Q&A with Alex Lyras by Dan Berkowitz

Yeah, I know, you probably thought I was dead. But it was just one more physical problem in a year that was filled with them. Professionally, the past year has been great – a couple of my plays produced around the country, getting paid to write or rewrite several TV and film projects, directing a new play in New York. But in between those terrific things were three cases of bronchitis, knee surgery in July, and back surgery on November 8.

Yes, while the country as a whole took a figurative knife to the back on Election Day, I took a literal one.

It’s been a long recovery, but soon I’ll be out and about and reviewing – so watch out! First, however, I thought it would be fun to do a Q&A.

Today’s victim – I mean subject – is Alex Lyras, who co-wrote and performs in a world premiere one-person show called Plasticity. He wrote the piece with Robert McCaskill, with whom he’s collaborated a number of times. The Common Air was produced in LA, where it received multiple award nominations, then transferred off-Broadway for a nine-month run. Their other stage projects, Desperelics and Unequalibrium, were also produced in both New York and LA, and Unequalibrium was selected for publication in New Playwrights: Best Plays as well as in Best Men’s Monologues for the Twenty First Century. As a team, they’ve sold pilots, produced two feature films, and this spring, Mr. Lyras will direct his first feature, How To Address An Envelope, which he also wrote. He is also the recipient of an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant supporting narrative projects that tell compelling stories about science and technology for his screenplay Alva.

Alex Lyras. All photos by Jonathan Schell

Dan Berkowitz: In thirty seconds, can you tell us what Plasticity is about?

Alex Lyras: I’ve never timed a written answer, but I’ll give it a shot. The show’s about a guy emerging into consciousness after experiencing a brain injury. We use video projections to put the audience inside his mind as he starts assembling what’s happened to him. It’s completely fractalized at first, but as the play unfolds, a cohesion takes shape from all of the puzzle pieces.

On the outside, there’s a swirl of doctors and of loved ones trying to decide what to do, and they’re battling each other over some grave neurological options.

DB: So, it’s a solo show, but it looks as if it’s more complex than the usual “actor standing on a stage telling a story” solo show. How did the idea of the play come to you, and when did you realize you wanted it to be what sounds like a very visual experience? (And what exactly is a “scrim sandwich” anyway…?)
AL: Rob and I each had experiences where someone we cared about was in the ICU and we observed how heightened the experience was. Friends from all phases of life are crossing paths at the foot of a hospital bed, and each of them has a deep emotional connection. It’s fascinating, and inherently dramatic, watching how people handle the stress of a crisis.

Using projections to represent the activity in the character’s mind was a “no-brainer.” Our thoughts and feelings are non-verbal. We aspired to recreate a psychological pastiche as best we could and were lucky enough to find Corwin Evans. He had worked on a project where dancers were performing behind a scrim that held all kinds of moving images. (A scrim is this very fine netting that you can see through but can also hold an image.) Behind the dancers was a cyclorama, or a cyc, which is basically a movie screen where we rear-project another set of images. So you have two surfaces to play on and the actor is sandwiched in between and it creates an effect not unlike a 3D movie, except you have a live actor on stage. It’s way cool.

DB: It sounds like it! In addition to starring in the show, you co-wrote it with Rob, who also directs – and the two of you have worked together on a bunch of projects previously. How did you meet, and what keeps such a partnership going for so long?

AL: I went to John Marshall Law School in Chicago, but I kept finding myself in small theaters, supporting friends who had graduated from Northwestern who were doing really edgy shows. I also went to Second City Improv, because it’s where Saturday Night Live started, and the shows are so smart and fun. When I quit law school and went back to New York to lick my wounds, I learned that Second City had a satellite organization called Chicago City Limits, which taught improv. I enrolled, and McCaskill was my first teacher. We hit it off and he invited me to his dramatic acting class at the Tribeca Lab. That was the beginning of a lifelong study. Our partnership owes its longevity to a mutual respect and curiosity. We’re both disciplined and committed to seeing ideas through. We’re also bound by the desire to break new ground and fight the battle against cliches.
DB: You’re the performer, Rob is the director, and those are clear-cut roles. But tell us a little about how you divvy up the writing when it’s two of you.

AL: We used Googledocs for the first time on this project and it’s amazing to go back and track the changes over the year it took to write this. You can see every edit you’ve made along the way. I kicked off this project with a ton of scientific research that Rob then started to dramatize. I’d kick around a character that I crossed paths with in real life, and Rob would help me find his voice by seeing what part of the story that character could convey. We’re both good with poetic language, even when it’s from the mouth of a tough guy. We write well together, but I think we’re even better 3,000 miles apart. Rob is in NYC and he’ll tinker on the script till midnight EST and then I’ll open it up at 9PM PST and continue. He’s up a few hours later in the AM and back at it. We get a lot done that way.

DB: You’ve worked in New York and Los Angeles, and in film, TV, and the theatre. Any preferences for one place over the other – or one medium over the others?

AL: They’re all pretty fulfilling. There’s a rush to collaborating with a lot of craftspeople on a TV or film set. The whole operation is its own thriving organism. Like an artistic army. The same is true for theater, but it’s more concentrated and personal. It’s a privilege to be any kind of actor, but the stage is the most fulfilling in terms of immediacy and impact. An audience enters as a group of individuals, but they start to breathe together, laugh together, squirm together during the uncomfortable parts. That organic evolution is sacred and powerful and it only happens on stage. It’s why we still find ourselves sitting in the dark watching live actors three thousand years after the Greeks kicked it all off in the Theater of Dionysus.
DB: What’s a fun thing about you that no one else knows? (And we guarantee not to tell…)

AL: I do my best thinking in the steam room. Add a little eucalyptus and literally anything is possible.

DB: Jeez, when I try to think in the steam room, all I can think of is “How do I get out of here?!?” Break a leg with the show!

Written by Alex Lyras and Robert McCaskill
Directed by Robert McCaskill

January 27 through March 13

Hudson Guild Theatre
6539 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: 323-960-7787 or www.plasticitytheplay.com


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