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Space 55's 'Roger and Gene' challenges audiences to ask if original ideas still matter

Space 55 is an offbeat theater company that’s been creating original work in Phoenix for almost 20 years. Their latest production, “Roger and Gene,” opens June 7.

The show presents a world where beloved film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel are, somehow, still alive, and still reviewing films that opened well after their respective deaths, like "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer." Yet here they are before our very eyes, complete with their recognizable, playfully confrontational dynamic. But as the play unfolds, little by little, we start to question what, exactly, we're recognizing.

BJ Garrett is Space 55’s artistic director, and the director of "Roger and Gene." When The Show spoke to him recently, he said the production arrives at a pivotal moment for Space 55. They had their own theater in Roosevelt Row for many years, until rising rent costs forced them to become somewhat itinerant.

"Roger and Gene" is playing at Metropolitan Arts Institute, where the company has now done a few shows. But producing original theater is a dicey economic proposition, and they don’t know how long they'll be able to stay there. All of this dovetails with what Garrett says is one of the big questions in "Roger and Gene": Do original ideas still matter?

Full conversation

BJ GARRETT: We live in a world where now anyone with the right click of a keyboard can generate a picture with a few words in, in a prompt. Someone can write an essay with a, a question and have an essay written in a matter of time. And you live in a world where ...

SAM DINGMAN: And in an essay written in the style of whoever you'd like it to be written in the style of.

GARRETT: Absolutely. We're in a really precarious time for art and the expressiveness, the, the, the emotion, the intent to try stuff, to be weird, to be different. Some of those pieces are sort of slowly evaporating or being extracted from it. And I think that "Roger and Gene" kind of explores what that looks like.

DINGMAN: Yeah. Well, you know, obviously the, the word we're dancing around a little bit here is AI. And AI is in a way incapable of being weird because it can only generate things based on other things that previously existed. And yet there is this quality to AI where it is weird.

GARRETT: It's accidentally weird when it's weird. It's, it's never intentionally weird. It's weird because it screwed something up, right? It added a sixth finger to the picture that it was drawing for you where it put a hand where a hand doesn't belong. It's never weird to, to invoke a sense of weirdness in the viewer. It's weird because it's just imperfect.

DINGMAN: Right. The other thing that this is making me think about and something the play is very concerned with, I think is nostalgia. Because a lot of what's going on in the play is examining the potential detriment of just feeding people more and more of what they have already experienced. But something that is sort of floating around the edges of our conversation today is the idea that it used to be easier to have space to make theater. There used to be more of an appetite for originality. So we're talking about a kind of nostalgia, too. How do you think about the role of nostalgia in serving audiences?

GARRETT: There's definitely a place for it. Art is supposed to make you feel things and nostalgia is a, is a, a sensation that we feel and it's, and it's generally a, a pleasant one. Sometimes there's a little bit of wistfulness behind it, right? But we like feeling that feeling. It's why are we producing the nostalgia? Why are we experiencing the nostalgia? Are we experiencing the nostalgia because we had a really good idea to, to, to dive back into this world, to reexplore these characters to, to add an epilogue to this great story or is it because, hey, how much money we got in the bank right now? All right, we need to get a little bit more. OK. What's, what's the, what's the longest thing that, what's it been the longest since we've made one of these things that's gonna be just a guaranteed drop in the bucket to put some money in it. So that way we can report, you know, value being returned to the shareholders.

That's where nostalgia creeps into the disingenuous territory. And that's where you see these sort of, for lack of better word, these like soulless remakes or reboots or extensions or sequels that you go to and you're like, they should have just left it alone.

DINGMAN: That's, that's really interesting. I've never heard that that before, but it, it feels really right. This idea that nostalgia is a tool, not an end goal. Like what is the motivation behind the deployment of nostalgia, to elicit some new feeling rather than, hey, remember this?

GARRETT: Absolutely. Absolutely, 100%.

DINGMAN: Yeah. And this, this even comes up in the play where there's a part where one of the characters, I forget which one it is, talks about the absurdity of trying to resurrect a movie like "Ghostbusters" as something with mainstream appeal when one of the pivotal scenes in "Ghostbusters 2" is Dan Aykroyd having a sexual experience with a ghost. Which is the kind of creative choice that no AI would make because it's too weird.

GARRETT: Right. Yeah. It, it's, are we at the point where that is now the primary source of art that we have is finding ways to continue to bleed that turnip.

DINGMAN: Well, and it seems like the play is fundamentally making the case that you've just outlined because we see the characters over the course of the play come into an awareness that there might be more going on in the world they inhabit than meets the eye. And a question is introduced as to whether or not the world will allow them to explore these other facets of their reality, to make a weird choice. And it's the potential closing off of that choice that seems to me to be the real tragedy of, of the story.

GARRETT: Yes, and it's interesting because, Space 55 has a history of not just producing full productions and runs of shows, but we do a lot of cabaret type shows, one night only type shows. We have a long running series called Seven Minutes In Heaven where we give 10 acts or people or groups 7 minutes to do whatever they want on stage. We don't audition them, we don't vet them. We just, it's, it's like open mic theater and you never know what you're gonna get. And, and there, it's amazing, ephemeral art that just happens in the moment and it's beautiful.

Unfortunately, when your itinerant, a lot of those sort of special engagement type things, you have to reduce the frequency at which you can produce them because you just don't have that guaranteed place to, hey, let's, let's throw up a, a 7 minute show.

DINGMAN: And you don't have to pitch that to some place that might be like, open mic theater, you say.

GARRETT: Right. Yeah, exactly. So, you know, when you're producing in the nature that we are right now where you're really putting up one, maybe two shows a year. If you're fortunate, you have to curate very carefully what you do to make sure it very much represents your theater in its truest form.

There's nothing wrong with a Big Mac. Sometimes a Big Mac just hits the spot. It's, it's accessible. It's tasty. It's, it's something that is readily available to us and it's feel good. It's comfort, it's all those things, right? And, and that's lovely. I don't always go to work the day after I eat a Big Mac and tell my coworkers, you should have tried this Big Mac I had yesterday.

You know, so what we, what we want to do is, is sort of see if there's a hunger in the community for something different that you can't get at a theater that's offering more traditional fare. Something that's gonna scratch that itch, that, that weird itch, that different itch, that, that thing you're gonna leave the theater. And instead of saying, well, that was good, you know, we want to have that thing where you get in the car and say, all right, let's talk about what we just saw and it's going to raise a question, an ethical question, a moral question, a state of the world question, something that's gonna make you chew on it and marinate on it and, you know, maybe you don't like that mango jalapeno jelly on your, on your burger, right? But you're gonna remember that you had that.

DINGMAN: And at least you tried it.

GARRETT: And at least you tried it.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Sam was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.