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Essay

The American Voice: Random Notes About The Debate Society

in no particular order

By Adam Greenfield, Associate Artistic Director

 

The three of them stand before a crowd at a cocktail fundraiser last fall and say in slow, dorky unison, “Hi! We’re The Debate Society!” — their trademark opener. Delighted, we all applaud.

The Debate Society is Hannah Bos (playwright/actor), Paul Thureen (playwright/actor), and Oliver Butler (director, developer). Paul and Hannah met at Vassar while working on a Gertrude Stein play, and they dated briefly. (Hannah, to The New York Times, 2012: “You shouldn’t tell that story… We had a terrible breakup, like horrific.”)  They’ve been best friends ever since.  

Oliver Butler to This is Vassar, an alumni newsletter, 2011: “I didn’t go to Vassar, but I wish I did.”  

When Oliver first heard Paul and Hannah’s writing, about 14 years ago in the basement of the Drama Bookshop, he approached them afterwards at their pickle and vodka reception. Oliver, to the Times: “I saw weird humor, narrative I couldn’t describe in one sentence. I went up to them and said, ‘I want to work with you.’ They were reluctant to work with a director, but Oliver was tenacious in his wooing and they eventually agreed. Paul, to The L Magazine, 2010: “Oliver’s a very good cook.”

And The Debate Society made their first show. Inspired by the writing of Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms, it was called  A Thought About Raya, pictured below:

 ♦

David Cote, in Time Out, 2008: “Among the better experimental companies to emerge in the past five years, The Debate Society fills a unique, shadowy niche. While the others might employ gestural vocabularies, metacabaret, or high-concept lampoon, The Debate Society is carving out a body of work notable for its queasy humor and moody, haunting tableaux.”

Hannah, in Culturebot, 2006: “Something that the three of us have in common is that we are all collectors; constantly gathering stories, images, ideas...things that interest us that we bring to each other as possible starting points for new plays.” 

Oliver: “Once we have that starting point, then it is a lot of playing and exploring. [They] usually bring in loads of character and world-based research and then we take all that stuff and play. I give them assignments to take home (we call them études) and sometimes there are études to create in rehearsal. Little scenes based on ideas. Hannah and Paul bring in writing, and we read it, and I try to find ways to work with the text and research to help create the characters.”

Paul: “We try to feel what it was about the original concept that spoke to us in the first place, its subconscious vibration, and then somehow try to physicalize it or speak it or write it. Theatricalize it. That’s what I really enjoy about our process: with each new project it’s the creative challenge of figuring out what that specific world is all about and what it needs. That becomes our job: inventing the unique process that is perfect for creating these specific characters in this specific world.”

Blood Play, a comic thriller set in a basement bar in a 1950s suburban midwest, tracks the drunken parlor games of some neighborhood grown-ups, while outside a young boy plots sinister, supernatural revenge on his tormenters. 

A recent email from actor Michael Cyril Creighton (center, below): “I’ve been lucky enough to act in four shows by The Debate Society, and each time I felt like I was invited to a super-secret club created by three of the most interesting nerds I know. The worlds they create are so beautifully specific (no detail is too small), making acting in (and seeing) their plays so satisfying. And they all have really nice hair, especially Hannah.”


Paul, in Backstage, 2008: “We’re really interested in architecture and objects.”

Hannah: “And the ghosts and stories that inhabit them.”

Paul: “The way the mood and feel of a place connects to things that may have happened there, or things you imagine could have happened. From the very beginning we’re sort of dreaming of the environment and look and feel of the place, and then the stories and characters grow from that.”

From Brooklyn Based: “One of the most satisfying things about watching a Debate Society show is the feeling that care has been taken — no half-finished thoughts or lazy workmanship will intrude on the experience of watching. This perfectionism is something they all take joy in.”

From a reference letter I sent to the Jerome Foundation, 2012: “Shortly after I moved to New York, I randomly bought a ticket for Cape Disappointment at PS122. Since then, my enthusiasm for their work has bordered on the obsessive. Each of their plays, though they walk vastly different terrain, is a unique, peculiar expression of the world; underneath the surprising and skewed contours of a Debate Society show is a sense of genuine curiosity and wonder, an open-heartedness that’s all too addicting.” 

Cape Disappointment (below) explores an underside of classic Americana, evoking a nostalgic, black-and-white horror movie atmosphere and an unsettling brand of absurdity. 


A thought scribbled in the margin of my notepad: “If Rube Goldberg constructed a Joseph Cornell box.”

Paul, in Culturebot: “Hannah and I both spent time studying in Moscow, and something that you’ll see in plays there is unbelievably thick detail in the environment of the play and the relationships among characters. It comes from training together and working together as an ensemble for many years and also really epic rehearsal processes.” 

