October 3rd, 2006
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I did a few interviews with the actors and actresses of the 2006 Wunderkammer. I plan to post them all here, soon.
On October 3rd of 2006 I interviewed Martha Mendenhall about the Wunderkammer (the great theater production she helped organize, which ran in Charlottesville in July and August of 2006). Lark Davis then transcribed the interview and gave it a first edit. We hope to eventually publish interviews with each of the core team of the Wunderkammer. Below is the transcript of the interview with Martha Mendenhall.
L: So let me start by saying, I was tremendously impressed by the Wunderkammer. It seems many people in town were.
M: Well, people responded really kind of amazingly favorably. I mean we just had no idea what we were offering, we just wanted to offer it. So it was a huge success. I think there’s no real way to know why. I mean I don’t think there ever really is with performance to know why something captures people’s attention. It just does, you’re grateful if it does.
L: I’ve known people who’ve been involved with Live Arts for a while and to the best of my knowledge it was the first time that a show didn’t sell out the first night but then I believe it sold out every single night afterwards.
M: Second night was not sold out either. The first weekend we had a lot of comp tickets that we had so that makes judging that kind of confusing. By Sunday of the first weekend we had people we turned away but we also had quite a number of tickets that we had already promised as comp tickets because we didn’t know what the audience size would be the first weekend. So that’s the way the first weekend worked but after that, yes, it was sold out.
L: I wanted to ask you about how that all came together when you came up with the idea, but I’m going to back up a little bit. You have been involved in the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express going back a long, long time, is that true?
M: I toured in 1994 with them.
L: What other theater productions did you do before this?
M: Well, mostly in Charlottesville; I helped found the theater company Foolery and we worked for a number of years, starting in 19… I guess it was 1997 when we went to Edinburgh with a show we created called Cyrano and we performed that first at New Works festival at Live Arts, then we went to Edinburgh and then we came back and continued to make theater, and I created my first performance that I directed, I also wrote and performed in it, and that was called Cesario. I did that in a warehouse in Waynesboro and then we did it also in Live Arts here, and then the company re-staged it without me a year later at the Norcross warehouse. But Foolery is actually where I’ve done most of my, sort of, development as a performer, writer and director.
L: You just mentioned Cyrano. You received the BBC Radio’s Most Innovative Show Award at the 1997 Fringe Festival in Scotland. Can I ask you… it says “Cyrano, an original clown show was nominated for the Total Theater Award for The Most Innovative International Production.” Can I ask you… I thought the Wunderkammer was innovative and apparently you’ve got a long history of being involved in innovative projects…
M: Well, that was actually the inaugural show of the company Foolery and it was sort of our dream. We had worked as performers with given text and we had all worked with Shakespeare before with Shenandoah Shakespeare, that was what we had in common – the founding members of Foolery. But Thadd McQuade, who was the artistic director of Foolery, and I both had an incredible love for silent comedy – for Chaplin and Keaton and a lot of these performers and a kind of Vaudevillian sort of approach to performance that you don’t see a lot in modern plays that are very text based. So we were trying to find a way to get away from text, in fact that show was a silent show, Cesario also, that I made, was a silent performance. We were, and I still am, interested in working physically and seeing what performance, from an acting perspective, not dance, what story can you tell? So looking at silent films was an inspiration for us and being inspired by other performers who kind of crossed the boundary. That Total Theater Award is actually… in Europe that’s an award for performances that are not text based but rather physically based. That’s a kind of theater that doesn’t really have a box it belongs in.
L: The emphasis there I guess is on using body language to be as expressive… ?
M: … to tell the story. Right, and the thing that begins to happen… a lot of the times when you begin to tell stories that way is that it’s less definitively clear to the audience. It’s much more up to the audience, the viewer, to ask what is that story because I’m not saying in words “this is what the story is” so it’s inferred by the action, you know…
L: Words can be a bit of a crutch…
M: They also limit an audience because we all have imagination – we all have the tendency when we see either a film or stage performance or dance or whatever it is we want to make story, our brains do that. In film too, the whole reason editing works is because we fill in the blanks. So what we wanted to see is to give the audience back that possibility, without telling a story by saying “this is what the story is.” But the other thing about Foolery, and definitely about my work is using pre-existing scripts and stories as foundations. Cyrano was based on Cyrano de Bergerac. That’s where the idea of the characters came from. We, of course, pulled out things that interested us and developed our own performance, but we were inspired by that work. We weren’t trying to make something up out of nothing. And Cesario, for me, came out of Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night,” and also when you saw the Loony Bin Tragedy, that came from the play Agamenon, by Aeschylus. There’s the desire to work and see what you can do physically and to use very good, rich, full stories that already exist because I just kind of believe that you can’t really make anything new up anyways, so why not steal from things that are already fabulous.
L: To steal from genius…
L: Speaking of the non-text, Zap McConnel had this tremendous quote that I really like. She said “I was in the theater department at the North Carolina School of Arts and I was watching actors and I didn’t believe a word of what they were saying because of their body movement. I switched to dance and fell in love with improvisation.” That’s a tremendous quote.
M: That’s true because even, and Zap is younger than I am, but it’s been a history that I know of, being an actor. I trained in New York too. Actors are trained in this country for film work, which means that your body is supposed to be out of the equation. I mean it’s not silent film anymore, though if you’re Jim Carrey of course it’s different, but mostly it’s subtle eye and face and tone of voice. So when you go to that kind of training, you’re not learning because on stage we see the whole thing and it’s all part of it. Actors are not being trained in that way and she’s right, you know, so this is another thing we were sort of rebelling against – we wanted to believe that an actors’ instrument is their whole body, not just your voice or what your expression is on your face.
