The fluid give-and-take of energy between actors on stage is sometimes referred to as “ping pong,” but a new FringeNYC play is taking the idea literally. A ping pong table and a fast-paced matches are featured in the new 90-minute comedy ChipandGus, by actor-writers John Ahlin and Christopher Patrick Mullen, getting a five-performance run Aug. 14-25 as part of the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. Performances play WOW Café Theatre on East 4th Street in the East Village.
Editor’s Note: Since the original posting of this interview, Chip and Gus earned great reviews, won the 2016 FringeNYC Outstanding Excellence Award for Ensemble and was invited into the Fringe Encore Series that puts the play on the stage of the Soho Playhouse for five added performances Sept. 19-Oct. 1.
In ChipandGus, according to New York-based producer Fat Knight Theatre, “two oddball acquaintances [Ahlin as Gus and Mullen as Chip], meet once a month over a ping pong table, in the back room of a rundown bar in a nondescript college town. But this night is different. This night there is something else in the room. To the real-time back and forth patter of paddles and laughs, buried secrets get uncovered, and the two realize that their lives are more entwined than they ever imagined.” (Learn more about ping pong — officially, table tennis.)
In addition to sharing the stage, Ahlin and Mullen co-wrote and co-direct the production, which is so physically lean that it can fit into a bar — and has. The ping pong table is essentially the set. (It sounds utterly producible — have table, will travel.) Subtitled “a Comedy With Balls,” the play was previously seen in developmental presentations in a variety of spaces, including a black box in New Jersey, a bar in Baltimore, a garage in Pennsylvania, an intimate black box attached to Proctors Theater in Schenectady, NY, and Parkside Lounge in Manhattan.
“I remember the exact moment the idea came into my head — and it was at a ping pong table,” Ahlin told me. “I was playing ping pong for fun a few years ago, blowing the rust off my atrophied skills, when somehow I awakened the echoes and, like a young me, I laced a screaming backhand down the edge and in an overly theatrical way I turned to an imaginary crowd and drank in imaginary cheers. And then I stopped, mid faux-celebration and thought, “Standing here, at the end of a ping pong table feels very theatrical…I wonder if this game would work on stage?” And with that one idle thought, Ahab-like, I began chasing this leviathan of an idea.”
Ahlin’s Broadway credits include Journey’s End, Waiting for Godot and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Mullen is known for his work in regional theatres, including People’s Light, Pennsylvania Shakespeare and Arden Theatre Company. ChipandGus’ stage manager is Linda Moulton.
ChipandGus is presented at Fringe Venue # 8, the WOW Café Theatre, 59-61 East 4th Street, between Bowery and Second Avenue. Performance times are Sunday Aug. 14 at 9:15 PM, Tuesday Aug 16 at 2 PM, Saturday Aug. 20 at noon, Tuesday Aug. 23 at 7 PM and Thursday Aug. 25 at 7 PM. Tickets are $18. Find tickets here, scrolling down to the play’s title.
Fat Knight Theatre is a Manhattan-based not-for-profit company focused on “creating, discovering and rediscovering great characters in drama, history, literature and modern mythology.” They seek “to celebrate, inspire and communicate the potential in each of us.” The not-for-profit company is currently also developing the biographical play My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Story by John Ahlin, featuring Jean Tafler as the American actress known for “The Wizard of Oz”; and Charlotte Ahlin’s The Summoning, a darkly funny comedy about college-age women flirting with the uncertainties of the occult even as they face the uncertainties of growing up. Visit the Fat Knight website.
Here’s my chat with ChipandGus creators John Ahlin and Christopher Patrick Mullen.
How did your collaboration on this begin, once you had the inkling of an idea?
John Ahlin: One day, Chris Mullen, with whom I’ve never been on stage with, but was sharing a dressing room — this one particular Shakespeare Festival put all the actors for their various stages into the same dressing room, so that Tevye might have a dressing station next to Macbeth — was speaking of table tennis with the same impassioned reverence I speak of it. I invited myself into the conversation, and I suggested we play. Well, we were both evenly matched, and knowing him to be a superb actor I broached the idea of a ping pong play, and his mind too, Frankenstein-like, became overcome with this one thought: “Lets, somehow, someway make this play come alive.” And thus, ChipandGus was conceived.
“Playing ping pong” is a term I’ve heard actors use about chemistry and synchronicity in the back-and-forth of scenework. Did this idea feed your project?
Christopher Patrick Mullen: Ping pong became an imposed metaphor, and ultimately it has become one of the characters and one of the playwrights. That’s how influential it has been.
John Ahlin: The rhythm of the game was like a secret metronome…lines, words, even syllables would be sweated over, and like Shakespeare, it is more than hearing…you feel when it is right. It may be in some acting book somewhere that a true and honest acting choice is to both receive and give in an instant, and that is exactly what happens when you return a shot in ping pong.
