I was in a production of John Logan's play 'Red' earlier this year with The Space Between Theatre Company.
TSB's run of ‘Red’ ended June 1st.
This has given me some time to reflect.
I don’t specifically refer to reflection about our particular production of the show, what we did well, what we could have improved, etc, but rather, I find it is has given me time to reflect upon how I related to the show and how I relate to Mark Rothko himself.
Red was (and still is at this point in my life) a piece that resonates with me and resonates with me HARD. The simple fact is I’m getting older. I’m realizing that my time on Earth is finite. I’m realizing that I only have a limited amount of time to put something out into the universe and I’m starting to ask myself with increasing frequency, “What am I going to leave behind?”
This is a good question to ask oneself. It can be a difficult question to ask, but it’s one that should always be asked. I see Rothko and Ken ask themselves this very question (in various ways) in ‘Red’.
I look to the future and I wonder what I’ll leave behind. Will I be able, when my time comes, to look back at my own life and say, “I have done good”?
Will I have helped? Will I have contributed? Will I have pushed things in a direction that they needed to be pushed?
Every day I wake up and I realize that I’m another day older and I feel a fire in my chest that propels me forward into an unknown future that I can only hope is full of moments and connections that truly matter.
But I don’t know. I don’t know where I’ll end up, HOW I’ll end up, or what, at the end of my time, I’ll be able to point to as being proof that my life was worth something.
I had the chance to visit the Rothko Chapel in Houston near the end of July. I was immensely excited to get to stand in the middle of this room and consume what was the culmination of Rothko’s journey as an artist and as a human being. I thought I was going to be in awe. I thought it would be a near-transcendental experience.
Mostly it just made me sad.
The Rothko Chapel contains fourteen paintings. The paintings are fairly large (about fifteen feet tall and five feet wide) and they consist exclusively of shades of black.
I’ve never had a problem with Rothko’s use of black in his paintings. As his work started to slide deeper and deeper into darker hues in the late 50’s and 60’s it certainly didn’t make the work any less dynamic or intriguing. As he continued on his path and began producing paintings of blacks on grays, blacks on browns, blacks on purples, and finally, blacks on blacks, I still had no complaints.
But the blacks on blacks in the Rothko Chapel - it was their textures, their qualities, that made all the difference.
The Baltimore Museum of Art has a Rothko piece from 1957 where the black seems to whirl with the reds it is coupled with in a sort of chaotic negotiation of space and velocity. The black in that painting is deep, vital, wise, playful. The darker hues from Rothko’s work from the 60’s that I saw in various cities across America likewise contained similar traits.
But the blacks in the paintings in the Rothko Chapel were flat and dull. They didn’t pulse or dance, they just laid on the canvas with sterility and spiritlessness.
Although there was beauty in the architecture, the layout of space, the lighting of the room, and in how all of these elements responded to and rolled through each other, I didn’t find a transcendence in the Rothko Chapel. I found a tomb.
And this is what Rothko’s last statement to us was. It was a defeat. It was an acknowledgment that he was left looking nowhere else but inward because what was outside of himself had either ceased to capture his interest or had damaged him too much for him to feel he could continue onward. I mean, the man committed suicide. You can’t stand in that space with those pieces and see anything other than resignation.
It scared me. It still scares me.
Rothko struggled with a lot of things. He struggled with depression. He struggled with how his art could fit into a world that was largely commercialized and still be pure and true. He struggled with how to co-exist in a world filled with people who didn’t share his ideals.
Through John Logan, the character of Mark Rothko speaks to some of these struggles in ‘Red’. As noted, a lot of the words hit close to home for me. I struggle with how, artistically, to put out product with purity and integrity in a world that doesn’t always care about either quality. I struggle with how to exist with people and a world that don’t often come close to sharing my ideals. I struggle with depression. Mental illness runs in my family.
And all of that struggle is difficult.
And it is terrifying.
And it is exhausting.
The world beat Mark Rothko.
