Jaclyn Backhaus & Andrew Neisler Talk About the Political, Personal, Unique, & Genre-Defying Programs of the First Ever Fresh Ground Pepper Festival in NYC
The inaugural Fresh Ground Pepper Festival in NYC features 12 days of programming highlighting 44 resident artists of varying mediums. Created by Men in Boats playwright Jaclyn Backhaus, Andrew Neisler, Andrew Scoville, and Jenny Beth Snyder, the festival runs April 10-21 at off-Broadway’s New Ohio Theatre. Highlights from the festival include an immersive musical parade, a cocktail party game, a fake election, late night comedy, and new musicals, plays and cabarets. There’s also a free work space for artists during the day and a happy hour nightly. BroadwayBox caught up with Jaclyn & Andrew to dissect some of their can’t-miss programming.
Which program or event feels most personal?
Any time I am present for an artist’s early process I feel a connection to their work. I’ve been an FGP Playground writers’ group director for 6 years now. Each year a different cohort of writers, directors, and collaborators meet once a month to share pages and receive feedback from one another and cheer each other on. Each of those projects is very special to me, because I’ve watched them grow from seedling ideas to fleshed out artworks. Lena Hudson began her one-woman clown show called Showwomanship a few years ago at our out-of-state retreat program BRB, and she’s continued work on it this year in Playground, and I think that one has been the most joyful to watch bloom. It started as a small set of vignettes and now there is singing and dancing and…a wind machine? Maybe I imagined the wind machine.
For me it's gotta be K-A-A-R-O-N. This is the first year of the Fresh Ground Pepper In-House Artist Group. We've brought together 5 artists who are alumni of FGPs other programs and spent the year, through radically non-hierarchical methods of collective creation, devising a new project with them. In the Festival, K-A-A-R-O-N is a workshop presentation of that project. As a creative director of FGP, this project has made me personally put into practice a lot of the methodologies that FGP instills: trusting and celebrating the process, working from a place of delight, prompting and experimentation. And the resulting show is bizarre in all the right ways, simultaneously leaning on the strengths of the artists in the group while also pushing each of us outside of our comfort zones. It is experimenting with a form of story-telling in theatre that I can honestly say I don't think I've ever seen anyone else try to do before. I cannot wait to open up the project to an audience and let them in on this crazy thing we've all spent a year exploring. Plus, the audience gets served free Champagne and mac-n-cheese during the show... if that's not perfect theatre than WHAT IS?
Which feels most political?
A lot of the pieces have a political bent, but I am very thrilled specifically Liz Morgan’s Playground play Deliver: Letters to the Motherland from a Foreign Body, because the politics of it exist within the characters and their perspectives toward one another. The politics are rooted in the fibers of their being.
Other political juicies: Krista Knight’s play about city planning called High Blonde, Jacob Marx Rice’s play about Robespierre, and also the NPL event Political Party! We may or may not elect a new president that night y’all…
The event that our New Producers' Lab cooked up is called POLITICAL PARTY so maybe that's a cop out, but I am very excited for this event. The night brings together 8 comedians, all portraying highly curated characters, in an improvised Presidential Debate. THEN the live audience votes on a president that, through a series of additional performances from incredible talents like Michael R Jackson and Annalisa Ledson, is inaugurated, protested, and impeached, all in one 90-minute show. I like to think of it as dreamy-therapy-role-play-theatre in which we can all enact the large scale political events we wish had and hope will occur: simultaneously a celebration and exorcism of our political demons.
Is there a program/event at first you thought, “No way this will work or happen,” and now is happening? What changed?
When Wil Petre approached us about wanting to create an immersive cocktail party play we said…BUT HOW? and then we said “oooh cocktails tho?” and we turned a rehearsal room into a speakeasy and he brought out brooches for everyone to wear and made cocktails for us based on tarot cards and we said “oh this is gonna be dope” and now, based on his experience with the group and our mission to help artists create toward what they are delighted by, he’s developed a prototype for an interactive board game. It was all him. We just happily rode the ride.
