‘F#%king Up Everything’ Interview: Talking with Katherine Cozumel, Dawn Cantwell and Lisa Birnbaum

Dawn Cantwell, Katherine Cozumel and Lisa Birnbaum

Dawn Cantwell, Katherine Cozumel and Lisa Birnbaum at the Elektra Theatre

F#%king Up Everything is a new hipster-rock-musical from David Eric Davis and Sam Forman now playing Off-Broadway in Times Square. It follows the crazy adventures of seven young Brooklynites who sing, play music, fall in love and pursue their dreams, with the help of a rocking score and a refreshing lack of irony. The three leading ladies of the show, Katherine Cozumel, Dawn Cantwell and Lisa Birnbaum, were kind enough to sit down with me for a very fun pre-show chat.

SDD: Hello, everybody. Let’s start with names and who you are playing.

KC: I am Katherine Cozumel and I am playing Juliana.

DC: I am Dawn Cantwell and I play Ivy.

LB: I’m Lisa Birnbaum and I play Arielle.

SDD: So, where is everybody from?

KC: I am from New Jersey.

DC: I’m from California. It’s a suburb of Los Angeles called Pasadena.

KC: Isn’t that supposed to be the best place to live in the world? Isn’t it literally on the list of the best places to live in the world?

DC: It’s awesome. You’ve got mountains right there, the ocean is about 30 minutes away and the desert is also 30 minutes away. It’s awesome and it’s provincial but it’s still L.A. Someone should hire me for a commercial for Pasadena.

LB: I am from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It’s great. It’s a little college town and I like to say it’s where good old Jesse Helms said we were a zoo and that we should be caged in, because that’s where all the liberals live. It was a wonderful place to grow up, I miss it. It’s still where I go home to when I visit my folks.

SDD: What does everyone think of New York City?

KC: I love New York, I love New York. I’ve always grown up outside of the city. I went to school in Chicago. I was very biased going to Chicago in that I didn’t feel like it was a real city, because New York is so pedestrian friendly and diverse and there’s better food here. Great food. And there’s Midtown too, which makes up for the commuters and the Port Authority.

DC: New York is very different from California. I came when I was eighteen to go to college at NYU, so it’s been like eight or nine years that I’ve been here. I love it very much. I love that you can hear amazing music for free. I love that you can see art for free. I love the camaraderie of the city and the publicness of that camaraderie is awesome. Sometimes it’s grating – the same thing that’s amazing about it can also be challenging. Like, if you grew up in wide open spaces that can be difficult. But I moved to Brooklyn and now it’s a lot better, nature wise.

LB: I think that New York is like an abusive boyfriend. It’s dirty and awesome. I really have such a complicated relationship with New York. When I say “I hate it,” I’m kind of not joking. I don’t even know what I mean anymore. The point is, New York is the place that we have to be. This is where we thrive. This is where we can create and this is where we can get opportunities. I think for all of those reasons, and the community that exists here, this is where you have to be. It’s quickly become my home. I have been here since 2007 and just when you think you have had it and you’re done and you can’t stand one more piece of trash in the street, something magical happens. You’ll wander into Washington Square Park and a man will pull up a grand piano – I’m not kidding – and start playing Billy Joel or Queen.

DC: And his card will say, ‘Want to be my friend?’

LB: Yeah! And someone will come up to you and you’ll have known them since third grade. Then someone will start throwing roses in the air and the next thing you know, everyone’s singing together. It’s very strange, but it only happens in New York.

SDD: I want to ask about the show. How much fun are you all having up on stage? Because it looks ridiculously fun.

KC: Yeah, it’s really fun. On a scale of one to ten, it’s like a fifteen.

LB: It’s stupid fun. It’s amazing that we get to play with each other. And we like each other, which you may or may not know, is not always the case. Everybody’s really attractive.

KC: Now that we’re in performance we have a different audience, which always changes it up. Some people really respond to things and that makes it fun. We didn’t realize that some things were funny and then we find out that they are funny and then we are amused by that. It’s a little unpredictable the way people respond to it. We always end up interacting in a different kind of way every night, or just bringing different elements of ourselves to it. It’s nice that the script gives us that flexibility to actually explore the characters night after night, because it isn’t emotionally restrictive.

LB: It never gets old for me. It’s new every night and I get a great joy, from the wings, watching other people and how the nuances change every night or how something spectacular can come out of nowhere. I love watching George [Salazar] when he gets really upset when you [Dawn, playing Ivy] catch him [with the character, Tony]. It’s one of my favorite moments of the entire show because the focus is actually on you guys, on Ivy and on Tony. And I sit there and I watch George – he’s fucking hilarious. He’s hysterical and he actually looks like he is about to start crying. He is so mortified that you’ve caught him.