L: You founded Foolery in 1997?
L: So what led to the formation of that? What were some of the events that led up to it?
M: The real impulse for the theater company was making a silent film called The Wine Maker. Thadd McQuade had an idea for that and we wanted to do it together and for whatever reason that I can’t remember now, it became a great idea for getting actors together for that to also work as a theater group, and so at the same time as he was developing The Wine Maker script and getting the actors together, we were also working on this theater performance project. So The Wine Maker was part of the Virginia Film Festival a number of years ago, 1999, I think.
L: Who was in Foolery in the beginning?
M: Well, there is no more Foolery, not actively- everyone’s gone on to other projects. Some of us that were part of Foolery’s core group are now a part or Performance Exchange Project. And other people are doing other things. John Harrell works at Shenandoah Shakespeare in Staunton, he’s a main stage performer, he has been for a number… for the past four years, he’s been there since they started.
L: How is the P.E.P. different from Foolery?
M: Performance Exchange Project came together not necessarily as a group to produce performance but rather to create a location and opportunity for exchange. Because we work in the way we do, and it is unusual, and it’s kind of few and far between in the States – most especially to work in performance acting the way we do – we wanted to facilitate a network of places and possibilities for people that understand and have commonality, in vocabulary and performance aesthetics I guess, to exchange. So…
L: That could in the end be a very ambitious role for the P.E.P…
M: Yes, we are also very curious about the possibility of being able to do that without it being exorbitantly expensive. So if we invite people, for example which we did the Dah Theater Company from Belgrade, Serbia, to come here and perform and offer workshops then we will host them, which means we put them in our homes and feed them and provide an experience where… because for performers if you tour, it’s just, it’s really tough. So to come here and to incur the expense of plane fares and all that was difficult. We helped a lot with their visas- they had to have travel visas, we did that work for them. We sponsored them. Live Arts helped, they were our co-presenter. And it was also something that was very successful. For me, that project was the first and only project of the Performers Exchange Project before the Wunderkammer. It really gave me the sense that it was possible to produce something. I only had thought of my work really before that as being an artist, as being an actor or director. And now I begin to think of the possibility of conceiving something from a much, I don’t want to say business-like, but there’s logistics, there’s administration, so to think about that part of it too. So Performers Exchange Project really gave me that little window opening into believing that Wunderkammer could be possible, because I understood that I could do these administrative things too, and actually you know… because it was a lot of work, it is difficult now in this country, trying to get a visas for anything is crazy, so that was Herculean in itself to do that, so we felt very proud of ourselves…
L: What year was that?
M: It was the summer of 2005
L: I see.
M: They came in September, and they were at Live Arts for three weeks. They performed for one weekend and had two weeks of workshops. That show sold out too. It was great, it was great and very successful and we a super time. And getting to know them better, you know, if you do that and bring artists then we got very close to them and now we’re in discussions about collaborating together on a performance project with them so… that’s great.
L: How was that connection initially made?
M: That was me. Foolery had had some incidental interactions with the Dah Theater, because one of their performers had gone for a very brief vocal workshop here to Charlottesville a number of years ago, maybe in 2000, I can’t remember what the year was… They have a summer training program and the very first summer they did that was the summer of 2003. It was very inexpensive because it’s Serbia, for one thing, and the dollar is like “wooh!”, so, the plane ticket was not inexpensive, but the workshop itself was, so I just… I was looking for some more training, especially vocal training, interested in making connections, so I went, and I was actually approached by another actress who was at the workshop, who began to work with them about hopefully helping them bring this show they had. So she contacted me and that’s what actually began the development of the Performers Exchange Project. A group of us decided we would like to help present them and so then we became Performers Exchange Project and developed our mission.
L: Is the Performers Exchange Project incorporated as a non-profit?
M: No. Neither was Foolery, No.
L: It’s just sort of a name to give a group of people who like working together something to go by?
M: Right, and we might at some point, I mean… I should backtrack. Foolery became non-profit and there’s a lot… . there’s a lot of odd and sometimes awkward memories I have around the decisions to do that and the things that had to be in place, so we’re kind of gun-shy about it, I mean… I think that that’s a natural progression but I wouldn’t want to… I want Performers Exchange Project to have time to develop it’s own identity before we solidify it in some way and we have this mission statement, we have these things we’ve done but I think it’s developing its sense of “what is it?,” what is it as an entity?
L: It needs to be organic an process…
M: Yes, so we have been very fortunate and very grateful to have the Living Education Center serve as our umbrella when we need one. It was the Wunderkammer’s umbrella. Ernie is very generous and that’s been great, so, we use that.
L: What, if you don’t mind me asking, were the positives and negatives about incorporating as a non-profit for Foolery?
M: You know, when Foolery incorporated by that time I had decided that I really was interested in more performance training and there’s a theater group in Washington DC that I trained with before I joined Foolery so I then made the choice to leave Foolery and go back to that training and to be working with those performers there. So I wasn’t around a lot but suddenly we had a business manager and there were all these business proposals and the company hadn’t ever really made choices, or we didn’t even have a set way we made choices about what we would perform or what the target audience was, or any of these kinds of things, and suddenly these things were before us, and I think it can be confusing when you’re an artist and also trying to be a business, even if it’s a non-profit business. How do you navigate that? So I’m trying to take that blending a little more slowly now and figure how it can blend in a natural way that feels comfortable and one thing is not rushing ahead or being pushed that way. They’re not easy bed-partners, I don’t think, business and art, so I think trying to make them that is a tender process, so take it slow.
L: Absolutely. Why did Foolery come to an end?
