“From Cold Lake” at the PIT – Interview with Nick Abeel

From Cold Lake - The PIT

From Cold Lake is the latest serialized show from the creative team behind Kapow-i GoGo and Puffs, inspired by radio programs like Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. With episode 2 premiering on September 12, I sat down with the cast and creative team behind From Cold Lake to talk about small town life and why serialized storytelling is seeing a resurgence.

Nick Abeel has been previously seen at the PIT in shows like Hold On To Your Butts and Fly, You Fools!, and in our conversation, we discuss Midwestern culture, dry Minnesotan humor, and why he thinks it is important for theatre to be fun.

What is From Cold Lake, and what is your role in it?

It’s a monthly podcast. It’s a live show that is also a podcast about the residents from Cold Lake. I play some parts in it. I play Lenny who is a fisherman and all-around cool guy. I don’t know if we can get into spoilers, but in the first episode, I was fishing with my buddy Bruce, kind of quiet guys, kind of very like the previous scene with their wives, and they talked a lot, and our scene is very quiet and very – just fishing kind of fellas. And I hooked a big fish, and I pulled it in and I got my finger bitten off by “the big one.” You didn’t see the air quotes, but there were air quotes, “the big one.” Yeah, so I’m not sure, but I think that track will follow looking for “the big one” and putting all my time and energy into that.

Have you spent any time in Minnesota or in the Midwest in general?

Not in Minnesota. I’m from Indiana, which is, you know, Midwest. Indiana is a little more Southern than Minnesota geographically but also in the vibe. Indiana tends to have a little more Kentucky lilt to it, but it’s very Midwestern in its sensibility and its pace, and everyone is very kind. I was just there for a couple of weeks. Everyone says hello to you on the street, “Mornin’, mornin’,” so it’s not Minnesota, but it’s very Midwestern.

What is the key to nailing a perfect Minnesotan accent?

Shoot, I don’t know. I just watched a lot of videos, a lot of YouTube videos. There was a video of some people on a boat that they had bought, just talking about the boat, “Oh, wow, look at that. That’s a boat. Oh, and it’s got this,” whatever.

It’s all in the O’s, I think.

O’s, yeah. Definitely, and just that he put in, “Oh, for cool,” and silly phrases like that.

What is the rehearsal process like for something like From Cold Lake compared to a more conventional self-contained show?

I don’t know. I mean, it’s quick. We got the script ahead of time and then we got in the room.

How far ahead of time do you get the scripts?

Maybe like a week?

Oh, yeah. So real quick.

Real quick, yeah. He’s kind of writing and re-writing up until the last minute, but yeah, we got the script maybe like a week ahead of time so we have time to read it and try out the accent on the actual words. Then we get into a room and jammed for a couple of hours and then we tech-ed it. I mean, it’s hard for the director, producers, and everyone, there’s a lot of technical things to work out for the podcast stuff.

And of course the musical element too.

Right.

It makes the sound a lot more complicated.

Yeah, yeah. It does, but gosh, they just had their shit together. The music was awesome. They walked in and were like, “Alright, we’re going to play our first song,” and we were like, “Cool, okay, whatever,” and they played, and we were like, “Whoa! You guys are amazing! You guys have been playing forever together!” They were really great, but again, yeah, I think they hadn’t had a whole lot of rehearsal, but it’s like, yeah, this is what we do. This is our life.

Small-town stories have always kind of been part of popular culture, like Mark Twain, Garrison Keillor’s Tales from Lake Wobegon, the town of Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls, even something like Welcome to Night Vale.

I just got started watching Stranger Things, which has a small-town sci-fi vibe to it.

What do you think is the appeal for these stories, specifically for New Yorkers?

Well, I guess, you know, a lot of people from New York are not from New York. They are from small towns and whatever. You know, I grew up in Indianapolis, which is a big town, but the neighborhood I grew up in was very small, a very small community. I feel like people move here to escape that, but you can never escape it in your heart. Maybe it’s like – especially in a big place like this – it’s a longing back for something that you had left behind. I would guess that most people come from some small town, even if it’s a big town, you know?

Maybe nostalgia, want for a simpler life.

Yeah, I think so, yeah. Everybody talks about, “I have to get out of New York, like, escape.” I think that’s what people want. You want to slow down.

You go to From Cold Lake and get a little taste of that.

