It Was a Very Good Year

Jason Phelps on 12 Months of Exceptional Stage Projects

photograph by Bret Brookshire

Some years in a life stand out from the rest. They may be distinguished by some monumental change that alters one's path in life: a shift in careers, a move to a new city, a wedding. Or they may be marked by an especially vivid experience that sticks in the memory, say, a holiday or romance, or, in a less glossy vein, an extended illness. Or they may be blessed with a succession of exceptional events that challenge and stimulate and fulfill one to the core of one's being.

This last is the kind of year that Jason Phelps has been having, and it does stand out from the others in his three decades of living. For in one crowded twelvemonth, the versatile theatre artist has created two solo performance pieces of his very own, taken one of them to New York and presented it in a festival of new works, worked with a New York performance company on a stylized movement project, studied with one of the country's leading contemporary dance companies there, taken a leading role in the highly anticipated local production of Angels in America, spent a month in Woodstock collaborating with a New York composer on a series of improvisational sound pieces, and come back to Austin to tackle the starring role in a challenging new solo piece by an award-winning contemporary dramatist. It's a year that would be extraordinary enough for most artists just for the amount of work in it. But it was equally extraordinary for its diversity, in terms of both the work — dance, music, drama, scripted work and improvised, stylized and naturalistic — and where it took Phelps: from his home space in Austin's tiny Hyde Park Theatre, where he has been a member of the Frontera company for six years, specializing in edgy, non-traditional performance, to the larger and more mainstream environs of the Zachary Scott Theatre Center to that mecca for this country's theatre and dance artists, New York City. It was work that demanded much of Phelps, that consistently pushed him to draw on all his skills as an actor and a mover, that frequently expanded his concept of what makes theatre and what he can do in it, and that occasionally exploded his preconceptions about the people who make and attend theatre in this city.

Such a year is bound to leave the person who experiences it with new stories, new realizations, perhaps even new insights. Phelps took time out from his work on the Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre production of David Hancock's Race of the Ark Tattoo — opening this weekend at Hyde Park — to let us in on a few of his thoughts and experiences from this rare and wonderful period in his life.

Austin Chronicle:Chart for me where you were a year ago and where you are now.

Jason Phelps: A year ago this month I did my solo show, Aria Inertia, at Hyde Park Theatre. That was a first for me, in that I presented my first full theatrical vision, blending text and movement and sound design and visual design. Then I took that to New York and did it, and while I was there was cast in a show, which was a total blend of the dance work and the theatre work I've done but in a totally different way than I've ever worked in; it was very structured, very stylized. Then I met Walter Thompson and started doing Sound Paintings. Then I worked with Meredith Monk's company for two weeks, which took me to a whole other world, opening me up as far as movement work and voice work, broadening my vision of the body and voice as landscape. Those experiences were amazing. Then I came back to Austin and created a piece for FronteraFest, which was influenced by all of that, and just kept going. Things have just been going, going, nonstop.

In a way, I was really excited about doing Angels in America because I knew it was a set thing, I could invest in a character that was essentially already written and what I had to do was just bring myself to the play. I had been doing all this texture work — with movement, with voice, with visual design and music — so to go into a play where the focus was emotional and essentially talking and listening was interesting for me. It was great to come back to that essential part as an actor.

And to shift into that world and have all the excitement from the cast and the community behind you felt very comforting. So I felt safe. But at the same time, I knew that personally I was taking a huge risk, because I had very limited experience with people with AIDS. So having to invest that part of myself into [playing Prior] was a huge emotional jump for me that some nights really overwhelmed me. There was one night that I felt completely abandoned and alone during the play. It really scared me. There was just something so real about My lover's leaving me and I'm gonna die. It hit me very hard. Very hard. Luckily, I was able to pull myself out of it. But to have that experience and to feel the response from the audience and the community afterward was amazing. At another level, I felt supported even more.

May 31st, I put Prior on the shelf, I got on a plane, and I went to New York. Then, for a month, I worked on Sound Paintings, which is a totally different head space because it's improvisational. It's creating a whole other language that's musical. And while I'm there, in the back of my mind I know that I have to memorize a huge amount of text [for Race of the Ark Tattoo]. And the main character in that is interestingly similar to Prior for me. Foster is struggling to figure out who he is, to remember who he is and put together his past. Prior isn't actively putting together his past, but he's definitely looking at it, looking at who he is, looking at how this affects his life and what it means to his world and everything that affects his world. I strongly believe that every role, every character, every piece that I've ever done is a reflection of who I am and what I have in me. I'm doing these plays for a reason. When there is time for me to reflect on my own life, I certainly feel like I'm looking at where I am and where I came from and where I'm going. I'm definitely on some journey.

