Call Answered: Conference Call: John Ahlin and Christopher Patrick Mullen: ChipandGus at The Fringe Encore Series at SoHo Playhouse
I love ping pong. I grew up playing ping pong with my family. What fun times we had playing against each other. I've never forgotten those nights! As an adult, my ping pong days are still with me, whether playing with friends or family.
When I found out there was a play that took place over a game of ping pong, I grabbed my racquet and joined in. It was me against John Ahlin and Christopher Patrick Mullen, the playwrights/actors who wrote/star in the hit FringeNYC show ChipandGus, oddball acquaintances meet once a month to play ping pong. But on this funny, sad, and surprising night, something will change their relationship forever. A fast, furious, smart comedy with balls, now coming back in The Fringe Encore Series (both NYC & Edinburgh).
It was a constant back and forth, but in the end I triumphed with this ball-busting, insightful interview about this funny & heartfelt show! With just 4 performances left, ChipandGus plays in The Fringe Encore Series (both NYC & Endinburgh) at The SoHo Playhouse Friday, 9/23 at 9pm, Sunday, 9/25 at 5pm, Thursday, 9/29 at 7pm, and Saturday 10/1 at 7pm. Click here for tickets!
1. After a nearly sold-out run this past summer in the NYC Fringe Festival, this September/October, your show ChipandGus is making a return in The Fringe Encore series at the SoHo Playhouse. What excites you about this return engagement?
John Ahlin: There are myriad excitements. The play is so fun to do, and the audience reaction is so rich and immediate that it is a basic joy to just get to do it again. It is exciting to get to have even more people see it; some who were away, some who couldn’t get tickets during our sold-out Fringe performances and people who have heard the positive buzz about the show.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: With over 200 shows in the NY Fringe, it's easy to feel insignificant, but to be among 14 shows singled out from the throng is exciting indeed!
2. What did you learn from this summer's run that will inform this return engagement?
John Ahlin: As writers, directors and performers of the piece we get a ton of information from the audience reactions. So much so, it is hard to process it all, but Chris and I will sit down and pore over the script, reliving each moment and when needed, tweak or improve. The most important thing I think we learned from the audiences is where the flows of energy are in the play, where we must keep up action and where we want the good silences, where people are rapt.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: I learned: if you can get through an opening performance of a physical, 90 minute play on the hottest night of the summer (97 degrees) with the AC out (easily 100 degree plus - under the close stage lighting) with signs of heat exhaustion in what becomes navy seal training as much as a play -- and the audience sticks it out, hanging on every word -- you're doing something right. Whew.
3. ChipandGus is about oddball acquaintances who meet once a month to play ping pong. But on this funny, sad, and surprising night, something will change their relationship forever. What made you want to structure this show over a game of ping pong?
Christopher Patrick Mullen: That's a question for John. It was his idea. For some reason he singled me out as the right person to help him make the idea into a play. :)
John Ahlin: I thought up the idea of having ping pong part of a play one day when I was just horsing around in a rec room during a Shakespeare festival, and I hit an amazing shot, just like I did when I was young and really good at ping pong. I turned and showboated to an imaginary crowd, but a genuine thought struck me; "It feels very theatrical to stand at the end of a ping pong table, would ping pong work on stage?" Well the idea grew and grew in my mind until I finally started to make it happen. But the thing was I never knew if ping pong would work on stage, or would it be too distracting, until we got something up in front of an audience. It turned out that the ping pong actually drew people in, made them focus and listen, and the results were far more fantastic than I could have imagined. And what started out as the idea of doing ping pong onstage turned into a play, a moving, hilarious play about two guys.
John Ahlin: I’m sure I have many secrets, but actually, this play has helped me with a truly buried secret I’ve harbored all these years. There is one thing in the play that is for me completely autobiographical. I may be skirting this question by only revealing that one of the secrets in the play is true without revealing what the secret is, but it is a way for me, as a human, to go back in time and relive something, and somehow try to make sense of it after all this time. It was something that goes beyond a play; one of those fundamental life things that people have to deal with. And that, to me, is what art is; abstracting out pieces of life so they can be examined on their own. So one of my deepest buried secrets is right there, on full display, in ChipandGus.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: I wouldn't say mine is a "buried" secret, but it's one I've never told John: Gus, as played by John, has always reminded me very much of my best friend (school mate) Gerald.
