Thursday Spotlight: Nicolás Noreña on The Million Underscores_ _, Collaborating with Your Husband, and More

A photo from a summer workshop of “Lapa” by Walter Wlodarczyk.

How to put the experience, creation, and witnessing of experimental theater into words? It’s not easy, which explains why it is such an innovative, textured, and vital art form. As a versatile theatermaker and educator in the city, Nicolás Noreña has often been at the forefront of this hard-to-define scene: he teaches at NYU’s ETW (Experimental Theatre Wing), is the artistic director of Brooklyn-based theater company The Million Underscores_ _, and is currently undertaking the herculean task of breathing new life into LAPA, a play written by the Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms in 1930.

All the while, Noreña builds community with his artists and plays with his husband (alongside other key collaborators). As his career will attest, no venue is too small and no story too untapped to be a transformative piece of theater — the most daring step on the audience’s part is to simply show up. And as Noreña testifies, there are myriad venues to frequent that support new work on our side of the East River. His is a career to follow to participate in some of the boldest theater being made today.

Greenpointers: You’re a multi-hyphenate creative and the artistic director of The Million Underscores_ _. Can you explain what this company values and creates?

Nicolás Noreña: Multi-hyphenate creative! I had to look that one up! (Laughs) I guess..? Technically I’ve never hyphenated I usually say I’m a theater maker. But yes that involves writing, scoring, directing, performing, producing, designing costumes, designing sets, and props building, and I think this is what gives our work a very specific identity — our full engagement with each aspects of performance.

The Million Underscores_ _ has grown over the years from our curiosity about how the different languages of performance and the languages of plastic visual composition interact. We make and perform our work with one foot in the theater and one foot in the visual arts, and that is fun because the visual arts have such deep, millennia-old, detailed conversations about the technicalities of art and the philosophy of what art is and what art can be that sometimes lack in the theater. But the theater has this living breathing thing between people as the material, and it has these spaces ran by communities that are very different from galleries, and have this ephemeral quality that make it so unnecessary and mysterious, so similar to life…so we have one foot on one and one foot on the other, but we come from the theater.

LAPA is our first show in which we are starting with a prewritten play, and this transformed the process from the very beginning.

You and your husband Timothy Scott often collaborate, as with this current project LAPA. I’m curious, if you don’t mind sharing, what it is like to work with your partner and what strengths you think each of you bring to the process?

Yes, Tim and I collaborate in different capacities, and with each project for The Million Underscores _ _ our way of collaborating changes. This piece we’re directing together which is as intense as it can get in collaboration. You know, working together is challenging and rewarding. I think it’s hard to keep the lines clear especially at home, our bedroom is our costume shop, prop storage, and sleeping area. Our car is filled with materials, more costumes, set pieces, etc. We go out on dinner dates while we plan rehearsal or design wings for the angels in this show. But we have fun doing this together!

Tim and I are very different and usually have nearly the opposite opinion about everything. So it’s always a process, we see one thing, then see the other and make compromises or find things neither of us imagined. I think particularly in this version where we direct together we try to see having different opinions as a way to make the world of the piece larger with more options of legibility.

I like very dramatic shapes and I’m pretty good with seeing a structure, setting the operative logics for a scene and coming up with ideas on the spot. Tim runs deeper and slower. He sees more subtlety, he’s better at directing the actors’ souls and making choices that are mysterious and strong. We’re directing this together because one day we showed up at home after buying the same book by Daniil Kharms. We had never heard of him before!

Photo of husbands Timothy Scott and Nicolás Noreña by Molly Gillis.

Daniil Kharms has a unique style. What has it been like to work with this text?

It’s been a wild ride we’re still on. Daniil Kharms said that he would like language to be so material that if it were to be thrown through a window it should shatter the glass. Now, how to perform that has been our question from day one. In LAPA we are attempting different ways of going at this question.

We are some times using both translations at once which is a very powerful way to make words very substantive (surprise!).

Some of the text is spoken live, some of the text is recorded in tape recorders held by the performers, some text is completely disembodied and just coming from the walls, some text is written in signs for the audience to read. So our version ofLAPA is in some way a journey of language, subject, and object.

We’re also working with an experimental violinist called Marija Kovačević who is scoring the text with noise and sounds and this has elevated the language to another operative level, it brings it closer to music, closer to sound.

There’s no one right path to make a living as an artist in New York. Can you talk about the jobs and opportunities you juggle in your career and what north star you keep in mind to bring inspiration to your work?

Well I think between Tim and I we’ve covered a wide area of jobs that have allowed us to continue working in the theater, including babysitting, retail, hospitality, farming, movie sets, and restaurants.

I currently teach at NYU in the Experimental Theater Wing, which I absolutely love but again it’s an adjunct position and that comes with its own challenges.

However, wether it’s babysitting or teaching at a university, I think my attitude towards these jobs has always been one of gratitude, giving thanks to these jobs for giving me enough money and time that I can maintain my curiosity alive in the studio, and have enough headspace to think about production etc.

It’s not easy, really making art is so much about making space for it in your life.

(Making space for art in my life, that is my North Star.)

The Million Underscores often presents at venues like The Brick, but fringier havens like The Brick have seemed to disappear over the years. Can you in any way eulogize the places you’ve worked, and sing the praises of companies/artist organizations audiences should support?

Well actually I disagree. After I graduated college in 2012 many spaces in downtown Manhattan closed. The Incubator, which used to be Richard Foreman’s Ontological closed to become an after school ballet studio, PS122 closed with promises of a future that played out quite differently… that was sad. As extremely early-career artists our only option then was Dixon Place (bless their souls!), and they’re still operating in downtown Manhattan!

The exodus of the experimental theater scene to Brooklyn has taken some years, but now I think there are some really solid venues in Brooklyn offering space for experimentation, performance, and community building. Beginning with the Brick; now under Theresa Buccheister’s artistic direction it is such a vital, vibrant, and diverse performance venue! There’s also Triskelion, Vital Joint, CPR in the neighborhood, JACK just moved to their new space, Target Margin Theater has an incredible gigantic theater in sunset park where we performed last Summer, Theater Mitu has a theater in Gowanus. And then of course there’s the Bushwick Starr that in some way paved the way for reviewers to take the L train. I think fringe spaces in Brooklyn are having some sort of renaissance, so we all need to support these spaces by going to see their shows, talking about them, chatting with people after, donating money or skills, making new shows for these spaces! This is what keep spaces and communities going!

Oh and of course, The Exponential Festival! It happens every winter and it is what connects all of these spaces. They have presented so many artists, we’ve been part of it twice! It really is very exciting what’s happening.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Come to see the show! We love meeting new people and chatting after the show over some beers. Some Kharms experts are coming and the conversation will be interesting!

About Billy McEntee

Billy McEntee has been fortunate to work for arts non-profits in Boston, Denver, Berkeley, and now New York. His writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Vanity Fair, American Theatre, HowlRound, Observer, and others. He's usually getting wine at Dandelion or eating cookies at Archestratus.

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