Call Answered: Conference Call with Villain: DeBlanks creator Billy Mitchell and Tony nominee Brenda Braxton
I have seen Billy Mitchell's Villain: DeBlanks at least half a dozen times over this past year. This hilarious show is part Madlibs, part whodunit, but always resulting in an evening of laughter and fun! With a rotating cast, the audience helps figure out who killed "Phillip DeBlanks," making EVERY show different from the one before!
Now "Call Me Adam" gets inside the head of Billy Mitchell to learn how he created this thrilling show as well as the show's producer, Tony Nominee Brenda Braxton. Villain: DeBlanks plays the first Sunday of every month at The Triad in New York City, the next installment being Sunday, December 6 at 7:30pm (158 West 72nd Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue). Click here for tickets!
As of press time, the cast for December 6 includes Geneva Carr, Bobby Cronin, Daisy Eagan, Lauren Elder, Peter Filichia, and Hunter Ryan-Herdlicka.
1. Let's start at the beginning. Villain: DeBlanks is a murder mystery story combined with a mad-libs style format where the audience is asked to provide some of the missing links to the script and then after the show is performed, the audience chooses whom they think killed "Phillip DeBlanks." Billy, how did you come to write Villain: DeBlanks with the format of it being an interactive show where the audience helps "finish" the script each show? Villain: DeBlanks actually began as part of a children's series I wrote & directed for The Attic Ensemble in Jersey City. I've always been a word nerd, and a lifelong advocate for literacy and creative writing, and this was a really fun way to endorse the value of language skills to diverse audiences of children and their parents, many of whom were learning English as a second language. During rehearsal one afternoon the adult actors and I decided to just make it more entertaining for ourselves by filling in the blanks with rude, naughty, "adult" words, and I thought: "Holy (EXPLETIVE)_____, this is a late night show!"
Billy: It's funny, because I have pretty much averaged one show each month for the past year -- they've just been all over the place (54 Below, Buck County Playhouse, The Rockwell in LA, etc.). To have a monthly performance at a regular time in a consistent venue is definitely a treat -- first Sunday of each month at The Triad NYC! -- and this venue is a great fit for the show. Also, to call the run "Brenda Braxton presents Villain DeBlanks" is incredibly flattering. Brenda did the show twice, then insisted on doing it a third time before she went out to sea to perform After Midnight for Norwegian Cruise Lines. Then, while rehearsing that show in Florida, she coordinated booking the Triad and securing the room for us. It's perfect, too, because we are currently booked through April, and that will be her return to DeBlanks!
Brenda Braxton: As performers we are sometimes looking for that next thing that might make us as happy performing. My Tony nomination for Smokey Joe's Cafe was truly one of the highlights of my career but I must say being able to produce Villain: DeBlanks has been a wonderful "Act 2"!! I want to continue producing this show as long as Billy will let me!! Not to mention being one of the six performers. I'm looking forward to returning to Villain: DeBlanks in April!!
3. Not only has Villain: DeBlanks become a monthly series, it has also been presented at Bucks County Playhouse, Rockwell LA, and Maine. What are some of your future plans for Villain: DeBlanks? Oh, the future! Well, we're at The Triad NYC through April. I am writing a new version of the script - set in space - that I hope to premiere in February at The Triad and then in late February at The Rockwell in LA. There are plans to bring DeBlanks to the Poconos over the winter, and possibly London within the year. I am pretty sure we'll do another St. Jude benefit performance at Joe's Pub, and I am working with friends to pitch a 30-minute version of the show to the IFC channel.
4. What makes this show so great, from an audience perspective, is that EVERY performance is different because the cast is constantly rotating, the audiences choose different words to fill in, people vote differently each show as to whom committed the murder. What challenges does this kind of rotation present for you and how does this rotation make you thrive? The biggest challenge, so far, is getting an audience! The evening is such a wild ride, and so much fun for every person in the room, but people still aren't sure what it is, so it's a lot of work to encourage them to give us a try. The second biggest challenge is casting. For each cast of 6, I invite between 80 and 100 performers, and -- while the majority of people are enthusiastically willing to do the show sometimes -- the schedules can be a giant hurdle. I often announce casts with a "subject to availability" note, in case performed run into conflicts or end up booking a paying gig out of town. The performances are all partial or total benefits, so everyone involved is either volunteering or being given an incredibly small stipend to cover their cab fare.
