Go Deeper

A Peek Inside the Nightjar Apothecary: Brett Keyser Revealed!

Posted August 14th, 2009

It’s been a long and varied journey for Brett Keyser, founder of Nightjar Apothecary, the company he started to produce his solo work. At this year’s Philly Fringe he mounts the highly imaginative solo performance Darwinii: The Comeuppance of Man. The show marks his sixth collaboration with the American Philosophical Society (APS), where he serves as the artist in residence. (The APS, founded by Ben Franklin and sitting at 5th and Chestnut, is dedicated to the history of science and technology and houses an enormous archival collection.) Each show is a sort of performative investigation into the subject of the yearly exhibition at the APS Museum, resulting in a wildly creative approach both to performance and to interpretation of the exhibitions’ themes. The funny thing is that when Brett moved back to Philadelphia he actually moved back with the intention of taking a break from theater, and certainly had no plans to get into solo work.

Brett, now 41, grew up in the little town of Revere, Pennsylvania, in Upper Bucks County (and attended Palisades High School—home of the Pirates—in Kintnersville). He ended up at University of Pennsylvania where he majored in folklore. At the time Penn had a department of folklore. It later existed only as a major, and by now, Brett believes that all that’s left is a single class.

His interest was in folk festivals—not Arlo Guthrie folk festivals, but festival like carnival, where normal life gets turned upside down. “Like the practice of mumming, which Philadelphia Mummers are related to but a little different,” Brett explains. “These were people who would go house to house performing in exchange for food or beer, mostly alcohol of some sort.”

He had always had an interest in theater “but Penn wasn’t much of a theater school.” After he graduated, Brett went Denmark and work with the Odin Theater Company, “a kind of physical theater—the director had worked with Jerzy Grotowski in Poland.” There he studied the company, its methods of creating theater, its training and discipline, and the result was profound. “Where ever I may have been going,” Brett says of his life, “it totally changed where I would go.”

Find out where Brett went and how he creates his work after the jump.

He came back to the States and jumped around for a while. He worked in New York and then journeyed to the West Coast, where he lived in Oregon and San Francisco. In the early 90s he spent a couple winters in Winnipeg working “something like an apprentice” with the Primus Theatre, which was led by a former Odin Theater performer. “I learned to walk on stilts and became a stilt performer,” amongst other things.

In San Francisco, Brett worked for the San Francisco Street Festival, which brought together some aspects of his old folklore studies to his performance career. But overall, living out West, Brett “always felt about three hours behind.” He was looking for a group of artists or a kind of theater like Odin or Primus. “I was really interesting in what could be accomplished working together over a long period of time.”

“So a friend of mine whom I knew from Primus, he found out about this group of people working in Cleveland who became Theatre Labyrinth. In 1996 I did a guest performance on a project with performers from Canada, South America, and different places around the U.S. about alien abduction,” Brett recalls. “The playwright and director had gone to abductee support groups—of which there are many in northeast Ohio—and used that as the basis to create a script and the company was working with creating a physical score.” So the company would be working separately, and eventually own the components would be molded together. Brett was very much in tune with this way of creating a performance, and in 1997 he moved to Cleveland and joined Theatre Labyrinth.

“Moved to Cleveland to work with other people and first performance I did was a solo show.” That show was Sybil, after the Par Lagerkvist play, which was developed over the course of a year. Brett stayed with Theatre Labyrinth (which was renamed Wishhounds so as not to confuse itself with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Labyrinth Theater) until 2002, under the direction of Raymond Bobgam, who is now the executive director of the Cleveland Public Theatre.

“Working with Raymond was a very influential period in shaping me as an artist,” says Brett. “One person would be asked to write a song or piece of text, and sometimes two people or multiple people would go off to work together. . . The most dreaded part of the work you feel nothing is happening, but in the end time becomes the constraint. You only have a certain amount of time to get something accomplished. You need to bring it to the director whether it’s finished or not. . . . [Raymond] has this amazing ability to pull together all these things to tell a story that doesn’t seem arbitrary.”

By 2003, however, Brett was thinking beyond Cleveland. “I was feeling a little trapped geographically,” he recalls. “Cleveland [like Winnipeg] had a similar feeling of being stuck in the middle and trying to compete with larger cities. Don’t feel that as much in Philly as I used to. I actually performed in Filtered Fringe with Cleveland in 2001—I came back and didn’t recognize it at all.” He was also looking to take a break from theater and “focus on writing.”

