Immediate, Uncompromising and Socially Conscious

Photo by Kacey Anisa  Left to right: Sara Hogrefe & Dara O'Brien.

Photo by Kacey Anisa
Left to right: Sara Hogrefe & Dara O’Brien.

Conscious Ego Actus explores technology, teen bullying and fighting back

BY MARTIN DENTON (of nytheatre.com & indietheater.com) | Bullying is a hot topic these days, and with good reason. Most of the theater work I’ve come across that deals with this subject has been focused on victims. But what if a bullied teen found an effective way to fight back? And better still — what if that bullied teen was a girl?

That’s the idea behind Penny Jackson’s new play, “I Know What Boys Want.” It’s being presented by Ego Actus, a relatively new but extremely prolific and energetic theater company run by director Joan Kane and theatrical jack-of-all-trades Bruce A! Kraemer (the exclamation point is not a misprint, and tells you a lot about this guy, believe me).

Here’s what Kane says their latest project is about: “‘I Know What Boys Want’ is about a girl named Vicky who refuses to be a victim of a bully, when he makes her the sensation of the Internet by posting a video of her having sex with her boyfriend. It is also about a group of teens who are rudderless, in that their parents are not involved in their lives and they have no one to help them navigate the rocky waters of adolescence.” Kraemer adds: “I think it is about the pervasiveness of technology in society today. We used to be afraid of Big Brother government watching everything we did. It turns out that ‘little brother’ is much more dangerous to privacy.”

Intrigued? I know I am. The first collaboration of Jackson, Kane and Kraemer — also produced by Ego Actus, at the 2012 Planet Connections Theatre Festivity — was a play called “Safe,” about a teenage girl who decides to start a relationship with a much older man she meets in a Starbucks.

“Safe” went on to win the Best Playwriting Award at the Festivity, and was published on Indie Theater Now shortly thereafter. It will be heading to the Edinburgh Fringe this August, following a short engagement at 59E59 as part of their East to Edinburgh Festival. Not a bad showing for a writer’s first produced play!

Jackson told me, “I’m very interested in how today’s generation of girls are turning their back on feminists like Gloria Steinem and are creating what is known as ‘the third wave of feminism,’ referred to as ‘grrl,’ where they feel proud of displaying their sexuality.” She’s been a theater fan since she was 16, when she saw a Tom Stoppard play in the back of a pub. “I knew then that theater can be truly magical and transformative.” Her work, immediate, uncompromising and socially conscious, certainly strives to awaken people to issues they may not have thought much about, and maybe even change some minds.

Jackson is on record as saying that Kane is her mentor. “She taught me how to write a play,” Jackson says, “how to focus on characters and motivation, and to emotionally connect to an audience.” Jackson has chosen wisely: Kane has been involved in theater for more than four decades, first as an actor and dancer and then as a founding member of the all-female company Lupa Productions — where she directed plays, readings, site-specific and devised works. In 1978, Joan met Bruce at a dress rehearsal of a production of “Platonov,” which she was acting in and he was lighting. Kane says, “Bruce got into an argument with the director and quit a show for the only time in his life. A few days later we saw each other in a bar and I told him that the show was lousy. He was delighted.”

They became partners in life, and after their children grew up, they decided to become partners in a new theater company, Ego Actus (“my way” in Latin), which they founded in 2009. “We wanted to create a company where artists could create and produce their art using whatever technique they were comfortable creating in,” Kane explained. “There are a variety of different techniques of producing a work of art and one way is not better than another way. We wanted all artists to be respected and cherished.”

I met Kane and Kraemer in 2011, when they were presenting the first NYC revival of Saviana Stanescu’s terrific play “Aliens With Extraordinary Skills.” Kane and Kraemer’s work on this piece was exemplary, and as I am very familiar with Saviana’s work, they invited me to do a talkback after one of the performances. I was immediately impressed by their seriousness, their craft, and their fearlessness.

In a city where too many indie theater companies cover the same ground over and over again (mining the classics and a small passel of popular new plays), Kane and Kraemer seek out challenging work that is relevant to audiences and very likely unfamiliar to them as well. It’s through them that I got to know Jackson, and I will be excited to meet whatever other new writers they may happen to discover in the future.

Once “Boys” is finished, Kane and Kraemer will be presenting Kraemer’s play “what do you mean” at this year’s Planet Connections Festivity, and a revival of Kate Fodor’s provocative “100 Saints You Should Know” at Urban Stages. Then they’re off to Edinburgh with Jackson and “Safe.” They’re planning another new show in November at Theater for the New City, a co-production with Scandinavian American Theatre Company of the play “More” by award-winning Norwegian playwright Maria Tryti Vennerod. Jackson has a new play in the works called “Lay Me Down,” which is “about a family that is shattered when the father of an autistic son decides to abandon his wife and child.”

Yep, it’s a lot to take in. One can only admire the energy and dedication that these three artists bring to the NYC theater scene. In the meantime, check out “I Know What Boys Want,” which is sure to provide an unusual and thought-provoking perspective on a pervasive problem.

THEATER | I KNOW WHAT BOYS WANT Written by Penny Jackson. Directed by Joan Kane. Presented by Ego Actus. Through April 13 Thurs. through Sat. at 8pm. Matinees Sat. at 3pm. Talkback with neuroscientist Heather Berlin on April 11. At WorkShop Theater 312 W. 36th St., 4th Fl., btw. 8th & 9th Aves. For tickets ($18), call 800-838-3006 or go to brownpapertickets.com Visit egoactus.com.

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