Wilma Theatre’s entrée into the 2019 Philadelphia Fringe Festival takes the words of Lebanese poet Etel Adnan and crafts a world where ancient history and long-forgotten memories merge with a contemporary sense of identity and currency.
Co-founder and artistic director for Wilma, Blanka Zizka, along with visual artist Rosa Barba, angular composer Alex Dowling and the Wilma HotHouse company, find ways that the body and voice amplify the deep-seated meaning, sound and physicality found within Adnan’s poems for the Fringe production, “THERE.”
Justin Jain, a longtime member of HotHouse and an out Philadelphia performer featured in the production said the team has created “a fluid and symbiotic way of working.” Jain gave PGN his insight into “THERE,” before the show’s September 11 premiere.
PGN: One might say “THERE” is Zizka’s return to the avant-garde. What do you think?
JJ: The Wilma HotHouse is such a radical and exciting experiment, the likes of which I’ve never seen in my 20 years in Philadelphia. To have a regional institution hire a company of professional actors from all walks of life, pay them, cast them and fold them into the culture of the company is a luxury some theaters only dream of. This allows Zizka, and us, the company, the privilege of working in a long term way on many things: projects, workshops, shows, techniques, training, personal relationships, etc. We’re able to take risks with one another knowing the investigations will reap rewards for everyone in the room down the line. With this, Blanka has been liberated to really go far in her capacity and capabilities of both exploring with us and in making bold choices in collaboration with our artistic sensibilities. I think the term avant-garde in American culture — at least in theater — has grossly become synonymous with the inaccessible, the bourgeois, the all-form-no-content. So I wouldn’t necessarily say that Blanka’s work has moved to that realm. On the contrary, one of the core values of this deep investigation we are all doing together is about connecting more to our audiences, to each other, to perhaps something greater than the sum of it all. She (and we) are constantly interrogating and challenging the vessels in which to unpack all of that.
PGN: How, when and why did you know that you were right for HotHouse?
JJ: Before moving to Philly, I came from an adolescence steeped in dance — ballet, jazz, contemporary — the works. I found acting in high school, so I have always been a very “physical actor.” My intersections of these mediums was in musical theatre, so it wasn’t until college that I discovered techniques and methods that took these interests and brought them to the stage in new ways. Then, when I saw work at Wilma, I was struck by the experimentation, edginess and physicality of their shows. I dreamed: “My gosh, that’s a place I would love to work someday.” Lo and behold, I was brought into the Wilma HotHouse company at its 2015 beginnings, cast in Theodoros Terzopoulos’ “Antigone” after a grueling, rigorous and exhilarating workshop-audition. In the middle of that workshop, something really clicked. I finally felt that I had found my wheelhouse. The work invigorated me in a way that I had never felt before. I had found my tribe — a group of actors, some of whom I had admired for years as an audience member, all deeply invested in this rigorous physical work, playing with the expanse of the human voice and seeking human connection through it all. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
PGN: How do Rosa Barba’s oblique sets complement Adnan’s theatrical universe?
JJ: In the poem, Adnan evokes different chapters of her life. This is sometimes mentioned outright or it comes in the form of tone and mood. We’ve banked on the fact that many of the chapters of the piece have their own energy behind them. We also took cues from her work in how she moves from abstract imagery to the pedestrian. The staging mirrors this dichotomy. One moment we are clearly watching someone lost in thought, pondering existential questions, and the next moment, it is bodies in space living the words in expressionistic ways. The physical world the audience will encounter when they come to the piece is one of imbalance. The stage is done in three-quarter thrust with the main playing space being two slopes, kind of like a skateboarding half-pipe. It creates a sense of movement, motion, agitation. Rosa’s contributions all help to serve this vision.
PGN: How were HoutHosue performers assigned roles in this production?
JJ: We’ve discovered the different voices of the eight performers, plus four musicians, through workshops. The line assignments keep changing daily. However, sometimes we serendipitously find threads between pieces depending on the actor speaking. There are some recurring images that happen in the piece, and these have all been generated by Blanka, with additional input from us. Again, this is a fluid process. We are still discovering our “roles.” Ultimately, it is just us, as the actors, living these massive questions.
PGN: What is “THERE” to you?
JJ: A contemplation on humanity, identity, history, ecology, war and love. Questions on who we are in relation to the other. Speculations on where we are headed. A search for truth and a hope for change.
“THERE” runs Sept.11-22 at The Wilma Theatre, 265 S Broad St. For tickets and more information, visit wilmatheater.org/production/there.