Feeling Gravity’s Pull

With ‘Elevator Plays’ and other work, Specific Gravity Ensemble invokes a ‘sense of place’ and challenges our notions of theater

PHOTOS BY MARTY PEARL (martypearl.com)

It is 5:30 on a dreary Sunday evening, and Rand Harmon is eager to get down to the business of rehearsing for “Elevator Plays 2: Beyond the Norm.” The Starks Building is uncharacteristically quiet and dark, except for the cast and crew gathered on the second floor. Harmon, the artistic director for Louisville’s Specific Gravity Ensemble, is a stickler for punctuality and productivity, as is his stage manager and “logistical whiz,“ Randy Pease. Harmon looks expectant, if not impatient, as Pease prepares the group.

Like a football coach laying out strategy to his players, Pease orders the actors into their respective areas, organizing them into four teams — three elevator plays take place while going up, and the fourth is the “control” elevator, carrying the actors who will change places with the up elevators for the downward ride. Each play lasts only 60 to 75 seconds. This is the first “round robin” rehearsal, as the actors run through the series of plays in real time. Everything goes smoothly, very smoothly. Like clockwork, in fact. Harmon positively beams as his 6-year-old daughter, who makes an appearance as a tiny ballerina in one of the 24 plays, runs through her lines.

By the time the show goes up, the actors will have taken 80 elevator trips. In each act, they’ll take 12 successive trips on a sold-out night. This rigorous preparation is like training for a marathon. Some will take motion sickness pills to avoid nausea. Remarkably, none of these actors is getting paid. They do it because SGE is doing interesting, unique work as a collective. And they love working with such a dynamic group. Nobody throws a “star trip” in the SGE.

As I viewed the proceedings, I was struck by the hive-like efficiency of the cast and crew. It was almost like watching a military organization on an important mission. Everyone knew their job and set about doing it at precisely the designated time. A place for everyone and everyone in their place.

And “place” is precisely what SGE is all about. If there is a thread that combines the troupe’s mutually dissimilar productions, it is what James Joyce scholars like to refer to as “a sense of place.” By staging their performances in unconventional locations — not just alternative venues, but places that were never intended as venues at all — the group challenges audiences by dashing all preconceived expectations.

It’s all about “adventure and unpredictability,” says Harmon. These do indeed seem to be the signifiers for the company’s success, as Louisville theatergoers have happily embraced SGE’s iconoclastic brand of storytelling.

Their goth-tinged interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” gave patrons a double dose of that adventure and unpredictability. It was a noisy, violent, and strobelight-heavy version of the play, held inside a semi-abandoned industrial building in a somewhat sketchy part of town early last summer. It was stiflingly hot and smelled funny. Only hard and uncomfortable benches and crates were provided for sitting. I felt not only challenged, but downright assaulted.

Harmon’s instincts were correct, though, even though the nuances escaped me at the time. As the Specific Gravity manifesto states, the group seeks to make audience members “discover something about themselves,” and the “Macbeth” experience made me question my own comfort zone. I would have probably found the production’s raucous din not nearly so harsh when I was 18. At what point did I cross the line into requiring so much more comfort in my life? Will I demand even more comfort from my surroundings a decade from now?
This is the sort of unpleasant introspection that I’m sure the ensemble would be pleased to have elicited.

Harmon enjoyed watching the audience’s reaction to “Macbeth.”
“They were in a place they weren’t comfortable in,” he says, “and I wanted them to walk away thinking, ‘I’m not comfortable in my world, either.’ Greed plays a big part in our world, and I wanted them to walk away thinking about that, as well as Mackers’ journey. Discomfort is a big part of that.”

Indeed, it was like being taken to Hell.

On the other side of the coin,
last year’s groundbreaking “Elevator Plays” were in a disarmingly friendly setting: an elevator in the pleasantly metropolitan Starks Building at Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard downtown. Unlike “Macbeth,” where the Bard’s characters did not acknowledge standing in a decrepit warehouse, these microplays were indeed set inside elevators. It is a treat for the audience as well as the actors, according to Harmon.

“We have a ball. It’s luxurious for the actor. You have 60-75 seconds to perform either a really hysterical or hard-hitting piece of theater. Learning your lines is a snap. You can really focus on the moment. And the audience can’t get away. There’s no anonymity.” That’s because audience and cast are confined inside an elevator car with no escape. This theater experience is definitely not one for the claustrophobic.

“Last year, we sold out nearly seven out of eight shows,” Harmon says. “We saw in the elevator plays a metaphor for what we do. It puts the audience in a situation they’ve never encountered before … actually they HAVE encountered it before, but it’s different.”

One of my favorites from last year is Harmon’s “The Doppler Effect,” which came off more like performance art than theater: two men simultaneously read speeches by George W. Bush and the Dalai Lama. The vast chasm between the two worldviews is plainly underscored. Harmon hinted at a “Doppler Effect 2” this year, although it’s not titled that way. We’ll have to figure out which one it is. This secrecy is not meant to be coy. It comes instead from Harmon’s desire to surprise the audience, and limit preconceptions about the show. This opaqueness obviously benefits the audience, but can be taxing for journalists.

Fast forward to the present again, and the Ensemble are bringing back that Otis-brand magic with a second round of “Elevator Plays.” (I cannot reveal the details of what I saw at rehearsal. I will say I eagerly await the show and am pre-recommending it). Like last year, 24 pieces are scheduled for performance this time around. This year, there are two acts instead of three, with six plays going on at once; that makes it a bit easier on the audience and actors.

