2014 Fringe Preview – Andy Warhol Presents: Valerie – Fail Better Theatre
by Bailey Green
Intelligent, witty, political, sharp, funny and exciting—a few words I would use to describe this show after sitting in on a rehearsal with the cast of Andy Warhol Presents: Valerie by Fail Better Theatre. The name of their company comes from a Samuel Beckett quote that is one of my personal favourites, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail Better.” Director Matt White and actors (and the company’s co-artistic directors) Ben Hayward and Ali Richardson talked to me about their process.
Ask a person on the street if they know of Andy Warhol, and they probably will. But what about Valerie Solanas? Chances are slim. History forgot the woman who shot Andy Warhol, but Fail Better Theatre is bringing her story to light in a powerful new piece of theatre premiering at the Toronto Fringe Festival. This immersive, site specific piece takes place at the Influx Creative Space, an art studio, where Andy Warhol and his assistant Gerard are holding a party for Val—and you’re invited.
“We didn’t initially know this piece would be about Valerie,” says actor and writer Ben Hayward, “We thought it would be about their relationship or the shooting, but the more we read we realized there’s tons of stuff about Andy Warhol but nothing about Valerie. She’s always just a footnote in Warhol’s biography.” The collaborators chose to focus on Valerie because of her dynamic and active voice. Through the process they discovered Warhol to be a much more passive and less dramatic character who often allows things to happen around him instead of provoking the action. “Rather than giving him an exorbitant amount of text, we make him a presence by omitting text,” director Matt White describes. “But he’s still there, this is his world that everyone is playing in.”
The idea of creating “a better play” comes from the collective process of Hayward, Richardson and White. “There can’t be an ego,” Matt White says and then chuckles, “because if there was Ben would have shot me about ten days ago.” This project has been in the works for eight months and has underwent multiple radical changes. It began with Richardson and Hayward writing together, but eventually progressed to Hayward taking over the bulk of the writing—though Richardson still contributes to the script. “It’s a delicate balance have the playwrights in the room with you,” says White. “From the top you just have to instill a non-fragile environment. At the core, we have to trust that everyone is good. So you’re good, but you can always be better.” Hayward agrees, “it’s actually nice to have it change so much. I go home and work on the script and it’s awesome. Meanwhile Ali goes home and memorizes a thousand lines and then has to forget eight hundred the next day.” The three collaborators jokingly refer any and all major cuts or changes as ‘building a better play.’ “In a different play, this scene or that scene would have been really cool,” Hayward smiles.
Richardson and Hayward got lucky when a new biography about Valerie Solanas came out this past spring. “At Christmas I looked online and the biography came up for pre-order, so I emailed Professor Breanna Fahs at the Arizona State University and asked for an advance copy,” Richardson says. “That wasn’t possible but what she [the professor] did do was verify our sources.” They had found an online PDF copy of Valerie Solanas’ play Up Your Ass, but according all sources only one copy of the play exists in a museum in Pittsburgh. “It’s in the Andy Warhol museum, in a drawer in a vault because no one knows who she [Valerie] is or cares. The ultimate irony is that Andy in fact finally did steal her work, in way,” Ben says. The PDF turned out to be Valerie’s play and became one of the many sources integrated into the text of Andy Warhol Presents. To name a few of their sources: Up Your Ass, the film “I shot Andy Warhol,” Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto, Valerie’s biography, multiple Andy Warhol books and a four hour PBS documentary about Warhol. Needless to say, they know the history of these two people inside and out.
The SCUM manifesto itself is widely available, and it began as the bulk of Valerie’s text. “We kept tweaking and tweaking the text to be more experientiel and to give it a storytelling quality,” Hayward says of the writing process. The company includes original music in the piece, with lyrics inspired by Valerie’s manifesto and the production added a chorus of five other actors a few weeks ago. “Matt suggested more people would help make the piece more interactive,” Hayward says—which is key for a show that requires a level of audience participation and engagement. “Ben and Ali wanted to include these adapted scenes from [Valerie’s play] Up Your Ass. But we had no one to play them. So we brought in a chorus to help animate the piece,” says White. The scenes were written with Valerie’s politics in mind, but are not actual extractions from Up Your Ass. However much of Warhol’s text in the play is actual quotes and adaptations of quotes, and the same goes for Valerie’s text.
The company is excited for their first production, and look forward to the new challenges that will come with an interactive audience. “If there is a call to action in the play, it is avoiding the temptation to be passive,” Richardson says. “The form of the piece speaks to that. There is no getting away from what’s happening in the room.”
Andy Warhol Presents: Valerie
by Fail Better Theatre presented as part of the 2014 Toronto Fringe Festival
Directed by Matt White
Written and Performed by Ben Hayward and Ali Richardson
With Ray Jacildo, Emily Johnston, April Leung, Nick Potter, Natasha Ramondino & Jon Walls
When: July 3rd – 13th. 8pm nightly + 2pm July 10th
Where: InfluxCreative Space (141 Spadina at Richmond)