Friday, June 3, 2016

Spotlight On...Matthew Cohn

Name: Matthew Cohn

Hometown: New York City

Education: Dartmouth College

Favorite Credits: Harry Horner in The Country Wife—the show on which I met Meg MacCary, who pulled me into Seen/By Everyone. Incidentally, Katie Bruestle, another actor in Seen/By Everyone, was also in The Country Wife.

Why theater?: Acting affords me the opportunity to pretend to be someone else for a few hours a day. Theater in general, as a collaborative art, affords the opportunity to transcend each participant’s weaknesses and blind spots. Whether or not that opportunity is realized is an open question, evaluated on a show-by-show basis, but only a collaborative art allows for the creation of an artistic whole greater than the sum of its parts. I like to think that Seen / By Everyone has crossed that threshold with room to spare.

Tell us about Seen / By Everyone: It’s a show about dying, grieving, and living online. Whereas even as recently as fifteen years ago, it felt like life just kind of melted into air when we died, now—assuming we’re active online—we leave behind so much more of a presence. And that presence has a degree of permanence that seems very new and very unusual. People can still comment on your Facebook page after you die. You can still see their tweets, or their even more mundane activity. Whereas once they were consigned to shoeboxes or albums on a shelf, pictures of me standing with people who died almost ten years ago will pop up on my screen, while I’m scrolling through the news. These photos or these memories are thrust upon you, as if there’s some agency behind the action. The ghosts seem real. And you stare at these people, or these pets, or old homes, and see that they’re stuck in time while you’ve gone gray and tried to move on. Because everything on the internet stays there forever, the dead won’t let us go they way that they used to (again, ascribing agency where there is none, and in ascribing that agency, creating the illusion of a ghost-agent). The show is about wrestling with the many kinds of death in this totally new environment.

What inspired you to create Seen / By Everyone?: I remember reading an article—which I have since been totally unable to find, much to my chagrin—that talked about how all of these young men who died during the height of the AIDS epidemic didn’t have a presence online that many of their surviving contemporaries did. The gist of the article was that there wasn’t this same record of people who, had they lived, would have Twitter feeds, websites, Facebook pages, etc. I also have some friends from college and high school who died shortly after graduation, and they’ll be my friends on Facebook—and 22 years old—forever. (Dartmouth was among the first places to get Facebook, so a number of us have been on it for twelve years.) There just seemed to be so much dramatic potential in the way that death and mourning has changed that it seemed worth exploring. And there was, from the outset, a strong desire to exclusively use found text. By collaging other people’s often mundane or repetitive words together we could create something weird and beautiful. We all liked the idea of extending the collaboration outward beyond just the five brains in the room, making the text an almost active participant.

What kind of theater speaks to you? What or who inspires you as an artist?: I really do like all kinds of theater, so long as it’s unironic and unapologetic. I’d rather watch something fail spectacularly than fall safely short of greatness. I also have an enormous soft spot for musicals, particularly of the Rodgers and Hammerstein variety. Some contemporary musicals have been excellent, but since Hair, I feel there’s been a real movement away from good use of Baritone and Bass voices, to the detriment of the overall sound. I miss the more classically-trained orchestration of older musicals. (Obviously this criticism does not apply to someone like Sondheim.) I also go to the opera a lot. As for who inspires me as an artist? A principal inspiration of late has been David Bowie. I saw the Bowie exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago a couple of years ago, and was really struck by how fearless an artist he was. He was deeply committed to putting on a show, and entertaining people, yes. But he made music that interested him. There was no playing it safe. And some of his albums aren’t very good! And that is totally fine. Because he managed to retain his commitment to following his artistic impulses and trusted his own taste. The fact that Blackstar (his final album) is such an unqualified triumph is astonishing. Hell, I probably play it as much as I play Space Oddity, which is quite a bit.

If you could work with anyone you’ve yet to work with, who would it be?: Bowie’s dead, so I’m going to go with Werner Herzog. Christ, that’d be a trip.

What show have you recommended to your friends?: The last big commercial thing I recommended to people was probably Jerusalem, largely due to Rylance’s towering performance. Most recently, I recommended the Richard II at BAM to my friends. I do a lot of classical theater—Richard II is one of my favorites, behind Henry VI.3—and my best friend is a huge David Tennant fan. It seemed like a no-brainer.

Who would play you in a movie about yourself and what would it be called?: "A Bit Much: The Matthew Cohn Story", starring Idris Elba. (In a post-Hamilton world, I think we should more aggressively pursue creative casting, and I’d like to pretend that I’m that handsome.) Or if you’d prefer I stick to Jewish actors, I’ll go with a young Paul Newman.

If you could go back in time and see any play or musical you missed, what would it be?: The world premiere of The Eumenides. Wouldn’t it be wild to find out if women actually miscarried because they were so frightened?

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?: Trashy movies or TV shows about spies. If there are spies, I will watch it. I have no idea why.

If you weren’t working in theater, you would be _____?: An astronaut.

What’s up next?: I produce a new works theater festival up at Dartmouth College, so the day after closing, it’s up to Hanover for me. Then I’m taking a vacation. There are also some other shows I’ve had on the back burner that I’m going to start working on. Stay tuned!

For more on Matthew, visit