Butler U. takes art underground

John Green, tall and self-effacing, stands at the back of a high-ceilinged dining room in Butler University"s Robertson Hall. The director of Butler"s Theatre Department, Green watches as people make themselves sandwiches in preparation for a lunchtime presentation by ELAN, a group of performing artists who have traveled here from their home base in Wales for a 12-day residency. This lunch begins the first-ever Butler International Theatre Project.

The 30 people making sandwiches are a mix of Butler theater students and seasoned performers drawn primarily from the Susurrus performance group and the ShadowApe Theatre Company. Over the next two weeks, they will work with ELAN"s artistic director, Firenza Guidi, and the ELAN artists to produce a work of site-specific theater called Endangered Species/endangered land in the underground space beneath the City Market known as "the catacombs."

Green has been looking forward to this moment since coming to Butler four years ago. For him, theater is an emphatically international artform. But bringing ELAN to Indianapolis is not only a way of linking this city"s theater culture to a wider world. This residency also constitutes a vital part of his students" theater education. With its emphasis on site-specific work, theater in which the environment becomes a character as important as any human player, this project represents a way of helping Green"s students to understand theater as an integral part of their local community.

ELAN also promises to challenge many of the participants" preconceptions about what constitutes theater. It will introduce them to a process based on cutting-edge performance theory and practice - a theater of experience freed from literary convention. When Green introduces Firenza Guidi and the half dozen members of ELAN who are scattered about the room, sitting among the participants like banked fires, he quotes the British director Peter Brook: "At the end of this we will all be changed people."

Dressed in black, her black hair framing her face and falling past her shoulders, Guidi"s a formidable presence. "We are an endangered species," she says, referring to performers who, she says, "carry in their gaze 1,000 years of training." She calls human being, space and time the three elements she works with. This is a theater, Guidi adds, that does not illustrate or describe, but incarnates and poses questions for performers and audience alike: Why should the body end at the skin? What is presence? Where does creativity begin? The experience inspired by this work, she says, "is like having a living thing in your hands. You exit feeling alive."

The greatest thing about this play is that it doesn"t exist

The first rehearsals take place not in the catacombs, but in the fluorescent-lit basement of Robertson Hall. By 10 a.m., the crowd of performers has gathered. Dressed in sweats and T-shirts, they stretch and gossip. Scotsman David Murray, ELAN"s co-founder, strums a gypsy song on an acoustic guitar, scatting and growling in a deep voice, at once passionate and dark. Murray is whip-thin, built like a comma with a gargoyle face capable of turning from childish delight to menace in a single beat.

Everyone had a first look at the catacombs at the end of the previous day. Built beneath the City Market in 1886, the catacombs were originally intended to store fruits and vegetables and other perishable stuff. Roughly the size of a city block, the catacombs are supported by a seemingly neverending series of brick archways and large stone pillars. The floor is sand and dirt.

Guidi is the last person to enter the rehearsal room. She immediately begins by enthusiastically describing the catacombs as "a void." Any part of the space is as good as any other, she says, there is no sense of boundaries. This, it turns out, is a good thing because the basis for the performance will be Georg B¸chner"s fragmentary text Woyzeck. "The greatest thing about this play," Guidi says, "is that it doesn"t exist."

An unfinished work, Woyzeck is a conflation of suggestive bits and pieces, snatches of conversation, glimpses of disconnected moments. It"s a pretext, or jumping off place for the work that really interests Guidi, which is to explore the mind"s dark, or criminal, side. For this, the catacombs "is perfect."

As Murray laconically adds later, "It"s like a brain down there."

"I have no answers at the moment," Guidi explains, "but I want to pass on my excitement at having this huge challenge." Although they will open their process to the public in 11 more days, "Now," she announces, "is the moment of performance."

This first day is spent in building what Guidi calls "the vocabulary" for this performance. "Once we have a vocabulary, things will come quite quickly Ö like all languages it will enable us to make an infinite number of sentences."

She begins by calling small groups of performers out, having them assume various formations. Couples embrace, exchange gazes, come apart, walk, pause, scratch themselves. "Don"t manufacture a dance," Guidi calls. Throughout, ELAN"s Icelandic lighting director, Adalsteinn Stefansson, plays lights across and against the performers, charging the atmosphere.

"Presence is a combination of time in the performer and space," Guidi counsels. She is asking performers to, one at a time, simply walk the length of the rehearsal hall. It becomes instantly apparent that doing this simple thing reveals depths of self-consciousness and pretense that must be broken down.

