By Tina Gill
When I first met Brandon Monokian at the Arden to interview him about his play, THE LIVING DRAGON, part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, he wasn’t wearing any shoes. I thought this was some kind of political or artistic statement, but it turns out it was just because of the rain that day. Brandon didn’t want to be sloshing around in wet shoes. When I told him what I thought, he laughed, “Let’s go with that.” In this interview, he discusses growing up, Theatre Critic Trump—one of his publications–and his creative present and future.
THE LIVING DRAGON was presented at the Arden Theatre on September 7-8, 2018 as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival
Tina Gill: In THE LIVING DRAGON you satirized Sherlock Holmes, the Jersey Devil, and various situations. How did you get into satire? What is it about this genre that most appeals to you?
Brandon Monokian: I’m a sarcastic and blunt person. That sort of attitude lends itself to satire. It wasn’t necessarily the kind of writing I wanted to do (I thought I’d write really beautiful, poetic things), but it’s definitely the thing that people respond to the best. My most widely seen creation has been the Theatre Critic Trump twitter which is a total satire of the theatre world and my film that got released globally is a musical theatre mockumentary called Happy Yummy Chicken.
Tina: You said you felt you were being pushed to direct when you were younger. How did you meet or challenge the expectations that others set for you?
Brandon: When I was in college, I was told by one professor in particular that my only talent was directing and that I was a horrible writer and actor. But as you go through life and especially a career in the arts, you see that people’s opinions can be subjective, and if one person doesn’t see your talents in one area it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Having a career in the arts is really fucking difficult sometimes, so now I just do whatever I want and the people who like what I do, like it, and those who don’t, don’t—and that’s okay. Sometimes, it’s hard to not let people’s negative opinions of you bring you down, but nobody’s trash opinion is worth being late to brunch over.
Tina: You mentioned Theatre Critic Trump was your way of dealing with the outcome of the 2016 election. What were your goals for this satirical booklet and what was the response to it so far?
Brandon: It’s funny because Theatre Critic Trump is the thing I’ve put the least effort into but it has by far achieved the widest audience. After the 2016 election, I was in a super dark place, so this satire of not only the president but of the entertainment industry was a great way to put things I was terrified of in a humorous context. If I can laugh at the things I’m scared of, I can overcome them. The Theatre Critic Trump book is something I wrote in like a day. It’s short, but people seem to really like it. I’d like to maybe do another book. I’ve been talking about doing it as a live show. We’ll see, I can’t play the part. I’m not good at impersonating “The President.”
Tina: The “party atmosphere” at the Arden Theatre, which you tried to promote, felt natural to me. Was this atmosphere something that evolved over time, or did you create it consciously?
Brandon: When Katie Frazer and I started our own production company, Love Drunk Life, we knew that we were going to be working in multiple disciplines. So now, when we throw events, we try to integrate as many disciplines as possible. That’s why, when people come to our Philly Fringe show, we greet them with live music, and an invitation to shop a little at our “live Etsy” shop, and drink wine.
We want audiences to come and have a live experience that is special to that day and time but also be able to shop and leave with something they can take home. I think as we continue as a company that party atmosphere and the types of art we present will just get bigger and better.
Tina: What are your goals as a writer, actor, and stage and film director for the foreseeable future?
Brandon: I want to work with good people and grow as a person and have that reflected in my art. Our company, Love Drunk Life, just released two short films: Self Tape, a pseudo-sequel to Happy Yummy Chicken, and Tree Time, an animated film—both part of the Digital Fringe. At the end of September, I’ll be acting in a new play in New York, That Feeling When You’re the County Sheriff, by Charlotte Lang, which I’m very excited about.
Tina: Is there anything else you wish to share?
Brandon: I want to do things that make me happy and make me learn more about myself and about the people surrounding me.
[Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd. Street]September 7-8, 2018; fringearts.com/event/the-living-dragon
This interview was originally published by Phindie on September 22, 2018.
By Tina Gill
Up-and-coming New Jersey native Brandon Monokian has worked as an actor, writer, director, producer, and popcorn sample distributor. He wrote and starred in the film Happy Yummy Chicken and co-founded the production company Love Drunk Life with Katie Frazer. Together they have produced plays, films, books, and, to support their creative work financially, a product line: lovedrunklife.com. Monokian received national attention through Revolutionary Readings (his TEDx talk at Princeton Library), which was used to fight the banning of the book Revolutionary Voices from two New Jersey libraries.