M: We found that we were being pulled in different directions. I mean, I think we thought of ourselves as a collaboration of people that may have had a lot of disparate points of view about performance already anyway and that our reasons to come together, you know, kind of hung together performance to performance. And everyone really just… some people began to do things like get married and have children which changed their perspective on what their time possibilities were, for example. Just a number of things kind of pulled it apart I think. Again with Performers Exchange Project, which is another reason I want to go slow, I think theater companies in general, it’s very unusual if a group of people come together as theater artists and then stay together, I just don’t think it’s very usual. An entity of a business might exist, but then the personnel probably changes quite a bit.
L: A little like any of the music bands here in town. They’re constantly forming and then breaking apart, and the same musicians will join first one grouping, and then another, and then another.
M: I think that there’s something about that. There’s something about artists… it’s a perfect analogy. You want to make music so you have to have band mates but at the same time you’re feeling very particular in yourself of what your journey is and so it’s hard to all be joining hands together doing the same thing.
L: For a year or two maybe, but not for four or five…
M: Yes, and Foolery was for like four, five years. I think it was plenty, I think it was lots and we all gained tremendous amounts. And again like I said, Jennifer, Kara, Doreen, somewhat, all Foolery people, and we’re together now for Performers Exchange Project so, you know, you evolve.
L: With all artists, at least for those who need to work in groups, you see that pattern of groups breaking up after awhile, the artists growing apart…
M: I think it’s hard.
L: You learn different things.
M: Yes, you do learn different things and you grow in different directions and you grow at different rates of desire for this or that other thing, so I think everyone has to have the freedom to follow where they need to go, and that means sometimes that you don’t stay together.
L: The Wunderkammer seemed like a tremendous undertaking. It seemed…
M: Actually, it’s funny how this came about. I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Thadd McQuade. We founded Foolery together. We made our own original performance called DirtNap, not really based on anything, maybe a huge mistake because it was a very difficult production and process, but anyway… when we were in Edinburgh with that show I was able to visit the famous Spiegel Tent, which was with the shows, but then some side shows around it, a beer garden, and in the middle of what is a huge event with lots of theater performance. Almost every building in Edinburgh is taken over by theater performance. It really felt like an oasis and it had a different quality to it – it had its own little quality and I like that very much – you can get overwhelmed and anesthetized all day with theater – even though they’re wonderful, great performances from all over the world – there’s some sameness to going into a theater and sitting in your seat and da da da… and again, because I think some of the similar initial impulses of Foolery- loving that old kind of Vaudeville… just the chicanery of sideshows, I love that too, that most of it is a scam- once you get inside, it’s not what you thought it was going to be. Anyway, so I really kind of held that idea and we were thinking for a while about remounting DirtNap and I was thinking of restaging it in that kind of environment, because I also love taking performance and putting it… making a play and putting it in a different context which makes the whole thing different anyway. That never happened with Dirtnap but I didn’t forget about that when I began to develop the Loony Bin Tragedy with Sian Richards. We were working together and for a while I was going to perform in it, but I realized that I was much more interested in really investigating the directing and writing aspects of it and then when Wunderkammer reared its head, the possibility, the producing, and I realized that this is my role in this. So anyway, it had been percolating for a while and Zap and I teach here, at the Learning Education Center. We’ve been constant artistic sounding boards for each other and also very supportive of each other’s work and we’ve always wanted to really work together and this was our moment.
L: How long have you known each other?
M: I started in 1997 and she started in 1998 or 1999, I can’t remember.
L: You met here at the Learning Education Center?
M: Yes, we both teach at the Living Education Center so we have followed each other’s artistic development through all those years but never really worked together and so this seemed to be our moment. Zap loved the idea, had also wanted to be involved in some kind of carnival production, and I thought it was a great container for this tiny, what I thought would be a tiny play. I was interested in that possibility, the play within a play kind of thing. So that’s really how it grew. Zap is really an incredible visionary and her latching onto everything from the name to the idea with such unabashed and unreserved commitment was really what helped make it go because there were plenty of other people around that were my colleagues that had a lot more suspicions about putting this play within the Wunderkammer, about the name, about the whole idea, and Zap was just my colleague from the start – that she just heard the idea and decided to run and for a long part of the development it was her leading the way, I mean, I felt like I offered the idea but then when it came to the actual initial… those stages of development that you feel like nothing is going to happen, you’re just turning, starting, really, it was her energy so much that got it going.
L: You’ve actually been to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival many times, is that right?
M: Twice. We went with Cyrano and then Thadd and I took Dirtnap.
L: And what year- that was 2004?
M: 2004, yes.
L: So that’s what initially put the idea in your head about …
M: The Spiegel Tent did, yes. I mean, again, I think that doing a performance inside a tent was something Foolery played around with a lot. Because of the whole sense of clowns, and where do you find clowns, and a venue that is less building structurally, I mean things like that were always percolating on the back burner.
L: Even though this play was obviously scripted, you obviously had a large influence for many years with the improvisational elements of acting, yes?
M: Improvisational in the sense that… I don’t work in a lot of ways that Zap and Kelly do in that you have a structure that has points of reference but then you do whatever. Actually, quite the opposite, physically I like very much to have a set score. But I find that there’s lots of room for improvisation because of how fast or how slow you get from point A to point B in a set score – to me, that is improvisation. The rhythm of your voice, the rhythm of your action, all these things- even if the words are set, the action is set – those, I think, are what the actor has the most fun playing with. If the action is set- if I’m crossing a room to sit in that chair, the way I do it is acting anyway, right? It’s not the crossing of the room – it’s how I do it that causes people to wonder – what’s going on with this person? What’s happening? And you want to watch. So to me that once you’ve set everything that’s possible to actually set, then you can really ask the questions that are real acting questions that make people want to watch this actor and not that actor – it has to do with how someone is doing something, I think. So to me that is improvisation, I would call that improvisation but I don’t think it’s improvisation the way that most people would define the term. They would think making up what you’re doing is improvisation, you know, choosing whether to cross to the chair or to sit here on the floor or to jump in the air or whatever, but I think of it the other way.
