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The Rosendale Theatre Collective

Bull in a china shop: The calculated mayhem of Julie Novakby Jay Blotcher

It is a Sunday afternoon in mid-April. The ever moving performance piece known as Julie Novak, is heading to a Kingston art space, for an all female rehearsal of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.

It has been a typical overstuffed weekend for this ubiquitous multimedia artist. On Friday night, she was on the stage of the Rosendale Theatre in the ensemble confessional Too Much Information! sharing a bittersweet memory of adolescent romance that suddenly morphed into a raucous tale of Sapphic awakening. Saturday afternoon, she was in New Paltz, judging the first annual Phools Art Parade, a processional of wildly dressed locals. Befitting the occasion, Novak, 37, wore her own jarring costume: a multi-colored striped jacket and magenta-pink-black-orange tulle tutu, accented by a white top hat graced with a painted birdhouse, starlings clustered inside.

The bird in question, known for its dark, irridescent plumage and gregarious nature, is an ideal totem for Novak. First, it mimics her trademark bedhead hairdo. (Professional secret: Murray’s Australian Beeswax, $3 per can.) Second, the starling has provided a focus for the diverse talents of this force of nature. The Rosendale-based Novak co-founded the theatre company Starling Productions with producer/actor Eva Tenuto, and has performed in all of its shows; the Mamet drama and Too Much Information!—both featuring an all-female cast—being their latest.

Novak and Tenuto have collaborated for two years on several Starling projects. Tenuto succeeded in first harnessing Novak’s raw—which is to say immense, but sometimes undisciplined—talent for a 2008 production of The Vagina Monologues she directed, as well as the late 2009 Talking With, where the liberal-cum-radical Novak portrayed a Southern Evangelical snake-handler, sharing the stage with a live boa constrictor. Talking With marked the first time Novak had moved beyond improvisational theatre. She called the role “transformational.”

In an e-mail interview, Tenuto explained that Starling Productions “produces events that support and promote the development of female performers creating new, original work or approaching traditional work in a new, original way. We aim to create educational programs to enhance the lives of young women and girls, focusing on building self-esteem and confidence through self-created performance.”

As Tenuto groomed and encouraged Novak the actor over several productions, their partnership was developing in a way neither expected. By this past February, they had became lovers.

Two months into the relationship, Novak remains giddy. Alighting from the couple’s car this afternoon, dressed in a black short-sleeve shirt and sweatshirt and white-framed glasses, she lets out a whoop of joy. (Exuberant exclamations constantly strafe Novak’s conversation.) Asked how she prepares for the Mamet rehearsals, she unfurls a signature Novak improvisation, simultaneously frantic, subversive and funny.

“Well, I do about six or seven laps in my pool and then I get out and do three or four lines. I mean I read three or four lines”

Julie Novak, the daughter of an art teacher, has found numerous venues in life for her prodigious gifts. Her first performance, at age four, was playing the host of a home improvement TV show; Novak painted her brother’s dresser with Cool-Whip. She graduated to painting, poetry and writing plays. While she worked tech on high school plays, Novak resisted auditioning. Her tomboy persona ill-suited her for traditional female roles.

After she arrived in the Hudson Valley from Stow, Ohio in 1991, she worked as a stage manager at Orange County Community College Theater for several years, later graduating to directing plays there, and honing her skills as a graphic designer while creating posters for the shows. (Novak is currently the art director of New York House magazine.) She moved to Rosendale in 2000 to join friends and threw herself into the local art scene like a punk rocker crowd-diving. In fact, punk music was the first medium where Novak’s butch appearance was not maligned.

Two years of improvisational classes with Ann Citron (who recommended her student for The Vagina Monologues) helped Novak channel her bold, stream-of-consciousness verbiage and grow as a performer.

“She can put herself in anybody's skin,” said Citron via e-mail. “It is truly her gift. She finds the humanity that runs through us all. She's made me cry many times and then I find myself laughing and I don't remember where one started and the other ended.”

Making things up as she went along seemed to bleed over into Novak’s life. A series of short-term projects have dominated the past few years, including helming two bands—Guitars & Hearts and Gigantic!—and working with the environmental puppet troupe Arm-of-the-Sea Theatre. Novak’s progressive sense of social justice informs her work. Often it is fearless.

