Director Edward Elefterion has been a mainstay on the New York indie theater scene since the early 1990s, but today’s audiences may know his work from more recent productions like The Night of Nosferatu, Land of the Undead, and The Siblings.
His latest endeavor, A Rope in the Abyss (which he also wrote), is currently playing in a variety of unusual locations including a pair of housing centers, a medical center, and a microbrewery. The production will also run at The Blackbird Theatre in April, and is being produced by Rabbit Hole Ensemble, for whom Edward is the artistic director.
Edward stopped by the ol’ blog to talk about the show, his company, and their signature aesthetic, among other things. Take a read…
A Rope in the Abyss is an original play written by you. But you usually work solely as a director. What compelled you to write this one, too?
Well, truth be told, it’s not the only play I’ve written. There was The Siblings which I also directed and which was presented at the Midtown International Theatre Festival in 2006, and there are about a dozen more locked away in a vault. On my hard drive. I’ve been writing since the late 90s. This one came about after several monthly meetings I had with some actors in an empty room playing with the idea of identity. I’d also been reading a lot of books about neuroscience and how the brain works. And, since I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife, the idea that one day I’m going to stop existing is pretty powerful. So, I just sort of played with the idea of how fragile identity really is and tried to share my sense of wonder about it all through making a play.
What does the title refer to?
In In Search of Lost Time, Proust describes something universal: waking up. Not a psychological sort of waking or a spiritual sort…but just waking up from a deep sleep. There are sometimes a few seconds where you don’t know anything, not where you are or what time it is or even who you are, until something catches your senses like a curtain or a glass of water next to the bed and, effortlessly, everything comes back to you. We all know this experience. And it’s quite unremarkable when it happens, because it happens so often. Proust describes the trigger that restores you to yourself as a “rope let down from heaven” that brings you up out of the abyss of non-being, where you just slumbered for a moment or two. It’s that rope, that way out of nothing and back to your self that interests me. Because I don’t think this only happens upon waking up. I think it happens throughout a life. People change every second, really. But no one notices until there’s some event to mark the change: a new job, a birth, a break-up, an accident, a return from afar, a move away, all these big life things…they’re all markers of change. And a person going through them is just as strange to himself as he is to everyone else.
Luckily, we have hairstyles and clothes, a myriad of exterior cues that keep us comfortably identified. We have consistent tastes and preferences that express who we really are, regardless of circumstantial change. Or at least that’s how it seems. We assume that our characteristics, preferences and behaviors express who we really are on the inside, but maybe, just as often if not more, we look outside for cues to tell us who we are inside. For instance, maybe the kind of music you listen to is an expression not of who you are but of who you want to be? Maybe your taste for mint chocolate chip is an instinctual way back to some otherwise lost version of yourself? Maybe your 9 to 5 gig is what really shapes your attitude towards life and if your job were different maybe you’d be different?
There are ropes are all around us gathering us up into a sense of self and maybe without them we’d be as utterly lost as we are those moments of waking up. It’s fascinating to me because it throws the whole idea of “who I am” into the wind like confetti. It scatters all the million little bits that make up who I am and rearranges them, and potentially makes me a stranger to myself. We think we know who we are. Maybe we need to think so because the true nature of identity is really very slippery and fragile?
Where does your interest in neuroscience stem from?
It stems from my interest in what makes us who we are. Discoveries in neuroscience speak so directly to questions of identity that once I found out about it, I couldn’t read books fast enough. I suppose that I was introduced to neuroscience by RadioLab on WNYC. Check it out if you’ve never heard of it. www.radiolab.org.
You’ve partnered with the Brain Injury Association of New York State to produce this show. How did that come about?
A friend of a friend works at a rehabilitation center in Connecticut and when he heard about the subject of this show he told me about the Brain Injury Association in Albany and recommended that I contact them. They’ve been wonderful. Really supportive and instrumental in connecting us to several interested venues.
The show is being performed not only in a traditional theater space, but is also traveling to a pair of housing centers, a medical center, and a microbrewery. Why the non-traditional locales, as well?
Throughout the month of March we’re doing the show for FREE at various locales in Brooklyn. Why? A few reasons.
1. The folks who live in the medical center don’t have the opportunity to go to the theatre and if they did, they wouldn’t see anything that addresses their situations and/or experiences regarding brain injury.
2. The folks in the housing communities don’t exactly get out much either and couldn’t afford even cheap theatre (even I can’t afford going to what’s considered affordable theatre).
3. The people who make their homes in these facilities (and their families, who are greatly affected too, don’t forget) know a thing or two first-hand about sudden and severe changes in circumstances and identity…so we hope to communicate with these groups directly and learn something from such an audience.
4. We really wanted to open these performances up to the public in the surrounding neighborhoods because, frankly, they are underserved neighborhoods and we wanted to reach out and create an opportunity for people to see some theatre.