DC: I think that in light of what’s going on in the world, I’m finding so much value in comedy. Infinite value. The idea of theatre in itself is so amazing. The idea that all these strangers congregate in a room, people who in other circumstances may not be able to stand each other, you all sit in this room together and have this communal thing. And we get, in this show, to make people happy and that is so awesome. It’s reciprocal, I mean it makes us happy too. I will walk in and be upset or have anxiety about something and then I’m like, “Oh! Okay. Everything is okay and everything is going to be fine.” That’s the energy we give the audience and that they give back to us. It’s just awesome.

LB: Are you talking about how the world is so sad and we get to do this fun thing all the time?

DC: Yeah.

LB: I agree and I second that.

SDD: This show is so refreshing because it’s not depressing. There are so many plays right now about people our age and everybody’s kind of down.

DC: Everybody wins in this show! That never happens, where everybody is a winner and everybody gets what they want. And that’s awesome! And the show is completely original, everything’s brand new, which is also unique right now.

LB: Did you know that this is David Eric Davis’ first play ever?

SDD: Really?

LB: Ever.

SDD: That’s impressive.

LB: Let’s see what he’s going to do next, because that is really extraordinary. He literally rolled over one day and was like, “I’m going to write a musical.” Then it became this wonderful, fun piece of theatre that brings so much joy.

SDD: Katherine, do you really play the ukulele? Are you a singer/songwriter like your character?

KC: As of a month ago, I play the ukulele. They asked me at my audition if I played the ukulele, and there were a couple of girls who brought ukuleles. Dawn actually plays the ukulele.

LB: She is a singer/songwriter.

SDD: So maybe you’re the one who can tell us about the singer/songwriter thing.

DC: Listen, this girl is quite the ukulele player in her own right. She picked it up so fast. The fact that she plays it that well in a month, well, if she practices ten minutes a day, in a year she is going to be great.

KC: I had a week with [the ukulele] before rehearsals, which was nice. I don’t publicize anything that I’ve written, but I play piano. I used to play a little bit of guitar but in the audition I exaggerated the extent I play the guitar.

SDD: Which is something actors never do, right?

DC: No, never!

KC: Actually, you can really get yourself in trouble. But I have a friend that is a violinist so I was like, “I can learn the freaking ukulele. I will be fine.”

DC: It only has four strings.

KC: It has four strings, it is not a classical instrument, there are just chords that I can play, it’s fine. I’ll be able to figure it out.

SDD: What about Lisa? Are you going to jump in and have a three girl rock trio?

LB: That would be pretty badass.

DC: We actually talked about writing music for her poems – she writes poems.

LB: I do. I don’t play an instrument other than my voice which I sing at various volumes: Loud and really loud. My other art is that sometimes the world starts to rhyme to me in this very silly way. Some of it is actually profound and some of it is sharp and some of it is just downright dirty.

DC: I was telling her we should write music to her poems. Sort of my main thing before acting was music and always has been music. I am a singer/songwriter and have been working at that for a while. I played at Pete’s Candy Store and played at Rockwood, trying to do that thing for a while. What’s nice about the music world versus the acting world is that you’re only in competition with yourself. That’s something I really almost prefer in music over acting. There’s also less things between you and the work. In acting you have agents and managers and casting directors. Over here is you, and over there’s the job. There are all these hoops you have to go through. In music, you practice your music. It’s just less steps to get to where you are going. It’s more about how far you can push yourself. In theatre there is one role and all these amazing people competing for it. With music no one person sounds the same and everybody gets that. That’s something I feel drawn to about music. If anyone wants to go to www.dawnandryan.com, I write songs with my little brother. That would be really cool.

SDD: We are totally going to put that on the website in the middle of this interview.

DC: Yes!

LB: That is so badass. You should announce it before every show. I am so excited to work with Dawn.

DC: That was like a shameless plug.

LB: I’m pretty sure this world has gotten to the point where everything is shameless. You have to be shameless if you want to do anything, because you have to get it online which means anyone can see it.

DC: Viral, that word.

LB: It’s so fascinating, because a virus is something bad when it attacks you, unless it’s on the internet in a funny video.

KC: Well, it kind of attacks you against your will.

DC: Facebook definitely attacks.

SDD: These characters are sort of larger than life, but they’re also real people. You could go to Brooklyn and find them. What is the most exciting, most fun, or even most challenging part of playing these characters?

KC: Juliana’s kind of tough, because she plays a specific function in the show and she literally fucks everything up. It was really hard for us to justify why she screws over a nice guy like Christian. It happens so quickly. Within the parameters of the show, stylistically with what we’ve been doing, it fits into the hour and a half show and the two days in which she falls in love with him and kind of betrays him all at once. It was just trying to figure out what it was about her that would make her do that to such a nice guy like Christian. I realized that, as you said, she is just a person and we can find tons of her in Brooklyn and everywhere else in the world. She just had a bad day or something and did the wrong thing and hurt someone’s feelings without even thinking about it. Or even got a little too drunk which is something that all people our age can relate to. Or hooked up with the wrong guy, which is something we could all write books about. That’s what I love about Juliana. She is just human and for some reason, because Christian finds her cute, she is expected to not do anything wrong. She ends up messing up in a really bad way and wants to be forgiven, which I think we can all relate to. I like her because she is really human and flawed in that way.

