There is something great about creating your own work. When it was brought to my attention that Marina Tempelsman and Nicco Aeed were doing a six-month residency at The People's Improv Theater (The PIT) creating a different play each month, I knew I had to call them to find out more. Well, luckily, Marina and Nicco answered my call and filled me in on this great project!
This month's show, Unpacking: A Ghost Story Told in the Dark, takes place in the dark, with the audience lighting the stage with flashlights. With Marina and Nicco's unique brand of humor, Unpacking: A Ghost Story Told In The Dark, focuses on the common fears of being in the dark and commitment with a newlywed couple moving into a new home together, but the novelty of homeownership quickly fades as they face a sea of boxes, a major blackout, and, shortly thereafter, the ghosts of all their past relationships.
Unpacking: A Ghost Story Told in the Dark plays at The PIT (123 East 24th Street, between Park and Lexington) from February 21-26! Click the date of the show to purchase tickets: February 21 at 7pm, February 25 at 9:30pm, and February 26 at 9:30pm!
Marina Tempelsman: Over the summer, Nicco and I did a two-week run of our eight-episode murder-mystery comedy radioplay (MURDER!) at The PIT. We’ve written sketch together for ten years, so prioritizing a more narrative project felt really exciting to us. Once the run ended, we met with Kevin Laibson (the Artistic Director at The PIT) to talk about more ways we could explore longer narrative projects, and he offered us the opportunity to do monthly one-act plays in the form of a residency. The PIT has been increasingly supportive of longer narrative pieces (including Puffs, Hold Onto Yout Butts, and Kapow-I GoGo), so offering us a residency was very much in line with the direction they’ve been moving in.
2. Let's go back to the beginning for a moment. How did you two come to work together? What do you like most about this collaboration and what challenges do you face?
Marina Tempelsman: Nicco and I met our freshman year at Swarthmore College, where we were put on the college sketch comedy team (Boy Meets Tractor) together. We both grew up in New York, and over the breaks we would meet up and keep writing. I think that’s where our joint writing voice started to take shape.
It’s funny, because we’ve always clicked writing and comedy-wise and made each other laugh a ton, but our sensibilities are really very different. After ten years of writing together, our voices mesh extremely naturally, but I think the end result is special because we’re coming from such different places. Nicco’s a black man. I’m a white woman. The experiences we’ve had and that we bring to the table when we write together are all filtered through those identities. We are genuinely interested in and care about the other’s lived experience, and I really think it fuels the kinds of things we write about and want to explore.
Our partnership feels like such an essential part of me that it’s hard to really say what I like most about it -- it’s almost like trying to describe why I like having arms and a torso. I love having arms and a torso. They bring me enormous joy, and I can’t imagine not having them.
Nicco Aeed: We had an arranged comedy marriage. It is hard to actually remember the time when we started always working together, because we were always working together. It works pretty great.
Oh man, Marina and I are writing our answers to this on a shared google doc, and I just read Marina’s answer and my heart melted, my answer is good enough but I feel the same as Marina. We’re the same person. We once jointly played Condoleeza Rice.
3. This month, the focus of your show is a ghost story about a newlywed couple that moves into a new home together, but the novelty of homeownership quickly fades as they face a sea of boxes, a major blackout, and, shortly thereafter, the ghosts of all their past relationships. What made you want to tackle this kind of story?
Nicco Aeed: The guy in the couple would be quick to point out they are NOT in fact married, they just bought a house together. Which, for some reason, he sees as a less of a commitment. Don’t make things more awkward for him. Be cool.
I think actually the first thing we thought was it would be cool to do a play that was lit by the audience, that was in the dark. There’s something spooky about being in a theater during blackouts, and having the audience use flashlights to see what’s coming at them seemed like a great way to tell a story. The spookiness and flashlights led us to think of ghost stories. And I think the most real ghosts we deal with often come up when we’re in relationships. Not just that we’re often haunted by our exes, but also that after a certain point in your relationship you find yourself acting like your parents or playing out things you never thought you would, and it feels like you’re possessed or something came over you. Relationships that last a long time seem to always be riddled with past lives or visions of your future, and it all seemed like it fit with ghostliness.
4. I love the set up of this month's show. The theatre will be dark, while the audience provides the lighting through the use of flashlights. What's it like to have the audience such a part of the show? What challenges does this present?
Nicco Aeed: I think we often try to create whatever story we’re telling for the medium that we’re telling it in, meaning that if it’s a live show we really wanna be sure that it’s an experience that could only be told live. And I think having the audience actually in the dark for this ghost story makes the whole thing feel much more present, and feel hopefully like campfire stories.
Marina Tempelsman: So much of this play is also about the things we project onto the environment around us as we’re grappling with our own minds; so having it lit in ways that will vary completely from one night to another at the whim of our audience feels really right.
Marina Tempelsman: I am afraid of the dark most of the time. When I was little I used to sleep backwards in my bed so I could keep an eye on the window of our 12th-floor apartment, JUST in case anything managed to crawl all the way up there. As for a fear of commitment: I don’t think I have ever been so afraid of that as I felt when trying to buy a new pair of glasses last month.
