“5 Things” is being put together with butcher paper and duct tape on a peeling plaster wall. There will be a script, eventually. There’s always a script, eventually. But right now it’s just Sharpie on butcher paper.
Abigail Maupin, co-founder and artistic co-director of Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble says the process is a bit like “magnetic poetry,” and it’s an apt analogy. The storyboard, if you can call it that, is taped over and rearranged a half dozen times in the two hours I spend in Le Petomane’s rehearsal space.
Like seemingly many properties in Old Louisville, this room on the corner of 6th and Oak Streets with the tin ceilings and the poorly boarded up hole in the door, began life as a bakery before becoming a bar and eventually this space. There’s a small stage, but Le Petomane is using the floor, mapped out with duct tape (again with the duct tape) to the dimensions of the one at the Bard’s Town Theatre. The owner of the space has put on some music shows in the venue, but right now it’s being shared by a visual artist (“Who we’ve never seen,” adds Abigail) and Le Petomane. It’s kind of awesome. It feels very much like Where Art is Made.
Before they start rehearsal for the three-member show, Abigail Maupin, Greg Maupin, and Kyle Ware give me a rundown on the plot. “5 Things” is about three retail workers- one each from a bookstore, a record store, and a video store- who’ve been marooned on an island. As you might guess from the title, it’s a riff on the “Desert Island Discs” party game. Each character has been allowed to bring “5 Things” to the island. Over the course of the play, they explain and justify their choices. But how did they get there? Is it a voluntary marooning? After all, “5 Things” does imply some planning. Greg smiles and says, “You’re asking all the right questions.” And then he doesn’t answer them.
But when the creative process begins, the discussions turn to spaghetti westerns, lobster claw harmonicas, baby pools, and “I’m envisioning Julie Taymor directing a ‘Nam musical. Stilts. Rice paddies strapped to our heads.”
Rehearsal isn’t rehearsal so much as a brainstorming session. All three members have already explained the ensemble’s “group think” or “hive mind,” and now here it is at work. Sentences are rarely completed (at least by the person who started the sentence). The actors often seem to be speaking in code. Greg makes gestures with his hands and says, “Let’s do this before we do that thing… and that thing, I think, is a good and reasonable thing” and everyone just understands.
I briefly entertain the idea that maybe all this obfuscation is because of me. That maybe they don’t trust me to not give away too much of the plot. But I immediately dismiss the thought; they’re way too nice for such subterfuge.
Subterfuge or not, it was brilliant. Two hours of focused artistic imagination. Almost no side trips or digressions; how often does that happen when you put three smart people in a room and light a fire under their creative process? At the end of the rehearsal, when they say that they hope I’ll come see the play, I respond, “Are you kidding me? Of course I’m going. I’m dying to know what this play is really about!”
Of course, “5 Things” is about the crisis of the local book/music/video store (words like “Amazon,” “Kindle” and “Streaming” litter the dialogue, divorced from their more modern connotations). It’s about buying local. But when asked about the “message,” Greg paraphrases Kurosawa: if the message could be summed up in a few words, he’d write them on a sign and just parade around the stage with it.
Abigail and Greg founded Le Petomane in 2004. “I think I was there for Le Petomane’s first show in Louisville, back when the ensemble numbered two: Greg and Abigail themselves,” says David J. Loehr, artist-in-residence at the Riverrun Theatre in Madison, Indiana and purveyor of the website 2AMtheatre.com. “That show began with nearly 20 minutes of near silence, except for the audience’s laughter.”
Le Petomane has since grown to six members, and productions feature varying combinations of performers. This is where the “hive mind” comes in handy. Every member brings outside talents to the productions: costuming, construction, art. Kyle, a professional artist and director of the Tourism Honors Academy, a tourism-career-prep program for teens in Louisville, creates all of the posters for the shows.
In the course of a Le Petomane season, cast members change, venues change, styles change. There’s one thing that doesn’t change. “Always comedy,” says Abigail.
On the ensemble website, the ensemble’s “Shorter Mission” reads, “Comedy allows one to do all sorts of deeply sneaky things for/with/to an audience. And physical comedy is even more fun and more challenging. And we like to work together.”
Although the ensemble does derive its name from the stage name of the famous French flatulist, that tongue-in-cheek statement makes Le Petomane sound more “class clown” than the locally and nationally respected artists that they are (and really, wasn’t the “class clown” usually one of the smartest people in the room, too?).
“As the ensemble has grown, it’s been exciting to watch them develop their aesthetic,” says Loehr. “It’s more than just ‘new wave dell’arte,’ whether it’s an original, experimental ‘tango noir’ like “Ban: An Appeal” or a wildly inventive adaptation of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” for a cast of six, multiplied by the clever use of masks. They maintain a balance, designing shows for modern sensibilities with classical underpinnings.”
Loehr adds, “They also played ukuleles before ukuleles were cool again.”
The only instrument better-suited to a desert island than a ukulele is, of course, a lobster claw harmonica (“I got it in Maine!” says Greg, as though that explains… anything). Based on only two hours spent watching Le Petomane’s creative process, I cannot confirm that either will make it into the final product. But based on only two hours, I’m reasonably certain that the final product will be some strange kind of genius.
“5 Things” is the first show in Le Petomane’s 2011-2012 four-show season and will be the first show they’ve launched at the Bard’s Town Theatre. Performances are September 7-12 and 14-17 at 7:30pm. Tickets are on a pay-as-you-can sliding scale, $8-$20. For tickets, visit: thebardstown.com or call 502-749-5275.
For more information on Le Petomane Theatre
Ensemble and their upcoming season,
visit their website at lepetomane.org
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