Dallas — Seems like there’s always some young-buck theater-maker that the larger arts community is buzzing about—and that will always be the case as young artists emerge on the scene. Right now, that person is Jeffrey Colangelo.
A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Colangelo is a well-regarded fight choreographer who has worked with Dallas Theater Center (King Lear, Oedipus el Rey and the current production of Les Misérables), Shakespeare Dallas (Coriolanus, as assistant to Sara Romersberger), Undermain Theatre (Penelope) and Cara Mía Theatre Company (Romeo and Juliet, The Magic Rainforest).
He also co-founded one of the most exciting new theater companies in town, PrismCo., which made its biggest splash in April with the movement work Galatea in a Trinity Groves warehouse. Currently, he’s retooled his 2013 clown piece playtime for the Festival of Independent Theatres; the show has its final FIT performance at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 31.
My first exposure to Colangelo’s work was his 30-minute version of playtime at the Margo Jones Theatre in 2013, presented by SiHK Brothers. He later invited friends and critics to PrismCo.’s Baba Yaga at SMU, a fascinating movement work that used elastic bands from one end of the room to the other, with the performers, some of them dancers, moving and weight-sharing as they told a tale based on the legend of the Russian witch Baba Yaga. Then, at this year’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, he poked fun of himself and the idea of one-man shows with Playing With Myself, which was clever, occasionly vulgar and exactly what the subtitle “An Exercise in Narcissism” suggested. In a good way.
Then came Galatea, based on the myth of Pygmalion and the statue with which he was obsessed. A wordless movement piece, it made use of aerial silks, clowning and weight sharing. Read our review here. It was created with Katy Tye, who also runs PrismCo., and performed by SMU actors and dancers. It was one of the most memorable theater experiences of the year, so far.
Currently, in addition to Les Mis, Jeffrey’s fight direction can been seen in CrossOver Theatre Company’s production of The Three Musketeers at the Corner Theatre in DeSoto. In October, PrismCo. and Cara Mía will team up for the original movement work Sand Show in a Trinity Groves warehouse (auditions for that show are Aug. 17; here's info). In 2015, PrismCo. will revive its first work, called Prism.
Colangelo grew up in Orlando, Fla, the son of theater parents. His mother writes shows for the theme parks there, but also has her own production company called It Ain’t Shakespeare. His father is a high school drama teacher. They met as actors in national tours of musicals.
I’ve chatted with Colangelo several times this year, but much of the conversation below happened in the Margo Jones Theatre in February. When he mentioned that his first monologue to perform in middle school drama class was from William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, I pointed out that the play, in its earlier incarnation Farther Off From Heaven, had its world premiere at Margo’s Theatre ’47, the very stage on which he debuted playtime.
It was another sign that signified to Colangelo that—as more theater artists are starting to realize—Dallas isn’t such a bad place to set up shop. Here’s the conversation, mixed with responses from more recent questions.
TheaterJones: Because theater parents raised you, was it a given that you’d be an actor or involved in theater?
Jeffrey Colangelo: I tried my best not to be, and they encouraged me not to be. Not “you won’t make any money,” but “if you don’t want to do it, then don’t do it.”
What else did you want to be?
I went through a number of phases. One was scientist, another was animator. I had this friend Carl, we were neck-and-neck with drawing [cartoons].
But you ended up in theater anyway.
My gateway drug was fight choreography. That started in high school when I saw a terrible production of Romeo and Juliet, and Tybalt and Mercutio fought. It was just a high school production but I had high standards, it was the saddest fight I had ever seen. I thought “I could do better” and I did.
I think the first thing I did that was closest to movement theater, there was a high school [drama] competition, and there was a mime category and nobody entered it, so I thought I would. [My piece] was called Bully vs. Nerd, and the nerd has superpowers and the janitor gets involved.
How’d you end up at Southern Methodist University?
SMU gave me a full scholarship. I knew I wanted to get out of Florida. In Orlando, you work for Disney and that’s about it. There are groups like Orlando Shakespeare Theater and Mad Cow Theatre, and the Orlando Fringe Festival, which is one of the largest fringe festivals in the country, but not a lot of diversity.
At SMU, I switched from acting to theater studies. I had taken Taekwondo, Kung Fu and watched lots of fights on YouTube, but at SMU, meeting fight choreographers Bill Lengfelder and Sara Romersberger, they started leading me into precision in my work and how to articulate it. Everybody in that program was so helpful. Then I did an independent study with Anne Schilling on how I can do vocal work with the actors to create their own presence in a fight. I started being that guy people would go to for fight choreography.
What’s your strategy for creating a compelling, believable fight on stage?
I’m definitely really about the storytelling in it. That’s a theme among most fight choreographers but it doesn’t always come through. What I try to do is work with actors in a way that is accessible, that’s more in line with their bodies as opposed to mine. There are a number of things I’ve been working on to get that out of folks.
