Dreams, politics, love, lunch, excruciating silence, boredom, blazers and khakis, khakis, khakis. For Strange Attractor Theatre Company, these define the workday of a museum security guard.
As such, they — as well as several more abstract concepts — provide the “glue” for Strange Attractor’s latest original show, “Enlightenment on E Floor North,” a collaborative, character-driven, highly physical and “outlandishly absurd” investigation into the endless cycle of mindless work and how people actually pass the time while they’re on the clock.
“Really, it’s about boredom,” said Strange Attractor member and Juneau theatrical mainstay Roblin Gray Davis earlier this week over coffee and bagels. “Boredom and the lengths we go to alleviate that boredom.”
“I actually worked as a museum guard in Providence, Rhode Island,” said fellow member Jed Hancock-Brainerd of what can only be called “the seed” of “Enlightenment.”
“One day, I started watching the other guards, really observing them. Instantly, these people, who are supposed to be invisible, became the most interesting exhibits in the museum.”
The rest of the company — Strange Attractor simultaneously bases itself in Providence, Philadelphia and Juneau (indeed, its motto is PVD/PHL/JNU) — loved the concept, especially as a vehicle for what they termed “exploring ennui.”
“Museum guards show up, stand around and wait for something to happen. That presents endless opportunities for scenarios, both concrete and fantastical, which is exactly what we do,” said Rebecca Noon, also from Providence.
“Once we get the seed of an idea, we start to ‘play,’ and that creates a universe, where we play some more,” said Aram Alan Aghazarian. “It’s like the tropical fish tank I had as a kid and always wanted to swim in. That’s how building plays with Strange Attractor feels: swimming around my own tropical fish tank.”
Unlike more traditional theater, generally written by a playwright working alone, then interpreted by a director, again often alone, and performed by actors following someone else’s direction, “Enlightenment on Floor E” was created democratically and collaboratively through improvisation, like all Strange Attractor’s work, using a process known as “devised theater.”
“Anything presented through improvisation, anything with traction — even just one moment, even the smallest reaction — goes into a central clearinghouse of ‘awesome’ ideas,” said Aghazarian.
“Which we then try to make even… awesomer,” added Kamili Feelings, the troupe’s newest member, joining Strange Attractor specifically for “Enlightenment.” “At first, I came in with more of a playwright’s perspective. That seems so claustrophobic, now. Now, I do my best writing on my feet, physically building one idea on another.”
Noon elaborated on what it means to “build” a play as opposed to “writing” one with an example.
“After one improvisation, Aram scribbled down ‘big motorcycle;’ that’s what resonated with him. So we each worked ‘big motorcycle’ into the show, each in our way. Whether the audience ultimately sees ‘big motorcycle,’ well, that’s debatable, but it’s still there.”
Developed over months with performances in Providence, Philadelphia and Maine earlier this winter and spring, and further refined during Strange Attractor’s recent residence at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp this past June, “Enlightenment on E Floor North” presents experimental theater that truly is an experiment.
“We may not use a script, but we carefully construct a plan,” said Feelings; in fact, he and Hancock-Brainderd just finished a final edit (they call it “re-ordering”). “We keep trying things until we discover a narrative thread.”
“The trick, of course, is figuring out how strong to make that thread, how hard to push the idea of narrative,” Aghazarian said.
“But there is some kind of narrative,” explained Davis, still cautioning audiences to expect a show that challenges popular conceptions of live theater.
Hancock-Brainerd provided an even more apt analogy.
“It’s like all the characters are salmon, running upstream, which would be the show,” he said. “The audience casts a line, catches a character, casts another line, catches another character. Or maybe they don’t catch anything. Everyone’s fishing, but everyone goes home with different fish.”
Also like salmon, Strange Attractor was spawned in Southeast Alaska; the members disperse, but still return to their birthplace.
After meeting as graduate students at London International School of Performing Arts — each member holds advanced theater degrees and pursues his or her own professional theatrical career — Davis invited his former classmates to perform in a production of “Eurydice” he was directing for Perseverance Theatre.
“Perseverance gave us some space to ‘play’ together,” Aghazarian said. “After Eurydice, we wanted to keep playing. But we also wanted to keep living in our own communities.”
Indeed, Strange Attractor’s goal is to exist simultaneously in three different cities and maintain three artistic homes. To that end, they’ve mounted original productions in Providence, Philadelphia and Juneau (they’ve also starred in other Perseverance productions, most recently “Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Steps”), with a slot at the upcoming Fringe Festival in Philadelphia.
“The time and space between rehearsals is important,” said Noon. “But it’s all about what happens when we’re in the same room.”
The company name came last when, as is often the case, the group needed something to put on grant applications and marketing materials. After thousands of names — castoffs include “St. Bernard” and “Tooth & Wig” — Aghazarian offered Strange Attractor; he’d been trolling scientific terms for idea-starters.
“We really liked the definition, even though it’s supposed to apply to theoretical physics,” Davis said. “‘Strange Attractor: a set toward which a variable evolves over time, specifically when dynamics are chaotic, often found in the presence of noise’.”
“We’re also strange attractors,” said Noon, “in that the people who like what we do tend to be strange, themselves.”
Again, Hancock-Brainerd put it aptly.
“It was either that or ‘Weirdo Squad’,” he said.
“Enlightenment on E Floor North,” by Strange Attractor Theatre Company, was made possible by the Rasmuson Foundation, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, Sitka Fine Arts Camp and Alaska Arts Southeast, Inc.
Strange Attractor’s ‘Enlightenment on E Floor North’ performances
Juneau - Juneau Arts and Culture Center, July 6 and 7, 7:30 p.m.
Tenakee Springs - Community Building, Tuesday, July 9, 7:30 p.m.
Haines - Chilkat Arts Center, Friday, July 12, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are $10 at the door. The July 6 Juneau performance will be live streamed through HowlRoundTV with a viewing party at the Empire Black Box in Providence, RI.