The Last Bar At The End Of The World Roundtable Interview With Dean Haspiel, Philip Cruise, Ed Miller & Anna Stefanic

by Hannah Means Shannon

Next week, Emmy Award-winning artist, writer, and cartoonist Dean Haspiel’s (The Red Hook, War Cry, The Fox, Billy Dogma) new play is taking to the stage in New York City as the final installment in a trilogy of dramas that take place in a shared universe. You may recall that last autumn, Haspiel’s play Harakiri Kane was staged at The Brick Theater in Brooklyn, directed by Ian W. Hill, and featured the last days and afterlife, as an angel of death, of a beleaguered boxer.
Now, in The Last Bar at the End of the World, directed by Philip Cruise, we’ll meet a graphic novelist facing down the big questions of life—and—death. Previously, Haspiel’s play Switch to Kill, was also performed at The Brick Theater, and took us inside the lives of some “existential hitmen”, and that theme is coming back around again in The Last Bar, too.
Thin Duke Productions/SparkPlug Productions are bringing the play to life, and the play is starring The Walking Dead’s Seth Gilliam, adult film star Stoya, and also Philip Cruise, Tarik Davis, Alex Friedman, Christopher Lee, Edward Miller, Alyssa Simon, and Anna Stefanic.
The play will open on Tuesday, April 10th, 2018 and run until Sunday April 15th at Urban Stages. 
Anna Stefanic, Ed Miller, Philip Cruise, and Dean Haspiel have been kind enough to join us here today on for a Roundtable Interview about their process and thinking behind the upcoming play and what they find most important about the audience’s experience of theater.

Hannah Means-Shannon: What about the play attracted you to the idea of working on it? Did the themes of a dying character, or questions about why we are here in life draw you in?
Anna Stefanic: I’d worked alongside Dean and Phil and some of the cast this past Fall in a show (Gemini CollisionWorks’ ReFUSE) running in rep with another of Dean’s plays, Harakiri Kane. I loved his writing style and all the vivid imagery he brought from the world of comics,  and am always looking to continue collaborating with people I admire…I hope we all keep creating things together for many projects to come!
Ed Miller: Dean Haspiel. I love his point of view as a writer. As in all of Dean’s plays that I have been exposed to, I love the characters he creates. Years ago, he asked me for feedback on a script of his about two guys in deep Brooklyn who worked in a garage and there was a cop involved. I hung on to the type of characters they were: brash, funny, opinionated Brooklynites who weren’t stereotypes, but real. I feel like Dean is telling the stories of Brooklyn in many of his works, and I think it’s a great lens to view the human condition through. I knew and know that they are real representations of Brooklyn denizens because I have literally spent time in every neighborhood in Brooklyn. I live in Queens now, but I have lived in Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, and Borough Park. Also, my day job working for a non-profit that delivers arts programs to kids in the public schools has brought me all over Brooklyn. Dean finds poetry filtered through these kinds of blue-collar characters who represent a Brooklyn that is quickly dwindling.
Yes, [the themes of a dying character] did [draw me in]. Especially with this piece and Kane, the theme of death and what happens to us after we die has been a draw for me for a very long time. I can connect with that in very personal way because as I am getting older, I have been dealing with death in a more direct way through the loss of loved ones and friends. Also, growing up Catholic, I have been trying my whole life to understand all of the afterlife constructs that are present in that religion. I mean, there is heaven, hell, purgatory, and limbo. Where your soul ends up is defined by how you have lived your life, but how that gets worked out is a mystery and up for interpretation; the worlds Dean creates in his plays create a framework that make his point of view on the afterlife both accessible and plausible (at least to me).
Philip Cruise: There were so many factors that attracted me to The Last Bar at the End of the World. If I was going to pick just one, I’d say it’s the introspective quality of the play. Almost every character is seeking answers or questioning their choices in some way. The existential questions that this play brings up become more and more pertinent to me as I get older. Mortality and one’s purpose in life are questions that arise for most people every day,  and are factors that definitely made me want to tell this story.
Dean Haspiel: Having written the play, I guess I was compelled to express my feelings about what it takes to make art for a living and being vulnerable during a toxic, post-truth era of public shame, outrage and “fake news.” I wanted to address what it means to be authentic, even when it could hurt loved ones. I wanted to discuss the concept of legacy and what obsession does to a heart and soul. And, what does death mean if you haven’t lived your life the way you wanted to? How many of us get the chance to live the way we want to? And, if you could course correct it, would you?