I spoke with Brandon at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival where his play, The Living Dragon, was being presented at the Arden Theatre. A satire on Sherlock Holmes and film noir, Monokian puts a fresh spin on the Jersey Devil legend. In this interview, the playwright talks about growing up in New Jersey, his artistic struggles, and his creative present and future.
Growing up in New Jersey
You live in Ocean City but grew up in Lumberton, New Jersey where, as a kid, you often visited the Pine Barrens, home of the Jersey Devil, as legend has it. How did you feel about the Jersey Devil as a child?
My grandmother would often take me to the Pine Barrens as a kid to go on hikes, and to go visit Batsto, which I still go to. The Jersey Devil was something I was always interested in. I thought it was cool, but it was also something I was scared of growing up. I definitely believed it was 100% real. Later, I knew I wanted to do a film noir style satire and thought creating the Jersey Devil the way we did for this play would help him stand out. The Jersey Devil in my play was made to be an opposite of what everyone thought he would be.
In one of your blogs, you discussed the banning of the book Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology from NJ public libraries, including your former high school—an event, which inspired you to work with others in developing Revolutionary Readings--a way of protesting the ban of such gay content. How important is queer representation to you, especially given our current social and political climate?
When Rancocas Valley Regional High School, my H.S. in Mt. Holly, and, my former library, Burlington County Public Library, banned Revolutionary Voices, my friends and I got together and performed readings throughout New Jersey of the book. It was an out-of-print book that wasn’t being checked out too regularly. Funny enough, by them banning the book, it started to get a lot more attention and other NJ libraries, such as Princeton Public Library, started carrying the book where they hadn’t before. So because the censors had tried to silence minority members, suddenly gay voices were being heard louder and clearer than before.
Our protest project, Revolutionary Readings, really just started because we were pissed off and wanted to take some action. So we put our theatre degrees to use and started doing theatrical readings of the book by any organization that would have us. We ended up getting invited by important places like Rutgers University and the New Jersey Library Association Conference among others.
Artistic gain can also be a financial drain
You said your film, Happy Yummy Chicken, was emotionally and financially draining.
Finance in the arts can be draining in more ways than one, but I think it pushes you to discover fantastic things you never would have discovered otherwise. I directed a production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice that had a small budget and the play called for a river to run through the set. We made a river out of recycled plastic bottles and people responded well to it.
In Happy Yummy Chicken, a line that always gets a huge laugh is, “A lot of people that do shows here bring in incredible sets, but, we ran out of money so instead we just drew pictures of chickens.” If I had the budget, there would have been a big set, but we were broke so pictures of chickens it was! I’m glad, because the moment works so well and speaks honestly to the struggle of many art makers.
There was some cool “merch” for sale at the show, which is used to pay for productions. Is the cost of producing the merchandise and the time involved worth the effort?
We’re lucky because my family owns a laser etching store so they let us create all the products there for a good price. It helps the company financially but it also is fulfilling creatively because we get to create the kinds of products that we would want to use as artists. We have an Etsy page that is starting to do quite well, so we want to expand that and set up pop-up shop style sales with live performances like we did at the Philly Fringe.
What are your creative plans for the future?
At the end of September, I’ll be acting in a new play in New York by Charlotte Lang, which I’m very excited about. So, hopefully this momentum keeps going. I thought I was done creating things after doing Happy Yummy Chicken, so to feel the need to create again is a fantastic feeling.
This interview was originally published by New Jersey Stage on September 19, 2018.
By Tina Gill
As the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, I found Jon and Marissa Edelman’s powerful tragic-comic drama VILLAIN relevant to my own life and to the times in which we all live as Americans.
The events take place in Clear Springs, a small town in 1930s America that is anything but clear. Immigrants called Villainians live in their own Villaintown close by. They dress much like the stereotypical villains in old silent films with top hats and mustaches twirling—hilarious types that would tie young women to the train tracks.
Set against this outlandish and comical backdrop, the play captures the story of many immigrants — Ivo Talaka (played earnestly and with full conviction by Dan Faro), who comes to America from the country of Villainia for a better life, is faced with discrimination, bigotry, and injustice. Murder and corruption enter the plot when Ivo is accused of killing the mayor’s daughter.
The bulk of this play takes place during the Ivo’s trial, which is less about his guilt or innocence than about the anti-immigrant sentiments of the people of Clear Springs, including the mayor and the judge overseeing the trial. Ivo’s passionate and witty defense lawyer (played powerfully by Russell Imwold) presented another buffer to the hard issues tackled in this drama through his sarcasm.
