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Lola Pierson talks about telling stories and learning to talk

John Barry

May 28, 2014

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Experimental theater has a reputation for being unfriendly, if not downright hostile, toward the audience, but Baltimore's Lola Pierson has been trying to turn that characterization on its head. Ever since she founded the Ten Minute Play Festival as a Towson theater graduate student, Pierson has been filling smaller theaters and breaking down artistic boundaries with musical talents like Alex Scally (Beach House), Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak), and Walker Teret (Celebration) as collaborators. It may be because of her background: Pierson grew up in Baltimore (graduating from Baltimore School for the Arts), and, despite ventures outside the city, she's remained a part of Baltimore's expanding and amorphous arts community. She has written seven plays, including Office Ladies (for which she won CP's "Best New Playwright" in 2013), The Title Sounded Better in French, and The Prettiest Place on Earth. But she is also capable of producing startlingly original productions of works by the masters of modernist theater. With cofounder of Acme Corporation Stephen Nunns, she may have caused Samuel Beckett to roll over in his grave by producing Play, his minimalist deconstruction of the theater, as a maximalist 24-hour come-and-leave-as-you-wish marathon (CP's 2013 "Best Production"). Now, with Acme Corporation, she's going to recreate German playwright Peter Handke's 1967 minimalist Kaspar as . . . well, maybe she can explain it better.

City Paper: So how do you pick your plays?

Lola Pierson: There are a lot of theaters that do kitchen-sink dramas, and I think that those are really great. I'm not interested in doing those at all.

CP: And what's a kitchen-sink drama?

LP: A play about a family, it happens in the living room and a kitchen, the house. There are a lot of theaters in town that are doing that and doing it really well; it's just not something that ever had much appeal to me.

CP: Handke's Kaspar definitely doesn't qualify as kitchen sink. How did you decide on that?

LP: I saw Kaspar for the first time three years ago when I was getting my degree at Towson University-Naoko Maeshiba, who teaches there, did a version of it that was absolutely beautiful, I was crazy about it. It was like, I hadn't even heard of it, and it was amazing. So I sort of had it in the back of my head that I really wanted to do my version of it.

It took me two weeks to read it. It's dense. It was hard to get through. And I kept thinking, I want everyone to be engaged. So there was a real question of like, how do you make this super-philosophical text engaging to an audience that is used to YouTube videos and Twitter?

CP: On the other side of that, what is it about the Baltimore audience that you need to connect with?

LP: Well, I think we're lucky here . . . Our audience is artists who are interested in the arts. They may not be super interested in theater, which I think actually opens us up, which is why we have so much interesting work going on. There's a lot of interdisciplinary work. There's a lot of challenging work that is coming out of art models and music models. So whatever, I think we're sort of privileged.

CP: So move on to the theme of Kaspar, which certainly qualifies as challenging work.

LP: The philosophical elements are compelling. It asks specific questions: What does it mean to be a human, to learn how to speak?

It's based loosely on the story of a German boy, called Kaspar Hauser, who just appeared one day, 16 years old, who could only write his name and repeat a single sentence: "I want to be a person like somebody else was once."

He instantly became internationally famous, and became this mystery man and becomes this star and he gallivants around with royalty, and his life is really mysterious and weird things happen . . .

CP: And Handke's play . . .

LP: Handke's story is loosely based on that and guides this one person, Kaspar, through the process of being taught how to speak. And being taught to move, and how to be a human at an accelerated rate. He's already got the physical faculties, he just doesn't know how to do it.

As a writer, that really appealed to me. I mean, as a writer, you get the feeling that you've come to a point where you can express yourself, and you feel that it's liberating and exciting, but there's also this part where it's incredibly confining, there's a dark side to it.

So there's the relationship between liberating and confining-or that the tools that make us bigger or better are the tools that stop us from dealing with one another, and stop us from being ourselves. I was also interested in this multimedia dimension that I could bring to the show-using different media to tell a story. Some of it gets told by YouTube videos, some of it gets told by tweeting the audience, some of it gets told by a TV show, and I thought that the play, being the sort of canvas that it is, really lent itself to that story.

CP: So people look at this play as minimalist, but it sounds like you're shooting from all sorts of different angles.

LP: I had all these friends involved in all these disciplines, and I loved working with them, and I was wondering, what is the way I can use people so that they're doing the thing they're really into doing, and video, because of the smaller time commitment, offered more collaboration. But I think we're able to do that because of the minimalism of the script. And I'm hoping it's not a disaster (laughs).

In the old days, media might be a way of bringing people into new dimensions. But now, it seems, the idea is that people's minds are in these different wavelengths already; it's the job of the director to tune in.

We look at the way they are receiving information, and send it to them that way. Can that be a different way to tell a story rather than shutting it out as a distraction?

CP: What does it mean to tell a story now?

LP: It's the question I struggle with. Does telling a story mean taking an audience on an emotional journey? Or does it mean relaying a series of actions that are related to one another? It's leading an audience through an experience, so that at the endpoint they couldn't have the same feeling that they had at the beginning.

CP: So how should Baltimore audiences prepare?

LP: They should be ready to take a journey.

Kaspar premieres June 5 at St. Mark's Lutheran Church and runs through June 20.