5. ChipandGus also learn that their lives are more entwined than they ever imagined. How are your lives more entwined than you both initially thought when you met?
Christopher Patrick Mullen: When we started work on this creation we were little more than acquainted. I've described ChipandGus as a story about two guys who are best friends but they don't know it yet. Has life imitated art here? Ask my friend John.
John Ahlin: Well, being co-writer and co-performer shoves you into intimate proximity for long stretches of time. And our process includes knowledge of each other’s sleep schedules, knowing when to call each other, accounting for dentist appointments and trying to figure out rehearsal time when we are often in different cities working as actors. It’s something you don’t think about when beginning a project, but there is a certain kind of "couple-hood" to close collaboration.
Christopher Patrick Mullen:
Funny: John shows me a title page with the two of us listed as authors (before we'd gotten past a page or two of actual dialogue).
Sad: Too many nights to mention, some regrets but all fuel for good comedy.
Surprising: The first night volleying with dialogue in front of a riveted audience: "IT COULD WORK!"
John Ahlin: Well, since I equivocated on question 4 I will answer this question to the letter: 3 Nights, one funny, one sad and one surprising.
Funny: One night as a kid my best friend and I played a hundred games of ping pong in a row, and we got so giddy in our hot basement that when he stood on a stool to open the high, small basement window, you know the kind in a well below the level of the lawn, he screamed in terror and fell backwards off the stool onto the table collapsing it. I rushed to his aid only to find him laughing uncontrollably. When he finally composed himself he told me that as he went to the window to open it, he saw someone outside coming to grab him. Only after he fell on the table did he realize it was his own reflection. That got me laughing and we didn’t stop laughing for 20 minutes.
Sad: Late one night I was driving home from work in a resort in the mountains when I passed by an accident scene; a motorcycle had crashed into a wall. I saw the crumpled remains of the motorcycle and it was the bike a good friend of mine owned. I pulled over and asked a trooper about it and he said the victim had been taken to the hospital but it didn’t look too good. I spent the whole night sure my dear friend was dead but it turned out it was not his bike, he was perfectly fine, but a night of grieving, even if it is false, surely changes your outlook on life.
Surprising: The first time I stayed up all night was on an Island in Lake Winnipesaukee during a rowboat camping trip at summer camp. I was surprised at how the dynamics of a night worked, the subtle changes of wind and weather, the magnificence of the Milky Way, the different kinds of darkness, and the gradual coming of the most welcome dawn. It surprised me that night can be as amazing as day.
7. With the show being set against a game of ping pong in which a ball gets hit with paddles back and forth over a net until one person scores a point. What is an event in your life that went back and forth, like a ping pong ball, but eventually moved forward after a point was either lost or achieved?
John Ahlin: A career in the theatre is a lot like ping pong…you keep trying to score but it just keeps getting hit back at you. Every now and then you’ll get a good shot through, but just as often you lose a point. But the thing to keep in mind is you learn more about yourself from the points scored on you. Getting ChipandGus up and running has been a long back and forth, but at last we are scoring some points.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: Ping pong is actually a perfect metaphor, not only for the ChipandGus relationship, but also for the collaborative writing process. Yes, perfect.
8. How did you two come to work together? What is the best part about working together and what is the most challenging part?
John Ahlin: I had heard of Chris and his acting skill from working at several theaters he also worked at, and once we were working at the same Shakespeare festival but in different plays, but I overheard him in the dressing room talking about ping pong and I invited myself into the conversation and we decided to hit the ball. Once I realized he had both the acting chops and ping pong "chops" I broached the idea of the ping pong play. And the whole project took off. It has been pure pleasure working with him, and the best part is the joy of true collaboration. We discuss and try out and change. It is creative bliss. The biggest challenge is that the play takes on a life of its own, and it will become a partner of its own creation. We’ll often have amazing ideas but the play will tell us that those particular ideas don’t quite fit in this play. The play is the thing, the final arbiter of all creative choices.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: The best part about us working together is that most, if not all, of the aforesaid ping pong (writing) ends in agreement. We're incredibly well matched. John chose his creative partner (me) to foster his preposterous idea. He seemed to think I was his guy. Instinct, I guess. I went along because I admired his work onstage...and table tennis was an old flame of mine.
