Bethesda-based Flying V ensemble theater is once again taking a deep dive into pop culture—this time delving into the “dude-bro” friendship of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, in “Matt & Ben.”
It was Matt Bassett, associate artistic director at The Hub Theatre, who floated the idea to do the play past Jason Schlafstein, Flying V’s producing artistic director. “I read it and I was intrigued by it,” Schlafstein said.
Basically, it has all the traits of a Flying V show, Schlafstein said, elevating what could be taken as a cheap shot at two stars before they were big. The play, co-written by Mindy Kaling, debuted at New York Fringe Festival in 2002 —the Bennifer era, when Affleck was still suffering from “Gigli” syndrome. The play is set earlier than that, though. What sets the play in motion is when the script for “Good Will Hunting” seemingly falls from the sky. A gift from God?
But with all things Flying V, things are not as they appear in this production; this play has a major twist. CultureSpotMC.com caught up with Schlafstein in advance of the show, which makes its official debut on June 11. These are excerpts from our chat.
Q: Why “Matt & Ben”?
A: This hit a lot of important points for me. There’s this high-concept idea for it. The script for “Good Will Hunting” appears to have fallen from the ceiling. It’s a question of was it God or was it the devil, which is funny because it’s playing off them [Affleck and Damon]. But then it’s high-concept in the script itself because Matt and Ben are meant to be played by two women. So that’s a commentary on how few roles there are for this kind of buddy comedy for women to play, and what it’s like to have these two very famous dude bros being played by women.
Q: So it was by design that two women play the lead roles?
A: Yep. It’s specifically been written that way by the playwrights [Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers] because they originally played them. Honestly, I think it was originally written as a shot for them to be seen.
Women in writing, in comedy — they didn’t have those opportunities, and they need those opportunities. Part of this play was a commentary. They saw these dude bros who got this huge award. They were thinking, “What will it take for us to be that? Well, let’s just be that. Let’s literally be that.” They launched it. We think that’s really core to the DNA of the show, that it’s played by two women.
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Q: Why, as a creative person, do you think pop culture is so ripe for theatrical exploration? Talk to me about how you all are able to do this in a way that what you’re presenting doesn’t seem glib—maybe this is what you mean by high concept?
A: It’s a big part of why Flying V as a company exists. I’m a fan of a lot of media. I see a lot of theater that feels stuck in the past, using stories that have been told for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. Our media, our pop culture, tends to be the metaphor of our present. It’s considered to be low-brow by some people. But people have a lot of cultural resonance associated with these ideas. If you treat them with a little bit of dignity, you tap into some real, very modern-day things.
Also, there’s this assumption that there are “theater people” and “not theater people,” as though theater is a genre and not a medium. We assume that everybody likes music; maybe there’s one person who doesn’t at all, but that’s a rarity. But you don’t assume that just because someone likes rap, they’re going to like country. And because they like acid pop, they’re going to like opera. They’re so different. But in theater there’s this idea that, ‘Oh, they’re going to like Shakespeare and they’re going to like this.’ I’m looking at all these people who go see “Iron Man” or go see “Deadpool,” who go to ’80s, ’90s dance parties at The Black Cat, who don’t even realize that there’s theater as a medium out there for them. People are making it. If I wasn’t a theater practitioner, that’s the kind of fan I am, and that’s the kind of theater I want to make. I want to have an emotional investment with Flying V fans.
For example, we’re doing a show in the fall called “Be Awesome: A Theatrical Mix-Tape of the ’90s.” It’s a whole night of live-action music videos from the ’90s. There’s going to be Beanie Babies, power ballads, all that stuff. But at its core, it’s a show about a guy who finds out he has terminal cancer with a daughter on the way who he won’t get to meet. He’s building a mixtape for her to try and leave something behind. It’s using all this easily accessible pop culture elements and trying to say what if it’s not just about nostalgia. What if it’s not disposable? What if that’s the language we have lived our lives in? And if my language is music, how do I leave my story to somebody?
Flying V presents “Matt & Ben;” starring Tia Shearer and Katie Jeffries, from June 9 to 26, at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. For show times and tickets, $20 to $30 plus service fee, visit www.flyingvtheatre.com.