Randy Harrison Interview: “We’re Bringing QWAN Back to the Berkshires Where it Was Born”

The hilarious QWAN company brings its unique take on humor, films and popular culture to the Colonial Theatre for one night only, August 20 at 7:30. They will parody The Black Swan and Notes on a Scandal. Seeing the film first is not a requirement for being able to laugh along with the actors. Black and white photos by Michael Hart. Check out his amazing portfolio at www.hartharthart.com

Ideas are a lot like babies in that there is a moment in which they are conceived and born, followed by a long period of nurturing. The QWAN company – which hopes to have Berkshire audiences doubled over with laughter on Monday – is just such an idea. Conceived late at night in the Berkshires, it soon took root in New York City in a series of performances a year ago, and is now ready for the trip back home. I will be among the friends and neighbors who will turn out to share their pride and joy as they perform two satirical and campy parodies of pretentious films, Notes!!! and Swan!!!.

Qwan at Bard, April 3, 2013
With Matt Wilkas replaced by a puppet, the QWAN Company performed at the Fisher Center for the Arts at Bard College.

In trying to figure a way to explain just how entertainingly funny this group of talented actors is, we turned to the long time Berkshire Theatre Group regular, Randy Harrison, one of the six QWAN members who are making the trek to the Berkshires for their August 20 show at Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre. “I understand that it’s a show that could make lots of folks in Provincetown wish they were in Pittsfield this week,” I offered. He laughed and agreed it was pretty over-the-top when it comes to things on stage.

People wonder what kind of a name is “QWAN” to give your baby; what does it mean? Turns out it’s a loose association of actors that was born during summers they spent at the Berkshire Theatre Festival which ended up simply being called QWAN, which is an acronym for “Quality Without a Name,” he explained.

The company was born as actors traveled to the Berkshires from New York City to appear in one of the Berkshire Theatre Group’s many productions each year. They would bump into each other and often, late at night, when the clubs are all closed in the bucolic Berkshires (unlike the big city) and since their adrenaline was still pumping from their recent performances, they headed back to their lodgings for some early morning improvisations. They weren’t anywhere near ready for bed.

We are grateful to Michael Hart for letting us reprint so many of his amazing images here. Documenting rehearsals and staged readings on film is no easy task, and he is a master of it. Visit his website at www.hartharthart.com

This is the fifth year that we have had the privilege of talking candidly with Randy Harrison about his craft. We hope you enjoy it, and are able to see the unusual QWAN company that he helped form with other actors in action. It’s coming up Monday, August 20 and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I smell fun in the air. Ticket information: www.berkshiretheatregroup.org

QWAN at work: (l) Jenn Harris and (r) Randy Harrison work on the script. Photos by Michael Hart.

Larry Murray: The photos here make your show look like fun.

Randy Harrison: Well, it is fun!

Randy Harrison. Photo by Michael Hart.

LM: So tell everyone what you are doing.

RH: We are doing our two most popular parodies: Swan!!! which runs just over an hour and Notes!!! which we trimmed down to about an hour fifteen. With one intermission. It’s a pretty simple production, with minimal lighting, though there are more staging and lighting elements for Swan than Notes. There are like only seven light cues in Swan.

The focus is on the actors, more a reading with staging elements, and a few design and sound cues. Some aspects of Swan are like a radio play, in that we create the sound effects ourselves. There are some costume pieces, and Swan is a little bit prop heavy.

LM: Clearly it’s not a production that depends on big sets and costumes to work. So with many in the cast working the Broadway schedule of eight shows a week, logistics must be a nightmare. You and Jenn Harris have two performances of Silence! The Musical on Sunday so how are you guys going to work this in, it’s scheduled for like 24 hours later.

Jenn Harris. Photo by Michael Hart.

RH: Jenn and I are driving up after our show on Sunday. Most likely we’ll be rehearsing and preparing all day on Monday.

LM: You haven’t done this material in a while, did you get some rehearsal and refresh time to work on it?

RH: We got together last week and did an all-day rehearsal from morning until night to prepare. We went over the script, and spent some time with Phillip Taratula who was out of town when we did Swan, because we wanted to incorporate him into the piece. We rewrote some parts of the script and worked out the rest.