Christopher Patrick Mullen: No one has ever attempted anything quite like this before; it is without precedent. It is nerve-racking, fun drama.
John Ahlin: A short answer is the show will surprise you in hilarious and profound ways. You will take your seat having absolutely no idea what to expect. What I noticed during the whole fantastic FringeNYC experience, when you are one of 200 shows, and also with the Encore Series when you are one of 21 shows which are also the Best of both the New York Fringe and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, there is a tendency on everyone’s part to classify and label what kind of show each is; what genre it is; what category it fits into. We like to label ChipandGus in the broadest possible way: A play, a surprising play or simply; two actors, one ping pong table, and the most revealing night of two men’s lives. Labels are limits. We like to think this play will appeal to everyone for countless reasons.
10. On "Call Me Adam" I have a section called One Percent Better, where through my own fitness commitment, I try to encourage people to improve their own life by one percent every day. What is something in your life that you want to improve by one percent better every day?
John Ahlin: I would love to improve my use of time by 1% each day. The great Moss Hart once said the only real enemies in theatre are "time and energy." To use time ever so slightly more efficiently each day (One Percent Better) would slowly open up doors you never knew existed. And ironically, one of my first thoughts when this play started to come to life, was "It would be good for me, fitness wise, to play ping pong as much as possible."
Christopher Patrick Mullen: I want to become one percent less nocturnal every day. It's a problem.
More on John and Christopher:
John Ahlin acting credits on Broadway include; Waiting for Godot, Journey’s End (2007 Tony Award Best Revival), The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Voices in the Dark, One Mo’ Time, Whoopee! and Macbeth. Off-Broadway John portrayed "Orson Welles" in Orson’s Shadow at The Barrow Street Theatre. Regional credits: The Shakespeare Theatre in DC, The Guthrie, The Kennedy Center, La Jolla Playhouse, Center Stage, St. Louis Rep, Cincinnati Playhouse, Pittsburgh Public Theater, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Old Globe Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Studio Arena, McCarter Theatre, Syracuse Stage, George Street Playhouse, and Goodspeed. TV credits include Law and Order: SVU, Late Night with David Letterman, Third Watch, The Education of Max Bickford, and the Coen Brothers’ movie Inside Llewyn Davis. As a playwright, John has had his award-winning play Gray Area, receive highly acclaimed productions in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Off-Broadway. And 3 new plays are in the docket: My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories, Howe and Hummel, and Mama Sapiens, about the mother of us all. www.JohnAhlin.com
Christopher Patrick Mullen is a graduate of DeSales University and a member of the company of resident artists comprising People’s Light. Credits include: West Side Story (1st National Tour); The Runner Stumbles (Off-Broadway revival); The Whaleship Essex (Vineyard Playhouse); When You Comin Back, Red Ryder? (Retro Productions); Metamorphoses, A Little Night Music, Candide, Assassins, Macbeth, and The Stinky Cheeseman (Arden Theatre Co); 26 productions with The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival including Pericles, Henry VIII, Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker, Charley’s Aunt, Hamlet, The Glass Menagerie, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and Macbeth; Amadeus (Hedgerow Theatre); The Pavilion (Chester Theatre Co); The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (abridged), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew (Orlando Shakespeare Theatre). His ongoing relationship with People’s Light began in 1989. People’s Light credits include: The Winter’s Tale, Mr Hart & Mr Brown, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Gossamer, King Lear, Twelfth Night, Splittin the Raft, The Crucible, The Miser, Sleeping Beauty, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, and Wind In The Willows. Guest appearances on Law and Order.