I’m developing a form of actor sparring in which through a system of desensitization I can get them actors to safely hit each other, even in the face, without it being a problem. Half the reason why a slap to the face from someone else hurts is because when you hit someone, culturally there is a barrier there that you’re breaking. Part of that shock is surprise and the hurt to our actual ego that causes a lot of that pain. Getting actors used to working in that physical environment so that touching each other in that way, when they get desensitized, they’re able to work more freely. It helps so much with in-the-round theater, I did some of that with Oedipus el Rey.
My ultimate goal is to not be a fight director who teaches so many moves, as to be a fight director who really gives a way for the actors to speak from a certain type of language, so I break down my choreography as a form of text. There’s a long process where I go from skeleton to skin. I treat it like text. We do a reading of the text, I give them the choreography and they learn the words. Then we start to apply intention —what are you saying with this, what do you mean, what are you going for, why are you doing this particular thing? Then after that we start putting on the skin, the voice and the performance mentality of it. That part I like to touch last, because sometimes if you push people to go into performance and you get there too soon, the fights will get stagnant. They might get lazy in the performance, or what is driving them toward the fight, unless they’re a really well trained stage combat actor, they might lose what the original intentions were.
How did fight choreography lead into clowning?
I love fight choreography and could geek out about it for the next three hours; it incorporates pretty much everything I’ve ever learned in theater. There are definitely elements of clowning in there. A really good stage combat artist will always use elements of clowning whenever they get hurt, especially for a stab. The best stabs you see are where they receive the hit, so they notice the outside object; they analyze the outside object and they show a friend. You look at it and show the blood to everybody else. Same thing with clowning: you look at the object, you make a decision and you share it with everybody.
Using a lot of those principals that you learn in fight choreography and clowning, I was able to create this first piece that’s about the birth of civilization, I guess. [laughs] Not a broad subject at all.
It used paint as tribal marking, which led to a paint fight. The two tribes then inevitably fought, then there was the evolution of fighting, from fist fight to knives (which were paintbrushes), then a gun fight with the paint gun. We made these paint guns out of soap dispensers and turned them backwards. People tell me they still have their shoes that were ruined by Prism [big smile].
That’s how PrismCo. began?
The first original show we did was called Prism, but we weren’t called that. I said “wouldn’t it be cool if we did a flashlight fight and then a paint fight?” From there, we started putting story and structure behind it. It was all SMU students, Katy [Tye] wasn’t involved in the writing on that one, but she did a lot of weight sharing for that.
Let’s talk about some of the works you and Prism have created. Start with Baba Yaga.
Honestly with all these pieces, we go “hey, wouldn’t be fun if…”
With Baba Yaga, it started because we wanted to work with elastics. We looked around for myths, and came across Baba Yaga. What attracted me to her was that she historically represents that perfect time when witches were considered both good and bad things. I like that this character couldn’t be just evil. One moment she eats someone alive, the next moment she gives a heroine a sword. It went through 8 million drafts…there was always a boy/girl love story, but the big moment when we knew we had a story was when we thought of her as a mother to these characters.
What about playtime?
I saw Alia [Tovakolian]’s [production of Sarah Kane’s] 4.42 Psychosis, and she covered the floor in balloons, and I thought “wouldn’t it be fun if…” It was really about a guy who likes balloons and these creepy things keeping him from the balloons. Playtime and Prism, those were two shows measured by the range of reactions. Certain nights with playtime, when I popped a balloon, there’d be gasp, a scream and a chuckle of laughter all at the same time.
You debuted playtime at the Margo Jones Theater in 2013. Why did you decide to enter it into FIT?
Actually, I decided to enter playtime into the FIT festival because you suggested I look into it in your first playtime review. But after that advice and some research, I realized it was an excellent chance for me to really take a look at polishing and refining the playtime script. I’m actually really glad I had FIT as a reason to look over playtime because with the help of our awesome director Isaac Young—no seriously, this guy has been such a huge help to the process—we were able to find some really exciting new things the script had to offer that I didn’t catch the first time around.
How do you develop your clowning skills?
A lot of times it develops in “play sessions,” you just have these sessions where you mess around with materials, and then you have the script, and you steer the script around moments you have with the companies, and when you make discoveries.
Some comes from watching cartoons as a kid and doing my own skits, but Sara [Romersberger] was helpful in helping me specify what I was doing. She went to the Jacques LeCoq school in Paris [L'École Internationale de Théâtre]. I think she was very helpful at pointing me in the right direction.
I also watched a lot of Charlie Chaplin. It was a combination of that, and I knew what was funny because I had worked on cartoons with [my high school friend] Carl. Before Sara, I made little pieces, one called The Invention of Juggling with these Cain and Abel types, where they find three balls, and Cain kills Abel with juggling balls. I got the balls by picking up stray balls from SMU tennis courts.
