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A Facing the Stage Interview with Skin Horse Theatre
On the eve of the New Orleans Fringe theatre fest, NoDef Drama Writer Helen Jaksch, met up with Skin Horse Theater’s Nat Kusinitz and Evan Spigelman at an Uptown coffee shop to talk about the company’s upcoming production, Sarah.
In their second year of performing at Fringe Fest, Skin Horse Theater is a Marigny-based experimental performance collective that tries a new approach each time out. Last year's Port/Architect utilized Japanese butoh dance and a warehouse setting to engage with the audience on an active level. For this year's production, the aims for the audience are similar, but the environment is vastly different.
Helen Jaksch: So tell me about the piece y’all are working on now.
Nat Kusinitz: The piece is called Sarah. It’s another site-specific piece. We’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from the space we’re working in. Last year for Port/Architect we found the space before we knew very much about the piece. We went in and walked around and the space helped generate the piece. This one we knew we wanted to be site-specific from the beginning. We wanted to do it inside a real living room. But obviously the logistics of doing it in somebody’s actual living room were not quite…
Evan Spigelman: You know we can’t…we didn’t want to break anyone’s nice furniture.
Nat: Yeah, you know someone actually living in this house would be difficult, but we were lucky enough to stumble across the guys at 1239 Congress, part of the BYOV Fringe where we’re doing the piece. They had just bought this house that they were gutting and turning into a music space/art space.
Evan: Yeah, it’s going to be a co-op. There’s also going to be a gluten-free bakery in the back.
Nat: Apparently. But we are…so we are literally going to be building the living room.
Evan: Kinda going in the opposite direction that Port/Architect did. In Port/Architect we looked at space and aesthetics and we were responding to that. This production we are forming the space around the play. So what’s been really exciting about this is the folks over at 1239 Congress have been really, really generous with…every time [Nat] comes in with an idea, what about this crazy blah, blah, blah…they say, well can’t you make it crazier? And so they’ve been really generous with us putting up some semi-permanent things for our piece and molding the space to our needs, working with them in terms of what we can do that they will be able to use in the future once our piece is taken down and gone. It’s been really awesome and really exciting not just to see our play gestate but to watch that’s going along parallel to it, this artist’s co-op, go from seed to sprout.
Helen: You said the inspiration for Sarah didn’t come from the space. So where did it come from?
Nat: It’s hard to talk about a little bit because as we have gotten further in the process we’ve decided that there are elements of the play that we are trying to keep under wraps a little bit, which I assume, you know, once performances begin will be a little more difficult but suffice it to say…
Evan: A lot of our interest in Sarah came from an interest in genre where we’re really exploring very codified, very specific genres. Especially the difference between theatre and film. And so one challenge we’ve always been so puzzled by and interested in is: what is the difference between an actor and an audience’s experience of an actor in a film and in a play? So what we wanted to do with the living room concept was figure out how to get the intimacy you get from film without all the tools like editing, cinematography, underscoring—
Nat: Right, right. And so we’re obviously doing it in a living room so we have a very limited audience size of 20 people per audience and so the audience will literally be this close [gestures just across the small round table] and so with that type of intimacy and literally being in the same space as the actors you can get down to being very cinematic. First of all the performances I think will become a little more cinematic because it’s less about showing and projecting what you’re doing because you’re so close …If I’m sitting this close to an actor and I can see the way that their pinky is moving [makes a small circle with his pinky]. That can give me information that I would never be able to get if the actor was 50 feet away from me onstage. That’s something we’re very interested in—having the audience be able to have that type of relationship… And in this play we’re creating a scenario in which the audience is literally inside the play and the play is surrounding them on all sides which I think is very exciting.
Helen: And so do you see the audience having autonomy of movement in the space? Is it going to be a little more -
Nat: That’s something we did in Port/Architect. The audience followed the play around and there were segments where they were allowed to do whatever they wanted. In this piece they’ll be sitting in one place the entire time. We’re working with characters, and in particular our protagonist, who are very trapped. There’s a sense of claustrophobia in the play so I think on some level we’re trying to make the audience feel trapped…
Evan: You’re in this very hermetically sealed domestic space.
Nat: And I think there’s something very fascinating about having a small audience; it allows for a lot of things. You can’t really disappear.
Evan: No safety in small numbers.
Nat: There’s no safety, so I think it will be very interesting to see how the audience behaves.
Evan: I wonder how many people will hold their coughs and sneezes and things.
Helen: I feel like they’re going to be hyper-aware of their presence in that space.
Nat: I mean hopefully we’ll be able to…to create a sense that they are these invisible…
Evan: Voyeurs. And that’s something that you know, that film doesn’t have as much of a capacity to do. You look at something like Rear Window which is like the voyeur film. It’s more a comment. You still have the separation of the screen and me being somewhere else.
Helen: What’s been the development process of this as you’ve gone through?
Nat: It’s funny. This has been a piece we’ve been thinking about for a very, very long time and pretty much the only consistent thing has been this relationship to film that we’re interested in exploring and also the idea that it would take place inside a house. So it’s gone through a lot of different incarnations and finally we landed on this one story we were all really interested in and we’ve been developing that story together for a very long time. And then eventually we handed that off to Brian [Dorsam] who went off and wrote the script. He brought it back to us.
Evan: I think it’s interesting…I imagine that a lot of the other theatre companies in town would say this. There’s no one way to make original work. And we’ve found that every time we do something it’s entirely different.
Nat: Yeah, we’ve had to reinvent our process for every new project.
Evan: So I think in a weird way this has been the most traditional because we have…before, we have written scripts completely together where we pass around a scene between the five of us or all revise together. This time around we have a playwright and a production team and while we came up with the concept and the story together, now we have those two pieces separate.
Nat: It’s also the one thing that I think is really exciting about this is this is the first time that we’ve been… it’s been the closest thing to a strict dramatic narrative that we’ve ever done. We were looking at a lot of Edward Albee because, you know, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And this dinner party.
Evan: And Albee is interesting because you hear dinner party…well that sounds like every play I’ve ever seen, but in a good way. That’s why Albee is so interesting. Because he takes those concepts that were not new when he was writing and he makes the space feel poisonous.
Nat: Yeah. Exactly.
Evan: Even though the set-up is completely banal.
Nat: And that’s a lot of what we’re working with. A lot of the tension in the play. There’s a lot of elephants in the room within this play and a lot of tension surrounding the things that the characters can’t do and don’t say to one another as opposed to what they do say and do.
Evan: And hopefully if we do our job right the space itself will become an agent in all those misdirections. We’re trying to find all kinds of ways to infuse the space with character.
Nat: The house is…There are four actors in the play. The house is the fifth character.
Sarah runs as part of the New Orleans Fringe Festival November 17th-20th at 9:00pm at 1239 Congress. A practice performance will be held during NOLA Open Studios on Sat., Nov. 12. For more info, check out www.skinhorsetheater.org
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