I don’t want it to beat me.
‘Red’ ends on a hopeful note. Hope is where Logan chose to end his story, rather than on the point in life where Rothko chose to end it. I like this hope. It feels right. Or maybe I simply choose it to feel right because to my eyes it’s a far better choice than the alternative.
'Red’ had quite an impact on our audiences in Saint George, Utah. After literally every show the four of us (Varlo, Kelly, Jacob, and myself) had people seek us out and tell us how the show had affected them. Some couldn’t even put all of their feelings into words. To see them moved by their experience - it was quite a lovely thing to observe.
In the end I think those connections are what will stick with me from ‘Red’ for the longest amount of time. I speak not only of the connections that we created with our audiences, but with the connections I felt to the characters on the page.
Those connections are an astounding thing and they’re one of the gifts that theatre can constantly provide to us.
They’re a reminder that we’re not alone.
Jesse Nepivoda is the Artistic Co-Director of The Space Between Theatre Company
In 1947 a festival was happening in Edinburgh Scotland to celebrate culture- and well, the end of a horrifying war (but let’s not focus on the negative). The story goes that there were eight uninvited theatre performers / groups who showed up to the festival wanting to perform. According to legend (or the WEBSITE) these theatre practitioners were not turned away but allowed to perform and that was that (definitely more to the story- but not now). The next year’s festival (1948) found more performers at their doorstep asking to perform and they too were not turned away. And the year that followed that even more showed. And so on, and so on… until they finally just made their own theatre and performance specific festival in the late 50’s. And that was FRINGE.
“1958 the Festival Fringe Society was created in response to the success of this growing trend.
The Society formalized the existence of this collective of performances, provided information to artists, published the Fringe programme and created a central box office. Its constitution was written in line with the ethos that brought these theatre companies to Edinburgh back in 1947: that the Society was to take no part in vetting the festival’s programme. To this day that policy remains at the core of our festival and we’re proud to include in our programme anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them.”
Today that theatre festival continues and is the largest in the world. According to the Fringe people:
“In 2014 there were 49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in 299 venues, making it the largest ever arts festival in the world.”
But the festival isn’t just in Scotland. It was (obviously) a catchy idea and naturally spread to other cities across the world. And it’s not surprising. Artists aren’t always stupid. When we see an opportunity as great as that one- we tend to not only want it for ourselves, but we tend to make it work for us.
“Well, Scotland is far away, Dave, so why don’t we just start our own one here in [small city, USA]?”
“Let’s do it!”
And it happened. A lot. In many places.
Pioneers in cities across the US (also on other continents but this is an American piece now) sent out the invitations:
“Hey! How would you like to share some Art you’ve created, in a space that we’ll provide, and we won’t censor you. Also you’ll probably be sharing it with an audience filled with other artists and performers and when you’re not performing, you can go see their shows. Oh, and we’ll allow you to make money off the ticket sales but don’t worry about any of the administrative stuff- we’ll do that and cut you a check at the end of the festival. Sound good? Show up? Do your thing? Make a few bucks? Spend a week doing and seeing Art? Please come be a part of our festival!”
Yeah, that may have been a bit romanticized… but it’s true at it’s core.
That lovely ad for the [small city, USA] Fringe festival became an annual to-do. And so, Fringe festivals are happening and have been happening for a while now right here in the US of A.
Now, if you are anything like my theatre company, and you don’t really have a theatre to perform in, or a non-censoring community to be your audience, and you don’t have more than a few dollars to spend on your production, you probably think that that offer is right sexy. And it is.
The fringe festival isn’t about big dollar shows, with lots of spectacle and such. Nope, it’s a festival of raw material. In fact, they will remind you before you show up that there isn’t much room for anything BUT your ideas. The performance spaces are usually small and the technical equipment is limited (and that’s totally okay because HEY! It’s being provided to us artists for practically nothing). So don’t bring a show with a cast of forty, and don’t bring a ginormous set, and don’t try to bring a show that has more than ten lighting cues because- because- well, because… this is a festival to share your ideas and not your production potentials.
