In the shadow of one of Dallas' biggest symbols of commercial, mainstream theater—the Music Hall at Fair Park—sits the Ochre House, which has become North Texas' most exciting source of experimental and original theater since it opened in 2008. It was founded by Matthew Posey, who lives in the Exposition Park space, with a small office area, Murphy bed and kitchen—not to mention his dog Walter.
The organization is named Balanced Almond. Along with his band of collaborators, including Kevin Grammer, Elizabeth Evans, Ross Mackey, Trent Stephenson, Justin Locklear and Mitchell Parrack (they also go by "Pioneers of the Suavante Garde"), Posey has produced a remarkable set of original works in four years. They've ranged from his naughty puppet series (Coppertone) to investigations of literary figures like Jean Genet, Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs; from deconstructions of American classics (the excellent Morphing, a few months ago, was inspired by Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night) to works inspired by vaudeville (Umlauf's Bicycle and Memphos) and the penny opera (The Butcher). There was also a play by Grammer, the terrific Empty Room.
Posey was born and raised in Lubbock. After college, be became an intern at Houston's Alley Theatre. That's where he met Raphael Parry, who was about to leave for Dallas to work with a new theater that Katherine Owens was opening. That was Undermain Theatre. Posey fell for Dallas. He later opened Deep Ellum Theater Garage in the '80s, when Deep Ellum was bustling with avant garde theater. Between that and the Ochre House, he was in LA. His film credits range from True Stories to the Coens' No Country for Old Men to HBO's Temple Grandin.
The Ochre House fits about 50 people, and has largely been funded by royalties from Posey's film career. Audiences have grown as the theater has become more buzzed about and, astonishingly, about 40 percent of the Ochre's operating budget from ticket sales, Posey says. Also surprising: Posey pays his actors and musicians more than some local professional theaters pay their non-Equity talent.
Tonight, the latest show at Ochre House opens, Ex Voto: The Immaculate Conceptions of Frida Kahlo. TheaterJones chatted with Posey about his ideas of theater and his inspiration. This interview is a complement to Thomas Riccio's audio interview with Posey, which can be heard here. (And in the audio section, the audio file opens a new window so you can carry on with other business while listening.)
TheaterJones: Where does the name Balanced Almond come from?
Matthew Posey: It's taken from a Rumi poem, a reference to God's eye. That he watches us with one eye closed, one eye he watches us, and the other to let us do what we want, to be evil little bastards, to have free will.
You guys keep getting better. Is the audience growing along with you?
This is one of the best years we've had and we've really grown. Our first two years were our confidence-building years, in terms of the company and what kind of theater we wanted to do. We always knew it would be original theater.
Your career in Dallas began with Undermain Theatre. How influential was Katherine Owens for you?
I owe so much to her. She's been such a good friend, and she and Bruce [DuBose] and I have a longstanding understanding, there's not a thing we wouldn't do for anyone. From her, I've learned what an artistic director can be. She does not compromise, but I don't think that she really gets stuck. People can sometimes get stuck in their tradition, and she's constantly seeking, with a certain bit of wisdom, to see how she can stretch and continue to make things happen.
Since the existence of Balanced Almond, you've deconstructed two classic American plays. First was King of the Road (from Death of a Salesman) in 2008 at Undermain Theatre and then this year's Morphing, from Long Day's Journey Into Night. Why, and what other shows do you want to deconstruct?
I've always had my favorite plays I've wanted to correct. Long Day's Journey is one of them, I would love to do a full-blown legit production of it. But I could never do it in my small space. That's where the deconstruction comes in. The other thing is that I think it's really conducive to the mission of what the Ochre House does, that we're devoting ourselves to alternative theater.
On deconstruction, I try to go for the essence. It's based on a classical piece that you boil down to its essence. King of the Road was a deconstruction of Death of a Salesman. That was the story of a man who was worth more dead to his family than he was alive. I spin off ideas from that theme, on every level. Psychological, sociological, physiological. Long Day's Journey is about lies and family secrets, once I realized that, it made sense. I think that's why more playwrights write about families, because it's not only writing what you know but also the archetypes of what you find in your own family. Someone's an addict, an alcoholic, pedophile, whatever. There're all these family secrets.
There are plays that I definitely have on my bucket list I want to do, just as they're written. You Can't Take It with You I think is a great play. I'd also like to deconstruct The Iceman Cometh and All My Sons.
More Arthur Miller. What about Tennessee Williams?
I think Tennessee Williams deconstructs himself.
Your work at the Ochre House has involved bunraku puppetry, butoh dancing, tributes to literary figures, musicals and deconstruction. Do you see what you've done so far as a progression, and to what?
I think it is an integration. When I started the first season, the puppets did come through the bunraku idea. I've very interested in Asian performance techniques because of their simplicity. We're putting it in American terms, almost giving a Texas style feel to it.
