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Theater Mon Nov 08 2010
Nathan Robbel is the artistic director of The Right Brain Project. Halfshut, the final installment of his three-part collaboration with playwright and former Gapers Block A/C writer, Randall Colburn, is being presented now through December 4. I interviewed Robbel via email today about his work.
What inspired you to collaborate with Randall Colburn on this project for a whole season instead of a single play? How did the projects come into fruition?
It was really Hesperia that drew me to Randall. The play really spoke to me and I was inspired by the aesthetic I saw as a possibility to carry his words. We knew we wanted it to go up in the summer, and at the time, we had nothing for our winter 2010 slot. Randall shared Pretty Penny with me, and even though it was in an early draft, I loved elements of it tremendously. When he was hip to workshopping it, we set out to make it happen. Because the themes of the two shows were similar, it just felt natural to turn the season into a trilogy of sorts. Randall and I tossed around a few ideas to take the themes of Pretty Penny and Hesperia to a different level, and we began working on Halfshut in early summer.
How does Halfshut relate to Hesperia and Pretty Penny in your mind? Are they meant to be considered as a triptych? Does considering the three as a whole differ from seeing just one? Is there anything audience members should bring to the table if they are going to Halfshut but missed the first two plays?
Each play stands on its own completely. However, for those who have seen all three, there are themes that are echoed in each. In Pretty Penny we meet Victoria, who is desperately seeking to reinvent herself on her own terms, and the vehicle is sexuality. She feels as if there was a time in childhood in which she knew who she was, and she was happy. She longs to go back to a place of comfort that she once felt. The supporting characters are in a similar boat, to varying degrees. And while religion isn't brought up by name, the idea of being saved and accepted is prevalent.
In Hesperia, Claudia is running from her former self and desperately seeks acceptance by a deeply Evangelical man. After years in the porn industry, she's convinced she can rediscover the innocence of her childhood once again, and goes to desperate means to do so.
Halfshut takes the themes of religion, sexuality, and that longing for understanding and innocence to a new level. As an ensemble, we've delved into these themes and our own relationship to them (sexuality, religion, childhood), and have explored what happens when the ground falls out from underneath us-- when we finally reach that age in which we told ourselves we would have it all "figured out," and we seem to know less than ever. Randall has taken personal stories from the cast and used them as a base to build this script. So there is something deeply personal about this production. While actors always share a version of themselves, this time out we're telling our own stories on top of that. It's been exhilarating and a little scary.
How does RBP stand out from other theater companies in your eyes? How does RBP "actively employ the raw and intimate relationship between actor and audience", as the RBP website states? What tactics are employed in Halfshut specifically?
In my opinion, theater and the performing arts can provide the most intimate and communal experiences we can hope to have. We've been telling stories around campfires for thousands of years, and I think we long to feel connected through a story. I believe that theater has such potential to inspire conversation and spark creative thinking. What sets it apart from the other arts is that the actor is right in front of the audience. You can watch that actor sweat. You can see the actor cry and laugh-- and while one knows they do this every night of the performance run, every night it is shared differently. There is something special and intangible between the actor and the audience. I gravitate towards productions that recognize this. I want to be close to that actor. I want to share the experience and the story with them, and feel a sense of community with the rest of the audience-- like we're sitting around the campfire on a starry night. I truly believe that if the art [of theater] is to survive and thrive, we can't lose this sense of intimacy. If we're simply telling stories from a distance, we're better off working in film. And while I experience this occasionally with other companies, I make it my personal goal with the RBP to create an experience that captures this sense of community between the actor and the audience for every production we do.
To answer your question, there is no specific formula for "how" we make this intimate relationship happen. Every script is different, and I would never opt to alter a script for the sake of thrusting the actor into the lap of the audience. The RBP Rorschach [theater] helps-- it's an intimate space and the audience is forced into close proximity to the actor. Beyond that, every script poses its own challenges as well as provides opportunities to tell a story uniquely. As Halfshut has been devised with our playing space in mind, we've been able to optimally utilize our resources and create an environment in which the audience feels like an active participant in this production. Hopefully they'll feel part of a party with its own unique nuances that each audience will contribute to. I don't want to give away too much, but this is a production in which one doesn't have to wait until after the show to drink with the actors...
What do you hope audiences will bring away from these performances?
It's hard to predict what an audience will take away from any production. I believe that good art asks questions, or at the very least, brings issues to the surface. It's not art's job to provide realistic answers or revelations. That's up to each individual who has shared the story. At the very least, I hope something resonates-- that it leads to a dinner conversation after the show in which a couple learns something new about each other, or it inspires someone to seek out more information on a controversial topic. Randall's plays don't tackle politics or social issues-- I believe he's more interested in our extremely personal struggles. At the end of the day, it's issues within relationships and sorting through the events of our lives that make us who we think we are that keep us up at night. We all have this in common, regardless of how trivial it can sometimes seem. Randall's work embraces this and reminds us that we're all on our own path-- but we share some deeply personal desires and fears.
How has your work this season effected your style of directing? Have you had any revelations or any problems along the way?
This season has been a kick in the ass for me, in terms of reminding me of what is important about this art. Randall's plays required very little tech, and I chose to embrace that-- so much so, that we had no set or props to speak of for Pretty Penny. There was nothing to get in between the actor and the audience. It's funny-- sometimes one realizes that they've relied on technical elements for so long that trusting the bare bones of this art can be scary. But it's incredibly rewarding. When it's a choice, simplicity can be so effective. I was reminded of that this season, and it's something I will most definitely be taking with me.
Halfshut is currently being presented at the RBP Rorschach Theater at 4001 N. Ravenswood now through December 4 on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Reservations are a $15 suggested donation, and highly recommended, as seating is limited. Cash and checks are accepted at the door. For tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 773-750-2033. For more information about the production, visit the RBP website.