Now if you type in Fringe festival into Google, you’ll see San Fransisco, Boulder, DC, Las Vegas, Minnesota, New Orleans, NYC, San Diego, and many other cities all having their own fringe festivals… the point is American Fringe is alive and kicking!
We (America) are apparently valuing this kind of adventurous and spirited celebration of artists coming together to share ideas and beliefs and well… Art. And that’s pretty cool. We seem to be championing the little guy who doesn’t have many opportunities for exposure and platform. We are promoting the idea that big ideas don’t have to have a broadway billing to be profound. And it’s not just the performers who are showing up to this love fest of theatre and performance. No, the audiences are coming and sharing in the experience too. The community is showing up to witness and discuss and question and support and all that. They are participating. And so the proverbial conversation between artist and audience is happening. And that too is pretty awesome.
And now to Salt Lake City, Utah. The next American city to join the ranks of the Fringe festival.
The Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival happened this year. Forty performers, six venues, four days.
And me and my little company were amongst the pioneers at this very first festival. We (TSB) made the four and a half hour drive north, rented a house for the week, and showed up to to be a part of the festival. We brought with us our play (written by co-artistic directer Jesse Nepivoda): ‘A Humanities Cycle’ and in the perfect venue we were provided, we performed our show four times for four lovely audiences and it was good. We saw twelve other shows by other artists and spent the week discussing art and life. All in all it was an amazing experience.
Because I’m not totally self involved I should also mention that forty additional artists also came to Salt Lake City and spent four days doing and sharing and discussing and supporting and all that. And it was good too. (We really enjoyed some of what we saw).
So, here is yet another city to foster and promote performers and artists.
I began this run on sentence to talk about our experience at the festival but I think now my larger point is that this festival is pretty fucking awesome. It’s even a little bit (trying to reign in the hyperbole) profound. But it only works for those who engage in it. It is an offering to those who value theatre and Art and performance (if they’ll take it). It is an opportunity that many of us don’t usually get (if we can even recognize that amongst all our battles).
Yeah. Fringe. Good stuff. You should really check one out if you haven’t already. They happen in the summer (mostly- there are a few that happen in other seasons).
And just for fun…
Orlando has the oldest fringe festival in the US. They started theirs in the 1990’s I think. And Canada (of course- those benevolent and fostering moose people) was the first to start one on our continent.
I think I want to quit my adult life (in the summer) and just tour US cities participating in Fringe Festivals. I’d be like a rockstar on tour or something (probably not even close). Seems like a great idea to me.
Thus in closing I say that Fringe is possibly the thing that will keep theatre alive in this country for some time to come. And that gives me hope. I know I didn’t really explain any of that last bit but you can make your own deductions.
Art has been around as long as humans have been around.
It has served three major functions, in my opinion: To entertain, to educate, and to evoke change.
Often I hear people argue that, “there is nothing wrong with art serving to simply entertain”, and while I agree that that function does serve a purpose, it is not mine. I wish to do the latter two.
When I signed on to become a part of the Space Between I agreed to their mission of creating fearless theatre. To fully engage in that core value, I must agree to create art that will educate my audience and evoke change in their everyday lives.
Allow me to step to the side for a moment.
Art that serves to entertain is often for the sake of escapism. We desire to escape (for a time) into another world, we wish to escape from our everyday lives into something that will serve as a distraction. This asks us to escape from a present state of being. I, however, do not want to escape. Although, terrifying, painful, frustrating, and challenging as it may be, I wish to face something that I feel the impulse to escape from. I desire this because that is the only way I can progress in life. So my art will ask the same of you.
Yes, you may be entertained in the process but I strive for it to also be the thing you must face to be a better you. I want my art to make you think, question and feel. I want you to have more than a surface response. I want you to become an explorer- someone who can discover the greatness of humanity. I want my art to be a catalyst for your betterment (and hopefully the betterment of humanity, as you go out into the world).
