‘Funny Pain and Scary Pain’ – THUD! at WOW Café

Thud! is a dark comedy that follows a drug-addicted hospital clown who is hired to entertain a misanthropic teenager and finds the only thing that cheers her up is watching him get hurt. Fringebiscuit’s Dylan Arredondo recently had the opportunity to discuss this piece with playwright Dan Rider, also a member of the artistic collective Bitcrusher. 

Dylan: Where are you from?

Dan Rider: The Seventh Circle of Suburbia, just outside of Boston.

How would you describe your practice?

Writer/Musician/Sound Designer/Bearded Femme.

Tell us about Thud!

The elevator pitch line is that Thud! is a play about other peoples’ suffering and why it’s hilarious. It’s about a painkiller-addicted hospital clown who is chronically, tragically clumsy – like a Looney Tunes character in real life. He’s hired to entertain this bitter fifteen-year- old who swears constantly and loves gory movies, and he finds that the only thing that cheers her up is watching him get hurt. She starts bribing him with drugs to hit his head, stub his toe, smash his fingers in a window, stuff like that, and they form this weird co-dependent relationship. I wrote it because I wanted to explore why we find pain funny, and how we get desensitized to it. I want to find the line between funny pain and scary pain, and balance on it as long as I can.

How do you like to define “pain”? “Humor”?

If comedy is tragedy plus time, then pain is tragedy minus words.

What do you believe the relationship between the two to be?

All the best humor is born of pain. The deeper the ache, the better the joke.

One of my favorite Mike Nichols quotes claims that every scene is either a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation. Which do you think most characterizes the action between the protagonists of Thud?

Definitely a negotiation. Part of why the core relationship of the play is so fucked up and mutually destructive is because it’s conditional. One wants drugs, the other wants pain, and they have to constantly trade those things back and forth to keep it going.

Tell us about Bitcrusher.

Bitcrusher is a digital theater collective, which means that we professionally record all of our plays and put them on the internet for free. It’s a way of radically democratizing the theater, making it available to anyone, anywhere, regardless of location or means. We’re trying to build a new model for making work that is not dependent on a small group of wealthy, predominantly white individuals to stay afloat, but that instead reaches out to wider audiences and engages with marginalized communities. Thud! is the first show in our inaugural season, which also includes a disability-themed burlesque tea party and a musical about a woman transforming into a cello.

In many ways we have become immune, or “numb,” to images of violence and suffering online due to their excessive presence on various media platforms. Thud! is all about witnessing this suffering and the exchange that inhabits the space therein. Do you think the digitization of this theatre piece will render it less emotionally accessible to online viewers, albeit financially and spatially democratizing?

That’s a really interesting question, and I think the answer is yes. Watching a TV fall on someone’s head, or a bear trap getting stuck on someone’s face, isn’t nearly as funny or as shocking when there’s a screen between you and the violence. When we started the company, we didn’t set out to re-create plays in digital form, because that’s clearly impossible. But this is a play I’m proud of. I care a lot about the characters, I’m amazed by the work my collaborators are doing, and I don’t want all that to just fade into the ether when the festival ends. The digital version will be a fossilized specimen, not a living thing, but I think it’ll still be worth watching. Something critical, though, is that the filmed version will have the live audience in it. You’ll see the tops of heads, you’ll hear the reactions and (ideally) laughter of the people in the house, and so that spectatorship will still be there. I kind of like that it’ll feel like a TV sitcom, with the actors cheating out to the camera and the weird, alienating effect of a laugh track. It may be less accessible, but it’ll be more jarring, and that’s a trade-off I’m okay with.

Who are your theatrical heroes?

They’re too numerous to list, but Thud! has two main inspirations: Joe Orton, who was so great at pairing stark cynicism with absurd farce, and Rajiv Joseph, who’s probably my favorite playwright and who plays with physical and emotional pain in a way that’s really resonant to me. Also, I’m a musician, so Dave Malloy, Anais Mitchell and Cesar Alvarez are up there.

What kind of theatre excites you?

Stuff that plays with the musicality of language, and the verbiage of music. Plays that manage to be both intimate and alienating at the same time. Shakespeare’s plays are the most beautiful in the world when they’re treated with absolutely zero reverence. Anything with folk music, fast dialogue, and that’s under 90 minutes.

If you are willing, tell me a story from your childhood that tells us something about who you are as a writer, as a person, or as an artist.

I very vividly remember falling off the monkey bars when I was probably five, and getting the wind knocked out of me. I thought I’d popped a lung and that I would die. It was the first time I realized that I, as a body, was breakable, and would one day be broken for good. I spent the rest of my life writing, to try and reconcile myself with that shit.

In one sentence or less, what makes this show different from the other 200 plays at FringeNYC this year? What makes this show most worth seeing?

Of all the plays in Fringe, this one has the most in-depth discussions of fisting.

Thud! closes August 27th at WOW Café 

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