Five years ago Greg Webster had a dream in which a man in a business suit stood atop a copier machine as he was being attacked by paper. Not long after, while he was late-night channel surfing, Webster came across a documentary on British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and his grueling expedition to Antarctica.
Most people wouldn't see a connection, but Webster, the co-founding artistic director of the Split Knuckle Theatre, did and decided to look into the ties between the 19th and 21st century men.
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It's an exuberant production that helped define his young seven-member company, which has since toured 19 countries since 2010.
"People can say physical theater is at times weird, but it has a huge place in the marketplace and resonates with a younger audience," says Webster, who is from New Haven, where his troupe is based.
This style, also known as "devised theater," has been popularized by such companies as Minneapolis's Theatre de la Jeune Lune; Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Company; and in such shows as Broadway's "The 39 Steps," "War Horse," "Peter and the Starcatcher" and the off-Broadway interactive hit "Sleep No More" by England's Punchdrunk theater company, in which audience members discover actors performing scenes from "Macbeth" in dozens of rooms on several floors of an old warehouse.
"As [theater guru] Peter Brook said, 'All we can hope for in the theater is that it awakens some thing in us that was once sleeping'," says Webster.
"It's theater that doesn't suck," says Split Knuckle writer Nick Ryan.
Starting From Scratch
The company began in 2005 when Webster was studying the theater technique of Jacques LeCoq, known for his methods on physical theater, movement, and mime. Webster formed his company with fellow expatriate students in London. Their first piece was based on John Steinbeck's "The Pearl," which they performed at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival, winning praise and encouragement.
Webster relocated to the U.S., landing at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, where he became an assistant professor of movement theater in the professional-actor-training program. He is also the resident movement coach and fight choreographer for the affiliated Connecticut Repertory Theatre. Thanks to a grant, he began to develop "Endurance" with writer Ryan and members from his London company who had returned tio the U.S.
"We got the band back together again," he says, laughing.
The company entered the UConn rehearsal hall and with a few found props, a sense of ensemble collaboration and lots of imagination, they began developing the play.
How does this company work differently than the traditional playwright-producing model?
In the former, says Webster, "the playwright would go into a dark room at 3 in the morning with a typewriter, a bottle of bourbon and a loaded handgun and knock out a play. He'd then hand it to a director who calls a casting director who calls an agent who brings in the actors who then rehearse the script. Everyone's job is very clear.
"But how we work is more like a jazz band. Nick would be in the room, as well as a composer, and someone would say, 'OK, I have an idea. What happens if we take this table and we turn it on its side? What is that? Maybe an iceberg? Or if we flip it over, a deck of a ship? There's lots of fooling around with objects as we improvise a scene based upon what Nick has given us. Then Nick would say, 'OK, I think there's something there,' and he would run off to Starbucks and write for four hours and come back with some pages and we'd go from there."
But who's in charge?
"It starts by committee," says Webster, "but it's my job as artistic director to harness what is happening. There may be dissention and arguments, but our training teaches us never to fear conflict."
And the theme of "Endurance?"
"Shakleton put an ad in a newspaper," says Webster. "In it he said: 'Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.' More than 5,000 applied for the job. But who would do that now? I wanted to look at what kind of people we were then and what's happened to us now."
The 21st century man of "Endurance" emerged as a character named Walter Spivey, an insurance man in Hartford, who is trying to survive the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression and save his employees' jobs.
"I wanted to plant the play locally, so I set it in Hartford," says Webster. But other than the UConn run in 2011, it has not played the state until the Long Wharf run.
The company's next piece is a played called "The Curious Case of Phineas Gage," based on a true incident of a railroad worker in 1850 who has a spike go from his jaw through the top of his head.
"He essentially lobotomized himself," says Webster. "It also signaled the birth of modern brain science. Despite its subject, it's very silly and fun and presented like a 19th century medicine show-meets-medical re-enactment."
That show is set for production in the spring of 2015. There is also a co-production with Connecticut Repertory Theatre at UConn next year called "The Band of the Black Hand," which Webster describes as combining film noir, modern Indonesian shadow puppetry and live jazz music. It's slated for March 2015 production in Storrs.