BWW Interview: Ed Sylvanus Iskandar Gets CAUGHT At The Think Tank Gallery
One of New York City's preeminent directors of immersive theatre Ed Sylvanus Iskandar will be joining creative forces with playwright Christopher Chen in the Los Angeles premiere of Christopher's Obie Award-winning CAUGHT. In another first, CAUGHT will be presented in a non-theatre venue, an actual art gallery, the Think Tank Gallery in Downtown L.A.
Ed took a few available spare moments between previews and their November 3rd opening to answer a few of our inquiring enquiries.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Ed!
What creative forces brought you and Christopher together initially?
I came to Chris as many others did, as a great admirer of his work. CAUGHT is a cerebral thriller about cultural appropriation, something I've negotiated all my life as an Indonesian-born Chinese man who was educated in the U.K., and now calls America home. Culture, of course, goes beyond race. I grew up in Jakarta, which is 99% Muslim, but I attended an Anglican boarding school in London. That was an all-boys boarding school, so the first time I was in a mixed gender environment was college (at Stanford). I may be an extreme example of multi-culti plurality, but we are - all of us - continuing our ancestors' journeys to explore and understand the world on our own terms. In Chris, I've found a kindred soul. We have both lived experience with conceptual curiosity about how we transport and encounter other cultures in a world with swiftly vanishing borders. Plus, we'd both worked with so many mutual collaborators who'd talked us up to the other, I felt I already knew him by the time we started our conversation about his extraordinary play.
Will this Los Angeles premiere of CAUGHT be the first time it has ever been presented in a venue other than a traditional theatre?
From what I've read, it seems that past productions have created a pop-up art gallery (the setting of the play) within, or around, a "traditional" theatre. The play, the space and the moment we're in seems to have lined up perfectly for Los Angeles. We're making theatre in one of the most exciting found spaces I've worked in - Think Tank, which just happens to be an art gallery. I directed an immersive production of TAMING OF THE SHREW for Michael Kahn in D.C., in which we transformed the theatre itself into Shakespeare's Padua. CAUGHT is already set in an art gallery. In the play, the character Wang Min asks, "Is this a gallery or a theatre? When is the 'show' going to start? Or has the 'show' already begun?" If the play is going to successfully challenge the audience with those questions, I felt it would be more successful to immerse them in a situation where they were naturally already asking them.
How did you and Christopher happen onto Think Tank Gallery as CAUGHT's L.A. home?
When I watched the fantastic New York production at La MaMa, I remember feeling that the moment I was tied down to one seat while the scenes changed before me, my vantage point ceased to shift, even as the conceit of the play keeps transforming with every subsequent scene. This was a drastically different experience than the one I had while reading the play. I knew I wanted L.A. audience members to experience the play as I had reading it - in a manner consistent to the constantly changing paradigms of the text. In most "traditional" American theatres, we don't get to ask "what is the right relationship for the text and the audience?" For this process, we get to define a unique relationship for each scene in the play. Think Tank Gallery was looking for adventurous, "out-of-the-box" art. The play and the space make for a dynamic experience together.
How were the art pieces of the specially curated contemporary art show DISTRICT 798 at Think Tank incorporated into CAUGHT? Were these pieces chosen specifically for this production? Or was CAUGHT 'adapted' to use these pieces?
We commissioned original art based on specific prompts from the play, and requested pre-existing pieces that we felt had an organic tie-in. The intention behind the name DISTRICT 798 is an homage to our playwright's critique of China's (real) District 798, which he opines to be state-sanctioned, subversion-lite art; an opinion he shares with Lin Bo, the dissident artist he creates a platform for in CAUGHT. We hope to challenge our audiences in the same way Lin Bo has challenged his.
What motivated you to become the Founding Artistic Director of invite-only NYC collective Exit, Pursued By a Bear (EPBB)?
When I first started out in New York, I realized that I was one of many emerging artists who had no means of practice. Theatre, being a social medium, requires the participation of other people to make and share. I modeled EPBB after the artist salons of history, where like minds could meet, collaborators could advance their craft, and where I - as an emerging director - could show off works in progress, which I've found to be the single most desirable commodity for someone starting out in the theatre. Truth be told, I found New York a challenging place to live, and having an open-door policy for artists and audiences to drop in without notice was an incredibly freeing experience - an antidote to our tendency to socialize through social media. Life and art always mixed to thrilling effect at the studio and every success I've had in my career stems from the theatre I made with the artists who were the backbone of EPBB.
EPBB has served over 12,000 free home-cooked meals and shared 150 priceless nights of theater. Do you have a background in event planning and catering?
