The adventuresome Fort Worth theater company, Amphibian Stage Productions, is finally moving into its new, permanent home this weekend with a gala opening. And it’s reviving a play the company first did nine years ago. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks says we won’t really see the play. And we won’t see all of the new theater, either.
- KERA radio story:
- Expanded online story:
Imagine a classic carnival barker yelling out this line: “Without further ado, we present for your delectation, the epitome of unsightliness, the doyenne of disfigurement, the girl gargoyle herself: Julia Pastrana – the Ugliest Woman in the World!”
Does that make you want to see her? That is the carnival barker’s job, to lure you into the tent so you can gawk. And the title of British playwright Shaun Prendergast’s drama certainly sounds like an old-time sales pitch: The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World.
Yet the play is based on fact. Julia Pastrana was a young Mexican woman in the 1840s and ’50s. She was born with a deformed jaw and with abnormal hair growth on her face and body, a genetic condition known as hypertrichosis. A man named Theodore Lent found Julia, married her and took her on a world-wide tour – as a circus freak. Even after her death, even this year, Pastrana has still held the public’s attention — with concern over the ultimate placement of her embalmed remains.
But — in the Amphibian production, we never see her.
Amphibian presented the American premiere of Prendergast’s play in 2003, and it has an undeniable hook. Julia Pastrana involves an “experiential” staging, meaning it’s not like an ordinary drama. It’s performed inside a carnival tent, entirely in the dark. It’s a gimmick but one with a larger point: In the dark, Prendergast has us see past Julia’s deformities by never letting us see them. In the dark, the theater company must use only voices and sound effects to shape Julia and everything else – in our imagination.
David Lanza is the show’s sound designer (right, with his home-made, hand-cranked clack wheel).
“It makes it feel a lot more intimate and a lot closer. And the whole fact that we’re doing it in the dark, let’s you play around with the location.”
Locations — like the carnival, with its wheel of fortune [sound]. Or we hear the frogs at night in Julia’s Mexican village [sound]. And we travel to Russia [wind howling] in a snowstorm.
The Amphibians wanted to use recorded sound effects sparingly, so most of these are done with hand-held devices, devices that can be moved around the audience, even into the audience. Lanza researched old-school theater and radio techniques. He built the wind machine, for instance. It’s basically a wooden barrel wrapped with a window shade. The shade rubs against the barrel when the barrel’s cranked. [windstorm sound again]
For the actors, this means they’ll be running up and down the aisles, playing different characters and operating these sound effects – all in the dark. In the basement of the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, the aisles and exits for the show have been taped off on the floor. But then director Jonathan Fielding [below, kneeling] turns off the lights.
Fielding: [laughing] “Today is their first day in the dark. Rehearsal number 3.”
Most of their rehearsals have been spent getting used to working in a total blackout. The basement of the Community Arts Center is handy for that. But they’re rehearsing here also because the Amphibians’ new home hasn’t been ready. [sound of drills]. It’s a low, red-brick building from the 1930s. It’s on South Main, part of a planned, pedestrian-friendly urban village re-development close to downtown Fort Worth. In fact, even when this new home opens with Julia Pastrana, the theater won’t be entirely finished.
Gregory Ibanez is the Amphibian’s architect.
Ibanez: “Part of the astute scheduling to schedule a show that is totally in the dark!”
That’s because, conveniently enough, it’s the stage lighting system that won’t be completely installed when Pastrana opens.
But director Fielding sees it a little differently. Julia Pastrana is a show that doesn’t let us see the main character. And it’s a show that really won’t let us see the whole interior of the Amphibians’ new home. Fielding says it’s all about appearances. And what truly matters – with a person. Or a theater.
Fielding: “We’re not the Bass Hall. You’re not going to come in and go, ‘Oh, the walls are so beautiful! Look at the fixtures!’ That’s not going to happen. But with this show, you can do anything. And you start to learn, ‘Oh, it’s really not about how beautiful the space is. It’s about the art that’s put on in the space.’”