"Out of your head and into your heart."
Throughout our interview with the members of Howl Theatre Project, it was this phrase that kept appearing. By their own admission, this was a bit of a clichéd phrase, particularly for a troupe with such experimental bonafides as theirs. But still, the phrase holds true in describing the methods, practices, and presentation brought to the table by the collective in their attempt to achieve a sort of universality in the new works they develop and perform.
From Friday, May 30 through Sunday, June 1, the newly formed theatre group presents the final weekend of its first production, Monsters of the Sea (III): endofplay/7, at Space 55 in downtown Phoenix. The play acts as the third installment in writer Chris Danowski's "Monsters of the Sea" series, and the first in the series to be presented in a public venue. Sound strange?
The seven-member troupe is filled out by Jake Jack Hylton, Jamie Haas Hendricks, Steven Matthew Kaas, Heather Lee Harper, Liana O'Boyle, and Beth May.
Those with a more keen eye on the Valley's theatre scene over the years might recognize Danowski's name under the moniker Theater in My Basement, his underground theater outfit which has presented original, avant-garde theater works in various literal living spaces for nearly a decade. However, following the production of "Monsters of the Sea (II)," Danowski and his cohorts felt the need for a change.
"We've been doing this work with Chris, and we all felt that it's really important, and we can't just keep doing it in Chris's living room for a total of 30 people to see it," notes Hendricks. "The stuff is just too good..."
"Deserves 50," quips Kass.
"And a backstage," continues Harper.
So, yes, it's all a little out of the ordinary. But for a group of actors, writers, and directors (all company members juggle multiple production duties) so entrenched in the experimental, the entire group could not be more excited to work together and share that work with the public.
"We found a really good energy among us," says Danowski in explaining the group's formation. "The threads of what we had [in Monsters of the Sea (II)] were the things that would start to carry us forward."
Though they all met and first worked together in various theatrical circumstances, there was a clear shared desire to produce something collaboratively among the troupe members, and in the process develop a new means of producing work.
"Creatively, we all find a line that we can walk on together and in that is finding people who are good at what they do that you can work alongside. . . and find one cohesive outlet," Hylton says of the experience of producing this work.
This unique method of collaboration is rooted in the doctoral studies of Danowski, who is developing theatrical works and acting methods which link the psychology of Jacques Lacan with Afro-Caribbean spirituality and therapy. Danowski is an ordained priest in multiple Afro-Caribbean religious traditions, and it is this meditative, group-oriented practice which has guided the members of Howl in the art they create, to extremely fruitful ends.
"This is something I have been studying for 20 years. I've been a priest for about six," Danowski says.
In his studies, Danowki aims to "devise a very careful structure," allowing actors and producers to touch the spiritual possession felt in those faiths, in the way that they inhabit a character onstage.
"It sounds really spooky and scary but it's not, at all," reassures Hendricks. "It feels a lot like other acting techniques. It's just another way -- and I think a more practical way and a more relatable way -- to access and develop characters."
And so, in devising characters and plots via these means of more personal inhabitation, Howl Theatre hopes to tap into a universal midpoint with work that otherwise might be viewed as quite distant from reality or tradition.
"Everything we do has to be truthful," Harper says, "no matter what genre or context, you have to believe it. And that's why I get bored with theater a lot of the time! Being present is what we're doing."
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"Theater is only place where you can really talk about what it's like to be a human being," adds Danowski, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde. "[It is] the art form that talks about what's like to inhabit a human body right now in the world."
Hylton says, "It's like finding...that point between the heart and the mind and the soul, the one part where all of those meet, and [our work] appeals to that...where you are in life right now."
Monsters of the Sea (III): endofplay/7 finishes its run this Friday, May 30 through Sunday, June 1. Friday and Saturday's shows begin at 8 p.m., and Sunday's show begins at 6 p.m., with tickets available at the door for $10. More information is available on the play's Facebook event page.