Maura is a director and dramaturg.

Cara is a director and dramaturg.

Cara

What’s in your pockets?

Maura

I generally like Lightning Rod Special’s work a lot, and I am predisposed to like the work of several of the Philly-based performers in that group.

Cara

I am also predisposed to like LRS. I have always loved their work. But I don’t know anyone personally. We should note that this is a collaboration between Lighting Rod Special and Strange Attractor.

Maura

I’ve worked with (designer) Masha Tsimring. I will also say that I went in with some trepidation about Shakespeare being involved in any way.

Cara Blouin

Yes, I should say that also. I am very, very wary of theater about theater. Especially Shakespeare. So wary that I think it prejudiced me about this show. Do you want to start with design? This set design was exactly the kind of wonderful that I always love from LRS. So specific, so evocative.

Maura

I loved the design. I thought having Masha do both set & lights resulted in an incredibly cohesive aesthetic world that allowed lights and scenery to play off each other so beautifully. I was pretty mesmerized. Some specific lighting moments were the stars, the isolated light spots where they listened to music and rested, and Jenn Kidwell becoming a plant.

Cara  

And I agree that the stars were beautiful. I think this is part of what makes LRS such a mature, compelling company, they know how to evoke the feeling of a thing without being representational. I think a lot of this play is about how when we look at experience that we don’t understand, we might take a trivial detail as being extremely vital, or something merely pragmatic as deeply meaningful. The elevation of blinds and potted plants is such a clever way to make that visual.

Maura

Blinds are just blinds to us, but they became portals to transverse or manipulate for the AIs.

Cara Blouin

Right, if you didn’t know what humanity was, you might think that a bland, American office aesthetic was the Roman Columns or cathedral edifices of our species. I also loved the nature of the things that were behind the scenes the silvery ducts and tubing because it was so surprisingly familiar.

Maura  

And how they made costumes out of the guts of their space.

Cara

I think theater often falls in love with totemic items, do you know what I mean?

Maura

Yes, absolutely, because I do it all the time as a director.

Cara Blouin

Like, we don’t know how to work with the stuff of actual existence, which I think it betrays a kind of fear that LRS doesn’t have at all. I’m thinking of Let The Dog See the Rabbit, when a museum staff meeting was elevated to a kind of poetry. That’s what the extension cords felt like in this. I love the way they are always coming back to what’s real and not what stands in for real.

Maura  

To be fair, though, there is kind of a traditional theatre aesthetic of using what is available to you.

Cara  

I think it’s both. I mean, I think it’s self conscious.

Maura  

I think many institutional theatres have moved away from that in pursuit of high production values and in an effort to challenge televised media’s prominence, but part of what made the Shakespeare work was the manipulation of mundane objects, right?

And it served to make the AIs so much more human/childlike.

Cara  

Absolutely. So from your perspective, what did that say about theater?

Maura

For me the show did a really neat sleight of hand where it cast doubt on the importance of art, specifically canonized art.

The inane repetition of Shakespeare is the barrier to the AIs experiencing real life, even though the way their inquest into performance began was so genuine. I felt like theatre became this way to avoid who you really are, initially in a way that illuminated your being — see the Alice Yorke character in particular — and ended in a rote performance that lost all meaning through ever-faster repetition.

Cara

Yes, yes yes.

Maura  

If the voice hadn’t given them Shakespeare, too, what would have happened? What would have resulted out of those early initial explorations of being someone else?

Cara  

Right. And also the initial attempts at theater were interactive. They relied on and responded to the audience.

Maura  

Yes! And flexible! Nobody felt ownership of any one role and it was possible to let someone else step into what you had created. No ego, no canonization, just ritual in a way that felt revelatory to them and honestly a little to me. At the same time, this very authentic joy in the creation of performance and then its move into the Shakespeare opens some terrifying but so-useful questions for me as an artist about the self-indulgence of theatre. I never know if what I see in something is what they intended or just what I needed at the moment, but to me this piece felt so brave because it asked “why are we doing this?” in a way that felt gentle and forgiving.

Cara

And that brings me to a question that *I’m* constantly struggling with– is putting that reflection into performance responsible?

I think it’s a vital question and a vital exploration. It’s deeply important to me. But I’m still uncomfortable about what it means to invite an audience to it. No matter how excellent the reflection, or how wise the revelation, it’s still insular, and self involved.

Maura  

You were the one that told me it is ok to have art made for us in regards to That Pretty Pretty. I was baby feminist-ing about whether it was responsible to put the violent effects on our brains of violence against women on stage. And you said “that art can be for us, and it’s ok, we don’t have to worry about the confused men in the audience.” And I actually think the audience of Sans Everything was (at least on Thursday night), right there with it. I think that theatre-going audiences must be asking some questions about the purpose of art. We have to trust that they are doing that to some degree, because they are the people we trust to consume our work. The collective sigh of relief when Jenn Kidwell said about Shakespeare “That is NOT my experience” said a lot about that audience, I think.

Cara Blouin

Yeah that was a great moment. It obviously mattered to everyone in the room about what canon means and who it excludes.

And I know that I am kind of asking a theoretical question about a real environment, but theater’s propensity to be myopic is something I like to keep at the forefront of my mind. I can’t fault LRS for knowing their audience or blame them because I wish audiences were different.

Maura  

That is true, about theatre being myopic. But… I mean, if we aren’t a little myopic how can we be genuine?

Cara

Every performance continues to feel precious to me. Every room full of people who chose to be there. It feels like a precious resource and I can’t help thinking in a really high-stakes way about everything that happens in that room. Especially in a venue like Fringe Arts. It’s one of the few places where theater people and non-theater people go.