This year’s theme is “Beyond the Norm.“ Elevators in extremis, if you will. The challenge sent out to playwrights was to create plays about elevator culture where anything can happen. To go beyond the normal, to what is possible. This is a huge promise to an audience. From what I witnessed, SGE will not disappoint.

Ashley Beck, assistant stage manager, is a crucial factor in all of those things getting done. As Pease scrutinized the rehearsal and came up with ideas and observations on how to improve the show (“notes,” as theater people say), he relayed them to Beck to write down, which she did dutifully and cheerfully. When Pease needed to turn his attention temporarily to other matters, she stepped in and assumed the stage manager role. She also locates and gathers props. She is eager to do whatever needs doing to get this show on the road.

Beck says Specific Gravity is the most cohesive theater group she’s known. “Very much about collaboration,” she says, and smiles, “involving everyone who cares to be a part.” When she introduced herself to the group as the ASM, she told them, “I’m your bitch. I’ll do whatever you want.” They cheered. Few 19-year-olds have the chance to work with a professional theater company, especially such a cutting edge one.

As Beck says, the company is indeed very much a group effort, and Harmon goes so far as call some of the process ‘democratic.” Other processes, such as the selection of plays, are kept “as anonymous as possible.” The company has a very definite hierarchy, however, with officers, members and “probationary members.” This strict attention to structure seems to help everything flow easily behind the scenes, avoiding much of the chaos that pervades any production.

Pease says he learned from last year’s elevator plays that choreographing these shows can be a logistical nightmare. Fortunately, his actors are more flexible than he thought. The new show is even more challenging: Last year, there were 13 actors and six directors. This year there are 22 actors and only five directors, with more plays going on simultaneously. Not every stage manager would accept this task so willingly.

Pease, a founding member, is passionate about SGE. A 2006 graduate of Indiana University Southeast, he took theater classes from Harmon and became obsessed with site-specific theater. The theory behind SGE, Pease told me, is that when you change an object’s “specific gravity,” you change it at its very core. Similarly, SGE strives to change the audience forever. I challenged him to expound on this idea. “We want to change the way the audience experiences theater. Theater is more than just going to a show. It involves thinking, feeling. I like making the audience a part of the show.”

Harmon is a very discriminating theatergoer, and has been directing plays for 24 years all over the country. He likes theater that surprises him, makes him think and tends to stick with him for weeks. Likewise, he wants his audience to have a “seismic experience,“ whether they want it or not. “Isn’t that the purpose of theater?“ he asks. “A lot of people don’t know that’s what they want. They just want to see something to entertain them and allow them to escape. I think you can be entertained and find escapist experiences on television and in a good book. But if you’re going to entrust your life to me for two hours, I need to take you somewhere. I have a responsibility to you, to move your life two hours down the line.”

What does Harmon see in the future for Louisville’s theater scene?
“I don’t have the words to describe it, but there’s an explosion of culture in Louisville,“ he says. “In the ’90s, we would have called it the alternative theater movement — it’s growing.” He’s thrilled that the Theatre Alliance of Louisville now has a three-year plan, and that new companies are springing up all the time. “There’s talk of co-productions. So much energy. More and more local people are taking interest in, and advantage of, the theater scene. It contributes to the everyday dialog of our culture. Not just in March, but throughout the year.”

Harmon was quick to add that Humana and Actors Theatre provide an important role in nurturing smaller companies. For example, Ben Marcum, Actors Theatre’s sound designer, was in charge of sound for SGE’s “Macbeth.“ And the energy from the smaller companies flows back to Actors Theatre, as more people take an interest in theater. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The biggest obstacle, though, according to Harmon, is lack of performance spaces. He hopes that as it grows, the Theatre Alliance can help provide more spaces for small companies.

What can you expect from what might be called a “mini-Humana” festival of new plays? Expect the unexpected. High art and low comedy. You’ll laugh — and you might cry. You might quake with fear. At the very least, you’ll emerge a new person, with your “specific gravity” altered forever.  

Contact the writer at [email protected]

Future gravitational pulls (not guaranteed):
Here are just two of SGE’s projects on the burner:
— This 1935 play presents a series of interconnected vignettes about taxi drivers going on strike. The audience is intended to be treated as if they were, in fact, the union collective seated at the meeting hall, so this makes it a natural for Specific Gravity.  “Waiting for Lefty” was the debut effort from the great playwright Clifford Odets (who inspired the Coen Brothers film “Barton Fink”) and is regarded by many as his greatest.

“WAR OF THE WORLDS” — The kids of today may love Tom Cruise’s film version (and so do I), but there’s nothing like the radio play originally staged by the Mercury Radio Theater on Halloween night in 1938. The show presented itself as if it was an actual radio news broadcast, thus causing massive confusion among rural listeners who thought the Earth was actually under alien attack. This audio equivalent of “breaking the fourth wall” makes it a natural for Specific Gravity, and it should be interesting to see what happens.

Specific Gravity Ensemble’s ‘Elevator Plays 2:
Beyond the Norm!’
Jan. 25 – Feb. 17
Hertz Starks Building
Fourth Street and
Muhammad Ali Boulevard
(502) 384-2743
$15 ($12 students)
8 p.m. (Fri. & Sat.)
5 p.m. (Sun.)