Bodies and Minds In Motion: Visible Theater Merges the Personal and Political

New York magazine theater critic Jeremy McCarter recently lamented the lack of truly "political" theater in the city. Instead of well-calibrated incendiary writing, all too often he sees "issue" plays, dramas that reinforce liberal ideals while effectively preaching to the choir.

"A genuinely political play," he maintains, "does more than affirm. It doesn't ask for our attention, it demands our engagement—moral, emotional, and intellectual. Paradoxically, it draws us out of ourselves to take us into ourselves, forcing us to rethink what we think we know."

With the goal of "bringing the anarchy of life to the discipline of the stage," Visible Theater, founded in 2000 by Krista Smith, is a company with the resources and ideals to both demand and expand the attention of its audiences. Devoted to the development and deployment of ambitious, incisive, and inclusive theater projects, Visible is not content to merely present issues; instead, its members wrestle with preconceptions and misconceptions about the world, the country, and the body. In doing so, Visible has become not only one of New York's most provocative artistic companies but also one of its most nurturing.

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

A variety of grants and generous supporters have allowed Smith to focus on the intense acting training, script development, and workshops that are her chief priorities. ("My true love is the process, not the destination," she says.) Now, however, the company is poised to showcase two of its collaborative ventures simultaneously at the Abingdon Theater Complex this month: Krankenhaus Blues, a darkly comic play that had a successful run last year at the now closed Blue Heron Arts Center, and True Story Project: SEX!, a storytelling endeavor inspired and informed by real-life sexual experiences.

Krankenhaus Blues has become something of a showpiece for Visible, shaped within a lengthy gestation period of active collaboration. Sam Forman's play, an exploration of disability, genocide, and show business set against the backdrop of the Holocaust, reflects Smith's objective to make theater that will "allow silenced voices to speak and send a ripple of shared humanity into the universe." The production reunites director Donna Mitchell with actors Christine Bruno, Bill Green, and Joe Sims, who return to reprise their acclaimed performances. Helen Yee composed the original music, which she performs throughout the show.

Unlike the case with many Off-Off-Broadway productions, which are often thrown together in a few weeks, Visible has had the luxury of extended incubation periods, and Krankenhaus Blues was no exception. Smith, an actress, director, and vocal advocate for the disabled, originally commissioned the play from Forman with her company specifically in mind. Her proposal: a dramatic exploration of the treatment of the disabled in Germany during the Holocaust.

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

"She thought, and rightly so, that disabled people had been left out of a lot of the work that's been done about the Holocaust, and—to our knowledge—there hasn't been a play about disability and genocide produced in New York," says Forman, who spent time in Berlin to familiarize himself with the region's history and culture. A friend of Smith's, he worked for two years on the script, embellishing and tweaking the characters based on the cast's improvisational skills during an intense rehearsal period.

According to Mitchell, another friend who was invited into the project early on, the play focuses on the first (and lesser-documented) wave of Holocaust victims, which included the disabled, homosexuals, artists, and Gypsies—disenfranchised individuals who were snatched from their families and taken to German hospitals (called a Krankenhaus), where they were subjected to torture and experiments before being murdered.

Rather than compact the facts neatly into a strictly linear and prescriptive narrative, Forman took a broader, looser approach. "Donna didn't discourage me from bringing my own modern, New York, ironic sensibility to [the show]," Forman remembers. "We really tried to stay away from the historical docudrama and ended up instead with something much more personal and peculiar to our own experiences."

In this way, the creation of Krankenhaus Blues became an exercise in free association and artistic discovery for those involved. "Jokes, songs, dirty sex talk, agitprop, ghost stories, and personal memories" all found their way into this "odd hybrid of a world," says Forman. A skilled comic writer, he lets his humor percolate within the script as the action traverses back and forth through time, space, and consciousness.

As the performers and creative team compiled their stories and experiences, they generated a sense of history both shared and individual—a look at how a huge event (here, the Holocaust) can affect people's lives in such profound yet disparate ways. "I think the show gives people a lot to talk about: our individual relationships to history and world politics, people's sense of powerlessness, [and] the importance of human connection in this crazy and cruel world," Forman says. "The play deals a lot with feelings of alienation and 'otherness,' and people reaching out towards each other across the big, scary void."

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

He continues, "On a personal level, I think it's been important to write these roles for physically disabled actors that are a little 'outside the box.' I know a lot of disabled actors have been frustrated in the past with the sorts of roles that are usually available to them on the stage and screen, and I think a company like Visible is doing a very good thing by commissioning writers to create challenging material for these very talented actors."

Social exclusion certainly applies to the theater and entertainment industries, and Visible's performers—many of whom are disabled themselves—have both noted and appreciated Visible's commitment to acknowledging and celebrating their lives.

"I want people in the theater to see me onstage and have to completely re-evaluate what it means to be human," jokes Christine Bruno. (It's actually one of her lines in the play.) Bruno, who first met Smith when the two were students at the Actors Studio Drama School in the late 90's, plays Anka, an overwrought actress with a father fixation. And although she makes light of her character's lofty theatrical goals, Bruno's performance very directly challenges notions of reality and humanity as Anka sings and slinks her way into dialogue with the other characters.

