From: The Inman Review Volume 2: Spring 2010
Arts & Culture
Art of the Vaulted Domes
Interview with Rebecca Whitehurst
by Jahn Sood
Last winter I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Rebecca Whitehurst during the world premier of The Disappearing Man & Other Sad Songs. In those days, Rebecca was an acrobat and I, a magician. We shared our tales of woe over whiskey, make-up, blood and tears in the alleyway behind a fictional circus tent. When the show was over, the ringmaster and clowns took their final bows, the Big Top was collapsed and the circus rolled on down the rails.
A year later, it seems a few of us stayed behind. I laid down my deck of cards and started at a new sleight of hand, writing for this magazine. Ms. Whitehurst went right back into the rigs. She was cast as Tatanya in American Repertory Theater’s The Donkey Show and became the young acrobat and butterfly-laden showgirl represented on taxicab rooftops all over Cambridge.
Since opening in August 2009, the cast of The Donkey Show has adapted to an intense custom of living on stage. The show has been extended over and over again and is set to run through the summer of 2010. The production requires an intense, physical performance by a talented cast of illusionists. There are go-go dancers and disco, drugs and butterflies all mixed up in an onslaught of color and sound.
This winter, I met with Rebecca at Darwin’s Café to find out what it was like to return to the circus and fly high over Cambridge.
JS: Tell me about your experience on the silks… How do you describe your style of acrobatics? How long have you studied this style?
RW: What I do up there is just a bizarre creation of my own, but the foundation of it is my gymnastics. When I was little I was a gymnast. I was on the national team, trained eight hours a day, home schooled. So I have that background, then went into professional dance. I was in a dance company that toured internationally…the choreography of which was the basis for KÀ, one of the more recent Cirque du Soleil productions in Las Vegas.
The style of dance I was doing in this particular company, Diabolo Dance Theater, was acrobatic, mixing with postmodern dance, mixing with acting. So those three strains of skills came together. That’s where I really began to utilize my physical background in my artistic [work], in my own creations. I would say [these creations are] “movement theater” with a focus on acrobatic and post-modern gestural [techniques].
When I got the part of Tatanya, they knew that I had special skills and asked if I had any ideas about what would be an awesome moment for Tatanya to appear. In the production [of The Donkey Show] that was in New York for six years, Tatanya would appear up top on a ladder. And so, to make it more spectacular, which is what the director intended, she asked if I could do anything and I said, “Well, it would be awesome if there was a huge swinging trapeze and I could just swing over the crowd.”
And…they didn’t have the capacity to do that in the space so I though of the Spanish web, or the silks. In particular, silks work for this show because they are butterfly- like. Butterflies are the animal totem for Tatanya. So when we got the silks in, I was allowed to create something up there within the structure of the music that was already playing. So I wouldn’t say that there is a particular style, though I studied silk performers’ different methods for climbing it and wrapping yourself in it.
JS: Club Oberon is one of the only rooms in Cambridge that has a certified aerial point. Did they put that in for The Donkey Show?
RW: Yes. That was a major part of the dialogue between the director, the space and myself. It took some conversations to get something inserted into the space when they were constructing it. They redid the [Zero Arrow] theater to become a nightclub. In order to do that they had to get certified people to come in and rig it, then I had to sign a thing.
JS: You’ve been doing acrobatics your whole life; do ever feel afraid of falling?
RW: Every night.
JS: Every night?
RW: Not only every night that I do the show, but every other night when I’m not even in the building. I live with what I consider a very healthy fear of hurting myself because I’m doing very dangerous things. Not only in that aspect of the show, but in all the rest of the show because I’m in such high heels and the crowd is erratic and the floor is not totally stable. The whole system is sort of dangerous in a way that actually adds to the world of The Donkey Show. Its on the cusp of being a little too crazy, which is what is really thrilling and ultimately liberating for the audience.
JS: It references the old time freak shows, the dark nightclubs, the underground drug cultures that have hidden behind performing arts at different times in American history, but it is also part of that tradition. The theater-goers can get drunk if they want and you are physically at the same risk that you would have been in the shows that you’re referencing.
RW: Yeah. I definitely live with a gentle sense of fear on a daily basis, because if you’re not really focused you can really hurt yourself.
JS: So the fear is protective?
