From the 'Basement' to the Big Apple
Over in the Purnell Center for the Arts, an innovative brand of theater has been brewing, thanks to a student-formed theater company, In The Basement Theater. While the company first grew out of the School of Drama’s annual Playground in 2009, Sophia Schrank, a senior drama student, and her team members quickly realized that the company was something they wanted to continue long after Playground ended.
In The Basement Theater is movement-based theater — which, in layman terms, is storytelling through body movements. The company, whose “name stemmed from our make-do rehearsal spot in the laundry room of Purnell’s basement,” as Schrank explained, makes extensive use of papier-mâché masks and puppets in its performances. The group mixes dance, mask-work, and multi-lingual text to “create work that explores the beauty of humanity through contrast,” its site says.
From summer 2009 until January 2011, In the Basement created several independent pieces and performed four shows. Eventually the group was itching to work on a larger scale, and its members decided to apply for the opportunity of a lifetime — the chance to perform at the New York International Fringe Festival. Having received great feedback from their instructors, the group filled out applications and then waited for the results. “It was a long wait,” recalled Jessie Ryan Shelton, a senior musical theater major, “and the application was like applying to school all over again.”
But patience paid off: In April 2011, the company was informed that it had been selected to perform in New York. Katy Stepanov, a junior drama major, described the honor as overwhelming. “The New York International Fringe Festival is the largest multi-arts event in North America and has over 200 participants from all over the world, with a third of them being international participants,” she said. “Plus, we were going to be performing at Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa [Experimental Theatre], which is the mother of experimental theater.” For its performance, the company decided to revisit a piece that it had debuted years ago – Chien de Moi, which roughly translates as “my dog.”
Schrank, the writer and director behind Chien de Moi, explained, “_Chien de Moi_ tells the tale of a young woman who falls in a deep, unlikely love while inside her own frighteningly beautiful nightmare.” The young woman, lonely in her new dream world, finds comfort in the arms of a man with a dog’s face and is happy beyond words to be in love with him. However, the chaos of her new surroundings soon brings her back to the real world, only for her to realize that the world of fantasy is the only one she can relate to anymore.
Despite its fantastical premise, the work is deeply personal; “For [Schrank] it was similar to taking the inner details of her life and putting it out there for everyone to see, and expressing a message through the beauty of theater,” said Marquis Wood, a junior drama student. “What brought about this trust was the fact that we trained together in a give-and-take atmosphere which involved obsessive-compulsive pre-planning, and at the end of the day it was just our love [for our work] that inspired us to keep moving forward.”
But despite the students’ love for performance, it wasn’t an easy ride. The company had to face many other challenges in its journey to the Fringe Festival, the largest of which was funding. As Schrank wrote on the group’s Kickstarter page, there was “lighting equipment to be rented, costume materials to be purchased and publicity fliers to be printed.” There were also added costs such as travel and living expenses that needed to be covered.
To raise the money, the troupe decided to make a profile on Kickstarter, a site that describes itself as “a new way to fund and follow creativity.” Creative enterprises, like In The Basement Theater, can set up a page with a certain goal for funds; if they fail to meet that goal, they don’t receive any of the money raised.
Simultaneously, the company pushed itself to look for creative promotional methods. Apart from putting up fliers, the company members realized that nothing was better than self-promotion — or as Schrank called it, “shameless promotion” — and that word of mouth was the most powerful method of raising awareness. Shelton said, “We traveled in the subway wearing dog masks so that people would notice us, and they did. It was embarrassing, but it was the best way to promote ourselves. We even went to Bryant Park and performed three or four of our pieces, and people approached us, curious to know what this was about.” In The Basement only set out to raise $1,500, but its promotional efforts paid off, and the company ended up with a sum of $3,100.
Aside from the practical challenge of funding, the theater troupe had creative challenges to face as well, such as space — they were limited to a small setting at La MaMa, and they had to make sure that “they didn’t kick anyone while performing, or worse, kick themselves,” Wood said. However, the company’s camaraderie and teamwork made it easier to overcome any obstacles. According to Schrank, “We were a running dialogue together — if one person let go, another person took his or her place. If a particular performer was missing for one rehearsal, someone always took his place for the day, learned all the steps, and taught them to the person the next day.” Whether it was training in ballroom dancing, experience with martial arts, or work with a puppet theater company, each member brought something different and vital to the company.
When the time came to finally perform, the group’s efforts seemed to pay off: The shows were all sold out, and the reviews were positive. Mateo Moreno praised the show in his review for the creative networking organization Big Vision Empty Wallet, saying, “The strangeness of the piece made me feel like I was witnessing my own dream.... Writer/Director Sophia Schrank and her merry band of madcap majors deserve all the accolades they’re sure to get with this inventive and highly original piece. Find the section between your pillow and your eye, close your eyes, and take it in.” An elated Schrank said, “Everyone could find something that could relate the piece to their personal life, which is exactly what we had hoped for.”
While the positive response was thrilling, the opportunity to work in New York City was an inspirational experience in itself. “Going from a homegrown environment [at Carnegie Mellon] to one where everything was new was scary, but it just made our creativity expand,” said Stepanov. Shelton said, “It was wonderfully inspirational to be in a city where so much creative energy is flying around left and right. Even in such a big city you never know who you’re going to run into on the street. The guy sitting next to you on the subway could be the set designer for a show happening two doors down from your own for all you know! Just brilliant.”
Adrian Enscoe, who designed the masks for the show, added in an email, “I was real jazzed that we were voted most visually captivating at the Fringe this year. Living and putting up a show in New York was like a dream, a hopeful peek into what we could be doing a couple years down the line. We were welcomed so warmly by the theater community there, it seemed like anything was possible. I’m going to make a habit of going back, even if we’re not performing.”
So, what’s next after presenting work in one of North America’s most influential theater communities? Schrank is now aiming for pieces longer than 45 minutes and announced that the team has unanimously decided to invest Chien de Moi’s box office money toward its next piece. Until then, as Wood put it, “The team is just waiting for Sophia to dream of something new.”