It was a dark and stormy night in Brooklyn. Clichéd, yes, but when I sat down for an outdoor dinner and drinks with two-thirds of the Debate Society, it literally was. Braving tornado warnings under a precarious tent, we ate tacos amidst 70-mile-an-hour winds and dodged buckets and buckets of rain.
“Actually,” cheered Hannah Bos, “there couldn’t be more perfect weather to talk about Blood Play.”
“It’s true,” followed Paul Thureen, her longtime creative partner. “This weather is very Blood Play.”
And he was right. The theatrical thundering provided perfect background music for our conversation about the latest offering from the Debate Society, a brilliant trio of artists whose work reflects traits that have come to make contemporary Brooklyn so irresistibly cool: their productions are quirky, historical, and atmospheric. Self-described “makers of plays since 2004,” Bos, Thureen, and their third eye—the detail-driven director Oliver Butler—craft small-batch productions that give audiences an experience of unparalleled intimacy. Critical acclaim has followed: over the last three years the company has won a Village Voice Best of Award, received a Sundance Institute Fellowship, and an Obie.
I know them through my work at Samuel French, where I’ve edited two of their crazy-innovative plays: the critically acclaimed Buddy Cop 2 and—coming soon to a bookstore near you—Cape Disappointment. Being an editor is a weird role, though; my affection for artists and their work grows from knowing the plays on the page, and not through first-hand experience. This was the first occasion I had to talk with the Debate Society about the company’s formation, what defines them, and what drives them to create new work for the theater.
At present, Bos and Thureen are neck-deep in rehearsals for Blood Play, which opens October 3 at the Bushwick Starr. Press materials describe the show as “a darkly comic thriller of postwar verve and pre-adolescent disquiet … set in the tranquil Chicago suburb of Skokie in the early 1950s.”Bos says, with a flash of her expressive eyes, that it’s “very silly.” Strangers are brought together by random circumstances for an adult party in the basement of a suburban ranch home. While they play party games and down cocktails, hints bubble under the surface of another, darker, story involving their children.
“We’re always interested in the moment before something happens,” says Bos. “It’s the day that happened before someone you know died, and you think about it and you can really remember that day. That’s kind of the feeling in Blood Play.”
The trio has been at work on the piece for some time—they describe their plays as undergoing a “rigorous 12 – 18 month development process,” which in the case of Blood Play included a reading presented by Clubbed Thumb and Playwrights Horizons and a residency at the Bushwick Starr. Now in daily rehearsals, they describe this period as “the most intense part of the process. We meet before rehearsal, then rehearse from noon to six, then meet again, then Paul and I are on Skype doing rewrites till midnight,” Bos says.
This extended incubation period is the norm for Bos and Thureen, who have been writing and performing together since they were undergraduate actors at Vassar College. The group’s formation was romantically tumultuous: Bos and Thureen dated for six months and had what they describe as a “horrible, dramatic college breakup.” They continued, however, to be drawn to one another’s offbeat artistic sensibilities. “We’d play that acting game where the lights go out and you have to point to your center,” says Paul. “And every one would be like heart, heart, heart, and some would be heads, and Hannah and I would be pointing to our elbows.”
In their senior year, the pair created a thesis that would become A Thought About Raya, their theatrical homage to the work of Daniil Kharms, a Surrealist whose violent and expressive work led to arrest in Stalinist Russia. After graduate school, both found themselves in New York City and decided to remount the work. Mutual friends introduced Butler to the duo. The threesome had what Thureen describes as “a courtship” before Butler was brought on to direct Raya. “For a month he was completely quiet. He just watched and studied how Hannah and I worked together,” says Thureen. Eventually, Butler became the duo’s director and helped develop their writing.
“I think we all grew up in environments that fostered larger imaginations,” muses Thureen, who grew up on a barley and potato farm. Bos’s parents were antique dealers and she “was surrounded by old objects my whole life,” she says. Butler was the child of actors and his life was full of stories. “There weren’t a lot of factors to limit the stories we came up with,” says Thureen.
In addition to their work as a trio, each member of the Debate Society maintains individual artistic pursuits. Thureen spent the summer in Annie Baker’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep as Yefim (and understudy for Michael Shannon’s Astrov); Butler developed and directed a new play by Greg Keller at Williamstown Theatre Festival, while Bos was recently seen in Lisa Kron’s The Veri**on Play at the Humana Festival in Louisville.
Still, all seem to agree that their most artistically fulfilling work happens as a trio, and that circling back to the Debate Society is “a relief.” In person, they complete each other’s sentences and share affection for many similar subjects. Bos and Thureen jokingly describe themselves as “non-married life partners,” talk lovingly about Butler’s talented eye, and share a passion about the shows they create, as though the plays were their offspring.
And perhaps they are. The lengthy incubation period for their work creates (and I say this as a former living-history museum employee) 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 Jellnik) plops a perfectly replicated small town police station into a rec center, complete with a racquetball court. Bos and Thureen’s appearance—from her shoes and jewelry to his carefully groomed facial hair—further conjures the play’s early-1980s period, 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.
This is certainly the case in Blood Play, which is one of the fall theater season’s most anticipated new plays. The moody thriller landed on several top 10 must-see lists and tickets are selling quickly. Bos and Thureen, however, in their kind Midwestern fashion, still do their part to promote the work. As Bos hands a postcard to our waiter, encouraging him to check out the play, and asking about his music, I’m reminded why I love these theatermakers—the brilliance of their work is only trumped by their kindness and humility. “We like to send a lot of thank you cards,” says Bos. “That’s just who we are.”
Blood Play by the Debate Society runs October 3 – 27 at the Bushwick Starr, 207 Starr Street, Brooklyn. For tickets and further information, visit www.thedebatesociety.org.