Each month (ish) for the next year, TEAM members are taking turns interviewing a fellow artist in the company. In this month’s post, Kristen Sieh interviews Jill Frutkin about teaching, collaborating with theTEAM, and her music.
KS: I’m sitting with Jill Frutkin, one of the founding members of the TEAM, at Schillers Liquor Bar, where Jill used to work.
JF: For many years off and on.
How many years did you work here, Jill?
Oh my god, I don’t even know. 4 or 5. I’ve got friends that still work here and I enjoy coming here very much
Where do you work now when you’re not making theater with The TEAM?
I teach in a public school in district 75 in Brooklyn. District 75 are the schools for kids with severe and profound disabilities. My students all have a diagnosis of autism.
What did you do today?
I taught all day from 7am to 3pm. Yesterday was a very eventful day, so although I’m usually very disciplined with my kids, I will totally admit we had a slightly slacker day today. We played some (educational) games… I bought them Gummy Bears. I don’t usually do food rewards, but they were so good yesterday I bought them Gummy Bears. Everybody loves a Gummy Bear.
How long have you been at this school?
This is my second year.
And give us a basic run-down of how you ended up there.
When I was a little girl I wanted to be three things: a ballerina, an author, and a teacher.
I spent a lot of time as a performer, and I’ve always been a writer, so I thought the next step was to try to be a teacher. So I decided to apply to the New York City Teaching Fellows program because it’s a free masters and also a chance to start working immediately. It’s a pretty sweet deal. They pay for your masters and then your first year you’re getting a salary, which is something I’ve never made before in my life. I was like, “I’m going to know what my paycheck is and when it’s coming? That’s amazing!” I guess another part of the answer is that I had done a lot of work with the TEAM and I felt really good about being an actress, and I loved what I was doing but I felt like I needed something else in my life. I felt like the only thing I knew how to do was to be a performer. I wanted to go back to school and to use a different part of my brain. And also, more than anything, I wanted stability. I felt like I needed a nice place to live and I needed to be able to go to the doctor, and I needed to have vacations, and I needed to know that I would have Christmas off.
What has it been like taking this time off from acting being your main focus?
It’s been really hard. It was a total identity shift to do something else. Doing The Fellows program obviously made it hard for me to perform as much. And it changed my social life, too, because I have to wake up really early. The fact that we’re here right now having dinner at, like, 7:30 and we’re going to see a show at 9:30… I’m gonna pay for it tomorrow when I’m dealing with children at 8 in the morning. [laughter] Anyway, I told myself I’d do this for a couple years and then if I hated it, I could always go back to what I did before. Right now I’m in a flexible place of not being really sure what I want to do next. I do really miss being an actress.
Before becoming an NYC Teaching Fellow, you spent a little time in Austin, TX with the Rude Mechs, blending your interests in performance, writing, and teaching. Talk a bit about that.
After the TEAM went to Vegas to develop Mission Drift, I went to Austin. We had met the Rude Mechs at the Orchard Project the year before, and Lana Lesley let me stay in her spare room for a week. The Rude Mechs had an educational branch to their company called Grrl Action, which is an autobiographical writing and performance workshop for adolescent girls. I said, dude, get me in on this, this program is awesome. I’m terribly paraphrasing this, but there are studies that show autobiographical work, like diary work or writing about yourself, actually helps to overcome depression and other horrible things that adolescent girls are prone to. So I helped with this workshop. They let me sit in and help and play and learn. The girls were awesome and I felt really happy and alive. And by a weird coincidence, one of the women, Meg, who was a Rude Mech and worked and lived there, and helped run Grrl Action, was actually leaving Austin and was moving to Western Massachusetts, which is where my family is from, so I ended up going home to Massachusetts, and Meg and I raised money and did a pilot program of Grrl Action on the East Coast. It was an amazing experience that lead to me applying for the Fellows program.
So, Jill you’re still working with The TEAM on one of the projects that’s in early stages of development right now, Primer for a Failed Superpower. You were in London with us at the National Theatre Studio where we started work on it. What is interesting you about this piece, and what is compelling you as an artist these days?
