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Friday, October 15

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Feature Mon Dec 15 2008

An Interview with The Plagiarists

Chicago has no shortage of small theatre companies. Of this fact The Plagiarists are well aware. But when the ensemble-based company formed in early 2007, the members (Casey Adams, Kaitlin Byrd, James Dunn, Layne Manzer, Ian Miller, Gregory Peters, Justine Turner, and Lindsay Verstegen) hoped to bring some dynamic new ideas to the scene. This might sound like somewhat of an ironic mission, given that they're called The Plagiarists, but the company's approach is utterly original.

The Plagiarists describe their mission as "steal[ing] from literature, visual art, history, and the culture at large to create new theatre that finds the familiar in the strange, the unique in the commonplace, and ultimately enlarges the world." Before they developed or articulated this interest in "stealing," before they were even a company, the actors put on a play together in winter 2006 called Living the Dream--a comedy based on their respective experiences as theatre artists in Chicago. "We had such a superb time collaborating with each other on this project--writing, producing, and performing," says Kaitlin Byrd. "Not all collaborations go that well, and when they do, you sorta want to hang on to the experience." By establishing a company, they've been able to hang on and create the sort of theatre they wanted to see and do.

Over the past year, The Plagiarists have written and performed original short works for the Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins Theatre Festival, adapted and performed a neo-noir story by the author Jonathan Lethem, The One About the Green Detective, and, most recently, adapted a variety of Lethem's works for a production called Promiscuous Stories, which ran for six weeks at The Athenaeum Theatre.

Now The Plagiarists are hard at work on their next production, The Wreck of the Medusa, a tale of the surviving passengers and crew of the 1816 shipwreck. As part of the Department of Cultural Affairs' Incubator Series--a program designed to "support the creation of new work by emerging Chicago theatre companies"--The Plagiarists have been granted the opportunity to workshop the piece at the DCA. On Monday, December 22, they'll share their creative process with the public at the Incubator Showcase. The event is free and starts at 7:30pm. "If you're into horrific shipwrecks, the birth of Romantic art, political intrigue, questions of good and evil, hallucinations, French history, cannibalism, revolution, and madness," says Gregory Peters, "it should be a good time."

Gapers Block spoke with Byrd and Peters about collaboration, Jonathan Lethem, and the joys of acknowledging our influences.

For your company, the word "plagiarist" is much more than a catchy name. The subject of plagiarism figures into your playwriting, fundraising events, even your blog entries. Why did you decide to make this the centerpiece of your mission?

Kaitlin Byrd: There actually wasn't even a company until this became the centerpiece. Personally, I wasn't ever all that interested in starting a theatre company in Chicago. That are sooo many, and it seems like such a personal indulgence to create a new one--unless you have found something specific to offer that really speaks to you that isn't already out there.

Harper's published [an essay called] "The Ecstasy of Influence," by Jonathan Lethem. The original founding members of The Plagiarists were doing a show together at the time [Living the Dream], and we passed the essay among ourselves. It blew my mind.... It felt so immediate, so current--like a movement that is reaching the height of its relevancy right now. So we stole the essay for our mission.

Gregory Peters: We immediately went for it. ["The Ecstasy of Influence"] seemed to articulate so many of the things we already believed but couldn't put together--not just that influence and repurposing are inevitable and necessary, but that there is an essential goodness and humanity in joining the process.

In what ways has your view of plagiarism evolved, either as a company or as individuals?

KB: I guess since starting the company, I have become more aware of the evolving definition of the term. I mean, some plagiarism is plagiarism, but some transgressions that are called "plagiarism" or "copyright infringement" seem more like control issues....

GP: For me, it's gone from something I'm desperately afraid of committing or being accused of committing--the academic view--to an accusation I think is terribly abused in our culture.... It's used to reinforce this false idol of the Creative Genius who pulls totally original thoughts from the ether and brings them to the rest of us. None of the artists I admire are like that: They may be innovative and brilliant, but they all admit to having influences, to drawing from the work of others.

It's funny -- I was never interested in any of this stuff while I was in school. It was only after I started to create my own work that I realized how many barriers there are, how difficult it can be sometimes to make sure you're not slighting anyone when you put together a project, whether it's a play, film, or music track. We have no interest in stealing an individual's intellectual property and passing it off as our own. That to me is real plagiarism--the bad kind.

Group Shot

When you formed The Plagiarists, were there specific authors, artists, moments in history, etc., that you intended to "steal" from?

KB: Well, ripping off Jonathan Lethem was the most natural first step.... Then we found ourselves, completely by accident actually, parodying German playwrights [for the Abbie Hoffman Theatre Festival]. That was weird. But those were pretty much the only solid ideas at first, though there were a million other things formulating in our minds. When you give yourself permission to use anything as a source, you see possibilities in everything. Every news article, radio show, and blog presents a new opportunity to run with something.

What was the process like of adapting Lethem's work for Promiscuous Stories? What were some of the rewards?

GP: It was a tremendous gift that our first project fit so perfectly with our mission and inspiration. And I must say that getting to communicate with Mr. Lethem was a big part of the reward for me, as I've been a fan of his since his first book. To have the chance to talk to, and have the support of, someone you respect so much as you adapt their work is not a chance that [companies] working at our level (size, age, funding) often get. Small theatres are usually either adapting public domain works with long-dead authors or trying their best to avoid the creators for fear of prosecution.

KB: I guess the most rewarding aspect was collaborating with other great artists. Besides the very committed, capable team of performers, designers, and filmmakers who worked with us on the project, we found support from [Chicago artist] Tony Fitzpatrick, Lethem himself, and the Chicago theatre community. Felt pretty cool, especially as we fearfully felt our way through parts of the process, since much of what we did with this show was new to us.


Your next production is The Wreck of the Medusa. How did you become interested in this subject?

GP: Ian [Miller] read about it in a book about horrific shipwrecks and then brought it to the group. Once again, we all jumped at it.... It's an amazing story with an enormous scope and extremely well-suited to what we want to do.

KB: Also, it spoke to our mission in a different way than Promiscuous Stories. The story is sourced from first-person accounts of the wreck, plays written at the time period about the wreck, and the painting The Raft of the Medusa.

Whose work would you like to plagiarize/adapt/mutate in the future?

GP: The Arabian Nights, Matthew Lewis, Tony Schwartz, GK Chesterton, Christopher Marlowe, Hatshepsut, Smedley Butler/The Business Plot, William McGonagall, Gilgamesh, Franz Kafka, Aristophanes.

KB: Dostoevsky, Charles Mee, Joseph Cornell, Tony Schwartz, Wes Anderson, Thomas Jefferson, Rodgers and Hammerstein, The Ramones.

About the Author

A native of the Great Lake State, Laura Pearson is an editor and writer whose favorite subjects to explore include books, art, music and self-motivated creators of culture. She has contributed news stories to Pitchfork Media, is a former associate editor at Punk Planet magazine, and currently writes about independent media and culture for Is Greater Than. Laura has been a writing tutor at 826 Chicago and now volunteers at Misericordia/Heart of Mercy.

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Bortle Blanders / December 15, 2008 1:46 PM

What an interesting group! Sure to be one of Chicago's theatre juggernauts.

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