So Brett moved to Philadelphia and got a job as a museum guide at the APS Museum. At that time, however, APS wanted to start programming on the history of science and technology, particularly as related to the museum exhibitions of their collections. And they wanted to be innovative. “So the director of education asked me if I’d be interested in creating a performance piece inside the gallery.”

His first work Horridus! Horridus! Name calling in the Wilderness (“horridus” is the Latin name for timber rattlesnake) was a mock lecture on the history of taxonomy (the classification of species), performed inside the museum’s galleries. Brett confesses to having no scientific background. But as he grew up in the country and his father is a landscaper and nurseryman, he had been exposed to the Latin names of plants at a young age. “There’s a lot of play with those Latin names.”

The show was a success and Sue Ann Prince, the museum’s curator was delighted: it was exactly the reason she wanted to create programming in a different way. “[The APS Museum] is a really cool place to do a performance—you have to create it for this really broad audience,” explains Brett. “On the other side APS has this huge membership of geniuses.” Brett clearly enjoys this challenge, however, as it gives him the opportunity to layer meaning into his works that can be appreciated in different ways by different people.

Since Horridus! Horridus, Brett has created The Natural Legacy of Lewis and Clark; Turkish Delightenment, a truly whacky exploration of the automation craze of the 18th and 19th centuries, represented by one of the few ever recovered 18th century human-like automated machines who plays chess and has defeated all the great science geniuses of yesteryear; You Are Here which had Brett acting as an early explorer leading “expeditions” about Independence Park; and TANN, HORNS, & DEAD DOGS: Tales of Civic Effluvia, which was performed at Dock Creek, which was used as an open sewer in the 1700s until it was buried, in Independence Park, and told the stories of those who lived by and died in it.

This year, Brett has been commissioned to create a show that draws on the museum’s current exhibition “Dialogues with Darwin.” The first thing that should be known about the show? “Darwin does not appear in the show,” states Brett. “I was reading The Voyage of the Beagle and Darwin was 22 when he signed on and went on this five year journey around the world. And I’m thinking, 20-something Englishman out on the sea and there’s no sign of a romantic anything . . . and what if he had a romantic encounter somewhere in his journey? Of course he wouldn’t write about it in his journal because of the times.”

And so the seed for Darwinii: The Comeuppance of Man was born. “So the character is a man who claims to be the great-great-great-great-great bastard child of Charles Darwin. He’s from Tierra del Fuego. The story is how he pieces this all together,” says Brett. “Once he realizes that he’s related to Darwin, he must find out how he can prove it and how he can make money off of it. But he’s convicted of a petty crime, and he must make public apologies, during which he ends up digressing into his life story. . . In his telling of the story—his life exhibits various features that are in Darwin’s work: struggle for survival, deep time (grappling with and conceiving of long periods of time such as billions of years), extinction, fossil record.”

While Darwinii is a solo show, Brett decided to bring in collaborators. Helping out is Tracy Broyles, executive director of Spiral Q Puppet Theater, whom Brett has tapped before for consulting director purposes. She will be working on the costumes and sets. And Brett asked playwright Glen Berger to write the script. “Glen is drawn to Victoria era. I asked him to do this piece because I’d read his play Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & Nos. 22. He’s really interested in these obscure scientific types.” (Glen is also writing the script for Spiderman: The Musical, directed by Julie Taymor, with music by, yes, Bono and The Edge.)

Together, Brett and Glen conceived the story of Darwinii, and are directing it together. Meanwhile, Brett goes about doing a lot of research, scouring biographies, and Darwin’s texts, “functioning as a dramaturg.” The collaboration has freed him up to explore the physical aspects of the performance, which the script is fit on top of, so that there is a layering of stories: the physical one and the narrative. This approach means that he is not simply following the literal directions of the script, where the character might say, “And so I hit my head,” and Brett would hit his head. Instead, having already mapped out the “physical score” before a final script he must find a way to make the two work together.

“Been a while since I’d worked [with anyone],” muses Brett. “I wanted to mix it up by bringing in something new. Bring in another voice to create that resistance. Wanted to add some of that tension.” Still for much of the process he is working very much on his own. “Working by myself is extremely difficult. Takes a lot of discipline to go in studio, but slowly stuff starts to appear. Can be hopeless, then something comes out. Same process every time. Never easier.”

–Josh McIlvain

Darwinii: The Comeuppance of Man performances are September 4 + 5 at 6:30pm, September 11 + 12 at 6:30pm at the APS Museum, 104 South 5th St. Buy tickets here.

Performance photos courtesy of the artist. Photo of Brett Keyser by Josh McIlvain.