The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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MAY 2011 Issue

The Theater at Home: 31 Down

Fans of 31 Down—brainchild of the endlessly inventive Brooklyn-based pair of theater artists Ryan Holsopple and Shannon Sindelar—will be familiar with the company’s sensually immersive approach to play-making (emphasis on Holsopple’s mind-bending aural sculptures and Sindelar’s evocative visual compositions). Yet even the initiated may not be prepared for this visionary duo to tune their whole-sensorial technique to a frequency already fraught with horrors that most Americans remain dead set on turning a deaf ear to: war. War and its effects on the home front. The impact on military families, spouses, relationships, friends.

DJ Mendel and Hollis Witherspoon in 31 Down's newest piece: HERE AT HOME. Photo by Sue Kessler.
DJ Mendel and Hollis Witherspoon in 31 Down's newest piece: HERE AT HOME. Photo by Sue Kessler.

The psychic toll of the U.S.’s several foreign conflicts serves as the foreground for Here at Home, the latest theatrical hallucination Holsopple and Sindelar are currently building for a three-week run in May at the Bushwick Starr. As imagined and outlined by the tandem and given voice by playwright Eric Bland of Old Kent Road Theater (in 31 Down’s first-time collaboration with an outside writer), the costs of combat come to bear on the lives of four friends from Everytown, America.

“Actually we pitched it to the Starr as a Civil War play,” Holsopple told me in a recent interview, chuckling about his and Sindelar’s typically roundabout method for sussing out their muse. “But Shannon wanted to make it about now.”

As they toured Civil War battlefields last fall, an image began haunting Holsopple. “Two soldiers. Two soldiers who have been in combat but haven’t really encountered a body, like, a dead body yet. What that feels like,” he said, of the vision. “They come upon [a body] and start poking it. They poke it and poke it, until...” He trailed off, not wanting to reveal too much.

If this sounds to you like a curiously gruesome inspirational image for a play wherein much of the action takes place behind a Wal-Mart in an anonymous American town, you are clearly unacquainted with 31 Down (one of five theater companies Time Out New York named as “2011 Off-Off Innovators to Watch”). These artistic partners share a dark sensibility and a gift for manipulating imagery and sound to create suggestive dynamics between characters and situations.

“Neither of us thought we would go in this direction,” Sindelar told me in a separate conversation as I wondered how last year’s success, Red Over Red, dealing with aviophobia (fear of flying), might have led to the idea for Home. “We usually just veer toward work that we find ourselves talking about.”

At the time the corpse-violating image was stirring in Holsopple’s imagination, he and Sindelar were both reading Colby Buzzell’s My War: Killing Time in Iraq. They also caught a broadcast of This American Life about a veteran of the First Gulf War who testified that “home” no longer felt like it. Holsopple found himself meditating on Bruno Dumont’s war film, Flanders, about what soldiers leave behind when they leave for war. “I kind of rip [Dumont] off” for Here at Home, Holsopple readily admitted.

With all this noise in the ether, Sindelar and Holsopple began to feel compelled to seek a more immediate way into their themes.

Building Collaboration

This all means that if you are not familiar with 31 Down, the run at the Starr may be a bracing (and recommended) introduction. Holsopple and Sindelar have been conjuring their distinct brand of theatrical magic at notable Downtown theater venues (the Kitchen, Ontological-Hysteric, P.S. 122) and the city’s prestigious performance series (Prelude, Performa) for nearly six years. Given their psychosexual treatment of subjects as seemingly innocuous as Alma Mahler (That’s Not How Mahler Died), the inventors of the word “robot” (RUR), and laboratory research (The Assember Dilator), do not expect humanity’s most barbarous business to be handled with kid gloves.

When Holsopple began creating experiments for the pirate-radio and underground-noise scenes of Brooklyn, he was already a veteran performer of works by established theater artists such as Richard Foreman (Maria del Bosco), as well as early projects of contemporary companies such as Nature Theater of Oklahoma (The Chicken). Sindelar held positions as Literary Manager at Manhattan Ensemble Theater and administrator with the Wooster Group after an internship with Foreman and a stint as Production Manager of Outside/Input—the development arm of the (then incipient) Incubator at the Ontological-Hysteric. In 2006, she took over as Manager and Programming Director for Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater where she oversaw the transition from the Blue Print Series to today’s ever-increasingly estimable Incubator Series (OBIE grant, 2010).

Holsopple and Sindelar first recognized their shared sensibility in 2005 while she was at Outside/Input and he was a member of its first class. For Sindelar and Holsopple’s first two collaborations (Mahler and Metronoma), Sindelar acted as production manager and assistant director, migrating into her more formally directorial role as their development model evolved into a full partnership.

31 Down’s innovative method of generating atmospheric theaterscapes through customized software and interactive programs has attracted a roster of frequent collaborators including Jon Luton, lighting; Andreea Mincic, sets; and Mirit Tal, video. A glance over 31 Down’s production history lists a number of repeat performers as well—Shauna Kelly, Caitlin McDonough-Thayer, and acting powerhouse DJ Mendel among them.

Sindelar and Holsopple think of “actors pretty early in the process,” Sindelar explained. “We start with whatever pinches us [thematically],” but simultaneously, she said, she and Holsopple begin throwing around names of performers. They hone images and technical possibilities around the faces and sensibilities of the actors they are able to sign up for the project.

