A hand, reaching out like an antenna, touches my hair—then pulls away sharply. It returns, curious, to pat its way around my skull. And comes back again, affectionately, to tousle my hair like a puppy’s ears.
The guy with the hands, blindfolded, is exploring a wrecked room—the old Saint Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square—with his partner/minder, who’s here to keep him from falling down the stairs, or out the open window. The occasion is a movement workshop designed to prepare six actors for their roles in Theatre Y’s world-premiere The Binding, scheduled to open October 3 in this very room, hopefully the company’s new home. A benefit on August 22 will help fund the project.
The Binding is a family affair in more ways than one. Directed by Theatre Y founder and artistic director Melissa Lorraine—known for her energizing use of movement as both an actor and a director—and written by her husband, Evan Hill, it’s a poetic deconstruction of a second-century Jewish apocryphal text, the Testament of Abraham. Though Abraham is a seminal figure for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, don’t expect anything religious in the usual sense. Hill’s script introduces an eggplant (“eggplants are so surreal,” he explains), a Son who makes wheels obsessively, and the Greek philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus.
Husband-and-wife choreographers Denes Debrei and Heni Varga—both Serbians of Hungarian descent who now run KOBEZ-Centre Memoire du Corps (KOBEZ-Body Memory Center) in Toulouse, France—are overseeing the first month of preparation. I saw just the last hour and a half of one five-hour workshop, but that relatively short time included two blindfolding exercises. In slightly fractured but expressive English, Debrei explains why. “When we close eyes, we can find out things we cannot see with open eyes. We can feel more the sounds, the taste, the smell, the touching. Everything is for the moment. It’s not important that it’s some glass or some shoes or medicine. It’s important the emotion we can get.” He compares the body to a huge library that’s useless if we don’t know where to find the books we need. The exercises are designed to recover the emotions on our body’s shelves and make them available to the actors.
During the workshop, Andrew Schoen, who plays the Son, wasn’t the only actor to run into me. As I observed the action, seated on a platform about a foot off the ground, another felt my notebook, then moved away. A third almost ran me down and, in the process, threatened to fall onto the platform himself. I didn’t know whether I was more scared for him or me—and it wasn’t clear whether my role was to be an immovable object or a person. But just watching this one wordless exercise illuminated the conflicting human impulses to be safe and to explore.
Lorraine, aiming for an even more kinetic production than usual, is obsessed with eastern European approaches to theater. Born in France, she arrived in the United States at nine. After graduating from Northern Illinois University in 2001, she moved to Budapest, where she acted—in Hungarian, a language she didn’t know—in plays by Studio K, whose members included several imprisoned under the communist regime. Though she hasn’t cultivated popular success (she describes Theatre Y’s work as “a little traumatic”), she’s garnered critical acclaim and taken her company around the world: to New York’s La MaMa and to Hungary, Romania, Israel, and Palestine.
I first saw Lorraine’s work in 2011, when she directed (under the name Melissa Hawkins) Philip Ridley’s two-hander Vincent River, staged with the help of a few Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performers in the old refrigerator room of a former macaroni factory in Pilsen. Interested generally in letting nontheatrical spaces inform her work, Lorraine says that “there’s something in me that wants to steal the holiness” of Saint Luke’s. She knew she wanted to work with Debrei and Varga after meeting them at a festival in Serbia two years ago, where she saw a Varga piece based on Brecht.
“What I witnessed,” Lorraine says, “was this very complex movement score that was much rawer than dance. At the time I didn’t understand that the actors had generated all the movement, but I learned that Heni and Denes have created a method for drawing movement out of the nondancer specifically, using some extreme methods, like blindfolding the actors and taking them into the forest.” Forests are somewhat scarce here, of course. But to Lorraine, this approach seemed the way for Theatre Y to go, a means of creating “an organic physical score—not imposed on the actors and foreign to them.”
Essentially, Debrei and Varga’s tactics are designed to get the actor out of his head. Debrei: “We don’t use maybe 40 percent of our possibility. We don’t think about our body. With actor, it’s just the upper”—he gestures from the neck up.
“It’s the mind,” Varga chimes in. “‘Oh, I must memorize the text! I must memorize!'” Debrei continues, “But for us, everything starts from the center”—he gestures at his midsection—”from silence, immobility. To move, it’s nothing. We must start from the zero point, the creative zero.”
“I love work that creates a riot inside the individual watching it. I trust a play that causes you to resist the text.”—Theatre Y founder and artistic director Melissa Lorraine
Both Lorraine and Hill are participating in the workshops—and describe the experience as intensely moving. “Taking our time and struggling through the physical work together, there’s a stronger camaraderie between our actors,” says Hill. “Denes and Heni are nurturing, they’re caring, they greet you with a hug. There’s no ego in the room, everyone is just fumbling around in the dark. No one’s trying to prove they’re a better actor than anyone else. Everybody is there to serve the piece and each other, and that’s a rare model in theater.”