I guess so, yeah. It reminds every one of the town that either they were from or their dad was from that they used to visit. There is something nostalgic but there’s also something, I don’t know what the word is for it, but Garrison Keillor, like Lake Wobegon, it touches on that, like the pacing of it. It’s comedic. There is something, I’m not describing it well, but especially Lake Wobegon – in my scene, there was long stretches of silence at times that you’re like, “Oh, this big thing in my life happened,” and the other guy is like, “Oh, yeah?” And it’s like, that’s it.

It’s a bit dry.

It’s a bit dry, yeah. There is a dryness to the small town, a slowness and a dryness that has great comedic and storytelling potential.

Like in something like Fargo, where so much of the humor is that these insane things are happening

Right.

– And the reactions of people are like –

“Oh, yeah. Wow. Oh for wow, yeah.” Totally, yeah, there is a dryness. A nostalgia and a dryness.

Serialized long-form storytelling seems to be having a resurgence because you look at the summer, and the movies at the box office in general have underperformed. Even the big ones have not really done well, but things like Stranger Things and other serialized stories on Netflix and through podcasts have really taken off.

It’s a great way to tell a story. It’s a great platform for storytelling, and I mean, it’s been so hard to tell a great story in two hours or in an hour. It’s hard, and so to be able to string it out over eight hours, ten hours, that’s pure, like, timing-wise, that’s a great amount of time to tell a story and really get to know characters, and the two-hour blockbuster format is limiting in some ways.

I also think that genre has played itself out quite a bit, the blockbuster movie. Ehh, it’s kind of played out, it has run its course. TV and podcasts, I think it’s been a fertile breeding ground for innovation, and people are really playing and experimenting and having fun, you know? It seems like movies have lost the ability to have heart. I think that’s what people are looking for, some heart and soul in storytelling, and I think those platforms you mentioned are able to deliver that much better these days.

And I also think it works better for larger ensemble pieces because you get more time to spend with these characters, like something like Stranger Things. You never would have necessarily gotten the backstory of the sheriff and all these different characters if you didn’t have all of that time to spend with them. In two hours, there is only so much you can do.

Yeah, it’s just a great platform, a better platform for storytelling these days than the old ways.

What advice would you give to aspiring actors who considering getting into theatre?

Oh, wow. That’s tough. You know, to just follow your instincts and do projects that you are interested in. Do projects – at first, do anything. Do whatever people will have you do, but then after a while, go see a lot of things. Figure out what you like. It takes time to figure out – you’ve got to see a lot of things before you go, okay, this I like and this I’m not as jazzed about. It took me awhile to figure out what I – the types of projects I wanted to do and what I wanted to put out into the world, and so cultivate your own aesthetic and your own interests in theatre and pursue those, and if you’re not getting offered those projects, do it yourself. Make it on your own. Nobody is waiting for you to come to New York to be an actor. Do something that they can’t ignore.

There are a lot of actors out there that have written their own stuff.

Oh, totally, and that is my path so far. It has been to self-produce and to do the things that I am interested in, and I’m not doing as much projects with people that I don’t know at all. I’ve whittled those down. I just don’t want to make time for that, you know. I’m much more precious about my time and how I spend it these days. So Colin [Waitt], Stephen [Stout], Kristin [McCarthy Parker], and Matt [Cox], they’re just great people, and they know what they’re doing, and it’s fun. That’s a big difference for me, you know. Have fun. This should be fun. So much theatre is boring, and it’s not fun. It’s called a play, and if it’s not fun, then what are we doing here?

What projects would you say over the past few years that you feel like you’re particularly proud of?

Well, Kristin and I have produced a lot together. We do movie parodies. We did Hold On To Your Butts, which is a Jurassic Park parody, and then Fly, You Fools!, which is a Lord of the Rings parody, and we’re doing a Christmas movie. I won’t say which one. The greatest Christmas holiday movie of all time. We haven’t announced it yet, so it’s a secret. Anyway, I’ve been really proud of those projects. It started as a total goof thing. Kristin and I were just like, let’s do something stupid. Do a project that’s just fun. From beginning, middle, and end, I just want it to be fun. We’ll make it. It’ll be a one-night-only thing, and I think that perspective on it from the start made it fun. It was a fun show, and people had fun watching it, and so yeah, I’ve been particularly proud of those shows.

I’m also in a mime theatre company, Broken Box Mime, and the shows we have done over the last couple of years have been really cool. Mime is left for dead and kind of a punchline these days, so it’s fun to bring people in and show them how fun mime can be and how engaging. Similarly to Hold On To Your Butts, it requires a lot of your imagination but also similarly to something like From Cold Lake. Listening to it as a podcast, you’ve got to fill in the blanks with your imagination, which I’m really into in theatre.

