A little over two years ago John Rosenberg, then a San Francisco bookkeeper and self-producing playwright, quit the west coast and his full-time job to try his luck in Philly. In 2011 his Hella Fresh Theater made a name for itself with four critically acclaimed original shows, exploring themes as diverse as faking HIV for dramatic purposes, American involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia, and good old down-home jealousy and deceit. This Saturday, Hella Fresh’s 2012 season opens with another original play, written and directed by Rosenberg, Automatic Fault Isolation. As describe in its advert: In a city (Huntsville, AL) rocketing towards the mysteries of racial integration and outer space, a teenager, her NASA crush, and Negro love collide. We caught up to John to find out more about the show.
Live Arts: Why is the title Automated Fault Isolation?
John Rosenberg: A gentleman I know, Barry Milberg, worked as an engineer on the NASA Apollo space program in Huntsville in the late 1960s. In passing he mentioned he was listening to the audio feed when Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee burned to death during a test of Apollo One at Cape Canaveral, Florida. At the time he was working on a control engineering project called Automatic Fault Isolation. The thought of an engineer working on a control problem listening to astronauts burning to death hundreds of miles away was the starting point.
LA: Tell us a little about the story.
JR: In a motel room in 1965 Huntsville, Alabama, precocious 17-year-old named Bretaigne flirts with her middle-aged math tutor, an unstable aerospace engineer and World War 2 veteran from the North. But unknown to the engineer, Bretaigne’s plan is to use his room for an arranged meeting with the boy of her dreams: Sebastian, a Negro rock and roller who arrives thinking they will be alone.
LA: How did the idea for the play first come about? What compelled you about the characters/situation/story?
JR: I wanted to write a play about a racist white girl. After I did California Redemption Value, I told [the actor] Anna Flynn-Meketon I wanted to write a thing for her where she was a racist little white girl. She said hooray! Combined with what Barry told me about Huntsville in the late 1960s, it had a start.
Automatic Fault Isolation is set in 1965 Huntsville, Alabama. Unlike many places in the South dealing with the blood cancer of racial bigotry, Huntsville was an anomaly because the presence of the NASA Marshall Flight space center. Huntsville, unlike Selma or Birmingham, desegregated under pressure from NASA and the Federal government. It is important to note of course, NASA was not doing it out of some moral exceptionalism, its rocket division was led by Dr. Wernher Von Braun, a German scientist who developed V-2 rockets for the Nazi Party.
The last thing that really moved it to the thing it is was my best friend. On consecutive nights she cussed out the Philly police for harassing Occupy protestors, and then screamed at Occupy protestors for wasting their time and made jokes with the cops about the dumb white kids protesting.
LA: What’s been the process so far in creating this work?
JR: I wrote a one-act version last year and performed it in November. There was something more to the story and I was lucky enough to get the actors I wanted and here we are with the full-length version.
LA: What’s the set like?
JR: Well, there is what you want and there is what you can do. It is awesome to be able to produce your own work in your own space. I wanted to build a real motel room with a ceiling and put everyone in the actual room. But the fact is our shit is champagne taste on a beer budget . . . I couldn’t find a set designer interested in the project, so I made do with what I got, which is money from paychecks and help from my family. The most important thing is the audience is still right on top of the action, which is great.
LA: You developed a lot of this play in tandem with the performers reading lines, and even working off of the performers’ own identities. Can you give a couple examples of that?
JR: A lot of the play is derived from who the actors are. I have been very fortunate to find two actors that are incredibly talented and are interested in creating work—Anna Flynn-Meketon and Sebastian Cummings. I have done a full-length with each of them last year, I trust them, think they trust me…it just seems right to write parts around specific actors instead of writing something and then having to compromise to just put it on.
LA: As you’ve begun writing for specific performers in the past year or so, how has that changed your approach to making work?
JR: I have done plays I wrote with these actors before, what is different is they demanded I respected what was written and not change shit. I think it is annoying but they are happy so hooray.
LA: Who are your actors—tell me about them.
JR: Sebastian Cummings is a young actor living in the Philly area. He studied theater at Rutgers-Camden and I had the fortune of working with him last year on Queen of All Weapons. He is incredibly smart, talented and handsome.
Anna Flynn-Meketon is a musical theater major in her junior year at Temple University. My ladyfriend used to be her babysitter and she introduced us. Last year, the Philly Inquirer noted her as “the future of independent theater.”
LA: Because the Papermill Theater is somewhat off the beaten path in Kensington, you’re offering a special to and fro ticket, with food and talk. Can you tell me about that?
JR: The theater is right by Kensington and Lehigh Avenues, familiar to anyone who frequents Kensington, Fishtown and the Walking Fish Theatre. However, since we have only been around for one season, I think it is heehaw to have the expectation of people to come see work at a place they might not have been to before or in an area they are not yet familiar with. I thought, picking people up and driving them to and from, it would be neat to get to know people and talk about shit, theater or otherwise. They never have to worry about getting to the theater late or getting lost or whatever. They can smoke in the car or ask me to stop at Wawa on the way. Who doesn’t want to get chauffeured to the theater (in a mid ’90s Toyota Camry)?
Automatic Fault Isolation runs June 2nd, June 3rd, June 9th, June 10th, June 16th, June 17th, June 23rd, and June 24th, at the Papermill Theater.
The Papermill Theater is at 2825 Ormes Street in Philadelphia.
All shows are at 2pm, tickets are $10.
For more info on how to get chauffeured, click here or call John at 510-292-6403.