’Billy Witch’ :: Coming of age at summer camp
"In retrospect, it seems like a piece of lost Americana," says playwright Gregory S. Moss of the Massachusetts YMCA summer camp he attended in his youth.
"It was a very conventional camp... swimming, arts and crafts. Things are more specialized now," he notes, with a certain amount of regret in his voice. "Today, you have math camp, band camp. This was just a nature camp."
Fortunately for Moss, his younger self found some time between the weenie roasts and the macaroni art to make some keen observations and sear some lasting images into that still-developing adolescent brain... observations that would show up, consistently, in the subject matter and themes of his plays.
A very theatrical moment
"I wrote a play called ’Punk Play," says Moss, recalling an early work. "It got done in New York and Chicago... It’s about two adolescents trying to cobble together an identity through listening to punk rock music and dressing punk."
Fragile characters exploring a larger world-and negotiating their place in it-is a theme that looms large throughout the still-young playwright’s body of work. "I do tend to write a lot of adolescent characters," he says, noting that, "It’s a fascinating period that I always return to, because it’s a moment of great vulnerability. In some ways, it’s the last big change you go through. You’re discovering your body, and what it does... and other people’s bodies."
Plenty of young folks get back to nature, and get down to the business of discovery, in the latest play from Moss. Taking place at the Blue Triangle Nature Fun Times Summer Camp, "Billy Witch" sees newcomer Oliver thrust into the unfamiliar world of fireside sing-a-longs, perky counselors, friends with agendas and something the show’s press release refers to as, "Vagina Cephalopada."
The press release also alludes to mutations and monsters. Moss wouldn’t go into specifics about that, except to make his own allusions to a late-in-the-show event involving "a very theatrical moment."
Bad things happen
What that means is anybody’s guess-but it’s safe to say that when you put a bunch of kids in an unfamiliar forest, bad things happen. "It’s a comedy," Moss is careful to point out. "It deals with searching for identity in adolescence and coming of age and the connection human beings have to the natural world. I’m always interested in how human beings are still animals, and how a lot of our instincts are still rooted in natural, evolutionary behaviors."
Adolescence, he goes on to argue, is that rare time when you’ve not yet assimilated into the rules of adulthood and are therefore more susceptible to the primal urges rooted in the natural world. "The mysteries of that, what your attractions are when you’re thirteen, fourteen... that’s what always interests me."
So Moss again comes around to virtues of summer camp’s perfect storm-when it comes to exploring identity, transformation and desire. "It has to do with being away from your parents for the first time, and the compression of time. Things happen in the summer, at that age, and they seem epic. You’re with these people you’re never met before and you’re not sure what the rules are or who’s in charge. So there’s all this mystery and change."
"Greg beautifully captures the euphoria and shame of adolescence with boundless humor and spectacle," says Moritz von Stuelpnagel (the artistic director of Studio 42, which is responsible for presenting "Billy Witch"). The play is an appropriate project for the company, which dedicates itself to staging "unproducible" works that might not get the nod from traditional theater companies.
Mix of puppetry, movement, music & audience immersion
"This play’s over-sexualized pubescent subject matter and its genre-bending mix of puppetry, movement, music and audience immersion make it a truly special theatrical experience," says von Stuelpnagel-whose telling reference to "puppetry" might shed some light on the "a very theatrical moment" that Moss hinted at.
Moss was a bit more forthcoming regarding the main character of Oliver-described as, "a sort of fairly naïve and sheltered boy [who comes to summer camp] with an agenda, which I remember from my own adolescence. When you’re in a new situation, you can be anybody. So he comes to summer camp with this agenda of creating a new identity for himself."
Oliver’s first kiss, in the woods, is with Miranda-although Moss notes it’s male buddy Arden who takes him under his wing. "There’s a nebulous relationship between Arden and Oliver," explains Moss. Arden’s designs on Oliver are not entirely clear.
One thing, says Moss, should be made crystal clear. As far as the audience goes, he promises, "There will be s’mores."
"Billy Witch" runs Wednesday, February 1 through Friday, February 3 at 7pm (additional performance on February 3 at 10:30pm); Saturday, February 4 and Sunday, February 3 at 3pm. At INTAR Theatre (500 West 52nd Street). Tickets are $18. To purchase, visit www.stu42.com.
Watch this preview of "Billy Witch":