Playwright Gabrielle Reisman’s Top 5 influences for “Flood City,” opening The NOLA Project’s 2016-17 season

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“FLOOD CITY”
WHAT: The NOLA Project presents its 2016-17 season opener, written by Gabrielle Reisman, directed by Mark Routhier, and starring Ashley Ricord Santos, Keith Claverie, Amy Alvarez, Trey Burvant, Ian Hoch, Jessica Lozano, Matthew Thompson
WHEN: Thurs.-Sat. (Sept. 1-3), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Sept. 4), 2 p.m.; through Sept. 17
WHERE: New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), 2800 Chartres St.
TICKETS: Thursdays and Sundays: $30 general admission & $20 for NOLA Project Backstage Pass Members. Fridays and Saturdays: $35 general admission & $25 for NPBPM. Purchase online at www.nolaproject.com or by calling 504-302-9117.

“Flood City” already was remarkably timed as The NOLA Project’s 2016-17 season opener, what with its proximity to the 11th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The recent floods in Louisiana — first in March, in north Louisiana, and the a couple weeks ago in south Louisiana — make playwright Gabrielle Reisman’s world premiere feel downright prescient. But as with lots of productions, there’s a lot more to “Flood City” than just water, as we’ll learn from Reisman after requesting her influences for this work — her third produced by The NOLA Project, which mounted “Taste in 2009 and Catch the Wall” in 2013. This production is directed by Mark Routhier. Here’s what Reisman had to say about it:

“Flood City” charts the wake of The Johnstown Flood of 1889. The flood has destroyed the bustling steel town of Johnstown, Penn., and left a motley crew of survivors and surveyors to clean up and rebuild. Meanwhile, at a bar in Johnstown a century later, laid-off steel workers wax metaphoric about past lives and future ambitions. Traversing time and space, the play is an all-too-apt mirror of our present times. It takes a darkly comic look at both the lunacy of rebuilding and the strength it takes to clean up and start over.

Though I watched a fair amount of Johnstown Flood documentaries, 1980s country music videos and revivalist church services in writing this play, these five videos most influenced the dark-hopeful magic I was trying to build in “Flood City.”

“Telephone,” Lady Gaga — These U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s version of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” may be my favorite thing on the Internet. I love the combination of completely earnest choreography and fabulous DIY costumes against the intense polish of the pop music. Add to this the fact that it was made in the strange anti-space of an occupying army base in a war zone. It’s more Dadaist than anything Lady Gaga herself could dream up. “Flood City” is about a bunch of folks making something out of nothing in the midst of disaster. It employs a similar sense of play and peril. A man moves nonchalantly through the wreckage with a pipe sticking out of his head. Two women sell bits of broken flood relics to first responders. There’s a blitheness-of-necessity inside the catastrophe.

“Don” — I’ve been enamored with the 1978 Bollywood film“Don” since I was in high school. “Don” follows a charismatic crime boss (Don), the woman who wants to see him dead, the man who begins impersonating him, and their complicated romance. I’ve spent years looking at Bollywood songs from this period because they usually involve a character singing a secret to the person the secret’s about. The person they’re singing to can totally hear the words, but it’s as if the song takes place in some sort of breakaway dream moment. When it’s over, we as audience know more about the person singing and their secret intentions, but the person who heard the song is none the wiser. In this song, the man impersonating Don is telling Don’s criminal brethren he’s not who they think he is and he is tricking them all. You can read a weird translation of it here. In “Flood City,” and in all my plays, I’m interested in the moments where characters casually break the fourth wall and the ways giving an audience secret knowledge invests them in the world. There’s also a lightness/sharpness/silliness to this video that I love so hard. We’ve been playing with that same light/sharp/silly combo as we put the play on its feet.

“Get Into the Groove,” Madonna — In “Flood City,” the survivors of the Johnstown Flood live onstage simultaneously with a dive bar of newly out-of-work steel men in 1992. When I was figuring out how these two times intersected in the play, I was listening to a lot of pop and country songs from the late 1980s and early ’90s. Writers do this sort of lucky-socks thing where we’ll hear a song that makes us see something new about our play then we obsessively listen to it on repeat like its a portal for all of our play’s secrets. Madonna’s “Get Into the Groove” was this song on this play. The upbeat call to dance was somehow the perfect discordant window to these jobless, uncertain steel men.

“Funnel of Love,” Wanda Jackson — This song makes me swoon every time I hear it. It’s sexy and a little scary. There’s queerness and down-the-rabbit-hole quality to the song that I dig so much. While “Get Into the Groove” feels like the way 1992 operates inside a story about folks in 1889, “Funnel of Love” is the way these two times are dancing up on each other: an off tempo two step between different disasters a century apart.

“Tambourine Praise,” Jacolby Parker — “Flood City” skirts a little with miracles and faith. I spent a lot of time parsing through spirituals of the late 1800s, as well as the ballads and parlor music that was written about the Johnstown Flood itself. In the end, though, the thing that spoke to me most were Baptist tambourine breaks, and the sermons that lead right up to these breaks. Of all the videos I watched, and even of my memories visiting Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in the 1990s, this post by Jacolby Parker gets me the most. It is so simple and so personal and so skillful. I wanted to touch on the hope inherent in rebuilding and the way we have to give ourselves over sometimes to a higher power — the rigor and joy it takes to let go and move forward.

 

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