Perfect Expression

Erik Ehn on Making Big, Cheap Theatre With Frontera

Be careful what you ask for. At last year's RAT Conference in Seattle, where artists from independent theatres throughout the U.S. gathered to talk about their work and working together, Austin actor Jason Phelps asked Erik Ehn, San Francisco playwright and driving force in the RAT movement, when he was going to write a play for Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre (F@HPT). "I'd like to do that," Ehn replied.

Now, he has, and the result is the most ambitious project that Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre has undertaken, developed through its most complex creative process to date. The script was not written solely by Ehn but in collaboration with the F@HPT company, involving contributions by several writers over many months. It's been worked on in homes across the country, workshopped in Austin, ultimately assembled by Ehn, and staged cooperatively by F@HPT Artistic Director Vicky Boone and company member Margery Segal. As it's grown, the project has had a whirlpool effect, sucking in Kristen Kosmas, Seattle-based performance artist (slip); Lisa D'Amour, Michener Fellowship recipient and playwright (The Shape of Air, the upcoming solo piece Oscar Snowden and the Magic O); and Shoshana Gold, local actor (Quilters) and director (3am); as well as F@HPT company members Phelps, Megan Monaghan, Daniel Alexander Jones, and Brad Wilson. The script has been through a variety of names and structures. In its current form, which includes a fake French opera and a movement chorus, it is titled Enfants Perdus.

The logistics involved in staging Enfants Perdus are intense. Lighting and sound equipment have had to be moved outside of Hyde Park Theatre and onto scaffolding that now surrounds the building. The movement "overture" takes place along 43rd Street and in the parking lot of The Movie Store, across from the theatre. The audience has to be moved literally from one scene to the next, forced to traipse through alleys and back doors. All this presents nightmares for the production crew and stage manager. I know because I am the stage manager and I am indeed having nightmares.

But this complexity also offers a kind of grand theatrical gesture born of a diverse sharing of ideas. In this, Enfants Perdus embodies the tenets of the RATs, the loose collection of small theatres devoted to producing bold work on the cheap. "The intention," wrote Ehn in Yale's Theater magazine after the first RAT conference in eastern Iowa, is "to assemble like-minded theatre workers who labor outside or at odds with the mainstream in order to create mechanisms for communication, establish a collective identity, and exchange work and ways of working."

If collaboration is the first rule of RAT, "big cheap theatre" is the second. I got together with Ehn to talk about what the second rule means and how Enfants Perdus fits the RAT model.

Austin Chronicle: So what is "big, cheap theatre"? Why should one aspire to do it?

Erik Ehn: First of all, it's nothing new. I think it's theatre's native impulse to have a pure and significant effect that overreaches any material capability. As I understand it -- and this borrows from Katherine Owens up at the Undermain Theatre in Dallas -- it's unstoppable theatre. That's what the "big" part means, and that's what the "cheap" part means as well. It depends on brio and specificity and absolute conviction. There are devices that make big effects possible on the cheap, like a shifting scale or a metaphor or a part of the whole. But the indispensible element is conviction. So a peanut shell becomes a rowboat because the actor is convinced it's a rowboat.

I think we're coming to a curve in theatre history where we're actually getting left with small, expensive theatre. If you go that road, if you go big and want to solve bigness with expense, you'll just get diminishing returns until you're struggling to fill your season out with two- and three-character plays, cast with a TV star.

Big, cheap theatre is not a celebration of amateurism, and it's not a celebration of poverty. It's really advocacy for perfect expression. In big, expensive theatre, expertise can shift away from artistry and into really splendid but sometimes purely technical accomplishments. So, if you want a wall to come down, you build a wall and bring it down pneumatically rather than re-inventing what a wall might be. The danger also in solving a problem with money is that you can disassociate the effect from the actor's will, so that the actor may or may not be convinced that the wall is coming down, but you press the button and the wall will come down. In big, cheap theatre, the wall won't come down until the actor says it comes down.

AC: Is that your motivation for writing the stage directions that you do, like "the pieces of lightning assemble to form a skeleton with the head of a hungry wolf"? To create something that really can't be constructed on a limited or non-existent budget and must be believed by the actor to make it work?

EE: I'm promoting a sense of generosity. I want the actors to be all over the audience. I want them to have to throw themselves into the audience without reservation. I want big things to happen between the actors and the audience. So I describe big events in the stage directions.

AC: How does that apply to your phrase "real, no bullshit"? It has become a mantra for the cast.

