June 18--NEW HAVEN -- The Great Recession in the late 2000s has been more than a distant nightmare for many Americans. But meld your angst over economic "disruption" with a seemingly unrelated historical saga (plus some humorous music) and you just may find comfort in art. Specifically, a play called "Endurance."
Long Wharf Theatre begins its summer season with the lively show starting Tuesday and running through June 29 -- another example of the area's deep well of talent. The touring performance group Split Knuckle Theatre is behind it, featuring four guys who developed the piece including Greg Webster, who just happens to live in New Haven.
"The show was created in Connecticut and is about Connecticut, interestingly enough," said Webster. The shadow story is of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914 saga when his expedition became trapped in Antarctica, but it's "juxtaposed against a Hartford insurance agent whose office is collapsing around him as a result of the economic crisis."
Webster, a UConn professor as well as an actor, landed a small grant to bring a few professional actor friends up from New York to make a show over several weeks.
Webster said he had a vivid dream where he saw the character of Walter Spivey "being attacked by paper on a Xerox machine... And then, I'm an insomniac so I was up late at night channel-surfing and I came across this PBS special that was being narrated by Kevin Spacey."
The program was about the British explorer Shackleton, who, with almost no hope of rescue, kept 27 men alive for two years in the frozen middle of nowhere.
"And I became deeply enthralled with that idea, especially this ad that Shackleton ran in ... the London (paper)," Webster said, "which was 'Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.'
"And I thought to myself, 'Who the (blank) would apply for that job?' And then to see that 5,000 guys interviewed for it."
That led Webster, 44, to think about the difference between an early 20th century man and 21st century man and "how soft we've become as Americans in our society."
He said he's also a former competitive boxer and marvels at the old boxing films of Jack Dempsey and guys "who would go 23 rounds ... til somebody DIES, you know?" he chuckles. "I was like, really, wow, how far have we fallen from that where we get really upset when someone brings us a latte that doesn't have the right foam on it?"
In a room with actors Jason Bohon, Andrew Grusetskie and Michael Toomey, Webster began working on that idea (informed by their research), and then AIG went under, and then Fannie Mae was imploding ...
"And then all these people started losing their jobs in the insurance agencies and everything just started collapsing," Webster said, "so we changed ... and just said, "OK this is what the play has gotta be about; this is what's happening now."
Split Knuckle, which formed in 2005 in London and has performed in 19 different counties and across the United States, "is all about devising new works based upon our passions and social conditions and curiosities."
Webster said most of the improv-and-research process (learned at the London International School for Performing Arts) is all about "the actors as creators" as opposed to the "hierarchical model which most of the American theater runs under, which is, essentially, the playwright sits up at 2 o'clock in the morning banging out a play with a bottle of bourbon and a loaded gun next to his bed." The play then goes to a director, a casting director, agents, clients ...
"We wanted to smash that whole model," he said.
They did bring in Nick Ryan, a playwright, to take their created moments and get them into a script; and composer Ken Clark to blend in the musical touches, which are frequent.
And largely because there was no money for sets, but partly out of their philosophy, the troupe used "random objects left over from the state of Connecticut that were about to be thrown (out) ... an old trash can, some old school desks. I was like, 'This is the stuff that we've got to create this world, guys. So like most artists, we tried to turn adversity into advantage."
So a desk morphs quickly from an office setting to an elevator to ... an iceberg? "You'd be amazed how an office desk can suddenly turn into a giant iceberg if you endow it with the right qualities," Webster said.
Sound a bit too simple? Not to worry.
"We don't make plays where people sit around tables and talk about their psychological problems all day long; that's incredibly boring to us," he said.
Theater should do more than TV or movies.
"And I think we get trapped ... A lot of our plays, because of Freud and the study of psychology, became heavily rooted in realism. And I love realism but I love it for the movies. I don't want to pay $55-$65 a ticket to watch a bunch of people sit around and moan."
The spare-sets method that requires imagination has actually produced shows that have made it to Broadway, such as "Peter and the Starcatcher" and "War Horse."
"It's highly entertaining, what we do, and there's tons of music," he said. "So often the theater is failing us in that it doesn't provide for imagination."
The show's story has Spivey, struggling to justify his recent promotion and save his employees' jobs during continuing cutbacks, relive Shackleton's story. Can it help him?
"So 27 men went out on this boat, the Endurance, and the ship (became) caught in the ice, and the ice crushed the ship slowly. And Shackleton realized that his mission was no longer to circumnavigate the South Pole by dog sled but to keep his guys alive. And that's what Walter is faced with in his company."
Bad stuff happens at the end but the play is not a downer because of the two leaders' refusal to give up.
As Shackleton tells schoolkids later, quotes Webster, "When faced with trouble, danger or disappointment, never give up hope. Always remember that optimism is true moral courage."
The performances will take place at Long Wharf's Stage II. Tickets are $55 with student discounts available; visit www.longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.
And an equally optimistic note for city theater? Webster said that Split Knuckle is planning to make its permanent home in New Haven and the company is at work creating two new devised pieces, which will be released in the spring of 2015.
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