Maura  

I mean, from that perspective, LRS just showed a bunch of folks a group of white people in white face doing Shakespeare, who also literally made the person of color and the person who didn’t seem to think in the same pattern as everyone else into scenery. I think that was a pretty clear commentary on the privileging of whiteness/Western canon/narrowly defined intellectualism. No?

Cara  

True again. My heart isn’t in this, really, because it was a really great show.

Maura  

I do think your point is important! Like ok, if we are looking at the show for what it was, I think it is incredible. You are asking if it should have been what it was at all, which is fair. No matter how well done, we should always be questioning what centering art/theatre does for the work we make. I just reserve the right to have loved it.

Cara  

I loved it, too. But neuroticism about theater will always be in my pockets. Do you want to talk about the performers?

Maura

I would watch Jenn Kidwell do anything ever and Scott Sheppard is hilarious. Alice Yorke was SO charming

Cara  

How is Scott Sheppard so humble on stage? He’s a giant white guy who somehow reflects no sense of entitlement.

Maura  

Also I just think Scott brings a kind of rigor to everything I’ve seen him in that keeps him from being entitled. He’s so precise.

Cara Blouin

Yes, and generous. He is constantly giving focus to other performers. I agree that Jenn Kidwell is completely entrancing. You can’t watch anything else when she’s on stage. Which made the part when she’s used as scenery even stronger. And I also agree that Alice was extremely compelling. Her character was extremely endearing, although I can’t put my finger on why.

Maura  

Her vitality and curiosity about life perhaps?

Cara Blouin

Yeah, being driven. Other characters seemed distracted by one thing after another but she had a clear line of inquiry throughout.

Maura

I also have never seen Mason Rosenthal act before, and I thought he was a great counterpoint to Alice. His pursuit of the real and then participation in the performance to be close to someone he cared for. Oh man, it hurt my heart a little.

Cara

They do the same thing with human interaction that they do with lights and sets, which is to highlight the small and the true. There was a moment when they were naming themselves, and Breathing (Jed Hancock-Brainerd) hesitated when I thought “oh no, he’s going to be the hero.” But he wasn’t. I should have trusted them.

Maura

In general I just thought the performers were so strong. Great comic timing, they felt like a true ensemble. Katie Gould’s face cracked me up multiple times, like in that first performance behind the rug scene? My god. So funny.

Cara  

They’re all really careful, like you were saying about Scott. I think that’s the real reason that I love them. They have such devotion and humility to what they are doing.

Maura  

I think this piece attests to taking time to make something from an ensemble perspective, too. They’ve been working on this since 2015. Which makes it extra amazing to me that the piece felt so relevant to me post-election. I did not respond with “art is more important than ever!” I felt first ready to leave art entirely and then profoundly committed to examining what art I do and why.

Cara  

A good reminder. Ensemble and devised work takes time. (reminds self)

Maura  

I always need that reminder.

Cara  

Me, too.

Maura  

I want to mention the sound and costumes.

Cara  

Sound was so seamless. I loved when they were listening to music in their separate earphones. So surreal and yet so familiar.

Maura Krause

Yes, I loved that. The quality of the voice was very well done, too.

Cara Blouin

Like a preschool teacher unruffled from years of experience.

Maura  

And very set in their ways. That amused patronizing quality. And then the sound treatment of it made it a little unnerving, a little ransom kidnapper-y.

Cara

Sci fi overlord feeling without the sci fi overlord attitude.

Maura  

Yes, exactly!

Also, I thought the costumes were pretty strong, I knew right away that Rebecca Kanach did them. She is so good at building surprising edifices. I enjoyed how the clothes contributed to everyone’s developing individually, it helped tell Breathing’s story as well as everyone else’s.

Cara

How about the ending?

Maura

The ending was the weakest part of the piece for me. I felt like there was a false ending of them exiting into the theatre and I was so down for that to just be the end. Like them turning the gaze back on us and then going off into the world, I was like GREAT I GET IT YAY. I guess that the continued passage and running was about their individual experiences in the outside world/life? Then they all were… reborn and got to die together? But Mason got his eyes back?

Cara  

I  did not get that. I didn’t know what it was about, actually.

Maura  

I was just confused when they got back on stage. Alice’s “more” was pretty great, and later a friend pointed out that it gave a very clear ending to the piece in a way that their just exiting into the theatre would not have.

Cara  

But what did it mean?

Maura  

More life? That was them dying or returning to the mother ship, no? And they all felt different ways about that but Alice’s character wanted to do it again or keep going?

Cara

I think the most useful thing I can say about the ending is that it wasn’t clear to me, either in tone or story. This piece still raises uncomfortable questions for me. Particularly *because* I love it. It makes me question the validity of the things I love in the face of what’s happening in the world. Does it *really* matter if we are precise? Does it *really* matter if we are humble? These are real questions for me right now.

Maura  

Yes, they are. But also, therein lies madness. And potentially unproductive self-hatred.

Cara Blouin

Or potentially a sense of artistic responsibility. I think what I mean is yes, I love beauty and precision. Will beauty and precision serve me in the world to come?

Maura  

Like everything else it is a balancing act! We need just enough to have a sense of artistic responsibility but not so much that we hate ourselves for needing to make art, and for making what comes out of us.

Cara  

Fair. Thanks, Hello! Sadness! for nailing that down so beautifully.

Maura  

Woo, yeah, that show. My review of that would have just been joyful sobbing. So maybe beauty and precision will matter and maybe it won’t, but it’s still a part of you. You can have space for both.

One thought on “Sans Everything- Lighting Rod Special and Strange Attractor

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