Our ongoing celebration of the return of live summer theater to the Hudson Valley continues this week with some great news: Denizen Theatre’s gripping production of George Brant’s one-woman drama Grounded has been extended for an additional weekend, by popular demand. If you haven’t caught it yet, there are performances Thursday through Sunday, July 14 to 17, beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $28 for adults, $5 for students, and you can order them at www.denizentheatre.com/buytickets.
Several previous shows have sold out, for good reason: This is a spectacular evening of theater, tautly directed by Stephanie Courtney, seared and steamrollered into your brain and heart by the formidable Suzen Baraka. Her solo performance in Grounded is sassy, athletic, passionate, visceral, inspiring, ultimately heartrending. You’ll walk out of there feeling like a wrung-out washrag.
A poet, writer, actor and activist who has been performing live for over 17 years, Baraka is also a lawyer. But she’s mainly known as a heavyweight on the poetry-slam scene who won a regional Emmy in the PSA category for her short film Vote (https://vimeo.com/462899350). Baraka also starred in Everlasting, winner of the Viewers’ Choice Award at the 2020 Cannes Short Film Festival. Her recent television work includes Season 2 of The Other Two on HBO Max and Season 12 of Blue Bloods on CBS.
Most of her previous stagework has been with the Atlantic Theater Company, where she has been an acting conservatory student. After seeing her in Grounded, one can only hope that Suzen Baraka will soon be appearing live everywhere. She’s a powerhouse of talent, and a perfect fit for the demands of the role of the unnamed elite fighter pilot who gets reassigned to remote drone warfare after becoming a mother.
This is an intense play in which the patriotic glory associated with movies about hard-driven pilots like Top Gun and An Officer and a Gentleman morphs into a meditation on the ethics of killing strangers from an air-conditioned trailer half a world away, and finally a nightmare of stress, sleeplessness, guilt, paranoia and dissociation from reality. The 2016 espionage thriller film Eye in the Sky (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2016/04/07/eye-in-the-sky-grapples-with-the-morality-of-drone-warfare) covered some of the same ground, tonally and philosophically, right down to the value of the life of a little girl; but in Grounded, all the weight is carried by a single character.
The play’s original 2013 production won the Fringe First Award in Edinburgh, and it took the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show when it first came to New York. Anne Hathaway, who starred in a production at the Public Theater, has tasked Brant with turning it into a screenplay for her; Tony-winner Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home) has been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to do an operatic adaptation. Having seen Baraka ace this role, it’s difficult for me to picture Hathaway in it – or anyone else, really. She has made it her own, and will sweep you away with her intensity.
Meet Denizen’s new directors
And who gets the credit for bringing Grounded to its perfect stage: an intimate little blackbox venue in New Paltz? With his former co-artistic directors Ben Williamson and Brittany Proia moving on to find other gigs during the COVID hiatus, Denizen’s landlord, founder and director Harry Lipstein needed to hire a new creative/administrative team when indoor performances became possible once again. He found what he was looking for in Andy and Kirsty Gaukel, who recently put down new roots in Tillson after decades of experience, both front- and back-of-house, in theaters on two continents.
Now in their 40s, the couple “met cute” at Trinity Repertory Company at Brown University in Providence, where Andy was studying for his MFA in Acting and needed someone to help him master a Scottish accent. Kirsty had grown up in a small town near Edinburgh, working summers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival while she pursued her degree in English Literature and Women’s Studies at the University of Aberdeen. While she’d had an artsy childhood, pursuing interests in drama, dance and music and eventually playing jazz trumpet in various bands, universities in those days offered “no such thing as arts administration or management,” she says. Working and interning in the UK, she honed her skills in finance, marketing and public relations for art organizations. She ended up coming to the US in 2002 through an opportunity to do a management internship with Oskar Eustis (now artistic director of the Public Theater) at Trinity Rep.
