No Fringe festival is complete without a show about sex, drugs, and depression. There are plenty of ways, however, to have less good fun of it than Avalanche Theatre Company is having with Apotheosis. I sank deep into an old comfy couch at Fort Fringe, in the quiet room next to the Box Office, to grab an air-conditioned opportunity to talk with Avalanche co-founders and creative directors Jon Jon Johnson and Elizabeth Hansen.
“We were both just starting out in the DC theatre scene finding our footing, and we were finding that most theatres in the area weren’t doing the kind of work that spoke to us,” says Johnson. “We have a very particu
lar aesthetic. So since we saw a niche, we decided to be that niche.”
The rest is history, albeit, only two years of it. But the two already have a good sense of where they’re headed.
“We tend to gravitate toward really dark theatre,” says Johnson. “Some people would probably see it as morbid. But we don’t find it morbid. We find it enlightening and wonderful. So we committed a company to exploring these areas where other companies aren’t typically going.”
And the audiences? “They’re not always sure what to think of our shows when they walk out. But we’re fine with that. You’re not always supposed to know what to think of a show the minute you get out of it. We want introspection, discussion, and catharsis.”
Hansen agrees. “Apotheosis is like our thesis for the company.”
It’s the ability to go deep into something unusual and unexpected, she explains, that really pays off. “Personally, if I saw another theater company doing this piece, I would feel like I had a home in it. I would feel that by participating I’d be able to express things that I’m not typically allowed to express. We don’t find a lot of art that does that.”
Not allowed to express? Like what?
“We’re looking at things that people don’t always like to talk about — like drugs, Ecstasy, the state of being beside oneself, depression, eroticism… things you don’t typically engage with in everyday conversation,” says Johnson. “We’re not necessarily shoving it in people’s faces, but we definitely want people to confront these things.”
“I suspect that some people are leaving confused,” he adds. “They’re processing what they saw. Because Apotheosis is a bit of an onslaught. But that’s what we want. We want people to feel the gravity of everything, and then to feel lighter when they leave. They’ve gone through something, and that something has been taken off their shoulders. It’s true that sometimes people need a few days to process before they can really talk through their reactions to our shows with us.”
It takes some high-octane actors, then.
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“Definitely,” says Hansen. “We were really lucky to find six other people to perform with us that have a ferocity of emotion. We look for people you can get swept up in, and we found them. We look for that intensity.”
“Maybe a good word for it is ‘zealots,'” Johnson says. “We were looking for people with a certain madness in their eyes. Theatre madness. We’re looking for other maniacs. And each actor bring their own personal flavor to the show. Which is good, because the show deals with some big, broad themes.”
This isn’t Avalanche’s first show. They produced the tango-inspired Despertar at last year’s Fringe and staged Sarah Kane’s play Crave the year before. But this is their first original devised piece. So both Johnson and Hansen dove headlong into the project without a script.
Johnson explains. “We got a group of actors together. We parsed out the piece and created the scenes from there. Our first rehearsals were all about exercises focused on getting in the space with each other. We spent a month unifying the group — breathing together and moving together. We also had a Facebook group, so that people could share things that inspired them. And we had a chart on Google Docs with everyone’s skill sets listed out, just for reference as we were making the scenes. Then, we would present the pieces to each other, and we’d work on them as a group and give each other feedback.”
“It was very fluid and changing for a while,” Hansen says. “Then it solidified. We all put a lot of trust in each other into the process.”
Will Avalanche consider doing another devised show after this? Both say yes. Or, a related idea: perhaps they’ll keep the show going for a certain span of time in which certain actors leave and new ones come in. Perhaps, in doing this, the very definitions of the five main themes would change. Or perhaps they’d stay the same, but a new show would emerge each time given the changing collection of performers.
The idea’s not too far-out considering Johnson and Hansen’s innate ability to make friends and build trust.
“We’ve been forming good connections with various artists,” says Johnson. “We’re not forming a troupe per se, but we have allies floating all over the place. We recently worked with a playwright for a staged reading of a show in development out in San Francisco, and we just did a partnership with Inkwell. That’s what it’s all about. Just meeting people and saying, Hey, let’s work together!”
And this fall, coming up: a production of a new play by Keegan Cassady called The Immortal Jellyfish.
“There is a species of jellyfish that, when it reaches its old age, it will revert to being a polyp again,” says Johnson, explaining the basic concept of the show. “So effectively, this jellyfish never dies. The show this fall takes place in a nondescript future in which humans are genetically modified with animal parts, for cosmetic reasons but also to gain the powers those animals possess. And this one character is looking for this jellyfish, so that he can track down a source of human immortality. It’s based loosely on the Gilgamesh myth.”
Also, suggests Hansen, they’ll be considering a new Medea in some shape or form. “I’m always a sucker for modern Greek adaptations.”
The two met in college at George Mason University, and their rapport is easy and natural. Here at the Tent, they’ll take a few minutes after our interview to relax and enjoy the scene.
“It’s very much a home here,” says Hanson. “We had a theatre lounge in college that became our unofficial home on campus. This feels like that. A really large theatre lounge. It gives you a place to meet up and discuss everything you’re thinking about.”
There are few things around the Tent more exciting than some good thinking. Fortunately for all of us, Avalanche always offers plenty.