Discovering the story (again and again and again): Theater Grottesco’s ‘Different’

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Six women stand perfectly still, facing one another. And then they begin to move, as if one organism, flexing and contracting and then breaking apart, shattering themselves across the stage. One actor snaps her fingers. The others join in, one by one. They stomp their feet as they march inward on each other, their hissing and moaning growing louder. A voice rises above them, providing a line of story, and then they’re quiet again. Their gestures become more fluid, and they begin to whistle, which resembles a morning birdsong.

The actors in Theater Grottesco’s Different are rehearsing an adaptation of the Joan of Arc story by Patrick Mehaffy, but nobody plays the saint. Or, rather, they all do. Through improvised choreography, facial expressions, manmade sound effects, and spontaneous lines of narrative, the heroine’s story unfolds, if abstracted, with a fictional twist at the end.

At the beginning of the new work, actor Suzie Perkins stands upright in the center of the stage: “A girl of 15! Somehow her soul knows.” Others encircle her and animate her words with outstretched hands, forming a living, moving, ornamental sculpture of human bodies. They embody the words, emotions, and imagery of the story: soft in their movements when Joan is in prayer, harsh in sound when a rush of voices command her to lead the French army.

When the actors run through it again, they enter the stage swiftly, with more force. Their movements and vocals are more violent this time, less bird-like and angelic, and the lines of narrative that they’ve plucked from the story have changed, too. In fact, the performance is radically different — hence its title. Because of the improvisational nature of the show, it’s different each time it’s performed (the running time ranges from about 50 to 70 minutes).

Theater Grottesco presents Different, its 16th original production, through Dec. 1 at the Swan Theater.

While the 36-year-old company typically relies on improv to build its shows, the actors will improvise the live performance from beginning to end. Unlike a typical play marked by rehearsed lines and blocking, it’s part performance art, part dance, part oral storytelling, and all improv.

“This started as an exploration to see how deeply we could go with it,” says John Flax, Grottesco’s artistic director and the creator of Different. And even he has a hard time explaining what the piece is, other than saying you really have to see it.

The cast began studying and developing what Flax calls “structured improv” under him in February and will put those skills into action in front of a live audience. They create the play as they go, by using what Flax calls prompts or threads.

Threads are akin to the colors in a painter’s palette, he explains. “They can use all these colors to form a picture.” For instance, one thread is “flocking,” where an actor leads the others in various directions across the stage while leaving space for a new leader to emerge. But the energy of the flock varies, from soft and fluttery to sharp and violent, depending on the scene and the actor’s intention when introducing it.

“This is a series of images and movements set up so it can be broken. It’s different each time because we want it always to be strong,” Flax says. “When it becomes a head thing, it’s too late. [The actors] can’t get too comfortable with things.”

In September, they began working with Mehaffy’s 17-page story, the play’s anchor. They don’t deviate from the linear narrative, but they do choose the lines and imagery they find most crucial and bring those to the stage, dropping the rest, while interpreting the essence of each scene through choreography and sound.

“We have to find out what’s the quality of voice, what’s the texture of battle, what’s the texture of the barn, what’s the texture of the trees when they’re waking up,” says Danielle Reddick, a member of the company who is performing in the show.

Conveying the story is “not a top priority,” says Mehaffy, who has collaborated with Flax as a set builder, designer, and writer for 25 years. The play is akin to a Happening, something unpredictable that’s meant to be experienced — something, even, that the audience attends to see how or if the cast pulls it off.

Flax is more interested in the relationship between performers and the audience. “That means experimenting with form and giving the audience something they haven’t seen before, something surprising,” he says. “We prefer sparking their imaginations — and possibly touching them in ways that none of us could imagine. If our top priority was the clarity of the story, we’d probably endorse the short story and forget about the stage play.”

At an October rehearsal, the actors try a scene “off story” (as opposed to “off book”). After a run-through, they scurry to the floor in front of Flax and unleash an outpouring of questions, ideas, and critiques.

Were their voices too complementary, not distinct enough? Is exiting the stage to “go to corners” an effective way to break and reboot? Was it too sweet? Was there not enough attack? Were the hand gestures too melodramatic? And how did they omit an entire chunk of the storyline?

“The whole beginning was really truncated,” says Susan Skeele, an actor in Different who has trained with Grottesco for a couple of years. “It was like, ‘Where’d the story go?’

“When you came in, that was the right instinct,” Flax says to another actor. “The wrong text, but the right instinct.”

They lose their focus when one of them asks when they’re going to do a clown opera, and another jumps up and wants to try a two-minute rendition of Les Misérables. Flax tells them to take a 10-minute break.

When they return, actor Robin Duda suggests they do an exercise to get connected. They stand in a circle in silence, staring into one another’s eyes for several minutes, and then they feel ready to do another run-through — which, again, is entirely different from the one that came before it.

“It’ll be interesting to see what all the shows are, to see if they go beyond the structure and really take it somewhere,” Flax says.

During the annual Theatre Walk in September, Grottesco performed the first 10 minutes of the story five times. Some people watched it repeatedly to see how it was different each time.

“I think the whole process is really interesting, to tell the story using the tools they’re using and mining the story for whatever magic moments they can find,” Mehaffy says. “People are gonna have to come to the show at least twice to get the whole story.”

This story first appeared November 2019 in Pasatiempo.

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