As one of the founding members of Elemental Theatre Collective, can you give us a brief history of the group?
We started in 2003 as collaboration between a bunch of classmates of mine from the Trinity Rep Conservatory. We had been graduated for a few years and everybody was working…but not working a lot…and not having a lot of fun working. Our had class had been really tight, so we said “Well, if we’re not really making any money, not having any fun, let’s work together and see if we enjoy it…and then REALLY not make any money!” So, that was the genesis of it and since then we’ve really morphed over the last 10 years into a company that’s dedicated to producing new work – both from within the company and from artists outside of it. We’ve realized that’s where all of our creative juices bubble, when we’re working on all aspects of a production – the writing, technical development, acting, directing – if we can have a hand in all stages of a piece of work.
Your website states that you are “dedicated to developing and performing new or rarely-produced work that surprises, challenges, and excites our audiences and our artists. We also think plays should be free, or at least cost about the same as a movie ticket.” which seems to fit in nicely with what 95 Empire and AS220 are all about.
Theater is such a stupidly expensive thing to produce…and it’s gone the moment it’s over! It can feel like such a specialized thing, that the audience can start feel specialized, and when an audience starts to get specialized it starts to, I feel, age, and it’s always frightening to see an audience getting older and older and not be replaced. So, we’ve tried really hard to make our work really accessible. Not in the sense of dumbing anything down, but in always trying to present ourselves as something that you don’t necessarily have to be a “theater devotee” to like, but just have an interest in performance, an interest in questioning ideas. We try to be challenging, but also open and available, and part of that is keeping our prices as low as possible. Our usual ticket price, we have an unofficial line where we say $15 is the maximum, and when we can not charge anything – we don’t. We’ve been doing a new reading series where we can offer it as a free drop-in, event which has been really nice because we’ve gotten a really good turnout for this strange offshoot of theater and it’s generated a lot of interesting feedback for us, too.
Can you tell us more about this new series, Bare Stages?
Bare Stageswas really the brainchild of Alexander Platt, our Artistic Director. We all had sort of an open period in our lives, professionally and personally, so he wanted to fill that time by looking at some plays from people within our community, and opened it up to plays that writers were struggling with – stuff that’s been bothering them, or plays that were particularly challenging. He wanted to put them out and give them a good, well-acted, reading in public, let people respond to them, and see how that helps the playwrights. It’s been way more fun than I thought it would be. When I first thought of doing readings, I thought “Well, it’ll be dry but it’ll be helpful” and it’s been really, really fun. The quality of the performances have been really good, the feedback from the audience has been great, they playwrights have gotten a lot out of it. I’m really proud that we’ve had this weird, quirky, little thing available for people to drop in for free and check out a new play. The playwrights have gotten a sensee of direction out of it, it hasn’t been empty feedback, they’ve gotten a sense of where they’re going to go next. As a theater company, that’s nice for us, too, There are now scripts developing under our aegis, and when we’re looking to produce something, we have a personal connection with it. Which I think is a great place to start for any production.
How does that audience feedback happen?
We’ve been doing moderated talkback with Alex, the playwright, and the audience, after. They’ve been really good! I think audiences like it when you ask something from them. I think sometimes, too often, we can be guilty of trying to do everything for the audience and it’s really nice to elicit specific feedback from an audience and sort of trust that they have something to say and they can meet an artist or production halfway. I’m really glad that the writers seem to be getting so much out of it. It can be a frightening experience as a writer to open yourself up to a bunch of strangers and say “WHAT DO YOU THINK OF MY WORK?”. Our audiences have met that really respectfully, and really helpfully, which is a nice reminder of how much we can trust the people who come and see our work.
Has Bare Stages expanded your audience?
We’ve definitely seen a lot of new faces. We’ve met people who are interested in “how the sausage is made”, so to speak. Writers from other disciplines have come to check it out. Not risking anything besides a couple of hours on a Monday or Tuesday night turns out to be a nice tactic to employ to get people to drop in!