AC:Last year before Aria Inertia, I remember you talking about doing more movement work and less traditional theatre. Your relationship with Frontera had shifted. You were no longer doing two of every three Frontera productions the way you once had. What was the impetus for doing Aria Inertia?

JP: I think a real desire — need — to express myself beyond words and to be able to express various levels of emotion or conflicts through the body. In college in Boston, one of my most vivid experiences was seeing a Butoh company perform; it totally blew my idea of what theatre was out of the water. There were no words and yet there was an ensemble of performers creating visual and physical images that had an incredible effect on me. And the Wooster Group came to MIT and did a performance, and so much of their stuff was the physical relationship that the performers had with each other and having text be like background. I remember Ron Vawter had a microphone and was right in front of the audience, but he was like mumbling into the mike; you could barely understand what he was saying, but it became a whole other texture within the piece.

The writers that we've been working with at Frontera, writers like Erik Ehn and Daniel Jones and David Hancock, so much of their writing — it's beyond the words. It becomes landscape. It becomes like a physical sensation. And a huge influence on me was the Deborah Hay workshop I took in 1993. Usually, she has a large group, but that year there were only seven of us. That experience completely changed my seeing and thinking of what theatre was. Because I then knew that I could translate feelings or words through my body, from the most minuscule movement to the largest one, that that has volumes of words in it.

All of those things definitely informed where I wanted to go with theatre and with dance, and I wanted to put that into Aria Inertia.

AC: Did your experience with it take you where you hoped to go?

JP: Yeah. For that particular piece, it was a great success. The subject matter is incredibly personal, and I wanted to create a world where the lines were blurred. I mean, I didn't want it to be just me doing a piece about my schizophrenic brother. I really wanted to create an environment where there's a line between my perspective on my brother, his experience, and then our collective experience of our childhood. I felt like it was successful in creating an environment where aurally, visually, and physically sometimes it got scary, other times it was hilarious, and other times there was a real deep emotional connection to that world. It was a great experience for me to do all that on my own. I learned an incredible amount, especially about staging, about how to structure a piece so that the audience is invited in and then held for a while, and how to have a payoff, some kind of release. That experience was invaluable.

AC: When you finished Aria Inertia, did you sense that you had left traditional theatre behind?

JP: I did, actually. I had felt like what might happen was that I would make this piece for myself and it would be a vehicle for me. And I took it to New York. Unfortunately, I only did it one night in New York, but the experience of doing it that one night in the festival at HERE was great and I got some incredible feedback from it. But I did feel like, Well, I won't be doing traditional plays anymore. And that was confirmed when I got cast in Mad Shadows in New York. I had heard this company was adapting a novel, making a very stylized movement piece that had live music. I thought, Well, this is perfect. I'm gonna go right into this and this is the kind of work I'm gonna do. Well, you know, then I came back to Austin and I was like, It's a struggle to do that kind of work here. It really is. Deborah Hay is a prime example. Deborah makes her own work with her own aesthetic, and she's been doing it for a long time, but people in Austin are still not acclimated to that world, to that language.

AC:She's that avant garde —

JP: She's that avant-garde hipster person! Margery [Segal, choreographer-performer and fellow Frontera company member] struggles with this, too. So I thought, I need to do a big play. In Austin. I'd never read Angels in America. I just knew all the hype about it, and because of that, I had avoided it. But then I read it, and I was like, Wow, this is an amazing script. This script is really thoughtful and even though it's kind of dated, it needs to be done. I should do this play. It would be great for me. It's the biggest theatre in Austin. It would be the biggest role I've ever done.

AC:You've worked mostly with Frontera and small companies in that Big Cheap Theatre aesthetic. Did you have any concerns about going into an established house with a subscription season?

JP: Honestly, I did. It was a little intimidating. I didn't know Dave [Steakley, Zach Scott artistic director and director of Angels in America] except from the community. But because of Dave's honesty about why he wanted to do this play and because he acknowledged so openly the risk for him in doing this play, I felt safe enough to enter that world. I knew I could take risks, that I could go to a deeper level with my acting. I also knew that because of the nature of the material in the play that it would attract people who are curious. I was worried that the Zach Scott subscription folks would maybe turn away from the material. But on the contrary, they embraced it, and that was very exciting.

