Saturday, 29 July 2017

Hunger Dramaturgy: Sinking Ship @ Edfringe 2017

Kafkas Irresistible Puppet Master

Physical theatre company Sinking Ship Productions has won widespread praise for their stage version of Kafka’s A Hunger Artist, which they are bringing to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

In the title role, Lecoq-trained performer and puppeteer Jonathan Levin is giving “possibly the best solo performance of the year” (New York Irish Arts)

What was the inspiration for this performance?

It was equal parts frustration with the direction of live performance in the US and a soft spot for Kafka. I miss the old vaudeville presentational stuff, with red curtains, footlights, and over-the-top theatrical gestures, so I thought why not use Kafka’s story about the death and decline of Hunger Artists to also talk about the death and decline of that kind of theatricality. 

And at the same time use things like miniature “toy theatre” (which were big in the 1800s), travelling vaudeville trunks, and red curtains to tell the story.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?

It’s certainly better than a comment board.

The main limitation, I think, on the relevance of performance is that it reaches a finite and relatively small number of people. But when done well, it is still one of the most visceral, empathetic art forms. Maybe “empathy” is a strange way to answer a question about ideas, but it’s essential to understanding. 

The audience is required to participate in the act of imagination, or you don’t have a show. So it’s never passive. And you are in a group, almost always. You can’t sit at home and watch alone, and there’s no screen mediating between you and the performer. 

In a world that feels increasingly lacking in empathy, performance feels absolutely necessary.

How did you become interested in making performance?

There were a couple of shows I saw that really blew my mind at various points in my life, and I think I’m still trying to process/recreate those experiences: Mabou Mines’ Peter and Wendy, Pig Iron’s Chekhov Lizardbrain, and a puppet company called Wakka Wakka. 

Each one had this incredible sense of magic, imagination and theatricality that I’ve been striving to find my own flavour of… Maybe we’re all just chasing the theatrical dragon so to speak.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

We went into this project with some major storytelling limitations, namely: how can we adapt this story about an ascetic performance artist who spends most of his time inside a cage in a theatrically dynamic, constantly surprising way using only one performer? 

And the more we began to translate the piece into a series of contained character bits/clowning set pieces the more we found ourselves navigating even more self-imposed limitations and conventions. 

But these sort of artistic boundaries, while restricting, encourage a tremendous sense of play and problem solving in a room that was basically working through absurdist trial and error.

The piece was built collaboratively, with the three core company members being performer Jonathan Levin, writer Josh Luxenberg, and director Joshua William Gelb. We worked together from the start to pull apart Kafka’s story, find the theatrical translation, and create the staging. Playing off each other allowed us to create an intricate, interconnected work.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

In a way, it’s a distillation of Sinking Ship’s work. All our other shows have been large casts - and too big to travel with. We built this one with Edinburgh in mind. 

Of course - and maybe this is a hallmark of our shows - we find it hard to think small. So we packed a ton of stuff into this (not so little) trunk show. The content of the plays we’ve made has been wildly different. What connects it all is a love of surprise, delight, and inventiveness (especially as an avenue to discussing big or hard ideas and feelings), an emphasis on physical, visual theatre (often with a dose of puppetry), and total integration of every element of performance. 

We believe that anything the audience sees is part of the show, which means we give as much consideration to a scene change as a scene.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

A Hunger Artist is at its core about the relationship between the performer and the audience. So while this is technically a solo show, the audience plays an integral part. You might even call some moments “participatory” (though if that word gives you pause, don’t worry, it’s not like you’ve seen it before). 

As the trajectory of the Hunger Artist’s career shifts from prestige to anonymity, so to does the audience’s experience shift from the comfort of clown to the inevitably Kafkaesque. The performance, and in particular our central prop, a large theatrical touring trunk, is filled with surprises that will delight, astonish, and perhaps even disturb.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

Without giving too much away, a portion of the show, as mentioned above, relies on some cleverly guided audience participation. So we’ve spent whole workshops devoted to figuring out what works, what doesn’t, what’s fun, and what’s not, when involving the unpredictable element of the audience on stage. 

We’ve come away with something that seems a little magical, to the point that everyone seems to think the audience participants are plants. They’re not!

In common with Kafka’s celebrated Metamorphosis, the story draws people into a world somehow familiar and yet extraordinarily strange.
The story opens with an account of how cheering, laughing crowds once flocked to see the hunger artist who starved in a cage for 40 days and 40 nights at a time for their entertainment. 

What then unfolds is a powerful piece of physical theatre mixed with elements of puppetry. The seemingly whimsical nostalgia for a lost art form rapidly transforms into a troubling trip into the nature of memory, art and spectatorship.

Although never explicitly addressed, there is a disquieting sense that the forces, frailties and fascinations Kafka exposed in 1922 were linked to the rise of fascism back then and of far right populism today.

Levin says: “It’s a dark tale, but there is lots of humour which is something we really bring out in the production. We’ve tried to make it very fresh and physical, so there’s always lots going on. New York has been great and now we are looking forward to the biggest challenge of them all – the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.” 

Created collaboratively by Levin, writer Josh Luxenberg, and director Joshua William Gelb, A Hunger Artist is crossing the Atlantic to Edinburgh following its successful run at the historic Connelly Theater in New York’s East Village. It is packed with transformations and there are so many people on the stage that it never has the sense of being a solo show.

A Hunger Artist has further cemented the reputation of the Brooklyn-based Sinking Ship, garnering considerable critical acclaim: "Boisterously funny and chokingly sad,” Blogcritics; “An unflagging sense of theatrical invention, Lighting & Sound America; “Beautifully imagined… full of heart,” Culturebot.

Listings details


  Venue: Zoo (Venue 124) 140, Pleasance, EH8 9RR

  Dates: 4 to 28 August
  Time: 17:45
  Duration: 70 minutes 
  Guidance: None
  Tickets:  £9 to £11
  Box office: 0131 662 6892

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