Meet Van Cougar, The Ditmas Park Theater Company Translating YouTube to Stage

Meet Van Cougar, The Ditmas Park Theater Company Translating YouTube to Stage
TUBE actors Sam Soghor and Sam Traylor, and music director Alaina Ferris

Three members of young theater company Van Cougar are Ditmas Park residents and most of their new showTube, opening at Incubator Arts in Manhattan on November 30 — was actually created here. We asked Artistic Director Mark Sitko, actor Sam Traylor, and Literary Director Erica Rippy questions about the company and the show.

Your theater company, Van Cougar, is based in Ditmas Park, right? Can you tell us a bit about it — how you formed it, where the name came from, what kind of work you’re interested in doing, etc.?

Mark: Van Cougar is currently based in Ditmas Park but was started by three artists working in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. One of the founding members was working on a TV show in Vancouver, Canada, at the time and a group of friends went to visit her. We started telling and recording stories, and, after the trip, continued recording conversations and sharing them with each other. The name “Van Cougar” came out of that trip. Eventually, we started making theater out of the stories we had collected.

Then, on a trip to Philadelphia, I saw a t-shirt that said, “Rocky Philly.” I knew the movie Rocky was part of the Philly culture, but I’d never seen those two words together. It sparked the idea for Van Cougar’s first play, Rocky Philly. We took the physical movement from the movie Rocky and combined it with stories told by Philadelphians. I liked the idea of combining disparate movements and text to create a play. I found it more interesting to watch than normal theater. We performed a piece of Rocky Philly at the Catch Performance Series and the entire play was produced at The Bushwick Starr in 2009. Our most recent play, Gonna See a Movie Called Gunga Din, also produced at The Bushwick Starr earlier this year, combined clips from iconic war films with stories told by veterans and active duty military.

About your next show, the Incubator’s site says “Tube is an exploration of human connection through the theatrical convergence of YouTube, one of the grittiest, most pervasive forms of entertainment, and stories shared face-to-face, which are increasingly a rarity in this era where we type and text more than we talk.” What inspired the show and what more can you tell us about it? What can people expect?

Mark: We’ve always been interested the difference between mainstream entertainment and personal storytelling. When we started looking at YouTube, I became intrigued in how these videos were made and how many people were watching them. The popular homemade YouTube videos are simple and unpremeditated, yet they have view counts in the millions. Live performance art and theater take so much more time and resources, yet only a few hundred people will experience them. It’s that paradox that got me interested in recreating YouTube videos and exploring the difference between personal connection through live theater and connecting through the Internet, where there’s the possibility to reach so many more people, but only in an inferior way.

What you can expect from Tube is a celebration of some of the most popular videos ever on YouTube, live music featuring popular songs on YouTube, and personal stories we have collected from individuals across the country.

Tube is about YouTube but you don’t seem to have put a video up about the show. Was this a conscious choice? Did you talk about doing one?

Erica: Great question! We have talked about creating a video or a series of videos promoting the show. We will possibly make one in the next week or so since we’re getting down to the final days of rehearsal.

Your website doesn’t have too much info about who does what in the company. Are your pieces devised as a group? What’s your role in this show (performer, director, writer,…)?

Erica: Mark is the idea person. He creates the basic idea for the show and then we both work on it with the help of talented designers (set, lighting, sound, costumes). The shows kind of write themselves since the text and movement is found. Our job is to shape the show into a theatrical form. The actors help a lot, too. If I had to choose between calling what we do “devised” or “written,” I would definitely lean toward devised.

A lot of the groups that perform at the Incubator have been influenced in some way by Richard Foreman. Is this true of you as well? Who are some of your influences?

Mark: Without a doubt, Richard Foreman has been one of the largest influences on the downtown theater scene and we very much look up to the work that he’s created. There are many companies and artists working in the city today that inspire our work, including Half Straddle, Alec Duffy, and Richard Maxwell. Artists in other art forms inspire us too, such as The Books, a band using found source material to create beautiful songs.

You live just on the other side of CIA and one of your actors lives in Ditmas Park proper. What drew all of you to the neighborhood?

Mark: When I first moved to New York, I lived in an apartment on Beverley. I moved to Lefferts Gardens for a few years, but came back to the Ditmas Park area to get my MFA in play writing at Brooklyn College. I now teach there as well so it’s very convenient for me.

Erica: I moved here because it was inexpensive and felt like a different world from Manhattan and other parts of Brooklyn. I like walking among the Victorian houses and tree-lined streets. I find it more unique than any other part of the city.

Sam: I would have to say space and diversity is what drew us to Ditmas Park. Brooklyn is such a dense borough, but in Ditmas you never feel stacked on top of each other with your neighbors. And you have the most diverse neighbors in the country. It’s great to see all walks of life contributing to keeping Ditmas Park look good.

You mentioned to us that much of your work was created in Ditmas Park. Do you rehearse out here as well?

Erica: The work is created in our apartment and we held one-on-one rehearsals in our home. We spent some time rehearsing in Clinton Hill at JACK performance space as well.

Do you think you might want to produce a piece in a space in the neighborhood some day? If so, where do you think you’d want to perform? What area spaces interest you?

Mark: I know this is a little out of the neighborhood, but I love the Kings Theater, an old vaudeville theater on Flatbush near Church. I wish they could be fixed up and used as community centers. I think it’s a shame they’re empty as they are remarkable spaces.

There are some rehearsal spaces in the neighborhood, but there is a lack of performance spaces. If you know of another performance space besides the downstairs space in Sycamore, please let us know.

Do you have another show coming up after this one? If people are interested in your work, what’s the best way for them to keep up with you?

Erica: You can follow us on Twitter (van_cougar) and Facebook. We have an IndieGoGo campaign if you’re interested in supporting us. We will be building a piece in 2013.

Incubator Arts
St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery
131 East 10th Street (at 2nd Avenue)
November 30-December 16
Tickets $14-18