Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar likes his theater like he likes his parties: long, free form, and most of all, genuinely social. In 2012, he directed These Seven Sicknesses, which combined all of Sophocles’s surviving plays into one five hour-long production at the Flea Theater. Unlimited cocktails and a 45-minute entr’acte were features of his next show, Amy Freed’s three-and-a-half-hour romp through 17th-century theater, Restoration Comedy. His latest work at the Flea, The Mysteries, is no less ambitious: It employs 48 playwrights and 54 actors for a six-hour retelling of the Old and New Testaments, with breaks for dinner and dessert. I spoke with the Indonesian-born director over coffee at La Colombe Torrefaction in Tribeca about his vision for a bigger, boozier, and more engaging theater.
Jordan G. Teicher (Rail): You left Indonesia when you were 7 to attend boarding school in England. You’ve said that the isolation you felt there “became the foundation of my artistic philosophy.” Tell me about that.
Ed Sylvanus Iskandar: I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t really know anybody there. Many of the students were nobility, so I couldn’t have been more out of place. Initially, the ostracization that I experienced was profound and utterly traumatic. It’s not a crafted mechanical journey that I’ve planned out for myself to realize my art in this way, but with the things I like and I’m motivated to make, very often the throughline is, “How do we find a way to connect on the level we want?” I learned very young what it is to not be connected.
Rail: You discovered theater as a student in London but you fell in love with it in the United States. How did that happen?
Iskandar: As a student, I went to the California Shakespeare Festival and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and those had to be events because very simply they were not in the middle of a city. You had to drive or take a train or bus to get there. Typically, you’d have to bring a picnic along, so you’d eat some food with some friends first and you’d get drunk and then you sat under the stars, and at the end you all sort of hopped on the train together and passed out. It was the first time I understood theater could be an event. That’s really part of the experience that I think I fell in love with the most here. In New York, the challenge for me has been how to provide a journey for people, to have the food, to have the wine, to watch something in shared communion. I just want to create the feeling that the time that was spent was being honored, which sometimes I don’t feel in my own experiences going to theater here. Sometimes I just feel like I’m barely being tolerated for the minimum time allowable.
Rail: What do you think it is about some theater that doesn’t encourage connection?
Iskandar: I feel it’s the culture itself, because of what we expect to do at the theater. You pay the money, you buy the ticket, you arrive in your chair, you don’t say hello to people, you watch, you have no connection to who’s doing it, and you go home. There’s nothing different about that experience from watching a movie or a television show, and arguably watching a movie or a television show would be more comfortable because you could just be in your PJs in bed. So, for me, it’s really about shifting the paradigm of theater-going so the experience reflects an inherent understanding of the human effort behind the creation of the piece of art. That means being able to relate to the performer as a person before you can relate on either side of the proscenium.
It’s tricky because I feel as if I’m in that bracket of theater-makers, especially in New York, where people will hear about my show and sometimes they’re like, “Oh god, it’s going to be immersive. People are going to touch me.” Most of the stereotypical tactics of audience engagement in fact secretly alienate them and I don’t practice those tactics because my interest is in genuine connection.
Rail: What are some of those immersive tactics that don’t work?
Iskandar: Forcing an audience into an interaction in the middle of the play, like getting up and clapping along or deliberately sitting on someone’s lap or embarrassing them or pulling somebody out to make an example of them. There’s so many more but these are the common, first level tactics. It’s obligatory and not terribly deep, and it has no chance of any further engagement than the tactic itself.
Much of the work I do, especially around these marathons, is the socio-theatrical frame that you really are walking into a party. When I first started doing this work, in my curtain speech at the beginning (which I don’t make at the Flea) I would just flat out encourage people to take a nap if they felt tired during the show. I wouldn’t really feel terribly offended if that happened. If that means you can pay attention to the last 45 minutes, that’s good. Take a nap. Today’s theater culture of uninterrupted, hyper-focused attention giving is unnatural. There’s been no other culture in the history of theater that’s demanded the same. If you look at the cultures of the Greeks and the Romans and the Elizabethans and the neo-classicists in France, there was an expectation of a social experience out of that evening. The point was civic discourse, and we’ve lost that. So really all we’re doing is sitting in the dark for a while and then going home.
Rail: How did we go from that social experience to what we have now?
Iskandar: A lot of it is in response to the kind of drama we’ve had. Ibsen is my favorite playwright, so don’t misread what I’m about to say, but we have Ibsen to blame. He invented the drama of the interior mind and he added the idea of an invisible fourth wall from which we spectate as voyeurs into the action. It influenced terribly deeply not only Strindberg and Chekhov but obviously also the great American writers. So the journey to great American playwriting has been a journey into interior psychology. To me, that is both wonderful and is what is wonderful about American playwriting as well as what has defined a specific very simple need from the audience, which is just to sit and pay attention.
If I were to take it further, it’s also limited the development of theater as a form because in the drama of interior psychology there’s only one thing you can really do, which is put a bunch of people on stage and have them talk, sometimes sing. But two people talking is just one understanding of what human beings do. Two people talking and somebody beating a stick in the corner and somebody else wailing in another corner and somebody running around the theater lend dimension to the event itself.