I also was excited because I have a real desire to do plays in big theatres. In college, our university was connected to the Huntington Theatre, which is a huge theatre. I did Guys and Dolls on that stage. I did King Lear on that stage. So I'm hungry for that. I'm dying to do a show at the Paramount. Just dying to. So I was very excited about going into a house that was like a real theatre house.

AC:And an audience that was different — maybe not completely different because there is crossover among the smaller and bigger houses in town — but an audience with a lot of people that have not gone into Hyde Park Theatre or the Planet.

JP: I hope those people come to see Race, too. I hope the people who came to see that show will take the risk and come to see me do something else and to see another kind of work that exists in this town. The fact that both these plays are being done is, I think, a great thing about Austin — that these different kinds of theatre can exist together in the same town.

AC: Did working at Zach give you any new insights into the Austin theatre community?

photograph by Bret Brookshire

JP: Definitely. To be very, very honest, I feel like people come to Zach Scott to be entertained, and Zach definitely caters to that. In a way, that's inviting; it acknowledges that that exists in the world. It's not always going to make you think really hard, but it's going to give you an experience where you can enjoy yourself. Five years ago, I would have been incredibly cynical and rebellious about that whole mentality, but [working at Zach] gave me another perspective on theatre and audiences and what audiences expect from plays — why they go, why they even go to the theatre. I know that there's probably personal, behind-the-scenes crap that goes on at Zach, like at every theatre, but I got the sense that people were excited about the work they do there. I honestly felt that way. It's hard work and it's grueling and people work all the time, but it looked fun.

I was incredibly jealous. Everyone has their own office, everyone has a computer in their office, and that does not exist in the world of theatre that I'm doing. They have a history of people that support the kind of work they do and will continue to support that. I feel like where I am and the work that I'm doing, I'm just starting to figure out who that audience is and how to familiarize them with the kind of work that Frontera does. And it feels like everyone else like us — Rude Mechanicals, Salvage Vanguard, Physical Plant, VORTEX — they're all doing that, too. Who do we make work for? Who is our audience? How do we connect with the community? Probably because Zach has been around, their attention to that is there. It's very present. But it did break down a big wall for me, thinking that Zach is just a big musical theatre theatre. Dave does a lot of work there, and his vision of what that place is ... I think if he had his way, he'd do more plays like Angels.

AC: Are you looking forward to going back for Angels, Part Two: Perestroika?

JP: I am. I'm a little nervous because I start rehearsals while Race is in performance. So balancing those two worlds is going to be tricky. I've never, ever had to do anything like that. But I'm excited because Perestroika is a different beast than Millennium Approaches, especially where Prior is. He goes into a whole different world of acceptance, of anger. In some twisted way, I think Race is going to help feed that next journey. I can't stress enough how exciting it is to go back and know that we have the same cast.

AC: Is it a group that you feel safe going on that journey with?

JP: Absolutely. Having gone through the whole experience of Millennium, especially having gone through the experience of losing David [Mark Cohen, the production dramaturg, who died before rehearsals began], that journey has brought us together and then some. And I think it helps focus us, helps us on our way.

AC: But right now, you're going back to Hyde Park. It isn't as if you've ever divorced yourself from Frontera, but after your extended and very liberating experiences in New York and at Zach, does Race feel in any way like a homecoming?

JP: That's a good question. I would have to say yes, because I feel like in creating my favorite plays with Frontera and with Vicky [Boone, Frontera artistic director] — The Water Principle, Weldon Rising, The Swan, and Enfants Perdus — we were able to create a whole world, a whole different world. We were able to transform the theatre. And that is really what's underneath this play. How do people transform? The theatre is gonna look totally different. Our rehearsal every day is divided into two hours of movement work, then three hours of text work and incorporating all of that together. In some ways, I feel like Vicky and I are bringing everything — all the experiences that have happened to us over the years — into this piece. So this is like the essential Frontera production.

AC: I think of Frontera as being a transforming force in Austin theatre, in the way the work is made, in the concerns that the work addresses, in its evolution as a company, in its hospitality. And people have responded to that. The company has grown dramatically. FronteraFest has grown. It looks to me like audiences are growing for some if not all productions. And national attention is being paid, in terms of grants and the interest of artists from much larger cities who could ignore a city like Austin if they wanted to. Do you consider yourself part of the force that helped make that happen?

