In Synetic Theater’s newest production, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novel, Alex Mills plays both the muted Professor Jekyll and his voracious alter ego Mister Hyde. Under guidance from Mills, and in the company’s uniquely acrobatic style, the audience experiences a well-known story from some dark, surprising new angles. We spoke with Mills about preparing for his dual roles, and about how the sometimes-mysterious Synetic ensemble operates from the inside.
How did you begin working with Synetic?
Alex: I joined Synetic when I was nineteen. Originally I’m from Fredericksburg. I didn’t go to college right away — I took a year off after high school to figure out what I wanted to do. In the summer of 2008 I came in and auditioned for Synetic because a friend of mine knew Ben [Cunis, a senior company member], and coming right out of that audition I was cast in their production of Host and Guest. I’ve been working with Synetic ever since.
You’re heading into your fifth season of Synetic shows. Can you run through the shows you’re appeared in?
After Host and Guest I was in Dante. Then it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dracula, the remount of Midsummer, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, King Arthur, The Master and Margarita, Don Quixote, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, then The Taming of the Shrew, and now Jekyll and Hyde.
Do you have a favorite production?
Midsummer is sort of a sentimental favorite, but with all the blood and sweat I’ve put into this one I’m going to have to say it’s Jekyll and Hyde.
And because of how Synetic operates as a sort of troupe, you’ve been performing with the same actors through many of those shows, right?
Right. It’s a company, so the members of the company appear in shows constantly. When they’re not performing, they are training and staying up on everything together. It’s a tight group. Many of these people I have been working with for upward of four years.
The training you mentioned is very physical, which is typical of Synetic. Arts folks in DC have a variety of reactions to the company’s work — some people call it dance, others call it physical theatre. How do founders Ira and Paata Tsikurishvili make this distinction, and how do the members of the company think about it?
Well, a couple of us have some dance training, but for the most part none of us are dancers. I’m certainly not trained as a dancer. I can move well, and Irina teaches movement that is specific to each show. But I’m trained as an actor, first and foremost.
It’s true, people sometimes assume that what we’re doing is modern dance or something. But acting without speaking is different, and it’s definitely still acting. When Paata explains it to people, he sometimes uses the example of silently reading a book. You feel every emotion even though you’re not reading out loud. Silent Synetic shows are sort of the same idea. The actor’s intentions and objectives are all there, it’s just stylized and expressed purely physically. But it’s just as emotionally engaging and demanding as a show can be anywhere else.
I imagine that actors who audition for the company stumble upon this realization all the time.
Yes, newcomers are usually surprised to find that we’re not just there doing choreography. Sometimes Paata will give us the idea for the scene and say “Go,” and we have to improvise quickly to come up with some options for the scene. I remember the first time I saw a Synetic rehearsal, I was just amazed. Actors have to work so quickly to come up with moments and find characters and make sense of it all at once. You have to get your mind into a totally open place. It’s a muscle you learn to develop. So, with Jekyll and Hyde I now have a clear understanding of what Paata and Ira expect. I’ve become much better at creating character details and finding a scene’s really memorable moments. It takes a lot of improvisation along with their direction.
Was it a shock to you, that first time?
I mean, I had never heard of Synetic when I first auditioned. I knew that they did physical theatre, which really appealed to me. But these last four years have been all about learning the style, and learning how to use your body as an actor overall.
So the training has practical use beyond Synetic shows?
Absolutely. You mature into your body, because the training regime they put us through gets us into amazing shape. You develop this physical maturity and awareness that I think is such an asset to every actor in that company. The toolbox you develop doing purely physical storytelling is amazing to have. Just like actors get vocal training or conservatory acting training through other programs, the Synetic physical techniques are so beneficial for any actor to have going forward.
You put that to the test this past summer, when you performed in the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson for 2ndStage at The Studio Theatre.
That’s a good example. I needed to really be aware of physical comic timing for my role in Bloody Bloody. Experience with Synetic was a big part of how I quickly created a physical character.
Tell me about how this plays into your work on Jekyll and Hyde this fall.
Well, in Jekyll and Hyde I play two completely different characters. And we’re not relying on makeup to carry out that transformation from man to monster. That’s the biggest challenge of this show for me. Who is Jekyll, how is Hyde different, and how do they interact?
Did you have any character ideas before rehearsal started, or was it all hands-on work?
I tried not to set expectations beforehand, because I didn’t know at the outset what Paata’s vision for the show would be. I did do advance research. And since rehearsals were a 2 ½ month long process, I took up lots of ideas along the way. But soon we realized that Hyde is a very sexual character. He’s actually kind of androgynous, with a huge sexual appetite. In his mind he can rule the word, or at least consume it all. Meanwhile Jekyll is more scattered, more frenetic. So I worked at putting those details into physical form.
In one scene, Hyde breaks into the chambers of Jekyll’s fiancee’s and he ravages her wedding dress. Halfway through the scene, bits of Jekyll appear to begin in Hyde’s body and the two struggle for control. How does one even begin to rehearse something like that?
Oh my god, that was such a challenge. There’s so much that needs to come across in that scene, I didn’t know where to start. But Paata just told me to do it, and do it again, and he helped me figure out the narrative. I perform some mime in that scene, but most of those moments were just cooked up out of necessity. It always works out. Eventually you find the characters, and once you’re sure what they each need to do it becomes clearer.
Even so. By opening week I really felt like a madman, inside and out.
Which other scenes in Jekyll and Hyde were especially demanding?
The transformation scene, definitely — when Jekyll takes the injection and Hyde comes out for the first time. That sequence has to tell a clear story powerfully, and the moves need to mean soemthing, otherwise it’s just a demonstration of technique. But we found the story in it. The movement starts in a fluid, almost lazy rhythm, as the potion works its way into Jekyll’s body. Then when it starts to attack my cells the movement becomes sharper, angular, more broken. The temperature changes.
What a great show for the Synetic newcomers in this cast to cut their teeth on.
There are a lot of new faces in this cast. We have quite a few teens in the show, and the majority of the cast is under 25. It’s amazing to me that it’s such a young group. But they are performing at such a high level. That’s Irina’s training, Paata’s direction, and their dedication. It takes a lot of focus to put on a disturbing show.
Where do you see yourself in the next couple of seasons?
Well, like I said, actors aren’t tied down. We have the freedom to pursue any show we want to do. Personally, my heart for the last four years has been with Synetic. It’s what’s made me feel artistically fulfilled. But I decided to do Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson because I wanted to branch out, to get more into the community. And you can look for me at Signature Theatre this winter, where I’ll be in their production of Shakespeare’s R+J. Being able to move between theatres that work differently is an important skill to have. We’ll see.
And you expect that some of the Jekyll and Hyde cast will stick around for future productions?
For sure. I mean, the company loves seeing new faces and getting new people involved. But if Paata just had open auditions for every production, and there was a brand new cast for each show, the quality of the work wouldn’t be at the level he and Irina expect to reach with limited rehearsal time.
People who perform with Synetic often work three, four, five years with the company. A few have been with them for nearly a decade. These shows really pop when they’re performed by people who really know the style. Actors stick around because of that feeling of ensemble, that feeling of home.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream trailer with Alex Mills as Puck