That same year she collaborated with Stone Ridge-based artist/author Jacinta Bunnell on Girls Are Not Chicks, a coloring book for kids that gently but firmly smashes sexual stereotypes. Bunnell and Novak turned their enterprise into a 2006 biodiesel-car road trip titled “The Sparkle Kids Action Network Chorus of Crayons Tour” which included art workshops and rock performances. In April 2009, Bunnell and Novak created BRAWL (Broads Regional Arm Wrestling League), which has since become a popular local phenomenon. Every tournament combines over-the-top performance art and feminist empowerment with good-natured brute force. As emcee Lady Thumb Prince, Novak whips players and audience alike into a frenzy with a foul-mouthed, tongue-in-cheek patter.

At the BRAWL, Novak said, betraying a lingering amazement, “I get into people’s faces, but people are laughing.”

Novak’s greatest talent, said Bunnell via e-mail, “is her divine ability to make every person she comes in contact with feel at ease and alive. Her rare sense of humor collapses false barriers, opens the hardest hearts, and makes my grandma feel intoxicated."

Melanie Cronin, co-creator of Phools Parade, said via e-mail, “She is charismatic, witty and brings life into whatever projects she is working on! Three cheers for Julie Novak. She helps keep the arts in this town alive!”

The idea of an all-female production of Glengarry Glen Ross began soon after Tenuto went into real estate. Friends mentioned to her the Mamet’s testosterone-drenched, f-bomb-filled play (and the successful 1992 film by James Foley) that takes place in the Mitch and Murray real estate office. Tenuto polled the cast members of The Vagina Monologues—a landmark of female self-pride—to see if they wanted to apply their acting talents to this depiction of power games and misogyny.

“They all said yes,” Tenuto said via e-mail. “We gathered in my living room and after the first reading we all wanted to do the play. We were hooked.”

Glengarry Glen Ross is not simply a dissection of gender politics and why insecure, violent and craven men still roam the earth, carrying iPhones and Blackberries instead of wooden clubs. It serves as a timely meditation on how an economic recession can bring mighty men to their knees or inspire others to breathtaking treachery.

Called in to rehearsal, Novak as Dee Moss (formerly Dave) sits at a business desk doubling for a table in a diner with Claudia Gross, playing Marge (formerly George) Aaronow. Over drinks, Dee slowly reveals, to Marge’s growing horror, a plan to break into the office after-hours and sell lucrative business leads to a rival real estate company. Buoyed by cocktails and a desperation that has crept into her marrow, Dee describes the proposed caper. Novak nails the character’s transparent bluster with frenzied chatter and tortured pauses.

When the scene is finished, Wyant is pleased. She asks Novak to e-mail the script to a colleague. Like a grade-schooler Novak impulsively writes a reminder to herself in pen on her hand.

Novak is never at rest. When not performing onstage or in music clubs, she creates paintings or sculptures. A one-woman show by Novak is in development with Tenuto set to direct, and the pair plan to bring Too Much Information! to colleges. For now compelling distractions abound. Novak is currently collaborating with longtime friend Frank Kosempa on a performance and video project for KMOCA (Kingston Museum of Contemporary Art).

“Julie has at least two great and enviable artistic gifts,” Kosempa said via e-mail. “Not only is she spontaneously and incisively funny when the moment requires it, she seems also to have available to her in that performance moment all those flashing, fleeting insights and reflections most of us forget even to write down.”

Many have noticed Novak’s flair for public displays. “People are always coming up in my face and they’re like, ‘You should be on TV!’” But the notion of moving to New York City and “scraping to be famous” does not appeal to her; there are ample projects in the Hudson Valley to keep her talent occupied. And having successfully battled depression in the past, she has developed a broad emotional palette to draw from.

“What makes me have so much joy as a performer and humor,” Novak said, “is that I know what it means to feels like shit.”

Starling Productions presents David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by Shelley Wyant. Fr/Sa 5/14-15 at 8 PM. Su 5/16 at 3 PM. Rosendale Theatre, 330 Main St., Rosendale. Reservations at 845.658.8410 or visit the Starling Productions page on Facebook.

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