Magic Time!: 10 Questions for the Brains Behind ‘The Tarot Reading’

Quill Nebeker and Alan Katz play a game of full disclosure.

Even in this theater town abounding in innovation, The Tarot Reading stands out as an original. I can’t think of anything it’s quite like. After I saw an iteration last year (The Tarot Reading IV), I wrote that cocreators Quill Nebeker and Alan Katz “had conceived what seemed a wholly new framework for experiencing live theater.”

Quill and Alan don’t usually call themselves cocreators; in Tarot lingo, they are the “Summoners.” And they would say that The Tarot Reading experiences are actually cocreated by a cast of seven “Mediums” who cocreate “Revelations” (sophisticated mini theater games), each performed in front of an audience of “Witnesses” for a single “Seeker” who has drawn one of the 21 Tarot cards.

With The Tarot Reading V about to open at Anacostia Arts Center, I proposed to Quill and Alan a game of Q&A:

Your Revelation, should you choose to play along, will be fulfilled when you see each other’s answers to the following ten questions once they are published jointly in DCMTA. But until then, no peeking! You must submit your answers directly to this faux-Medium without consulting each other and without cc’ing or bcc’ing anyone.  (And yeah, this is like Newlyweds Game except for the glaring dissimilarities.)

Alan Katz and Quill Nebeker, from ‘The Tarot Reading III.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

John:  What were The Tarot Reading’s influences and what do you consider The Tarot Reading’s closest kin?

Quill: The most immediately recognizable influence is Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. We straight-up jacked the structure of the thing from the Neos [Neo-Futurists]—it’s twenty-one artist-generated micro-plays told in completely random order. The less-recognizable influence is the body of performance by Tim Miller, whom I had the great pleasure to see, study, and interview during college. From Tim, we got the “no lies” aspect of it, which is another way of saying the personal storytelling bit. He also gave us I suppose an ethos of a kind, the idea that in performing one’s own story, one could make a difference in the world in a way that fiction cannot. You can see some of his his extremely queer, totally intimate, hilarious and heartbreaking performance art on his YouTube Channel.

Alan: There are three influences that I can point to, though all of them are tangential. The first and most obvious is the Neo-Futurists, whose work Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind is baked into my theatrical bones. I don’t go to NYC or Chicago without seeing them. Their driving ideas—that a theatrical evening can be made of many discrete and beautiful moments, that theater should come from the lives of the performers, that theater should make a fundamental change in the world, that iteration is the key to consistently bringing an audience back to the theater—are the same ideas that drive The Tarot Reading. Personally, I draw a ton of influence from Mike Daisey, who (for all the controversy surrounding his work) I count as one of the greatest solo performers of our time. His All the Faces of the Moon—29 monologues performed on 29 nights and not coincidentally full of references to the Tarot—showed me that things that seem truly impossible can be done with enough ambition, and, more importantly, that there is nothing that will move an audience like the true personal vulnerability onstage. Another influence that deserves mentioning is local playwright Gwydion Suilebhan’s Transmission. While the content and values of Transmission contrasts starkly with The Tarot Reading, that work showed me the absolute necessity of comfort and safety in the creation of interactive experiences. Walking into Transmission at Atlas was like coming into a living room, and consequently audiences were able to show much more of themselves than they might otherwise.

Why did you come up with The Tarot Reading in the first place? What void were you wanting to fill in DC theatergoers’ lives? What were you missing as theater practitioners personally?

Quill: We wanted to make a place that audiences could and would want to come back to over and over again. We also wanted to make an institution, of a kind, that shined a light on the incredibly creative people in DC. We used to joke around that we wanted to be the indie version of Shear Madness, something that showed up on résumés all over the city and brought people together for having both done this weird thing.

Alan: The deepest motivation for me was and is the lack of consistent platforms for theatrical storytelling, as opposed to productions. Most theaters in DC are or attempt to be versions of the regional theater model: find a play, rehearse it for a few weeks, perform it for a few weeks, then be done with it. That model doesn’t really interest me creatively. DC audiences need places that they can return to again and again and still find new and innovative storytelling. We need something that matters now, in the moment, that we know will be here in the future. We need a theater that doesn’t die on closing night. But most importantly, DC needs a place that can empower artists to tell their own stories with their amazing, variegated skill sets. So much of the regional theater model is artists trying to force their stories on other artists: an artistic director demanding certain stories be told, a playwright prompting others to say their words, a director determining how an artist emotes, a choreographer controlling how an artist moves. DC theater needs freedom. DC theater needs empowerment. That’s what we strive for. And that’s why we do this over and over: so we can get better at providing that service for artists and giving audiences a true and wild taste of what artists can do when they are empowered.