Nicco Aeed: Yeah as a kid I used to hate to go to sleep alone. I shared a room with my brother and if he went to sleep later than me because he had to do homework or something I’d freak out and just wait till he got to the room before I could sleep. I’d have these night terrors where I thought people were watching me from inside my room, and I was nervous that just as I got sleepy and started to close my eyes a hand would grab my ankle and drag me somewhere. I dunno if I fear commitment, more like maybe I’m excited by the idea of bailing on all of my commitments. Everytime I walk by a Chinatown Bus or Penn Station I think "I could leave right now, start a new life and no one would ever find me." That’s normal right?
6. What else do you fear? How do you overcome them?
Marina Tempelsman: I am so scared of flying. But with a little bit of Xanax and a whole lot of Captain Tom’s Fear of Flying program, I’m doing much better on that front! (He’s a pilot AND a therapist!)
Nicco Aeed: People say I’m scared of coins. I have never overcome it. I don’t wanna talk about it.
Marina Tempelsman: Not just "people." Everyone. Nicco, you are definitely scared of coins. Seriously, this sounds like a joke but it’s actually 100% true. Nicco will not eat on a table that has a coin on it, and if you try to hand him change at a restaurant or bodega he will look at you as though you just tried to stab him in the throat.
Nicco Aeed: I don’t wanna talk about it.
Marina Tempelsman: My first crush was on "Leonardo" the Ninja Turtle, and I’d really love to know what he thinks of my work. So I’d probably choose him.
Nicco Aeed: I like Marina’s answer too much to come up with my own.
8. If you could have any ghost come watch this show, who would you choose to do so?
Marina Tempelsman: Such a cool question! I would probably pick Maurice Sendak. I feel like so much of his writing is about making worlds and landscapes out of the things we love and fear as children that never quite leave us as adults, and I do think this play picks up on a lot of those same themes. And then maybe we could get a drink with him after the show!
Nicco Aeed: Yeah that’d be awesome. I love watching Maurice Sendak Youtube clips on writing. I think someone asked him once why he wrote for children and he said something like "I’ve always wanted to know how to prevent being eaten or mauled by a monster. I still worry about it." And I think that’s a great reason to write.
Marina Tempelsman: We have four more plays after this one, and we’re tackling quite a broad range of topics. Our next play is about a couple trying to find themselves after the boyfriend loses his part on a hit TV show. Our third play is about a night club where the comedians try to rebel against the mafia members that own the club. After that, we have a kind of surreal, existential-crisis comedy about six black actors who realize that they’ve been auditioning for the same token role over and over and over. So it’s a range of topics and tones that we’re taking, but all of them are extremely personal to us and hit really close to home -- even when they’re a little zany.
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 everyday. What is something in your life that you want to improve by one percent everyday?
Marina Tempelsman: Having the deadlines and requirements of this residency has been incredible, but it’s also reminded me of the importance of cozy-writing. Like where you just carve out a calm little time and space, and let yourself be playful in it and just enjoy it. I love, love, love the physical feeling of putting pen to paper, so I’m trying to get better about just sitting myself down and writing in a notebook before I get bogged down in planning or logistics.
Nicco Aeed: I like Marina’s answer. I’m gonna copy it:
Having the deadlines and requirements of this residency has been incredible, but it’s also reminded me of the importance of cozy-writing. Like where you just carve out a calm little time and space, and let yourself be playful in it and just enjoy it. I love, love, love the physical feeling of putting pen to paper, so I’m trying to get better about just sitting myself down and writing in a notebook before I get bogged down in planning or logistics.
Marina Tempelsman: Nicco is 100% great at copying and pasting -- no room for improvement there!
Marina Tempelsman and Niccolo Aeed have written and performed together since 2006. As the duo "Marina & Nicco" they've been featured on Comedy Central and Funny or Die, and were recently finalists in the LA Film Festival Make Em LAFF competition. They perform regularly at major New York comedy theaters, having had runs at The PIT and The Treehouse Theater, as well as several shows at The UCB, and have appeared at many other venues across around the East Coast. They co-wrote the feature film Delusions of Guinevere, which was called "a surprisingly dark satire of modern celebrity" by The Village Voice and "sly and smart" by The New York Times. They have also written several pilots, a radio play series, and a number of one-act plays. They recently wrote for Morgan Spurlock's Call Bullshit series about the presidential debates, and are currently working on videos for The New Yorker. In 2016 they will begin a 6-month writing residency at The People's Improv Theater.
Prior to becoming a duo, they wrote and performed for the sketch comedy group Boy Meets Tractor (featured on MTVU and winners of Helium Comedy Club's college sketch competition) and The Disappointments (featured in the Philly Fringe Festival 2009, finalists in the Creek and the Cave's Arena Sketch Competition 2011).
Niccolo Aeed is a writer and director. Nicco has directed numerous plays across the city including, Abraham's Daughters, The ToyMaker, and W.R.E.X. He wrote and directed the short film How People Die and is currently developing the feature film Where Did You Go on Saturdays? He also writes and develops educational video games for Amplify Education which have been featured in The New York Times.
Marina Tempelsman, a New York based writer and performer, has co-written several original pilots and a feature screenplay with Niccolo Aeed. In the summer of 2010 Marina was a Guest Artist at the Kennedy Center Summer Playwriting Intensive, where she studied with Theresa Rebeck, Marsha Norman, David Ives, Jason Robert Brown, Gary Garrison, and Heather McDonald, among others. She currently writes for the UCBT Maude team Lover, as well as the critically-acclaimed Livia Scott Sketch Program (also at The UCBT).