Did you both play ping pong before this project? How much of the 90-minute play includes the actual act of playing ping pong?
John Ahlin: There is some autobiography in that our characters like ourselves were once very good at the game, when youth and free time were in abundance, but time and neglect have turned our skills to clay. And to once again take up the racquet and relive our past, is more than a ping pong thing, it’s a life thing. And a lot of ping pong is played, yet so intertwined with all that is happening it is hard to quantify how much of the play we spend playing.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: There’s a great deal of playing. I think when John was seeking a collaborator on this project he was looking for someone with a table tennis background. I’m pretty sure he heard from my ex-wife that I had played pretty seriously as a teenager.
What if you miss a ball and hit it out of bounds — is flubbing and improvisation part of the experience?
John Ahlin: I’ve been told it is a Meisner acting technique to be doing some physical activity while acting, to ground oneself. Well, I tell people I was trained “in the Method and in the Catskills,” and so I bet it works for all techniques, to have something undeniably real in the middle of a play. The reality of playing table tennis removes all artifice and staginess as you have to play, react, and crawl under the table if you have to, to retrieve the ball, all while keeping all your acting actions going. The lines aren’t improvised but the physical life is never the same thing two nights in a row.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: We have discovered that the precariousness of the ball keeps things fresh and alive. Sometimes the will of the ball makes for great comic moments.
Without giving everything away, can you share a little bit about where the play takes place, and expand a little on the relationship and history of these two guys?
John Ahlin: The play takes place in a rundown game room in the back of a rundown bar in a rundown city in upstate New York. We felt it was important that the two characters of Chip and Gus be simply casual acquaintances, who wouldn’t be drawn together at all, except for their love of one thing, ping pong. We wanted their relationship to have all the chemistry of a carpool, at the beginning, and the events of this one night, and what they find out about each other (and themselves) are what creates dramatic fireworks. We are holding Chip and Gus’ specifics close to our vests, because the details of their lives are where the play lives. We also wanted them to be somewhat smart people so we chose people who work at a (rundown) college.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: The tension stems from a couple different things. There is an old unsettled (or long settled) score left over from a somewhat high profile table tennis tournament in which they faced off. And then there are the almost providential, malignant, unspoken, tensions of life that have brought them together in this particular night of destiny.
John Ahlin: We tried to make them opposite in every way, but it turned out it is the things they share that create the tension. And once again I will leave that cryptically hanging…
Do the personality traits of the guys reflect your own personalities or are they purely of your imagination?
John Ahlin: We kind of fell into being in charge of our own characters as writers, with the ability of course to collaborate on any aspect of the play, but each character obviously begins and remains built on all we have to offer. But then, and here is the cool part, we have total freedom to take our characters wherever the play will let us go. An example of a choice I made for Gus is I once read a casual reference to Wittgenstein, the philosopher, about how his students had to remind him what topic the last class ended with, and once prompted he would simply pour forth in unrelenting gushes, the contents of his mind, speaking extemporaneously and brilliantly on any subject. I said “yeah, I want Gus to be like that.”
Christopher Patrick Mullen: I think that Gus is a somewhat more flamboyant, savant version of John Ahlin. I think that Chip is Christopher Patrick Mullen in different (and somewhat similar) life circumstances. Chip is closer to me than Gus is to Ahlin.
John Ahlin: ChipandGus, while funny, is more…human. The very first thought of this play was “Would ping pong work on stage?” But after all this work and devotion and time, it turns out it is a play about people, about Chip and Gus. They happen to meet over ping pong, but it is the journey they take as people that is the story. Theatre is about how we debate life through our stories and in Chip and Gus, we get, we believe, two of the most interesting characters you will find.
Did you know from the beginning that both of you would act, write and direct the play?
John Ahlin: It just seemed to fall to us to make this happen. It was such a unique project that it never really was a question of “who else can we get?” We were the sole creators, to misquote Shakespeare “By Sovereignty of Nature,” because we were the ones who thought it up. It must be said it is an intoxicating power to be both the actor and the playwright. To be able to change a line or a bit to best suit your moment, is like being a Queen in Chess who can move twice in a row; it feels all powerful.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: At least to get the project on its feet, yes, that was the understanding. Initially I told John, “Hey, you write this thing and I’ll give you some input and I’ll perform it with you.” John would respond by showing me a title page with both of us listed as playwrights. He wouldn’t take no for an answer as far as the piece being co-written. Oh, boy, did he regret that.
When this play has a future life with other actors, do those actors need to be excellent ping pong players?
