The Magic Bullet Theory In The LA Stage Times!

The Magic Bullet Theory

Yes gang, The Magic Bullet Theory, premiering 8pm tomorrow at Sacred Fools Theater, has made the Los Angeles press.

Check out the interview with your occasionally intrepid blogger, my co-writer Terry Tocantins and director JJ Mayes in the LA Stage Times.

As writer Allison Hills suggests, it not only takes a conspiracy to kill JFK but also to write and produce a play about said conspiracy.


(From the LA Stage Times)


 The Magic Bullet Theory of JFK’s Death — Accidental?

by ALISON M. HILLS  |  March 22, 2012

As its name suggests, Sacred Fools Theater specializes in irreverence. For its late- night series Serial Killers, every Saturday night, audience members see five short plays and kill off two. The three surviving plays return the next week with new episodes. Last year’s critically acclaimed Watson started off in Serial Killers, as did the company’s newest playThe Magic Bullet Theory, co-written by Terry Tocantins and Alex Zola and directed by J.J. Mayes.

The Magic Bullet Theory, however, does not just treat murder as a metaphor for what happens to the “killed off” plays in Serial Killers. It takes off on perhaps the most dissected murder in American history — the assassination of President Kennedy.

During an hour-long conversation before a weekday evening rehearsal, director Mayes and co-writers Tocantins and Zola discuss their collaborations on The Magic Bullet Theory — collaborations that they describe as integral to the play’s development and final form.  As the three talk about the play and sip coffee in the theater’s dressing room, their gestures and sentences overlap.

Serial Killers host Tocantins and its co-producer Mayes emphasize that the success of the series depends upon actors’ and directors’ willingness to repeatedly fail in front of and seek inspiration from one another.  This willingness allowed them to transformThe Magic Bullet Theory from a blog post to a full-length play. They argue that the surreal dark comedy that resulted from this collaboration more respectfully represents the assassination than more linear narratives, such as Oliver Stone’s JFK.

From Blog to Stage

Playful experimentation has characterized Zola’s and Tocantins’ collaborations since they met more than 20 years ago. As NYU students, they played together in a band called White Noise. “Which pretty much described the sound we made,” explains Zola, who started his writing career as a music critic for Spin. “We didn’t have a drummer. We had a guy who played garbage cans.” Although their latest collaboration does not have a garbage can percussionist, The Magic Bullet Theory does include equally surprising elements, such as President Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy crawling out of a television set to torture Kennedy’s accidental assassin Charlie, played by Tocantins.

The play’s evolution has depended upon collaboration at every stage of its development. It started off as installments for a novella that Zola posted on his blog,The Zola System. When Tocantins read the posts, he thought they would make great Serial Killers episodes. Neither of them had written a play, but they pooled their talents as creative writer and actor to create two episodes for Serial Killers, both of which Mayes directed. Although the audience killed The Magic Bullet Theory after its second episode, several company members encouraged the triad to turn it into a full-length play.

The first draft emerged from a two-day writing jam session between Tocantins and Zola in Zola’s Phoenix apartment. Following advice from LA playwright Erik Patterson, they pushed one another to  “write about the thing that scares the hell out of you.” Because they know each other well and enjoy challenging one another, they could write quickly without censoring themselves.

The two also knew that their director would find and stage the play’s arc by actively collaborating with them and with the cast and crew. Tocantins, from his previous experience with Mayes, repeatedly remarks how he enjoys handing the director challenges: “The fun thing about working with J.J. is that we can write something surreal and kind of schizophrenic, and once we give it to him, when he throws the actors on stage, he can turn that schizophrenic thing into something that has its own loopy arc to it.”  Tocantins and Mayes take turns recalling a favorite moment from rehearsal when Mayes asked Marz Richards, who plays Jack Ruby, to provide 30 more seconds of material:

Tocantins starts the story, “J.J. goes – dude, I need you to do something for 30 seconds between the chick exiting and then Charlie entering–”

Mayes interjects, “and it needs to demonstrate Jack Ruby’s temperament.”