HMS: Related to the ideas of the play, do you think we, as human beings, really value or see clearly the value of the many people who pass through our lives and make up our own “story”? Or does it take major crises, asking the big questions, for us to see people more in that perspective?
Anna Stefanic: I think it’s nearly impossible for humans to see each other for who  they truly are in an objective unbiased way…we only see things from our own perspectives, so we only get to see one side of them, based on who we believe them to be.
Ed Miller: No, I don’t. I think that often people neglect to see the value of others in their lives. I feel like we go through life taking for granted people’s grace and influence in our own lives and never get to fully express to them the impact they have had in our lives. There could be a greater level of communication and expression of love for each other, but hurt feelings and resentment are huge blocks to that kind of communication. I know in my own life, it has been difficult to do just that.
My Dad died before I got the opportunity to let him know how much I loved him and valued parts of our relationship. I just had too much resentment for selfish stuff he did when I was a kid and as an adult. Those actions by him created an enormous block that was insurmountable by either of us. As a result, he died without us reconciling. Getting back to the afterlife question, it is my hope that we are able to confront these loose ends in the afterlife. It would be great to see my Dad and tell him all of the things that I didn’t get to say to him in this life.
Often, I think it does take a major crisis to allow space for us to face big questions or issues in a relationship, but I think deeper connection could also take place with awareness of self, reflection, and courage to take the time to face these big questions and issues. The major crisis part happens like an explosion and there can be a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and strong feelings. It’s a messier situation, and I think it takes a lot out of each of the people involved in the mess that is made by the confrontation.
The second way takes diligence, faith, and a willingness on both sides to work on the issues to circumvent having a major crisis, which I’ve learned from my wife. Having been in the same relationship for almost 20 years and married for 12 years, my wife and I have had to deal with big issues between us and overcome serious misunderstandings, as is bound to happen in any close longstanding relationship. But through love and clear communication, we have been able to understand each other better and love each other more fully. Maybe the answer to this is to treat everyone in your life with great care and make an emotional investment so that one can avoid the crisis situations. But the crisis situations make better theater.
Philip Cruise: That’s a great question. I definitely think that we as a society do not value the people that make up our personal world, nor do we see clearly their importance in our “story”. This is pertinent to The Last Bar because what the play demonstrates, particularly in the Stella scene, is that every individual that we meet, even random strangers, can have a major impact on our lives if we let them.
Dean Haspiel: They say your entire life flashes before you in a near-death moment. I’ve always been afraid of facing that emotional ticker-tape of micro and macro milestones. I’m afraid to find out that all I actually cared about was a wooden sled. I don’t want to have to boil down my life into a mobius strip of hits and misses. I’d rather stoke it like a yule log fire. All the while knowing that it was the people that mattered the most.
How can you appreciate the people in your life until you have hindsight? Who were they? What did they mean to you? Does it take a break-up or a death bed to reflect and honor the people in your life? I think we inadvertently take time for granted. Time is so damned fleeting and you can never get it back.
I’m trying to do better by living in the moment, but I’ve had a tough time dealing with family and friends dying. It feels like an inhale that never exhales. So, you try to live well. A major part of living life well is having empathy for others. And, once you can imagine another person’s pain, you can start to understand your impact on others, and vice versa. Contrast and context is key. It’s important to forgive and to be truly thankful. And, love. It’s essential to give and receive love from the people you spend time with. If we’re all destined to die, then I want to be slowly euthanized by kindness and joy.

HMS: When putting on a play that is somewhat “stripped down” and doesn’t have a huge amount of set building or special effects, what do you personally think the most important elements become to bring it to life?
Anna Stefanic: Definitely the language. Dean gave us such beautiful strong images to work with, that can be challenging for the actors (to clearly deliver the lines, some of them are a mouthful!) and the audiences (to use their imagination and picture the things we’re describing). If we succeed, the audience should be engaged in creating their own experience, rather than just passively watching it unfold onstage.
Ed Miller: The most important thing to me is to tell Dean’s story with as much emotional investment, realism, and connection to the piece as I can bring to it. For an actor, this investment is at the core of any storytelling that makes an impact. I want the audience to come away feeling something different from what they walked in with. I feel that fancy sets and special effects are necessary only when telling stories that need that kind of spectacle, such as operas, and other kinds of stories that unfold in larger-than-life arenas such as the realm of fantasy or the region of the gods. I think that Last Bar is a story that doesn’t necessarily need to have big sets or special effects. The strength of this story really lies in the characters and the depth that we create as we all collaborate together to tell this story. My hope is that this cast will bring to life the world of this play as richly as Dean has written it.
Philip Cruise: Without any spoilers, our somewhat “stripped down” staging of The Last Bar is essential to the story we are telling. Like Harakiri Kane, which jumped around from location to location, Last Bar is also a mobile experience, jumping from one Brooklyn spot to another until it eventually moves…beyond. Plus, an absolutely stellar cast, Dean’s heightened, poetic prose, and Gemini Collisionwork’s inspired lighting and sound design will be more than enough to bring Last Bar to life.
Dean Haspiel: Acting is the most important part of theater. My friend, actress Orlagh Cassidy was in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Public Theater in NYC in 2016, and they performed it as a mobile unit exploiting the virtues of minimalistic means. I think the props were a few movable boxes and a couple of chairs. Plus, gorgeous costumes. And, it was great. The mind fills in what is missing as long as the actors are there to anchor you and take you to those physical and emotional places.