I feel passionate about collaboration. I think what we do together is better than what we do alone. When we started Primer, I was really interested in video work, and that remains something I’m super interested in doing. As an artist overall, I’m interested in the simple stuff. I like a good story. I wanna cry, I wanna laugh. I wanna make people laugh and cry, and I want to help people to get lost in somebody else’s story. Whether it’s Grey’s Anatomy or something amazing at BAM, I wanna get lost in somebody else’s story. I want to give the audience something. I often think about this time when I hung out with Taylor Mac in a bathroom at the Battersea Arts Centre in London while he was getting ready to perform. He was putting on all his makeup and eyelashes and sequins. And it took a long time. And he said something like, “I want the audience to know I spent this many hours getting ready. I want them to know that I spent all this time doing that for them.” And I think about that all the time. Taylor is an inspiring artist to me in many ways, because when I watch him work it makes me feel OK to feel like an outsider. Or it makes me celebrate being awkward or being wrong sometimes. I mean we’re all just weird kids, man. Who are becoming weird grown-ups.
In the little bits of Primer we began working on at The National, you and Jessie [Almasy] did a bunch of writing around a couple of teenage girls named Viral and Cable. They feel related to what you’re talking about, the awkwardness of discovering yourself.
Yeah. I’m still really interested in those girls.
You’ve always had interest in film and in photography. What got you interested in that?
It just happened that at NYU a lot of film kids lived on my floor in the dorm. I never did any plays while I was studying theater at NYU because I always had a job. When they were auditioning for all the plays at school, they were like, “what’s your availability?” and I could never come to rehearsal so I could never be in any plays. So my film-maker friends all wrote movies for me to be in. It was so awesome, because they were writing interesting fun things for me, and we filmed them whenever we could, and we made all this cool art together. And actually that company, Blatantly Subtle, was the first collective I was a part of.
The stuff we were doing with Primer in London was an awesome collaboration between Jess and I. She was the writer and the director and I was the actress and the camera person. I was shooting myself on Photo Booth, just holding my laptop in front of my face and it was so much fun and I loved doing that. I love that medium.
Give me a quick run-down of how you started working with the TEAM.
Jessie Almasy was my best friend in college. I met her my second day in New York City. I had been making a movie with Blatantly Subtle and I remember I was living right over there on Essex with Will Hunter [now The TEAM’s board president], and Jessie called me and said Rachel Chavkin is directing a play, you wanna audition? And I almost said no because I hadn’t slept in days, but I dragged myself to it. I ended up playing Wanda June in this production of Kurt Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday Wanda June. Brian [Hastert] was also in that… you were the costume designer! And after that Rachel decided that she wanted to start a company and she asked you and me and Brian and Jess to do A Thousand Natural Shocks.
And the rest is hist’ry.
So, this other question that I have for you is about songwriting. Did you start really thinking about songwriting as something you wanted to do when you and Frank [Boyd] started working on songs together for Architecting?
Well Frank started writing songs. We were touring Heartland in Dublin and I remember watching that Neil Young movie, Heart of Gold, and Frank started writing songs. I helped with some of the lyrics and then I sang them in the show. It was such an awesomely joyful collaboration, that work with Frank. I was so excited to explore a new medium.
And now you and a friend of yours are writing songs together.
One day I wrote some stuff, I write poems, songs are poems to me, and I sent him some poems and he turned them into songs and we started really working on them together. And the songs we made were really good! And so we started actually working together regularly. We have a songwriting Saturday every other week. We spend like 12 hours in our little bat-cave and we write a song.
and you have a record out.
Yeah, we made a whole album. We recorded it this summer and I produced it. It’s the neatest thing I’ve ever done. It’s a really tender record. I’m really proud of it.
Do you think you’ll perform any of your own songs any time soon?
Not out of the question.
Any other thoughts you’d like to share about working with the TEAM?
It’s totally extraordinary to have such a family. When we went on our retreat the other weekend it totally felt like an extension of the holidays, like seeing your family. Getting together and eating and drinking and playing and talking and working together, it’s my family. We’re so lucky to have the community that we do. I love everybody and I hate everybody and I get frustrated by this and by that, but it’s really family, and we are so lucky. And our company is almost ten years old! I mean, I’ve known many of you since we were 18 years old. And we’re 33 now, and that is extraordinary. I am so grateful to have such a family.