Tomorrow is the debut of Below the Belt, a dark workplace comedy directed by neighbor Michael Sladek and starring neighbor Andrew Van Dusen, at the Westbeth Home of the Arts (55 Bethune Street on the corner of Washington Street in Manhattan).
Before the show, presented by Black Lodge Theater, begins at 7:30pm, we spoke to Michael (above left) and Andrew (above right, with cast mates Monroe Robertson and Cecelia Frontero) about their respective theater backgrounds, lives in Ditmas Park, and experiences preparing for opening night. If it sounds good to you, you can get tickets for shows through May 17 here.
Andrew Van Dusen: I moved to Brooklyn in 1985 [Editor’s note: Andrew’s family has a much longer history in New York] and have acted in numerous NYC theater productions and films including The Cold Lands, Cigarette Candy, and Last Exit to Brooklyn. Although, I’m probably better known in the neighborhood as a residential real estate agent with Brown Harris Stevens.
Michael Sladek: Originally from Colorado, I grew up in Denver and Southern California before relocating to Brooklyn almost sixteen years ago. I was raised in a family of musicians who embraced theater and film. While mainly a filmmaker, I’m excited to have my New York stage debut, directing Richard Dresser‘s amazing play Below the Belt.
How long have you been living in Ditmas Park? Where were you before, and what do you enjoy about the neighborhood?
Andrew: I’ve lived in the neighborhood for eight years and love my neighbors, the architecture, the big trees, and the relaxed vibe. I also love to get tamales at La Nueva Union, roast pork at the Latin Grill on Cortelyou, and most of all, love our amazing CSA, the Flatbush Farm Share.
Michael: My wife and I moved to the neighborhood just under a year ago. We were both in Crown Heights before coming here. I discovered Ditmas Park/Flatbush a couple of years back when we were looking for a place to buy and was totally bowled over not only by the amazing houses, but by the nature of the neighborhood. Both of us love the food offerings and the diversity of this area.
As far as realizing that Andrew was in the same neighborhood, it was something I was aware of before we really knew one another. His wife Sharon Lehner, Director of the BAM Hamm Archives helped me make the documentary film BAM150 in 2011. I had no idea he was an actor, though, until he came and auditioned for the play.
When and how did each of you get into theater?
Andrew: I grew up in Louisville, KY, which is a great theater town, and was involved in the Walden Theatre Company, which is a wonderful young peoples theater (I performed alongside future R&B singer and fellow Brooklynite Joanie Osbourne–we were both fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) . My first paid job was at The Shadow Box at the Actors Theater of Louisville. As a kid, I got to see so many terrific actors work there–Margo Martindale, Kathy Bates, Ken Jenkins, Jon Jory and others. That’s how I got hooked.
Michael: Most of my early years were spent acting and directing in community and professional theater which I also studied in college. After acting in Los Angeles, followed by a shorter stint with an experimental theater company in Vermont, I came to New York and segued into directing film. My company Plug Ugly Films has been around for over ten years now and we’ve made three feature length films–Devils Are Dreaming, Con Artist, and BAM150–as well as numerous shorts and web series. Below the Belt is my first stage play in New York and a welcome return to the theater for me.
What were your first impressions of Below the Belt?
Michael: Below the Belt is an absurdist comedy about the devolution of people battling out egos and neuroses fueled by working in a corporate office. It’s a very sharp, dark, and funny play that’s even more relevant today than it was when it premiered in the 1990s.
I’ve been wanting to direct Below the Belt for years. I’m a sucker for dark comedy and absurdism and the biting commentary on corporate culture was just too good to forget. Currently I’m between film productions, so I finally found time and focus to mount the play this spring with the new, Brooklyn-based Black Lodge Theater company.
Andrew: It’s dark and political and smart and very very funny. Absurd and hilarious and heartbreaking — what’s not to like? And it came out of the Humana Festival at ATL, so that was cool too.
Describe your experience preparing for Below the Belt to open.
Andrew: Many years before I found my happy niche as a real estate agent, I worked a bunch of different jobs as a struggling young actor, including s a couple rather Kafka-esque office gigs for crazy bosses. I made my NYC stage debut in a one-act at Westbeth in 1986, so this is sort of a homecoming.
Michael: The cast has been fantastic to work with and the production has come together extremely well with the help of our producing team. We rehearsed at BAM for many weeks, and moved into the old boiler room at Westbeth just a week ago to start rehearsals there while building our sets. It’s an astonishing space, deep in the belly of Bell Laboratory’s original building on the west side of Manhattan. It’s the perfect setting for this play which takes place on an industrial compound and, although it’s been a challenge to create a workable space, I think we’re all very excited to have people come see the performances there.
Complete the phrase: You should see Below the Belt if…
Michael: …you like beautifully written and performed absurdist comedy about deeply important subjects set in a rare, dramatic, sight-specific space that’s as astonishing as it is intimate.
Andrew: …you like edgy funny smart theater. And if you have ever struggled to find meaning in your life while working for an insane boss at a horrible company. You will absolutely love it.
Photos via Sarah Garvey