HMS: What do you feel that The Last Bar has most in common with Harakiri Kane or Switch to Kill if you are familiar with those works?
Anna Stefanic: Dean’s voice is super strong and recognizable, and comes through in each work. He has a poetic way of approaching super dark themes with levity, and subverting stereotypes.
Ed Miller: I am familiar with Harakiri Kane. What Last Bar and Kane have most in common is the exploration of the afterlife as it serves as a way station to the next mysterious step. Now, I am only speaking from a Catholic point of view, but it feels like Dean is saying in both pieces that there is a pause right after we die that gives us a chance to reflect on what happened and what is to come, and that, in that pause, we can come to some sort of resolution with ourselves and come to some sort of peace. The other similarity between Kane and Last Bar is that with Dean’s characters, there is a choice to make.
Philip Cruise: The simple answer is that Last Bar lives in the same theatrical world that Dean created for Switched and Kane. There is a crossover of characters, both onstage and off, which ties all three plays together. What makes Last Bar really interesting to me is that the film noir world that was predominant in Kane and Switched has given way to a much quieter, more introspective, almost autobiographical world, for Dean and Buford, his avatar, to exist in.
Dean Haspiel: All three plays deal with the crisis of mortality, purpose and legacy, loosely tethered by existential hit-men.

[Staged reading of Last Bar; Photo: Dean Haspiel]

HMS: If you are familiar at all with comic books or comic strips, do you think that the dramatic operation of comics shares any features with theater?
Anna Stefanic: I’m definitely not a comic person, I’m pretty uninformed…from what I’ve seen, in comic book format it’s a lot easier to draw an audience’s attention to a specific feature or event…onstage it’s harder because they’ve got a bigger area to watch at all times. But you can still achieve that effect by directing them to zero in on a spotlight! Both formats are also heightened from “real life”, so audiences might be more naturally inclined to accept fantastical ideas than in other forms of media.
Ed Miller: The fact that there are so many movies (and even a musical) these days that are based on comic books shows there is a direct link between comics and drama. I think the main things that comic books share with theater are strong imagery, strong themes, and strong characters. What I mean by “strong” is that these elements I mentioned are generally, in comics and drama, very vivid, which helps to tell a story in a theatrical way.
Comics are, to me, more episodic and the stories need to be adapted greatly to fit into a theatrical format, but since the stories in comics are so adaptable, people are finding great ways to make them fit into theatrical narrative structure, because we can all relate to comic book themes and characters so strongly in our own lives.
Philip Cruise: When it comes to comics, I’m just a caveman, so I don’t feel qualified to discuss the dramatic operation of comics from an educated perspective. I think that while some plays can be presented in a heightened comic book style in the theater, Last Bar does not live in that realm. The story of Last Bar is told either in a simple, realistic manner or a heightened, other-worldly one.
Dean Haspiel: Just like how conveying comix is very different from conveying movies, the same goes for theater. I write plays very differently than how I write comix. Sure, they both employ text, but that’s about the only thing they share. And, I rely on the expertize of directors like Philip Cruise, and Ian W. Hill, and all the actors and designers to make theater magic. Were I to adapt my plays into graphic novels, I would draw a lot of what was being said and probably reduce some of the dialogue. In fact, theater is all dialogue where comix can be mute, if necessary.
HMS: What do you hope that audiences will take away from an experience of The Last Bar at the End of the World?
Anna Stefanic: I hope our audiences are moved and confused. I hope they find a favorite line that keeps running through their head the next day…I hope they are surprised by their own capacity to imagine (something adults rarely get to do), and that they carry that with them into their next theatrical experience!
Ed Miller: First, I want them to feel changed in some way by seeing it. My hope is that they will get what Dean is saying with this piece, and walk away looking differently at something in their own lives. Second, I would like them to get inspired to explore: their own relationships, parts of Brooklyn that are unknown to them, and Dean’s other writing and comics.
Philip Cruise: I hope they will look within and not let the perfect get in the way of the good.
Dean Haspiel: I hope audience members will think about what it might take to be happy rather than right. I know how important it is to be right. To do what’s right. But, people are puzzles and situations are complex. And context is everything. And, if we could just astral project like Doctor Strange and hover over our lives for a few seconds, once in awhile, the perspective might just provide insight and wisdom for a better life well lived—today.
Big thanks to Anna, Ed, Philip, and Dean for taking part in this substantial interview by giving such thoughtful answers to our questions.
To see The Last Bar at the End of the World, book your tickets now for the following dates:
Tue April 10 – Sat April 14 at 8pm
Sat April 14 at 2pm
Sun April 15 at 4pm
at Urban Stages
259 W 30th St (8th Ave)
New York NY 10001
(212) 421-1380
(1,2,3 34th St stop; A,C,E 34th St stop)

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