So, you’re up next for Bare Stages, with your piece Ghost Story, on Tuesday, March 19th. Care to give us the scoop on that?
It’s the story of a woman who flashes back to life after her life ends, and the man that she leaves behind. It’s developed into a two person play, with the entire play happening in direct address to the audience, the audience is a real part of the play. I can’t talk too much about it because it’s still being generated as we speak! The note book on my lap contains the scribblings of a possible madman. I started writing it in 2002 and it’s been kind of hanging around my head for all these years. I took a stab at it a couple of years ago and got a few pages in, so I took advantage of this opportunity as a chance to say “here’s a deadline…here’s a commitment to make to the company and to an audience that would come out to see it”, and put a beginning, middle, and end on this thing and hear what people think, and go from there.
What’s next for Elemental?
One of the things we’ve talked about remounting is a piece that I wrote a couple of years ago, a musical called A Brief History of the Earth and Everything In It, about a bunch of third grade drama students who overtake their Christian fundamentalist elementary school. We premiered that a couple of years ago as part of a larger festival, so we’ve been working on developing it as a long, stand alone, piece. We’re also trying a play by George Brant, who had a couple of pieces at Trinity last season. This one, called Dark Room, is inspired by the photographs of Francesca Woodman, who was a RISD graduate and an amazing photographer. She took her own life but left behind these amazing pictures. George crafted a bunch of beautiful, imagistic,little pieces linked together by Woodman’s work. We’ve been a big fan of George’s work for a long time, and this could be one of our favorite piece his that we’ve ever read.
I notice that you’ve also done a few “late-night live radio plays”.
We’ve done 3 or 4, always centered around a major holiday or event. Radio plays that have never been broadcast but performed as live radio plays with actors on mic and Foley Artists in front of the audience, and live music. Our first was Zombie President, right around the 2008 election and Halloween…about America’s first zombie president. We did one around 4th of July called Recession the Musical that ended up being less funny than we originally thought it was! Last Christmas, right around when the Republican field was starting to establish itself, we didMichelle and Marcus Bachmann’s Holiday Intervention, which was a hoot. I love the idea of letting the audience see the workings that go into a radio-style broadcast. There’s something really fun about watching an actor who is kind of divorced from what their voice might be doing, like watching someone juggle and spin plates at the same time. Watching someone operate a sound effect while they’re also vocally and facially engaged in a scene. It’s a really fun thing and a different way to enlist an audience into the world of performance.
Have you thought about actually broadcasting them?
We would love to, we just lack any sort of technical know-how. Also, as the main writer of these, I have to learn how to censor myself better. I tend to use, in the name of humor, a lot of radio-unfriendly language!
Lastly, as a member of Improv Jones, tell us about the seemingly ever-growing improv scene in Providence.
Improv Jones is celebrating our 20th year this year I’ve been part of it for the last 6 or 7. Which have been awesome. I never thought of myself as an improviser until I was asked to be part of the group. I think it’s ridiculously fun. It’s great for anybody who likes to see performance, to see people to put themselves out there, and it’s a really fun way for a performer and audience to connect because there’s no barrier between them. Right now, there’s a lot going on in town, The Providence Improv Guild started up recently, they’re running classes and bring in a lot of new groups, The Improv Fest that we did at Perishable, now 95 Empire, has been going on for 10 years every summer with actsfrom all over the country. I think because there’s so many great theatrical education programs in town – high school, college, and graduate level, and there’s so much theatrical knowledge in town, that it makes sense that improvisation would grow out of that. There are a lot of very confident performers here who are used to getting up in front of people, who aren’t afraid to make a fool of themselves. It does kind of lend itself to this cheap, fast, and dirty kind of theater. Improv does a great job of casting a net and bringing in performers who you’re not going to see at Trinity, or the Gamm, but you can sure see them at improv. They’re so incredibly gifted at connecting with an audience, connecting with a scene, and creating something out of nothing. It’s such a unique amazing skill to watch in action and I think it’s unlike anything else you’ll see in town.