Unchained Festival returns to Long Island City’s Chain Theatre

By Kevin Zimmerman

Fiction Writing 101 begins from the premise that budding authors should write what they know.

That does not mean a playwright should turn everything into fodder for the stage.

But using events from one’s life — with just the right sprinkling of dramatic license — can often result in a creative and satisfying way to address a universal truth.

For the upcoming Unchained Festival at the Chain Theatre in Long Island City, plenty of the productions on tap started out as real conversations and events in each of the writers’ lives.

In “Tourniquet,” a group of eight unnamed New Yorkers experience a year’s worth of celebrations that begin in the fall of 2001.

Playwright Adrienne Schaffler was in the fifth grade when 9/11 took place, but she was interested in how that Tuesday in mid-September more than a decade ago continues to affect people.

“This event has redefined what celebrating can be,” Schaffler said. “I’m not trying to hit people over the head with 9/11, but I want to see how people deal with the process of healing.”

And, at 23, she is also interested in exploring how younger people will deal with anniversaries of the day in the future.

“It scares me that in a few years, there will be so many younger people that have only heard about it through second-hand accounts,” Schaffler said.

Astoria playwright Eugene Grygo’s piece, “The Door to Home,” also springs from a true-life event many summers ago.

“It is autobiographical,” he said.

Grygo’s play focuses on a young man about to embark on the next chapter of his life and his mother’s fears that this means a future of loneliness for her.

In the summer of 1992, Grygo prepared to leave his home in Erie, Pa. for life in New York City. He had a very similar experience with his mother as he prepared for the move and used it for the basis of this play.

“It is basically the last night they are together,” Grygo said. “It’s done as a mix of comedy and drama.”

For comedy deeply entrenched outside mainstream America’s comfort zone, J. Julian Christopher and Steve Sclafani’s musical, “Oso Fabuloso and the Bear Backs,” promises to deliver.

Christopher plays Fabuloso, a bear — the term given to burly and hairy gay men — who is also a soul singer. After being dumped by his older boyfriend, Fabuloso is encouraged by his therapist to embark on a tour to sing away the blues.

“It is over the top and quite ridiculous,” Christopher said. “But there is a dramatic underbelly to the piece.”

This is Christopher’s third trip to the Unchained Festival — he won a best director award for one entry and authored a second play — but it is his first time performing at the LIC venue.

For author Marlin Thomas, who grew up in nearby Queensbridge, the Chain Theatre is a bit of a homecoming.

“I was prompted to enter when I saw the listing for the festival and saw the location was about a mile from Queensbridge,” Thomas said.

So it seems fitting that in the shadows of LIC’s glittering glass towers sits his old home.

Cultural clashes often pop up in Thomas’ work.

For the Unchained Festival, he has written “Burqua and Rifle,” which is an imagined encounter between two women — one an ex-Marine and the other an African-American Muslim — at the border of the United States and Mexico.

His inspiration, Thomas said, was a painting he saw of two women in conflict, as well as a bit of wisdom from absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco.

“One of his quotes is, ‘Ideology separates us, but dreams and anguish bring us together,’” Thomas said.

Anguish and a bit of autobiography also play a role in Blake Walton’s piece, “The Better Man.”

Walton, an actor and director, was living in Florida when he started a relationship with another man, who didn’t define himself sexually and wouldn’t limit his relationships to just men or women.

“I said, ‘when you get married, I want to be your best man,’” Walton said. “This play is based upon that moment.”

In Walton’s story, two young men begin a clandestine relationship, which eventually ends when one says he wants a normal life. Flash forward six years later, and the jilted lover is invited to his old flame’s wedding to a young woman.

Naturally, he attends.

“It’s a struggle and a challenge for all three characters,” Walton said. “It’s a play about what happens when three people grow.”

Reach News Editor Kevin Zimmerman by e-mail at kzimmerman@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4541.

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