Why We Fight – An Introduction to Steppenwolf & Fight with a Stick by Co-Artistic Director, Alex Laziridis Ferguson
January 18, 2015
It was November 4th, the night of the first board meeting for the new company, Fight with a Stick. My co-artistic director Steven Hill had just finished talking about why the old company name, Leaky Heaven, was being put to rest. In 1999 Leaky began as a kind of postmodern family circus. Unlike the TV show Modern Family which squeezes blended and “gay” families into a middle-class, hetero-normative straightjacket, Leaky Heaven held to a deeply creative otherness—all were welcome under the big tent. As in 19th century circus you could parade your identity as a freak, an outsider or an artist. You could perform it as a challenge to the sacrosanct gentility of the bourgeoisie. For about 10 years Steve had partnered with dramaturge Michelle Valaquette in developing the politic of the company. Valaquette was instrumental in embedding a multi-voiced aesthetic into the shows. By 2012 the artistic interests of the company had evolved. Elements of the company’s circus past still made appearances but Leaky had taken decisive steps toward a hybrid of theatre and performance installation.
In 2013 I was asked to be part of the devising team for der Wink, a show that explored notions of public and private civic space. The design had been conceived by Steve and architect Jesse Garlick. 80 spectators sat in chairs in a grid-like formation while 40 walls, 8 feet high, were continuously shifted between them. This maneuverable construction was accompanied by a massive sound design by Nancy Tam, and a lighting and projection field by Parjad Sharifi.
Over the past ten years or so my interests as a theatre artist had drifted far from the “drama” model. I found myself digging into scenography, lighting design, architecture, contemporary dance, the history of visual and performance art, and neuroscience. For the past few years I’ve been exploring how people physically embody space and place. I didn’t know when I agreed to work on der Wink that the show would line up so perfectly with my interests. In Steven Hill I had found a creative intelligence I could engage with and learn from. We were both theatre artists who had lost the passion for what many people called theatre—a human figure at the center of a performance that serves a director’s interpretation of a playwright’s text. And so at the November 4th board meeting when my turn came to speak I found myself saying, “I hate theatre.” This thought had been worming around in my head for some time. Worse, it was dawning on me that I had always hated theatre, even though I had been making it for so many years. Back in theatre school I was drawn to the works of Beckett and Ionesco: they made me laugh and they stretched my brain. I didn’t care what they meant. I still don’t. So I have a problem with a lot of theatre. I hate the way so much conventional theatre makes the obvious more obvious, how it has been surpassed on almost every level by other art forms including TV and movies, and how so many theatre institutions live in fear of offending their audiences (and generally underestimating them). I find theatre’s claims to “liveness” bogus—the promise of a social encounter and a unique experience. Most theatre environments, from the lobby to the auditorium, severely limit the possibility of meaningful social encounter, and although there are live performers on stage and real live spectators in the auditorium the experience usually feels very dead, very stifled, very oppressive.
Steve and I have both increasingly been drawn to what is sometimes called “performance design.” Thinking through a performance, not in terms of character journey or plot progression, but in terms of spatial progression. We put the audience inside a configuration that brings with it a set of ethical, political, and aesthetic questions. Because the spectator is immersed physically in this environment, she gets a chance to feel it with her whole self. We design one space after another. We call each space a genre. Last March, with the other devisers—Alba Calvo, Camille Gingras, Flo Barret, Lois Anderson, Molly March, Nancy Tam, Niall McNeil, Parjad Sharifi, Sean Marshall Jr.—we built To Wear a Heart so White, an exploration of the local settler-colonist narrative. We treated Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a colonial export of the British Empire. We wondered where we stood in relation to it.
We then created a number of spatial genres, the first being “Church Congregation” space—the audience sat in a circular configuration, listened to a sermon delivered in the style of a United Church minister, and chanted a liturgy made up of excerpts from Macbeth (“Double double, toil and trouble…”). We created a space based on Victorian Playhouses and the 19th century tableau vivant. Another was the “Canadian Campfire” space, complete with taxidermic grouse, duck, and turkey. Yet another was the “Shakespearean Banquet” space, featuring the cosmos above and a real dead pig’s head below. And so on.
I think we surprised even ourselves when, for the current show, we turned to Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf as a way of getting back to character and story. It may have been an act of self-sabotage: Steppenwolf offers very little in terms of plot and is all about the dismantling of character. To make things less story-friendly, we had also decided to deepen our collaborations with artists from non-theatre disciplines. We invited Natalie Purschwitz (visual artist, installation designer, costume/clothing designer) and Josh Hite (video artist, photographer) into the process. We’ve spent a lot of time looking into each other’s brains. Learning. Making things together.
We find ourselves once again creating spaces. Putting the audience inside an evocative configuration: sitting on the floor staring into a big mirror. We present a visual world, but we try to turn it into sound. The Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa speaks of “haptic” architecture, architecture you can feel with your eyes. The skin is the mother of the other senses, he says. It is through the skin (including the eyes encased in an envelope of skin) that we feel sight, sound, and everything else. Homogenized, standardized architecture deprives us of tactile diversity. Evenly lit rooms, malls and community centers without shadows and without the kind of micro-climates that create difference of feeling as you move from area to area—these amount to bland comfort.
Fight with a Stick, like Leaky Heaven before it, pushes against such uninteresting conformity. We push against sameness in favour of encounter with difference. The American sociologist Richard Sennet argues that as the middle class retreats into the private space of its modernist homes, into subdivisions and gated communities, into condominiums that can only attract citizens of a certain economic class, the public life of the city suffers. Surrounded by social and economic sameness we lose the ability to negotiate difference. In doing so we fail to mature as individuals and as a city.
Like Pallasmaa we are interested in variation, so we build spatial micro-climates a spectator can feel her way through. Like Sennet we seek the richness and challenge of encounters with difference. With Steppenwolf we encounter the self as other. Each space is both interior and exterior to that self. Each thing put in the space—every object, every sound, every gesture—is a proposal from a strange world that is very much like our own.
Alex Laziridis Ferguson
Fight with a Stick
Experience Fight with a Stick’s Stepphenwolf February 4-8, at the Russian Hall, and stay for the PuSh Conversations post-performance talk to learn more about this intriguing production. Book your tickets to Stepphenwolf on your PuSh Pass, Youth Passport, or as single tickets.