L: When was the final decision- the commitment made to do the Wunderkammer?
M: It was January of 2006. It was a huge undertaking. A lot of people thought there just wasn’t enough time. Zap and I were the ones determined… we can make it happen… they were like “wooh!” and John Gibson being one person, was like “Good luck to you! Good luck to you.” I don’t know how really it all… I mean I think some things, it’s just funny how things happen. Certainly there could have been many obstacles that just didn’t come up, or that may have come up and were somehow overcome quite easily and I just think those things are serendipity, I don’t think you can… It wasn’t some amazing planning, I don’t think it was us being the most amazing planners in the universe that gained us the show. I mean, I think it was just trying very hard to be diligent and meet the obstacles as they came our way and then it just all kind of worked out.
L: When my friends and I went we were joking around about how if a Hollywood production wanted to build that set from scratch it would have cost about 10 million dollars.
M: Well that’s Zap McConnel all the way. That is the scrutinize-ess, saven-ess, get it out of the dumpter-ess, you know anybody in town… if Live Arts had wanted to make that set it would have cost, maybe not that much but it would have cost a lot.
L: I mean the whole Ix building.. I mean the whole entire building… ..it was tremendous. It was like something out of a Mad Max movie or some futuristic dystopia.
M: Yes, it was a reason… For Zap and I, a huge portion of our winter and early spring were spent biting fingernails, negotiating, having the suggestion that maybe we’d get it, being told we wouldn’t get it – that it was too dangerous, forget it. And then going back again… that was all really Zap. Because she was determined to have the building. And that it was the place for it to happen.
L: As a set, it was tremendous.
M: And then afterwards, all the staff at the IX and all the partners were just thrilled, you know, they loved the whole thing but it was a struggle to get the building because you can think of the insurance nightmares, for one thing, that you could imagine in a building like that. And the building inspectors and everything like that, so anyway, yes, it was the perfect venue and I don’t think we would have been the Wunderkammer if we hadn’t been able, by some miraculous twist of fate, to get it.
L: It was impressive. You had… by time you were moving forward and pulling the actual details of it all together, you had a core group of about eight people, right? There was Jude, Sian, Jennifer, you, Zap, Christian…
M: Kelly East, who’s also a Zen Monkey Project performer.
L: She did a terrific fire dancing show…
M: Yes that was her show.
L: Is that right that there was sort of eight of you in the core group?
M: uh huh
L: Alright… the decision making process was, uh…
L: [laughs] Consensus?
M: Yes, it was, but I think if anything like Wunderkammer happens again, I don’t think it will be structured in that way. I mean, it’s just so hard to think of yourselves as a collective. I mean, who’s successful? It’s like thinking communism works. Cuz somewhere, somebody is really calling the shots, you know… it’s just so difficult and we were all such different people. With that being said, it was that energy of difference and of conflict, if you will, that gave the Wunderkammer a lot of its energy. I mean it was difficult to arrive at decisions, it was difficult to find who was the person responsible- ultimately responsible- in some instances, for this or that thing because things bled together, but I think there’s no question it was that energy of difference that really afforded a lot of the energy that was in the room.
L: It had that feeling of one of those artistic productions that came about through multiple visions…
M: Yes. I was gratified every night to sit and listen to the musicians that Christian offered. Never anything that I would have… .what Kelly and Zap and the Zen Monkeys were presenting… I mean, just to have all these things together that you respect but that would never be your venue of working but… to just have it all be there together, I was just so gratified every night when I was sitting there. Really, really.
L: You must be proud to be a part of a production with so many talented individuals?
M: Yes, but you know, it’s hard to be proud of it when you know you only played a part, you know, when we talk about that difference… Really. What I did was only my part, and I just can’t feel a lot of ownership for that. And I think pride sort of… I connect that with a sense of ownership of something so… I was gratified. I don’t know, maybe they’re the same word in some ways, but I was really gratified that that was the dream of it and that was realized, that the dream was that it would be an environment for a lot of different artists, because… once we took the idea of Wunderkammer away from what I had seen in Edinburgh and all that, and brought it to Charlottesville in our thoughts, this is me and Zap especially, we really wanted this to be a community event- we wanted to celebrate art in Charlottesville. We thought there’s so much great art, whether it’s visual performance art, that’s what we wanted… I really feel like that if there’s any one thing that it was absolutely successful at it, I think that was it, I really do. And that is very gratifying.
L: How did the actual decisions about what would happen when, and the overall structure of the night… the fact that you’d have some performances up front, that you’d… .
M: We decided it together. We had to do a lot of weeding out in the beginning of ideas of the kinds of performances- how far away they might come from different players, how many acts, things like this were grueling early rehearsals. I mean, I remember Christian just came to one and finally said “Forget it. Y’all call me when we’re ready to talk about it”… .you know, cause this is just tedious. And it was! Trying to negotiate with each other how many acts, what order… just a lot of the early decisions about eliminating what it wasn’t going to be was tedious.
L: Can I ask about that? I’m quite curious. Give me an example of an act that was considered and discarded.
