Ghost Road’s Butterfly Emerges From Its Cocoon

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hristel Joy Johnson and Brian Weir in "The Bargain and the Butterfly." Photo by Patti McGuire.
Christel Joy Johnson and Brian Weir in “The Bargain and the Butterfly.” Photo by Patti McGuire.

What if an artist feels artistically stuck? And exhausted? No more ideas. What happens next?

These questions recently beleaguered Katharine Noon, co-founder and artistic director of the Ghost Road Company. Her questions led her to research a variety of prolific artists she admired in an attempt to understand how they approached the inspiration conundrum when creative wells ran dry. Enter Nathaniel Hawthorne and his short story The Artist of the Beautiful, published in 1846. Noon was inspired by Hawthorne’s story about artistry in the face of pragmatic onlookers and sought even further investigation into the concept of “artistic genius” in neuroscience.

Katherine Noon
Katherine Noon. Photo by Patti McGuire.

After nearly two years of asking the questions, looking for answers and intermittently developing the project, Ghost Road presents its premiere of The Bargain and the Butterfly at Artworks Theatre in Hollywood.

Drawing on Hawthorne’s characters, Bargain follows the tale of Annie, who seeks to restore the soul of her twin brother Owen — comatose since their birth. She recruits a glassblower to create a key piece needed for her project, all while feeling the undeniable pressure of time. Annie’s journey explores not only the challenges of an artistic process but also the fine line between creativity and madness.

“We tend to be good at creating language,” says Noon of her company’s process. “Physical as well as verbal language.” Since 1993, company founders Noon, Don Gordon, and Ferdinand Lewis (all graduates from California Institute of the Arts) have experimented with physical theater, taking inspiration from such physical-theater godfathers as Jerzy Grotowski and Rudolf Laban.

Twenty years of creating original works, most of them derived from working within the ensemble, has led Ghost Road to several critically acclaimed productions in Los Angeles and tour destinations such as San Francisco, Seattle, New York, the Edinburgh Fringe and Grotowski’s homeland of Poland. In fact, the ensemble has maintained a relationship with Studium Teatralne in Warsaw — a company that shares in its aesthetic of movement-based work. Ghost Road was invited back to Warsaw in July 2011 to participate in a residency program with the company, and it developed an early version of Bargain there.

According to Noon it has only been in the last six to seven years that the company has found its core creative team of performers and designers. Two of the designers, Cricket Myers (sound) and Maureen Weiss (production design), join Noon to discuss Bargain.

Cricket Myers. Photo by Patti McGuire
Cricket Myers. Photo by Patti McGuire.

The design for Bargain came after researching and workshopping to create the text and even after essentially staging the play. But in spite of the text and staging being in place, Noon still listens closely to what her designers bring to the table. “I like to come in with pretty clear ideas,” says Noon. “But I know whatever I come up with will not be as good as what [designers] can.”

Myers appreciates the attention paid to sound in the gestation of all Ghost Road projects. “They tend to put a lot of ideas for sound in their script,” she says. “Which really helps.”

“Over the years sound has almost become another character [in our projects],” adds Noon.

A local performance last July presented a piece of Bargain as a work-in-progress. Both Myers and Weiss saw this preliminary effort before entering into the regular design process. The designers then added their voices to the work’s evolution. This is where company shorthand between artists fostered a smooth transition.

Myers and Noon agree that the broad ideas of what’s in the script — in the case of Bargain there are ticking of clocks, for example — can then be crafted and nuanced by Myers for performance.

Weiss is serving Bargain in the capacity of production design rather than set design alone — a role she had served in previous Ghost Road projects. She has been charged with creating everything visual except lighting and has found the creation of the set itself unusual, since the show has developed with the majority of the action already staged.

“The set has had to come with how they’re moving already,” says Weiss. “It’s been built around them and fit the blocking.”

Maureen Weiss. Photo by Mark Seldis
Maureen Weiss. Photo by Mark Seldis.

“Maureen tends to throw in obstacles in her design,” says Noon, describing what she likes about the designer’s work. “Actors have to learn to work through it.”

But the finished product is only part of the artistic satisfaction for Weiss, who says the discovery and rehearsal process itself provides some of the most fulfilling work. It also reflects the added benefit one expects from creative relationships fueled with mutual respect.

“We can have long conversations that can be uncomfortable about the work”¦because we both tend to come in saying “˜I don’t know [the answers]’,” says Weiss. “[Conversations] about why this piece and why now. It’s not necessarily always about visuals.”

