Theater group The Debate Society brings new play to Nikos stage
WILLIAMSTOWN -- Once upon a time, a small- town girl (Hannah Bos) and a small-town man (Paul Thureen) came together in a big city. They fell in love -- with the eccentric and excruciating details of plays, and sort of with each other -- and decided to make a play of their own.
They did, and shared it with the world, or at least an audience in New York City, in 2003.
Afterward, another man (Oliver Butler) approached them with a vision that together, they could do something brilliant, something more, and thus, in 2004, The Debate Society was born.
Like many of their productions, the story of the Brooklyn-based theater company starts with ingredients that seem like a recipe for disaster, but next year, The Debate Society will celebrate a decade bringing innovative, imaginative new American theater to the table.
"We've never been this busy, but it's been very fun," Bos said during a phone interview with The Eagle while The Debate Society was in London. Their staging of "Jacuzzi" at the Almeida Theatre in Islington marked the company's first time performing outside of the United States.
This week, they'll be giving audiences a taste of what they do -- both literally and figuratively -- as Bos and Thureen make their Williamstown Theatre Festival debut in "Blood Play." It officially opens tonight in the Nikos Stage, where it is scheduled to run through Aug. 18.
They flew back to New York and drove directly to Williamstown on Sunday.
"We're running on adrenaline," Thureen said.
Since its formation, The Debate Society has churned out a new play every year to 18 months.
"I can't keep up in a lot of ways, but I can't complain either," said Butler. He is a WTF alum whose 1998 acting apprenticeship there inspired him to pursue a career as a director.
Now all in their early 30s, the trio has no plans to slow down.
"This has been the dream since the beginning. This month alone, traveling from London to the Berkshires, is incredible. I can't tell you how much pride we feel," Butler said.
Bos and Thureen began working together as undergraduates studying theater at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She's from Evanston, Ill. He grew up on a farm in rural Minnesota, somewhat near East Grand Forks.
"We enjoyed seeing plays together because we enjoyed the same little details we'd find while watching them," said Thureen.
The two admitted in a 2012 New York Times article that they dated for eight months. Despite a break-up, they still managed to write a senior year thesis play together, "A Thought About Raya," (2000), inspired by the writings of Russian absurdist/poet, Daniil Kharms. It was a staged reading of the play in New York City in 2003, and the cocktail reception that followed, that led the two to Butler.
Thureen and Bos took a chance on collaborating with Butler, which turned out to be as serendipitous a decision as it has been sustainable.
The company's name, The Debate Society, was also chosen on gut instinct and aesthetic -- a sort of hallmark of their process.
"We do a lot of listing exercises -- worst and best names and ideas -- and we all really loved ‘The Debate Society,' " Bos said.
"Young theater companies are often forced to define a mission for itself, a name to be colored by their work. We decided that if were were doing something at all pretentious, it should be, at most, high school pretentious," Butler said.
Like childhood, the creative process of The Debate Society is organic and developed around a particular idea - a person, a myth, an object, a feeling.
"We're all interested in details, we're all interested in the architecture of a story," said Thureen. "We start developing the world of the play by discovering the mood of the play. We want to find something to be excited about and like to be able to theatricalize the mood of the play."
Williamstown Theatre Festival artistic director Jenny Gersten describes The Debate Society as a company that creates plays "in the traditional structure of what theater is but twists it a little bit on its head to make it unusual and unexpected and a little bit quirky, and really entertaining."
In a promotional video on WTF's website (wtfestival.org), Gersten notes that "Blood Play" strays from the traditional scripts staged by the theater festival. She says hosting new voices in American theater is "vital to what we do."
Like most of The Debate Society's productions, "Blood Play" has an unassuming setting: It's the 1950s. Like many Jewish families, Bev and Morty find themselves moving out of the city of Chicago and into the tranquil suburbs, in this case, Skokie, Ill. The audience finds itself in the basement of the couple's ranch-style home. On the outside looking in is their adolescent son Ira, who is camping on this particular evening when a string of coincidences and meetings leads to a spontaneous party among grown-ups in the basement.
The intrigue unfolds as "exotic cocktails are imbibed" -- The Debate Society not only drafted their own recipes for the play, but includes them in the playbill.
Filled with liquid courage, the plot livens as "raucous games are played and new friends are made" among the characters. Meanwhile, as the playbill goes on to describe, "much is happening that no one is talking about. And something is stirring underground."
The title, "Blood Play," is derived from the anti-Semitic myth of blood libel, stemming from the Middle Ages. It was said that Jewish men menstruated and would eat Christian babies and use their blood in ritual to drink in libations or use in comestibles to relieve their pain.
Thureen assures audiences that The Debate Society''s "Blood Play" is "not a male menstruation play" but does follow in line with the idea of how stories and beliefs are passed down and change through generations and how people interact with the telling of them; how a child's perspective varies from an adult's, for example.
"The fear-mongering in medieval Europe was really the focus for us -- the capacity for people to believe terrible things," said Oliver. "In the 1950s, Jews were moving out of the city into the suburbs when the suburbs were brand new. At the same time, they were moving into this land that was ancient, thus creating this mythology of vengeance."
"Blood Play" cuts this tension with the humor of eccentric costumes and physical movements of the six-member cast, which includes Bos, Thureen, Michael Cyril Creighton, Emma Galvin, Birgit Huppuch and Hanlon Smith-Dorsey.
"The play is very technicolor," said Bos, noting that the costumes and sets bring the characters' joys and fears to life.
"Hannah has amazing hair that's very versatile. It's a big tool in our arsenal," said Thureen. "We've also been lucky enough to work with really good designers who bring their own experience of storytelling to the table."
With Bos and Thureen once orchestrating entire productions themselves, from script to sets, The Debate Society has extended its technical crew. Laura Jellinek, for example, won a 2013 Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Set Design for "Blood Play." Sydney Maresca provides costumes for the show, while Mike Riggs provides lighting and sound is engineered by Ben Truppin-Brown and M.L. Dogg.
"We really value people who have that intangible love for detail that we share," said Oliver. He said the company hopes to next bring in a company administrator who shares the vision of the company and "can help us accomplish that."
As for The Debate Society's founding triumvirate, Bos said, "I think we just want to keep making plays and working together. We've become like a family and it's been a really fun ride. Theater's pretty hard but we've been lucky to find each other."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.