Skin Horse Theater Brings the Interstellar to the Stage in New Orleans
by Anna Henschel
In the spring of 2008, in the Campus Center at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, five juniors (three theater majors, a Gender and Sexuality Studies major, and a religion major) formally agreed that upon graduation from college they would move to a city that was not New York and start a theater company. A year later, in August 2009, with one original work under its belt (created partly to fulfill the theater senior project requirement) Skin Horse Theater’s Curiouser: An Historical Inaccuracy was accepted by the New Orleans Fringe Festival. The rest, as they say, is history.
Six years later, Nocturnes (I-III), a symphonic exploration of humanity’s relationship with space, has been our most challenging and most rewarding work to date. The five members of Skin Horse have always strived to experiment and devise collaboratively to bring big ideas to the stage. With each project, we challenge ourselves with both practical and creative goals, often articulated as questions, that guide our devising and creative process. With its premiere in 2013, Nocturnes became the most recent product of this process.
We first imagined Nocturnes three years ago, during a brainstorming session on future original works. Two broad themes emerged as the ideas on which we wanted to base our next projects. The first, dubbed Horror Play, was an exploration of whether theater has the ability to scare the way that film does. Was it possible? We did our research (mostly by watching The Shining, Night of the Living Dead, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and everything in between) and created SARAH for the 2011 New Orleans Fringe Festival that, to our delight, elicited screams from audience members at the climax and was reported to have contributed to at least two nightmares.
The other product of that brainstorming session was known for much of its life as Space Play. Born out of a fascination with the night sky and inspired by everyone from Jack Parsons to Gil Scott Heron, we took more than two years to explore how to show outer space on stage. From almost the beginning, Space Play existed in three parts, providing three perspectives on humanity’s relationship with the cosmos: a view from the ground, life in outer space, and the cosmos itself. In our devising process we played with these perspectives and how each contributed to the overall arc.
As part of Skin Horse’s devising practice, we are intentional about not assigning roles (stage manager, director, light designer, actor, etc.) for the first few months. This gives us the opportunity to create as peers, each taking turns leading rehearsal. Once the play begins to take shape, we discuss who is interested in what responsibilities and move forward from there. During these early stages of devising we try to bring to the table every idea, text, film, material, image, sound, website, or other media that excites us, whether seemingly related or not. Patterns in fabric, sources of light, songs from the 1930s, YouTube videos, and math lectures all become part of our conversation.
We devised, rehearsed, and experimented with Space Play for six months before having a work-in-progress showing at the Contemporary Arts Center in May 2013. The feedback from the active NOLA theater community was both supportive and helpfully critical. We went into summer giving the piece space to breathe and to figure out what we needed from it, and it from us.
We picked up the mantle again in August, with performance dates set for four weekends in November. With the help of our incredible cast (Shannon Flaherty, Matt Standley, Rebecca Elizabeth Hollingsworth and Owen Ever), we pushed our ideas further for each of the three acts. Now called Nocturnes (I-III), the first act showed the history, culture, and context for humanity’s perceptions of the cosmos. The act was framed by the transcript of preparations for Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight, and then explored poets and songwriters alongside political speeches, the writings of Carl Sagan, and a job posting from an asteroid mining company. Act II imagined life in a space station and explored how to show zero gravity on stage. The result was part narrative, part dance, and almost silent throughout. Finally, in Act III, we drew inspiration from theatre artist Romeo Castelucci and visual artist James Turrell, among others, and strove to explore our ultimate challenge: could outer space be depicted on stage? Challenge met.
Nocturnes began and ended with a man, standing alone on a platform, who looks up and finds solace in the stars. We found this connection to the viewer, inspired by Olaf Stapledon’s novel Star Maker, to be a clear entry point for our audiences, as well as a way to leave and bring ourselves back to Earth.
Nocturnes (I-III) opened November 7, 2013 and ran for four weeks, through the 2013 New Orleans Fringe Festival, at a repurposed warehouse on St. Claude Avenue, part of a fledgling arts district in New Orleans. The sound, capturing everything from the ambient noise of a space station to the cosmos itself, was designed by Brendan Connelly, the lights were designed by Skin Horse member Evan Spigelman, and the sets of the train station, mission control, and space station were designed and built by Phil Cramer. Nocturnes won two Big Easy Awards: Best Original Work (Devised) and Best Lighting Design.