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Interview with Fringe Arts

Anisa George Plumbs the Darker Side of Super-fandom

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Anisa George – Founder and Artistic Director of the Philadelphia-based company George & Co – is no stranger to the power of art.  She grew up performing with her parents’ theater company, Touchstone Theater, and her short films and plays have traveled the world.  In Holden, coming to FringeArts October 8-17, she explores the darker side of artistic impact.  Salinger’s obsessed super-fans have taken up residence in his writing bunker, dead-set on convincing him to publish again.  As the play unfolds and violent impulses are revealed, their mission spirals into a bonfire of longing and delusion.  We caught up with Anisa earlier this year, before Holden premiered in New Ohio Theatre’s Ice Factory Festival in New York City, to ask her what inspired her to create this dark and extraordinary play.

FA:  Why is the title Holden? Where were you when you thought of it?

AG: Holden comes from Holden Caulfield, as in the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye. Not that the play is so much about Holden, as it is about a number of people who were obsessed with him, and believed that they were him. Starting with Salinger himself, who said that if Catcher was ever adapted into a play or film he’d have to play Holden himself, but he’d never do that because he feared “that would make Holden unhappy”. I don’t know where exactly I was when I thought of it, but it’s been called that since the very beginning of the piece’s development. We’ve never wavered.

FA: What’s the world of the piece? Both literally (as in the set/setting) and the “world” the characters inhabit mentally.

AG: Well those two things go hand in hand, because the world of the piece is very much a mental space and not a literal space. I mean, on one level you could say it takes place in Salinger’s writing bunker, which he built for himself in Cornish, NH – but our bunker is very much a bunker of the mind.

FA: How much are you playing off the book, and how so?

AG: We’re not quoting the book at all, nor are we playing characters from the book. That would be highly illegal, and a sure way of insuring that our play had no future. The book basically changed the lives of many of our characters, and that gave us a point-of-view when we were creating them. It was like a dowsing rod in sourcing the wellspring of their rages and their obsessions.

Holden_Jaime Maseda _photo by plate3.com IMG_7912

FA: What led you to be interested in the obsessed fan, particularly the literary obsessed, who seem to be their own brand of weird?

AG:  Yeah, it’s a very specific brand of weird, but I think as an artist they appeal to me because their lives testify to the power of art, even if it’s a negative, corrosive kind of power. We’re much busier in our culture talking about the transformative power of art in a positive sense, but transformation can look destructive as well, and I’ve always been interested in people’s shifting relationship to authoring art with that kind of negative potential. Like the fact that Jonathan Demme didn’t want to direct the sequel to The Silence of The Lambs after he had kids. It’s very inspiring to me that acts of fiction can feel so consequential – that art is not just for inspiring dinner conversations, but can bound into the world like a slobbering beast.

FA: What are you (or what do you think you will be) fine-tuning in the latter parts of putting the show together?

AG: Well, we’re making changes all day every day right now. Changes that feel both big and small. I think the basic world of the piece, and the constellation of characters that exist within it, will remain the same – but because it’s such an unconventional world – that dwells within this impossible time and place that is both real and psychological – clarifying the logic of the words and actions of our characters is very complex. Most of what they do and say needs to mean two or three things simultaneously. We’re anchored to real history, but we’re not making a historical drama. We spend a lot of time sifting through possible layers of interpretation, and every time we show the piece to some new people more layers emerge and have to be integrated.

Thank you Anisa!  Can’t wait!

Directing My Dad

Dad, rehearsal

Back in July of 2014, I started working on a new piece I was calling HOLDEN. At that point it was going to be about three major assassinations of the 1980’s that were linked to the novel The Catcher in the Rye. As I was gathering together a group of collaborators and co-conspirators to join me in the workshop, my father – a theater artist himself – started getting curious. Curious in the way where it was obvious he wanted in. He loves Catcher more than most people I know. He told me once that there was a time in his twenties when he was pretty set on killing himself, and that Catcher was one of the novels that kept him from the brink.  One day he even said, “You know what I think your play needs? An older Holden.” And of course, my first reaction, was “No. No. No. Absolutely not.”

My dad is one of the founding members of Touchstone Theatre, an ensemble theater company based in Bethlehem, PA, and both my brother and I spent the majority of our childhood watching him work or working with him. The thought of us working together always propels me back to some dark touring days and an awkward adolescence I never wish to relive. But somehow the thought of “an older Holden” took root in me. Maybe this older Holden was the original creator of Holden himself – the hermetic, and inimitable J.D. Salinger.

That first July we worked on the project, I invited my dad to come down for one rehearsal, and right away there felt like there was something important in the space – a kind of dramatic backbone we could build the piece around. By the time we had reached the second workshop in March, 2015 I had written a draft and it looked like some kind of incarnation of an older Holden was going to play a pretty integral part.

Today, in regards to the question, “How’s HOLDEN going?”, or “How’s HOLDEN different?”,  or even “How are you?” –  the answer “I’M DIRECTING MY DAD!” has been right there ready to leap out at anybody who asked. At some point it occurred to me that, before this show was done, it would be good to corral us both into an audio booth and squeeze a good hour long confession out of both of us. But if that was the case, I was probably going to have to hogtie the dialogue myself. And so I did. Here it goes – 75 minutes between my dad and I in a South Philly closet (it was the quietest place we could find).