So how can I do this?
I will start by allowing myself to be afraid of failure. When I feel the fear of my art being a failure I will acknowledge that, face that, and respond by creating something that is courageous, something that educates, and something that inspires you to think and feel all those emotions that make us human. I will take that fear of failure and not allow it to force me backwards but instead, propel me forwards.
This is all a bit broad.
Perhaps a simpler way of explanation: My art may make you question who you are, why you are here, what your life is about. It may make you sad, or frustrated, or even terrified. My art may ask you to be better, do more, achieve greater successes. And you may not want that. You may want to run from such arduous and laborious tasks. At that point, the ball is in your court. You may wish to escape from your experience. That is your right. You have the right to run from my art into the audience of another who will allow you to escape.
But I will not create anything less than fearless theatre.
I really hope you allow yourself the chance to experience that.
I promise it will make you better in the end.
Best ~ Kelly Thomas
So I sat down with Kelly Thomas, Co-Artistic Director of TSB, to ask her some questions about The Space Between's upcoming production, A Humanities Cycle. Here's what she said.
Question: What can you tell us about The Space Between's upcoming production?
Kelly Thomas: I can tell you it's a collection of three short plays written by a playwright living in Washington County, Utah. Each of the three pieces focus on some aspect of our humanity.
One play discusses how far a government can or should go in the service of its citizens. The second is a sweet story about two people that are just trying to live their lives and are looking for ways to have their paths sync up but at the particular time that we, the audience, see them they just don't seem to be able to make it work out. The third piece talks about championing life verses championing justice and where the moral lines lay when things start to get a little blurry.
Q: Having read all of these short plays before, what did you personally respond to in these pieces?
KT: The conversations and ideas of each. I responded to connections that I felt to them. Some instances in the plays felt like things that I myself at some point in my life had experienced. Some of the questions raised in the texts are questions that I had asked myself in my own life. It was very easy for me to put myself in the place of these characters. I also responded to just the sheer emotion if it. There are some big ideas and feelings and questions at play in these pieces.
Q: Do you feel that the Southern Utah community will be served by this production?
KT: Of course. I wouldn't be taking the time and effort to put something like this into the community if I didn't think it was of any value to the people within that community. I feel like I can honestly say that there is no other theatre like this being done in the area at the moment. Diversity of product and diversity of thoughts and ideas are crucial not just to theatre but to art in general. Theatre is a big arena to work in and there is plenty of room for every type of production. It's possible we may have some audience members that react to the production in some sort of negative way, but I would think that's simply because they haven't had the opportunity to be exposed to the type of work that The Space Between does. That's not to say that's a bad thing, it's just saying that sometimes new experiences can be kind of scary and feel strangely. One of the great things about theatre in general though is that it's so variable - it's not just one thing, it can be whatever you make it to be.
Q: Why do you think this production is of importance?
KT: Because it holds a mirror up to our society and it asks them questions and then it makes them look into the mirror. To put it another way, as an audience member you're going to be asked questions when you watch this production and you'll be challenged to answer those questions. You'll have to think about yourself as a human being and why you think and feel the way you think and feel.
Q: Don't you think that people think about themselves as individuals enough on their own? Don't they investigate their own life enough on their own? Why would someone need to come see A Humanities Cycle? Can't people just go the movies and have fun?
KT: Well, no, I don't think people ask themselves enough questions on a daily basis. I think that we're so inundated with the opinions of others on a daily basis that we tend not to do our own thinking as much as we could or should. I think a production like this is really great because we're stuck in a room where nobody is offering us an opinion and we have to answer the questions for ourselves and on our own. I think that's a really important process for a person to undertake.
Q: Anything else?
KT: Come see the show!
Theater has a power.
One could say that theater has a great many powers and that may or may not be true but it’s largely irrelevant because, when you get right down to it, theater only has one true, unique power. Luckily for theater though, that one power is so immense and colossal that it has single-handedly kept theater alive for thousands of years.