For Bruno, who is disabled, Krankenhaus Blues presented an opportunity to expand audience members' experiences with disability. "I want them to understand that disabled people are much more similar to nondisabled people than they are different," she says. "We experience a full complement of emotions, not just sadness, longing, and the pursuit of our place in the world. We're neither victim nor inspiration. We can be funny, sexy, sexual, wacky, sarcastic, arrogant, rude, and messy—like everyone else."

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

Categorizing people may be convenient, but labels imply limitations, even when created by ostensibly charitable institutions and individuals. Determined to complicate and disrupt troubling archetypes, "Visible is groundbreaking in that we are not working towards inclusion, we just are inclusive," Smith says.

And although such lengthy development periods can be prohibitive (in terms of regular ticket buyers, for example), it's still the only way Smith can imagine working. Her plans for the company are similarly nurturing and assiduous. She and her husband will continue to host artists' retreats outside New York (the last one was in Maine) and continue to foster dynamic work in the Visible LAB. Despite the company's successes, "I am not interested in expanding or building an empire," she vows. "Visible will just continue to be 'boutique-like' in its structure, focusing on cultivating artists and developing new works."

Visible's approach to theater sprang directly from Smith and Mitchell's experiences acting together in a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Improvisational in nature, the company primarily employs Konstantin Stanislavski's Active Analysis technique (along with selected theories from acting teacher Sanford Meisner and the Viewpoints technique) to provide a grounded yet spontaneous environment for its performers.

The Visible LAB, which meets weekly, offers artists an opportunity to experiment and refine their performances in a safe and supportive environment. "It is a holistic, integrative approach to freeing the instrument," Smith says, and participants work on preparation—including meditation and yoga—as well as scene study and improvisation work.

"Rehearsing a play in this manner brings a sense of organized chaos to the stage," Smith says. "It invites the actors to be spontaneous within the given circumstances of the play."

After attending a storytelling festival, Smith was prompted to incorporate that technique into Visible's work as well. True Story Project: SEX! is the third original production to evolve from the sharing of personal stories, and many of the tales were further developed within Visible's monthly Writing Circle.

"It was clear to me that autobiographical storytelling was an incredible vehicle for being heard and for connecting," Smith says. "The work is honest, bold, and incredibly moving."

Storytelling was also a vital component in the genesis of Krankenhaus Blues, and the actors were encouraged to explore their own experiences as they developed their characters.

Bruno, who also participates in the Visible LAB, compares her work in the LAB to the rehearsal process for Krankenhaus Blues, which, she says, was "built on a spirit of improvisation, relaxation, following impulses, and developing your artistry from a place of truth with an available body and an open mind and heart."

Joe Sims, who plays the sardonic clown Fritz in Krankenhaus Blues, became involved with Visible on a dare from a friend, who invited him to participate in a workshop for the True Story Project.

"I was totally blown away by what I found there," he remembers. "It really shattered my previous conceptions about acting and theater." His performance in Krankenhaus Blues marked his debut in a full-length production.

He also credits Visible for its commitment to exposing deeper truths onstage. "It's really hard to be honest about yourself," he says of his work in the True Story Project. And because Forman created Fritz with Sims specifically in mind, it is impossible for him to hide behind a truly "fictional" character. "In some ways it's tough going still," he says, "but Visible creates a space for working that is challenging but safe."

Sims, who is also disabled, savors the apocalyptic environment of Krankenhaus Blues. "The play takes place the moment before dying," he says, "but it's such a full moment. What led them up to that moment? What led them to the brink? That's so important, because those events should never be forgotten, lest we have to relive them again today."

The anachronism and irreverence of Krankenhaus Blues create much of its humor but also reveal the Holocaust as an extreme example of a very contemporary phenomenon: the way many people work to distance themselves from those who aren't "normal." As she discussed the show, director Mitchell was quick to point out the current cultural obsession with irony, and the ways in which many contemporary artistic projects take an ironic stance as a means of holding truth at arm's length. Sarcasm and self-referential humor, it seems, provide sturdy protection against facing reality directly and honestly.

In Krankenhaus Blues, irony becomes less of a shield and more of an instrument to strip characters down to their essential truths, exposing the audience's elementary expectations and, as critic Jeremy McCarter hoped, prompting them to "rethink what we think we know."

Although Visible may be one of the few companies to be creating political theater at this cultural moment, the focus remains more on inciting revolution within individual lives than on spectacular theatrics. Smith pursues change on a personal level—artist by artist, story by story. And it's theater that is meant to be not just watched or performed but lived.

"Visible Theater is one of the few theaters in the country that truly represents the full complement of what you see out on the street, at least in any big city," Bruno says. But, she adds, "it's not a disability-specific theater company. You'll see people of all colors, ethnicities, genders, sexual persuasions, disabled and nondisabled, mixing it up and living their lives."

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

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