Tuesday, April 05, 2011

AS IF!The Evening Class Interview With Em Gift and Liz Franczak

The movie as backdrop projected in a social environment is already familiar to anyone in San Francisco who's spent an evening at Foreign Cinema, where the TV tray dinner has been elevated to fine dining. (Currently you can chew your steaks while watching the early George Lucas vehicle THX-1138, for example.)

The movie as psychological backdrop, however,
informing a social event without the need for the movie to be physically projected has surfaced in an intriguing intermedial theater piece that caters to audiences who enjoy having a lot to look at and experience all at once, especially their own memories. The piece is called As If! Like, a performance, Duh (As If!) and it's an adaptation of Clueless, the 1995 American comedy film loosely based on Jane Austen's 1815 novel, Emma. Written and directed by Amy Heckerling and set in Beverly Hills at a nearby high school, Clueless was a touchstone filmic experience central to the lives of an entire generation, who are now in the position to pay (and play) nostalgic homage.
As If!, the brainchild of Em Gift, Leslie Kulesh, and Liz Franczak, produced under the aegis of Energy Club Unlimited, has already sold out its six-performance run at Engine Works, kicking off this Friday with their premiere performance at 8:00PM. If you didn't score a ticket already, you better hope they add performances. Otherwise slap a big ol' "L" on your forehead.

As they pitched during their successful Kickstarter campaign, As If! "is a play in four acts, taking inspiration from the film Clueless while constructing a new space for it to thrive in. We plan to create an all-encompassing environment that moves the audience not just through the story but through the experience of adolescence: re-living the excitement and fear of walking down the school hallways, going to the parties, figuring out who we were and who we wanted to be, and like, picking out what to wear in the morning! ...While staying true to the colorful visual language of the film, As If! turns up the volume, building a hyper-stylized, neon-fuzzy, MTV-fried, dream-scape for our audience. The performance invites audience members to sing-a-long and quote-a-long, wear themed attire, attend the val-party, take notes with their fuzzy pens and more!

As If! showcases this early digital age in conjunction with new technologies, creating a hyper-reality out of this influential commentary on the modern teenage experience. Audience members can expect live and playable media that will thrust them into a created memory of past and present. In a generation of such pause-able and download-able entertainment, the anticipation for a live production has never been so palpable. This is an exciting project that serves as the perfect bait to interact on an alternative, visceral level with its audience."

I caught up with producer-director Em Gift and producer-adapter Liz Franczak at the event's launch party a few weeks back to talk about the project.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Em, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Em Gift: I went to school in Santa Cruz in their theater department; but—though I'd studied directing—I somehow ended up in San Francisco doing a lot of performance. I've done everything from being the front singer for Ocean Spray, a Cranberries cover band, to a lot of dance, to theater (though not conventional theater; I've never been interested in that). So I've done performance and art for a while now but this is my first big production. The scale of it is much larger than I would have ever imagined as far as being received so well so early and people being excited for theater—which is the shocking part—but it's because the subject matter is
Clueless. I feel this is a new chapter of Em Gift.
Guillén: And Energy Club Unlimited, the production company you've started with Liz Franczak and Leslie Kulesh?

Gift: The production company started out of this project. Liz and I have had mutual friends for a while. I'd heard through the grapevine: "Oh, you and Liz should hang out. You guys would really get along." Finally she contacted me on
Facebook and said, "Hey girl, let's get some coffee. I want to talk to you about a project to see if you want to be involved." So we met in front of Sight Glass and sat down on the curb. She said, "I want to do a staged production of Clueless." I instantly responded, "I want to produce it with you!" Because I knew how to do it. I had interned at CounterPULSE and had learned how to promote and how to find and figure out a space, so I was like, "Yes! Let's do this. I know we could make this work."

Liz originally thought that I would play Cher Horowitz, the character played by Alicia Silverstone in the movie, but instead it turned out that I'm directing and producing. The first person that I thought of that we needed to get on board was Leslie Kulesh because I had been wanting to work with her for so long. She's a dear old friend of mine. She was living in London at the time but she was coming out to San Francisco for Christmas so I was like, "Hey girl, what if you do sets for this?" She's a great installation artist. She was coming to San Francisco to do a window in the Haight anyways so these wheels started going and the three of us joined together to move this thing forward. In many ways I've become the face of the project, but we all have equally produced it. It's taken quite a bit of energy.
Guillén: Synopsize the concept of As If! for me. What are you offering your audience?

Gift: The concept is that
Clueless is the perfect bait for alternative theater, for an alternative nighttime experience, outside of a band showing, outside of going to A.C.T., outside of going to a movie. This is something that encompasses all of those areas and is interactive in many ways. Because it's such familiar material and because my generation—and really beyond!—can quote a majority of this movie verbatim is interesting in itself, it has such buzz, so clearly, we had to pay some serious homage. The music is also a huge motivator and its '90s stylings, which are hip again; the '90s are not retro, the '90s are in again.
Guillén: So you're enacting the movie?

Gift: We're enacting the movie.
Guillén: Are you showing any clips from it within your performance?

Gift: No.
Guillén: So it's primarily a live performance of a movie that influenced your generation?