By now The Tarot Reading’s got ardent fans who have some idea what they’re in for, even if it’ll all be brand-new.  What should first-timers know to expect? 

Quill: Some people when they hear that its interactive get nervous; it’s like they expect we’re going to haze them or something. First-timers should know to expect us to always ask before we do something together—it’s like sex, affirmative consent is both necessary and also makes the whole thing much more fun. I think related to that is that first-timers sometimes think they’re about to experience some kind of, like, dark, ritual indoctrination. There are cult-y things about the show, and sometimes I guess we get a little spoopy in the name of fun, but it’s not ever gonna be like Children of the Corn or Rosemary’s Baby. They should expect a variety show at heart, not a horror show.

Alan: Variety and truth-telling. We hope to show audiences a barrage of truly felt and meaningful entertainments that will have real-life effect beyond the room. Expect your interaction to be opt-in and consensual, and expect to see real risks being taken. Expect a performance that feels like a party, talks like an occult ritual, and opens its heart like a dear friend.

From ‘The Tarot Reading IV.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

What are your own beliefs or inclinations or hunches about superstition, the occult, mysticism, and the like? And why might The Tarot Reading appeal to someone who thinks that’s all hokum? 

Quill: I hold a handful of superstitions, most of them having to do with sports. Much to my sadness, I shaved my playoff beard last night, and I will stare daggers at anyone who dares utter the words “no-hitter” or “shutout” in the middle of what might be one. I also respect a lot of theater superstitions, in part because I’ve seen how breaking them can affect people who genuinely believe in them. As far as the occult, mysticism, astrology, etc., go, I don’t buy into it much except as far as the fun of internet memes is concerned. In fact, when Alan proposed to me the idea of using the Tarot cards as inspiration, I was skeptical. It took him a while to convince me that was a good idea, artistically speaking, because I had a skeptic’s bias against the concept.

I think The Tarot Reading might appeal to someone dismissive of those things because, for this skeptic, it became a way to experience the magic of the Tarot mythos that doesn’t ask to compromise either one’s belief in it or lack thereof. We’re not actually doing divination or cartomancy. We’re not asking whether or not you believe in some foretold future. We’re only asking you to be inspired and entertained by the way the card manifests itself in the reality of this show, in the present.

Alan: The thing about hokum is that it is built to deceive, to hide, to grift. All we do is show faith and trust in each other and in the power of leaving space for something magical to happen. Not to make it happen, nor force it, nor for manipulation, but simply to open the door to a place where people can be loved and respected in the way that all people need to be. When it comes to magic, our trust and adherence to randomness (in the order of the show and in the choosing of the cards for Seekers) has produced amazing, unexpected results. A fundamental rule of magic is that one takes out what one puts in, which is why we ask every audience member for a Sacrifice when they arrive. I have seen people sacrifice some of the most amazing things—a baby blanket, a childhood toy, poems torn from their journal, mementos of an ex-lover. The people who give up those things invariably receive experiences that they have needed and enriched their lives more than they could have known. I don’t need to believe in magic, any more than I need to believe in the Sun or a hot fudge sundae or this keyboard I’m typing on. They simply exist. They are concrete despite my belief. And it’s my choice, all of our choices, to react to and use that reality in ways that are good for us and our world.

From ‘The Tarot Reading IV.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

At every performance there’s what you call a “safety valve”—a gesture anyone in the audience can make at any time to signal that they’ve been triggered or want to opt out of their participation in a revelation. Has that gesture ever been employed? If so, what can you say about why and what happened?

Quill: I can say that that the safety valve has functioned as intended before, but I can’t say anything more specific than that. Why and what happened in those moments, that’s not my story to tell. Our job is to make sure people have a good time, and have a space where they can try something maybe a little risky in a controlled environment in the name of entertainment. If someone doesn’t want to do something, or doesn’t feel safe for whatever reason, my job isn’t to ask “why” or “what happened”; it’s to take care of them in that environment where they’re no longer having a good time. Part of that is also honoring their privacy in those moments.