An ensemble-driven piece, Bargain takes cues not only from Hawthorne’s text but deeper research by the company in areas such as neurology and psychology — particularly a documented phenomenon of the human brain that traces the same genetic code irregularity in both schizophrenics and individuals described as “highly creative.”

Myers cites a comfort level that comes with her tenure at Ghost Road as a designer.

“[At Ghost Road] I can come and take risks and try things I’ve never tried before”¦push myself artistically,” says Myers. “There’s a level of trust from the group now. All of us are about playing together without fear of failure.”

Each artist carves her own path while contributing to the whole. Noon describes her personal process with Bargain as one of “letting go of control,” following impulses and allowing the work to get “messy.” And beyond that, there have been discoveries that will possibly cross over into new work yet to come.

“[I’ve learned about] being aware of what something is,” says Noon. “Allowing something to become what it wants to become rather than trying to form it into something it doesn’t want to be.”

Christel Joy Johnson and Brian Weir
Brian Weir and Christel Joy Johnson.

Particularly with Bargain, Weiss describes the world created as “out of control.” She has felt a designer’s urge to suppress and create order within. Noon, Myers and Weiss agree that Bargain has evolved into a production with a rich inner life reflected in its design. They also describe the storytelling as “surreal and gritty” but with humor.

Add actor performances from the company that both Noon and Weiss describe as “raw”,  and all three are looking forward to how the piece will come together in the final days of tech. They suggest the involvement of design in the evolution of any script makes a tech rehearsal easier, because all the players come with a mutual understanding of what’s to be accomplished. They’ve already had conversations about “why.” That’s the way Noon believes it should be.

“In a perfect world designers are part of the creative process,” says Noon. “But sometimes that’s just not practical in the real world” — because of  financial and time limitations. Designers must usually balance several projects to keep afloat, and development time can be limited. And small theaters operate with budget constraints.

Myers and Weiss agree Los Angeles 99-seat theaters can be a challenging place for designers with tight financial resources. But they sometimes find bigger challenges from producers who may not necessarily understand how design best fits into a creative process. Design does not simply mean building flats for actors to walk in front of, dresses to wear or the sound of a perfectly timed rainstorm. Designers bring artistic insight.

Christel Joy Johnson and Brian Weir.
Christel Joy Johnson and Brian Weir.

In fact, Weiss, who teaches in the theater department at Loyola Marymount University, has pulled back from most scenic design gigs in Los Angeles, working very selectively. “I really work only with Ghost Road,” says Weiss. “I do this because I love it and because I’m really trying to say something. I feel I can do that only with Ghost Road.”

Myers, a household name in many small- and midsize-theater circles, has not only won multiple awards for her work but continues to juggle projects at several theaters of all sizes throughout the year. She agrees partially with Weiss.

“I agree 99-seat [theater] can be brutal for designers,” says Myers. “And it’s easier for sound [design] where I can keep equipment in my garage to work around budget shortfalls”¦.But there are some 99-seat companies that are the places where artistically I feel most at home”¦where at other [larger houses] I can feel more like a technician.”

What’s clear from Noon, Myers and Weiss is that their design conversation continues as the show approaches its opening. Each does her part to make that conversation constructive and continue the tradition of the Ghost Road process.

“I think it’s a product of the colleges teaching [theater production],” adds Myers. “Teaching that designers are an important part of the team.”

“And that’s what I tell my students,” Weiss confirms.

Noon finds many positives in the assets of creating in Los Angeles and has fit Ghost Road’s production model to the city’s resources.

Doug Sutherland, Christel Joy Johnson and Brian Weir.
Doug Sutherland, Christel Joy Johnson and Brian Weir.

We’ve come to see LA as a great place to have a laboratory. The talent is extraordinary,” says Noon. “But we don’t produce very often”¦we create work here and then tour it.”

Following its premiere at Artworks, Bargain is set to tour Poland in October. Next year, the company will tour Bargain as well as previous productions: Stranger Things (2012), Elektra (2009) and Orestes Remembered (2009).

So did the question of feeling artistically barren ever get answered? What is the show really about now?

“It’s about motherhood,” Weiss offers. “About desperately wanting someone to come back to life.”

“It’s the kind of weird that makes you think for a long time,” Myers says.

No matter what your answer, Ghost Road endeavors to engage all the senses at once to find it.

The Bargain and the Butterfly presented by Ghost Road Company. Artworks Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood 90038. Opens Tuesday. Tue-Sat 8 pm,  Sun 7 pm. Through Apr. 7. Tickets: $25. www.ghostroad.org. 310-281-8341.

**All The Bargain and the Butterfly production photos courtesy of Ghost Road Company.

Amy Tofte

Amy Tofte