Talking about The Talkback: Interview with The Berserker Residents

Posted June 5th, 2014

“We are satirizing everyone we’ve ever worked with and also our own lives as artists. No one is safe.”

Clockwise: Bradley K. Wrenn, Justin Jain, David Johnson

Clockwise: Bradley K. Wrenn, Justin Jain, David Johnson

For the next three Sunday evenings, the Berserker Residents will present in-progress showings of The Talkback at FringeArts (140 N. Columbus Boulevard). Philadelphia-based artists Justin Jain, David Johnson, and Bradley K. Wrenn joined forces in 2007 and created The Berserker Residents, performing a fantastical blend of physical theater, puppetry, music, sketch, and prop comedy. The group is in residence at FringeArts in June to finesse their 2013 Fringe Festival hit, The Talkback, before taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.

Part-scripted and part-improvisation, The Talkback begins at the end of a show the audience has never seen, leading the audience through a discussion of the unseen show, which then goes completely awry. Curious, we went to Justin, David, and Bradley for the inside scoop on creating The Talkback, and what they’ll be working on while at FringeArts.

FringeArts: What was the inspiration for The Talkback?

Brad: It started back when Justin was a FringeArts LAB fellow. We had found ourselves in a rut. We were making the same show over and over. We spent a week or so exploring new ideas and trying figure out how we could mix things up and make ourselves uncomfortable. We finally hit on the post-production discussion as a format.

We generally aren’t big fans of improv, it makes us weak in the knees just thinking about it. But our aim was to disrupt our usual patterns, and we love playing with an audience. The form also allowed us to be ourselves, literally. We aren’t playing characters really, we keep our real names and plop ourselves into a fake theater company at the end of a fake show.

Dave: We often rehearse long blocks of stream-of-consciousness improvisation that make us laugh and push the boundaries of our own comfort as far as what is funny—and go on way too long. At one point we thought: how can we make this a show?

FringeArts: How did The Berserker Residents form?

Brad: The Berserker Residents didn’t form. The Berserker Residents have always been. Just like time or love or war. We were forged in the heart of a dying star and we’ll be here long after this feeble experiment called humanity has been snuffed out.

Dave: Brad and Justin wanted to create a show and they knew something was missing. ME!

Justin: In 2006 we came together to make The Jersey Devil for the Fringe Festival of that year. We do divide the labor. An unseen Berserker is Meghan Walsh, who also takes on some of our administrative work.

David Johnson, Bradley K. Wrenn, Justin Jain

David Johnson, Bradley K. Wrenn, Justin Jain

FringeArts: What is the process for creating a show like The Talkback, which depends so much on the audience?

Dave: The Talkback is a lot like stand-up comedy. It cannot be created in a vacuum. The show lives and learns in front of a live audience. The early days of this show were like imagining the worst stand-up comic you have ever seen, bombing alongside two other crappy comics, and none of them know how to leave the stage. Now we have better material, more confidence, and ripped abs.

Brad: It’s maddening rehearsing this thing by ourselves. We have dummy questions on a chair in front of us as we rehearse, and we each take turns wandering into the audience to pretend we are asking questions.

Justin: I love seeing what has stuck since that first showing in 2012. The usher character, the way we fuck with audience members, the dance, the all-bets-are-off logic that the show takes in the middle. All of these things have survived each revision and are essential to the show. Creating an audience-participatory show without an audience in the rehearsal studio is extremely difficult.

FringeArts: Have your experiences with talkbacks informed The Talkback?

Dave: Absolutely. Talkbacks can be the most uncomfortable events. It’s like watching inside the actors’ studio, only you’ve never heard of any of the actors.

Brad: You bet. Some of the material hits very close to home. We try our best to skate that line between reality and parody. If you make theater or enjoy theater this show should make you a little uncomfortable.

Justin: More so, our experiences working at all of the area’s local institutions and with fellow artists inform the piece more than anything. We are satirizing everyone we’ve ever worked with and also our own lives as artists. No one is safe.

FringeArts: In The Talkback, the audience enters a discussion about a performance they haven’t seen. How do you get the audience to do this?

Dave: We do several warm-up techniques that the entire audience participates in at the same time. So by the time we are ready to ask questions, everyone in the audience has spoken out loud, talked to the person next to them, raised their hand at some point, and shouted something. All things necessary for a real talkback.

Brad: We gradually guide the audience and let them know that we are here to play and that they have an enormous amount of agency. We also do our best to let them know that we are the ones who are going to look like idiots, not them.

Justin: It’s a game. And it’s playtime. We go through great lengths to make sure the audience knows this going in. If the piece flops, it’s partly because the audience isn’t playing. They know that, and giving an audience that kind of power is exciting for both them and us. Who wouldn’t want to play?

Justin Jain, Bradley K. Wrenn, David Johnson

Justin Jain, Bradley K. Wrenn, David Johnson

FringeArts: What will you be working on during your FringeArts residency? Are you making new material? Is there any fear of upending the whole thing?

Brad: Yes, we are making new material. We would love to have more tricks in our bag. As for upending the whole thing . . . well, I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it and now I am concerned.

Dave: The residency is broken into 4 chunks. The three weeks of the residency are dedicated to:
1. Blocking and heightening moments
2. Improv technique and “group mind”
3. Re-writes and language
The fourth chuck is for panicking and giving up, and we have the entire month of July dedicated to that. We would never upend the whole thing. Because it lives in the same world as stand-up, sketch, and improvisation, the show will change and mature on its own. That being said, if the show decides to up-end itself, we will fire it and hire a new show.

Justin: What do you mean upending the whole thing? Should I be scared? What can I—(Justin has left the conversation_____)

Thank you, Berserker Residents. See you Sunday!

The Talkback 
A series of work-in-progress showings
The Berserker Residents
Sun, June 8 at 8pm
Sun, June 15 at 7pm
Sun, June 22 at 7pm

Free! RSVP here
140 North Columbus Boulevard

–Miriam Hwang-Carlos

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