Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Gnap! Theatre Projects'
Is In Dutch But Good

                                                   PHOTO BY KENNETH GALL

Back in the day ~ and I mean back in the day, when tall ships ruled the seas and human flight was centuries away; back when the British were dissing Netherlanders so constantly that a small squadron of adjectival phrases barnacled itself onto the shifting hull of everyday speech ~ being “in Dutch” meant being in disfavor with someone.

 That meaning still obtains, although, these days, the term is mostly vestigial. It’s used in the title above to suggest an answer to the riddle: When is Shannon McCormick not Shannon McCormick?

Because that McCormick ~ the founder & artistic director of Gnap! Theatre Projects, the male half of Austin improv duo Get Up, a former producer of the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, a former member of Backpack Picnic, a frequent voice actor for all manner of animated endeavors, and so on, and so on ~ that McCormick’s got sort of an alter ego who goes by the name of Cornelius de Vries.

Now, Cornelius is not a relentless identity ~ like Sybil or something. Cornelius is a definite staged show: An ongoing series of one-man improvised monologues, in which McCormick relates the various experiences of a Dutch merchant who lived from the years 1600 to 1700.

I know, right? It sounds a bit … drier than the typical entertainments found in the often-wacky world of improv. And this anomaly is why it’s initially intriguing, but there are two reasons why the concept continues to fascinate: 1) The character’s life is fascinating, and 2) McCormick’s skill in bringing that life to vivid expression is nonpareil. The show even succeeds among general audiences looking for their usual idea of comedy improv, because, although the performances are never worked specifically for laughs, Cornelius himself can be quite witty.

So I’m focusing on Cornelius not just because that was a good excuse for the title’s pun, no. (I mean, hey, heaven forfend.) But neither am I showcasing the character only because the character is so intellectually fascinating. After all, McCormick himself, like most ~ hell, like maybe all ~ of the people featured in this ongoing Wreck, is sufficiently Of Interest without having to spotlight some fictional herring-chomper of a geezer he portrays in various venues across town.

 No, the Cornelius focus was sparked by its visual potential. Due to the excellence of full-color print technology. Due to the sartorial gambits afforded by a 17th-century spice merchant. Due to the professional skills and generosity of photographer Jon Bolden.

                                     I mean, just look at this finely draped peacock:

                                                     PHOTO BY JON BOLDEN

So let’s never mind McCormick’s original one-man show, Unbeaten, for which he collaborated with composer Graham Reynolds and videographer Lowell Bartholomee to create and perform a live, multicharacter narrative about two brothers battling each other on opposing pro football teams. Never mind him providing the voices of Akabane Kuroudo for the Getbackers anime and The Riddler in that new DC Universe MMORPG. Never mind his years wrangling the annual operational juggernaut that is the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival. And never mind the college-era writing awards, the sojourn in Prague, the stint as Mysterion in The Intergalactic Nemesis, the year and a half as program manager at Salvage Vanguard Theater, the wife and two kids and gray-muzzled Rhodesian Ridgeback, the daunting knowledge of pop and esoteric culture.

Never mind any of that personal and creative bounty. Except as background shading, as what underlies only the first of the two pages of interview that follow and end with a brief conversation with the resplendent Mr. de Vries …

Brenner: The Out of Bounds Comedy Festival ~ you didn’t start that, and you’re not producing it now. But you did for a while, right?

McCormick: I produced it for five years. And in a lot of ways, I think they were the formative five years. It was run for two years by Jeremy Lamb, who started it, and the Well Hung Jury. And I don’t think there was anybody playing who was from outside of Texas those first two years. Maaaaaybe one or two people. And then, in 2004, Mike D’Alonzo and I took over the production of it, and we concentrated on getting people from out of town to apply. We expanded the range and established the reputation of Out of Bounds as a great place to come and play.

Brenner: And besides making it a national thing, weren’t you and D’Alonzo also the guys who moved the festival into formats beyond improv?

McCormick: I think that probably would’ve happened regardless of who was doing it. I don’t even remember when we first started including sketch. There may have been sketch in 2002, 2003, and a lot of that had to do with who we knew. 

Brenner: Like the Edmond Bulldogs and the Latino Comedy Project?

McCormick: Exactly. I mean, frankly, there wasn’t enough improv in Austin back in the day to fill up even a three-day festival.

Brenner: Which seems really weird now.

McCormick: Totally. It’s completely different.

Brenner: And what does producing mean, at least as far as the OOB is concerned?

McCormick: It’s about making sure that all of the aspects of the shows, besides the art itself, come off well. So: marketing, website maintenance, ticket sales, making sure that all the performers coming in from out of town have accommodations of one kind or another and are taken care of, made to feel welcome. It’s a huge time commitment ~ it’s definitely a labor of love. And when I had my second child, I decided that it was just too much effort for what I was gonna be able to give it. And Jeremy came back on as a producer, and now he’s the sole executive producer of the festival.

Brenner: How was running the OOB different than being artistic director of Gnap! Theater?