How about Playing with Myself, which you performed at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival this year?
Playing with Myself actually has words. It’s a one-man show about one-man shows, which I haven’t done before. The real title is “An Exercise in Narcissism.” The whole show, I’m switching from bit to bit, and they get longer and turn into nightmares. Sometimes they are stories or awful jokes, there’s a puppet show. It’s the only one-man show I know with two fight scenes, one in which I fight myself to the death.
That one really messes with the idea of what is a one-man show.
How do you see clowning and stage combat, and even dance, informing each other?
What we’re beginning to see as a shift in stage combat, and it’s already happening in clowning, is it’s not so focused on pumping yourself up and doing the thing, but it’s more on breathing, existing as a performer, on being in the moment. What better actor training than stage combat to understand immediate obstacles? I argue that stage combat, and it’s an existential argument, you think your face is there, but my fist says otherwise, it’s about displacing people’s existence in the space.
One of the things about Baba Yaga, people couldn’t tell who the actors were and who the dancer was in that show. What I’ve started to learn is other artists’ language. With dance, they can be so deeply in the moment, but sometimes they always want someone to tell them what to do, because of that choreographic mindset they know.
For stage combat, a lot of dance stuff is useful, like weight sharing. A lot of fighting can turn into a violent version of weight sharing. In Oedipus, a lot of that work was how to keep it close. That desensitization stuff. Understanding breath. Getting people to slow down and realize each of the beats. What is the language we’re saying here? By punching him this way, what does that say about you? People always look for meaning in what they’re looking at.
You are consistently working at Dallas Theater Center as a fight director. How important is this in terms of you thinking about staying in Dallas?
So far I’ve managed to get three jobs in a row from them, so it looks like I’m their regular fight director! In many ways, I think being employed there as a fight director is very important in my decision to stay in Dallas. Not only do I love working with everyone there, I find their work very satisfying and worthwhile to choreograph. Working with them also gives my work with other companies a very nice sense of notoriety; it really helps raise my status as a fight director from just some recent college grad to an actual professional in the field. With that notoriety, I’ve had a much easier time securing other fight directing and teaching jobs in Dallas to support myself.
All of us are fortunate, I think we’re at the point where Dallas is growing enough to support people, and it’s a reason to stick around. Especially as a producer; as an actor I might leave for places for more work and money.
I understand the Galatea run went well in terms of audience turnout. What surprised you most about the response?
Probably the most surprising thing for me was how much work it is to actually run a working theatre as a little independent organization. During the run of that show, I found myself wearing about eight different administration hats just to keep things together. Literally, in the course of one preshow set-up, I’d have to go from being the house manager, the fight director, a ticket seller, the front door greeter, an usher, the concessions supplier, to an actor—it was crazy!
And I wasn’t the only one playing several different administration roles throughout. Everyone in the cast had a wide variety of tasks that we had to complete before the show started that usually took us at least an hour to finish before our fight call. But I think all that work was definitely worth it. Getting to see all of these people from all over the Dallas community take that risk to walk into our warehouse and come out of our show so excited about theater in Dallas was an inspiring thing to witness.
Do you think Prism is filling a void in Dallas theater? What is it?
The way the entire experience of Galatea affected our audiences really made me feel like PrismCo. could start to fill a very important role in Dallas theater. First of all, to my knowledge, there is nothing else in town that is quite like it with the exception of maybe Cara Mía. As a result, our particular type of wordless theatre provides a very specific and important service for our audiences. Without words to tell our audiences what to think, we are giving audiences a type of theatre that serves as a neutral mask. It's something that lets them project their thoughts, feelings, and personal experiences onto our pieces, which is an emotional connection that can prove to be very powerful. Additionally, I think the fact that our theater is purposely low budget and minimalistic serves as an excellent example that good theater doesn’t always have to be about lavish sets and million dollar productions and that sometimes theater should be about trusting and celebrating the power of our imagination.
What are the upcoming plans for PrismCo.?
My personal goal for PrismCo. is to have us keep collaborating and developing new works with as many different artists as possible. So far, it looks like we’re already heading in the right direction! Already we’ve been working very successfully with SiHK Brothers as the main production company behind of our work, but also this Fall we already have a collaboration planned with Cara Mía to make a PrismCo. show that features the use of sand, mask work and Latino mythology.
Past that, I think PrismCo.’s next best step is to just keep pumping out the original, high quality work that people have started to expect from us. We are already planning on producing a PrismCo. show that plays with shadows as its medium (Katy Tye’s writing that one) sometime in early 2015.
Finally, we are planning to reproduce our very first show we did at SMU as a part of next year’s Dallas Arts Week celebration: Prism. [It] explores darkness, light, and color and most notably ends in an epic paint war.