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Jason Schlafstein has a lot on his plate. He’s a few years out of college, but he’s already written, produced, and directed critically acclaimed shows. He’s hung around various theaters in town for a while now, and he’s started his own company, Flying V, whose debut is this weekend. The troupe is performing the original piece Become What You Are by D.C. playwright Augie Praley. In our phone conversation, Schlafstein explained why D.C. needs yet another theater company, why he cares so much about local playwrights, and what this first performance is all about. He also talked about masturbation.
D.C. has a lot of theater companies—-there are over 150 theaters in the metro area. Why start another?
It’s been something I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while. There’s a lot of really great theater in D.C. I think it’s interesting how successful something like Fringe is over the summer. It’s known for having a really off-the-wall, quirky, fun aesthetic. Obviously, that’s not true across the board, there are over 300 shows and there’s no way to do it, but that’s what people think of and it’s what gets them excited. There’s no sort of measure of quality at an unjuried festival. I’m interested in pursuing that kind of theater—-not institution-based, but project-based and personality-based with a fun quirky aesthetic, but with a guarantee of quality. A work you know will be developed over time, but with that sense of fun and adventure.
I think theater in D.C. is very institution-based. When you think of a theater company in this area, for the most part, you think of the organization behind it, something like a Round House or a Studio, what links them is their front office more than the art that they’re doing. Woolly and Rorschach Theatre are two of the closest to being different than that. This is a ground-up focus on the idea of intersection of big ideas and intimate moments. We’re looking at big concepts and putting them on a highly personal scale. It’s high-impact theatricality with fearless content. Theater that isn’t challenging for the sake of being challenging, but that isn’t afraid of anything. I’m not interested in theater that always has a message behind it, but in theater that really allows the audience to experience things and gives them a sense of joy. I want the audience say “This is awesome.” I’m looking to make the theater that I’d like to see more often.
What’s your prior theater experience?
Right out of college I wrote, produced, and directed my own show called The Naked Party, which was part of Fringe in 2008. It was generally well-received critically and it completely sold out shows. That’s a show that sort of fits this aesthetic. I’ve AD-ed at several places, like Round House and Theater J. I directed one mainstage production for 1st Stage, which was Suburban Motel. I also directed The Hunchback Variations for 1st Stage for Fringe. I’m the associate producer for the Voices of a Changing Middle East festival at Theater J. I decided to produce this show because it was a script and a show that I loved, and no one else was going to run it. It seemed like the smartest thing to do was to make our own group. Now, any time we want to do a show, we don’t have to wait on others or reinvent the wheel.
Where did you find your players?
Michael Saltzman and Aaron Bliden were two actors in my show last summer, The Hunchback Variations. They are two of my long-lasting relationships—-I directed them in college. Michael [Saltzman] directed a show I did in college, and he’ll be directing the next show I write for Fringe. Blair Bowers is a new actress in town. She’s just come back to this area after being away at college, and she’s just a great talent and I’m lucky to have her. Kristin Garaffo is incredible. She was in my production of Suburban Motel. I felt like she was really the heart and soul of that piece. Katie [Nigsch-Fairfax] and Edward [Daniels] auditioned for me—-we held invitational auditions with about 30 actors—-and we were really looking for actors with emotional accessibility that are truthful and honest. We also looked for actors with really strong versatility who could play different roles. That’s what the company is looking for as it establishes an official company. Each actor in this show is playing a bare minimum of three characters, up to seven or eight. So, it’s really important that actors be able to fully embody multiple roles and inhabit different parts of themselves.
Your first show, Become What You Are, was written by a local playwright. Are you intentionally pursuing local work?
Yes. Absolutely. There’s a real focus on highlighting the artists involved. As a producer, if people are involved in the company, I’m making a real commitment to showcase them. If they’re a writer, that means working with them consistently, and that’s more feasible if they’re local. I think it’d be good to develop a unique D.C. voice in theater. If it’s an actor, it means picking roles and shows and seasons based not just on how I want to do the show, but on really spotlighting the people involved. I think with the company you’re going to see a lot of original, new work by local writers and some offbeat, quirky, unknown plays from other places that really strongly highlight the talent we have.
What is Become What You Are all about?
The terrifying, hilarious, and awkward journey of growing up. From the beginning moments of realizing that as a child you are in the process of becoming an adult, up to the point where you are dealing with yourself as an adult. The first play is called Elizabeth Sits At A Tea Party. It’s a little girl who has a tea party with her stuffed animals, and the stuffed animals declare mutiny on her. Plot-wise, it’s really about political correctness and the nature of the animals turning on her. Thematically, it’s about a child realizing for the first time that these aren’t her real friends or real people. The second play is called Seven Minutes in Heaven. It’s about two middle-schoolers who play seven minutes in heaven, and they have an entire adult relationship which happens in those seven minutes while they’re 12.
The last play is the longest. Each of the others are 15 minutes, and this one is an hour. The whole thing is an hour and a half with no intermission. The last one is called Augie Praley Masturbates. It’s about the character, named after the playwright Augie, and he spends the duration of the play trying to masturbate, but his subconscious keeps interrupting him. It’s literally about a man trying to masturbate, but it’s really about all the introspection and anxiety and existential angst of being a 20-something year-old being in the world for the first time. In this case, it’s about a character who just thinks too much and cares too much about people to accept the world and let go. They’re all really hilarious, especially the last one. I’ve been using the phrase “raucous and subversively charming” because as raunchy as it gets at times, there’s a really genuinely sincere layer beneath all of it that makes it worthwhile theater. I’m not interested in shock for the sake of shock value. I think there’s something really honest and truthful about the way the writer has addressed these topics, and they’re really delightful pieces. All together, I think the evening is charting that journey from being a kid realizing there’s a larger world around you to being adult and realizing most of your problems lie within yourself.
Flying V performs Become What You Are at The Writer’s Center on 4508 Walsh St. in Bethesda on Jan. 7 at 8 p.m., Jan. 8 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Jan. 9 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10, general admission, and sold at the door.