McCormick: Well, that’s the other thing: I wanted to concentrate on producing my own work. And, producing Out of Bounds, it’s a lot of time and effort to showcase other people and their talents and putting them forward. And that’s fine, there’s a place for that, and I think it’s a noble thing to do. But since I had to make a choice, I wanted to be in a spot where I was concentrating more on producing my work and the work that I wanted to see come into the world independent of anybody else’s artistic notions.

Brenner: And what sort of things do you do, day-to-day producing Gnap!?

McCormick: My main responsibilities are programming the shows, figuring out what it is that we’re gonna do. Not necessarily directing them ~ in fact, I direct very few of them ~ but making sure that the shows that we do produce have a certain feel, that they fit in with our outlook, and creating the space for people to make their shows.

Brenner: What is that outlook? Where does the name Gnap! come from?

McCormick: It’s a terrible name for a theatre company. Nobody can remember it, they always mispronounce it. It started when I was an undergrad, and ~ no, let’s take this all the way back to when I was a little kid.

So there was an episode of The Smurfs called “The Purple Smurfs,” which is based on one of the actual Smurf comics from the 60s, by Peyo, called “The Black Smurfs.” But when Hanna-Barbera adapted it for the US market in the early ’80s, they felt that having the bad Smurfs be black was maybe not a PC way to go. So in the episode, some kind of butterfly bites one of the Smurfs on the tail and it renders the Smurf very angry, very aggressive and purple and highly contagious. So what the purple Smurfs do, they jump around and bite other Smurfs on the ass while shouting “Gnap! Gnap! Gnap!” That’s their vocabulary ~ it’s reduced to shouting “Gnap!” And it spreads like wildfire.

I can’t even remember how they solve the plague, but it is a plague. I mean, this insane Ionesco-like plague is visited upon the Smurfs. I think Smurfette, as a female, was immune to the thing, so it’s also, since it’s the early ’80s, it’s also this weird AIDS kind of metaphor, even though it wasn’t. But I found it to be one of the most trippy, subversive pieces of pop culture that I came into contact with as a kid,  and it’s really disturbing. Those purple Smurfs, I mean, they’re really angry.

And so I was in college and, as you are wont to do in your early 20s, you obsess over and talk a lot about the pop-culture icons from your youth? And I used to talk about that episode all the time, about what a strange thing it was. And I had a group of friends who used to go to readings at the University of Iowa all the time ~ there were always a lot of awesome readers that would come because of the writing workshop there. And I don’t remember which writer it was, but it may have been J.M. Coetzee, the South African Nobel Prize Laureate? And he gave one of the most boring readings I’ve been to in my entire life. We joked that if you played his reading backwards, it would be him saying “I also won the Booker Prize.”

                                                              J.M. COETZEE 
                                                                          PHOTO BY MARIUSZ KUBIK

So it may have been that reading, or it may have been another one, where the author’s books were published by Knopf. So it was, “Blah-blah-blah from Knopf Publishing.” And my friend leaned over to me and whispered “Gnap! Publishing,” because of the similarly strange, pronounced letter at the beginning of it. And I found it really hilarious. And it stuck with me, and I thought, “That should be the name of something.” And so, when I started producing No Shame Theatre at the Hideout back in 2001, I decided that would be the name of the company.

And “stuck” is maybe not the right word: I have clung to it.

I should also say, though, that there’s something about it that speaks to the aesthetic I’m interested in. Which is: Having things be simultaneously really weird or subversive or just nuts, with things that are wrapped in this umbrella of popularity or just some kind of pop veneer. And which gets more emphasis, I’m not sure, but there’s something really powerful about that, that I’m really interested in. And also as a metaphor for theatre, I’m most interested in that kind of work that’s maybe a little bit infectious, that gets spread by word of mouth, the way the Gnap! disease gets spread. I think any artist’s ideal is to have that level of you’ve-gotta-know-about-this surrounding their work.

Brenner: Okay, here’s what must be a perennial question: You’re married, you have two young kids, you have a day job, and  besides being a frequent performer and producer you’re also a relentless and rather deep consumer of more types of culture and creativity than I can keep track of, so ~ where the fuck do you find the time?

McCormick: I drink a lot of coffee. And it probably comes at the expense of other things. I am involved in a lot of  things, and I’m maybe not as efficient in any one of those as I might be, were I not as busy in all the others. Gnap! would be better run if I didn’t also spend so much time reading or pursuing obscure comics on the Web as I do. And my marriage might be better if I didn’t also run a theatre company. All these things are wrapped up around each other. [shrugs] I’m just doing what I can, man.

Brenner: Where did your Cornelius character come from?

