Photo by Caitlin Abrams
7th House Theater members at the Guthrie
Art unconstrained by money can be fabulous and breathtaking (witness: the Cirque du Soleil spectacle). But art under a tight budget, created with much passion and gusto, can be just as phenomenal. The five young actors who make up 7th House Theater (the oldest is 27 years old) have been pooling their free time and skills in the past year to produce their own plays and musicals, taking on administrative roles and learning backstage technical duties to make sure each production fits their vision.
This month, AJ Longabaugh, Grant Sorenson, Cat Brindisi, David Darrow, and Derek Prestly have made it to the Guthrie with their first original production. Jonah and the Whale: A New Musical, set to bluegrass tunes and taking place on the Mississippi River, tells the biblical story of a man defying incredible odds. Not so different from the ensemble themselves.
"They dream big amidst the reality of being a small young theater company. It's really refreshing to see what comes out of that," says Laren Ignaut, director of programming for the Guthrie's Dowling Studio. In past 7th House productions, that's led to using a cardboard box in place of the carnivorous plant Audrey II in their take on Little Shop of Horrors, and a totally immersive audience experience in unusual (read: cheap) performances spaces.
But it's not all down to creativity out of necessity; part of their ingenuity is programmed into the way the team works with collaborators. "It's really exciting to watch the positive and empowering way they riff off each other," adds Ignaut. "You can tell they trust one another and all do better work as a result." In taking on all roles of theater production, the members recognize they can only improve with the help of others equally invested in their success, so they explore what those collaborators have to say as partners in creativity.
Jonah and the Whale will be 7th House's largest (and best-funded) production yet, but that doesn't mean they'll have a glittering full-size whale on stage. Better show up Dec. 19-28 and find out what this team can do.
Erin Kincheloe: So where does the name 7th House come from?
David Darrow: It's a lyric from "Aquarius," [a song from their first musical, Hair] "When the moon is in the seventh house," and we really just picked it because of that. We needed a name for our Kickstarter to sort of advertise the show.
Grant Sorenson: Sheena Janssen, who was one of the original company members, she brought up that when the planets are in the Seventh House, it means cooperation and harmony and working together peacefully. Because that's what we do. We just talk really quietly to each other at rehearsals. [laughs]
EK: I was wondering about that, since you're bringing in several new faces to work on Jonah. How do you stay true to your original vision when there are so many new voices?
GS: The five active members of 7th House, we are the ones that choose the shows, the ones that do the fundraising, the donor interactions, we are the company. On top of that, let's say for Jonah, we're bringing in eight outside actors to be in the cast with us. That's what we've kind of done for each of our shows so far. Company members will perform in them, if they're available and if the roles are right for them—but then we've also brought in young, talented people that we know or that express interest in working with us. So our shows are always a mix of company members and non company members. Which is great, because then we can work with new people every time we do a show.
DD: Because we bring in outside people to work with all the time, we sort of, the five of us, kind of act like a board. Just sort of make sure the mission is being adhered to, make sure the mission is what we want it to be in the first place. That's really our main focus, what the actual work is. We bring in people that we trust to actually help create it.
EK: Having acted in other companies, do you take lessons from those experiences to create a different, purposeful environment?
DD: I'd say it's more an exercise in imitating what we see as right with other companies. I think part of why Hair felt right is because it was filling a little bit of a void. There's a lot of large musical theater here—large, very good musical theater—and not a ton of small, sort of homemade musical theater here. So I think in that sense it was something we weren't seeing in other places. But for the most part, we've worked for theaters like Latte Da, the Guthrie, Frank—there's bits of pieces of those mission statements and those processes that I think we incorporate just naturally.
GS: Originally we tried to set up our hierarchy in the way we were seeing other theater companies, who have an Artistic Director and an Associate Artistic Director, and a Position A and a Position B and a Position C, but we really found that those positions are constantly shifting. In one show, someone steps into this role and someone steps down from this role and ends up taking this role—it's sort of inspired by that, but always twisting it by putting ourselves into different positions. It's also a huge learning experience for actors. It's kind of pushing us into zones that we wouldn't be allowed to do.
EK: I feel like lots of young theater groups try to do edgy theater. But Jonah is a Biblical story, it's very recognizable. How did that happen?
