When I was a kid, I loved to break into buildings—schools, churches or ideally, big, empty, industrial spaces. Alone or with my grubby pal Molly, we’d scale walls, get on roofs of buildings and discover every aspect of these places that we possibly could. We never did damage, never caused harm, but instead relished in the unique poetry that exists when you tug on a door that hasn’t recently been opened and let yourself into a forbidden zone—a found space.
During these escapades I was often at great physical risk—climbing rickety, old fire escapes hundreds of feet up the sides of buildings, getting guns pulled on me by security guards, being chased off properties by German Shepherds and being arrested for trespassing were prices I paid for the thrill of pulling open slightly stuck doors leading to newly discovered, long forgotten worlds.
The joy of that entry process, as well as its inherent risks, always changed my relationship to a space. The way light found itself into the room became a revelation; the history of the building and its previous occupants became a series of tantalizing mysteries. I have always been fascinated by both the visible and invisible walls in our city, those made of hidden histories and taboos. The concealed story of a city also manifests itself through the lack of clarity about what happened at certain places and the initial purpose of particular buildings. This poverty of cogent information is glorious for an artist—it’s where the real storytelling can begin.
As a theater director, I love to try to re-create the sense of risk, wonder and joy found when discovering a forbidden, abandoned, empty or unused space. When directing, I always want the theater audience to encounter the stage the way I’ve always encountered these spaces—that is, to feel they’ve entered a place filled with secrets, that the space could have sat empty for 20 years or been vacated quickly before their arrival, a world that feels palpable, mysterious and filled with endless ways of encountering and interpreting our environment.
In my production of Eurydice at a contemporary theater in Seattle, the seemingly oppositional ideas of “lost/found,” “remembering/forgetting,” “life/death,” “above/below,” “drop/catch,” and “light /dark” created the emotional landscape. As we approached the project, the design team and I worked to create a world that could both hold and heighten these contradictions. This was a place that needed to feel familiar and strange, joyful and melancholy—somewhere that could simultaneously contain the land of the living and the land of the dead. We were reminded throughout our process that often the deepest truths emerge from these seemingly contradictory impulses.
We decided to set our production in an abandoned swimming pool (very much based on an old swimming pool that I had recently discovered in Pittsburgh). A broken diving board and trash littered the floor—the trash was actually handbills of missing persons and letters that people had written to loved ones. The swimming pool felt right because it could be both the romantic world of Orpheus and Eurydice as well as the Underworld. It could also hold such oppositional feelings as great joy and great sorrow.
Characters arrived in the Underworld via an elevator that rained (a stand-in for the river Styx). Once in the Underworld, Eurydice re-connects with her dead father. He builds her a 3-dimensional house made from string found on the swimming pool floor. Periodically, letters from Orpheus (desperately searching for Eurydice throughout much of the play) would come flying through the space. Orpheus was on a grid about 150 feet above the audience and would push the letters through the grating. After Eurydice’s death and subsequent arrival in the Underworld, I wanted to create a sense that Orpheus was “above ground” searching for her while the rest of us were in the Underworld.
In all the work I do, I want my audiences to feel that they are the first to encounter a previously empty or abandoned space. In this way, I feel that they experience a uniquely personal connection to the world of the play and, as a result, a much deeper relationship to its story, ideas and characters. Ideally, in the process, my audience becomes a group of conspirators standing with me (just as my friend Molly did), ready to trespass on forbidden property while creating and recreating the stories of our time.