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."