Two Friends Try to Be Disappointed by Each Other: Interview with John Rosenberg of Autopia
John Rosenberg’s very first show in Philadelphia after moving from California was a 2010 Fringe Festival production, Cheap Guy Hall of Fame, Class of 2010. Subsequent years garnered critical acclaim for his Hella Fresh Theater company, operating out of a converted paper mill in the heart of Kensington. John moved to Los Angeles in 2014, but he returned last year and has retaken residence at the Papermill. This Fringe Festival, he’s utilizing the art gallery at in the room next door to his theater, creating an imaginary art exhibit from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the 1970s. In Autopia a failed teacher runs into her former mentor at LACMA while waiting in line for tickets to the King Tutankhamun exhibit and the pair awkwardly reminisce as they wander around an exhibit of an obscure Chicana artist. We spoke to John about the play.
FringeArts: How did you get the idea for Autopia?
John Rosenberg: I mean, the thing comes in bits and pieces and one thing leads to another.
I lived in Los Angeles from 2014 to 2018. It was great. My wife gave birth to our son Calvero McShane Wulfrose. I got to kick it with my sister at Ross Dress For Less. I also made one for real friend in my four years in Los Angeles, Her name was Leigh, we worked at UCLA together. We would go for walks on breaks and talk about our lives and such. So the play is kinda based on Leigh.
I have been interested in how people like to be disappointed by other people and let down. It reminded me of the group of teacher friends my parents had when I was growing up. They were really committed to education and the welfare of their students but the personal cost was tremendous. I watched their lives implode, including my parents’.
I always wanted to do a play about two people waiting in line and have the actors slowly shuffle across the stage for two hours. At first it was going to be Disneyland but it didn’t make sense so the art gallery of the Papermill [the Kensington artspace where Hella Fresh is based] will become Los Angeles County Museum of Art circa 1978.
FringeArts: How did you choose that setting?
John Rosenberg: I had a temp job in Los Angeles that was down the street from LACMA. LACMA uses stickers for tickets and people leave them on a street light outside the museum. On my lunch break i would go through the museum on a 45-minute tour, four days a week for like nine months.
With the idea of LACMA came the idea to have an artist create a real fake exhibition from 1978 to be the exhibition in the show. My friend Osiris Zuniga, a steel artist or metal artist or i dont know what the fuck you call her said fuck yes to the idea. Osiris deals in blowtorches and heavy metals and makes videos. She is creating an exhibition like LACMA would probably have been showing of a marginalized unheard of Latina artist in the late 70s.
So the play is about two teachers who try their best to be disappointed by each other and feel good about themselves because they saw the art of an unheard of Latina artist.
FringeArts: What’s the longest you’ve ever waited in line? Was it worth it?
John Rosenberg: I don’t know the longest I have waited in line for something. I did wait at a stoplight in Bangkok for half an hour in 1999.
I am going to say it was worth it since I am here answering these questions.
FringeArts: Yes but is anything ever worth it anyway?
John Rosenberg: Oh, I think that everything has meaning and purpose, absolutely. Being bleak and saying everything has already been done is boring and lacks imagination and charm.
FringeArts: Oh…. Do you know in England they call them queues?
John Rosenberg: I did know that. But I would be uncomfortable using the term. My wife’s family is from Northern Ireland and they refer to the trunk as the boot.
FringeArts: What’s your favorite piece of art in the LACMA?
John Rosenberg: I can’t think of a favorite piece piece but I learned a ton about lots of stuff walking around LACMA. I saw a lot of cool shit. I saw a hawk used to scare away pigeons be released. I saw them take the hawk’s helmet off before flight. I saw a piece of art being taken off the wall to be cleaned and they were so seemingly haphazard with the frame and canvas.
One of the guards assumed i worked there since i was there everyday and I regretted not taking advantage and taking a painting with me. I found out my wife was pregnant around that time so I know I must have happily breezed through the museum for weeks feeling that joy.
I didn’t really get German Expressionism until I went to LACMA a lot. They have a huge collection so that shit made a huge impact on me. I ended up writing a play about two proud granddaughters of Nazis who love Lawrence Welk and hang their own mediocre paintings in LACMA.
I think my favorite thing was this room of Dutch oil paintings. i dont truly care for the paintings of still lifes and I know they dont give a fuck what I think because they have been here for centuries. But the room on the second floor of the main building with the big Dutch still lifes…the air is heavy with the smell of the oil paintings. I assumed it is how it smelled back in the 1600s. Like chocolate and tobacco and oil and slavery and conquest and waste and the bullshit achievements of western civilization. You can’t walk in there without feeling something. Or you can if you have a cold or smoked a lot of crystal.
FringeArts: What are your aims with your writing?
John Rosenberg: I aim not to write terrible shit and I aim to not repeat myself. I started writing plays around the same time I met my wife sixteen years ago. I desperately wanted her to think I was interesting and worthy of her time and attention. I still do (smooch smooch my sweet baboon).
FringeArts: How do you gauge success?
John Rosenberg: I am a diy playwright with my own theater space married to a deluded person who believes in me. I have had a string of ideas, the time and energy to write and produce plays on my own terms. It is the best.
FringeArts: But when do you think you’ve written a “good” play? What makes it so?
John Rosenberg: I try to write character-based stories based on the actors involved. I know the play is good when the actors are emotionally invested in the characters which means they are incredibly petty, self-centered, and take themselves too serious. The plot is irrelevant but not because I’m trying to be cryptic or mysterious or topical.
FringeArts: What makes for bad or mediocre theater?
John Rosenberg: I had a site visit from the Pew Foundation for the show Alp D’Huez. The three theater professionals who came had three wildly different reactions to the play. One said I was an unheralded new talent, one said zzzzzzzz, one said dear god that was a dreadful piece of garbage. My father-in-law did threaten to kidnap one of them after the show so perhaps that had a bearing on their experience. There is always something good and compelling going on somewhere.
FringeArts: What do you look for in your actors?
John Rosenberg: Being fearless, not being embarrassed to work with me in Kensington, comfortable with the fact I don’t know what I am doing.
FringeArts: This is the fourth or fifth time you’ve cast Laura Sukonick. What do you like about working with her?
John Rosenberg: She is incredibly smart, wracked with anxiety, and yet willingly puts her self-worth up for grabs in performance.
FringeArts: What was the last thing you bought at Ross Dress for Less?
John Rosenberg: Pink Adidas sweatshirt! Me and my sister hit up five Ross Dress For Less last week in three hours.
FringeArts: Do you have any other show recommendations for this year’s Fringe Festival?
John Rosenberg: I definitely want to see Annie Wilson’s show, bilialien. Everything I have seen by Annie is spontaneous, clean, and dangerous.
– Introductory text by Christopher Munden
When: September 7, 8, 14, 15, 21 + 22, 2019
Where: The Papermill Theater, 2825 Ormes Street
Created by Hella Fresh Theater