DD: We had been talking to Lauren Ignot up in the Dowling; she's the programming director up there, about doing a show in the studio at some point, who said, "Well, I have this weird little slot right over Christmas, If you guys are interested in it. We think maybe not Christmas, we think maybe something a little nontraditional—what do you think?" So we went away and talked about what kind of thing we could make.
We liked the spot because there's a lot of magic in the air around that time of year——even if it's not religious or Christian overtones, it's the Solstice, and the New Year, and rebirth, and all these sort of things. And we have the river right outside; the huge Mississippi River is literally right here. So were were thinking about bodies of water. I had a publication called Lampham's Quarerly, and the whole book of Jonah was just in it. It's a curated journal, and he put the entire book of Jonah inside of the journal. I read it and thought that would be a cool adaptation. There's this magic—half of it's spent underwater. It lent itself to our way of creating different worlds within a play. And we kind of liked that it was from the Bible, but it wasn't really religious to any specific denomination. So we talked to Lauren about it, and she thought it was a good idea, so we started writing.
EK: You said, "It fits our way of creating worlds within a play." Tell me more about that.
DD: We don't have a ton of money. And musical theater is an art form that is traditionally incredibly expensive. Because I think as it developed, I think people like seeing the real flying monkeys, or the real fire, the eight-foot puppets—
GS:—Eighty dancers tap dancing in a line. They want spectacle.
DD: So part of the questions that we were asking when we started committing ourselves a little more toward the musical side of things is: Is this work worth producing without millions of dollars? And what we found with Little Shop is that it totally is. It just requires a little bit of creativity and tweaking of things to make it work. And with Jonah there are a lot of huge events that happen: there's a ship, the ship crashes, he falls into the ocean—
EK:—And there's a whale!
DD:And there's a whale. We're really excited by the challenge of saying, okay, how do we make the stage a whale?
GS: So much of our productions have been atmospheric. One of the things we always talk about is our relationship as actors with our audiences. We really like to put our audiences like here [holds hand directly in front of face] as opposed to there, in they're chairs, there's twenty feet, and we're on the stage with a fake wall in between us.
DD: When we talk about the work we've already done, we've learned because it's already happened. A lot of it's not stuff by design—I don't think we sat down and said, "Okay, we want all our audiences to be right here." Financially, those are the spaces we can afford. So that has just become our work. I don't know, I think I like it more because it's out of necessity. A lot of the decisions we make are because we don't have any money. Some of the stuff that happened in Little Shop that people connected with the most was because we couldn't make a puppet, so we had to make something else. It's nice being constrained by money.
EK: What are you most excited to see come to life?
GS: We have an amazing cast for this. Amazing singers, really incredible actors, and it's a really unique mix of people. I'm excited just to be in the room with those people. People we've worked with before, people we haven't worked with before—that's what I'm excited for.
DD: Tyler Mills is writing the book. We haven't worked with him before. He's great. He's a local guy, he works with Tyler Michaels at Huge Improv. He's one of the Bearded Men Improv Group. Very true of all these people, especially with this type of work—there can just be no ego, ever, because nothing you write or create can ever be sacred, because it has to be for the good of the whole piece, and sometimes what you make is great on its own and doesn't fit and has to go.
EK: What are audiences leaving with after they see Jonah? Describe it for me.
DD: We've been throwing words around like "hero journey," "redemption." Jonah, at the end of the story, repents, and it's very Biblical. He repents and is spit out of the whale and goes and does God's will. We discussed early on that we didn't want this to question anybody's faith. That we wanted it to be about a faith journey, but we didn't want to comment on anyone's actual belief. Having somebody come in as a devout, devout Christian, that they would leave with that faith almost affirmed. Somebody who is completely a militant atheist and also have their belief totally affirmed. Have the play really just be about the human experience.
There are a lot of themes in the story of Jonah that aren't religious, like survival, spectacular odds that people are against on an everyday basis, and are your defining moments the things that shake you as a human being. There are some plot points that we've added just to tie things together dramatically and to give him sort of a setting, that I think will really humanize him in a way that a lot of the older Bible stories don't. I think it's a happy story. Everyone knows how "Jonah and the Whale" ends, so it's a happy story.