Actually, in the spirit of your Revelation-qua-interview, I should tell you that Alan and I pulled a safety valve on you and did confer about this particular question, because how we answered it would impact the safety of the people who come to the show. The fun we have at The Tarot Reading can’t happen if anyone ever feels like we’re going to air out their trauma later, so we approach that aspect with a great deal of care. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that The Tarot Reading is, like, a dour, group therapy experience—that couldn’t be further from the truth—I just don’t want anyone reading this to feel like they’re gonna be forced to do something they don’t want to do in the name of other people’s fun, or that what they do at The Tarot Reading will be put on display later without their consent.

Alan: I can say that it has been used and been used effectively. I can say that the people who have used it have been cared for by others especially employed for that purpose and that has been done with respect and discretion. What I can’t say are any details of those circumstances. But here’s why: the only reason that people can take the risks that we ask them to take and (as we say) put the personal at stake is that they have entrusted us with their physical and emotional safety. To share the circumstances of another person’s distress without their permission would be a betrayal of that trust. I would want anyone, including you, to know that if you needed to be elsewhere during a Revelation, we would provide that space for you. And no matter what you said in that place of safety, it would be held in confidence.

In the two Tarot Readings I’ve attended, there are comical situations with very witty ad-libbing juxtaposed with portions that are from-the-gut emotional and very personal for the mediums. How much of that is plotted out beforehand? And since the sequence of the emotionality of different Revelations is basically random—literally the luck of the draw—what control do you have over the dramatic/comic arc of a given show?

Quill: Well, in terms of mood or tone, we encourage the Mediums to explore a range—it is a variety show after all—but we don’t ever dictate, like, “okay that’s your haha one, now show me your cut-my-guts-out one…” It’s up to the Medium to interpret the card; we’re not here to demand that what they do fits into a genre or whatever. That would get stale fast.

As far as the sequence goes, you pretty much covered it. It’s basically random, literally luck of the draw, we don’t have control over the dramatic/comic arc of a given show. I gotta say it’s hilarious how often people ask us this question, especially after the show—I promise you, we aren’t rigging the run order! If you feel what appears to be something of a narrative thread at The Tarot Reading, it is only that which weaves through this thing called human existence. Alan would say, as he does to his daughter, “life is a glorious cycle of song.”

Alan: Part of our strategy as Summoners (for Tarot V, Joan Cummins and I) is to prepare Mediums for truly being present during the performance. Recognizing mistakes and acknowledging them, checking in with their true feelings in a situation, and reading the body language and voice of a Seeker all contribute to that feeling immediacy because they are, well, truly immediate. We also work with Mediums on tiering strategies that open the possibilities in a Revelation for a Seeker to opt in to more participation while keeping well-crafted instructions and options for them in reserve if they get stuck or nervous. As far as arc goes, there are strategies that can be employed to give the impression of an arc while still staying true to the randomness of the show. Encouraging the Mediums to explore a different feeling in each of their three Revelations helps, as does using the Fool (the MC of the evening) to anticipate, defuse, or reset feelings from Revelations. But honestly, the dramatic or comic success of The Tarot Reading is rooted in a trust of the randomness of the process and not trying to force or rig something out of view.

From ‘The Tarot Reading IV.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

What can you reveal about the behind-the-scenes process for rehearsing and preparing Revelations and Mediums? And can you briefly introduce who the Mediums will be?

Quill: Uh, I mean I could say a lot about it. It is an iterative process; we learn how to do it better every time we do it. A lot of staging a Revelation is learning when to ignore the things we’ve done previously in order to help the Medium through whatever their artistic process is. We’ve gotten pretty good at the orientation aspect of it, though; like there’s a whole “this is what the Tarot Reading is” rehearsal, and there’s a whole “test your Revelation with an actual random person who didn’t help make it” rehearsal. We try to give them a structure to strike against, something that generates a little creative friction.