EPBB was my training in event planning and catering. Many of the things that made a night at EPBB an 'event' - food, community, engagement with artists - were merely a by-product of the nature of the space it lived in. When I set out to direct Sean Graney's THESE SEVEN SICKNESSES - my big break - I realized that a seven-hour theatre marathon required a meal and freeform communal engagement for audiences to survive the experience. As I explored ways in which we could include these needs in the audience experience, I realized I was deepening the impact of the theatrical experience by stimulating audiences in a more three-dimensional way. Imagine showing up to a play where a stranger hands you food, engages you with conversation and moments later, performs in front of you. You are more likely to work hard on behalf of that person, and yourself, for the experience to be mutually worthwhile. In this capacity, theatre becomes what it has always been intended to be: a form for deep social connection rooted in a sense of real civic dialogue.
What career path did you want to pursue as a teenager, event planning or theatre? Or something else entirely different?
I was trained as a concert pianist, which provided an entree into the performing arts. I swiftly realized I hated rehearsing alone, and that I truly disliked being on display (when I performed). I found being an audience member a more gratifying experience, so when I found the theatre, I realized that to be a director is to be a professional audience member, which is the best job in the world.
What discipline was your BA from Stanford for, before earning your MFA at Carnegie Mellon?
I was an accidental drama major at Stanford. Meaning, I realized I'd filled the requirements with a year left before graduation. I was lucky because the liberal arts education at Stanford meant that I was taking classes across the full spectrum of the humanities. I wasn't the greatest student as an undergrad. I was too busy trying to direct plays; whether in a theater, or in the woods, or an interesting site like a public restroom. I found my appetite to make plays to be borderline disturbing. There were times when I was working on multiple plays simultaneously. I'd rehearse in the morning before class, then again in the evening, and then (after a break), I'd do late night rehearsals. I craved the community theatre forms deeply, and amidst the soul talks on the outside steps, the late night production meetings at the diner, and the friendships that formed and continue to nourish me; I realized I'd found what I wanted to devote my life to. When I received an offer of a scholarship for the graduate directing program at Carnegie Mellon, I didn't think twice.
Your directing forte seems to be in the non-traditional vs. proscenium stage setting for your productions. Do you find inspiration walking into a new hot spot and then go find a project to produce in it? Or do you usually have the theatre piece first and then look for the appropriate venue?
The first question I ask myself is, "Why should an audience experience a text in this way?" If the answer points to a traditional proscenium, then that's the way to produce the play. If, as with CAUGHT, the text suggests a different relationship, then I start to broaden the possibilities to non-traditional spaces. I've always found myself most interested in theatre without a fourth wall. With the Greeks, the medieval mystery plays, and the Elizabethans (or for adventurous new writing that embraces the inherent artifice of the theatre); we can see a tradition of so-called "immersive theatre" stretching back to the beginning of human civilization.
In any fully immersive productions that you put together, are the food/drink servers also acting in your productions? I guess the question is really who are the venue staff vs. who are the actors?
I believe artists are the truest philanthropists. They give everything of themselves to an audience of strangers. I learned much of the performance culture I adore through a rather unexpected experience. Many years ago, I attended a meditation retreat, much like the one documented in SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS - in which I took a 10-day vow of silence and meditated 16 hours a day. I was so moved by my experience that I immediately signed up to serve at two subsequent retreats during which I joined a small staff tasked with cooking, cleaning and supporting the experience of the 200 first-time meditators undergoing the same experience I already did. That experience of true service brought me back in touch with the fundamental core of what it means to be an artist - generosity. Performing acts of generosity opens the creative spirit to express an authenticity rarely captured by anything else. In many of my immersive pieces, I invite my fellow artists to serve, and yes, that sometimes means "venue staff," in order to fully put this into practice.
Soooo, not only you can you plan weddings, but you are an officiant as well? How cool is that??? I would guess that you subscribe to the thinking that all multi-person events qualify as a theatrical production, just different in their scopes, right?
Nailed it! So here's the thing: I spend my life helping actors focus their authenticity into performances that capture real human stories. That's what every couple is trying to do at their wedding. It gives me the greatest joy to help people tell their story and embody their relationship through a celebration of their new lives together, which is in some sense a three-dimensional manifesto for them.
Being an officiant is as simple as getting ordained online. However, the wedding as a theatrical form is actually a complex genre, one that everyone in your congregation will have experienced multiple times before. If you don't know what a unity candle means, you're merely lighting a candle in the middle of your ceremony. In reality, it takes very little to make a wedding "valid" in the legal sense. All the other ceremonial aspects that we have become accustomed to are there because couples need ways to symbolize and show their commitment to one another. So I look at weddings, whether as an officiant, or a wedding director, as the ultimate canvas for a great love story.
Any multi-person gatherings you haven't undertaken that you'd still like to tackle?
The Opening Ceremony of the L.A. Olympics. A pilgrimage. All of Burning Man. And, of course, my own funeral.
What responses, what feelings of the Think Tank audience leaving the gallery would tickle you to no end?
"Was that a play? Or was it a party?"
Thank you again, Ed! I look forward to immersing into your latest experience.
For ticket availability and show schedule through December 10, 2017; log onto www.thinktank.gallery