‘Our Place in the Universe’: An Interview with Flying V’s Jason Schlafstein

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Founded in 2011, Flying V Theatre strives to inspire people to live life more through theater that unites high concepts and intimate moments. This year, the company was chosen as a NextLOOK artist through a creative partnership between The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and Joe’s Movement Emporium. Following a weeklong residency at Joe’s, Flying V will host an open rehearsal and showing of It’s the Rest of the World that Looks So Small: A Theatrical Revue of Jonathan Coulton, followed by an audience conversation, on November 17th. I had the opportunity to speak with Flying V Co-Founder Jason Schlafstein about the performance and what this residency means to them.

Emily Schweich: Tell me a little bit about how Flying V came about.

Flying V Co-Founder Jason Schlafstein. Photo by PC Wilder Photography.

Flying V Co-Founder Jason Schlafstein. Photo by PC Wilder Photography.

Jason Schlafstein: Flying V is entering into our seventh year this coming January. It was co-founded in 2011 by myself and Colin Grube. We are a pop culture-infused indie theater company that does primarily original work, both scripted and devised, which basically means that we tend to create most of our own stuff. Everything else that we do is still very contemporary and has a very pop indie sensibility to it. Our work is built around this idea of wanting to showcase that life is really worth living and to inspire people to want to live life more, and built around the intersection of what I call high concept intimate moments – really human, personal, small, intimate ideas exploded across a big high-concept background.

Tell me about It’s the Rest of the World that Looks So Small. Why did you choose to highlight Jonathan Coulton?

We were working on an original musical called You or Whatever I Can Get, and one of our company members, Vaughn Irving, was a big Jonathan Coulton fan. When we were writing this original musical, we all brought in artistic inspirations to help guide us. Vaughn played me Jonathan Coulton for the first time, and I jokingly went, “This is great! Do you want to perform it to this?” and he was like, “No, I want to do an original musical.”

Once we finished doing that show, Vaughn came back to me and was like, “So, I was thinking about it.  Now that we’re done with this we should totally do a Jonathan Coulton thing.”

He created a curated guide to Jonathan’s music via Spotify and I sat down and listened to all of it. He and I sat down and had a meeting one day where we brainstormed different ways and ideas we might stage it to see if the idea would work. Within two hours, we had so many ideas for so many songs, we just knew that this would be something that would really fit.

His music is a perfect representation of our mission statement in musical form, There are these little-bite size explorations of really personal or existential questions about humanity, but set in these kind of ridiculous, humorous,  sometimes painfully beautiful but always kind of weirdly geeky setups – using zombies and sea monsters and robots and supervillains and stuff to explore questions of loneliness or anxiety or feeling like you’re not everything you’re supposed to be.

We decided that one of the things that we wanted to do was to make this show entirely live music. We reached out to Jonathan Coulton, and his people were super receptive.

What genre is Jonathan Coulton’s music?

I’d say it’s singer-songwriter with a kind of quirky pop edge to it.  We’re planning to do some stuff with full rock band and some stuff with a ukulele and a violin. One of our company members, Jon Jon Johnson, is pretty astonishingly able to pick up any instrument and sort of learn it instantaneously. He and Aaron Bliden, who’s another University of Maryland alumnus and company member, are splitting the musical director duties.

What is the plot of your musical? Would you say it’s more of a collection of songs, or does it have a cohesive theme?

Right now it’s just a collection of songs. That’s kind of the purpose of this particular workshop. Usually, we start from the perspective of having a theme we’re exploring and some kind of theatrical device that we’re looking to use to explore that theme. With this it’s a little different.

For this workshop we’re going to take four songs to start. We’re interested in how it works as a staging exercise and from there, seeing what scenes start to develop and then pick the other tracks based on that. We could end up with more of a framing sequence, or it could just be a revue of his music.

Jonathan Coulter. Photo by Dale May.

Jonathan Coulton. Photo by Dale May.

Right now we’re targeting it more as a revue with a loose thematic arc that we plan to explore. The theme conveyed in the title: It’s the Rest of the World that Looks so Small, is meant to describe how easy it is to feel small compared to the vastness of the universe and the world, the different ways we find to feel like we have a place in it, and how we deal with that kind of existential isolation.

The title of the show comes from the song “I’m Your Moon,” which is about Pluto’s moon singing to Pluto after Pluto has been declared to no longer be a planet, and trying to make Pluto feel better because it has been dismissed compared to the other planets. We’re looking at probably setting that in a middle school dance, so that gives you an idea of what the whole show is in a nutshell.

How has the NextLOOK program helped you develop this work?

It’s been huge. One of the things we’re constantly working on as a company is the best way to focus on development and momentum in addition to just production. Having the opportunity to develop this piece actually caused us to try to do it as a full production next year.

We’re going to have a cast of eight, myself, a stage manager and three designers, who are going to be there pretty much 10 hours a day at least for the entire week, and it’s going to be a little bit like theatre summer camp . . . We’re going to get those four songs staged and ready to be performed like we would for a real production.

One of the ideas for this show is to build it to tour, and that’s why this workshop is also so particularly useful because we are not going to be in our usual space. Having the opportunity to have that space, to have the financial resources provided, to be able to compensate our artists to take a full week off of whatever day job they might have – really, it’s an incredibly important rarity to be able to spend a full 40 hours just working on this project this week amongst the whole team. We’re going to take advantage of that.

How does audience feedback help you develop your work?

Well, it’s twofold. The open rehearsal is an opportunity to help showcase how we make what we make. I think that people are often a little bit interested and unsure of how non-scripted theater gets made. A lot of people are very familiar with how theater is created when there is a script and a template, and this opens up that process so the audience can see what it’s like to think in this way.

In terms of the feedback, we want to see the thematic linkages that audience members are already starting to see. What do they see as possible things that might tie it all together? What kind of story are they getting emotionally from that collection? I think that’s going to really help us decide from there what other songs we’re going to pick.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Personally as a graduate of The University of Maryland, the opportunity to work with The Clarice professionally is exciting as well. I originally got started as an artistic director with The Weekday Players at the University of Maryland and created the original works project, which is still going. So Flying V is in some ways an evolution of things I was already doing at the school.

We’ve been thinking about this now for almost a year, so this is an opportunity to bring it to life, and it’s a chance to really see the beginnings of a process. We have found it really exciting when we’ve had people come during readings of scripts in the past to see how it turns out and where it goes. This is the first big step, and I think opening people up to the process is really exciting and interesting for us, considering how much original work we do. It is exciting for us to be able to find new partners to work with to help us develop our work.

Photo courtesy of Flying V.

Photo courtesy of Flying V.

Flying V Theatre will be in residence at Joe’s Movement Emporium from November 14-18, 2016. An open rehearsal of It’s the Rest of the World that Looks So Small will be held Thursday, November 17, 2016 at 7 p.m., followed by a showing and conversation at 7:30 p.m. at Joe’s Movement Emporium – 3309 Bunker Hill Road in Mt. Rainier, MD. This event is pay what you wish, with no tickets required.

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