RW: Yeah. At the same time, when I’m actually doing it, when I’m actually up there, I don’t experience fear. All the cells in my body and mind are focused on simply doing the task. The fear happens at all other times prior to that moment. I do dangerous things, but it is also very exhilarating.
[When you let] your body freefall, which you do when you’re doing any type of acrobatics that take you off the ground, the cells in your body form a very astute understanding of where your limbs are in relation to one another and relation to the ground, and it prepares your body for a landing. I think it’s called proprioception. All of these things happen internally and eventually it becomes ingrained into your body and your need and want to do it.
I can definitely understand the idea that there is a greater fear of coming down and just living on the ground. There is a physical experience that cannot be matched when you’re just walking on the ground. So there is an addiction to wanting to do physical acrobatics and circus-like performing.
A trapeze artist—this art, practiced high in the vaulted domes of the great variety theaters, is admittedly one of the most difficult humanity can achieve—had so arranged his life that, as long as he kept working in the same building, he never came down from his trapeze by day or night, at first only from a desire to perfect his skill, but later because custom was too strong.
-Franz Kafka in “First Sorrow”
JS: Do you get a different look at the audience from up there?
RW: Yeah! It’s incredible. They’re like a big sea creature. When I’m on the ground, it’s like a forest and they’re all trees. I have to make sure I don’t get killed, caught in the branches. But up there, they’re all one mass. Because I’m spinning, usually quite fast, it becomes a blur of color and light and movement. It really makes me feel like I’m in another world.
JS: I saw you perform last summer in the Commonwealth Shakespeare Project’s Comedy of Errors, outside on the Boston Common. Commonwealth Shakespeare is a theatrical staple in Boston. Between that show and The Donkey Show, it seems that you have really burst onto the Boston scene. What do you think of performing in Boston?
RW: I would say that the Commonwealth Shakespeare was my absolute favorite theatrical experience. It was incredible, and that is a testament to the Boston area. The actors that are doing it, plus the audience, often up to five thousand people come to just sit in Boston Common and watch the show. It created an atmosphere of true love for the art form.
JS: Do you think that there is a different type of audience here than in New York, where you spent several years before moving to Boston? Is the experience of working different here?
RW: Compared to New York, there was a more relaxed enjoyment of [theater], with the same honorable respect of the art. In New York, there was intensity all the time, not only in the performers, but also in the audience’s relation to them. In some ways that is very good. It fuels the art form to progress, but at the same time it loses the original Shakespearean, Globe Theatre, London experience, which was fun. [A play provided] a time to relax, and learn, but to be entertained, and to enjoy your fellow man, the people next to you.
JS: Do you feel that Boston is more connected to that?
RW: Yeah. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s connected to the Puritans. There is definitely a commonality, a community sense that is in New York, but not in the same way. Here it is somehow healthier and more beautiful, and it works out for the humans and for the productions.
JS: Running with your mention of Boston’s Puritan past, how do you think that Bostonians deal with the intense sexuality, nudity and ‘gender bending’ in The Donkey Show?
RW: Some of us were very concerned that it wouldn’t have the same response that it did in New York. But actually, I think it’s been the opposite. In New York, there are so many opportunities to see very crazy things, very sexualized and controversial things. Because there is less of that for people here, The Donkey Show is a new space, a new opportunity for people and because of that it has really caught on. People are more likely to have a journey of liberation than they would in New York. Because it is a special experience, it allows the audience to get deeper into the performance.
JS: I enjoyed watching the audience, even before the show. Every one was dressed up. It was colorful and exciting.
RW: Well, yeah. Within every person, there is a performative little child, a child that wants to perform, a child that wants to be in the circus. To go to a show where you’re able to become that is very liberating.
JS: After The Donkey Show and her recent Broadway production of Hair, the director, Diane Paulus is really building a reputation for getting actors go to extremes for her productions. In this show, sexual comfort zones were definitely pushed, in Hair, the actors got completely naked. Do you feel that you were over exposed while working with Ms. Paulus? Was there ever a moment during this production that you felt pushed too far?