Lorraine adds, “As the mother of it all—though I’m hoping I’m not alone in this sensation—my heart bleeds for each person in the room so many times in the course of the day. I don’t know them, so I’m bleeding for a stranger. I’m getting to love them before I know them, which is really interesting and exciting—if you’re generating compassion without relationship, that is potent, that’s rare.”
Each workshop begins with manipulation. “We pair off or go into groups of three, and one person lays on the ground and we work their body until it’s completely limp—which is profoundly difficult, to become so relaxed,” Lorraine says. “It’s this sort of depersonalized care, where this is a body and it’s got all sorts of baggage and memory and actual pains and injuries. From day one, we are completely tactile, trying to preserve each other’s privacy in the midst of really getting into the core of their being.
“As the recipient, it’s an act of submission, of trust,” she adds. “It’s discovery after discovery about things that you’re perpetuating unconsciously in life. The older actors, when they discover something they’ve never known about themselves, it’s like a dam breaking.” At one workshop, Arch Harmon (who plays the Man) began groaning in discomfort; Margaret Kustermann (his stage wife) gave in to her feelings and started weeping. “These are the sounds of their house,” says Lorraine, “the sounds of isolation in your own agony.”
When I ask Debrei and Varga a purposely naive question—does the actor’s emotion transfer automatically to the audience member?—Varga answers with a flat no. “It’s not explicable when emotion arrive to the audience,” she says. “This is what I call magic. It can arrive if we are in the moment, truly, and whole. That is the reason the preparation is so important—to be prepared, we need to have the physical body.
“My body’s my house,” she explains. “And if the doors and windows are open and clean, the person who is living inside—my soul—can live. But also go away, because the door is open. So what’s going on when we go away? Somebody come in! This is all about to be invited and to invite—to have a space for another in my home.”
To get to the old Saint Luke’s church—erected in 1900 and abandoned in 1926, when the new church was completed out front—you walk around back to the alley. A tiny courtyard holds the garbage bins, very stinky when I was there. A flight of stairs takes you to the old church, which was always on the upper floor. Much of the space is painted in a hideous, flat blue. But there’s one magnificent wall, opposite where the altar would have been, covered in peeling black paint and crumbling plaster, with the lath showing through the holes. It might as well be a painting itself.
“It’s rough!” Lorraine admits. Used as a rehearsal space by Backstage Theatre Company, which folded a year ago, it’s the kind of structure—like so many in Chicago—that can be much more cheaply razed than rehabbed. Theatre Y was introduced to Saint Luke’s by Partners for Sacred Places, a nondenominational organization that, among other things, connects arts and social service organizations with underused religious facilities.
Lorraine describes the space as “a very small, very sturdy, sort of barnlike German building. It’s been vacant for decades, home to pigeons and all sorts of things. It’s not cavernous, but it is lovely—it’s got the vaulted ceilings and it’s epic but it maintains intimacy.” She hopes to cart in about 50 seats for The Binding and is planning to give the room a fresh coat of paint.
So far, Theatre Y has mounted just five productions (one a trilogy) in as many years. The Binding will be its sixth. Lorraine is known for producing politically oriented plays, most of them by the Transylvanian/Romanian playwright Andras Visky, and she describes The Binding as “political in the largest sense, meaning that there’s a refusal of the system. There’s a rebellion inside this play. I feel it in myself as we start to work through the text—and I love work that creates a riot inside the individual watching it. I trust a play that causes you to resist the text. That visceral response is so fascinating, how you can usher someone into their very own opinion. You are giving them nothing—you are only causing their own spirit to grab hold of its own conclusion.
“One of the things I learned from my time in eastern Europe is the holiness of the theater. It’s not that I believe that all theater in the West is without ritual, but I think it’s not what audiences expect anymore. And that’s a shame, because that is the power of this art form.”
Asked whether she’s religious, Lorraine says, “I long for meaning, but I believe that religion has lost its source—it’s sort of an echo. I’m not satisfied with perpetuating the echo, and I’m not satisfied with silencing it.
“Inside a theater, I feel I hear clearly. Theater consumes untruth. We need to revisit this altar, put the things we have faith in on it, and have the courage to let them burn, to see what’s left. We can’t throw out the pursuit of myth because it’s become antiquated or perverse or has been abused or tainted. There has to be a way of reclaiming myth, rediscovering it, re-owning it.
“What I trust in the work of eastern Europeans is the tension between the real trauma they experienced and the profound renewal that it has somehow manifested. Eastern European artists have this sense of humor that’s come out of extraordinary hardship. It’s like Beckett: he creates a bleak world from which something rises that is much more reliable because it came from this bleakness. You don’t feel like you’re drinking the Kool-Aid, you know? You feel something genuine has been birthed out of suffering.”