An hour with Jay Presson Allen, Rob Faust, and Paolo Styron has enough banter, humor, and anecdotes to fill an Algonquin roundtable discussion. Their newest collaboration, Carnival Knowledge--an 80-minute, 2-character performance piece with 12 "titles"--began a limited run on March 2 at the Flea Theater. Faust and Styron, a husband-wife team, started working on the show in 1990, and first performed it in concert two years later.
"We've been working on the current version of Carnival Knowledge for 3 months," Faust says. "Reshaping, rewriting and improving the production values. While it's a new show, 90% of the material has been road tested--it's just been repackaged. We've also been editing under Jay's cutting eye and discerning taste."
Jay is writer Jay Presson Allen (of Broadway's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Forty Carats, film's Cabaret and Prince of the City, and television's "Family"), who is credited as production supervisor. She and her husband, producer Lewis Allen (Master Class, I'm Not Rappaport, Annie) were introduced to the show late in its development.
"They kept inviting us, but we didn't see it show for a very long time. I was nervous about the masks, and it can be quite scary seeing work done by your friends." (Allen remembers Styron dancing at the age of 18 months.) "When Lewis and I finally saw it, we were blown away." Faust corrects her gently. "She said it's beautiful. You're a genius. And I know how to fix it." Allen smiles. "Out came the scissors and music."
The key to Carnival Knowledge, Styron adds, is in its transformation. The stories are not of any one theme; some give "quick essences" of character, while others have more developed storylines. Allen offers another definition of the show. "Transformation may sound very pretentious, but it's very funny. And it's really about having a good time. You've never seen anything like it," Allen says. "Lewis and I were attracted to Carnival Knowledge because it's extremely well done. And we've had marvelous audiences--you can bring anybody to see it."
In the show Faust and Stryon incorporate music and dance with audience participation. "We don't set up a fourth wall and go into a dreamy states with masks," he explains. "A lot of the material, especially the first half, was developed through improvisation. For years we would turn around, look at our set and choose a mask. The strongest material has been kept and the previews have been used as rehearsals."
"By the end of the show people feel lighter," he continues, "as if their identity is more fluid. They feel that they can change who they are. Everything serves the masks. We don't have a writer and director saying 'here's the story and we need a mask'. Our material comes from the mask first. So the key is having the character live, and then inventing the vignette."
They hope to reach audiences, who will in turn recognize themselves and laugh. As with all live theater, some performances are more successful at doing this than others. "Like the other evening," Allen recalls, "we drew an audience from a village of deeply retired ladies and gentlemen." Faust chimes in, "As Dame Edna would say, 'Has someone stopped their medication?'" "Eventually they have a great time," Stryon insists. "Yes," Allen agrees, "but it was hard getting them there."
Faust and Stryon share a background in dance and met while performing Martha Clarke's The Garden of Earthly Delights. They continued working on projects together, Stryon said, and at a time when they were underemployed as actors, a booking came up in Hawaii. Tired of touring separately, she learned the other role in Carnival, and their courtship paralleled eight months of developing the piece.
During the show, audience members are swept through characters, and a wall of masks keeps everybody guessing what will happen next. Faust describes the production as a cross between dance, theater, stand-up comedy, and vaudeville, adding that it's a performance piece, not performance art. While rooted in ancient traditions of the theater, Carnival Knowledge reflects current challenges and problems.
"Today everything in the theatre costs so much money," Allen begins, "and we're infused with the idea of Broadway. Big Broadway shows are all that my husband and I have ever known. But now, because they're hard to do, all over this country, and particularly Off-Broadway, less expensive, more inventive, and deeply delicious shows are being produced." Faust describes their creative team as a little "lovefest". Instead of animosity and battles, they have nurturing, support and respect. Allen says, "I've been in this business 50 years, and the easiest people to get along with are always the most talented."
It is novel for the Allens to produce and to advise south of Canal Street. "We've never done anything but Broadway," she began. "Off-Broadway is an adventure to go to, but not to do. With a Broadway show you hire the best affordable people and expect them to give you everything wonderful. If they don't, you fire them, and hire somebody else, but you certainly don't do any of it yourself. My husband and I were howling with laughter because we feel like a geriatric Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney putting on a show in a barn."
Embracing the spirit of lower Broadway theater, Allen has combed Canal Street for an understudy's costume, enlisted her housekeeper as a seamstress ("She came to the theater with her sewing machine"), and called former colleagues on a Saturday afternoon to find backstage personnel. She attends all rehearsals and her husband, as a co-producer, is equally involved. This is not always a given.
"Today the theater is made up of people who are only nominally producers," Allen says. "At one time, this was not the case. Producers were hands-on and it wasn't about the money--it was about the quality of the work. People paid their dues, and everybody toured, from the biggest stars to novices."
Styron said that touring Carnival Knowledge before opening in New York had tremendous benefits. "One of the great things about having those roots is that it blasts away the assumption that talent doesn't exist out of New York. We've been influenced by so many talented people around the country, which has made us appreciate our own work." Now they would love to see the show move to a larger theater ("With a bigger space, you make more money," Allen offers realistically) with expanded choreography, lights, and set. Until then, however, Styron says they are honored and privileged to be surrounded by their creative team.
In conclusion, Faust describes Carnival Knowledge as a tap into society. Since masks have been used by every culture in the world, the "quick hits" of character reflect universal humanity. The final vignette is entitled "Gingerella". With Faust play a woman, and Stryon a man, it's a character romp to Fred Astaire music that is tender, funny, and athletic. And, Faust adds with a little satisfaction, "It closes the show and gets them every time."