M: I don’t know that there was an act, but there were some people that were interested in bringing performers that they knew from other places… Trying to solicit performers that we might have to find lodging for, for example, in Charlottesville, or might just come for a weekend… To have more, different acts that… for example, maybe the fire dancing or the Loony BinTragedy wouldn’t be every night, or every night might be completely different. Ideas like this that came up… and so you have to start talking about the reality of making something like that happen. We came back often to the phrase “Look, this is the first time we’ve ever done this. Can we just… ,” (This is me, I mean, I was the one saying this),”can we just be really, really just conservative and simple and then next year we’ll add in some more of these other… .,” but I was really the doomsayer a lot of, “No, that’s too much, No, pull it back.” Because I just feel like, you know, I want to feel like I’ve really succeeded in what I’ve attempted to do. It may feel like more could have been possible but I always feel so frustrated if I attempt a lot and you’re only doing half of all of it instead of all of something else. So those negotiations were important… they did involve everyone. Except for Christian. He was like ” I don’t even care. Y’all just figure it out and let me know.”
L: It struck me as already such an ambitious undertaking, and pulled together in a short amount of time…
M: I did feel that, and I think that other people had other moments… .I think we all had our moments of stepping in and going, “well, I hear all these great ideas, but… .” You know, I think that is the advantage of working in the way we did, as tedious as it can be, to listen to what everyone has to say about everything, in the third hour of the meeting chugging on… you know, because a lot of the early planning were just these huge long meetings and that’s just tedious when you’re a performer – to be having to spend so much time trying to negotiate logistics. But it was important and it was a good learning experience in terms of working with making decisions as a group, which was successful in some ways and less successful in other ways. I just think it’s a difficult thing for people to do, is to feel like everybody has an equal say in everything, it’s just really hard.
L: I can imagine some of the strengths that came out of that because I can see the final result. The downside is that it was just so wearying on everyone?
M: Yes, I mean I think that it was, but I think that for whatever reason, we did it just infrequently enough… the time period, ironically, or maybe gratefully was just short enough that it was OK. Like if maybe if we had been planning for year we would have given up before we ever got there because we were so tired of dealing with each other. We had this short time so we knew the time was short and yet we only met once a week or maybe sometimes it was less frequently than that… so, I don’t know. There was like that balance that was achieved in terms of really sticking in there and talking with each other but also getting away from each other enough. But yes, we kind of got sick of each other. You know that happens in every theater company I’ve ever worked in. That always happens.
L: Because it’s such an intense experience…
M: Yes and artists are so temperamental and opinionated, to be cliche about it. You know you just have to love each other and put up with each other’s junk because you know that everybody has something to offer. We can only be so reasonable (chuckles).
L: (chuckling) Limited amounts of time… Did you write Zelda ands Lucia’s Loony Bin Tragedy? You wrote that whole thing?
M: I did. But the way I like to work… as I told you, in looking for… in taking ideas from things that have come before, this time when I was writing the script I used a lot of text sources- I guess maybe you saw them there. The play Agamemnon, not there but in the program, I listed the text sources…
L: Aeschylus, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mary Oliver…
M: Yes, some of it is my writing, and some of it is just a compilation of sentences, or three or four lines from this or that poem or play. Charles Meame works that way, he’s a great inspiration. So I kind of took the idea from him. I really don’t know how he works but I love the idea. And that play itself, the text, was something I was working on for a number of years and the reason why, I think, that it took me that long is that it took that long for those things to come away from their original source, and be… just like if it was a little paragraph, just belonging to itself, and not belonging again anymore to the play Agamemnon. And really by the time Sian and Jennifer and I started working on it, I couldn’t remember, if I looked at a speech, what part of it was from where, because it was just, you know … it had been too long.
L: Melted together eventually…
M: Yes, this sentence, these words or that phrase, doesn’t belong to that thing anymore, it’s just some words. I do like the… it’s not “random”, but “possibility” in that of finding things from other places and putting them together to make something rather than feeling like I have to make it up out of my own brilliant originality.
L: Did the text alter very much once you actually started working with Jennifer and Sian?
M: No, we actually… because the script was already written, again, because I had been working on it for so long that it was basically set. We did cuts some things, in fact we cut a chunk of the play out just for time, but we didn’t develop the text because we didn’t, well, because it was set and I realized that it could probably bear some more development, but what we wanted to spend our time on was developing the physical action, so we decided to keep the text to decide that that was chosen, the words that were spoken were chosen, and Jennifer and Sian had assignments, and they had developed their own physical material to go with the text. And sometimes they didn’t know what physical material, or a lot of the time, was going to go with what pieces of text. I gave them assignments and they would develop something and say, OK now that… this text will go on that…
L: Give me an example of an assignment you would give them or how you would phrase the assignment.
M: Well, one of the assignments that I gave to Sian, from the opening thing where she has the diagram that she’s pointing to… she and I both, in the theater company we were working with in DC, learned a Kung Fu form. And it was part of our training. So I asked her to take just the arm part of the Kung Fu and not the whole body motion… yes, and so and then to put it together and then after she had worked on that and made, what I call a “Little Physical Score” out of it, then I told her it was to go with this text and so she added it on. It’s just one thing that pops into my mind. But a lot of what they did was like that.
L: You gave her this assignment to work out that style of body movement…
M: Well, it’s a take of what she knew of a Kung Fu form, to reduce it, so it’s not the huge “turning everywhere”, to reduce it just to arm movements, and to learn that sequence and then to add the text on.
L: When you say “add the text on… ” Did she know in the beginning that she’d be pointing to the diagram?
M: I think the diagram [showing the main characters from the play Agamemnon and how they were related] may have been Zap’s idea- when Zap saw the text, she said “ooh you should have a chart that you’re pointing to.” So I think by the time Sian was going to put this action with that text she knew there would be a diagram. But at first I thought, maybe it will be like an actual signified battle, she’s Agamemnon… Kung Fu, an actual signified battle… but then Zap said that and I realized, “Oh no, she’s not fighting, she’s just pointing at the chart with the same sort of battle movements that Kung Fu is”. So that’s how it evolved like that.