John Ahlin: There is a ping pong sub-culture in the acting world. A lot of actors are in love with this game. Whenever I’m at a regional theater and they don’t have a ping pong table I try to go buy one, and Johnny Appleseed-like there are now tables strewn across many greenrooms around the country. Chris and I would love for other actors to play these roles and bring all they have to it. As for ping pong ability, it would be best if the players were roughly evenly matched. Personally I know many actors who have both the chops and the “chops,” to play these roles.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: These two characters are “has beens” as far as the ping pong goes. On the one hand, any two people who can keep a ball on the table can do this play. On the other hand, if the actors happen to be proficient players, there can be fireworks.
How did you guys meet? What makes you a match?
John Ahlin: We never worked together, but were aware of each other. Collaboration is tricky, in that you often have to defer, but that turns out to be a good collaboration’s strength; listening, trying something different, and having someone to talk out ideas with. I think the key to Chris and me is that we profoundly care about the biggest ideas and the tiniest details.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: We had met only in passing in Florida years ago. But our formal introduction in 2008 was a deliberate “go see” on John’s part when he was looking for a collaborator on this project. To all intents and purposes we met on this project.
ChipandGus has been performed in a handful of regional venues, including bars. Can you share a little about its development?
John Ahlin: When the idea of actually doing this play grew too big to contain we went out and bought a table. Well it turns out a ping pong table is a bit of a white elephant: hard to store, hard to move and hard to have around when you feel like rehearsing, since Chris, myself and the table were often in three different places. But persistence, and a garage in Downingtown, Pennsylvania were key to birthing this play. We set up lawn chairs around the inside perimeter of the garage and performed the play for the neighbors. And that one performance answered the question that plagued the putting together of this play; would playing ping pong during the play be an annoying, noisy distraction? It turned out the ping pong drew people in, it mesmerized, it focused, it enhanced the play in ways we never could have imagined.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: Every performance is hugely informative. We are constantly using performances to help us craft the characters, the action, the laughs.
What kept you up at night when creating the show? What moment or aspect of the script was the most difficult thing to solve?
John Ahlin: The balance of information for the audience is always the trickiest for the playwright. You want to let them know certain things yet not repeat it half a dozen times. With this play, where the elements are deliberately unfolding before the audience, we worked hard and sweated and hashed out so much to simply tell the story as truthfully as possible.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: The two most difficult moments (sequences) to script were the initial beats and the concluding beats. The body of the play more or less dictated itself to us, with a lot of surgical procedures to keep it natural and to keep it funny.
Is this a play that can be performed in a 350-seat proscenium theatre as well as smaller 60-seat site-specific rooms that suggest a space in a tavern? How did you first envision the play’s performing space?
John Ahlin: The only constant in envisioning it was to have audience all around. It seems like a tiny stadium effect would give audience all different viewpoints as well as being close to the action. We thought that proscenium might not work, but it turns out that we’ve done it in close to proscenium and it is actually very good for this play. The very first showing of it, after the garage, was in an actual bar in Baltimore, with people buying drinks, and sitting at bar tables all around the ping pong table. It worked great. And it turns out our set up at the Fringe is completely different but it seems to be working perfectly.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: I saw it as a fly-on-the-wall odd comedy. One particular performance (with a crowd of almost 200) taught me that the piece wanted to be a bit broader in style than what I had envisioned.
What’s your hope for the play? A tour? Individual bookings around the country? A sitdown run in NYC? Publishing?
John Ahlin: We simply want it to live on.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: I would take any of the above with a special desire to run in New York City — and eventually see other actors interpret the roles.
Are you still finding new things with every performance or is it frozen?
John Ahlin: It will never be frozen, particularly when there are two playwrights present. It is odd but sometimes we as actors have to ban ourselves as playwrights. It is very easy to change a word or rewrite a line, but to seamlessly work it into the play is not so easy. Actors need to rehearse and discover and often while running through will stumble because their mind is saying “Oh, here is the new part,” instead of whatever it is actors are thinking as they play a role. It may sound odd but our actor selves wish our playwright selves would back off, but in defense of the playwright self, there are always new things and sometimes better ways to say things. The writing of the play is just like the playing of the play, it is a living, breathing, honest, ongoing thing.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: We try — with very little rehearsal time allowed — to leave nothing to chance in order that we feel free to let almost anything happen…to go anywhere. As playwrights, actors, and directors we learn more from one performance than we can possibly remember or write down. One of the alluring things about this piece is that it necessitates that each performance will take the track of the ball and lead us down very different pathways.
Did you laugh a lot when you were creating this, or was it deadly serious business?
Christopher Patrick Mullen: This play evolved over our light hearted ping pong get-togethers: Talking about life, love, sports, music, cosmology, philosophy, history, language, family, past jobs, past theatrical exploits… anything was fair game with a special premium on what made the other guy laugh. We’ve been having a blast. The only time we’re deadly serious is when an audience laugh is on the line. Deadly serious.