Tocantins finishes the story, “And Marz Richards, this wonderful actor that we have, boom, improvises four different scenes, in four different styles, four different gags, all of them are brilliant, and it’s just about him yelling at the bartender for slicing the limes the incorrect width. It’s something we would never have come up with in the writer room.”

Mayes also hands puzzles like these to the crew. When faced with the problem of how to stage a play with multiple settings and a character coming out of a television screen, he gave set designer David Knutson a single word to guide him –  “gears.” Knutson returned four days later with seven different designs.

Accidental Tragedy

This collaboration has yielded a surreal dark comedy that explores the chaos wrought by the Kennedy assassination as well as the accidental nature of life. Zola points to Terry Southern’s Dr. Strangelove as their model: “I would like to think that we did to the Kennedy assassination what Terry Southern did to nuclear war with Dr. Strangelove.” Mayes emphasizes that the play’s surreal spectacles, such as its dream ballet, all serve a purpose. The closing musical number, for instance, illustrates the internal confusion experienced by Charlie before he shoots a judge:

“It’s a giant spectacle, but it’s not that we just needed a song and dance — how do we demonstrate how much crazy stuff is going on in his head? How do you do that on a stage and make it interesting and not make it us telling you that? You take every character in the play and you blow out a giant musical number that uses every inch of the theater, and then you shrink it all back and fire a shot. So the spectacle is what allows us to move the narrative.”

The play’s surrealism not only represents the killer’s internal confusion but also the chaos that engulfed the nation after the assassination. Mayes recounts the responses to the play from two company members, who were alive during and remember Kennedy’s assassination, in order to illustrate the experience that he thinks the play provides:

“When we did one of our first readings, Ruth Silveira and Leon Russom, who remember the assassination, they were like — ‘what’s really wonderful is that this isn’t telling the story of the assassination so much as it’s describing how it felt to live through it. This is what happens to the American public. This is what it felt like — this kind of chaos and confusion, not knowing where to look or who to look to, not knowing how to tell the story or not knowing how you feel, the chaos that you felt within but couldn’t describe.That’s why the show works’.”

For Tocantins, the transformation that the assassination wrought requires this surreal approach: “It was a vortex and any kind of vortex is going to be out-of-this-world surreal. We did go through a looking glass; we’re trying to earn the surrealism with some sort of moral center, because there was an act of violence and the consequences were never fairly doled out.” In The Magic Bullet Theory, this vortex results from a series of accidents rather than an organized plot to kill President Kennedy.

For this director-writer team, imagining that a series of accidents led to President Kennedy’s assassination points to the source of life’s real tragedies. Tocantins explains that although people love stories about premeditated and well-orchestrated plots to kill the president, these stories hide the real tragedy: “Life is accidental and chaotic. People fall out of love with you and they leave and they leave you alone and you take drugs and then you’re supposed to do a prank and you end up killing a man — that’s the tragedy. This particular character killed a president because his love life was upside down.”

Mayes argues that the play illustrates how small accidents can build into disasters — a process that he believes audience members will recognize from their own lives.

The three men’s goal for the play parallels how Mayes describes  Sacred Fools Theater’s ethos. They hope the play strips away audience members’ existing stories about the assassination and allows them to feel the human tragedy of Kennedy’s murder. The company similarly expects its members to leave their egos outside the theater so they can interact openly with one another and with the dramatic material.

To illustrate this, Mayes tells a story about an experienced company member’s response to a new member’s bragging. He took the newcomer out to the sidewalk and said, “Out here you can talk about anything you’ve done. In there, you’re just another fool. That’s the mentality that exists here. There’s nobody above doing anything. Amazing things get created here that I don’t think can exist other places.”

The Magic Bullet Theory presented by Sacred Fools Theater. Opens March 23. Plays Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun. April 15 7 pm and 22 2 pm. Through April 28. Tickets: $20. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., LA. 310-281-8337.

***All The Magic Bullet Theory production photos by Andrew Amani

Alison M. Hills, Ph.D. is a playwright, essayist, and dramaturge. Her plays have been produced at Stanford University and UCLA, where they won playwriting competitions. She wrote and performed a piece for an LA production of Expressing Motherhood.  She co-produces A.L.A.P’s (Alliance of L.A. Playwrights) New Works Lab with local L.A. theaters.


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