L: In that play Sian uses quite an array of tones and she shifts several times kind of dramatically from a male form to a female form, in one scene especially. Was that all in your original vision or …
M: No, the vocal work were assignments I gave her… It’s funny how you work when you know someone and I know that Sian has a range of comfort in her voice, so part of my desire in working on the show with her was to push her vocally, to take some chances. So the first one was… well, I actually just asked her to find what we call dynamics, which are just ways of using your voice, changing it. For that first thing… so the auctioneer scene that goes really fast, that she combines with what she calls “Monster Cars”… I think she had seen some commercial for Monster Cars and they were like shouting “Monster Cars!” and she decided “That’s Great!” So putting those things together in that first sequence… I gave her the assignment to find those dynamics; I didn’t give her a specific kind of dynamic- she found those. But when she’s in her little laboratory I asked her to think of a golf announcer on TV – they talk quite softly because they don’t want to disturb the game. That’s where she got the soft vocal dynamic of that.
L: (laughing) That’s interesting.
M: So I don’t know, I think that those kind of juxtapositions … I love that, because it frees an actor from feeling so much that they have to generate some emotion, but at the same time once you find something like that it’s easy for the emotion to come and attach to it, because you’re committing.
L: She has a scene in the middle where she sort of comes out of her male role and sings a song. Is that all part the original…
M: Well, it really doesn’t come forward in this performance, and I don’t mind it, but the reason why it’s called Zelda and Lucia’s Loony Bin Tragedy is that Sian and I… back when it was just an original idea, I was very interested in Zelda Fitzgerald and Lucia Joyce who were both incarcerated for schizophrenia, who both were dancers, who both had connections to these famous authors. And so that whole middle section is supposed to be of a play within a play, and yes she is a woman. They both were accused of having lesbian tendencies, both Zelda and Lucia, so I think that’s where a lot of that comes from… They’re dancing together and… I don’t make these things explicit in the play. If the play were to be further developed then these are avenues to explore more. But they were… for us, they were suggestions of what could be included, and so having her bust out of this sort of male, constrained… and be very seductive and sultry, whereas that was really more of the structure of Jennifer’s character to be seductive and sultry. I liked that kind of juxtaposition of having her suddenly be the one to do that and it came from that, but structurally for the performance I liked it too, even if it doesn’t have a logical reason, you know.
L: I was actually going to ask about the back story, so that sense of this is happening in an insane asylum, that was all… that was part of your original idea.
M: Yes, and was originally to be developed more. Sian and I discussed trying to go over to the place in Staunton that used to be an asylum and to perform there in that building. We did a lot of research, both characters, there was a lot of that. And what we really ended up with were some subtle underpinnings of that and that Jennifer and Sian really found useful, but really stuck with the story of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon and not so much allowing… again, time having something to do with that but also the amount of time to perform that we were allotted, which I felt comfortable with – but also the amount of rehearsal time that we had. I mean, we were all doing administrative things for the show and working jobs, so our rehearsal time was quite limited, so we felt very frugal in what we had made in the short time we had. Like, we felt like we had… like anything we had made we had found some way to use, and we were so happy about that.
L: You also ended up performing this piece in what I think a lot of people would think of as a sort of unusual theater space.
M: Yes, the alley set up, yes.
L: The alley set up, very long and very narrow, with the audience on both sides. Now, was that part of the original vision?
M: It was part of the original vision, but when we moved into the IX we were originally set to perform in the open place where the latrines ended up being, an area with no roof. Zap and I tried to conceive a possible roof but that was the period when Charlottesville had those huge, incredible storms, and it became clear what a nightmare it would be if we were performing in that space and it rained – especially if we were using any sort of electronics. And during that time, when we were thinking of using that space, our stage plan was much more of what people would consider a traditional stage view, with the audience on one side, separate from the stage. But when we switched to the other space, and the alley set up, I had liked the idea that they were sort of combatants facing off, you know, like one is on one end and one is on the other… I think of Mortal Combat or something… “Gentle men start your engines! Or come out of your corners! Ding!” or something like that. I had loved the possibility of the audience, perhaps in little booths of their own, sort of spying in – like you might go up a little stairs and you’d be sitting there with maybe your friend – but then you can’t really see the people next door and everybody’s leaning over watching… so the set up of the alley space was not ideal there. It was a last minute thing and I often felt very frustrated for the audience because I felt the sight-lines were not good. And if I had had the luxury of my own venue for just that show, it would have been more carefully constructed. I felt that there were plenty of moments where audience couldn’t see either Sian, depending where they were, or Jennifer…
L: I think I was lucky in that I was in the front row and in the middle. When you speak of bad sight lines, you mean, the folks who were sort of on the edges?
M: Yes. Well, and I think in the back, too, because where I was sitting was in the corner and I think a lot of times, Sian especially, would be obscured because of where she was- she traveled more from side to side than Jennifer did. But anyway, in this idea of them coming to meet for some confrontation, which was a dance, which I thought of kind of as the battle scene between them. Anyway, and then kind of pulling away again, was the usefulness of the alley set-up. But again, I feel like the milieu of the Wunderkammer all together sort of superseded the chance of me being able to take the maximum amount of care with the play that I wanted because it was the bigger picture that always seemed to over-ride. For example, Jennifer and Sian would be late for rehearsal because they were running errands or had schedule conflicts, and I would get very angry because… this is our show, you know we have to be careful… but it was hard to be careful, because we were trying to make the whole thing and not just our small part of the thing. But, yes, I was, and I still am… I love the idea of the alley set up for performance, with the little traveling lane in between, you know. The setup is like a tennis match, the audience has to do this thing, side to side with their heads, like following a tennis match, I like that.