The Brooklyn Rail, 2012: “The lengthy incubation period for their work creates a diorama feeling, with an unparalleled attention to detail and historical accuracy. Buddy Cop 2’s now-legendary set (by the group’s designer Laura Jellinek) plops a perfectly replicated small town police station into a rec center, complete with a racquetball court…and the all-consuming environment practically becomes the play’s lead character. All of this is not to say that The Debate Society’s plays are static. In addition to their fondness for history and atmosphere, the three share a love of complex, layered storytelling, where stories feel like tributes to their subjects. In the midst of a near-celebration of the mundane, surreal elements emerge, juxtaposed with the detailed everyday backdrop.”


A recent email from Laura Jellinek: “I think the most interesting thing about working with the three of them is that they really are more than the sum of their parts, so it’s almost like they create from this Debate Society outside of themselves that knows what the show is. I normally have an intense collaboration with my director, but in The Debate Society meetings I’m actually collaborating with this invisible being that hovers over all three of them.  And while they each voice thoughts, comments, concerns, etc. that both support and contradict each other, there’s somehow a larger, unspoken voice that wins out.”

The L Magazine, 2010:  “You have to describe your work in no more than two sentences. Go.”

Paul: “We do unexpected stories set in intricate, imaginary worlds. They are dark, funny, and sad.”

Hannah: “Plays that are new made by the three of us. We try to make play.”

Oliver: “We make plays that start with a voice-over and end with a spotlight. The middle part is different.”

Hannah: “Whoa.”

Paul: “Wow...that’s actually totally true. I never realized that.”

Hannah: “Oh my God. Stop the interview. I’m going home.”

Paul, to The Brooklyn Rail: “We’d play that acting game where the lights go out and you have to point to your center. And everyone would be like heart, heart, heart, and some would be heads, and Hannah and I would be pointing to our elbows.”

A photo from Jacuzzi, a deadpan mystery-thriller-comedy set in a remote ski chalet in Colorado, 1991:


Hannah, from I Interview Playwrights: “I grew up in my mom’s antique store in Evanston, Illinois. I think that has had a huge influence on my life. Even as a really little girl my mom would let me do the shop’s window so I could set up a little scene with a theme like a prairie life or for Halloween I would put broken doll parts into jars and make tiny nooses. I guess the theme of that window would be murder. I should also mention I would sometimes stand in the window like a mannequin for long periods of time.”

Paul, from I Interview Playwrights: “My mom was a Norwegian professor and writer and my dad a barley and potato farmer and I think it kind of makes sense that that made me. My mom was always SUPER creative and viewed that world with very childlike eyes for an adult...she still does actually. So dragons would be leaping out at us from the ditch when we’d be riding in the car and things like that. On the farm you just have a lot of time alone, inventing things, climbing on (dangerous) farm machinery, creating your own little world outside.” 

The New York Times: “When asked about the differences in style between the two playwrights, Mr. Thureen said, ‘We used to say, Hannah’s funnier but I’m more poetic.’ Ms. Bos chortled, ‘Paul used to say that. It’s a great pickup line.’”  

In 2011, I had a beer with The Debate Society at that crappy dive bar on Ninth Avenue and 41st, the one that doesn’t have a name but just the generic sign, “Irish Bar,” and they told me about a new play they had started working on about Steele MacKaye, two Chicago World’s Fairs and a man who lives in an attic. 

♦ 

Steele MacKaye, on the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair: “After many years of anxious endeavor, I finally developed and combined a number of mechanical systems, which in their ensemble constitute an entirely new form of theatric construction, and to this intended tabernacle of the fine arts I gave the name of Spectatorium. I also devised a new order of theatric art, the aim of which was to unite the mystic with the realistic for the moving presentation of the themes of human history, in such wise as to illumine the philosophy of historic fact, and to awaken even the most ordinary minds to the ideal value of the real and the real value of the ideal.”

From a eulogy for MacKaye: “He went without sleep and food that he might make a sunrise and a sunset and might make the sea roll and ships sail for us and our children. Nature was so sublime he wished to paint it as never an artist painted it. He wanted to bring nature up close to the human heart. His dream was to surpass the words of literature and the brush of the painters.” 

Paul, from The L Magazine, 2010: “We’re all really interested in Steele MacKaye right now, this actor-playwright-inventor who designed and built crazy theaters in NYC in the late 1800s.”

Hannah: “Stages on elevators, things like that.”

Oliver: “He figures into our World’s Fair play.”

Paul: “He feels like our style. Someone we’d love to make something with.”

Hannah: “And the mole people.”