And for the record, we are doing a performance at an assisted living center which we do not advertise since it is intended specifically for the residents of the center and is not open to the public.
The microbrewery stepped up and offered their space because the owner’s son suffered from a brain injury after a cycling accident that eventually killed him, so he’s got a personal interest.
Come to think of it, the more people I talk to about the subject of this play, the more I’ve learned that brain injury and/or sudden shifts of identity are not as uncommon as they might sound. It seems everyone knows someone with a related illness. My own grandfather did not suffer from a brain injury. But in the last months of his life, he often forgot what he’d just told you. I mean entire conversations and stories. I bet you and your readers all can relate to, if not know someone, who is suffering the effects of old age, or alcoholism (any addiction really), road rage…people change in a heartbeat.
Tell us a little bit about the background and history of your theater company, Rabbit Hole Ensemble, which is producing A Rope in the Abyss.
Since I graduated from NYU in 1992, I’ve been self-producing in Manhattan. Over the years I’ve used different aliases: Lefty, Chimera, and Rabbit Hole, because I didn’t want to come out and say Edward Elefterion produces “Blah” directed by Edward Elefterion. I was shy or afraid that people would think I was an ego-maniac or that I was a novice…or a combination of both.
The first time I used Rabbit Hole was back in 1993 with a show called Buried Treasure by Stanton Wood, who is now a resident playwright at Rabbit Hole. Then I went off to grad school at Indiana University, got my MFA in directing, moved to England for about 18 months where I worked with the Midlands Refugee Council and developed a pair of plays with some Bosnian, Afghan and Albanian refugees (this was during the war in Kosovo). When I returned to NYC in 2000, I got a job at Hofstra University, and I’d resumed self-producing theatre in the city. Finally, in 2005 I brought some of my colleagues together, namely Paul Daily (and actor whom I’d met in Indiana) and Emily Hartford (one of my very talented former students at Hofstra), to form a theatre company. We all liked the name Rabbit Hole Ensemble, so that’s what we called it. Of course, the name is a reference to the portal that takes Alice to Wonderland.
Your press release refers to Rabbit Hole’s “signature minimalist aesthetic.” What is that, exactly? And how did you go about developing it?
Rabbit Hole’s mission is to emphasize the communal nature of theatre through a distinctly minimalist aesthetic that focuses on space, audience, and the performer (especially the basic tools of physicality and voice) to produce a uniquely direct and candid experience.
Our basic working method is “if it’s not absolutely necessary, cut it”. That applies to text, design, gesture, blocking, everything that is part of the performance. I challenge the actor to do as much as possible and work to emphasize the immediacy of the performance by stripping it down to its essentials. It’s our emphasis on ensemble-creation that really invites and stimulates audiences’ imaginations.
People constantly tell me that they’re amazed at how much we do with so very little. That’s the amazing thing right there: it’s not how much we do, but how much they experience. We just use our skills to create what we need, to suggest enough to each other and the audience so that the production actually happens in the shared imagination of the actors and the audience. That’s what I think “experience” really means.
Also, I got into theatre because I like creating something with other people, not waiting in a blackout for the scene to change or the historical accuracy of a hat or buckle on a shoe. There’s a place for that kind of historically-oriented, design-oriented, spectacle-engineered theatre, but it’s not what I’m interested in. I want to go to an intimate space and take part in something playful and serious that challenges me to use my imagination and that provokes my mind and body into emotional and intellectual action. I want something to remember not because it was visually stunning, but because I took part in it, I was involved with it and I’m going to re-experience it to varying extents in the course of time.
To me, the success of a production cannot be judged by the performance as much as by the re-experiencing some aspect of it the next day or the next week or ten years later. I want to be a part of people’s lives, and I feel that the more distractions you put in front of an audience, the more you’ll distract them…and why would I want to distract you while I’m trying to commune with you?
What are your plans for Rabbit Hole after A Rope in the Abyss?
Big Thick Rod by resident playwright Stanton Wood. It’s a sex farce about exploitation and the cost of narcissistic capitalism. It’s a riot and if neither FringeNYC nor the Midtown International Theatre Festival picks it up, Rabbit Hole will produce it in September. But it’s such a hilariously poignant play I sure hope that it gets the benefit from being included in a festival. It’d be a shame for such a potentially wide audience to miss out on it.
After that, we’re considering an adaptation of Woyzeck by Matt Olmos and a new play by the internationally acclaimed poet Jay Wright. There are a lot of irons in the fire.
I’d like to add that if people would want to get in touch with us, shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always looking to meet new artists and especially folks who are just interested in the mission of the company: strong stories, told simply and theatrically, without much technology. It’s funny where you might find your next General Manager or Producing Director or Fund Raiser. Since we’re mostly a group of artists, we sure could use that kind of management-collaboration. Visit us at www.rabbitholeensemble.com.