The Trouper

How to win over critics and lose money, sleep, and ambition: A life in local theater

Sciple has directed this scene with Truscott's taste for violence. Hal is so roughly abused by Truscott that when he began to bleed profusely from the nose, I thought real blood had begun to flow. It was only later, reading through the script, that I discovered Hal's nosebleed is an explicit stage direction.

It is one of Truscott's lines that Sciple points to as his favorite: "What has just taken place is perfectly scandalous and had better go no farther than these three walls"--a line that is at once very simple and insistently theatrical. In the past few years, Sciple has regularly worked with Michelle Hensley of Ten Thousand Things, appearing as an actor in such plays as Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol and directing Godot for the company. According to Curtis, who has also worked with Hensley, she has an approach to theater that bleeds into the aesthetic of everyone who has collaborated with her.

"Her work is stripped-down and bare," Sciple says, also citing Hensley as an influence. "She tears theater down to its very essence. It was a way that I always thought about doing theater, but in Michelle I have found somebody who is very passionate about that, and who does it well." Because the plays produced by Ten Thousand Things travel to prisons and homeless shelters (aside from its social services value, this seems a novel way to locate performing spaces in this tight market), Hensley's direction necessarily requires few props and heightened theatricality. The actors must make full use of a bare stage, filling it with their performances.

Playwright, director, dramaturg, actor...and waiter, Matt Sciple
Geoffrey P. Kroll
Playwright, director, dramaturg, actor...and waiter, Matt Sciple

Sciple's direction of Godot was likewise spare, the set consisting of three small, framed paintings of distant horizons, set up on three corners of the performing area, and a withered tree. Samuel Beckett's script calls for almost no set, and Sciple made do with even less. There were the actors, the text of the play, a hint of a set, and nothing else. By the end of the run, the actors were so focused on the scene at hand that when Curtis suddenly became nauseated during a performance and fled the set, the other actors did not notice, even though he was tied to one of them with a rope.

 

On the opening night of Loot, Richard S. Iglewski, a regular on the Guthrie stage, turned up in the audience. After the show, members of the cast crowded around him to greet him. "Has the Guthrie ever done this play?" one asked.

"Not that I know of," Iglewski answered. "It's a pity; it would be perfect for the Guthrie." But Orton is rarely performed in the Twin Cities, and Sciple chose to direct Loot for a simple reason: It appealed to him. "I don't usually like black comedy," he told me, "because black comedy usually deals with cannibalism, which I don't find very interesting. But I knew who I would have in the cast for this, and I knew what I could do with them, and I wasn't doing anything else."

This is an example of a madness that is particular to theater people, as common among them as complaints about the Guthrie. Without this curious affliction there would be scant theater in the Twin Cities--save, perhaps, the Guthrie. After all, what could possibly compel anybody to sacrifice financial security, sleep, and weekends to participate in creating something that climbs up onstage for a half-dozen audience members, makes noise for a while, and then disappears forever? Sciple and Curtis--is it possible?--find these sacrifices irresistible, and are part of a booming community that shares their compulsion.

Both Curtis and Sciple praise productions like Loot, which, considering their low budget and low visibility, seems to be neither a sound financial decision nor an advantageous career move for its participants. "I keep waiting for performers to say, 'I can't do this, I don't have the time and you're not paying me enough,'" Curtis says. "And I would say, 'Of course you don't and of course we aren't.' And we've had some actors say that, only to come back and say, 'What am I talking about? Of course I'll do this show. Where else am I going to be able to do it?'"

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