5. What do you enjoy about the audience interactive component of the show? The interactivity is the BEST! The cast doesn't know what to expect, the audience doesn't know what to expect, even I don't know what to expect -- and then we're all taking the ride together. The audience get to meet some fantastic performers: Tony, Oliver & Emmy winners, pop culture & entertainment industry personalities, etc, and the casts get to circulate among the audience, so everyone meets everyone and together they create the show.
6. In the show, "Phillip DeBlanks" is killed by having 250lbs of something dropped on him. That something is different each show depending on what the audience selects. If you were in the audience, how would you choose to kill "Phillip DeBlanks"? The more unusual, clever, or filthy the words, the more fun we all have, so I would say some thing elaborate like Mississippi Mud Pie, or Spotted Dick, or maybe Baumkuchen.
7. Since this show has so many spontaneous components to it, what has been the craziest thing to happen so far? There's no way I can name the craziest. But I can say there are 3 things that happen at every show, to some degree, and never fail to be memorable. 1) Accents! Brenda Braxton, Hunter Foster, and Cady Huffman have all pulled out accents that have not only brought tears of laughter form the audience, but they have destroyed the composure of their co-stars. 2) Nouns! Audiences have given nouns from "dental dam" and "vaginal mesh" to "hamsters" and "monkeys" to, possibly my favorite noun so far: "a morning talk show host like Kathie Lee." 3) Crack ups! At some point during each show -- usually due to a ridiculous accent delivering an outrageous noun, or an actor having to say a word they can't quite pronounce -- the entire cast will inevitably stop the show with laughs and asides.
8. Villain: DeBlanks has had quite a roster of performers so far including Bruce Vilanch, Barrett Foa, Laura Bell Bundy, Annaleigh Ashford. How do you decide who you want to cast in each show? Are there certain qualities you look for when casting? Well, as I mentioned in my answer above, casting is almost a full time job. I throw a wide net, usually beginning with performers who are my Facebook friends, and more than 60 DeBlanks' veterans, to see who might be available for a given date. I also have great luck with recommendations from people who want to do the show but can't do the date requested -- they will suggest some fun alternates for me to reach out to. Once I get a sense of who I'll have (3 women & 3 men each time), I assign roles based on various things, but mostly instinct. All of the parts are fun, and fundamentally it's an ensemble experience, so they are all stars.
9. If Ellen DeGeneres were to promote Villain: DeBlanks, what would be her tagline be? I'd offer her our current tagline: "You'll laugh your (BODY PART)_____ off!" But Ellen is brilliant and would probably say something perfect that I'd never think of.
10. Finish this sentence. I_____Villain: DeBlanks. I adore Villain: DeBlanks.
Billy Mitchell’s favorite thing is making people (VERB)_____ until their (BODY PART)_____ hurts, and his fill-in-the-blanks comedy Villain: DeBlanks has been a fun project so far. Seen in venues around NYC, Los Angeles and regionally, DeBlanks has not only been a great opportunity to to pay-it-forward — the shows are always benefits — but each cast is a new gang of 6 hooligans and so far about 70 amazing people have brought their time and talent to the shenanigans. (villaindeblanks.com), A member of the Dramatists Guild, Billy is the author of several plays (his script, Blood & Oil, is currently represented by the Freedman Agency), and is hoping to work on a musical project or two in the coming months. Originally from Maine, he has theatre degrees from UMaine and NYU, and is an award-winning writer/director, and occasionally the host at events where the first choice was likely unavailable. Not enough? bybilly.com.
Brenda Braxton starred as Velma Kelly opposite Usher in Broadway’s hit musical Chicago. Prior to that, she was featured on Broadway in the musical revue Smokey Joe’s Cafe, that earned her a 1995 Tony Award nomination, the NAACP Theater Award, the city of Chicago’s Jefferson Award and a Grammy Award for Best Cast Album. Other Broadway credits include Jelly’s Last Jam, Cats, Legs Diamond and the original production of Dreamgirls. She received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "Living the Dream" Award given by New York Gov. George Pataki and the Josephine Baker Award from the National Council of Negro Women for her work as founder of Leading Ladies Just for Teens, seminars geared to empowering teenage girls.