Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Daily Reporting on the Second Stage Theatre New Works Festival featuring plays from the Time Warner Play Commissioning Program by Laura Hedli

The Who’s already got a lock on the pinball wizard, and the much anticipated Billy Elliott opens on Broadway this fall. But playwright, Rajiv Joseph, introduces us to a new kind of child prodigy … and this one folds.

That’s right, origami is at the crux of Joseph’s latest work, Animals Out of Paper. All three characters are intricately connected to this ancient Japanese art form—Andy (Jeremy Shamos) is the treasurer for American Origami, Ilana (Kellie Overbey) is a world famous origamist, and Suresh (Utkarsh Ambudkar) is her 17-year-old protégé. As the play progresses, a complex love triangle forms and inspiration is lost and found.

“I had always wanted to do a play about a prodigy—a kid who has some kind of skills in some sort of field,” says Joseph. He had always been drawn to the classic chess story, but ultimately opted for something much more original.

“One day I was sitting next to a woman on a greyhound bus, and she was folding origami next to me. She was telling me that she teaches kids origami, and she mentioned that sometimes certain ones have a real affinity for it. Some kids can see folds before they happen, you know, just look at a piece of paper and know how to fold it,” says Joseph.

After this exchange, Joseph began to formulate is first move. He came to Second Stage Theatre’s (2ST) artistic department with four different proposals for this commission —this being one of them—and they gave the go on origami. Flash forward two years later, and rehearsals for Animals Out of Paper begin in a week. Not only has his work been commissioned, but in February, Joseph met with Associate Artistic Director Christopher Burney who delivered the news that 2ST wanted his play to be part of the uptown series at the McGinn/Cazale Theater. Opening night is set for July 14th, and out of the 10 commissioned writers, Joseph is the first to enjoy a full production of his work.

“I do a lot of rewriting, and that’s led us to this point,” explains Joseph. “And it just so happened that this Time Warner event falls right before our rehearsal process. Because of that, we were able to bring in our cast and have our first sort of pseudo rehearsal today, which was the reading that you just saw.”

Joseph’s long-time artistic partner, director Giovanna Sardelli, jumped on board once the play had been chosen for Second Stage Uptown. “What was interesting was meeting with the designers—that’s when you start thinking about the world you’re going to set the play in,” says Sardelli.

Much of the action takes place in Ilana’s studio, and at the start of the play, a gigantic, origami bird lies overhead, held to the ceiling with fishing lines.

“The average wingspan of a hawk is four to five feet. And so it’s going to be about twice that,” explains Sardelli. “They’re working on it right now, so we’re getting pictures of it. And it’s cool to look at the photos that are inspiring it [the origami bird] because of the story it has to tell—it’s got to be dynamic.”

She tells me that designers are constructing the bird using a mix of origami and what they call, fo-origami. Joseph is quick to clarify that true origami is made from using only a single sheet of paper, so the bird is what you would call a composite piece.

The pair has certainly done their homework over the past year. They’ve attended origami conventions with nearly 800 participants, been in contact with Origami USA about finding artists eager to have their work showcased on stage, and even interviewed masters in their craft.

Robert Lang is a NASA physicist turned professional artist, who now serves as our nation’s foremost origamist. After being consulted by a medical group, he designed and folded a mesh heart used in bypass surgery, and it’s now featured as a central point of contention in Joseph’s play.

“I actually interviewed Robert Lang last year at the convention, and I talked to him about the development of that heart, of that sleeve—it’s a sleeve really that unwraps around the heart,” clarifies Joseph. “And I asked him, if he saw a play where a character designed that if he’d be upset. And he said, ‘no, I would just turn to the person next to me and say, I did that.’”

But don’t think this play is all medical jargon and avant-garde art, when in fact, its author has a knack for storytelling and a penchant for hip-hop beats. It’s safe to say that it’s the only play where you’ll hear someone rap about skim milk.

“I think what’s most important to me is Ilana’s character and her journey, what she goes through, why she does the things that she does, and where she is at the beginning versus where she is at the end,” says Joseph. “How has she been altered by these two men who have kind of forced their way into her life?”

During the rehearsal before the reading, Sardelli’s direction was minimal. “What was interesting about today was—if you do a reading that is just purely a reading, you usually give a lot of direction. You’ll say, you know, this scene - it needs to do this. You’re trying to skip the entire process, and get something like a performance out of people,” explains Sardelli. “But because this is our real cast, it would have been so disrespectful to them and to their process to kind of skip all the steps. So really, based on why we cast them and based on the strength of the play, we just kind of let them go.”

Thursday marked the beginning of a three-week collaboration between the actors and artists before Animals Out of Paper takes center stage at the McGinn/Cazale. Sardelli looks forward to working further with their cast and design team, while Joseph hopes to keep editing the script.

“There’s an analytical side of origami, a sort of brain mathematical side, and a very artistic side. Those two things are in constant kind of ebb and flow with each other,” says Joseph, demonstrating all he knows about the art form. “The more I learned about it, the more the crystallization of the play could take off.”

For a writer with a dedication to really getting to know his characters and their craft, it shows in his work. So move over Tommy—there’s a new prodigy on the block.


Animals Out of Paper is written by Rajiv Joseph and directed by Giovanna Sardelli. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Jeremy Shamos (Andy), Kellie Overbey (Ilana), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Suresh). Stage directions were read by Bhavesh Patel.

In 2006, Time Warner commissioned 10 playwrights, both emerging and established, through Second Stage Theatre. The week of June 9-13 2008 showcases plays by 8 of the 10 writers as part of the New Works Festival. Readings take place at Telsey Casting Studios (311 W. 43rd Street, 10th Floor), Manhattan Theatre Club (311 W. 43rd Street, 8th Floor), and Roy Arias Studios (300 W. 43rd Street, 5th Floor).

NEXT UP: the continuation of day 4, including Tracey Scott Wilson’s Buzzer and Cheryl L. West’s Wash Your Rabbit, and also Friday’s final presentation

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