Just over three years ago, five graduates of UC San Diego’s theater MFA program –Â Jennifer Chang, Ruth McKee, Hilary Ward, Larissa Kokernot and Amy Ellenberger — pooled their collective talents to create a theater company, eager to make their artistic mark on Los Angeles. The plan was to create outside of the normal box-like spaces of most 99-seat theaters.
They began with a production of The Three Sisters at the Masonic Lodge of the Hollywood Forever cemetery, where they discovered their company’s name in the graveyard. Ellenberger recalls, “We got the idea from a gravestone in the cemetery that just has the word CHALK on it with a box of chalk at the bottom so you can write on it. Â We thought this would be a good metaphor for theater. You create something, then erase it, then create something else. We also have a fun tagline of ‘erasing the stage’ that helps express the idea of erasing the proscenium in unconventional spaces and bringing the audience closer to the action.”
Now in the midst of its eighth production, Chalk Repertory Theatre is well on its way to fulfilling its mission to be “intimate, relevant, and accessible.” And the company is back at the cemetery with the West Coast premiere of Slither, a history of women and their theological as well as secular relationship with snakes.
Intertwined stories follow first woman Eve, a Cretan priestess, a snake-handling preacher’s wife and a carnival snake dancer named Fanny Lou. The latter is portrayed by founding member Ellenberger, who describes her excitement about the production. “When you walk into a Chalk show you are going to experience an event. It’s not a passive experience. It is very inclusive. It is happening all around you. You are always a part of the environment. This particular play has several themes: religion, beginning of man, evolution of women. There is kind of a revival meeting feel to the play, so putting it in a cemetery lends itself to that.”
Playwright Carson Kreitzer has been examining historical themes of women and power for years. Her research took her to some unexpected places. “I became fascinated with carny snake dancers in the depression era. I had done a previous play called Freak Show and researched all kinds of abnormal shows in circuses and carnivals. The snake dancers absolutely fascinated me and that became the kernel of this new idea, which carried me into Slither.”
But far from exploiting the freakish nature of a relationship between women and snakes, Kreitzer is hoping audiences will be moved to see the historical straitjacket that has bound women for so long. “I want people to be talking about the play afterwards, weighing what they think rather than feeling they have come out with a message. I want people to be thinking about our history and how power changes and how things change over time. The world we are born into is not the only way the world works. This is right now. This is the way the power balance is right now. I certainly have been trying to figure out male-female relationships. I came in through the tail end of the “˜Free to be You and Me’ generation. The people I came up with at least knew we were supposed to be trying, knew we were supposed to be making it better. But I feel that the pendulum has swung rather disturbingly in the other direction — all this stuff about princess toys and girl-specific Legos.”
Though there are male actors in the play, Kreitzer is not penitent about giving the male characters some short shrift. “It is not a traditional play. There are a lot of protagonists. All these women’s stories are important. The men play multiple roles. And in the way that often female characters are portrayed simply as either good or bad, either Madonna or whore, there is a little artificial division going on with the male characters. It is something I could justify to myself. I am swimming upstream — we have so many centuries of the guy being the important one in the story.”
Slither started in Minneapolis, where Kreitzer had emigrated from eight years in New York City through a Jerome Fellowship that brought her to the city’s esteemed Playwrights’ Center. She became acquainted with Casey Stengl, artistic director of Minneapolis’ cutting-edge Eye of the Storm Theater and was invited to create an entry for the company’s Seed the Storm festival. She explains, “They were five- to 10-minute ideas. Rather than having a reading (it seems playwrights are offered nothing but readings) this was a chance to see a little piece of your play actually happen. After the seed festival, we decided we wanted to go ahead and do the full play. We applied for an NEA-TCG playwright residency grant and got it ““ that supported my life while writing the play and going to all the rehearsals and being a constant part of building that first production.”
The 2003 production was extremely successful. When Stangl dissolved the Minneapolis theater and moved to Los Angeles, she looked for a place to continue working on Slither. But she more immediately became involved in other projects, beginning in 2005 with Barbra’s Wedding at the Falcon Theatre. She gradually built a career here that included such recent highlights as the West Coast premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play at South Coast Repertory in 2010 and last year’s double-cast musical version of Noel Coward’s Peace in Our Time for Antaeus.
At the same time, she was a friend of Chalk founding member Larissa Kokernot, and when Chalk was created, Stangl knew she had found the right company for Slither. “I really love their commitment to both classic and new work, but more than that I love the non-traditional space aspect of the work. I thought Slither in particular would lend itself to this Hollywood Forever space.”
Kreitzer was immediately on board with the project, though other obligations made it impossible for her to be part of early rehearsals. She smiles as she says, “I can tell you I would not have been comfortable with anyone else playing around with and re-arranging my script while I was not there. But because it is Casey and we built the play up together, I felt very safe with these trusted compatriots and thrilled I could come out and be a part of the later work. A whole set of changes had to be made for this production in this space. Casey and the cast have been working and sending new ideas to me in Minneapolis.”
Stangl is very enthusiastic about the play’s place in the world of gender politics. “It’s about whoever is the victor gets to tell history. Women have often not come out on top, so visions of their stories have been told in a certain way. This is a sort of re-imagining of some iconic female figures, trying to upend the traditional idea of women and snakes being in combination and trying to open that up both to good and bad, fun and sexy and not shameful.”
Stangl was highly involved in the development of the piece. “I consider myself a dramaturg director. It’s one of my strengths. With new work I am most interested in finding historical connections. Carson is also a director herself and has a very theatrical mind. She has a good feel for the directorial process. We have a good rapport about being able to talk about what we think is working and what isn’t. It’s been a pretty easy collaboration.”
The biggest challenge was moving the play from a traditional proscenium theater to a large open space. “Certainly in this space, we are trying to make a virtue of what we had. We can’t do traditional exits and entrances with people suddenly appearing. We’re experimenting more with people being on stage almost the whole time ““ watching each other’s stories so it’s more overlapping and intertwining, which is definitely in the piece. We are doing even more of it than is written. Mainly, though, it has four fantastic roles for women. It’s very theatrical and alive. I love the idea of the gender politics re-telling the story, and it is just fun to collaborate with the actors on finding a way to find connection between characters.”
Kreitzer is pleased with the changes. “It’s a different piece environmentally. Mostly it’s been the order of things. In the play as written, we spend more time with two of the main characters and then switch to the other two. Casey felt that in this space we needed to do all four stories intertwined and I absolutely agreed.”Â So does she keep the changes for future productions or go back to the original? “That’s very interesting and something I am going to have to look at. In this version I am able to add some monologues for one of the characters.Â I wanted it in but wasn’t able to find a place. It is going to be very tempting to keep this version.”
Slither, presented by Chalk Repertory Theatre. Opens Feb. 10. Plays Fri-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 7 pm. Through March 4. (No performance Sun. Feb. 26.)Â Tickets: $20.Â Masonic Lodge, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood. www.chalkrep.com. 877-435-9849.
***All Slither production photos by Tom Ontiveros