The more you try, the less you gain

It"s not until the second week that the performers begin spending extended periods in the catacombs. By now, Stefansson has managed to place and string a variety of lights in the space. Nevertheless, it is intimidatingly dark. It"s easy to trip on the uneven floor or, worse, walk into a stone post. But a certain magic is also manifesting itself. ELAN has placed bits of furniture and other props around the space. Catching angles of light, every object takes on a haunted significance. Though the catacombs are huge, there are no echoes. "The place swallows your time as well as your concentration," observes the soft-spoken Stefansson. "It"s probably pretty hard to be a trained dancer and come down here and not do anything. But the more you try, the less you gain."

On the day before Friday"s first performance, the entire company is underground, being deployed to the catacombs" different corners and crannies. Things have been set so that the audience will follow a predefined course - a passage designed to walk them through a kind of survey of old market traditions and activities such as sewing, cooking, weaving - followed by a series of set pieces that take them deeper into the place"s guilty conscience. This is where the jealousy and violence suggested by the Woyzeck story will begin to play themselves out.

Everyone speaks in whispers as they acclimate themselves to the particular spots where they will enact their piece of the performance. Guidi watches different movements and interactions emerge and slip back into shadow, a lighted cigarette in her hand. "This place is a wonderful environment and we don"t want to bruise it. The performers will have to remain real, alive." New images and ideas are still coming to her; she was up until 2 in the morning trying to cull material. "Each member of the audience," she says, "will take this journey and come out at the other end with their own story."

Susurrus"s Nina Ryan sits in the dust against a wall, a few cooking implements and a fragrant bulb of garlic by her side. ELAN"s process, she says, shows "a preference for throwing people into the deep water Ö It"s hard to accept that after 20 years of working you"re full of cliches - adaptations, coping mechanisms. That"s why it"s so important to work with new people."

Tidal waves of electronic music wash through the archways. Performers that, a moment ago, seemed absorbed by commonplace acts of domesticity, chase each other down dusty corridors. Lights swing back and forth from the brick ceiling. A carving knife is half-buried in a broken door.

John Green rubs his eyes. "I love the way Firenza makes a virtue out of actors solving problems Ö They"re working at a continually high level of expectation, discovering that the individual person is a body in space to be read - it"s exciting to look at before they say anything. It"s so refreshing to know the process is not going to end. No one is going to see a complete performance of this project. All we"ve done is brought an audience in."

Meanwhile, in the world above ground, women in sunglasses are eating lunch and men are talking about the upcoming 500 race.

The work begun in the catacombs in Indianapolis will evolve over the course of the coming year. ELAN will take ideas developed here first to Italy, then to India for site-specific performances in those countries. Finally, they will perform this project in Wales in January.

This is the book. Enter this.

The fire marshal has warned that allowing more than 70 people, including performers, in the catacombs could be hazardous. But for the first performance, on a Friday night, the marshal, while keeping a close watch on things, is flexible when a larger than expected crowd shows up. He, like the workers in the City Market, has become fascinated by what"s afoot and wants to help in any way he can.

The audience assembles at the head of a staircase and Green explains some of what"s in store: It will be dark, the floor uneven, no two people will see exactly the same thing, and no one will be able to see everything. People in front will need to crouch down, so people standing in back can see. What Green can"t tell us is what it will feel like to be down there, to make eye contact with a woman in a wedding dress who"s hanging peacefully on the wall. Or to come upon a couple who may be fighting - or making love.

For the next hour, the effect will be akin to a kind of waking tour of the subconscious. It"s like a Brueghel painting where so many things are happening, the ostensible subject appears as just another fact of life. Although the performance includes a number of boldly drawn moments, it is also layered with a kaleidoscope of behavioral details.

The symbiosis of intimacy and loneliness isn"t described, it is summoned - and palpable. When he comes back up to the light, one man wipes sweat from his brow, takes a deep breath and says, "I want to thank people who help me better understand my dreams."

The next day, ShadowApe Theatre"s Rob Johansen is exultant: "I"ve been blessed with a lot of great theater experiences. I called my mom this morning and I said, "You know, everything that happened last night is what I"ve been hoping for my career for the last 15 years."

Firenza Guidi smiles wearily, recalling how, at the beginning - 12 days that seem like two months ago - one of the students asked her if there were any books she could use to read about this method. Guidi shook her head. "I"m here, you"re here," she said. "There will not be another opportunity. This is the book. Enter this."

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