According to their dossier, Wolf’s Mouth Theatre Collective is an informal Ithaca-based meeting spot for theatre enthusiasts to gather, listen to readings of new plays and then produce them. They congregate and compare notes every second and fourth Monday of the month at Buffalo Street Books in the Dewitt Mall. Since the troupe is gearing up for two weekends – four performances – of their annual 10-Minute Playfest, I went over to Buffalo Street Books one Monday evening in May to find out more.
As the group was breaking up for the night, I headed across the street to Dewitt Park with three of Wolf’s Mouth’s principals: founding member George Sapio, actor Judith Andrew, and playwright, director and actor David Guaspari.
Full disclosure time: I met Guaspari for the first time for this story, but I’ve worked with Judith Andrew previously, in productions with Black Umbrella Shakespeare; she acted in one of my short films. As for Sapio, he is a very talented playwright, director and actor. I’ve known George since meeting him while we were both knocking around the late, lamented Firehouse Theatre, where he directed me in Ben Elton’s Gasping and much to my chagrin, I didn’t cast George in my Woody Allen double bill. When I was making a series of short comedy films with George later, I found out that he is also the most talented improvisational actor I have ever had the pleasure to work with.
If he sounds a little cranky and confrontational here, well, for one, that’s part of his charm – it means he likes you (I hope). And two, the discussion we have below about the lack of community theatre space in Ithaca has been going on for years.
Ithaca Times: Well, I think this is the only theatre group in town that I haven’t written about.
George Sapio: Why have you ignored us up until now? [Judith Andrew laughs.]
IT: It’s personal, George.
GS: That’s what I thought. Let’s not go there.
IT: I don’t even know where we’re going. Actually, let’s start with a brief history of the group.
GS: We started in … let’s say 2006, because I’m old and fuzzy, and I don’t remember back that far. It’s a loose affiliation of Ithaca-based theatre artists, actors, directors and playwrights who normally would never have seen each other in between the few and far productions that go up in town. So I called together a bunch of folks, and we started a semi-regular meeting, and we’ve pretty much grown. People have come, people have gone. Actually, we’ve got more long-timers than anybody else. But we keep in touch with each other, we let each other know about productions that are coming up, and we bring in new scripts to read. It’s a way of keeping theatre active. Because Ithaca is clearly, as everyone knows, bursting at the seams with theatre talent.
IT: And not that many venues.
GS: Very few venues, actually. You have to make your own.
IT: Would you call this a theatre company or more of a theatre club?
GS: We are actually becoming more of a theatre company than we have been. We have gone from a loose collective of highly talented people to a more formal theatre company.
David Guaspari: A lot of it is, in fact, people bringing in scripts, reading them, getting comments on them.
GS: It’s not entirely what we do. It’s a large part.
Judith Andrews: I would say that the majority of people that come to our meetings have been writers or are writers. I think I’m one of the few who has never written a play, and don’t have any interest in writing a play. But I really, really like coming to the meetings to help the playwrights hear their work. I just like to do cold readings of things, and experience them that way, and allow the writers to hear their words. Every now and then, it’ll be a script that I’ve heard or done a previous version of, and the writer has reworked it in some way, but usually it’s something I’ve never seen before, which is really fun. And another cool thing is that a lot of writers are also actors, like these two men here. They’ve also acted and directed.
IT: Several of you have multiple talents and disciplines that you bring to the table.
GS: A bunch of us do, yeah. For me, I can’t be nailed down to one particular thing. Some folks are actors, and that’s what they choose to concentrate on, and they’re excellent at what they do. I write, people know me as a writer, people know me as an actor. And the reason for that is, I’ve been told by several smart, well respected professionals, that if I’m going to be a good playwright, I need to be a good actor, director, stage manager, set painter, light designer. Otherwise, you work in a bubble, and you don’t understand theatre.
IT: Knowledge is power.
GS: And experience. Walk a kilometer in someone else’s Birkenstocks.
JA: And a lot of us have worked with other groups in town …
IT: You’ve worked with the Ithaca Shakespeare Company.
JA: And a lot of other people on our group are like that, too. It brings everybody together, which is a really good thing. [To George] Tell Bryan where you got the name.
GS: When I was doing The Trial at the Kitchen, I was working with an actor. And I hate the term “break a leg”, even though it only means crossing that piece of curtain as you enter the stage – that piece of curtain is a “leg”, so when you break the perimeter of that, blah blah blah. I didn’t particularly care for the term “break a leg”, because it sounds painful. So this actor had this phrase [in his native language] and I asked him what it means, and he said, “in the mouth of the wolf.” And I thought, that is so picaresque, that is so dynamic, that is theatre sexy.
DG: But he didn’t make that up, that’s an Italian idiom.
JA: It’s become quite popular among actors in town since the group started. There are a number of actors who have worked with us and instead of saying “break a leg”, they say “into the mouth of the wolf.”
IT: What were you doing at the meeting tonight?
DG: Tonight was just a business meeting to organize the show in September, and then there were a few scripts brought in: one that’s going to be in the show that hadn’t been read. It had been read once about a year ago. A number of things have started off here and been produced at other places.
IT: Let’s talk about the show.
DG: Well, we should also say [that] we’re the only group that does all new plays, and it’s all stuff written by local people.
GS: Make sure you get that. It’s by local writers, by local actors, mining the local talent. Have I hit this with a mallet hard enough? It’s gonna be eight new plays, all written in the past year …
JA: By local people.
DG: Five of them had staged readings at the Literary Festival last spring, and three of them have never been produced anywhere.
GS: Three of them are completely virginal.
JA: And they are full productions this time, they’re not readings.
DG: These evenings of ten-minute plays are becoming a big deal. Theatre groups all over are doing this.
IT: There’s something about the brevity of telling a full story in 10 minutes. It’s not quite Twitter drama, but you have to make every word count.
JA: It’s a challenge for the writers, and it’s a challenge for the director and actors, too, to get the most out of it and put it all out there.
GS: When you think of it, Hamlet was just a series of 73 ten-minute plays, all glued together and revolving around the same set of characters and theme. [Judith Andrew laughs.]
GS: That’s what a 10-minute play is: you take any big play, any normal two-act play, and you rip out a scene, a beat, that sort of thing. And that’s what you’ve got.
The Annual Wolf’s Mouth 10-Minute Playfest! Eight world or regional premieres by local Ithaca playwrights happens at Fall Creek Studios, 1201 N. Tioga St. September 21-22, September 28-29. All shows begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $9 through the Ticket Center (171 The Commons; 607.273.4497) and $8 at the door the evening of the performance. For more, email firstname.lastname@example.org.