As curator of The Fishtank, an evolving performance space in the Crossroads Arts District, Heidi Van has helped ignite a growing interest in experimental theater. She's produced shows in the building's front windows with the audience in the street, performed a play in a lingerie shop around the corner, and tweaked the art of clowning.
In this month's installment of Director's Cuts, Heidi Van talks about how her avant-garde sensibility might influence her first directing job at The Coterie: a production of Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat.
Heidi, I want to start with talking about your training and experience in everything from avant-garde theater to clowning to site-specific theater, and what you pull on from all of that that helps you when you direct something.
"Well, my training is in physical theater and generating new material from the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater in Blue Lake, California. And that training focused on economy of movement, (and) spatially instigated emotion: that bodies in space — in their rhythm within the space and their proximity to each other — inform an inner narrative that an audience can either see as proscribed by the movement the actors do or ... that they can proscribe their own meaning to what is happening in front of them based on what they bring with them to a performance."
So you can see things the audience can’t see. Is that accurate?
"That’s accurate. And the audience can see things or pick up things that I didn’t intend."
You’re a director in another sense – the director of the ever-evolving performance space The Fishtank in the Crossroads. What's the latest going on there and how would you say the two directors’ hats you wear – whether you’re directing a space or you’re directing a show – are similar or dissimilar?
"The Fishtank right now is going through a phase of expansion after I was able to acquire the lease on the studio above the black box theater, which is a wonderful opportunity to have a larger space to develop new work and larger pieces of work that can’t be developed in the small theater. And so right now I’m experimenting with inviting different ensembles to use that space to develop new work."
New work has always been an obsession of yours, right?
You’re currently in rehearsal for The Coterie’s production of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, which is not new work.
So I want to ask you how your experimental, edgier, newer work can help or hinder you to direct a play that’s really directed to children?
"Today we live in a world where we see images before us, especially young children. We have these phones that children play with. My children know how to use my phone. They’re used to being satisfied in a visual way immediately. So when you take a book that is not a very long book and expand it to a 50-minute performance piece, there’s a lot of room to play in there, within the wonderful magical world that Dr. Seuss creates in his imagery and with his words."
Speaking of Seuss-y moments, what do you think is the essence of Seuss in this production as envisioned by you?
"Well, we just worked on a sequence in which The Cat can balance a fish, and a book, and two more books, and a teacup on his hat, and a cake on his hat, and the milk on his foot and a toy boat, and hop on top of a ball. In a book, sure, that cat can do that. In a cartoon, that cat can do that. However, in the theater, we manipulate that in theatric-magic moments, our props design, our costume design, and the way we work the people and the objects moving in space. We try to make visual magic-moment tricks. The way people drop things and the way things appear on stage is a pretty Seuss-y moment. And when you see The Cat standing on top of a ball holding all of these objects and balancing this thing on his foot, you say, 'That’s it.'"
Once you’ve wrapped this up, do you hunger to direct something really dark, like a Sarah Kane play?
"Oh, yeah! I’m working on it. When I’ve created my own pieces, and even though they’ve been in red nose and they’ve been presented in a style that seems light-hearted, behind all of them there’s some real, you know, issues of the universe that I’m trying to figure out. So I would say all of the work I’ve created myself has really had the light and the dark."
'Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat,' March 31 - May 17, 2015, Coterie Theatre, level one of Crown Center Shops, 2450 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 816-474-6552.
The "In This Scene..." series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.