Theater’s power is that it puts people in a space together and it lets them connect with one another.
It sounds simple because it IS simple. That simplicity, though, is dangerous. People tend to overlook simple things. People tend to disregard simple things and not recognize their power.
Just put the people in a room and let them connect. When it comes to theater, that’s all you have to do. That’s what theater is about at its core - in its heart and in its guts - its soul. That’s theater’s power.
Think about it. Theater has been around for thousands - literally THOUSANDS - of years. Nothing lasts that long unless it’s doing something right. Theater lets us connect to one another. That’s something we as a species desperately need. We long for connection. We CRAVE it. We always have and we always will.
We don’t go see theater just to be entertained. We don’t go just to see amazing sets, a particularly creative lighting plot, or a really excellent set of costumes. We go to FEEL. So many people get so caught up in the dressings of theater that they lose sight of what the core of theater is. Spectacle has become a driving force when it should never be more than a supporting element. If theater was merely about entertainment and spectacle and not something deeper then it would have been dead the second that film started to explode as an art form. Television would have punched theater’s corpse down to the Earth’s core. That didn’t happen. Why? Because theater PUTS THE PEOPLE IN THE ROOM TOGETHER.
I don’t know about you, but all of the most important, vital, and impactful moments of my life have occurred with other people. Weddings, births, first kisses, last waves goodbye - none of them I experienced alone. None of them would also have happened if I wasn’t connected to the people I was sharing those moments with.
We need to focus on the connection and on the power of that connection. You get into a room and a stranger looks you in the eyes and you’re instantly connected. It’s instantaneous and it’s powerful and it’s vulnerable and it’s sometimes uncomfortable but it’s a true experience and it’s shared. It’s not something you can escape by changing the channel. It’s not a communication that is one hundred percent of your control like it might be when you’re texting on your phone. Theater is a realness that forces you to share yourself with it in the moment. We spend so much of our time hiding from things that we don’t want to think or feel about ourselves and our world that it can be almost overwhelming when a stranger looks us in the eyes and tells us the truth.
We can’t lose sight of these things in theater. We can’t let theater’s one true power be set by the wayside to make room for spectacle. I don’t understand why people who make theater attempt to do this. Why do a production of ‘The Lion King’ and spend fifteen thousand dollars on an elaborate set? I mean, I KNOW I’M NOT ACTUALLY IN AFRICA WATCHING JUNGLE CATS SINGING. No set, no matter how detailed and creative, is going to convince me I’ve been transported halfway around the world to Africa to watch animals talk. You won’t be able to sell me on that. You want to sell me on a son grappling with the loss of his father? You want to sell me on the journey that a young (lion) man undergoes to finally come into his own? Fine, 'The Lion King' can sell me on that, but it doesn’t need lights and sounds and costuming to do it - it just need people in a room connecting to one another.
I’m not here to lie to you - theater is important. As we go onward and technology continues to evolve, theater may even be becoming MORE important. Technology, while fantastic in many ways, tends to hinder more than help when used as a vehicle for human connection. Sure, using technology I can connect with more people than I could without it, but I’m connecting to so many more people so much less authentically. For each step that we move forward in that fashion we lose a slice of the overall connection picture, we lose a slice of truth and realness.
So let theater do its job. Put the people in a room and let them connect with one another. Let them share truths with each other. Let them take care of one another. Give them the gift of letting them know that they aren’t alone - that they aren’t alone in their thoughts and feelings and struggles and desires - that all of those things are shared by all of us as we go through this life together.
Theater’s doors are open.
Just step through.
Jesse Nepivoda is the Co-Artistic Director of TSBTC.
THE SPACE BETWEEN Theatre Company
is the resident theatre company at:
THE DIFIORE CENTER FOR THE ARTS
307 North Main Street
St. George Utah 84770 (MAP)
T (435) 216 - 5523
P.O. Box 474
Santa Clara Utah 84765
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