For his part, Andy had grown up in a Kentucky family who ran a mail-order theatrical supply company. After giving up a fling at Marine Science in Boston when he discovered that “I really hate boats,” he switched to the University of Kentucky to study Theater and became a professional straight after graduation, working with a company in Cincinnati. His career path took a more definite shape when he was recruited by a puppeteer to do children’s theater.
Before long, working with puppets had become Andy Gaukel’s specialty, but the work was often much darker than one might imagine. At Trinity Rep, he became a protégé of avant-garde puppeteer Basil Twist, who brought him to New York to operate puppets in a wetsuit in Twist’s “underwater crazy show” set to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. He was also one of the operators of the bunraku puppet children in Twist’s 2003 premiere at Trinity Rep of The Long Christmas Ride Home by Paula Vogel, the Pulitzer-winning playwright of How I Learned to Drive.
Kirsty and Andy got married in Scotland and lived there for a few years, with Andy running a theatrical company working with kids at risk, refugees and the mentally handicapped. In 2008 they moved back to Cincinnati, where Kirsty worked at an advertising agency. Andy taught as an adjunct, started his own puppet theater company, went after Jim Henson Foundation grants to develop new work to perform at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta and the Puppeteers of America Festival in 2011. One of his productions, about the first gay man to testify against the Nazis after World War II, ended up touring Canada, Germany and France, including a stint at the Institut Internationale de la Marionnette.
Meanwhile, Kirsty “wanted to get back into the arts,” and took a position at the Actors’ Theater of Louisville, promoting its annual Humana Festival of American Plays. In 2015 they relocated to New York City, where Kirsty became the marketing director for the Off-Broadway theater complex 59e59. Andy taught puppetry in schools through CUNY, founded a new company called Atomic Arts and started teaching kids to do stop-motion animation.
Their move upstate happened in stages, spurred by Andy’s involvement in an annual puppet festival run by friends in Schoharie County. They moved to Dobbs Ferry and began exploring more of the Hudson Valley. “We never wanted to live in the City,” Kirsty says. “We were up here every chance we could get. We looked for six months for a house.” Andy finally found a place in Tillson that “needed a lot of work” while Kirsty was back in Scotland, “just before COVID.” They moved in late in 2020 during a snowstorm, and continued commuting to their City jobs while fixing the place up gradually.
It was a Denizen Board member who had worked with Kirsty on a production in New York City, J. J. Kandel, who introduced the Gaukels to Lipstein when he “wanted to get the dormant space active again.” Both were keen to give up the commute and forge a deeper connection to their new home. “I’d gotten far away from the reason I’d started doing theater: that sense of impact on the community,” Kirsty says. They loved the space and resonated with Denizen’s mission: “The aesthetic we’re drawn to is having really fantastic stories onstage, and to engage a conversation with the community – to explore the messiness of being a human being, the commonality, the diversity of human experience.”
They agreed to take on the gig for one season as a trial run, with Kirsty handling the “business end” as executive director and Andy “selecting the season and building the creative team” as artistic director. Their first challenge was to find a play that could be done on a modest budget in a small performance space. Denizen already has an impressive track record of presenting one-person shows, and Andy, who had known playwright George Brant’s wife in graduate school, read Grounded and was “really blown away by it. I did a puppet show about a school that was destroyed in Afghanistan.” Director Stephanie Courtney was also a grad school acquaintance, and he found actress Suzen Baraka through an agent. “I wanted a strong Black woman in that role,” Andy says.
What else is coming to Denizen in 2022? In September and October, Andy will direct a macabre Halloween season treat: a stage adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. At present he refuses either to confirm or deny that puppetry will be involved in some way, though Kirsty admits that they have some fake human hearts in their collection of stage props inherited from Andy’s family’s mail-order business. After that production, they can say no more than that they are “in negotiation for a third play in November,” and that they “want to do a raucous comedy” at some point.
What fun to have fresh stageworks to look forward to once again! Check out Grounded while you can, and say hello to our new local theatrical impresarios before or after the show. The Gaukels make a point of attending every performance.