soothing pooches and comfort dogs

mes amis,

i recall many years ago sending out an email to some friends requesting they think good thoughts and send good energy / vibes / prayers to my mother who was undergoing a scary surgery. william burke was one of people that replied with a surprisingly heartfelt and deeply moving message. surprising, perhaps, because i did not consider him a dear friend but merely the beloved of a dear friend and so–to my limited mind of a year’s ago–he was a friend by proxy. in any case, my estimation of william changed after the brief but potent email he sent. this was a man of depth and a man who offered incredible solace while i was fretting for my maman.

since then (and before then, for that matter) i’ve always enjoyed le burke, weather (wink!) it’s when i see him hosting one of this famous polar bbqs, or out and about cheering at a doll parts concerto or guffawing at a theatrical ouvre. william is unafriad to march to his own beat, grow out his beard, or cackle when others remain silent.

his latest piece de theatre, comfort dogs, barks at jack theatre through mar. 14 and features not only his splendid wife (and aforementioned dear friend) julia sirna-frest (of doll parts lore), but also a host of other marvelous performers canine and human alike. i caught up with william and julia over email and here’s what we discussed.

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a burke, a beard, and his bronco. photo by kevin frest.


william, what sparked the idea of Comfort Dogs for you?
I read an article about a nursing home that was being over run with people who had been displaced from their home and didn’t have the means to recuperate their losses. They had been given a therapy/comfort dog who was trained specifically not to be afraid of wheels, machines and certain smells to give solace and comfort. After six months it was taken away because of lack of funding and I found that to be incredibly heartbreaking and it made me interested in exploring  why that was heartbreaking. Dogs and other pets are probably confused by us 90 percent of the time but we put such a huge expectation on them to give us comfort and solace.  We put such a personification or anthropomorphism onto dogs where we analyze the hell out of an eyebrow movement or a scratch and lay our human behavior on top the animal. I started to wonder if that is a fair thing to do. So I thought I wanted to see what it was like to create world where we put the microscope on that and see what happens.

mmm you always twist things in an interesting way. like complicating the tale of elmo in times sq. tell me, what was your writing process like?
I don’t write straight linear or plot driven plays. I depend on an emotional trajectory as opposed to an obvious throughline. Until I figure what the structure of each piece I’m kind of drowning in my own words and ideas. Levon Helms of The Band died while I was just compiling lists of dog mannerisms, needs and movements. I went down a bit of rabbit hole of The Band videos and thought he and his bandmates were very dog like.

curious! i must familiarize myself with this musical group.
They also sing songs that had very comforting or cathartic intentions behind them. I rediscovered Martin Scorsese’s concert documentary of the their last show in San Francisco. I was taken by how fluid it was and how it seamlessly moved from their performances to moments of them kind of rambling and reminiscing about certain aspects of their experiences together. I laid that over any text I had realized that the dogs should be a band and be able to try and reach people with their music. I brought the first couple pages into my writing group (Wook Taut Majesty) and heard it out loud and realized that the dogs should be reading letters from humans asking for comfort and the music could be a response. Then I got Shane Chapman to compose the music and it kind of went on from there.

Let’s talk about the dogs .. who are they? What are their tails ? (wink!)
Bluet: chihuahua. instigator. Artist living in Brooklyn. The David Greenspan of Dogs.
Gypsy: Lab mix. Grand Dame. Loves her hedge hog chew toy. The Zoe Caldwell of Dogs.
Bronco: Too many mixes to Count. Dog of the People and of the earth. Always trying to improve his craft. The Reed Birney of Dogs.

william i am obsessed with these descriptions. i have a tear in my eye. how i love these dogs and our theatrical tribe! julia, you are performing in the piece ..

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jsf is in the building. photo by kevin frest


how is it to co-star with your dog bronco? are animals hard to work with?
Working with the dogs is pretty exciting. You don’t know what they are going to do so it keeps you very present on stage which I love.

“presence is the inversion of ghosts” (#pointyreckoning. continue.)
‘Tis true. The strangest thing is Bronco is my dog so relating to him as a dog not his loving caretaker is different–I sniffed his butt one night because it was there and that is what a dog would do. All the dogs in the piece are incredible and have been a total joy to work with. I don’t know if I can ever do a tech without dogs again–it was amazing!

(perhaps this is an obvious question but .. ) what do we gain from having live animals in the piece?
jsf: There is an energy that the dogs bring that humans cannot.  There are truly always in the moment.

wb: I think the dogs are there to guide through these kind of cloudy difficult questions of existence and meaning and purpose and kind of put a mirror onto ourselves that blurs the lines between species and just accentuates idea that we all just living beings, sharing the earth together. Or…They are just fun and cute.

The Jack website says that “an ensemble of musicians and live dogs will howl, scotch and poop their way through the evening” .. what does it mean to scotch and do to Humans poop?!
jsf: It depends on the moment….

jsf: scotching is dog language. Make of it what you will. And to answer the second part of your question…Hey, shit happens.

lol! Best part of working as a couple?
jsf: Having both of my loves (William and Bronco) at tech was pretty magical.  It made the 10 hour day feel like home.

wb: This is the first time Julia has performed in my work. The best part is watching Julia using all of her personality traits, talents and quirks that I have come to love and depend on and take for granted during our over 14 years of being a couple to craft such a poignant and touching performance that has truly elevated my writing and work to place I never thought it could go.

Hardest part?
jsf: Knowing when to check my ego because I need to support William.

wb: Trying to figure a way to request that she not ask me get her water or tea while I’m focusing during Tech without getting in big trouble.

Best part of having a pet?
jsf: everything.
wb: Having a remind that you’re with a living being that is always in the moment is never concerned about the bigger things and know that we are here as companions and explorers of whatever that moment turns out to be.
Most challenging part?
jsf: This is dark but just knowing that their life span in shorter than mine make my heartache.  It’s amazing how much unconditional love I have for Bronco.
wb: Cheesy but…Sometimes you love your dog so much it hurts.
Guilty pleasures / secret influences?
Korean Action Movies. George Carlin. plus Jean Claude Van Damme Movies. Particularly Blood Sport. The Arena for the fighting Tournament is a huge influence on my design choices.
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lotta feelings in this photo. pictured: bronco. photo by kevin frest

and there you have it mes amis! i shall be attending Comfort Dogs on March 6 .. when will you be howling?
a bientot,

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