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Working the Off-season

The Single Carrot Theatre ensemble hones its skills with help from a Bulgarian friend

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Members of the Single Carrot Theatre ensemble talk shop with Bulgarian theater director Vasilena Radeva (top left)


There are two types of bands: those that constantly record and play gigs, and those that go into brief hibernations as they try to take themselves to a new level. Those hibernations result in a lot of breakups; but when they work, the band comes out transformed.

Single Carrot Theatre is like the second kind of band.

The ensemble has just wrapped up about 40 hours of intense workshopping under the tutelage of Bulgarian independent-theater director Vasilena Radeva. In the theater world, that’s a huge commitment—40 hours represents a large part of the rehearsal time allotted to a single production. None of their actions in these workshops will been seen onstage.

Outside, North Avenue braces for a rain-soaked night of Artscape and RatScape. Inside the black box, longtime ensemble member Elliott Rauh, his head still shaved from Single Carrot’s last production, Foot of Water (in which he was laid out in full glory in what might have been an homage to the post-coital male), sits on a stool. He wears a blue dress and nurses a plastic half-gallon of cheap whiskey.

The rest of the small, dark theater looks a little like a hobo camp. Different spaces have been created out of found material—each one created by a separate ensemble member. The spaces have evolved slowly over several days. One actor has turned her corner into a sort-of messy living room; someone else has moved into a back corner with a liquor cabinet. There is a living space created out of an upper level in the theater.

They’ve spent virtually the entire night before constructing and reconstructing these spaces. “That’s not what we came in intending to do,” one actor notes. “It just happened.”

Radeva is in charge of the workshop. She’s a petite, enthusiastic, energized Bulgarian, invited to the U.S. by the Center For International Theater Development, the Baltimore-based link to international theater artists, and through a grant from the New York-based Trust for Mutual Understanding.

Radeva is also a member and director of the 36 Monkeys organization in Bulgaria. Located in Sofia, 36 Monkeys has several things in common with Single Carrot. It’s ambitious, edgy, young. Like Single Carrot, it’s also lifting itself largely by its own bootstraps—as are many small theaters in Bulgaria. And over the past year, members of the two companies have been trading ideas, making connections, and offering advice.

Asked what she’s teaching Single Carrot, Radeva laughs. “I hope they’re not looking at me as a teacher,” she says. “We’re working together.”

She begins the 3.5-hour workshop with a brief recap. “Everybody makes a special space with a special atmosphere and rhythm,” she says. “And we use that to create a lifestyle and decide what kind of person lives there.”

The first task is to show how time passes in different spaces. To do that, Vasilena had developed a mix of pop and electronic music. Actors used the rhythms of the music to interact with their space. One starts to play with toys; another looks at herself in the mirror; one hibernates in a box created out of large plastic tiles.

Radeva asks the actors to imagine “three habits,” “one obsession,” and “one random accident.” They are instructed to switch from enacting habits, obsessions, and random events. One actor starts picking his nose (habit), another jumps from one yellow tile to the next (obsession), another starts listening to Radiohead (obsession), another slips and falls (accident). Actors introduce their habits to one another and then try to stop one another from their most annoying habits.

Actors, compulsive themselves, tend to look to a script for guidance while ignoring the physical relationships they develop onstage. More energy is spent on restraining compulsions and habits than on harnessing them. Those are the plays where you hear snoring in the first act and a standing ovation at the end.

With Radeva’s help, they were trying to rethink and redefine those relationships. But Rauh says the exercises are comfortingly familiar.

“A lot of this stuff we’ve done before,” he says. “It’s kind of reassuring to me to know that when people halfway around the world are trying to tell their stories, they’re starting at the same place. A lot of exercises are rooted in something familiar.”

What was new, he said, was the commitment. Single Carrot had spent up to a weekend engaged in workshops prior to this. It devoted two weeks, broken into eight 3.5-hour sessions, to this workshop.

After a break, the theater is cleared of all the constructions. The actors sit in a circle. Vasilena asks the actors to come up with an element—earth, air, water, or fire—then find an object associated with that element: a candle, for instance, or a stone. They also have to come up with a story, involving a near-death experience. The actor is expected to tell the story while using the object to investigate it.

Traditional storytelling assumes a relationship between the narrator and the audience. It builds on that relationship. But this storytelling exercise focuses on the relationship between the actor and the object. Actors use the relationship with an element—maybe matches, for instance—to find rhythms in their stories. Instead of speaking to the audience, they are asked to focus on the object/element itself.

Actors tell stories—near-death auto accidents, parachuting, a childhood friend impaling himself on a fence post, the near-death of a parent—but whenever the conventions of performing for an audience seep into the delivery, Radeva returns the focus to the stone or the bottle of water.

By the end of the evening, one truth has been pounded in. It’s one thing to look at a performance as subtle or overdone, consistent or mawkish. Those are standards we throw around when talking about movies, stand-up comedians, or spoken-word artists. Performances are the tip of the iceberg. Successful actors develop relationships: not just with people, but with space, and objects.

To any drama undergrad, that’s not exactly a revelation. Here, Single Carrot is trying to rediscover that as a group, without the pressure of an upcoming performance.

In the end, both Radeva and the Single Carrot ensemble seem relieved to have connected in the international language of theater, developing relationships and exploring the storytelling process.

As Rauh says in a post-workshop discussion, “If theater was somehow struck from the planet, it would be invented again, and we’d all be starting all over again at the same place.”

That’s not an easy thing to keep in mind on a weekend in which Baltimore focuses on integrating its hyperactive arts scene with the market for new condos and chicken on a stick. But with the help of their Bulgarian peers, Single Carrot is clearly looking to remember that place.

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