Maverick theater group re-stages 'Gorey Stories'
When Constance Macy is concentrating, it sometimes appears as though she has just bitten into a piece of sour candy. That’s the way she looks now, caught up in the midst of rehearsal for the ShadowApe theater company’s July 27 revival of their production of Gorey Stories. Macy strides halfway across the floor of the black box theater at Butler University, mulling a complicated piece of stage movement. “For now,” she says, “there’s no knowing …”
Macy, along with Rob Koharchik, Ryan Koharchik, Rob Johansen, Jennifer Johansen, Michael Brown and Steven Lamirand, form the core of ShadowApe, an independent theater company that, since 1998, has managed to produce a string of adventurous shows that threaten to give risk-taking a good name in Indianapolis.
Each ShadowApe production — from their debut with The Turn of the Screw, through the baroque high-wire act of Life is a Dream (2003), to The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s (2005) desert vision of love and ultimate loss — has offered local audiences a fresh idea of what theater can be.
To date, the brightest jewel in this crown has been 2001’s Gorey Stories, a gallery of twisted vignettes based on Edward Gorey’s stylized illustrations and delightfully deviant doggerel. Now in its third incarnation, Gorey Stories provides a platform for many of ShadowApe’s strengths. It allows these larger-than-life performers to invent a world of their own, a world that audiences have enjoyed returning to, and that ShadowApe counts on their revisiting again.
The Apes, as they call themselves, are a tight-knit crew of family and friends. So tight, in fact, that the group operates without a director. Since Rope, their 2000 homage to Hitchcock-style suspense, ShadowApe has directed itself collectively. “We’re all together in rehearsals,” says set designer Rob Koharchik, “and we create from that base. Whether or not what we come up with is naturalistic or movement based and avant garde, we don’t try to aim for any one of those things. It will be what it wants to be with the people who are working on it.”
In Butler’s black box, the group hovers ’round a computer screen to watch video and refresh memories. The vignette in question is called “The Doubtful Guest.” This piece involves the full ensemble with the heads of various characters emerging from behind a pair of Japanese-style screens at often gravity-defying angles. It should be a funny bit, but to be funny, the timing has to be perfect.
After checking their cues against the video, the cast members resume their positions behind the screens. Disembodied giggles ensue.
“Where am I supposed to touch you?”
“Flag on the play!”
“Is this a tango or a waltz?”
Finally, from his seat in the audience, Rob Koharchik brings things to order. “Can we start?”
And, through one repetition after another, “The Doubtful Guest” comes to life.
Doing the dishes
There was a dinner scene in Rope, which meant that after each performance the members of ShadowApe were confronted with a bunch of dirty dishes. Company members took turns cleaning up in the kitchen after the shows. “You do the show, you feel spent afterwards and you do dishes,” remembers Rob Johansen, who joined ShadowApe at that time. “It became a very family-oriented ritual. It brought me back to the pure joy of doing theater with people you love, for people you love.”
Family is a word that comes easily to members of ShadowApe for good reason: Rob Johansen is married to Jennifernifer Johansen. Constance Macy is married to Rob Koharchik. Rob Koharchik and Ryan Koharchik are brothers — twins, no less. Apes have stood up at one another’s weddings, been roommates, on and on. “It’s a friendship and a family bond and decades of working together in theater around here,” says Macy by way of accounting for the company’s collective chemistry.
In its early days, the group went on retreat to try and articulate its mission. They decided that ShadowApe would be governed by three core values:
• Artistic integrity
Their production of Life is a Dream put these values to the test. Based on a 16th century text, Life is a Dream was a dark, arduously physical drama that dug deep into that territory where dreaming and the waking world are indistinguishable.
“When you do a piece like Life is a Dream you can’t think, ‘Oh, we’re not going to make any money,’ because, you know what? Money is not one of our core values,” Macy says.
Rob Johansen, on the other hand, was thrown by the play. He says it didn’t speak to him. “But it spoke to other people in the group, and I kind of rode on their coattails. I never really got it, but I went, ‘These guys have a vision.’ In that way it was actually liberating.”
Then, three days before the opening, Ryan Koharchik, the group’s lighting designer, came up with an idea that changed a key scene and altered the concept of the entire show.
“Ryan said, I’ve got to change the scene,” Rob Koharchik remembers, “and I said, ‘Don’t tell Rob Johansen, he’ll punch you.’ But when he showed me what he wanted to do, I said, ‘Wow.’”
According to Johansen: “This was the first time I went, ‘Ah, you think you can trust everyone — you need to trust a whole lot more.’ My knee-jerk when Ryan said we’re going to change this scene three days before opening … I wanted to punch him!”
Then they tried Ryan’s idea, a new way of lighting the stage.
“I could feel my heart open,” Johansen says, “and that became the key to the show for me.”
Imaginations run wild
“There are times, when to an outsider, it may seem really messy,” says Constance Macy of ShadowApe’s collective process. “That’s usually in the beginning of a project. Everybody comes in saying, ‘I know what we should do.’ We’re getting better at keeping our egos out and not getting our feelings hurt — or if we do, to talk about it that night after rehearsal and sort it out and not get personal about it — to keep it honest and out there.”