The Mediums for Tarot V are Gwen Grastorf, who does a lot of vaudeville-style physical comedy; David S Kessler, who is a retired biologist and a solo-performer; Rachel Menyuk, who is an archivist, a dancer, and puppeteer; Toni Rae Salmi, who is an actor-singer-director; Rebecca Speas, who is a classical theater actor, a historian, a bookseller, and book podcaster; Shaquille Stewart, who is a rapper, musician, poet, and actor; and Yasmin Tuazon, who is a movement and dance artist, voice actor, and yoga teacher. They’re great, come see them.

Alan: We’ve created a from-scratch approach to the rehearsal process that has developed and changed over each iteration. Right now, we have an introductory meeting where Mediums learn about the process as a whole and then draft their cards, just like a sports draft. Then they get some time to percolate on ideas and ask questions about their cards before they pitch ideas for Revelations. We whittle their many ideas down to one in the Alpha phase, where each Medium has a rehearsal devoted to them, culminating in a showcase where they Seek for each other and give each other feedback. Then another round of individual rehearsals before we bring in people who haven’t been a part of the process at all to playtest their Revelations in what we call the Beta showcase. The following week, we incorporate the feedback that’s been received and solidify what each Revelation will be, with a concrete structure that won’t undergo any more major changes. Then we integrate tech and do run-throughs then we open! We have a great group of weirdos this time around, and you can read their quirky bios here.

This year are two ways to take in The Tarot Reading—a 9-card version and a 21-card version. Why would someone choose one and why would someone choose the other?

Quill: If you are super into the interactive thing, and want to guarantee that you can do that, you want to get a Seeker ticket for the 21-card Classic Tarot.

If you could take or leave the interactive thing but are still into big, communal, immersive experiences, you may want to see full cycle of 21-card Classic Tarot but just as a Witness.

If you’re super into the variety show, see cool performers doing random things thing, but prefer to see a show that doesn’t keep you out past 10, you want to see Nine Card Draw. This may also be true if you think you could be into the interactivity thing, but aren’t sure, and maybe don’t want to make a decision until you get there.

Alan: It depends on how you like your theater. Some people want to get entirely enveloped in a world, drinking in as much content as their brain can stand and trying to experience absolutely every feeling they can. That’s who the 21-card version is for—people who want it all, no matter how much time it takes.

Some people say that their favorite theater functions best within a specific format and that they’re most comfortable with getting in, having a great time, and getting out with time for post-show drinks and an early bedtime. Often those people will say that their optimal show is 90 minutes with no intermission, and that’s exactly what our Nine Card Draw performances are.

From ‘The Tarot Reading IV.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

What does your crystal ball say? What’s your dream or vision for the future of The Tarot Reading?

Quill: Ask again later.” By that I mean The Tarot Reading is by design a thing where our trajectory is charted by iterating upon what we’ve done before, so I won’t ever know until I see what happened this time around, and start thinking about how we can improve upon that. If I knew exactly what I wanted the future for The Tarot Reading to be, I don’t think it would be The Tarot Reading anymore.

Alan: My dream is to have a home. Have a place where people can come consistently to experience variety and truth-telling in theater on a regular basis. Give us a place, and we’ll fill it with wonder.

What’s the wildest/weirdest/funniest thing anyone ever said to you as they were leaving a performance of The Tarot Reading?

Quill: The wildest things to me are the things people say to me about The Tarot Reading, like, days or weeks afterward, when they tell me that they’re doing something differently than they used to because of something they experienced, or they show me what they did with a thing we gave them. It’s wild to me that what we do in this thing that is mostly for entertainment can have an impact on people in that way, even if it’s just a little thing. If there is a way in which we are playing with visions of the future at The Tarot Reading, that is it.

My mom puts every card she gets on her refrigerator, like she did with my childhood drawings. I got a kick out of that for a while, because it’s not like I made the Revelation—the Medium made the Revelation! I said that to her, and she told me it was vain to assume that she put them there for me. She gave me the okay to share this story.

Life is a glorious cycle of song.

Alan “I couldn’t read what it said on your butt. I think some of the marker sweated off. What did it say?”

Running time: About 90 minutes (Nine Card Draw); about three hours (Classic Tarot).

The Tarot Reading V plays May 9 through 26, 2019, produced by The Arcanists at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online (where you can find explanations of the types of tickets—Nine Card Draw or Classic Tarot, Witness or Seeker).

For information about future performances, follow The Tarot Reading on Facebook or join the Tarot Reading mailing list.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.