Avery Wigglesworth Wants You To Feel Stuff
by Gili Malinsky
There’s this Greek myth about princess Ariadne, daughter of the king of Crete, who helps hero Theseus defeat the Minotaur killing innocents in his labyrinth. Ariadne falls in love with Theseus, and when he conquers that barbaric creature the two run off together to an island. Then he leaves her there, and Dionysus god of wine falls in love with and marries her instead.
But not before a period of heartbreak, grief and desolation. Not before she’ll say that I’m a fucking princess. And how could Theseus do it…
That’s the way that playwright Isaac Allen Miller tells it (in his play Ariadne on the Island), anyway. And that’s the way that visionary director Avery Wigglesworth told it, too. Wigglesworth put on the show at the Freeman Space in Brooklyn last spring and we, the audience, sat on top of bunkbeds in this narrow room, watching Ariadne pace below. She wore bright blue undergarments (nothing else, really), Dionysus walking around with bottles of wine, and despite having just a bucket of sand and a bucket of water in the middle of the space (representing our location), I’d never felt more like I was on a desert island.
And now Wigglesworth and her company, The Cutout Theatre, where she is Artistic Director, are doing it again, this time with a play called Peloponnesus by Tim J. Lord. It’s a Greek tragedy set in contemporary Southern Illinois, the story of two brothers, one who falls in love with a woman from the warring town and one who sees continual ghosts. We sat down with her to discuss the theater and how she’s able, with such meager means (being an underground director with a theatrical nonprofit) to immerse us in her worlds.
Your storytelling’s really fantastical and even when it’s tragic it celebrates life. Tell us about some of the work you’ve done with The Cutout Theatre, which we know you founded in…
July 2014. Right away the question was what’s out first show gonna be. The easiest thing to do is Shakespeare because it’s free. I wanted to do Romeo and Juliet because it’s my favorite Shakespeare and… It’s the story that everything in our lives is based on. And we hate it because we think it’s floo floo stupid boys and girls. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it with two girls - because people say, oh, he’s a stupid boy and oh she’s a stupid girl. But if they’re both girls then we can just put that aside and really think about them as people.
Love seems to be a prevalent theme in the stories you choose to tell.
I’m definitely very interested in love. I love love for all the gushy stuff and the nice stuff and the bad breakups and the fights and the broken hearts. It’s such a good example that we as humans are capable of so much. We’re capable of loving so many people in such huge ways. There’s this idea that you love then you fall out of love but really your heart just expands.
You tell stories in really sparse ways - vast space, a few physical elements. Tell us a little bit about your aesthetic.
I believe people respond more emotionally to abstract art. To abstract painting, poetry. [So] I go, usually, for the poetry of the moment versus the prose. When I [directed Phaedra's Love in college], there’s this part where Hippolytus is being hung and they’re supposed to tear apart his insides. And so I had these two women come out with a bucket of blood and just like smear it on him. And whenever they touched him he would feel the pain. So you see exactly what he’s doing and you’re seeing the aftermath of the blood. We know it’s not real but it affects us emotionally.
It’s crazy because that ultimately sweeps us away so much more than a realistic depiction.
Stage combat is amazing. But if it’s not done perfectly it doesn’t work. It doesn’t keep you in the moment. And so if I don’t have the ability to do perfect stage combat then I don’t want to do it.
Peloponnesus has a lot of stuff. There’s an axe and there’s a knife and there’s a gun. I had planned on actually using the shotgun. I took my two [lead actors in a scene with the shotgun] and I was like, alright, if we have to do this without a shotgun, how do we tell this story. And then we did it and from that moment I was like I don’t want a shotgun. I don’t want people to question the story so why don’t we just represent it with two bodies in space and what’s happening in a moment.
Which gets us so much more involved in the story.
Which gets [you] involved and [gets you] to feel stuff.