Devised theater is something of a phenomenon in Philadelphia’s performance scene. Pig Iron, of course, has been one of its longstanding local practitioners, and younger groups like AGGROCRAG and the Groundswell Players have been bringing their takes on the practice to Philly Fringe over the past few years. This week, an exceptionally promising group performing under the umbrella of Anisa George’s Penn Dixie Productions is using the method to leap from poet Arthur Rimbaud’s life into their show, The Seer. Two performances remain, today at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, at Vox Populi Gallery’s new performance space AUX.
Five of the six performers met at the London International School of the Performing Arts, and one artist who’s coming in from Iowa, whom Anisa had worked with in the past.
“A lot of actors I grew up with studied under Lecoq. I always wanted to study with him but he died when I was in high school.” After that, Anisa says, she gave up on theater, and decided she wanted to be an Arabist. She studied at Columbia University, and moved to Yemen. Iranian and Persian culture was her major focus, and she developed a solo piece based on her travels in Arabic-speaking world. She started to get bookings, and she said she realized that she was going to be more successful as a theater artist than as an Arabist.
After the jump: Finding RAMBO in Yemen, and “dysfunctional clown melodrama.”
Anisa’s work has taken her in a variety of directions. She performed as Emma in the film Rachel Getting Married, she directed two documentary films, and with The Seer, has created a performing group–and directs it–both for the first time.
“This group is a really big deal for me. It’s my first time directing. I never had the mentality of forming a company. I had vertigo about it for a long time,” she said.
“The Seer grew out of living in Yemen. Rimbaud lived in Yemen, in Aden, this decrepit former British port city. I saw this sign saying ‘RAMBO’s House,'” Anisa said. The building is now a small hotel, and she went in to speak to the concierge, who told her that RAMBO was a French poet.
“I went in, and saw picks of a young dashing Frenchmen. He lived in what was then a more refined hotel for expats. He worked for a coffee-trader, then traded guns, eventually. it really moved me that here was this great French poet who had completely cut himself off from his former life to this isolation.”
Exploring this on stage, she said, is much less linear a process than simply presenting Rimbaud’s life.
“I don’t impose a script on the actors. I invite them to imagine the story to be told,” Anisa said, resulting in what she called a “dysfunctional clown melodrama. What these six people in this time and space want to do with that is pretty out of my control.”
“I’m not interested in traditional theatrical approaches where they hand you great texts and have you interpret great roles. If theater is going to be a vital form, it has to be drawn into the center of this time and place.” In her mode of working, she said, “The actor is always at the center somehow.”
This kind of devised work has the potential to create tension between the initial creator and her collaborators, but Anisa said that at places like LISPA, performers are trained to overcome this.
“You learn to practice detachment about that, because you believe that actually, the thing that wants to be born needs to take control and dictate something on its own terms,” she said. In one class in particular, groups create together.
“You take turns being the ‘outside eye.’ You’re making shit every day, and then every Monday you have to show it to the whole class and teachers, and they shred it, and tell you to do it again. You have these soirees at the end of every term, where you invite an audiences to see the best work of the term. By the end of two years you’ve made 20 pieces, and really learned how to collaborate with each show. It becomes your natural state of being,” she said. Still, this kind of theater can be both financially and aesthetically risky.
“You have to raise money for something before you know what it is. And it’s like going through a very, very dark tunnel. You don’t know if that play is going to work at the end of it. We begin with nothing,” she said.
Does it work, this time? (Hint: yes.) Find out today at The Seer, running at AUX at the Vox Populi Gallery, 319 N. 11th Street. 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, $10.