a space that, like Jimmy’s, seats only about 20 audience members per night.
“Whenever Daniel asks me to do a new play with him I say yes,” Skillman enthuses. The pair took what Talbott calls a “Mike Leigh approach” to creating Follow, with
Skillman interviewing each of the three actors about their personal lives while simultaneously immersing herself in the world of Beckett. The result is a play inspired by Beckett’s imagery and themes, but that is 100-percent Skillman in terms of language and mood. “She’s a very verbal playwright,” Talbott says, “who creates full, completely unique worlds unto herself.”
Skillman is equally psyched about the unconventional venue. “We often work this way,” she adds. “Daniel has certain evocative ideas, and then a story comes to my head, and we run with it.” She credits their five previous collaborations at Jimmy’s as the steps that enabled her writing to “grow up—now we can work in any space together and bring that same intimate truth.”
Another reason he tapped Skillman is because he thought she would “have a blast” with the cast, which includes Talbott’s wife. Creating a happy rehearsal environment is crucial to Talbott’s process. “I know I’ve heard people say that’s not necessary to create great work, but I just feel like theatre should be joyful,” he confesses. “There doesn’t have to be all these weird compartmentalizations. It should be fun. I want to be in a room with people I love, who challenge me and are
honest with me.”
Such an approach has been Talbott’s modus operandi from the start. Spurred on by the ideological influence of downtown trailblazers like Ellen Stewart, the Wooster Group and Mabou Mines, Talbott says that he has always wanted to do work “that was more funky and fucked-up” than conventional theatre allowed. “Not necessarily avant-garde, but gritty shit—something that has its face in the dirt a bit. Work that’s not privileged in any way.”
Talbott’s devotion to theatre dates back to his peripatetic childhood in the Bay Area. He had what he calls “an eclectic, colorful, all-over-the-place” upbringing with his mother, but eventually settled down with his grandparents during high school. By then he was a full-time jock with aspirations to play college baseball, but his artsy girlfriend at the time saw Talbott’s creative potential and encouraged him to audition for American Conservatory Theater’s Young Conservatory program. He got in, realized he had found his true calling, and quit baseball cold turkey. Full scholarships to both San Francisco State University and the Juilliard School followed soon after.
All the same, Talbott says he owes everything to the Bay Area theatre community
for welcoming him into its fold and making him the artist he is today. Local companies like ACT, Magic Theatre, Shotgun Players, Encore Theatre Company and Berkeley Repertory Theatre (where he interned for a time) fueled Talbott’s aspirations to start “a small storefront theatre in San Francisco,” he says, although his storefront dreams did not come to fruition until his arrival on the East Coast.
Rising Phoenix’s upcoming season features new works by theatre kinsfolk both old (Jonathan Blitstein and Martin Moran) and new (Zack Calhoon, Maya Macdonald, Saviana Stanescu and Ken Urban), as well as several new entries in the company’s one-night-only Cino Nights series, which conjures the legendary Caffe Cino’s scrappy DIY, on-the-quick sensibility. At the heart of all this activity is Talbott’s extended theatre family, and he would not have it any other way. “I’m proud of the work we do together,” he says without hesitation. “I don’t think the work suffers because we’re close or because we enjoy working with each other, because we have fun. That doesn’t mean we don’t work hard; it doesn’t mean there aren’t arguments, but there’s so much respect and love and collaboration. I think theatre is so much better served by that.”
Michael Criscuolo is a New York–based director, writer and actor.