Puppeteer and MacArthur Genius Basil Twist Pays Ghostly Tribute to Abrons Arts Center
In any other situation, "Did you find the body?" would be a strange question to ask. But in the theatrical world of renowned puppeteer and director Basil Twist, it's the first thing a helper asks him at work in the morning. Twist simply nods and changes the subject, leaving this interviewer in the dark regarding whether the body in question is a mannequin, instrument, or actual corpse.
It's probably the first. Since the 1990s, Twist has been dazzling audiences with visionary experimentations in the various forms and styles of puppetry. Symphony Fantastique, perhaps his best-known work, takes place within a 500-gallon tank of water and animates feathers and fabrics, without the presence of humans. He made Chairy come to life in The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway and unleashed a venus flytrap onstage in The Addams Family, for which he received a Drama Desk Award.
Now Twist is reteaming with his frequent collaborator Joey Arias, star and cocreator of their Arias With a Twist, on the world premiere of Sisters' Follies: Between Two Worlds, a musical ghost story about the two sisters who cofounded Abrons Arts Center, where the work runs through October 31.
"Alice and Irene Lewisohn built the playhouse one hundred years ago and put on shows and directed and performed in all of them, in association with the Henry Street Settlement," says Twist. Back then it was called the Neighborhood Playhouse (before it became associated with names like Sanford Meisner and the Group Theatre), and it focused on presenting classic and modern works. "One hundred years ago, it was really wild to come down here and do art the way they did. [Their story] is inspiring, and kooky, and worthy of a little parody."
Arias and fellow downtown performer and burlesque icon, Julie Atlas Muz, portray the sisterly duo, who, in the show, are "ghosts visiting their history here and reenacting the plays they did." Like Twist and the sisters themselves, Arias and Muz have a storied history with Abrons. "They're both beloved 'friends of the building,'" Twist notes. "[Joey and I] remounted Arias With a Twist here. [Julie] lives in the neighborhood and got married on this stage. It's fun to put them together. I thought they would be a great pair."
Midway through our conversation, Twist's phone rings. He's profusely apologetic as he answers. He's even more apologetic when his phone rings a second time. On a normal day, this distraction would be an annoyance in the rehearsal room, but this isn't a normal day. It was just announced that Twist has been named a 2015 MacArthur Fellow and a recipient of the famously no-strings-attached $625,000 "Genius" Grant. The callers are all friends and well-wishers who have just heard the momentous news.
Twist found out two weeks before the revelation went public. "It was almost kind of mystical to get that call and be in the middle of a project that was so true to me as an artist," he says. "[Sisters' Follies is] overly ambitious and there's not enough time and not enough money, but it's in New York and it's downtown and it's just a bunch of kooks. It feels like I'm with my family in an artistic home. And then, to be standing on the stage and get that call was just so" — he takes a long, emotional pause — "poetic. And moving. And powerful."
But with previews just days away, there's no time for laurel-resting. Twist has been putting this show together for several months and it's all finally falling into place. "[Abrons doesn't] program during the summer, so they'll turn the space over to me. The generosity and openness of the team here is staggering in terms of how they'll just say, 'Sure, go ahead.' I came in here not knowing what I was going to do and then invented the show on the spot, in the real spot, not in a rehearsal room."
Behind the stage, his fabricators are hard at work putting the finishing touches on the creatures that will populate this spooky world. "[Onstage] I have my puppeteers mixed in so you can't tell who's a puppet and who's a puppeteer," he says of his concept. "The human stars [Arias and Muz] fit very well into my soft-sculpture world, but it allows me to create a world around them and turn them into puppets, too."
Will the ghosts of the playhouse (or the Lewisohn sisters themselves) be in attendance? "I haven't seen them," says Twist. "Some people who have worked with me have said they've seen something, and I believe it. It feels like there are ghosts here. It smells like it."