For those of us who use “right off of the Jefferson L” to describe where we live, and Roarke Menzies are familiar faces at the very least. Rome manages and Menzies works at the Wyckoff Starr — a coffee shop that’s two doors down from the train’s entrance — and both are a part of a wave of artists that was beginning to put down roots in Bushwick in the early aughts.
The two have a sort of boyish charm to them that makes people feel welcome and well-liked; sit in the coffee shop for just an hour and you’ll see a steady passing through of friends and neighborhood regulars. This Thursday their literary performance piece Philadelphia and Other Stories, a fusion of Rome’s newest fiction and original music by Menzies, premiers at the Bushwick Starr theater. The show is running from December 18 to 20. Saturday’s performance was sold out a week ago.
Rome and Menzies’ connection with the Bushwick Starr, which is just around the corner from their similarly named place of work, follows a common Bushwick narrative that is the result of a neighborhood that’s been fostering a supportive, if perhaps insular, arts community for at least the last ten years. Noel Allain, art director of the Bushwick Starr, met Rome in 2006 when the theater hosted a Pass Kontrol show at a Bushwick Open Studios event and the two became acquainted during the band’s frequent performances at Wyckoff Starr, where Rome also met Menzies and began collaborating with him on literary performance work. In 2012, the duo approached Allain about renting out the Bushwick Starr for their first literary performance piece, Calypso, and ended up selling out all four nights of the show, as well as every night of a re-showing they put on in July of that year. So when they approached Allain again about doing a similar performance this winter, he included them in the theater’s season.
So, in the money-strapped neighborhood of Bushwick, how is it that people are so willing to pay $18 for a show that’s a mix of a literary reading (which are usually free) and live music (which can range from $5-$10)? Allain attributes it to the cult of personality. “I don’t want to take anything away from the material at all because I really like Paul’s writing,” he said, “but I think also people are paying to come out to see Paul and Roarke, because they love them. They’re interesting, charismatic performers, and because Paul is a good writer, because Roarke is a good composer.”
Rome is the author of We All Sleep in the Same Room, which was longlisted for the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction. His writing has also appeared in The Huffington Post, The Minetta Review, and Mercer Street. I asked them, via email, what their impetus was for presenting their work as performance. Rome spoke to the immediacy of performance and Menzies to empathy. “Or we can talk about what two nervous systems do when they’re in the same room,” Menzies said. “If you and I are standing next to each other and I yawn, it’s not unlikely you’re going to yawn as well. Why is that? I don’t know. But it points to one thing that’s unique about live performance.” He added that “there’s a through-line between what attracts us to performance and what attracts us to being active members of our community. Both are very ‘face-to-face’ acts where listening and subtext become central.”
Though they say they are interested in presenting their work in other theaters and other cities, Menzies pointed out that having the show in Bushwick offered a unique opportunity: “We also both really value working in a ‘hyper local’ context,” he said. “Each of the works we’ve done in the past continue to be talked about and referenced by certain neighbors and friends. It becomes part of a conversation, and really deepens the meaning of the work, in this way.”
This idea of hyper locality also manifests beyond the audience being able to talk to the writer and composer about the show afterward. Whereas Calypso was comprised of just Rome and Menzies reading, Philadelphia will have live musicians and a third reader, Katie Schottland, who knows the two from frequenting the Wyckoff Starr. Philadelphia came up in conversation with Menzies, and Schottland, an actor who studied at the Maggie Flanigan studio, quickly became their third performer.
“It’s been really great working with them,” Schottland said, of the past month’s rehearsals. “They’re a funny duo. Paul is a phenomenal chef and he makes these really great dinners for all of us. His and Roarke’s dynamic is pretty interesting too — they’re kind of like two funny old women. Getting to know these guys in the last month, I can see why people want to support them. They’re really talented and they’re genuine artists passionately doing what they want to do.”