What makes someone more American than someone else? Is it the number of years a person’s family has lived in the U.S.? Ivo’s prosecutor (Steve Norris Jr, convincing in his role as a mean-spirited ideologue) brags, “My family has been here for 200 years.” Ivo replies, “What about 200 years from now?” The prosecutor hits back, “Then mine would have been here for 400 years!”
Ivo does not give up and addresses the plight of Native Americans, an act that causes outrage in the courtroom, stacked with Clear Springs-ians, while some people in the audience nodded their heads as if to agree with sad facts being presented about Native Americans.
The actors on stage mouthed the poisonous prejudice against immigrants with great conviction: “Go back to your own country.” From the witness stand, Ivo says many Villainians came to America for a better life, asking if that is wrong? Almost imploring the audience to answer: “Why do certain people feel that some immigrants are not real Americans?”
When Ivo is being attacked by the prosecutor, another Villainian can take it no more and shouts, “E pluribus unum, out of many one,”—the official motto on US currency—but the plea falls on deaf ears. Ivo’s wife (Taylor Rouillard’s scream at the verdict sent shivers down my spine) holds onto their little daughter for dear life as if even the little kid were on trial as well, an image reminiscent of those of children separated from their immigrant parents by this administration.
Between scenes, the stage lights faded to black to allow for set changes, but this was also used for dramatic effect during gasp-worthy moments. These light changes allowed us to process, at least for a moment, what had happened. There was also narration during this time, which was sometimes hard to hear, especially during set changes, but the content and acting outweighed minor issues such as this one.
The play could be taken as a thinly veiled take on Donald Trump’s America, but it goes beyond that. The persecution of immigrants has been a long-standing issue in U.S. After 9/11 many U.S. citizens openly expressed their anger and animosity toward anyone who looked as if they had come from Southeast Asia or the Middle East. Aggressive xenophobia goes back to the beginning of the U.S. when Native Americans were treated as outsiders and enemies.
It would be easy to be cynical and have this play end on a note of indifference and divisiveness, but VILLAIN ends on a note of hope. The final scene fades to black as “This Land is Your Land” plays. It’s a tear-jerker. The serious message comes through the laughs and that is something I wasn’t expecting and something that made this play stand out. “As long as the stars shine in America,” Ivo writes, suggesting that there is a chance for a better future for everyone. That’s a sentiment all immigrants hope for.
[Jon & Marissa Edelman at Philly Improv Theatre, Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street] September 12-15, 2018; https://fringearts.com/event/villain; phitcomedy.com
This review was originally published by Phindie on September 17, 2018.
Recently I re-watched the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor.” This time around, I was struck by the character of Vincent Van Gogh's depression and suffering. The portrayal resonated with me and I began reading up on Van Gogh's life and struggles. While I knew the generalities of Van Gogh's history, I had never delved too deep into his emotional and mental hardships.
Today, Vincent Van Gogh is seen as one of the greatest artists of all time but during his life his often erratic behavior caused many to think him mad, for lack of a better term. Given what we know today, it is likely he had some type of mental illness. But what type of mental illness did Van Gogh actually have?
Van Gogh was no doubt an incredible talent but his mental issues often caused him a great deal of strife. There have been many different theories surrounding Van Gogh's mental health. According to the book, Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists, previous diagnoses for Van Gogh's condition have not been based on medical evidence, but instead on his life and works. Neurologist Anthony Corrota claims, he had "bipolar disorder, affective or schizoaffective" (Corota, 2005).
Van Gogh's case for bipolar disorder is quite strong, given his extremes highs, including prolific creativity, erratic and impulsive behavior and equally extreme lows which included severe depression, outbursts, and psychotic episodes, including cutting of part of his ear (Cororta, 2005). His lifestyle of drugs and drinking may have exacerbated his condition, and also caused him to experience seizures as well as paranoid delusions (Rosenik, 2008). Van Gogh's art displays the extreme emotions he felt. His use of color represents those emotions with great effect. Much of his artwork is full of bright colors, especially yellow, and shows the beauty of nature, such as Sunflowers and the famous Starry Night, which showed the beauty of light against the darkness. But he also used browns and darker tones to show decay or death like in the ominous Wheatfield with Crows.
While it is impossible to truly diagnose Van Gogh's illness, his mental health seemed to be what caused his tragic end. Despite his troubled life, Vincent Van Gogh was an incredible artist who used both his extreme suffering and ecstasy to create some of the greatest art the world has ever known.
Article originally posted on Psych2go.net in 2016.