LM: So are you happy to be getting back to the Berkshires if only for a day?

RH: I am really excited to bring this company to the Berkshires. Every time I visit it has been to do something Berkshire-produced, and QWAN grew out of that. We all were Berkshire ex-pats in New York initially, and we started this home-grown Berkshire ensemble after working here. Oddly, we ended up creating this work for a New York audience. And now we are bringing it back to the Berkshires.

LM: Is this the first time QWAN has gone on the road?

RH: It is. That is to say that we have gone all over the road in New York City, and played a ton of theatres there, but we’ve never taken it out of the city. Until now. Part of that is because of our regular commitments, it is hard for all of us to get together at the same time. We would do a lot more than we do but we have our regular jobs.

LM: What was the first project, how did the works develop?

Phillip Taratula (l) and Jack Ferver (r). Photo by Michael Hart.

RH: Initially I think it was because Jack (Ferver) and Philip (Taratula) bonded over the movie, Notes on a Scandal which starred Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett and thought it would be a hilariously campy piece. Philip took the Patrick Marber script, adapted it, and then we all ended up reading it, thought it was great, and realized that to perform it we would have to form a collective. It’s hierarchy free which can be a problem sometimes, but with each project someone or sometimes two people usually takes the lead and does the producing aspects.

LM: How does that work?

RH: Per project usually. When we performed at at PS 122 it was Jack’s connection, while Jenn and I did the producing at Theatre 80, and Phillip seems to be the one most in touch with BCTG (Blue Coyote Theatre Group).

LM: You have had a fascinating career, and folks can read a lot about your approach to acting in the series of interviews we have done. (Links) Let’s look at the company members who are coming to the Berkshires this week. Jack Ferver is busy with his own choreography and performances, Christian Coulson played Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and is also a fast-rising photographer, Phillip Taratula is both an actor and writer, Matthew Wilkas has a dozen films to his credit including the hilarious new Gayby, and he also plays Flash Thompson in Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark, 8 times a week – and understudies the Peter Parker role! – while you and Jenn Harris are both in the long running Silence! The Musical which I have loved and have written about here. Jenn is sensational in the Gayby film, which is incredibly funny, especially when you make a cameo appearance.

It seems that in theatre, relationships are not in the form of family trees, but in complex thickets of happenstance projects that connect actors in various ways with each other. It’s difficult to pull all the tangled branches apart. While friendships among actors tend to be mostly collegial, they can be as sticky as families.

As we know nothing in theatre is forever, so how long do people have to see you as Dr. Chilton in Silence?

“Found” is coming in September.

RH: Until September 9th. Then it’s off to Europe for a while, but I will be back in the Berkshires later in the month, to sit in the audience (for a change) and enjoy a pre-Broadway workshop of a new musical, Found with music by Eli Bolin and book by Hunter Bell. (About Found)

LM: In fact you and some other Broadway folks are helping host a pre-show reception on September 22. But let’s get back to how you pick your material.

RH: I think we look for satire.

LM: And a little campy fun at the same time? There’s a whole lot of gender switching that goes on.

RH: We like to have fun with it. I think we look for movies that take themselves soooo seriously, so that when we take it a little bit beyond that seriousness you can see the absurdity in it. With Notes on a Scandal we think those actresses had an idea that what they were doing was campy melodrama in some ways.

And of course, Black Swan tried so hard to take itself seriously, and people fell for it. But we always have a mix of opinions when it comes to movies. Like some of the QWAN members will like a movie that I think is terrible.

LM: Like any group of people having different opinions. Do you find you share the same sense of humor? I would imagine that something like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane would already be so over the top that there isn’t much more room for parody.

Christian Coulson. Photo by Michael Hart.

RH: We like working on things that are less obvious, and certainly more current than that old classic. But you’re right, it’s really an amazing group of people to work with. (QWAN members are about the same age and and likely developed a similar sense of humor, satire and irony.)

It’s really a special group of people and it’s awesome when we just get together. I remember the first time we did Notes and we were rehearsing it in Jack’s apartment and the thing is, we just cracked each other up. We made each other laugh so much, and started to feed on each others ideas. It was obvious that if anyone else thought it as funny as we do, then it was going to be great. It was at that point that we started to trust ourselves, and just go for it. The group is not only supportive, but we all speak the same language.