There is so much – you know, drama is like three people on a couch, and there are really good plays like that, but it’s really hard to do, and these days, it’s kind of boring. It doesn’t require much imagination, you know? Which I think is a bummer, because then as an audience member, my mind wanders. I’m like, oh, right, I’ve got to pay attention to this thing, and so I’ve been most proud of the projects that really engage the audience, makes the audience really pay attention.

As opposed to something like the blockbusters with big action and CGI everywhere.

Totally, and it will always be better in your head than anything I could show you on stage. Always, and that’s especially true in mime. It’s more like reading a book, actually, than watching a piece of theater because you’re taking in the information that is being given, but you’re also filling in the blanks and always revising your thoughts and opinions about what is happening and the characters, like you are in a book, as you get more information. That’s kind of the avenue that I’ve taken lately is this very imaginative theatre, and I am really jazzed about that. I’m most proud of those projects.

Who is your favorite character in the show aside from your own?

The old knitting lady. I thought that was the best joke in the whole night. “I’m going to turn this string into a sweater through the power of crocheting,” and the silence. That was beautiful. Reading it on the page, I laughed out loud. That is a great joke, and the clicking of the needles. Ah, man. Great joke. Both my favorite character and favorite moment.

Coming back to serialized storytelling, From Cold Lake is being produced at the PIT. Similarly, there has been a lot of other serialized storytelling like Kapow-i GoGo. Do you ever see that sort of storytelling moving to a bigger venue? They tested the waters a little bit on Broadway with Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2, but it really hasn’t – and I don’t know if it is the expense of it.

Yeah, probably the expense. It will be interesting to see how Harry Potter and the Cursed Child does here. I’m sure it’s doing fine there. Yeah, I don’t know. Theatre, it’s a harder platform to serialize things, it’s true. I would gather it’s probably just logistics and expense. With a TV show, you can get people to sign on for six weeks or eight weeks to shoot the thing and then they all go their separate ways, but theatre, the physical nature where you have to be in the room, it makes it hard.

I hadn’t even thought about Harry Potter.

But serialized, I don’t know. It’s two plays. If it was like four plays, maybe that would be a better comparison.

If you lived in Cold Lake, would you rather be the town poet laureate, a general with the local war reenactors, or a fisherman who lost his thumb catching the biggest fish anyone’s ever seen?

I mean, the fisherman, I guess? That’s who I was. That’s who I am. I lost a thumb, but I gained a mission, to catch the big one.

What would be your secret talent at the Cold Lake open mic night?

You know, I could do that missing thumb trick but actually do it, you know? But I would actually not have my thumb, so…

But you’d have to have everyone come gather around super close…

I don’t imagine the open mic night being a huge venue hall. I imagined it being a little tackle shop. It’s the kind of show where you could go, “Oh, you can’t see it? I’ll just come off-stage and do it right in your face.” What is that trick called, the I-don’t-have-a-thumb trick or my-thumb-is-detached?

I think it’s in the same category as there’s-something-behind-your-ear.

Right, right, and I wouldn’t have a thumb.

What other projects do you have coming up?

Well, we’re doing this unnamed holiday movie parody in December, so we’re already working on that. We’re looking to do a lot of puppets and live projections, filming miniatures and projecting them, so we’re really having to do a lot of development on that kind of stuff because we don’t know how to do those things and have no business doing those things, and that is exactly why we wanted to do it. So we’re learning a lot right now about puppets and technology. We’re in early stages of development on the next mime show that goes up in February. Those two companies keep me pretty busy.

Last question, what sort of person do you think would get a lot out of From Cold Lake, as an audience member?

I mean, anyone who moved here but has a love for the slow pace, you know? For me, it’s that dryness, it’s that sense of humor. I think some people listen to Garrison Keillor and are like, ehh, you know, it’s not their cup of tea or whatever, but if you like that dry, slow sense of humor, the slow pace, the small town, I think you’ll dig it. And NPR. If you like NPR, you’ll love it, and if you have a penchant for nostalgia or if you loved Kapow-i and those other projects…

Or if you like live music.

Oh my god, I’ve had those songs stuck in my head for two weeks now. It’s great. I can’t wait to hear what they come up with for the next episode.

Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.

Thank you.

Tickets are on sale now for From Cold Lake at the PIT Loft, located at 154 West 29th Street, and can be purchased online at ThePIT-NYC.com. Individual performances are $10 each or $45 for the entire run. For other questions or assistance with ticket purchases, call the PIT at 212-563-7488.

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