The bunraku and the butoh dancing come from a very socialistic and very base [ideal]. They in themselves in their own culture were considered very vulgar, most of the plays were about incest and such things. I know when people saw Coppertone they were thinking "dirty little puppets," but actually it's true to the form. I did a lot of studying through my years of kabuki and bunraku and Punch and Judy and these things, and there's a style of performance that goes toward the grostesque and the vulgar.
I have my own little Rosetta Stone, and it's Hamlet's Mill, the origin of myth and religion. It's where all stories come from. I use it as a guide. One of the big creation stories that's universally accepted is that that when the gods created the world there were these two tricksters, twins, who came in and sang and did a vulgar little dance and the world was created. This all connects back into these ideas of the fall of man and modern Christian ideas.
These are where ideas for Coppertone come in, I just transposed them into a modern sense, this idea of being in whorehouses and taverns and things like that. Lo and behold you read Long Day's Journey Into Night and he connects it right into─and a lot of our classics are connected into─issues of alcoholism, prostitution, family secrets and lies, of being cheapskates, being things like that.
In terms of evolution of the theater, when we did Séance, it was the one out of the box that was highly successful, but it was more leaning toward Noel Coward, the witticisms. Then we did low comedy, and I wanted to move into high comedy. [Morphing] was divine tragedy. In a sense it's so tragic that it's hilarious. There's nothing funnier than family addiction and family secrets and lies.
I think they find an origin in the origins of theater, such as Greek theater. I don't think that the Greek tragedies were treated as seriously as we treat them today. The concept of tragedy is profound. I really do think that the audiences at the time did come for the festival, and everyone knew the story of Medea, but the ones who wrote it cleverly, there's hilarious moments. I think the Greeks thought that Medea eating her own children wasn't tragic, but horrifically funny. There's always going to be that element [in my work].
You went to seminary as a young adult. Are you still religious?
I grew up nondenominational. I had a classic conversion. I was fascinated with religion, still am, of finding who we are and how we are. I do believe in concepts of Christ. At one point I was called an "existential Christian." I don't know how those two come together, but I think maybe I'm an existential Christian. I went through my periods of agnosticism, but I do believe in God. I do believe in concepts of sacrifice, grace.
Theater comes from religious roots, the idea of a sacred space, the concept of theater being high church. There's a ritual, people attend and listen to the message that's being presented. We've taken theater in all aspects. It has elasticity, but fundamentally we're looking at the same thing. You have this sacred space where the actor performs and you become vicariously involved, the actor becomes invested in the audience, the audience becomes invested in the performance, and a transformation of sorts happens, there's a catharsis that happens.
Do you have a favorite show you've done at Ochre House?
I think Bill was my own personal watermark. Bill really did speak to me about the future of the Ochre House, in terms of performance and style and originality. For the most part, it was all happy accidents. There was something magical and profoundly sad about that story, with what happened with William Burroughs and Joan Volmer. After that happened William Burroughs pored himself into writing as a way to deal with his own actions, he found himself in a profound, horrible way. This is your Greek hero, the same kind of conflict and parallel.
Describe your style as a director.
I'm a firm believer that actors have a responsibility to save themselves for the sake of others. During rehearsals, you have to look a way to find those moments so you can be there for someone in a scene and bring it go ether and get to a sense of ensemble. I don't think a director's duty is to tell an actor his job.
Tell me about the interest in doing a show about Frida Kahlo and how the original idea morphed into what we'll see on stage.
I've always been interested in Frida Kahlo's life. My mother is an artist and when I was young, her painting class was my babysitter. I was 10 years old at the time. Mom taught me along with her other students at her studio in Lubbock, Texas. It was there that my Mom introduced me to Frida's style of painting. My Mom pointed out not only the great attention to detail in Frida's stroke of her brush, but also the primitive and raw aspects of her paintings. She told me technique is not everything when painting. She said that painting finds the soul, the emotion of the artist and the more honest you can be with yourself, then the more honest your painting will be. In this aspect, Frida speaks for herself.
My idea for the production was in researching Frida. She was greatly influenced by the Native Indians in Mexico (her mother being Indian) and the retablos or ex voto paintings they painted on tin. Ex votos are small votive paintings offering thanks to a holy "being," usually the Virgin, for misfortune escaped. They depict both the event or accident or mishap and the Holy Agent of miraculous salvation.
Ex Voto: The Immaculate Conceptions of Frida Kahlo can be viewed as a "moving" retablos or ex voto. Frida's world evolves and revolves around her through bunraku Puppetry techniques to create significant moments in her life. Her first lover, her accident, her significant paintings that reflect changes in her life, and of course, her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera. Live music enhances the "living ex voto" and together with these moments in Frida's life, creates Frida's extraordinary world.
What's the plan for the Ochre House in the next few years?
I have a clear vision of the next five years. I would say that by 2013 we will have a very firm grasp on the theater as an organization. The future of the Ochre House lies in trying to get it beyond the walls of its own small space. I understand the limitations of the Ochre House, and I have from the beginning. We will be touring. I want to broaden the Ochre House vision by taking it to other cities.