Go Deeper


Posted July 21st, 2011

In December of 2009, LAB Fellow Alex Torra’s job as associate artistic director of Pig Iron Theatre Company popped up in a report on stimulus funds that U.S. Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain felt had been misspent. The pull-quote criticizing the “Clown theatrical production” Welcome to Yuba City, was “. . . a stunningly mean group of foul-mouthed waitresses.” A group that Philadelphians found pretty funny, apparently, since the show’s run at the 2009 Live Arts Festival sold out.

“It brought the community together a little bit,” Alex said. “The money went to pay Yuba City actors [as well], and I think that show speaks for itself.”

Since Yuba City, Alex has been involved in a wide range of projects, including the 2010 Live Arts production Cankerblossom (also from Pig Iron), Punchkapow, a Team Sunshine Performance Corporation project, and he returned to Shakespeare in Clark Park this summer to direct Much Ado About Nothing, which runs through Sunday.

“I’m trying to take methods from doing ensemble work and apply them to a written play. The actors would make a staging proposal. The assignment is to make a scene with a list of rules, using Pig Iron techniques—clarifying narrative and making stage pictures,” Alex said.

Known primarily for original, experimental, and ensemble work, Alex has spent a solid chunk of the year working with Shakespeare. First, he collaborated with Beth Nixon for part of the Missoula Oblongata Secret Shakespeare event in early June (as did an old friend from Buffalo poetry circles, Ric Royer, who’s been doing blazing theater work hi Ric!). Right now, it’s Much Ado About Nothing at Clark Park [SHAMELESS PLUG: Much Ado star Langston Darby is also leading an ensemble cast in DEER HEAD in the Philly Fringe, written by Josh “Stalin” McIlvain]. And today, he started rehearsals for Pig Iron’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, which will see its world premiere at the 2011 Live Arts Festival.

Prior to his Shakespeare engagements, Alex spent substantial time in the Live Arts Studio as one of the 2010-2011 Live Arts Brewery Fellows.

As a Fellow, Alex said, “You have no choice but to make work that’s fun and means something to you. That’s really daunting and really intense. It’s the first period of time in years that I’ve had the time to make work that is mine.”

For Alex, mine doesn’t mean working alone. “Mine means there are starting points I want to go from, and I’m the arbiter of what’s good. Somebody once called me an ensemblist. I need the group of people to make work,” he said.

“I did a ‘table tour,’ where I sat at a table with objects that represented people and things, to undermine representations. I took everything out of my wallet and played with it. From that showing, some thought it should be a solo show. In order for me to make a solo show I’d have to work out a lot of insecurities and fears. My theater can’t be my therapy. How a piece impacts an audience has to be the most important thing.”

So, Alex said, he took the focus of the “table tour”—an interest in honest presentation—and applied the same ideas to work with an ensemble to develop what he’s calling the Sincerity Project.

“I want theater to do that. For this project, I want theater to be a place where feeling is ok. Some of the work I’ve been exploring is about the complexity of living, about being in the world.”

“The energy of melodrama is out, out, out. The energy of sincerity is small, about the connection. I think the show can max out at 20 attendees at a time. There’s a weird bell that goes off”—as, in a moment of synchronicity, does a bell in the coffee shop where we’re talking—”and I call something a lie. I use that vocabulary a lot—’stop lying.’ When you start putting out work in the sincere style in a larger space, everything felt like a lie. It felt manipulative and kind of empty.”

“Irony is part of it in a major way. In part, it’s a response to seeing young artists making ultra-sincere work. They refuse to be ironic—’here we are, here I am’—I personally would like to indulge that and feel things with them. It’s something about the earnestness and necessity to be heard. But I’m a cheesy person. I live my life pretty sincerely as is. Some of the most spectacular moments of life are where the irony drops away.”

He told me a story about a wedding he attended in Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, where the microphone was held open for toasts, instead of the traditional best-man/maid-of-honor/maybe-a-parent-too sequence. “Instead of being 10 to 15 minutes of toasts, it was 30 to 45 minutes of intense sincerity. And at the end of the wedding, people started jumping on the dance floor, all up and down at the same time. It was awesome.”

Alex hopes that the Sincerity Project can counter some of what he called the “niggling tediums” that chip away at our ideas of our happiness.

“It’s OK to create a space where you can indulge happiness and purity,” he said. “I think that’s what music and TV do. I watch TV because I can be the laziest I can possibly be. It’s indulgence, a space of your own. Friday Night Lights I love, and Parenthood—they’re about characters going through dramatic emotional events. You travel with them, and there’s some catharsis that happens. Not Greek catharsis, but an indulgence of emotion. I think that’s a good, useful, healthy thing for people to experience.”

“With the Sincerity Project I’m trying to create a 20-minute irony-free zone—to create heaven on earth for twenty minutes.”

Shakespeare in Clark Park’s production of Much Ado About Nothing runs through Sunday night at Clark Park (duh), 43rd Street and Chester Avenue, West Philly. 7:00 pm, free.

Pig Iron’s 2011 Live Arts production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will runs most nights through the entire Live Arts Festival, September 1 through 17, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. Times vary, $20 to $30.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Twelfth Night photo by Jason Frank Rothenberg.