An Evolving Style

31 Down also derives a good deal of its inspiration from style. “My favorite film directors make genre films,” Holsopple said, noting Kubrick as the ultimate example. “He kind of went through every genre” making a masterpiece in each.

The first three major theater pieces Holsopple and Sindelar built as collaborators explicitly involved cult subjects mediated through genre-pastiche. That’s Not How Mahler Died (2005 - 06) transplanted Alma Mahler’s infamous affair with her husband’s rival, architect Walter Gropius from fin-de-siècle Vienna to noirish early 1960s America. (Full disclosure: I portrayed the Gropius character.) Their next full-length piece, Metronoma (2006), took us back to the 1930s and inside the musings of a young Robert Bloch as he channeled his hero and real-life correspondent, the grandfather of horror, H.P. Lovecraft, over a summer in Massachusetts. Their third collaboration, and one of their most elaborate constructions to date, Universal Robots, revolved around the brothers Capek—the artists and coiners of the term “robot,” as well as prominent targets of Gestapo purges following Nazi annexation of Bohemia. (Karel Capek died of pneumonia before the worst arrived; Josef, his brother, died in a concentration camp.)

These shows had more than their cult sensibility in common. Sound production and intricate programming systems (with names like distant nebulae: Max/MSP, Isadora, Pure Data, Qlab) are rather uniquely, in 31 Down’s model, generators of the work, instead of merely design support—as technical aspects of theater are in conventional plays. A sentence of their mission states that 31 Down is “invested in the use of new technologies and interactive systems to create and control the performance” (my italics).

Innovations Outside the Black Box

This unusual emphasis naturally lent their work to cross-disciplinary projects and installations. Notably, they installed i used to be curious [Silence] at Gigantic ArtSpace in 2007 as part of free103point9’s 4:33 performance series, and they adapted it into i used to be curious [LOUD] for the Prelude showcase of the same year at CUNY. Holsopple created Wanderlost for a group show at the New Museum in 2005. And in a coup des ressources, he famously rigged the pay phones of the Canal Street subway platforms to lead anyone who dialed the posted number on a tour of the station to solve an invented murder mystery (Canal Street Station, Best of 2007, Village Voice). 31 Down’s creative application seemed to know no bounds.

Conscious Break

Universal Robots was an enormous undertaking. And while the technical wizardry had once again successfully transported the audience into past and imagined worlds, Sindelar and Holsopple began to sense that their aesthetic reputation could cut two ways: An audience can readily identify and appreciate their work, but may also feel no urgency to see the next piece: If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all?

It was time to take a cue from their protean filmmaker idols: Push themselves into territory unknown, less comfortable. Namely, the present.

The Assember Dilator was their first long-form theater piece in a contemporary, if still heightened, environment. Consciously working in a single-color palette (white), the play assaulted the audience with vignettes of exploitation and obsession in a research laboratory, featuring a scientist-gone-mad (Holsopple) and his sexualized assistant (McDonough-Thayer). While the play employed many of 31 Down’s signature techniques throughout, set designer Andreea Mincic substituted the poisoned-nostalgia settings of past productions for a stark, hard-sci-fi minimalism.

“It was a conscious break with our [established] sensibility,” Sindelar said. “We felt we had to update the work to contemporary issues.”

Red Over Red followed Dilator last year at the Incubator, finally bringing DJ Mendel (longtime voice-over contributor) onto the 31 Down stage in the flesh as an unfaithful airline pilot. McDonough-Thayer returned as an indignant (vengeful?) pilot’s wife, and a star-making turn of the enigmatic Shauna Kelly as a flight-phobic stewardess (an accidental triumph of emergency actor replacement, by the way) completed another evocatively bare mise-en-scène (red-laden, this time). Red achieved that transcendent marriage of content, form, and company that a theater artist is always pursuing, rattling the senses enough to instill a fear-of-flight and a grounding paranoia in even the most airborne among us.

The Horrors of Home

Resisting the original impulse to set Here at Home in the Civil War era aligns it with these last two bold constructions. (Palette this time: green.) Sindelar and Holsopple have found some new toys to accompany their omnipresent auditory vibrations, and all of it, as ever, will be employed in the service of the play’s central concerns.

“Underneath, this play is really about relationships,” Holsopple told me. “Relationships and long-distance relationships,” a sentiment Sindelar repeated in our later conversation. They were inspired hearing and reading testimony from combat soldiers about the depth of the bonds forged while fighting in a foreign land, and Sindelar and Holsopple wondered, echoing queries made repeatedly in soldiers’ testimonials, what is the domestic equivalent?

31 Down has explored the inner lives of historical actors as demented as Lovecraft, as abused as the Capeks, as inconstant as a commercial airline pilot. Now, bolstered by Bland’s text, Holsopple and Sindelar are probing some of the most stigmatized, supremely dark dimensions of our society, probing our duplicitous treatment of the interior lives of America’s walking wounded: We support our troops, but we’re afraid to hear their stories.

Raise your hand if you’re quivering.


Frank Boudreaux

FRANK BOUDREAUX's plays have been produced and read at Dixon Place, Incubator Arts Project, undergroundzero, The Bushwick Starr, Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, 3LD. Look for his upcoming script for Reid Farrington's performance installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (July 2015).


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

All Issues