All or Sans Everything?
Lightning Rod Special is no stranger to innovation—their most recent work Underground Railroad Game just wrapped a wildly successful stint in New York after two sold-out runs here in Philadelphia. Founding company members Alice Yorke and Scott Sheppard were kind enough to sit down to chat about the genesis of their new world premiere, Sans Everything – a collaboration with Strange Attractor—running at FringeArts February 9-11.
FringeArts: What was the initial inspiration and where did that take place for Sans Everything? And what was the moment that you realized this could be made into a full-length show?
ALICE: A few years ago Aram Aghazarian (of Strange Attractor Theatre Co.) visited Pig Iron’s Dan Rothenberg while Dan was in New York City working on a production of As You Like It in New York. The studio was in a crazy high-rise building and the rehearsal room was tense–everyone was angry at each other but still working, still doing As You Like It. Aram talks about looking out the window at the vast sky and while listening to AYLI. The absurd thought struck him, “As You Like It in space.” Not setting AYLI in space, but doing it in space–more to the point, a big, outside force compelling a group of people to do it. That maybe there was some voice forcing you to do something frivolous as if it was serious. Though it would be easy to make this prompt a high-camp romp, the show has taken on real themes of life and death, due in no small part to the fact that we took a year-long hiatus from the piece when Rebecca Noon (of SATC) was diagnosed with cancer. When we returned to the piece last year, we wanted to make a show that didn’t acknowledge that directly but that explored questions Rebecca had been asking herself– why do we artists DO this? Why do we make new work and, even more so, why do we return to centuries old work when we have boundless creativity available to us? For us in Lightning Rod Special, those questions were just the kind of juicy, investigative line of thinking we love sinking our teeth into.
SCOTT: On a legendary day in Alaska, when Strange Attractor Theatre Co. was dreaming up ideas for future shows, Aram Aghazarian, resident provocateur, proffered a mystifying dare: “What about, As You Like It…in space?” As absurd as this idea sounded, over the past few years Strange Attractor Theatre Co. and Lightning Rod Special stirred this mad dramaturgical cocktail until an alluring logic began to form. As the groups obsessed over 1970’s sci-fi films, the singularity, and the themes of As You Like It, we began to dream up a world. As it does for so many readers, Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage” soliloquy compelled us, and we began to imagine it as a sometimes brilliant, sometimes faulty guidebook for non-human life to understand humanity. This made us wonder, what if in the future, disembodied artificial intelligence decided to return to the relative simplicity of the human form. What would surprise “them” about experiencing life at such a slow place from a fixed and carnal point of view? What if they unabashedly fell in love with the nostalgia of humanity? What if they fell in love with theatre? With Shakespeare? When we peer into the future, we are always, inevitably, examining something from our past.
FringeArts: Tell us about the world of Sans Everything. What do you find compelling about this world?
SCOTT: The world of Sans Everything is alien, stark, and working desperately to be human. The timbre is that of a thriller, but it wavers with tense fragility between the comedic and the uncanny. We witness all the things that make us human: rage, fear, passion, love, and art, but they are enacted by beings who do not fully understand human life. The characters’ struggle is both deeply empathic and terrifyingly unfamiliar.
ALICE: I love the deeply polar natures of the characters. Because they’ve never been human before they don’t have any of our socialized neuroses like decorum or detachment or self-consciousness. They believe things and they feel things 100%. We get to watch them experience those feelings and those beliefs for the first time; so much of the joy of these character for us as actors is that each moment is TOTALLY, utterly new for them. They are grown human bodies with full physical faculties, but they’ve never tasted food before or felt desire; they’ve never had to consider the awesome gulf that is death.
FringeArts: Can you tell us about a few of the characters and how they were developed?
SCOTT: In Sans Everything the characters are always in service to the ensemble, and although quirks and idiosyncrasies emerge, the group often thinks and moves as a flock or network. One character, Breathing, experiences a deeper de-evolution than some of the other beings, and so he has a delightful simplicity to him. He becomes an endearing clown, satisfied with the most basic human discoveries.
ALICE: After several days’ rehearsal of dark, serious, space-Shakespeare, we did an exercise where we were clowns. We acted like petulant babies or eager buffoons and gave ourselves absurd names like Foon, Saw, Henry, and Breathing. Suddenly, the room was filled with life and excitement. Scenes we liked but couldn’t get to work finally clicked with the introduction of these characters. The characters stuck. Like Scott said, Breathing is a character who devolves over the course of the show. Or it might be more like a case of arrested development. The “Seven Ages of Man” speech posits that all aging people go through these various stages, but Breathing–who is played by a grown, bearded man–bucks that by remaining a mewling infant even in the face of societal collapse
FringeArts: Can you go over how As You Like It plays into the show?
SCOTT: Sans Everything is a play you can enjoy and understand without knowing a single thing about Shakespeare or As You Like It. As the characters learn about becoming human, some of them observe a ubiquitous, time-honored tradition: they fall in love with Shakespeare. Others follow a different popular tradition: they hate Shakespeare. The reason As You Like It features prominently is partly arbitrary, but the characters are drawn to the powerful “All the World’s a Stage” speech, which seems to hold the key to unlocking the mysteries of the human lifespan. As the rival camps feed their divisive obsessions, they are both swept up by the thrill of performance.
ALICE: We talk about Shakespeare, in the show, as being an avatar for theatre. We’ve tried to plant some Shakespearean “Easter eggs” in the show for the lit-nerds out there but really you could sub in that the space crew finds “True West” or “The Seagull” or “Aphra Behn”. If future beings traffic purely in information, facts, and cold data, any work of theatre (or art or dance)–anything that uses story and emotion–would have a similarly disruptive effect.
FringeArts: What has the group worked on or been working on most in fine-tuning Sans Everything?
SCOTT: Up until this point we have been working on structure and flow, and now that we settled on the larger framework, a great deal of the work this winter will be filling in details, deepening the physical performances, and of course fine-tuning the ending.
ALICE: Always with the fine-tuning of the ending…
Thanks Alice and Scott!
Sans Everything runs at FringeArts February 9-11. Click here for tickets/more information.