LM: Wrapping this up, readers can learn more about the plot of the Swan and Notes below. If you were talking to the readers, you would tell them to come see this show because….

RH: Because …It’s very funny.

Jenn Harris (l) as Nina (The Swan), JackFerver (r) as Lily.

Who’s Who in the Stories

All about Swan!!!, a parody of Black Swan, the movie

Inspired by the movie Black Swan, SWAN!!! finds a goldmine of material to parody. In the SWAN!!! satire, Nina (Jenn Harris) is freaking out. She is freaking out because she really wants to play the Swan Queen in the new production of Swan Lake.

She is also freaking out because she is crazy. And so is her mother (Randy Harrison). And so is the choreographer (Christian Coulson) she works under, and we mean works under. And so is the former prima ballerina Winona Ryder, we mean Beth (Matthew Wilkas). The pressure is a lot, and she finds a little release, and we mean release, when she meets hot new bad ballet girl in town, Lily (Jack Ferver). However, she gets a little more than nervous when it seems Lily may want her part. Things boil up and over, and there is self-mutilation and violence towards MOM­ — and cunnilingus and jetés.

Still from the original movie (l) and from the QWAN parody (r).

All About Notes!!!, a Parody of Notes on a Scandal

An over-the-top, insane evening of lesbian lust, sociopath school teachers, and outlandish fighting, sex, and more fighting — all done with British accents! Played with camp hysteria (and quite a bit more actually) of the 2006 film that it parodies, this reading features stars of film, television, Broadway, Off-Broadway, and… contemporary dance?

Middle-aged, lonely, and bitter teacher, Barbara, played by Philip Taratula (The Lily’s Revenge), falls for the young, lonely, and idealistic new teacher on the block, Sheba, played by Jack Ferver (Strangers With Candy). However, Sheba is married. Not a lesbian. And into her 15-year-old student. When Barbara discovers Sheba’s transgression, what ensues is a tense tête-à-tête of two desperate women. There will be tears before bedtime.

Ticket Information – August 20 at 7:30 PM

Tickets to QWAN Company Presents SWAN!!! and NOTES!!! are $20-$45. Visit the Colonial Ticket Office at 111 South Street, Pittsfield or call 413-997-4444. Tickets can also be bought online at www.berkshiretheatregroup.org. Ticket Offices are open Monday-Friday 10am-5pm, Saturdays 10am-2pm or on any performance day from 10am until curtain. All plays, schedules, casting and prices are subject to change.

The company (l to r) Jenn Harris, Randy Harrison, Phillip Taratula, Jack Ferver, Christian Coulson, Matthew Wilkas. Photo by Michael Hart.

Bios

Christian Coulson Theater: Travesties (McCarter), Dutch Masters (Berkshire Theatre Festival), Rumble Ghost (PS122), Ghosts (London’s Gate Theatre), Festen (UK national tour), Journey’s End (West End), Romeo and Juliet (Liverpool Playhouse). Film: Amateurs, Gayby, Leaving Circadia, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Hours, Four Feathers. TV: The Good Wife, Gossip Girl, Miss Marple, Charles II, Little Britain, Hornblower, Forsyte Saga, Love in a Cold Climate. Directing: Jeffery and Cole Make It Bigger (Here Arts Centre/Dixon Place), Kim Smith: Misfit (New York & Australia).

Jack Ferver is a choreographer, writer and performer living in New York City. He has been presented at The Kitchen (NYC), PS 122 (NYC), The New Museum (NYC), The Museum of Arts and Design (NYC), Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston, MA), Diverse Works in conjunction with the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston (Houston, TX), Danspace Project (NYC), Abrons Art Center (NYC), and Théâtre de Vanves in France. Shorter and solo works have been presented at MoMA/PS1, Andrew Edlin Gallery, and NP Gallery (all NYC). His work has been written about in The New York Times, The Financial Times, The New Yorker, Artforum, Modern Painters, and Dance Magazine. As an actor he has been in numerous theatre, TV, and film projects, most recently the independent featureGayby. He teaches privately as well as at New York University and Bard College, and has set choreography at The Juilliard School.