Although she has appeared in several previous productions, this version of Gorey Stories is Jennifer Johansen’s first as a full-time company member. “People are very true to the text,” she says. “It’s easy to for us to get into creating beautiful images because we’re capable of that since we have such an amazing design team. But I feel the collaboration ultimately works because we feel a responsibility to the text.”
Rob Koharchik adds, “I think what we do is try to really understand and respect the script. We try to be as loyal to it and, at the same time, allow our imaginations to run wild.”
At most theater companies, an artistic director is the one assigned responsibility for choosing what scripts are produced. Actors often have nothing to do with the selection process. Not at ShadowApe. “We hear what the designers are thinking at the get-go,” says actor Rob Johansen, “and they hear what we’re thinking.”
For Constance Macy, finding the right script — a piece written in an interesting style, suggesting new ways of storytelling and production techniques — is the hardest thing the company ever does. “That’s the challenge of making innovative theater,” she says, “finding the right text to work with.”
Chuck Goad, one of Indianapolis’ most versatile and accomplished actors, has signed on for this latest version of Gorey. During rehearsal for “The Doubtful Guest,” he looks to Rob Koharchik for counsel as to whether he should, at a critical moment, do a double-take.
“Make it your own, Chuck,” Koharchik deadpans. “Just make sure you get a laugh.”
His fellow Apes call set designer Rob Koharchik “the watchdog.” While not the “director,” per se, he is the one who keeps a certain distance — enough to see the production as a whole.
“I’ll come up with an idea for a set just so we have something to start with,” Koharchik says. “Then we’ll see where it goes from there. If we need to change it, we’ll change it. In standard theater scheduling, set design is done way beforehand. It’s budgeted and sometimes built prior to rehearsal.
“It’s a little difficult, especially when we’re dealing with money, to keep that as flexible as possible. So I come in with an idea and if it has to change we deal with it.”
Flexibility for ShadowApe is both a creative opportunity and a necessity. From its very beginning, the company has worked on a project-by-project basis, finding enough money to make things the way they want them to be. For their first production, Turn of the Screw, that meant everyone putting money in a hat until they raised a budget of $300. The play was such a success, not only did everyone make their money back, they each walked away with $50.
Ryan Koharchik recalls how, for another production, they needed a video projector. The trouble was that a good machine cost at least $3,000 — and that amount was not in the budget. Some groups would have responded to this problem by deciding to do without visual effects. But ShadowApe thought these effects mattered. So, once again, everyone involved pitched in some cash.
“When your purpose is to come together once or twice a year to create something,” Macy observes, “why bother taking shortcuts?”
Ryan Koharchik shrugs, “I guess we can say that artistic integrity will always win out over financial stability, even if that means folding the company, because there’d be no point. That doesn’t mean we’re irresponsible with our money — we wouldn’t be around today if we were.”
ShadowApe has just gone through a period of formalizing its governing structure. Where the group’s board of directors has previously consisted of company members and creative fellow travelers, the new board is made up of people with business expertise who love the arts but aren’t performers themselves. The plan is for ShadowApe to build its patron base by growing its audience. The hope is that the new production of Gorey Stories will serve as a launching pad for a break-through year in terms of growth.
Given a larger audience base, ShadowApe looks forward to entertaining a variety of other questions relating to future growth and stability. Should, for example, the company produce a full season of works — bringing back any number of its previous shows including, say, its original adaptation of stories by Kurt Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House, along with new premieres? And what about finding a more permanent home? While ShadowApe has benefited from a generous open door relationship with Butler University’s theater department (“Butler has been our chief supporter and patron,” Macy says), the Apes believe their audience would grow if they could find a regular venue downtown. Finally, greater stability might enable the company to experiment to some degree with its identity, giving it the chance to find out what a ShadowApe production really is — or is not.
When asked about what it was that made the difference, that turned a group of talented friends into a theater company with a flair for the cutting edge, Ryan Koharchik smiles, “We just wanted to do our own thing. Whatever that was — in our own way.”
Macy recalls her mom taking her to see productions at the old Broad Ripple Playhouse. “I can remember sitting forward, just fascinated by those actors. By everything about them …”
Johansen remembers being nervous before calling from a pay phone at Hanover College to tell her mother that she wanted to be an actress. “I loved learning, I just didn’t feel I did that well. The theater is where I felt OK. I felt competent there. It always felt like home to me.”
Koharchik went to a performance of The Marriage of Figaro at the Lyric Opera in Chicago on a field trip his junior year in high school. “I thought, ‘Well, this is fantastic. I love this.’”
Koharchik was turned on by a Chicago production of Harry Chapin’s Lies and Legends. “I was so excited, thinking, ‘What’s gonna happen? What is going to happen?’ I know I love a piece of theater when I feel that way: What’s going to happen next? It just keeps me wanting to watch and watch.”
“I’m the last of seven kids in a gregarious, outgoing family. I remember the first time I landed a punch line around the dinner table. I was almost kind of scared by it and then I loved it. The release of that joke made me feel so much closer to my family and I think that was the start of my love for theater.”
ShadowApe’s Gorey Stories will be presented in the Lilly Black Box Theatre at Butler University.
Performance times and dates: July 28-Aug. 27, Thursdays and Sundays at 7 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $22 for adults; $12 for students.
Tickets can be purchased by visiting: www.shadowape.com.