"What in San Juan Hill is the federal government doing funding this hunk-a-hunk-a burnin' waste," Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said about RoosevElvis, the Theodore Roosevelt-Elvis Presley buddy comedy from the New York-based theater company the TEAM. Judging by his prose, there's a reason Flake is a politician and not a theater critic. Still, his awareness of the show represents a significant step in the TEAM's 10-year history: They're getting noticed and gaining detractors (a sure-fire sign you're making it in the theater world).
RoosevElvis features two women (Libby King and Kristen Sieh) playing a couple of the most enduring icons of American manhood: Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley. The original production debuted in 2013 at the Bushwick Starr, where it was so acclaimed by critics and audiences alike it attracted the attention of the National Endowment for the Arts, which awarded the TEAM a small grant to remount the show.
That's when Senator Tom Coburn decided to include RoosevElvis in his 2014 Wastebook, an annual gazette of federally funded items that Coburn sees as a waste of taxpayer money. The TEAM's $10,000 NEA grant got its own page, couched between billions in industrial and agricultural subsidies (many of which didn't get nearly as much ink as the TEAM's spread).
"It's beautifully produced," said the ever-polite Rachel Chavkin when I asked her about the Wastebook. Chavkin is the founding artistic director of the TEAM. "The graphic design throughout is really wonderful." So wonderful, in fact, that one suspects it cost a lot more than $10,000 to create.
While she can't speak for the senator, Chavkin is using her $10,000 in federal funds to return RoosevElvis to the stage as part of P.S. 122's COIL Festival. TheaterMania spoke to Chavkin about RoosevElvis, the TEAM's process, and their forthcoming mega-project Primer for a Failed Superpower, a title so provocative it's sure to clinch the TEAM at least a nomination for the 2015 Wastebook.
Why are you bringing RoosevElvis back now?
We left the run last fall feeling like there was still interest, particularly from sections of our audience who still won't come to Brooklyn, for whatever reasons. Also, RoosevElvis is the smallest TEAM show. It's quite tourable in ways that our larger shows are not. With COIL and Under the Radar [festivals] happening in January, it's a great time to do a show because presenters from all over the world come into the city to see the work.
How did you connect these two men (our 26th President and a Rock & Roll movie star) in one show?
This actually started as two solo shows. Kristen Sieh was going to play Teddy and Libby was going to play Elvis. I shared that with Taylor Mac over breakfast one day and he laughed and said, "Oh…two women in fat suits." That was where the idea to bring them together may have started. We didn't know if there was going to be an hour of the Teddy show and then an hour of the Elvis show, but the very first moment we put them onstage side by side, we knew this was one show where they get together.
Is it because Elvis and T.R. loom large as ideals of American manhood?
They each hit a different chord in terms of evolving senses of masculinity. Roosevelt is in many ways the prophet: He wrote and spoke so prolifically about fitness and how to raise sons. He became deeply equated with the west and this vanishing space for American masculinity. He was living at a time when the cowboys were becoming extinct. Elvis comes along mid-century and he was shaped by the fact that the country was going through civil rights and the beginnings of first-wave feminism. He ends up being this very strange, slippery creature. Even at thirteen he's described as wearing this pink bolero jacket. There was something truly queer about Elvis at a time when there were so many shifting notions of who got to represent America.
Your plays are so chock-full of information. How do you go about researching your shows?
It's a constant shift between impulse and furious research. With RoosevElvis we had such specific starting points for the two men. Our associate director Jake Margolin and his husband, Nick Vaughan, are visual artists who are working on a project that tells untold queer narratives from all the states in the union. They had a huge amount of research into queer theory and particularly queer histories of western states. That ended up being really useful to us.
As the director, is a lot of your job editing that research into something coherent?
Yes, although less so than when the TEAM was founded. The company is about to turn ten. We're getting more and more collaborative each year. We've always used a consensus-driven democratic writing process. The whole group is acting as writer and editor. People are surprised when they come into our rehearsal room to see how much we are a collaborative ensemble. We mean it. We will sit around a table and talk about a line for ten minutes…or an hour.
What's next for the TEAM?
The next project is a full company effort. It will be the first time we've ever had the whole group onstage, plus ten teenagers and ten senior citizens. Together, thirty of us are going to be forming a multigenerational cover band that plays songs written from a perspective of social or political outrage. That piece is called Primer for a Failed Superpower. With all the protests happening around the country, it's really exciting for us to be thinking actively about American power and what it means for each of these generations. It's a very emotional time to create this piece.