Fast, .J (2012 8 March) Retrieved from bphope.com/blog/did-vincent-van-gogh-have-bipolar-disorder/
Blumer, D. (2002 April) Retrieved from http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/appi.ajp.159.4.519
Rosenhek, J. (2008 May) Retrieved from http://www.doctorsreview.com/history/artfully-insane/
(“Van Gogh's Mental and Physical Health N.d) Retrieved from http://www.vangoghgallery.com/misc/mental.html
(“Had Vincent Van Gogh Bipolar Disorder” 2014 08 November) Retrieved from http://www.neuro-la-cote.info/cognition-and-behavior/had-vincent-van-gogh-a-bipolar-disorder/
Probst, C. (Top 10 Facts About Vincent Van Gogh) Retrieved from http://blog.degreed.com/top-10-facts-about-vincent-van-gogh/
I personally love fiction—all forms of it, from movies to books to television. I enjoy exploring the fictional worlds and especially getting to know the characters that inhabit those worlds. Growing up, it was always something I could easily get lost in, and it still is now. I know there are many people that feel this way as well. We become attached to these characters, defensive of them, and can be distraught if they are hurt or worst of all killed. We root for them and become personally invested in their romantic relationships. But why do we relate to fictional characters so much? Here are four reasons:
Fictional characters can give us insight into the lives of people in the real world. In Blakey Vermeule’s book, Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?, she writes, “People need to know what people are like.” We often wonder about others and what they are thinking, and fiction give us “[i]nformation that would be too costly, dangerous, and difficult to extract from the world on our own.” We are so involved in their worlds, their day-to-day lives, their struggles, and the emotions they feel. We are right there with them when no one else is, and so we feel especially connected, even more so when we know what they are thinking. This is something that could never be achieved in real life (Lodder, 2013).
2. The Writer’s ability/style
The writer’s abilities can also play a role in our attachment to characters. They create interesting and likable characters. This is something I can attest to; when reading The Catcher in the Rye, it really felt like I was there with Holden walking the streets of NYC in the 1940’s. Vermeule states this as well saying, “Writers have developed ‘tools’ to stimulate our mind, grab our attention and keep us interested” (Lodder, 2013).
Music is another element used to evoke emotion. In movies and television, there is always music to fit every type of scene. “Music can ‘entrain’ our body, causing our heart rate to synchronize with the beat, affecting our mood through pitch and melody” (Hillman, 2014). The Star Wars saga is best known for using musical motifs for characters as well as using music to deepen the emotions portrayed on screen, which draws us further into the story and what the characters are going through.
Empathy allows us to feel what the characters are feeling. Mirror neurons in the brain cause us to feel happy, sad, or angry when we see someone else experiencing these emotions (Hillman, 2014). This allows and even closer connection to the character. We experience changes with them, whether they be good or bad. In Harry Potter, you are right there with him in some of his darkest moments, which allowed the reader to go through those same emotions and understand Harry’s motivations and fears. Characters can become like our friends or even an extension of ourselves. According to Howard Sklar, a post-doctoral researcher in the English Philology Unit at the University of Helsinki, “[a]s anyone who has watched an engaging film or read an engaging novel knows, we invest ourselves deeply in the experience of living with those characters. We tend to respond to them as though they were real individuals” (Nuwer, 2013).
4. Human need
We as people need to relate our lives to other people. And this means relating our lives to those of others. This can also be true when relating to fictional characters since fiction and storytelling are so embedded into the culture of humanity.
When a person feels marginalized or like an outcast, they may tend to gravitate toward characters who share those same qualities. This may act as a form of therapy, and comfort for the person (Hillman, 2014). Human beings have been telling stories for thousands of years, so perhaps it is human nature to relate to characters and the stories in which they exist (Delistraty, 2014). We may also try to view our lives as a similar narrative, wanting to be part of a larger story. We hope in our own stories; despite our own trials, we will overcome and have our own version of a happy ending. Because like many stories tell us, if it’s not happy, it’s not the end.
(Article Originally posted on Psych2go.net in 2015.)
Edited by: Kim Rooney
Delistraty, C. C. (2014 November 2) The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/the-psychological-comforts-of-storytelling/381964/
Hillman, K. (2014 November 13) Why Do We Identify With Fictional Character Retrieved from http://www.psychology24.org/why-do-we-identify-with-fictional-characters/
Lodder, D. (2013 August 7) Why We Care About Fictional Characters And Why Cote de Pablo’s Departure Hurts Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dianne-lodder/why-we-care-about-fiction_b_3721738.html
Newer, R. (2013 July 15) The Psychology of Character Bonding: Why We Feel a Real Connection to Actors Retrieved from http://www.wheretowatch.com/2013/07/the-psychology-of-character-bonding-why-we-feel-a-real-connection-to-actors
Image not mine.