Paper Chairs Makes Theatre With a Little Lone Star Surregionalism
The Texas premiere of Will Arbery's Plano play knows place like home
It could be that you don't realize it yet, citizen, but there's something about Plano that's definitely fucked up.
In considering the Paper Chairs-presented Texas premiere of the new Will Arbery play called Plano, we should note that "fucked up" isn't referring to any flaw in the show's production. Dustin Wills didn't jet back from New York to direct this work only to botch the whole deal; Elizabeth Doss, Heather Hanna, Hannah Kenah, and the rest of the cast haven't rehearsed endlessly in order to make themselves look bad; and Lisa Laratta, Iman Corbani, and Miriam Alexander didn't toil away to create the various components of design just for the set, the costumes, the lighting to fall to shambles shortly after the curtain rises.
No, we mean that the play itself is about showing you just how fucked up Plano, the Texas city a ways northeast of here, can be.
Although, maybe, as the company's own notes suggest, this Plano is also more of a state of mind. And if Billy Joel suddenly appeared in a suit of blue velvet and started singing that idea to us, well, that would seem 1) downright Lynchian, and 2) nicely in sync with this new show at Ground Floor Theatre – and with the company's concept of "surregionalism."
From the Plano promotional dispatch: "Three sisters are each suffering from strange household plagues. The men in their lives keep disappearing or doubling; time keeps leapfrogging; and the slugs just won't go away."
People always ask writers where they get their crazy ideas. We asked Paper Chairs' co-founder Wills where he discovered this crazed gem of a script.
"I was reading plays for Page 73 in New York," says Wills. "And people submit 10-page samples, and I read these 10 pages by Will Arbery, and I was like, I NEED TO READ THE REST OF THIS PLAY. And I did, and then I asked Page 73's artistic director, 'Am I allowed to just reach out to this writer? Outside of this process?' And I was told, sure, just don't promise him that he's going to get anything. So I met with Arbery and learned that he was from outside of Dallas and he'd been through Austin a few times because his sister lives in San Antonio. And he'd been working on Plano for the past two years, and it's a bit of a love letter to his sisters – and it's a sort of scary kidnapping-ransom-note to Texas at the same time. He developed it with Clubbed Thumb, and when I finally saw it, I immediately wanted to do the Texas premiere. Arbery makes everything very strange and surreal, the kind of David Lynch, suburban, you know: bug-zappers, the shadows on a long street, and all that. There's a tactileness to it. He makes Dallas – and, via Dallas, Plano – and, via Plano, Texas – and, via Texas, the metaphysical state of humanity – he makes it specific and yet strange and weird and deadly. And also capable of so much ... light."
A bit of light is what we're going to shed on this company here, because a summary, an appreciation, is somewhat overdue: Paper Chairs has been producing original and compellingly unusual theatre in this town for 10 years. In 2009, director Wills and scenic designer Lisa Laratta, who had been working together as part of Austin's Tutto Theatre, split from that troupe and joined forces with local actor Elizabeth Doss to stage Doss' debut script Murder Ballad Murder Mystery at the Vortex. That musical and deeply Texalicious show generated a small riot of positive response, critically and popularly, maybe in part because some folks in the community were like, "Whoa, who knew that that pretty blond ingenue of an actress could write so damned well?"
Then, as the rest of us were still recovering from the sundering of our idiot assumptions, the newly dedicated Paper Chairs brought Sophie Treadwell's Machinal and Bertolt Brecht's Baal to the stage, before treating the city to the Murder Ballad follow-up, Hillcountry Underbelly – another Doss-scripted show that, just as its predecessor, boasted an original score by Mark Stewart. That was followed lickety-split by the Hank Schwemmer showcase Woodwork ("We wanted to call that one Hanks for the Schwemmeries," notes Doss dryly, "but Hank wouldn't let us."), the Jason Tremblay dance-inspired freakery of Boom for Real, and Art Show/Model Show that merged theatre with visual arts. By that time, it was Wills, Laratta, Doss and newcomer Keri Boyd who were running things and staging shows in whatever venues they could get.
There have been more productions since then, of course – most of them written or adapted by Doss, who's even leveraged her heritage as a great-great-great-grandchild of Herman Melville for a couple of scripts and who's directed more often since Wills left for New York and Boyd left for Chicago – and, ah, you can visit the company's website to scope the entire portfolio, right? To see the digitized proof of Paper Chairs' relentless pushing of Austin's theatrical envelope into areas of greater community inclusion, casting-wise, and more successful experimentation, staging-wise? Let us, in our remaining space, check that company-minted concept of "surregionalism" and how it might relate to the current show.
"'Surregionalism' was one of the things we talked about when Paper Chairs was first starting out," says Doss. "It's a term we play with, this idea that the place you're in, this very specific time and place, can be hyper-surreal – and how we could incorporate that sense into our shows. And now, 10 years later, Plano is a completely different version of that aesthetic – but it's totally surregionalism."
"It's totally surregionalism," agrees Wills. "And, OK, I know I'm speaking a little vaguely, but I think Plano also – I think it values language."
"It's a difficult play to describe," says Doss.
"I'm gonna list off qualities of the play that are also qualities that Paper Chairs has," says Wills. "It's language-forward. It's surreal. It disrupts conventional narrative and audience interaction. It's funny."
"Honestly," says Doss, "I didn't know how to read it, the first time I tried. Because not only is it language-forward, it's rhythm-forward. Which makes me think about [Federico García] Lorca – because Paper Chairs has a little Lorca obsession going – and Lorca said something like, 'Theatre is primarily a medium of rhythm.' That's the most important thing in theatre, even though we want to privilege other things and say that it's story or a sympathetic protagonist or whatever. But Lorca believed that rhythm is the fundamental thing that drives theatre – and this play is an incredible example of that idea."
Plano, by Paper Chairs, continues through Sept. 28, Wed.-Sun., 8pm, at Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale #122. For more information, visit www.paperchairs.com.