To be able to touch on what’s basic to any human you access the five senses, as well a range of emotional response, humor, and spectacle and awe through dance and song. If you’re able to touch on each and every one of those points in the performance event, which I always try to do—smell is really hard—you end up involving the person because you’ve activated their human senses. And I think the engagement stays further. You’ll think about it a couple days later in the way that you might not if you’ve just seen a very good 90-minute dinner table play.
Rail: You described Robert Lepage’s Lipsynch as a show that “challenged [your] thinking in terms of what’s possible within a theatrical event.” You said you “came in intimidated by the nine-hour spectacle but left utterly changed.” How do you convince people to not be intimidated by an epic run time?
Iskandar: During These Seven Sicknesses, which was my first marathon that I directed in New York, I found that people did come in with a great deal of anxiety. I couldn’t deal with it because I was so freaked out myself. So I just told the actors, many of whom were singers and musicians, to be a buffer, to just be in the lobby and play the ukulele and sing, because I couldn’t take all the negative energy. That’s how it started, and those five actors that did that for me every night became a band. They’re now called The Lobbyists, and they’ve just put out their first CD. If that’s not an act of community making I don’t know what is.
It was that simple. An audience comes in to encounter something unfamiliar, give them music, and they relax. It’s not a tactic I’d repeat every single time, but it is important just to ask yourself, “What do I need as reassurance that I can have a good time at this party?” If it’s a normal party, it’s fine to be anonymous. You slip in, find a place to put your coat, hang out, say hello, and leave. That’s fine. But this is the equivalent of inviting somebody to an orgy. You have to go out of your way to make them feel comfortable if you’re going to ask them to remove their clothing and put aside their valuables.
Rail: I know you don’t like the term “experimental” as it relates to you work. Why not?
Iskandar: Because I’m not experimental really. I’m a very linear person. I like a beginning, middle, and end, and I like straightforward questions. But I do like a different kind of engagement, because the more you’re able to confront the unfamiliar, I’ve found, the more you’re likely to either learn from the situation or want to give back into the situation. That then starts a conversation as to how we can create a theater culture in which the engagement is the group of artists rather than the piece of art. Because that’s ultimately where I see theater needs to go. If we’re starting from scratch every single time to market a piece of theater, it again is a journey that goes over and over and over just to that first hurdle and doesn’t go anywhere beyond that.
Rail: Is there something about your model for theater that requires smaller audiences?
Iskandar: The next couple of years will be very telling. Philosophically, I feel it should be possible to create this experience in a bigger way. But it will feel different. It will always feel best in an Off-Off setting. I’ll be directing Jeff Whitty’s new musical next year based on the music of the Go-Gos, Head Over Heels, and that will be an attempt to create a socially immersive experience for 1,200 people in an outdoor Elizabethan theater. I’ll be using a lot of the same tactics, but the ratio changes. I have 54 actors and 74 audience members here at the Flea, and over there I might have 20 people for 1,200 people. It’s going to take me a while to figure out what will and what won’t work. But I think it should be possible because at the end of the day what I want to be able to do is reach the person who’s casually experiencing theater for the first time, not the aficionado. It’s a very hard balance to strike because I see my job as finding a way in which theater can be vital again and especially to the people who don’t go. I want recognition from the people who do go, of course, but we’re dwindling. I can’t tell you how shocked I am at how many of my friends have never been to the theater or how many of my friends I have to beg to shell out to come to a play of mine, whereas we can go out and have a night of drinking and spend $120 and nobody seems to mind that. In my own version of the culture, if you want to get drunk, you can still get drunk, just don’t do it at the bar that one night. Do it at the theater bar. And maybe you won’t be well enough to sit through the whole thing, but that’s fine.
The Mysteries runs April 3 – May 25 at The Flea Theater (41 White Street, Manhattan).
It is conceived and directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskander; written by Marc Acito, Johnna Adams, Liz Duffy Adams, Mallery Avidon, Trista Baldwin, Bill Cain, Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, Erin Courtney, Eisa Davis, Gabriel Jason Dean, Chris Dimond, Yussef El Guindi, Amy Freed, Madeleine George, Kate Gersten, Peter Gil-Sheridan, Sean Graney, Sevan K. Greene, Kirsten Greenidge, Lillian Groag, Jordan Harrison, Ann Marie Healy, Lucas Hnath, David Henry Hwang, Nick Jones, Meghan Kennedy, Kimber Lee, Kenneth Lin, Craig Lucas, Laura Marks, Ellen McLaughlin, Michael Mitnick, Kate Moira Ryan, Don Nguyen, Qui Nguyen, Dael Orlandersmith, A. Rey Pamatmat, Billy Porter, Max Posner, José Rivera, Najla Said, Jenny Schwartz, Jordan Seavey, Matthew Stephen Smith, Lloyd Suh, Jeff Whitty, Jason Williamson, Bess Wohl; with dramaturgy by Jill Rafson; and additional Creative Support and Interstitial Text by CollaborationTown. It will be performed by The Bats. For tickets and further info, visit theflea.org.
ContributorJordan G. Teicher
JORDAN G. TEICHER is a New York-based journalist and critic. His writing on theater has appeared in Exeunt Magazine, Slant Magazine, CurtainUp, and the New York Daily News.