Talking Band’s Paul Zimet on Death, Immigration and Experimental Theater in City of No Illusions

Paul Zimet came up with the idea for Talking Band’s 57th show, “City of No Illusions,” when he met two sisters who own a funeral parlor in Buffalo, New York.

“They talked about what they did — they had all kinds of stories,”  Zimet recalled for me, in my article for TDF Stages . “They said, ‘Maybe you’ll write a play about us.'” Around the same time, he heard about an organization in Buffalo called Vive that helps asylum seekers, who are increasingly applying to Canada, right over the border from Buffalo. “Undocumented people are so unwelcome here in the United States, they’re trying to get into Canada,” Zimet says. “I started to think about borders, and how funeral homes are borders between living and dead. Immigration offers you the chance for another life in a new country. When you’re dead, that’s also a crossing over.”

The result is “City of No Illusions” (the title a nickname for Buffalo, since the Blizzard of 1977), which Zimet has both written and directed.  Running from February 8 to 24th at La MaMa, the play explores this connection between death and immigration in scenes that alternate between serious, satirical and surreal. The cast includes young performers who are themselves immigrants portraying the characters who are immigrants or refugees.

Zimet, the artistic director of Talking Band, was one of the seven founders of the company in 1974. He, Ellen Maddow (who is his wife of 33 years and the composer for most of the shows they do)  and Tina Shepard (who is his ex-wife) have remained with the company for 45 years – all three of them alumni of Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater, all of them Obie winners, and all now in their seventies.

In an essay in HowlRound that Zimet wrote in 2015 (Forty Years of Avant-Garde), he talked about the origins of his interest in theater (I’ve spent most of my theater career working with ‘experimental’ ensembles that create new work, but my love of theater started as a child when my parents would take me to Broadway…”), his work with such experimental theater artists as Jerzy Grotowski and Joseph Chaikin, and the history of the Talking Band company.

Sitting through a rehearsal of “City of No Illusions,”  I didn’t see exactly what about it was “experimental,” which often seems like a euphemism for ‘difficult to understand.”

“We don’t use that term experimental,” Zimet told me.  To the extent they experiment, it’s during the process of putting the show together.  “We work our experiments into the piece in subtle ways.” For example, for “City of No Illusions,” he studied the paintings of Caravaggio, the way “they give the sense that the person is just about to fly into action. So we worked that into the entrances in the play.”

Click on any photograph of City of No Illusions by Suzanne Opton to see it enlarged.



Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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