McCormick: It was a show in search of an idea, actually. ColdTowne Theater opened their venue back in the fall of 2006, right? And they were programming it, and Get Up ~ Shana [Merlin] and I ~ were sort of the first people to open up the improv community to the ColdTowne guys. We met them and rehearsed with them back when they first moved here, and I think they felt, “Oh, we should ask Get Up to play at our theatre.” So we booked a series of shows in December of 2006, and then Shana realized she wasn’t gonna be in town for most of the dates. So I needed to come up with a solo show. And there’s a pretty famous performer in the improv world, named Susan Messing, and her show is called “Messing With A Friend,” where she invites another performer to play and they do a two-person show. So I was thinking, “What can I do with my name that would be a sort of clever pun and also set up a solo improv format?” So I was thinking of famous instances of McCormick, and of course there’s McCormick Spices, which is probably the most famous one. And I was like, “Hey, I know a lot about 17th century Dutch culture! I’ll do an improv show where I’m this old guy who’s lived through an entire century and can just tell stories about it, as a spice trader.”

Brenner: You just ... happen to know so much about 17th century Dutch culture?

McCormick: When I was an undergrad, I was an art history minor, and I’ve always had a real affinity for Dutch art of that period. And when you learn about the art of that time, you end up learning a lot about the history of the Dutch republic as well.

Brenner: Ah. And is Cornelius ready to be interviewed right now?

McCormick: Sure. Of course.  

[Except now it’s not precisely McCormick speaking: There’s a Dutch accent shading his speech ~ “Shoo-uh,” he says, “Uf caws.” His shoulders are slightly hunched, his head is drooping, his expressive hands suggesting the faintest tremor ~ as befits a geezer, regardless how physically fit, of circa 100 years. The slightly bemused look blooming on the man’s pale face is not one of McCormick regarding his friend Brenner but of Herr de Vries preparing to be questioned by some foreign journalist less than half his age.]

Brenner: Would you state for the record, sir, your name?

de Vries: Cornelius Corneliuszoon de Vries.

Brenner: Corneliuszoon? 

de Vries: Corneliuszoon means “son of Cornelius.” That is the middle name of the Dutch, typically the father’s name, and so I am Cornelius, son of Cornelius.

Brenner: Kind of like Cornelius, Jr.

de Vries: Something like this.

Brenner: And what time are you speaking from? I mean, do you exist in our present, or …?

de Vries: The time is ~ what is the day, today? ~ April the ninth. Of 1700. I have recently celebrated my 100th birthday and have a century of knowledge of the past.

Brenner: How do you account for having lived so long ~ especially from the 1600s, when life expectancy was much lower than it is now?

de Vries: It is good hygiene. Also, ah, addiction to swimming in seawater, which is good for health of all kinds. And a daily glass of port ~ only one. And also, of course, the use of spices: pepper and other things that make life worth living.

Brenner: What’s your relationship with the Dutch East India Company?

de Vries: [smiles] Ah, you have asked a complicated question. But I have at times worked for them, including, at one point, having risen to the position of governor of some plantations in the Jakarta area, where there are many plantations of pepper and mace and nutmeg and things of this sort. I have worked at the, how would you say, corporate headquarters in Amsterdam ~ the V.O.C.’s main offices, where they dispatch many of the ships and keep the records of their trading. At other times I have been against them, as an independent raider of goods and services.

Brenner: You mean ... like a pirate?

de Vries: Like a privateer or pirate, yes ~ on my own ship or the ships of others. So we are a very strange relationship. We are, ah, twined ~ like the ropes on a ship. They are made of many strands, sometimes one is on top and the other is on the bottom: This is how I am related to the V.O.C.

Brenner: Did you have any involvement in the Tulip Mania?

de Vries: I was a young man, and I was abroad at the height of the tulip frenzy. But, also, my recommendation is for all who speculate in goods of all kinds, to buy early and sell early as well ~ because that is where the profits are. And I did trade a bulb of an Augustin’s tulip, for approximately 500 guilder at the time, then parted before the crash came. So I did very well with the tulip mania, unlike some of my countrymen ~ who were crazed by the flowers.

Brenner: What events in your childhood helped to make you the man you are today?

de Vries: I believe probably the most important was being, how do you say, taken to serve on ship against my will, as a young man.

Brenner: What we would call Shanghai’d.

de Vries: Yes. And this led to life on the sea. As a child at home, I was apprenticed to a tailor and would have spent my life sewing the clothes of aldermen and other wealthy individuals. Now I buy the clothes made by tailors.

Brenner: Were you reunited with your family, after you came back from the sea?

de Vries: Many of them.

Brenner: Many of them?

de Vries: I should say, I have had many families ~ in all parts of the world ~ and some are no more, and some know of me, and some, ah, want no knowledge of me.

Brenner: So you’ve reached your 100th birthday here. And what’s it been like, watching so many people that you’ve cared for ... watching so many of them die as the years have piled up?

de Vries: It is quite tragic, of course, to see this happen. But death comes for all, and we should not mourn the cycle of life that takes us away. Sometimes I wish that I had gone earlier than I have, for these reasons. It is also, em, quite painful to be so old.

Brenner: Cornelius, you’ve been all over the world, living the sort life most men can only dream of. With all of that behind you now, how do you pass the time of day?

de Vries: Drinking. And, also, with the telling of tales. Now that I am too old for new adventures, I stay young by reliving my youth, and a new energy comes over me.