SANTE FE, N.M.: This artsy high desert town has had a renaissance of funky visual arts in recent years, but among its longtime pioneers of weird is Theater Grottesco, a physical ensemble theatre company first founded in Paris, which soon found its way to the U.S. The company has evolved to comprise 13 artist/creators and four designers with a wide range of theatrical expertise. Grottesco has created 11 full-length plays and over 30 shorter pieces, performed in seven countries, 30 states, most major U.S. cities, and hundreds of smaller communities, garnering international and local awards, including a Rockefeller MAP Fund Grant, 11 National Endowment for the Arts Professional Theater Awards, and one of 2 MetLife/TCG A-ha Do It grants. We spoke to co-founder John Flax recently by email about his theatre’s unique genesis and aesthetic.
AMERICAN THEATRE: Who founded Theater Grottesco, when, and why?
JOHN FLAX: Theater Grottesco was founded in Paris in 1983 by myself and Frenchman Didier Maucourt. The company was an afterthought. Didier and I had worked together with the Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis and Paris. We both left in 1981. I went to Paris to study with Lecoq and Didier returned to writing. He called me one day and said he’d written a play for the two of us. We submitted it to a festival in Paris. They were interested but insisted the play come from a company. Hence Grottesco. We won the festival. By that time, Elizabeth Wiseman, another Lecoq grad, and I had a second show in the works…and here we are 37 years later.
Tell us more about yourself and how the company developed.
Didier wasn’t interested in running a theatre company and wisely left a couple of years in. Elizabeth and I moved the company to the States and worked together for 20 years. I’ve been stuck with Grottesco ever since, but with many longtime collaborators and a host of younger artists who bring tremendous energy and artistry to the ensemble. The work is ensemble-created. We work with outside designers but often do much of the design, construction, and writing ourselves. We wrote a recent show on Google Docs. As I was writing what I thought might be clever lines, someone was working behind me changing and altering them.
What sets your theatre apart from others in your region?
Grottesco works with an international model of art-making and production. We produce one original show a year, sometimes spending several years in development. The plays are more dependent upon physicality and imagery to tell the story then text.
What are the challenges of producing theatre in Sante Fe?
Real estate is expensive in Santa Fe; rehearsal and performance spaces are limited. The town has a reputation as an art mecca, but opera and the fine arts are in the fore. There are some 800 nonprofits competing for support and a lot of artistic activity for a small town. That being said, Meow Wolf is more successful than anyone could have imagined and is drawing young artists from all over the country.
Tell us about your favorite theatre institution other than your own, and why you admire it.
I’m a fan of Critical Mass in Los Angeles. I like the time they put into new work, the beautiful physicality, the intelligence and the humor.
How do you pick the plays you put on your stage?
Our plays are not chosen, they evolve. Sometimes they come from a style or collection of styles we want to explore. The style(s) point us towards an appropriate story. Sometimes they come from a conversation we’d like to have with the audience, and that conversation will point us towards appropriate style(s) and eventually a story. Several have been collaborations with artists from other art forms—an orchestra, a dance company—and the evolution takes on extra layers as it evolves along those same lines. In all cases, we spend at least a year with each project, so it needs to be something complex that takes time to unwrap, and exhilarating so it holds our passion.
What’s your annual budget, and how many artists do you employ each season?
Our budget hovers around $150,000 these days, half of what it was 10 years ago. We don’t do a season, but generally work with 10 or so artists and designers on any given project.
What show are you working on now?
Grottesco is working on the company’s 17th original production, The Other, premiering in Santa Fe on March 19. It is a companion piece to our 2019 production, Different. The company continues its research into extreme ensemble, this time handing physical and vocal structures to a family of Buffoons who will recount their versions of fairy tales to an audience that becomes the King’s court. Grottesco’s Buffoons are inspired by medieval leper colonies and ships of fools, where those who were different were cast out from society. Legend goes that they found each other in the forests or on the waterways in ships of fools, where they formed their own societies, reflections of the ones they came from. These are the King’s Fools, the only ones permitted to speak truth to power. They have nothing to lose…unless they go too far.
As with Different, the cast of The Other works without memorized text or choreography. The actors know their fairy tales, but who tells each piece of the shared tale, how the details are added, and how the physicality weaves it into something that might be considered a musical composition is something that will be different every night and can only be experienced live.
We also look forward to touring Consider This…, a performance masquerading as a lecture-performance on the history of Western physical theatre and the connection of each style to historical social and political movements. And Pie, our National Theatre Project award-winning production.
Strangest or funniest thing you’ve ever seen (or put) on your stage?
We are far too close to the work to know what our audience considers the funniest or strangest, so we asked them. Here are some responses:
“Funniest: a four-arm lazzi in a farce called The Richest Deadman Alive! A hapless delivery man visits a psychiatrist who asks him to choose between food, his wife, and his mother, moves behind him and offers two extra arms to the confusion.”
“For strangest, the eating of a whole lemon onstage, bite by careful bite, without flinching was one of the more riveting acts I’ve seen on stage anywhere. There were so many mind-boggling moments in Pie, though: the table splitting apart, the backdrop being torn down. That play stretched and broke the frame through which theatre is experienced. Difficult to even put it in words.”
What are you doing when you’re not doing theatre?
I spend time outdoors storing oxygen for my next extended period in a dark theatre. The mountains are right out my door, and my wife and I have a shack on the Pacific in Mexico.
What does theatre—not just your theatre, but the American or world theatre—look like in, say, 20 years?
Whenever I travel, I am impressed by world theatre. In the next 20 years, the American theatre catches up, breaks out of its long habit of how to tell stories, finds new audiences, and becomes a more vibrant art form.