The National Theater of the United States—or NTUSA—might sound like some kind of governmental organization, but in fact it is a New York City-based troupe made up of seven members, and countless other artist-collaborators, whose aim, according to its website, is to “exist for your entertainment, enlightenment and greater glory” with shows that “dazzle, repel and suck you in forever!”
NTUSA’s style is a unique blend of homespun charm, bawdy humor and intellectual rigor that often cheekily recall—and call into question—simpler times from the past. The Golden Veil, which plays at the Kitchen through June 16, is the group’s latest theatrical endeavor. Eliza Bent recently caught up with Golden Veil playwright Normandy Raven Sherwood.
What got the ball rolling to make this play?
Many years ago, maybe three or four, Jesse Hawley [NTUSA member] and I decided to develop a show that I would write and she would perform in and write songs for. That was really the impetus. We started with the idea of the Desmond character, which Jesse was going to play (now portrayed by Ean Sheehy) and we had an idea that maybe he was, like a classic picaresque hero, continually distracted by a vision of “A Lady,” the shepherdess.
But then I got really fascinated with the idea of this shepherdess character and she became the center of the piece. I was interested in the fact that the shepherdess is a sort of “dead icon” to contemporary Americans—something that may have conjured a lot of specific ideas and associations in the not-too-distant past, but is now a piece of leftover cultural claptrap—showing up as a sexy Halloween costume or something on grandma’s mantel. I wanted to pay some attention to the shepherdess.
I was also reading a lot of early 20th century books by British women writers about poor, simple folk in the country (Mary Webb, Sheila Kaye-Smith) and a book Mac Wellman pointed me to, Willa Muir’s Living with Ballads.
NTUSA’s aesthetic is such a specific one, how would you describe it?
We are all craftspeople, I think that is one of the main things that informs the NTUSA aesthetic. We are interested in making things by hand, and the physical world of our shows is always accorded as much attention and priority as the text, performances or direction. We are interested in creating environments and contexts for our audiences to inhabit. We are also really interested in old theatre technologies and forms. We like to make shows that are layered and detailed, and we tend to not work with traditionally linear narratives.
How is The Golden Veil similar/different from your other work?
I think The Golden Veil has a lot to do with our earlier work in terms of design, and certainly the way we worked on this show was informed by more than ten years of working with each other—even if our roles are slightly different this time around. Many of our previous shows had more than one writer—the last couple shows were written by James Stanley and I. For The Golden Veil, I’m the writer, James is the director, and Jesse is the composer, though our way of working is much more collaborative than those titles tend to suggest. I think we have often focused on engaging our audiences with humor—and we do here—but there is another dimension to this show. It is scarier and sadder than a lot of our work has previously been.
What do you hope audiences will take away?
I hope audiences will find it beautiful and silly and sad. I hope they will feel lost in the world we have made. I think I’m still learning about what this show is. I hope the shepherdess will regain some consequence.
What are your secret/guilty pleasure influences…?
Hmm…When I hear some of the scenes in the show I think they sound like “Saturday Night Live sketches.”… Dumb, dumb jokes.
Normandy Raven Sherwood makes plays. She is the author of CERTAIN WORDS IN FRENCH (which I shall not name), NUNKY GRUEL, THE PRIZEWINNER SPURNS HER PRIZE, Tiny Hornets (a musical), adaptations of Felipe Alfau’s story The Necrophil and Eugene Sue’s serial novel The Mysteries of Paris and many other plays and performance scenarios. These have been presented in New York City at the Ontological Hysteric Theater, chashama, BAX, 13th Street Rep., Dixon Place and many other places as well as at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs NY. Some of her plays have been published in The Brooklyn Review and The Brooklyn Rail. She was nominated for the 2008 Wasserstein Prize for Emerging Female Playwrights and has participated in two residencies at The Incubator Arts Project. She is a core member of The National Theater of the United States of America (NTUSA), and has collaborated on all of the company’s shows since 2003 as a writer, performer and costumer. These include: What’s That On My HEAD!?!, SuperConfidence!, ABACUS BLACK, Don Juanand CHAUTAUQUA! The NTUSA is an OBIE and Spalding Grey Award winning theater company whose works have been presented at PS122, The Chocolate Factory, chashama, The Walker Art Center, The Dublin Fringe Festival, the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater, and most recently, the International Festival of Arts and Ideas at the Long Wharf Theater. Normandy is currently writing a show for the NTUSA called The Golden Veil: a cautionary entertainment which will premiere at the Kitchen in Fall 2011. As a performer she has been seen in NTUSA shows and in a couple of Hal Hartley films. As a costumer she has designed many shows by the NTUSA as well as productions by Young Jean Lee, Faye Driscoll, Elizabeth Swados and others. She is currently co-curator of the OBIE award winning performance series Little Theater, which is presented monthly at Dixon Place. She is the author of ANIMALS vs. FURNITURE, a children’s book illustrated by Jesse Hawley, which will be published by Ugly Duckling Presse in late 2010. She has an MFA in Playwriting from Brooklyn College, where she studied with Mac Wellman. She now teaches writing classes there.
Eliza Bent is associate editor for American Theatre magazine. She is also a playwright/performer currently pursuing an MFA in playwriting at Brooklyn College under Mac Wellman and Erin Courtney. Bent’s plays include She of the Voice, Blue Dress Reduction, (both undergroundzero festival at PS 122), Pen Pals Meet (the Brick’s Iranian Theatre Festival), Public Proposals, or smile crying (Independent Actors Theatre, Columbia, Missouri), and Trumped (Solo Nova, PS 122). Upcoming: The Hotel Colors (Bushwick Starr, Nov. 7), and Toilet Time with Eliza Bent (Dixon Place’s Little Theatre, Dec. 12). Bent is also a regular performer and company member of Half Straddle. Upcoming: Toilet Time with Eliza Bent (Dixon Place’s Little Theatre, Dec. 12) and Gonna See a Movie Called Gunga Din with Van Cougar at the Bushwick Starr (Jan. 2012). Bent is also a regular performer and company member of Half Straddle.