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/ April 10, 2013
James Franco’s BirdShit: White Paint, Chekhov, And NYU Students

Bird shit. It’s not a term that brings to mind beauty–let alone art–but this past weekend at MoMA PS1 a few NYU students were able to create something truly incredible out of “crap.” Now, before we begin, let us preface by saying that no birds, nor their shit, were included in this piece, but rather, a lot–and we mean a lot–of white paint. We were warned before we entered the VW-sponsored dome that we had the chance of encountering said paint as well as flashing bright lights. What had we gotten ourselves into?

We sat down recently with Nina Ljeti, a Senior at Tisch, who, alongside James Franco and Chloe Kernaghan, brought the piece into fruition. The piece is inspired by Chekhov’s The Seagull, a 19th century play that follows the lives, and loves, of actors and playwrights and the aimless death of a seagull. In “Bird Shit,” the same characters are used but find themselves on stage in a new light through punk rock music from Ljeti’s band Yeah Well, Whatever. The piece also uses female modern dancers crawling and writhing through the fallen paint and feathers, bringing to mind the 19th century’s obsession with“hysteria.”

“James just said, ‘Let’s do Chekhov,’ and I knew Chekhov because of Stella Adler. I was really excited though because I love The Seagull, I think it’s a great play. We were supposed to do it a year ago, same cast but James was so busy with Spring Breakers and Oz, and we weren’t as into at the time enough to focus all of our attention on it,” said Lieti.

In December Bird Shit eventually started to take form. MoMA PS1 Director Klaus Biesenbach was able to secure them a day in April (this past Sunday) for the performance. And while they would’ve preferred a longer engagement, Nina explained she was just happy they could do it at PS1.

“The space wound up being perfect and [MoMA] was pretty helpful with what we wanted to do because we only really had a week to get into PS1, build that stage, to co-ordinate things. It was really, really crazy but I guess it worked out well,” she said. Mind you, the show was completely sold out both for the 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. showings. People were desperately trying to get off the wait list–we thought for a moment bird shit would be thrown.

The performance is NYU heavy, and there’s a reason for that. Franco, as Nina put it, “loves NYU,” so there was no question on where to cast when the trio started to look for their crew. “The people at NYU are kind of amazing. If there is one school that will open your world, it’s NYU. You meet so many people, you get so many connections, you learn a lot just by hanging out [with other students]. James wanted to keep it to NYU because he’s loyal to it.”

To find out what the audition process–or rather, lack of one–was like, we turned to Sophomore Tisch student Natasha Mynhier, who was one of the dancers in the piece.  “It wasn’t really a normal audition. What happened was [Tommy Richardson] saw me in a Tisch dance show. He collected the four dancers in the show and then [Chloe] brought us in. The first day of rehearsals was the audition. Basically, we had to improv and do certain poses. Then [Chloe] contacted us about a week later and was like, okay, you’re in,” she said.

We were curious, after having seen the paint splattered and light flashing piece, if she knew what she was getting herself into beforehand. “I had absolutely no idea. When [Tommy] texted me, he was like, ‘Hey, I’m doing this thing with James Franco, I want to have you in it.’ I was like, okay, I’ll come audition but yeah, literally no idea. Even when I did read the script, it wasn’t in there. There was no dance at all, I thought I would be reading things.” Mynhier explained that while she had never done anything of that level before, she would “definitely” want to do something like the performance piece again.

Other NYU Students in Bird Shit include graduate film students Joshua Richards, Zach Kershberg, and Tine Thomasen, as well as Tisch dance student Riho Tsuji.

Photos by Hanna Armour.