JP: I definitely do. There's a real focus to this kind of work and a quality to the work that is very important. If there are things that we're going to explore, experiment with, they're done in a way where the quality isn't sacrificed. And I do feel proud of that. I feel very proud of that. I haven't loved everything we've done, but in each production that we've done, there has been a different risk taken and taken fully, and I'm proud of that. That's the way theatre keeps evolving, keeps growing, keeps expanding.

And companies are doing that here. It's pretty amazing. Physical Plant — each show is vastly different. There's an essential quality there, of course, of play. Salvage has an essential quality to their work, but the way that they explore that work is different each production. With the Rude Mechanicals, same thing. I think challenging your own company, your own vision, is a good thing, constantly putting new ideas, new risks into each production that you do is great, and Austin is a great place for that because there is a lot of support. It's a pretty safe place to learn from your mistakes, and that's incredibly valuable. I think when people come to do theatre here from other parts of the country, they are aware of that in the audience. Audiences are curious here, it feels to me. You said you feel the audiences have grown. Maybe they have, I'm a little cynical about that. I wish more people came. Always. But I definitely feel a response from the audience that acknowledges the work being done. And that means it's having an effect, which is great.

My big thing right now is that all this exciting work is happening, but where is it going? For Austin? What's the next level, the next step for the Austin theatre community? Because it's going to need to go somewhere soon. It's going to need to take a step up to that next level, to the level of a Walker Arts Center, where the work is acknowledged by the artists and the community, and it's supported, continually supported. And it continually attracts people from the outside to feed the homegrown beast.

AC: Got any bright ideas about how that should be accomplished?

JP: I've been very excited by this Palmer Auditorium thing. There are a lot of cooks in this particular pot, it seems, trying to solve a lot of problems for the whole city. The simple goal from a Frontera point of view is to have a bigger space, a two- to three-hundred seat, very flexible open space that has a wood floor where you can do dance, theatre, music, film, like a Walker or like the Kitchen in New York. I do believe Frontera's gonna get there. It's just gonna take a little bit more work. A little more solidifying the administrative and the public foundations.

AC: So after this year, do you feel like you're in a completely different place than before Aria Inertia?

photograph by Bret Brookshire

JP: I am in a different place. I'm talking about this next level for Austin theatre, and personally, I need to go to the next level. I haven't done a film yet and I need to do a film. I find it kind of insane that I haven't done a film yet, especially here in Austin. But people come here from L.A. or other places to do features, and they're looking for a very specific down-home kind of person for their feature that personifies something about Texas, and I don't really fit into that. And there are all these low-budget independent shorts or video or films that are done here, too, but because I'm so much in the theatre/performance community, I haven't had the time to meet those people and make those kinds of contacts. And there's not a whole lot of crossover in those audiences. Not a whole lot of people who make films come to the theatre, which I think is pretty unfortunate. So I don't know how this going to happen, getting to this next level, but I feel like next year something needs to happen, and it may be outside Austin.

AC: You started down that road this past year in a significant way with your ventures into New York. Do you feel there is more of that in your future, being an artist who may call Austin home but is developing a national base for your work?

JP: I don't know. Right now for me, the home that I call Austin is rooted in Frontera. I think that home is the place where I feel the most comfortable creatively. So my sense of home may change. There are certainly a number of attractive things about New York that I could involve myself in. And there's the theatre community in Minneapolis. I don't how this is going to happen but I would like to make myself available to those homes, to those places where the theatre community is supported, but also where there is the potential for film work, for other kinds of acting work. Because I'm not ready to be a teacher at a university yet.

AC:Is it hard for you to believe that you've lived in Austin for six years?

JP: It is hard. I've never lived in a place: a) where I consistently worked so hard, like nonstop; and b) that as a city has developed so fast. It's kind of scary the way it's grown so fast here. But it feels pretty inevitable, too.

AC:Sounds like this last year has been almost like five years, in terms of growth.

JP: It has, it really has. I've never really thought about my age before, and I'm thinking about it now and I'm thinking about how much I have done in a short amount of time. I wouldn't trade it in for anything.

Race of the Ark Tattoo runs Aug 7-29 at Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd. Call 454-TIXS for info.

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