RW: During the rehearsal process, I definitely felt pushed. Rather, it was a rehearsal environment that I was not used to, because at times it didn’t feel totally safe, which is the world of The Donkey Show. Now I understand why in some ways that was beneficial or even necessary, but at the time it felt a little disconcerting. I majored in philosophy and religious studies, so going in there without being about to discuss critically what we were doing and how it serves the project was difficult. To be very open is something all actors have to be able to do, but my experience is that you have to be open in an environment that is very safe. That is usually the environment created by the production staff and the other actors, but this environment was a little crazy.
JS: Having spent six months with this show, do you think that this was intentional? Do you think that there was a reason Ms. Paulus was pushing you in that way?
RW: I think that the production itself was created to push boundaries for the purpose of allowing the audience to push through their own boundaries, and I think that is very successful.
JS: I had the sense that even though there is some level of shock value and getting people out of their comfort zone, there was also a conscious attempt to challenge traditional ideas about sexuality. Gender roles were very fluid, it didn’t focus at all on monogamous, man-woman sexual relationships, but everyone was involved with everyone else. It seemed to intentionally push people out of their established perspectives…
RW: …of what is normative. Definitely.
JS: My favorite scene, by far, was when your male character, Sander, was loaded up on drugs. You fell down the stairs with your entire body and somehow landed on your feet on another platform. This move was totally surprising. Did this kind of physical acting also come from your training as an acrobat and gymnast?
RW: Absolutely. My gymnastics background and the fact that the space was different enabled me to do interesting things physically. I am a huge Charlie Chaplin fan, and it was really exciting to be able to bring that physicality to Sander. I did pratfalls, but in very dramatic and fun and hilarious ways. It was exciting to be acrobatic in two characters who were very different physically even though I was in the same body.
JS: It is amazing that you were able to present as a man and such an extremely feminine woman from scene to scene without losing either character. Frankly, even after working with you in person for most of last year [in The Disappearing Man], I didn’t realize that you played both characters until halfway through The Donkey Show. I didn’t recognize Sander as you. What is going on in your head that allows you to portray someone you just aren’t?
RW: I once had a Russian acting teacher tell me, when we were working on being animals, that it is all in the eyes. I didn’t understand that at first, but the more I meditated on it, I realized that if you have a very different point of view, literally, the way in which you’re looking at the world, you will be looked at differently.
For me, The Donkey Show is three different characters, Tatanya, Sander and “Sander on drugs.” All three of those individual creations, because they each have very different and very defined points of view enabled me to create a physical vocabulary for each that was different enough to, at times, fool the eye.
JS: By physical vocabulary do you mean each part of your body, your shoulders, your hands?
RW: Sure, the way I walk, where the center is. For example, Tatanya has a lot of movement in her torso and Sander’s torso is like a block and when he moves he puts weight into his bottom half. In Tatanya, the energy is lifted.
JS: Do you still have to think about that?
RW: No, no, no. It’s just in my body.
JS: Did you for the first shows?
RW: Yeah. At the beginning, I had to make certain that they were different at the core, but also in very specific gestures.
JS: So, you developed exact physical movements that later became each of the characters?
RW: Right, exactly. And the length of the run has allowed them to continue to develop with time.
I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked onto the stage he was fully born.”
–Charlie Chaplin My Autobiography
JS: This is part of the ART’s Shakespeare: Exploded project and I know that it is loosely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I know that you have expressed a connection to the Globe Theatre and the experience of going to see Shakespeare’s plays. Do you feel a connection to the story itself? Or is this show its own beast?
RW: My intellectual self wants there to be a connection and I obviously know that it is based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but my experience of being part of The Donkey Show has not been at all in relation to the Shakespearean story, text or style. But I do think that if you’re very familiar with the story, then it becomes a fun double experience.
JS: You can pull out pieces of [Shakespeare’s] story?
RW: Yeah, but as a performer I originally tried to pull Tatanya monologues and I memorized them from the Shakespearean text, because I thought it would be interesting and fun and fuel my character and then I realized that it didn’t. It actually led me further from what Diane [Paulus] wanted from us.
JS: To test your physical acting capabilities?
Tickets for The Donkey Show are available at AmericanRepertoryTheater.org. After a year up in the vaulted domes, Rebecca Whitehurst has once again set foot on solid ground. This spring she will return to the ART’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training and perform in its productions.
Jahn Sood continues to write and perform songs about the circus under the moniker The Disappearing Man.