DC: I feel so privileged to get to tell the story of unrequited love. That is like my personal specialty as a little person. I did Eponine in Les Miserables and I tend to do those sorts of roles. I think it’s because I am little and people are like, “Well we’ll feel bad for her since she is really small.” I see myself in real life as more of a Juliana type of person, just because of her trajectory and the way she handles stuff. I am totally guilty of hurting people without meaning to and definitely just making the wrong decisions. My character, Ivy, has this intense sense of morality in her own quirky way. She’s with this guy and she shouldn’t be with this guy, and she loves her best friend instead. When the opportunity to kiss her best friend presents itself, she decides not to kiss him. Even though Ivy is drunk she makes a different choice than Juliana does in the same situation. Oh, that’s one thing that’s hard for me. I’m not a very sarcastic person. In fact sarcasm frequently goes over my head. I say, “Sorry, I don’t get it.” Sometimes people tell a joke and I won’t understand.

KC: [Laughs] She really says, “Wait, I don’t know what you mean.”

DC: I watched a lot of Girls and Lena Dunham to prepare for that. I have been trying to channel that vibe a little bit. That was the first thing that was difficult, the sarcasm. It was a joy, my pleasure to tell the story of a girl who loves somebody she’s pining away for. I love telling that story. It’s something we all can relate to and I have certainly been there more than once, certainly.

LB: [Painting her nails] Okay, so yes I am painting my nails right now, because I realized that if I don’t do it now, my nails won’t be blue. And it would be horrible if Arielle’s nails were not blue. For my character, I am clearly not Arielle. I kind of wish I was. I mean, what a remarkable human being, to be free enough to be able to love that wholeheartedly, anybody or anything. I think that’s sort of the crux of her. She’s thirsty for life and it’s magical to get to play her. I feel really blessed and really lucky. I kind of can’t believe it, actually, because I’m relatively introverted, socially, I guess? I mean, I’m a loud person, I think everyone can attest to that.

KC: You’re introverted?

LB: I am! Okay, I am not introverted once I’m out. I’m a homebody, I’m a hobbit, I like to stay in.

KC: Like, by yourself, you’re introverted?

LB: You’re right, I am not introverted, but I am not as daring, I’m not as audacious, I’m not as super crazy as Arielle. I would never wear what she wears.

DC: You’re shy about guys.

LB: I am super shy about guys. Boys are terrifying. Unless I really want them.

KC: You are very intellectual.

LB: Okay, the point is I went to Williamsburg last week for a friend’s birthday and there was a woman there who was wearing the pants that I wear in the show – these tight-ass American Apparel pants – in white. And she was wearing a mint green shirt and all I could think was, “Holy shit, that’s the girl. That’s the real thing.” And it totally exists. I don’t know where they come from and I think that gets back to your question about New York. That’s what’s so exciting about New York: This is where you can meet someone who is that audacious and that extraordinary.

KC: For actors it’s great. It’s a character study on the subway every day.

LB: Every day! I guess I could talk about it forever and ever. Here’s the thing, and maybe this is how I am like Arielle, a little bit – Arielle’s been around the block a bit longer than everyone else in the show, and I am a little older than everyone else in the show. Not a lot, but a little. Even reviews, even the Times said I was the “older woman who taught boys how to become men.” I was like, “Jesus Christ, do I look like I’m forty up here?” I’m a little bit older than everybody else. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are wiser, it just means you’ve seen more. So it’s not so crazy when a girl makes out with a guy’s best friend and you still like them. It’s actually not that crazy, it happens all the time. So maybe you can like keep on trucking and win her back and everything will be fine. Because if [sings] “There’s love in the world” it’s going to be great. That is my inarticulate way of answering the question.

SDD: Here’s the lightning round: Do you have any interesting or unusual talents that no one knows about?

KC: I can fart with my shoulder.

DC: I can do a roundoff back handspring.

All: Wow!

LB: What? Like, still? Right now, you could do it?

DC: Yes, I could.

LB: That’s incredible! Okay, I make really good orange meringue cookies.

SDD: If you could trade places with anyone real or fictional, who would it be?

KC: Jessica Biel. She was in my ballet class.

DC: Frieda Kahlo.

LB: Albert Einstein.

SDD: If you could choose another job besides acting in this wonderful show, what would it be?

KC: Ballerina.

DC: Investigative journalist.

LB: Scientist, definitely.

DC: I think those were outside of the arts.

KC: I can’t do anything outside of the arts. I can’t make a living outside of the arts.

SDD: Well, then you are in the right business. Thank you all for the interview!

KC, DC, LB: Thank you!

F#%king Up Everything plays at the Elektra Theatre at 42 Street in Times Square. Visit their website here for more information.

The cast of 'F#%cking Up Everything'

The cast of ‘F#%king Up Everything’

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