Gift: Yes. In combination with music and lots of media. We have a whole media projection. We're using 21st century mechanisms to further this '90s homage; but using them in a downplayed way.
Clueless was cutting edge in its own time because the kids had cell phones. Now it's common, everyone has a cellphone, my 11-year-old niece has a cellphone and my 4-year-old nephew can send me Garage Band voice recordings on his dad's iPad. It's insane! But it's still, nonetheless, a marvel in many ways. These kids in Clueless are so privileged, which at the time was very Beverly Hills, though now that culture has taken over and it's not just Beverly Hills.
Guillén: You've generated a lot of interest in the project through social media like Facebook and Kickstarter, where you succeeded at achieving your funding goal. Why do you think that worked?

Gift: It's the material. People love
Clueless. I don't have an explanation for it. In 1995, Clueless received rave reviews. It's written so well. It's acted so well. Every teenager at the time who is now 20-something, 30-something, 40-something are still caught up in the film's lifestyle. It's been codified in such a way that the words they made up for the movie, the language, is still being used today. Jeepin. As if. Whatever.
Guillén: Are you anticipating a costume event?

Gift: I'm anticipating plenty of people dressing up. We're
encouraging people to. I would be totally happy if people quoted along with the performance. People who love the film are going to know exactly what's coming next, they'll know the music, and the thing that's really going to be fun is that—during the intermission—the intermission itself is going to be interactive. Scenes from the film are going to be interspersed into the intermission. People aren't just going to be watching it; they'll be reliving it. They'll actually get to participate, perhaps in a way they've always wanted to while watching the movie. It's great to watch film but it's not life. You can't actually experience it on a 3-dimensional level. But with As If! people will actually get to bear witness and also be involved.
Guillén: So what's next?

Gift: I want to do
The Craft. I want to do Party Girl. I want to do all of my favorites because it's fun to do and quote and reenact but it's also interesting to add our level to it, add our costumes, our aesthetic.

* * *

Guillén: Liz, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became involved with Energy Club Unlimited?

Liz Franczak: Basically, one night I was with a friend and we were talking about theater productions and, like, the last good thing we saw. Actually, I was wearing this very top that I'm wearing and my tag was sticking out and it's a Contempo Casuals tag and my friend commented on it. She was like, "
Oh, Contempo Casuals" and I was like, "As if I would shop at Judy's"—which is a line from Clueless—and I've known the entire film start to finish since I was probably 13. It was a very formative movie for me growing up and, I think, for a lot of people. So this comical bubble-like idea got in my head and I thought, "Oh my God, I have to do this." My head was like, "How do we do this? It could be so cool. Can it even be done? I don't know."

I'd met Em a couple of times and knew that she was involved with theater. I sent her a little message on
Facebook. We met up and I told her, "This is what I'm thinking" and she was like "Yes! Oh my God, have to!" Since then it's been a whirlwind.

Guillén: You're the writer for the project? What are you doing as the writer?

Franczak: Well, I adapted it for the stage. It's an interpretation but it's still very true to the material.
Guillén: What were the challenges of adaptation?

Franczak: It actually goes quite a bit quicker; just the nature of translating films to stage. You're not dealing with camera work. You're not dealing with montages or anything. It's a quick show and runs quickly. I only cut maybe one or two scenes. The difficulty is that the driving force of wanting to do this specific production with this material—I love this movie so much—is a difficult dance. You want to be true to the material but you also want to put a spin on it. By the nature of just staging it, you're totally changing it. It's suddenly very interactive and different. It's a much different way of consuming an art than just watching a film.

Guillén: Speak to me about the decision to create an intermedial texture for this event? How does that help you in your inflection of this film?

Franczak: Especially now when I look back to the first few times I watched the film and where I was, it's such a memory. Part of the fun of staging this production is that we get to rebuild that memory. For especially people our age—mid to late twenties—it was such a big movie. It's one of the big teen girl movies. There is a lot of attachment to it. When we're creating that texture that you're talking about, it's like building a collective memory, a consciousness, that isn't just about watching something, it's about interacting with something. When you're in the space it's overwhelming and you're in a new space, which is sort of a constructed memory.

It's actually a form of media collage. Our generation doesn't consume print media like past generations. We consume
YouTube videos and Facebook photos and messages and digital films and digital photography, which is all just a new way of collaging. It's just a different medium.

What's also interesting is that none of our friends are like, "Hey, A.C.T. is doing this new production of
Our Town, you wanna go see that play?" But so many people are so excited for a live production. I haven't seen that from our peers in a long time.
Guillén: Any issues with rights?

Franczak: That's something that makes me pretty nervous. We're not screening any parts of the actual film. We're making it very clear that it's an adapted script. That being said, there's not a lot of law that has to do with theater production and adaptation, or copyright law around performance. If you change a certain amount, it's okay because then it's parody.
Guillén: Have you considered reaching out to anyone from the original creative team?

Franczak: I've done some work with that. I don't want to give away any juicy bits, but we're working on that. I'm a really big fan of Amy Heckerling. I think she's just fantastic. I love
Clueless. I love Fast Times. I think she's a great writer. I wear all black just like her. I think she would think this is great.

Video by Eric Slatkin.