We used to live down the street from a playground with a giant cement slide that dated from the 1950s. Our daughter has always loved thrilling experiences, so when she was two she decided that she wanted to go down, but only if I’d sit next to her and hold her hand. The first time, we kind of stuck, since it was a really old slide, but I slid much faster than she did because of the difference of our weight.
I exclaimed, “Hey! Gravity!” as we went down and she laughed and laughed, and sang the same word at the top of her lungs. We played on that slide all morning, singing “gravity!” each time we descended. When she climbed into her stroller to go home, I asked her if she knew what gravity was. She responded:
“The thing that makes you fall down and go boom on your tushie.”
There was something about the fact that gravity is something that no one really sees, but is always there, and that a toddler had to be the one to point it out was funny and moving and sad at the same time.
Around the same time, John [Baumann] and Dave [Rodgers] had a long, drawn out, marginally obsessive conversation about Bernie Taupin’s (Elton John’s lyricist/songwriter) lyrics. Taupin blends not just one, or two, but at least three and often more metaphors that have nothing to do with each other into one thought. He stacks them up as lyrics to his songs. Somewhere between his writing and Elton John’s delivery it becomes this amazing piece of art. We couldn’t figure out if it was just that Elton John is such a great artist that he can create meaning where there isn’t any, or some magical ability of Taupin’s words that, on paper, make no sense, could become something sublime by the time it got to our ears. It was about that time that we asked (dared?) Dave to come up with a song on the theme of “elephants” in the style of Bernie Taupin.
Then, I read Rogan P. Taylor’s 1985 book, “The Death and Resurrection Show,” which made me start to think about what performers do and why they do it in the context of a larger community. Because I’m the kind of person who pulls from all kinds of unrelated places to come up with stuff, that was the beginning of this piece, at least for me.
Why this play now?
The Elephant is always present in every metaphorical room. While it is not an openly political piece, it is especially meaningful at this moment during this bizarre election season in which so many topics have become visible and openly discussed for the first time.
There a personal angle, too. It means a lot to me to be able to take this material on the road. This is our first show outside of the Bay Area since the birth of our daughter. Perhaps the biggest elephant in our lives is how hard it is for parents who work in theater to take their work to other places and other audiences.
What story are you telling?
The most concrete description of this show is that there are two clowns and an invisible elephant. The three of them go on a journey from (as they say,) innocence to (as they also say,) experience. That’s probably the most basic description, but it’s not the most accurate one. The Elephant In The Room is physical theater. It is structured more like a contemporary dance piece than a traditional script-based play. If a script-based narrative play is like prose, this kind of work is more like poetry. It incorporates different ways to move the arc forward, everything from acting, mime, clowning, movement and musical theater-type songs that flow along as a series of vignettes – little snapshots that audiences can piece together like an impressionistic painting.
That’s a bit deeper, but not there yet.
One of the biggest elephants in this particular room is that this is a performance. There are two people who have thought up something in advance that they’ve practiced over and over again. They do it again on a stage in costumes under lights run by a person up in the booth while people sit together and watch in the dark so that even though they may be seated shoulder to shoulder, they are in some ways completely isolated from each other.
When we start to see what is actually there, it’s possible to get a glimpse of a deeper story, even if it’s only for a second. Personally, I’ve always felt that as a kind of sadness. It’s a feeling that is hard to define or even talk about, but, at least for me, it’s when I can finally drop the fake smile or whatever pretense that is necessary to get through daily life. In some ways, this show is a way to take apart comedy, to show that it’s never far from tragedy. It’s the old scary clown thing – the shadow side of the absurd, which is a weird and fascinating place to explore.
Oh, yeah, and did I mention that there was an invisible elephant?
What have you been learning about yourself during rehearsals?
We have actually been working with this material in different ways starting in 2009, so it’s changed and evolved as we have.
We have been called “hybrid performance,” “loud mimes,” “dance-theater,” “new vaudeville,” “clowns (sort of),” and other, less complementary names. All are fine and we are happy to use any and all of them (especially the funnier ones). In the last few years we have been hearing the term “devised theater” which does appear to apply to our process.
When we began this piece we were new to our fourth decade of life. We were the parents of a small child. Now our daughter is a tween who rolls her eyes at us regularly as both of us close in on our half-century, which is a pretty bizarre place to be. (The two of us have ninety nine years between us!)One of the things that keeps on turning up is how time keeps ticking forward, or as Laurie Anderson says, “Endlessly pulling you/Into the future,” which it has, is and does.
If you won a Tony for this show, who would you thank?
John is my favorite person to be with in the studio, and is, in life, my helpmeet and better half, not to mention the best dad in the world.
I’d also thank our families, friends, and donors, as well as the staff of the Capital Fringe, without whom we would not have been able to make this trip.
We are also grateful to Bob Webb, technical theater expert and a terrific performer in his own right, who has been our stage manager and cameo performer since we started in the late 90s, including the original incarnations of this material.
What do you want the audience to leave feeling or thinking about?
The audiences’ impressions are the true concluding ingredient to this piece. I hope that each person will see/hear/sense something meaningful to them, that they can create and dream their own deeper truth alone together in the dark. When they leave, I hope that they can experience whatever that feeling means to them, whether it’s sadness or joy or something undefinable, but that the feeling will have a little magic in it, which might make it worth having for a little while.
Jennifer Gwirtz is fascinated with biomechanics, interior spaces, movement, masks, neurology and the essential qualities of sentience. Her work emerged from a background in ballet, contemporary dance, music, technology, Butoh and visual art. As the daughter of a high school vocal music teacher, she grew up in a deeply musical environment and sang in six languages by the time she was ten years old. She began her career performing for ballet companies, discovered performance art and video at university, then moved to contemporary dance and Butoh when she arrived in San Francisco. She developed a passion for early web technology and blending disciplines while earning her MFA in New Genres at San Francisco Art Institute where her work took a conceptual turn towards the virtual and human patterning. In the 1990s she created theatrical, movement-based experiments that challenged assumptions about performance for theaters, galleries and outdoor spaces, performing nationally and internationally. In 1999 she co-founded Right Brain Performancelab with John Baumann, an experimental Bay Area performance ensemble.
The Elephant in the Room
July 13 — July 20, 2016
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002
Show details and tickets