Two particular projects come to mind. Genius musician/percussionist/designer Eric Farber started his year-long residency with FGP by proposing a scripted protest parade on the streets of NYC. We said yes because YES THIS IS WHAT THEATRE SHOULD BE, but we were all secretly freaking out inside like HOW IN THE HELL CAN WE ACTUALLY DO THIS? But now, sort of beautifully, it's all happening. There was a particular moment when Eric and I were bouncing emails back and forth about the parade route when it all finally clicked. We got the right permits, stood in line at the right police precincts, and now we're ready to go. Another of those projects is Wi-moto Nyoka's play El Otro Lado Del Destino/The Other Side of Destiny which, in its earliest drafts, involved a very complicated and integrated sound design. And I never really was able to understand why or how it would manifest. Then a few months ago Wi-moto brought sound designer Sadah Espii Proctor into a meeting of the PlayGroup, she mixed some live sounds during the read-through of the play, and it all just made crystal clear sense. I felt like in that moment I understood what Wi-moto had set out to do all along.
Why was it important to include a program for kids interested in theatre?
I’m a mom and it’s as important for me to actively involve my child in my life as it is for children to be immersed in the arts at a young age. Art teaches empathy, and theater is community. Kids are better at empathy and community than most adults, so why not include an event where we can learn from them?
The main artist who is involved in the kids’ event is renowned drag queen Marti Gould Cummings, who will be leading storytime. Honestly the adults should be jealous of the kids! They get one of the best events of the festival!
I default to Jaclyn on this a little bit. She's the mom and the event was definitely something her and Andrew Scoville (her husband, and fellow FGP co-director) championed. I will say that for me it is important that the Festival create space for all types and kinds of artistic process. Children and their parents/care-givers are a part of that conversation. FGP believes that art-making teaches empathy and listening. So start 'em young.
What do you think is the most out there program/event on the list?
Definitely Ben Holbrook and Nate Weida’s futuristic church service that worships the Cloud, called The Church of the First Order of Cloud City’s Inaugural Unity Jamboree. Come ready to sing some hymns and praise Her Cloudship!
Fresh Ground Pepper has a well-documented history of getting weird... or rather of celebrating artists crazy ideas and giving them space to weird out. I don't know this for a fact, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the LATE NIGHT! events on Friday April 13th and 20th will get the weirdest. We got to know Lorelei Ramirez through an FGP event this past fall and we immediately became obsessed with her. She's a multidisciplinary comedian, visual artist, performer, and writer. We are so excited to have her curating and hosting the LATE NIGHT shows, filled with, in her own words, "her most deranged friends." I would strongly advise catching at least one of these two nights. All bets are off.
Which program/event are people asking you the most about right now?
Eric Farber, percussionist and mad scientist with my favorite hair, created a marching band parade. That will parade outside to the pier. We got a parks permit and everything! People keep asking me “wait, is the parade really a parade?” YES IT’S A PARADE KNOCK ON WOOD FOR SUNSHINE and come join us on the afternoon of 4/15!
Everyone wants to know what's going on at the Opening and Closing Night Parties. I will just say that we have lined up a series of experimental pop-up performances that will shake you to your core. But don't worry, you'll be led through the dark by some incredible hosts: Nick Kocher and Amanda Duarte, some incredible music: Sanaz Ghajar and Darian Dauchan, and some incredible refreshments: beer by Sixpoint Craft Ale and pizza by John's of 12th Street.
What do you hope other artists and audiences get out of this experience?
In a world that seems at every turn craven and disappointing, I hope that our festival can activate joy, hope, and determination in people to pursue what delights them, to marvel at the long journey artistry can take, and be a little ephemeral hub for inspiration and an eye-opening laboratory glimpse into artistic process. I hope everyone feels lifted up.
Joy. Community. Family. An expanded worldview. We so often, especially in NYC, engage with art with a critical mind and a critical ear. Can we train that ear to listen for joy? Can we train that mind to be delighted, inspired, and invigorated rather than destructive? I'm not saying there is no place for critique, but for every home we create for analysis and critique, let's create a home for hope and joy and heart. I hope the FGP Festival can be a home for those things for both its participating artists and its audiences.
Click here to see the full breakdown of events, and make a date with the Fresh Ground Pepper Festival, running April 10-21 at The New Ohio Theatre.