Jenn Harris Off Broadway- Silence! The Musical, Modern Orthodox (Lucille Lortel Award & Theatre World Award) Understudied Julie White in The Understudy, New Jerusalem, Mercy on the Doorstep, Ashley Montana… Berkshire Theatre Festival-Pageant Play, The Heidi Chronicles. The Wilma Theatre-The Understudy. Williamstown- Blithe Spirit, God of Vengeance, The Winter’s Tale, Street Scene.  NY-The Plank Project, My Deah, The Dilemma of Drugs, Our Hit Parade at Joes Pub, SWAN!!!, NOTES!!!  Film: Better Living Through Chemistry, Gayby(Official Selection SXSW 2012), A Case of You, For A Good Time Call, Confessions of A Shopaholic. TV: 30 Rock, Bored to Death, Law & Order, Law & Order C.I., Guiding Light.  Boston University School for the Arts, L.A.M.D.A., The Second City (Chicago).

Randy Harrison is currently in the off-Broadway show, Silence! The Musical. He made his Broadway debut as Boq in Wicked. His other New York credits include The Singing Forest (Public Theatre/NYSF), Antony and Cleopatra (Theatre for a New Audience), Edward the Second (Red Bull Theater), A Letter from Ethel Kennedy(MCC), NOTES!!! and SWAN!! with the QWAN Company at PS122, Abrons Arts Center and Theatre 80, and numerous appearances in Our Hit Parade at Joe’s Pub. Regionally, he most recently appeared as Ken in Red at the George Street Playhouse and Cleveland Playhouse as well as in Alan Bennet’s The Habit of Art at the Studio Theatre in DC, Twelfth Night (Shakespeare Theatre, DC), Pop! (Yale Rep),The Glass Menagerie (Guthrie Theatre), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (SITI Company/ASF). Randy has spent six very happy summers at BTG. Some favorites here includeTommy, Ghosts, Waiting for Godot and Amadeus. His film and television work includes five seasons on Showtime’s Queer as Folk, Bang Bang You’re Dead, andGayby.

Phillip Taratula recently played Time in The Deepest Play Ever at the New Ohio Theater. Other NY theatre credits include Taylor Mac’s Obie-winning The Lily’s Revenge (HERE Arts Center); Call Me Anne (Access Theater, also scripted); Two Gentlemen of Verona (Poor Tom); 6969 (59E59 Theatres); White Noise (NYMF); Accidentally, Like a Martyr (Wild Project). Regional credits include The Soldier’s Tale (Castleon Festival, Lorin Maazel conductor); The George Place (Welfleet Harbor Actors Theater); Out of Sterno (Portland Stage Co.); The King Stag (Williamstown Theatre Festival). He can be seen on the web series The Outs. BFA, Boston University School of Theatre.

Matthew Wilkas has worked off-Broadway at The Mint, The Rattlestick, and PS122.  Regionally he has worked at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Williamstown, The Huntington and Syracuse Stage.  He has made appearances in Law and Order, Ugly Betty, Hope and Faith, All my Children and As The World Turns.  Film work includes:The Bits Inbetween, Gayby (the short and feature), Curious Thing, and The New Twenty.  He is currently playing Flash Thompson in Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark on Broadway.

4 thoughts on “Randy Harrison Interview: “We’re Bringing QWAN Back to the Berkshires Where it Was Born”

  1. Pingback: Randy Harrison Interview: “We’re Bringing QWAN Back to the Berkshires Where it Was Born” | Kinnetiks News

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  3. I got to see this last night, since I’m up in Pittsfield on vacation for the week. I’m sure I’ve never laughed harder in my entire life! It was so funny, my husband had tears streaming from his eyes. It’s one of those times I wish theater was TV, so everyone could see it. I’ll definitely be checking out “Silence” when I get back to New York, and watching out for appearances of QWAN. I especially loved Philip Taratula’s portrayal of Judy Dench as Barbara and Randy Harrison’s amazing interpretation of Bill Nighy as Richard.

    • I agree. The show – in the format of a partially staged reading – was insanely funny. The actors are some of our best thirty-somethings working today, and had me in stitches too. Jenn Harris climbing out in the audiences not once, but twice, was over the top. Hope you were among those who hung around after, they put out some nibbles and gave us all a chance to talk with the cast.

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