L: There was a lot of that, especially as the action shifted from one side to the other. The audience had to look down the alley to where Sian was, or we had to look up the alley to where Jennifer was. And as they took turns talking, we, in the audience, would turn and look their way.
M: And of course they were both doing things while the other one was talking, and so you have to choose… and I love that the audience has to choose what they’re going to look at.
L: And there were also times when it worked well to sort of hide what the other one was sort of doing. We’d all look at Sian and so Jennifer could ready…
M: Get ready for the next act.
L: Get ready, yes. I mean, someone would be talking and… .So Jennifer was, I think, at one point having trouble with her mic, on the night that I saw the play, and she sort of had time to fix that while the audience was looking over at what Sian was doing. The alley setup is great for combat, it seems to emphasize the sort of conflict… the back and forth helps emphasize the conflict…
M: Yes, well, for a two person play it makes sense, to me anyway, if you want to emphasize the conflict or the facing-off aspect of it. And especially because… I love the fact that in the story of the death of their child, that Clytemnestra and Agamemnon have completely different perspectives on it. I mean that’s where the conflict comes from, right? So they’re telling the same story in an argument way. It’s like it was this, no it was this. It was this, no it was this. And certainly, we added our own things in that sort of obscure a little bit of that, that conflict. But I really wanted the phone conversation, even though they really weren’t literally talking about that, but I wanted to have that sense of one person trying to win. Whether it’s just being the person who says the most outlandish thing that you can’t understand and then you have to come back, but you know, having the comebacks, anyway… and I think that’s a marital thing too. I like that aspect of it.
L: Marital in what sense?
M: That people who have been married for a long time can begin to think they know so much about the other person that they’re already deciding that… You’ve decided already what their next 18 moves are going to be, so you’re already addressing that, and then it really does become kind of surreal. Like they’re not talking to each other, I’m talking to my idea of what you’ll see in the next ten sentences, or something like that.
L: That was definitely brought across very well. Knowing that you’ve lifted some text from other people, it’s interesting… I wouldn’t be able to guess the text sources, it would be even difficult for me to begin to know where your… what part of that argument was entirely written by you and where you were borrowing from sources.
M: Actually, it was pretty much all borrowed. A lot of that argument scene was from Anne Carson who wrote a book called “The Beauty Of The Husband”, I think that’s what its called. It’s a fictitious account of a breakup of a marriage. There is a conversation in that book that I borrowed from – not word for word, but at least the structure of that phone conversation is based on it. The name-calling, the comebacks… all the name-calling and some of the other incidence – the text comes from different places. They’re talking about ships, and that’s not from from the book, but rather the structure of accusatory-ness, which doesn’t really resolve anything, that comes from Anne Carson.
L: It’s interesting that you’re working with one of the oldest classics in Western literature, which is, in a sense, a very conservative thing to do. And yet, the whole play is actually very experimental. It’s an experimental form and in an unusual theater set-up and you go away from that story for most of the play, really. And then in the final scenes- you come back to it. And I really, I can’t put my finger on why, but I really like that there was a sense at the ending that we were sort of coming back to this well-known classic that we all studied in high school.
M: Yes, I like that. That was an original impulse in creating the play Cesario with Twelfth Night. There’s a scene in Twelfth Night where, famously, the girl is dressed up as a boy, and comes to woo the beautiful woman for the man that she’s actually in love with – and then instead of the woman falling in love with the man… it’s a very pivotal scene, and I had originally wanted to have everything lead up to that. Because what I like… if you create what seems to be a backstory, and then you show a certain scene, you’re really showing more than just that scene, even though the actors are still just saying the same words. If we started with that scene, that scene itself would seem different because the other scenes wouldn’t have come before it. So I like giving all of this other stuff for the audience to put on top of it- that they’ve already seen. And so then, “What do we have?” is kind of my question. Because then, despite the cliche of it, when we’re making a Greek play, with costumes and all, you still can’t avoid all these other things that you want to put on it because you think, “Jennifer’s character is like this,” or “Sian’s character’s like this”. So then you, in the audience, assume certain other things. That is what acting is to me, taking something that just exists as text or action but then, in the end, there’s more underneath. And so I wanted to put that on stage, all of that, together.
L: Which is what “narrative” means, in a sense. I mean, the whole thing with narratives is- what scenes come before shape the way you interpret each successive scene…
M: Exactly, except it’s not narrative in that conventional sense of beginning, middle and end, you know. Because there really isn’t, in that play, a beginning, a middle and an end in that conventional, dramatic art sense we think about.
L: Except that there’s the conflict between the two of them which is sort of there the whole time and that has a resolution at the end.
M: Yes, because he gets killed, which is the convenient thing about stealing from a play that’s already written… because then you don’t have to make up that something actually happens – that’s already happening because it’s in the play you’re working from. So, yes, she kills him.
L: So looking back, now that the Wunderkammer’s over, do you have any regrets about the way the actual production came off?
M: No. I never do. I mean, I think I do sometimes if I feel like I could have avoided something, like if there’s a moment when I have a choice, and I choose the cowardly way instead of the brave way, but I feel like it was impossible in this case. The time limits… all the limits, everything, despite it all we just kept going. Actually, I have no regrets at all. None, none.
L: What are some of the things you’re most pleased with about the production?
M: I’m most pleased that I decided to not perform in that show and to give up that connection, whatever I felt to that character Clytemnestra, and have Jennifer do it instead, because I thought she was amazing, and I think that freed me up to be in more of an outside role than I’ve ever been when it comes to performance. And I don’t mean “outside” like “not involved,” I just mean “objective.” And not caught up in the dynamic. Because as a performer, it’s very easy to become kind of obsessed with that and to want to protect it and to see everything else as revolving around your work as an actor and what you need to do to make sure you’re ready to perform and all that. And I didn’t have any of that, you know. And it was just very freeing.