EE: I imagine the importance of that first occurred to me when I was directing [Sam Shepard's] The Tooth of Crime years ago. There is a stage direction in it that says one of the characters is supposed to blow his brains out. After all of the high style of the play, all the lingo and the types, Shepard says that it all comes down to the raw courage of the actor. The effect of having his brains blown out is not an explosive charge in a tube; it's fearless literalism on the part of the performer.

For a fairy tale to work or for a dream to work or for the I Ching to work, images have to stay with the literal. A book or a coffee cup or a stick has to be exactly itself and put to very practical use. And then metaphor is sparked out of that. I hate pretending and I hate make-believe. One should actually cause a specific effect in order to create poetry. If a stage direction calls for a sea voyage, the way to get to a sea voyage is not to come at it through pretending to be at sea. You come at it by actually displacing your gravity, for example. That's what the root of a sea experience is. If you have to kill someone or strip someone of authority, you don't pretend to be all worked up or pretend to be angry, you may actually violate the actor's space or take a pen out of the person's pocket, thieve something from the person. It's the small actions performed acutely so a larger meaning can come forward.

AC: What's the larger meaning in Enfants Perdus?

EE: It finds my heart by two roads. One is the cooperative experience of the formal consideration: working with so many fine writers and finding a way to move forward with them. I suppose you could say it's like a family vacation where I'm driving the car. But the character of a family vacation isn't the driver's experience; it's the whole-family-throwin'-the chili-dog-around-the-Scout experience.

I typed and take a kind of formal responsibility for managing the text, but it's been very meaningful to work with and for the people who have come together [on the F@HPT project]. So, there's that -- the formal meaning.

And then, in terms of an emotional connection to the story of the play,... I've been absorbed by thoughts of finality lately. The 1900s are about to close down, but that's kind of obvious. More personally, I have in my head a picture of my father, who was a graphic designer in Oklahoma. When he came up, he was using X-acto knives and wax, cutting tiny pieces of the alphabet out and pasting them down by hand. I don't know when exactly, but about 10 years ago, it's as if a great storm came up and blew all his tools away. His entire way of working, the knowledge of his hands, was taken away from him. His nerves were snipped. He went on to learn computers, but it was like taking on someone else's biography.

I feel the same thing has happened in theatre, in a way. I grew up with a certain expectation of what it was to make theatre or to interpret a play. I think theatre is being made new ways and interpreted new ways. I don't want to be caught by surprise in the storm. As I said before, if I'm not careful with my art, I'll disassociate from it and get blown away.

AC: What are the new ways that theatre is being made? Where is the storm?

EE: In schools, theatre is often taught by English teachers who read plays as if they were novels, which misses the essence of what a play is. I think a literary approach to theatre is ebbing. I think theatre was attached strongly to personality for a long time. Individuals felt entitled to remove themselves, to achieve as individuals. This is true, I think, of actors, writers, and artistic directors. But theatre is stripped of a lot of its wealth and will no longer allow individuals to concentrate capital -- aesthetic capital or actual capital. So theatre is becoming more collaborative. I think we've learned to distrust language at large, and I think movement, rhythm, is informing theatre in new ways. So the words are all out there; we just haven't learned how to put them together in interdisciplinary, inter-whatever, ways.

That's actually pretty backward, looking at language. "Inter" implies that things are separate and need to be brought together. The next step is to find terms for our art that are unique, so that it is not a combination; it's an actual cake.

AC: So, has the process for Enfants Perdus been successful, or do you think about it in those terms?
EE: Well, I always think in terms of success. I never set out to blow it. I think the project succeeds, from my point of view.

There was that struggle around issues of ownership that came on early for me, but everyone involved is so civil and articulate that I think I came close to accomplishing the kind of release that I hoped I would get to. It might be easier as a writer, especially a writer who is 1,500 miles away, to get over some of these things without meditating up on a mountain somewhere. So I can't speak for anyone else. Personally, I've had a great time. I can't wait to work with Frontera again. I think Vicky is a strong director. Margery is a gifted dancer. This project took on a kind of process that was natural to its impulses. I think it's also a process that can be duplicated down the road. We discovered this process; maybe this process now can be the cause of another project, this collaborative chivalry here. n Enfants Perdus runs Oct 11-Nov 2 at Hyde Park Theatre. Oscar Snowden and the Magic O runs Oct 18-26 at HPT.

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