Richardson — So here’s the story: On the one hand, a real-life ripping yarn, a wild Antarctic adventure circa 1914—men trapped on a crumbling ship in an icy ocean, doomed unless their fearless leader makes good on his vow to bring ‘em (all of ‘em) back alive. On the other hand, a team of exhausted insurance guys, circa 2008, carrying the workloads of a hundred fired colleagues, and trying to keep their paychecks in the midst of the worst economic mess since the Great Depression.
And oh, by the way, the insurance guys play the explorers.
This mind-tickling mash-up of a play is called Endurance, and it’s coming for a four-day run onstage at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts. One of several works developed by Split Knuckle Theatre, a company headquartered in New Haven but often on tour—because, as artistic director Greg Webster told us cheerfully, “for most actors, the money’s on the road, and it’s fun to wake up in Stockholm—or Dallas.” Endurance has been performed in Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Thailand and in various parts of the U.S., and Webster says he’s delighted to finally get to North Texas, where he expects barbecue, and lots of it.
Members of the group met in London while training in the innovative theater techniques of French master Jacques Lecoq, which promote a creative and collaborative approach to making new theater, often using old stagecraft—clowning, mask, commedia dell’arte—to make something new. “We make powerful theater engaging the audience and performers in collective acts of imagination,” says the company’s mission statement. “Using the expressive power of the human voice and body, we tell stories confronting the wonders and challenges of life in our world.”
And somehow, we’re happy to say, that involves men onstage with wastebaskets on their heads.
We can’t wait.
TheaterJones caught up with Webster, who also is an Assistant Professor of Movement Theater at the University of Connecticut’s professional actor training program, just before his first-ever trip to North Texas:
TheaterJones: Tell me a little about Split Knuckle’s beginnings.
Webster: We formed in 2005. We’d trained at LISPA, the London International School of the Performing Arts, a school that’s dedicated to people making their own theater, very physically based. And the first thing we did was go up to the Edinburgh Festival with our adaptation of John Steinbeck’s beautiful 75-page novella The Pearl.
Most of the other members were American and couldn’t stay [to work] in the UK. I was a bit older and on the faculty at LISPA, so I hung out a while longer in London, then got an offer from UConn to teach the Lecoq pedagogy to American actors at a graduate level. It was a chance for me to come back to the States to teach actors and also be close to the other members of the Split Knuckle company, who were living in New York City.
You call your plays “devised theater.” Can you explain how that works? It’s a kind of improvisation, but takes on a final form, I gather.
Our work isn’t the sort of thing where a playwright bangs out a play with a bottle of bourbon and a loaded gun next to his bed, and then gives it to a director, who calls a casting director, who calls agents, who bring in actors for casting, and the actors are told where to go and what to do.
The way we work is to start with a scene or idea. For this show, Endurance, from the first we knew we wanted to take a look at [Antarctic explorer] Sir Ernest Shackleton, and also at how the 19th-century man was related to the 21st-century man—how tough those guys were back then, and how complacent we’ve become today, getting upset about the foam not being right in a latte.
And you play Shackleton, who promised the men of his stranded 1914-1916 Arctic expedition that he would, somehow, get them out alive.
[Before the expedition] Shackleton wrote a wonderful piece published in the London Times that 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.” And thousands of men applied for that job! Everybody wanted to go. It was a very different time, and our thought was to look at how lame the American male has become in comparison.
But then, we began work in the rehearsal hall, and that was the week Fannie Mae went under, and then AIG, and as we saw this huge economic crisis, we knew, Oh, wow, this is what the play is about—it’s about how we deal with adversity in our time.
Shackleton [who wrote a leadership manual the modern-day insurance guy finds in the company library] once told a group of British schoolboys to “Always remember that optimism is true moral courage.” I found that kind of outlook intriguing, because I’m an Irish Catholic, glass half-empty kind of guy.
A hereditary pessimist, in other words.
Yes, so here’s Shackleton, whose ship is stuck in the ice and slowly being crushed to bits. They’re lost in the middle of the frozen sea in the dead of winter, and he’s urging them to “get some songs going” or telling them again that everything’s going to be all right. The thing is, he actually backed that up. There wasn’t a single death, and Shackleton brought all 27 members of his expedition home.
That became our parallel, our comparison to what we were going through in 2008 in the United States—and a way to think, and be honest with ourselves, and wonder if we can’t do better than this. We’ve had a president and Congress who can’t talk to each other, but I think there must be a way we can have those tough conversations, decide what are the hard, important things to do—and then do them, because that’s what’s made this country great.
You’re mashing up two terms we don’t generally stand up side by side: “heroic” and “corporate.”
Yes, the main modern character is insurance man Walter, who instead of being fired in all the economic mess finds himself promoted to team leader. But then [as co-workers are downsized] he’s asked to do more and more with less. Walter tries to use Shackleton’s teachings to motivate the people in his office; most of the time, it’s pretty unsuccessful—and funny.
Did you know this was a comedy from the start, or was that something you found in the process?
No, we didn’t know where it was going to go at all. It’s a wonderful chaos at the beginning. We kind of work like a band—we pitch ideas, and come to a consensus about what we might want to do, and after that the work is something like what musicians do in jazz.
Take Duke Ellington’s “A Train”—it has a particular theme and you kind of know where it’s going, but it could head off to lots of other places. With Endurance, we’d improvise for a while in the rehearsal hall, and then the playwright Nick Ryan would take a look at it, go off to Starbucks and write for a couple of hours, and come back with pages—and he’d tell us “this was the good stuff in what you did.” So, we wove the whole story together in a very collaborative way. Now, of course, we’ve taken Endurance to 14 countries, and the show runs like a Swiss clock; it’s highly rehearsed and polished, very sharp.
So, the improvisation leads to exactitude, and to incredible precision.
I’m very proud of it, including the gymnastic nature of the piece, which is pretty good work from a bunch of guys in their early 40s. It’s both entertaining and touching, because we’re using some very human examples, and we all either are or have known people who’ve lost jobs, property, houses as a result of all this. It’s asking questions about this reality and how we might deal with it as people, and how we can choose to crumble or to do something about it.
I don’t know if you want to give this away, but did you decide there was hope for 21st-century man?
(Laughs.) I think there’s hope for us, if we can actually be brave enough to have tough conversations and start to come up with things that will get us through all this—or we can choose to let Rome burn. It’s really our choice, to care about each other or implode upon our own greed.
Where does the Split Knuckle name come from?
It’s also something from The Pearl. Kino, a poor villager, carries his child to the doctor, who pretends he isn’t in—he knows the man can’t pay—and Kino punches the door and splits his knuckles doing it. The more theatrical story one reporter came up with, I’m not sure how, was about me going to hundreds of calls and auditions in New York and not getting work, and then punching a wall in anger. But that was one hundred percent made up.