L: You were working here as the director. Have you worked as the director many times before?
M: No. I mean, in class situations I have – teaching, directing. But with peers, no. I mean the Cesario that I did before was the first time, but that was really frustrating because I was trying to perform. I just don’t think it’s… I guess there’s people that can do it. I found it really incompatible to be trying to do both. One is going to suffer. One will always suffer, and in a moment you choose – am I looking at this as a director or am I looking at this as an actor and I just… I can’t see a way to do both. So I was really happy when I made that choice. That was a real turning point for me in the process. And then I think a lot of things might have been very different… I might not have felt so satisfied with the outcome if I hadn’t of made that choice.
L: I thought that Jennifer did a highly effective job with the role, being a sort of high strung and emotional and…
M: I loved her, it was great. Well, so much of what she brought was her own work, and see that’s what’s so great, and duh, why didn’t I realize that before? Because if I’m offering the thing up and I have my idea of it, of course someone else must perform it because then they’ll bring their own ideas and those layers are what make something have weight and depth to it. So yes, much better to do it that way.
L: So, I was going to ask you what things you feel that you learned from this summer’s production. I guess one of…
M: That it’s possible to undertake something and if you have a vision you should respect it and follow through. I mean I feel like as an artist sometimes one has questions about that you just think it’s a whimsical idea or whatever. I really think I learned that – that things like that are to be taken seriously. They’re notions that come to you from you don’t know where but it’s something about it that you need to be responsible to because it has a little life, it’s knocking on the door, it’s asking to be made- “let me come into the world, I am something, I am waiting to come.”
L: This might be a little off topic but you’ve been to Europe a few times. Do you feel like America’s a very easy country to be an artist in?
M: No. I don’t know that anywhere is. I mean, I think being an artist is an uncomfortable thing to be. I just do, I think it’s difficult because the foundation of it is not of this world, so you have to navigate and do all those practical things and have a practical sense. Again, the Wunderkammer was great for that for me. I really feel that I’m starting to get a sense of… all about practicalities. But I’m feeling like for me right now that I really can’t find the person who’s going to be the brains, or, you know, the practical mind. I’m trying to find a way to be an artist and to be a business person too. I think it’s difficult. I just think it’s hard to be an artist anywhere in that regard. Unless… I think film offers that structure with a lot more precedent and with a lot more sort of example to follow and that’s useful because it has had that structure all along, right? That you guys fit into little niches of job description or whatever that makes sense. And for me, in performance, I just don’t know any happy models to follow- like I’m trying to find my own model. Yes, so I think of it as hard to be an artist anywhere, but I do think that more… European countries especially feel that art is worth supporting in a financial way than we do here. And I don’t mean Philharmonics or classes in finger painting to get your inner child out for little kids who’ve been battered. You know, we all seem think there needs to be some practical purpose to art for it to be funded in some way. If there is a difference, maybe it’s possible that Europeans just appreciate it for itself and its usefulness to human beings is that art exists at all, and so they encourage it to grow and develop and change. Because that’s part of our lives. You know, it doesn’t have to have a practical purpose like you’re a battered woman and you need some way to get over that or… you know what I mean? It’s not…
L: It doesn’t really have to be therapy.
M:Yes, therapy, or practical in that way. Like somebody… their life is practically going to get better now, “I’m well now” or whatever it is. Instead, maybe it’s just good for all of us for there to be art in the world.
L: So, summing up, of things you’ve gained from this summer, a greater respect for the desire to pursue your artistic ideas? You’re going to feel a greater trust in that…
M: Yes, well, I try to see everything as a stepping stone to the next… whatever the next thing that I’m to do is. And so this has been a huge learning experience for me and I feel that it’s given me… I guess we all have leaps sometimes in our lives of “Oh, OK, I’ve been doing that thing and I feel like I was a little lost and I’ve been doing that thing for a while. Oh, now I’ll step over to this way.” And so I feel like maybe that’s what’s happening and the Wunderkammer was a huge part of that for me. So, I’m not expecting to do be doing any performing any time soon, for example. I have other things that I would like to keep investigating.
L: I was actually going to ask about that. What is next for you, what kind of plans do you have?
M: Well, Jennifer and I are starting to talk about the possibility of another performance in the footsteps of Wunderkammer. I have a project I’m working on. I have source material and themes for script writing that if we collaborate, that would be more my role- dramateur, playwright and not performing. But investigating even further this process of developing script that I quite like.
L: These are near-term projects or long-term projects?
M: Well, they’re things that are sort of in development. Nothing is set yet in any front of “this will happen at this time.” So they’re all just sort of in conversation now.
L: Is there going to be another Wunderkammer in Charlottesville next summer?
M: We probably won’t have another performance that we call Wunderkammer but Jennifer is very interested and very inspired by the Wunderkammer and by some of her own ideas to throw into the ring- the idea for another performance project that bears relationship to the Wunderkammer. I mean we all believe that the best work comes from vision, one person’s vision, and a desire for that vision to be manifest. So just to go and just restage the Wunderkammer seems kind of dry and sort of strained maybe even, you know? So we go all the way back to square one again. And Jennifer at this moment is having lots of great inspirational desires and dreams for making a show that she thinks could involve some of, you know, the same principles and and the same players as the Wunderkammer did. So we’ll see.
L: Thanks so much for you time.
M: Thank you.
by Lawrence Krubner, who can be reached at email@example.com or 434-825-7694Source