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Interview: Nine Dollar Bill Theatre, performing ‘THEM’ at the Charm City Fringe Festival Nov 8-12

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The Sixth Annual Charm City Fringe Festival, running through November 12 in the Bromo Arts District, has a ton of fantastic stuff happening. One of the things I am most looking forward to is a show called THEM, by a brand spankin’ new theater company – Nine Dollar Bill Theatre. Company members Ben Kleymeyer, Talis Tighe, and Dani Gisselbeck were kind enough to answers some questions for me about their new company and the production they are performing at Fringe.

Read on, then buy your tickets to go see one of the four performances of THEM at the Charm City Fringe.

Nine Dollar Bill Theatre: Talis Tighe, Ben Kleymeyer, and Dani Gisselbeck, performing a preview of THEM at the Charm City Fringe Preview at Mount Vernon Market Place. Photo courtesy of Nine Dollar Bill Theatre.

Patricia: Let’s start with who’s here. Could each of you please introduce yourself to our readers – who are you, what do you do, what makes you happy about being an artist in Baltimore?

Ben Kleymeyer: I am a Queer Theater Artist working in Baltimore. I’m an Ensemble Member at Single Carrot Theatre and a co-founder of Nine Dollar Bill Theatre. As an artist, I am interested in devised work, community based theater making, and new work development. I love being in Baltimore because there is a real spirit of collaboration in this city. People in Baltimore are honest and giving and talented. It’s an inspiring community to work in.

Talis Tighe: I’m a recent graduate of the University of Maryland’s Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies Department. My primary areas of interest are movement-based performance, puppetry, and playwriting. I can regularly be found performing at the Maryland Renaissance Festival with the Out of the Box pantomime troupe, and with Do or Die Productions in Glen Burnie, MD. When I’m not performing, I can usually be found pursuing other artistic interests outside of theater, including painting, pyrography, figure drawing, and playing guitar. My favorite aspect of the Baltimore theater community is its close-knit and diverse nature; years of working in and around Baltimore have given me the opportunity to meet, befriend, and collaborate with artists from every walk of life and every area of expertise – poets, puppeteers, visual artists, and everything in between. This thriving and talented community has been not only an inspiration, but also a delight to work and collaborate with.

Dani Gisselbeck: I am a Spanish/French translator and poet. As someone who is most often alone with words, it is so refreshing to see them come to life. Theater is the only art in which I have been able to find every type of expression all in one place, and to work with Nine Dollar Bill Theatre means that expression is more personal than ever. I am currently living in Annapolis, but I’ve lived all over Maryland. While I haven’t had much experience with the theater community of Baltimore so far, I’m looking forward to getting to know it better.

What is Nine Dollar Bill and how did it come into being?

Nine Dollar Bill Theatre logo.

Nine Dollar Bill Theatre is a Queer Performance Collective that creates devised theater for and by the LGBTQ+ community. We all met at the University of Maryland through a student-run company, the Maryland Shakespeare Players. When we graduated, we decided we wanted to keep working and experimenting together. Nine Dollar Bill Theatre came into being last year because we felt no one was telling the stories we wanted to tell. Our mission was to create a way to engage and empower our fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community through theater. With a lot of creativity and only a handful of resources, we put up our first DIY production in a small venue in College Park, MD last November.

Why is it important to encourage LGBTQIA+ performers to create their own work?

In a world where LGBTQIA+ people still face daily discrimination, it is imperative that we provide a voice for our community and a platform for them to tell their stories. We, as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, realize how important and empowering it is to be able to share our own narratives rather than having our stories portrayed exclusively by those outside our community. We believe that some of the most powerful artistic work comes from the exploration of our personal experiences as individuals, and that the freedom to explore and express all facets of identity through art is incredibly valuable.

Why is it important to you to do devised work instead of performing plays written by other people?

Creating devised work allows us to tell stories that are wholly ours. We can’t (and don’t want) to speak for everyone in the LGBTQ+ community. We can only work from our own experiences. But, as a company, our goal is to grow to be a platform and a space for people of all experiences to come and create something that they can really have full ownership of. Devised work allows us to work with artists from all backgrounds and mediums; it really breaks down barriers and hierarchies. It’s scary because it takes a lot of trust and faith to create devised work, but we believe it has an important power to uplift our communities.

