One of the things that makes New York City theater so exciting also includes what happens off Broadway where groundbreaking productions can be seen. As one of the founder of the theater company, Talking Band, writer and composer Ellen Maddow has played a major role in bringing innovative productions to audiences. Talking Band, hailed by The New York Times as “one of the boldest and most venerable politically minded companies in New York experimental theater,” has been a cornerstone of New York City’s avant-garde theater community for 44 years.
Founded in 1974 by Ellen, Tina Shepard, and Paul Zimet, the company has produced over 50 new works illuminating the extraordinary dimensions of ordinary life, combining richly textured music-theater with striking visual imagery. Collectively, the company and founders have earned 15 OBIE Awards and numerous other honors. Talking Band has performed at nearly all of New York City’s celebrated downtown venues and its original productions have toured throughout the U.S. and internationally to 14 countries.
Ellen’s recent plays, written and composed, include: Fat Skirt Big Nozzle (with Louise Smith); Burnished By Grief; The Golden Toad (with Paul Zimet); The Peripherals; Panic! Euphoria! Blackout, Flip Side (published in Plays and Playwrights 2010); Delicious Rivers; Painted Snake in a Painted Chair (OBIE Award); and, five pieces about the avant-garde housewife, Betty Suffer. She’s a playwright alumnus of New Dramatists and a Frederick Loewe Award winner.
Talking Band’s production of Burnished by Grief was a New York Times Critics’ Pick, with Andy Webster describing it as “a mildly morbid but irrepressibly effervescent lark and exuberant celebration of color and quirk.”
Here, Ellen answers our My Career Choice questions.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
When I was 13 I came to New York from L.A. with my father who was a screenwriter. We went to see a production of Man is Man by Bertolt Brecht, performed by the Living Theatre in a small downtown venue. We got to go backstage afterwards and meet the actors. The two leads, played by Judith Malina and Joseph Chaikin, were eating take out in their underwear. (They had two shows that night, and were in their costumes for the first scene.) It seemed like such an adventurous and romantic life to me, and that was the moment I decided I would work in the theatre. (I have eaten a lot of take out meals in a lot of dressing rooms since then, and it’s hard to remember why I thought this would be so much fun.)
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
There is nothing I would rather be doing than being in a room with a group of inspiring and talented people, making something together and sharing it with an audience. I always try to make work that would please me as an audience member.
Lathan Hardy (alto sax), Jessica Lurie (baritone sax), Sam Kulik (tuba), Peter Zummo (trombone), Paul Zimet (as Dr. Fred Decker) – Talking Band’s world premiere of Fusiform Gyrus – A Septet for Two Scientists and Five Horns, written and composed by Ellen Maddow
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
In college I got an internship with the Open Theatre.They needed someone who could play a drum in the show without speeding up. (This is more difficult than it sounds.) I got to go on a world tour with the company as a musician in the show, and was inspired by the composers working with the company. I decided that in addition to acting, I wanted to compose music for the theatre. When the Open Theatre disbanded in 1973, Paul Zimet and Tina Shepard, (two veteran Open Theatre actors) and I started the Talking Band.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
The first couple of years of the Talking Band we would work on performing poems and songs and then invite a bunch of our friends over to drink wine and listen to us. People were very enthusiastic, and so we kept it up.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I am lucky. I have a theatre company to produce my work, so I have the freedom to experiment and try to challenge myself with each new project.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
When I had my first child, I had to be very efficient with my work time. It was a finite amount of time each day, so I had no time to wonder whether what I was doing was good or bad, I just had time to do it. This is when I began to explore being a playwright.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I had to learn to take myself seriously as a writer. When I was chosen to be a member of New Dramatists, I got the support I needed from the staff and fellow playwrights to begin to define myself as a writer as well as a composer and performer.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
A sense of humor.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am proud of the fact that Talking Band has managed to challenge ourselves and produce new work for over 40 years.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
I think it’s harder than it used to be to be a creative artist in New York City because the cost of living here is so high. I talk to a lot of young people who have to spend most of their time supporting themselves with day jobs. I guess advice is as long as its satisfying, keep on doing it.
Photos by Suzanne Opton
Talking Band’s upcoming world premiere of Fusiform Gyrus – A Septet for Two Scientists and Five Horns, written and composed by OBIE Award winner Ellen Maddow, runs from February 7 – 25 at HERE (145 6th Avenue) in New York City.