"Old New Year" is the latest theatrical experience from the New York based company Lost and Found Project. Founded in 2011, Lost and Found is a theater collective comprised of actors and writers of Russian-Jewish heritage focusing on the Verbatim Technique, a documentary theater technique. Show-Score spent some time with Anya Zicer, Founder and Curator, and Gera Sandler, director, to talk about the company and their upcoming show.
Show-Score: Tell me a little bit about how Lost and Found began.
ANYA: Lost and Found started in 2011 as an experiment. I was working a lot in the field of theater both in Russia and in Israel, where I grew up, and when I came here I was really interested with working with the verbatim technique, which is a documentary theater technique. So I did an open call for auditions for actors who were connected by their Russian-Jewish heritage. That’s the angle that we were exploring, because after the fall of the Soviet Union a lot of Russian Jews packed their bags and went to either the US, or Israel, or Germany, and a lot of them ended up here in New York. I really wanted to start a collective, an actual ensemble theater company, which doesn’t happen very often in New York.
GERA: A chain of magical things brought me to this company and to these people four years ago. It was my first visit to the United States, and I was working at some other places. Someone told me about Anya and Lost and Found, and two days before I was supposed to go back to Israel, Anya called me, and we started talking. She brought me a taste of our show Covers, which was played 3 years ago. I got the text, and I read it, and it was magic. I canceled my ticket to Israel and I stayed here. This romance that we have, this love story… I can’t even call Lost and Found a company because Lost and Found are like my brothers and sisters. It’s a great great brotherhood. And now I have this opportunity to be their director. That’s the story. It’s really amazing. I even have a tattoo that says Lost and Found because of all my feelings toward these people. I had to have them on my arm.
Anya Zicer and Gera Sandler of Lost and Found Project.
S-S: Can you talk about your inspiration behind "Old New Year"?
ANYA: So, we’ve had 5 productions, and when we started we were exploring the relationship between the past and the present. We were talking about our grandparents and their experience in Russia and the Soviet Union and how it relates to us today. We also explored the generational gap between us and our parents in America. Even though we talk a little bit about the generations, this play is about the now; it is young New Yorkers looking for their way home. New York is completely crazy, filled with people coming from all over the world. it’s not really a home, it's more like a hub.
So, for this play, we went in few directions. You know when you walk through areas like Boerum Hill in Brooklyn, or the Upper West Side, you see through the windows and all you want to do is pop into their apartment and see what’s happening in there? We wanted to have that feeling of actually being in somebody else's apartment, and that’s why we chose a really non-conventional venue. It’s one big loft in Harlem that essentially has multiple playing spaces. Audience members are sitting all over it and experiencing the whole thing while it’s happening around them, rather than just watching one thing on a stage. We hope that people will get this sensation of being in someone’s bathroom, (literally), or being in somebody's’ living room, witnessing the conflicts that happen between a mother and a daughter, a husband and a wife, an old friend, and so forth.
The second topic is the idea of artificial happiness. One of our taglines is “Welcome to the lab of happiness.” So in this play, one person brings in a group of people that he randomly (or not so randomly) selected because he thinks he can make them happy. And he brings them into this artificial place, and this place is an allegory of New York, because a lot of people come here thinking it will give them happiness. Because from far away, it looks like the craziest, happiest place on the planet; but you and I know that it can also be the loneliest place on the planet. So, we really wanted that allegory to play out where we’re creating this fake laboratory of happiness and bringing in these characters, who just happen to all be connected by their heritage. And a lot of things unfold - their conflicts, their issues - as they try to understand what they need to be happy. At the end, they've all kind of rebelled, because that’s what happens in the world, right? When people are oppressed, they fight. When people are told how to be happy, they resist. When Mr. Trump is elected, people go to the streets to rebel and to say what they think. We don’t just sit. So you come into this show and see very real characters, and we discuss very real conflicts. All of these stories intertwine, and they're very personal stories from the folks that are part of the company. And we really hope that it will resonate with our audience.
We can't afford in today's world to just make a play about little problems. The audience members are eventually going to be a part of the experience - we won’t ask them to do anything by any means - but they’re going to be an active participant. We’re going to make them be part of the experience if they’re ready for it. Hopefully we motivate them to ask themselves some questions - whether they're happy, and whether they’re in a good place in their lives.
S-S: The title of the play is “Old New Year.” What does that mean, and where does it come from?