Tell us a little about THEM.

THEM is a devised theater piece that explores gender and identity through poetry and movement. Through a collaborative devising process we have used Ovid’s metamorphoses, an epic of mythical transformations, to share the stories of Gender Non-Conforming characters. THEM questions how we hold on to a sense of self when our bodies can’t hold shape.

In Ovid’s universe, characters fall into and out of form, and their bodies are constantly being changed at the will of the gods. In THEM, we reveal the trauma behind these revered stories, and address their relation to GNC lives in a world where, to be visible, we must constantly bend our bodies. But what happens when these characters stop trying to fit in? When they take control of their own bodies?

What different media / arts do you employ in THEM?

THEM is a story told through poetry, movement, and puppetry.

How did the work of a poet older than the Julian calendar end up as a springboard for this very modern piece of theater?

Ben: On a personal level, I am really interested in deconstructing classics. Really diving into something held sacred and tearing it apart. Ovid is wildly problematic in his treatment of women and sexual assault, however there is something in his stories that resonated with me. I think I hated that. I didn’t want to have positive feelings about Ovid, but I kept seeing myself in the world. So, naturally I wanted to get inside the book and tear it apart.

In terms of creating THEM, it was about using a familiar narrative structure (the epic poem) and familiar themes (love and power) to tell a not so familiar story. We believe the end result is something really universal.

When and where are your performance during the Charm City Fringe?

You can see THEM on Wednesday, November 8 at 7:00pm; Friday, November 10 at 8:45pm; Saturday, November 11 at 7:00pm; and Sunday, November 12 at 1:30pm. All the performances will be at the Downtown Cultural Arts Center’s Mainstage, 401 N Howard Street, across from Le Mondo / Fringe HQ.

The cast of THEM: Talis Tighe, Ben Kleymeyer, and Dani Gisselbeck. Photo courtesy of Nine Dollar Bill Theatre.

What do you hope audiences will take away from THEM?

Ben: I hope that audiences will walk away with a better understanding of – and a healthy respect for – the identities of those who do not conform to traditional notions of gender. I hope that the piece will give audiences a glimpse of what it’s like to live outside the gender binary, and I hope it encourages them to reflect on their relationships to their own bodies. Even those who subscribe to traditional notions of gender have complex relationships with the way they look, the way their body feels, and how these things relate to personal or societal expectations. It is important for all individuals to explore how they relate to the body in this way, in order to come to a place of better acceptance and understanding of themselves.

What’s next for THEM?

After Fringe, we hope to keep working on THEM. The beauty of devised work is that it doesn’t have to end; it can keep growing and changing after you perform. We would love to be able to turn it into a longer piece with more people.

For Nine Dollar Bill Theatre?

For Nine Dollar Bill, the future is exciting. We are in a stage of life where anything is possible. We just know that we want to keep creating.

For you personally (wanna plug any gigs?)

Ben: My upcoming projects include Peter Pan at Single Carrot Theatre and a Playwright’s Fellowship at Cohesion Theatre.

Talis Tighe in Nine Dollar Bill Theatre’s first show, Tarot: A Queer Burlesque. Photo courtesy of Nine Dollar Bill Theatre.

Talis: I’m on a hiatus from large-scale shows outside of Nine Dollar Bill right now, in order to give myself time to focus on other artistic pursuits. I’ll be performing in December with Do or Die Productions, but the majority of my time outside of that will go into brainstorming next year’s productions. I do have several writing projects in the works right now that I’m very excited about. With a lot of effort and a little luck, perhaps one of those pieces will find its way onstage in the near future!

Dani: There are some amazing Latinx poets being introduced to the English-speaking world. Stay tuned! (Sorry that doesn’t apply to theater… there are some amazing playwrights too)

Bonus round: How did you decide on the name of your company?

We are much queerer than a 3 dollar bill.

DCMTA’s Fringe Coverage is sponsored by Lexington Market.

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