Thursday, January 26, 2017

Hunting Absurd

I don’t really know how I got into acting and theater when I grew up in a home that really did not promote the arts. My first “acting role” was in chorus in elementary school- I got to hold a doll and fight with a little boy while the chorus sang “William Wants a Doll”. I got my first laugh; my first applause; my first bow; I was hooked. I guess you can say that’s when I started hunting for art and theater in my life. I followed the regular channels. I went to college. I acted in plays. I read plays. I took classes. I wrote papers. I never really saw a lot of theater. I was simply a pliable puppet being told where to go and how to act, which I did with gusto. However as I learned more about art and history I started to feel like something was missing from my tool box as an actor, artist, and human. I was searching for more. I wanted to become an artist- whatever that meant. I was hunting for meaning.


I traveled to Europe with a study abroad program my final semester. I had never done anything like this before in my life. It felt like something I had to do. I loved my time in Europe. I travelled. I saw Shakespeare’s birthplace. I went to The Globe. I was alive with art and theater. I became an audience member: Gobbling up other people’s talent. I realized I had never really seen a lot of theater; certainly not outside academia. All I knew was good safe theater: Pretty and pleasing to an audience. That all shattered for me one day in London. Strolling down a side street with 7 pounds in my pocket (Yes, this was before the Euro). I saw a sign for a play: Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco. I knew the name. I had studied him in college. I went in. Tickets were exactly 7 pounds.

I sat down happy and safe.
I left feeling weird: Ugly, Uncomfortable and Challenged.
The show was transformative.
In fact I still lay awake at night thinking about that play. How it changed my life and my hunt for artistic meaning. What was it about this play? I don’t know.

I can tell you what I recall: A simple stage: 6 actors; 3 men; 3 women; A set that was a brightly painted (a slightly messy city landscape); A few desks, black office chairs with wheels and a light design that was proficient at best; costumes were black pants and shirts with little flashes of colored layers and wigs that the actors used to help them portray character- Nothing truly outstanding; certainly it had a modest budget to say the least. But what it had was actors and direction that meant something more then the need to sell tickets. The acting catapulted this little show into my brain forever. Ionesco’s world was vibrant and his words were bold and bizarre. I had never seen theater like this: Edgy and Messy and Passionate. The actors used their human face to transform- their bodies were the costumes, and their faces, the mask. It was like I could see their inner halo shine as they embodied the roles-they changed in front of my eyes. They were not themselves- It was ugly, and scary, and brilliant. The actors were not the pretty actors I was used to seeing and studying. They were animal-humanity, scared, real, angry and full of a fierce life passion and energy that made me squirm in my seat. And, more then all that they were funny- Terribly, awkwardly, uncomfortably funny. I left the play in a haze. I lost the playbill. I don’t even know where I was or who produced it. All I have is the memory. I had found “absurd” theater. It was not going to sell tickets or make anyone famous- but it was art- It was history and politics and challenging.

I moved to New York City soon after seeing that play. I hunted for more of what I saw in that play. I got into grad school but did not go. I guess you can say I wanted to hunt solo. I have never really fit into any one slot or felt comfortable doing what others tell me to do. I wanted my own program: For me art was about life and making my life richer. Someone else can’t do that for you. I took many classes: Meisner, Shakespeare, Suzuki, Grotowski, Modern Dance, Improv, Stand-Up, Dell-Arte, Physical Theater, Clowning, you name it. Somewhere in there I took a “mask” class. I remember an entire hour of staring at myself in a dance mirror-using our face as a mask. I remember thinking of that play I saw in London while I stared at my flared nostrils and ugly squished mouth that made me red in the face for so long it felt like time had stopped. It was a good absurd theater moment. I discovered something about myself in that class. About the power and shapes of my face. A successful hunt if you will. I lived in New York for a decade. I studied hard, I produced, I directed, I acted; I saw a lot of theater- good, bad and amazing. I loved every minute of my NYC artist safari. My hunt for art is not over – It is evolving with me.

I left New York. I moved back to a quiet corner of the earth. A snow covered sleepy gray state. But I am still hunting… I have a bucket list: Producers, Parts, Plays and Playwrights I am searching for – to help me discover more of me. I have wanted to embody Ionesco in my own way - even if messy and not good enough- since I saw that play in London. I know I will never live up to the memory I have placed on a pedestal. However, I am eager to try. I hope we the cast, of Ionesco’s Exit The King come together and challenge someone in the audience in a weird way to go home and think about art and life and the world we live in…I hope it starts others hunting …Because, once you start you never really stop hunting…

~Paige Lussier Johnson

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