GERA: Old New Year is a very a weird celebration. I think the reason for this celebration in Russia was to have one more excuse to celebrate a regular holiday. We have a lot of holidays in Russia, but every single holiday was dedicated to something else - to the army, to women’s day, to a day of revolution - and we didn’t have one regular holiday where you can sit with the family and celebrate without any government reason. New Year wasn't like here, where people go and hang out in a restaurant. In Russia, people used to sit home on those days because it’s like a family day just to celebrate. So people created one more holiday, where they just celebrate and say hello to the new year, goodbye to the old.
But for me, it’s one more excuse to celebrate, which means that we can have it every day of our lives. If we want to be happy, if we want to celebrate, we can have it everyday. And this show is about that. People can be happy because nobody can give them happiness. Our modern lives are actually the real happiness. Only we are responsible for our happiness. For the characters in the show, all their problems - their immigration problems, their personalities, their wives, their kids, their parents - they don't matter, because only they are responsible for their happiness. So we go through a journey of suffering and get to some conclusion in this show. In the United States, people have a lot of options to be happy immediately. You can eat a good meal, see a good movie, go entertain yourself immediately. But after you get your meal, if you are an unhappy person, you are still unhappy. It’s very quick and it’s over.
So what is the connection to immigration and our play? The connection is very simple. As an immigrant, you go to another country to lead a better life. You don’t go to another country to have a worse life. You emigrate to be happy. Many people who emigrate place all the responsibility for their happiness (or their unhappiness) on the country. It’s very natural to put responsibility on other people because it’s really hard to understand that we made a wrong step. So, sometimes when go you go to a new country and are unhappy, we say it's the country's fault, but it’s not true, you know? You should be happy with what you have. Together, with the audience, we go through this show and try to understand of the meaning of life together.
A scene from "Covers" a previous production by Lost and Found Project. Photo by Marina Levitskaya.
S-S: Can you describe your creative process?
ANYA: We work in a lab style. Everybody interviews people - their friends, their family, the people on the street - about a particular topic. They bring it into rehearsal, and we do a lot of improv, a lot of teamwork, a lot of exploration together within this laboratory kind of framework. Then we begin writing. We have a very talented playwright that is part of the company, Boris Zilberman. He takes all of those personal stories brought by the actors and he creates a play. Then we work with the text. It’s a whole collaborative process, from the moment we come up with topic up until the moment it’s done with this staging. Even though we’re working with a professional director, staging it in a professional way, it’s a collaborative effort. It’s challenging and it’s interesting and it’s unusual.
A lot of people will often say, “Well, why don’t you just stage Chekhov, or beckett,” or whatever. And we say “Well, there are so many theaters in this city that do that, and to try and do another Shakespeare or another Chekhov is not something we want to do.” We want to relay a message, and we want this message to be important, something original and fresh. We want to provoke people's questions and be the kind of the theater that makes people feel instead of entertain people. We are trying to make material and content that will resonate with our audience even though they are not from our particular culture. It’s specifically outside the Russian-Jewish community. That’s not our audience, our target audience is young people, New Yorkers, that are exploring their identity and are looking for an interesting theatrical experience to attend.
GERA: As I see it, the biggest problem of modern theater in New York is that everything is temporary. Often, people meet each other for three, or four, or five weeks. And then they do a show for two months, and then they go home. During that time they have to create a real relationship that the audience will believe. And this is very hard, because theater is a story of love between the director, the play, and the actors.
I can see onstage when people didn’t have time to get to know each other, to talk behind the curtain. Lost and Found is completely another story. We’ve known each other for years, so it’s already different than the people who meet each other and go home. We don’t go home - we’re together all the time. So this incredibly energy of the company, this is what I enjoy and why I create with them all this time.
I don't want to get into the, you know, how I do it and why, because I think that the audience should see the result of all of this. I just call the process the process. I call the process of creating the show - directing, acting, producing, writing - I call that the story of love. Not the story of rehearsals, the story of creating the show; it’s the story of love. You know how it goes. Everything that you have in love, we have in this creation, we have in this process of making the show. I don’t see any difference.
Old New Year runs from April 26th - May 13th at 345 East 104th Street. Tickets are available through the box office here! Upon checkout, enter promotional code "SHOW" to receive 25% off
Lost & Found project is a key project of FolksbieneRU Division, a partnership initiative of Genesis Philanthropy Group and National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.
Is theater a labor of love for you? Can you tell when performers "click" with their directors? Let us know in the comments below!