Written by Julia Stier
This year is off to a great start for Mat Diafos Sweeney. For starters, he is the recipient of the Center Theatre Group’s $10,000 Dorothy and Richard E. Sherwood Award. This prestigious award is given annually to an artist that brings innovative and adventurous theatre to Los Angeles – and as a director and composer for the avant-garde company Four Larks, Sweeney does just that.
Also this year, Sweeney and Four Larks brought to life a brand new adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to The Wallis. Below, Sweeney shares a bit about the work he does with Four Larks, and how they’re making their mark on the LA theatre scene.
What does winning the Center Theatre Groups’ Sherwood Award for 2020 mean to you?
It is motivating. This generous award will allow me to plant some creative seeds that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. I am very grateful to the Sherwoods and to CTG, most especially at this moment of uncertainty across the arts. Of course theatre is inherently collaborative, especially at the scale I typically work, so I’m always a lil bit shy to be singled out individually. Receiving the award is a testament to the many collaborators who have actualized all of my projects – of course Sebastian, and also Jesse Rasmussen who I work with on text, Max Baumgarten, who’s been developing the work as a performer since the beginning of Four Larks (most recently as the Creature in Frankenstein), Ellen Warkentine who often collaborates with me on music, to name just a few. Anyhow, this award will make it easier to get back in the room with these heroes ASAP, and for that I am floored.
You have been working with Four Larks’ creative producer Sebastian Peters-Lazaro for over ten years now. What do you believe each of you bring to the table creatively, and what do you bring out, or balance, in the other?
Sebastian is the most industrious person you will ever meet. I think there is a sort of steeliness that tempers coming up as self-producing artists, with an innate understanding of how the presentation of a work is essential to its creative integrity. Creatively, he has a supernatural ability to translate conceptual ideas into the selection and arrangement of objects (particularly in combination with artist Regan Baumgarten), and extends that same sensibility to our collaborations with staging and choreography. Four Larks’ work often operates like a machine with choreography, installation, music and tech all interwoven, and he manages to facilitate some of the mechanics in ways that my brain can barely calculate (most recently combined in force with stage manager Miranda Peters-Lazaro). In terms of balancing each other, we can actually work to tamp down one another’s predilection for maximalism – although you might not know it watching our work, there is a lot of restraint happening behind the scenes.
Four Larks is known for its innovative, site-specific productions, as well as its “junkyard operas.” Can you take us through what the latter means, and how it came to be Four Larks’ specialty?
‘Junkyard Opera’ was a genre I made up to describe the first Four Larks project. At the time we lived down the street from an actual junkyard, and at night we would raid its refuse for the contents of our set, constructed as a maze through our house and backyard. So it was very literally an opera assembled from the junkyard. Since then the term has hung around as a useful descriptor, gesturing at the element of assemblage that’s inherent to my work. We still primarily use found materials in the design and construction of all of our projects, but the ‘junkyard’ that we’re scavenging through is also an abstract, cultural one. We draw from disparate forms and styles, dig up pieces of mythology and history, patched together with new poetry and contrasting images and ideas. Each Four Larks project is an invited excavation- we want the audience to feel like they’re digging through the remnants of an ancient dream, repurposing and reimagining the treasures and talismans of lives lived before.
Using the label ‘opera’ indicates the importance of music in my work (although the word really just means ‘work of art’). My projects are all through-composed with the performers creating a live score, though our music is more closely related to folk and experimental pop than to the formal western classical tradition that the word ‘opera’ generally evokes.
The dichotomy between ‘junkyard’ and ‘opera’ intentionally nudges at a high-art/low-art subversion. Our work is unabashedly conceptual, it’s “experimental,” it’s created for a hyper-engaged audience, but it’s also made from trash, totally ridiculous, and constructed to be experienced viscerally, with stupid physical comedy and sick beats. Legit opera is notoriously classist, whereas we only discriminate by taste. Leave your limousines at home plz.
What are some of the challenges that come along with site-specific theatre? What are the storytelling benefits?
I build every project around a specific site, even if the site is a theater (though we tend not to use ‘site-specific’ unless the content of the piece is intrinsically related to the location). Every space has an existing web of narratives ingrained in its architecture. I begin each project by mapping out how the form and content of the piece could reflect or embody the structure of the space. For example, with Katabasis, the audience, cast as worshippers of Persephone, traveled around the grounds and gardens of the Getty Villa in a circle reflective of the cyclical narrative of her death and rebirth. For Frankenstein, which we knew needed to be staged in a traditional proscenium, we thought of our audience as students in an anatomy theatre. My primary goal is to make sure that the audience is always essential to the conceptual construction – that the form of the piece makes their presence absolutely necessary.
There are obvious benefits to working in spaces properly equipped for theatrical performance, with built in sound and lighting, comfortable seats, control over the elements, etc, but those same luxuries can make it harder to immerse and activate an audience as fully as we could in an alternative space. In either setting, my job is to ensure that the space and concept are working together to best serve an audience. Every project has posed totally unique questions, and I learn from each one.
You have also had a lot of success in Australia. Have you noticed that different audiences respond better or differently to more experimental theatre?
Audiences in different cities? No, not really. Our projects have always drawn curious and adventurous souls, and they exist everywhere. I get the impression that the general base of theatre subscribers in LA is maybe more conservative than the one in Melbourne, but that’s never been the audience who comes out to see us anyways.
With the new challenges that have arisen out of the recent pandemic and subsequent act of many self-quarantining, what impact do you think this will have on art and creation moving forward?
These are strange days! We really have no idea what’s waiting for us on the other side of this. In this current mass hibernation people are already finding new ways to engage digitally, and that’s great(?) Maybe something useful will mutate out of those experiments. My practice has always centered around live interaction in public spaces, so I’m obviously hoping that this doesn’t permanently restrict the way that we congregate. Certainly we’ll all come out of this with a newfound appreciation for the ritual of experiencing things together in person.
More importantly, this pandemic is harshly illuminating some of the most obscene structural inequities in our society, and artists will have a responsibility to reshape and reimagine whatever world we find ourselves in after this has passed. It’s gonna be a big job.
Your adaptation of Frankenstein recently premiered at The Wallis. How did working with such an established company change or influence your production?
The Wallis was an excellent producing partner. Their Artistic Director Paul Crewes said from the outset that we should work with the same creative intent we always have, while taking full advantage of all of the resources of working at the Wallis. In many ways it was a wild experiment for all involved. We loved it.
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"FRANKENSTEIN will punch you in the gut… It’s a major work…it’s a play but also a concert, and at moments an opera, at others a musical and a dance piece…visually and aurally breathtaking and terrifying in equal measure…The lines between musician, actor, and dancer are blurred, if not erased entirely…Four Larks have found the darkness in their work…It's exciting to see a company break through” THANKS @kcrw / Anthony Byrnes ⚡️⚡️⚡️⚡️⚡️
Why Frankenstein, and why now?
The strange alchemy of Mary Shelley’s story, like all great myths, is that it somehow reflects whatever is weighing on the reader. For me the story served as a way to process the cultural history of America that’s led us into our current Trumpian nightmare. Victor Frankenstein’s self-aggrandizing act of creation became a metaphor for perverse American capitalism, inherently racist and misogynistic, which inevitably leads to dehumanizing technology, imperils the earth, and makes monsters out of all of us. The particularities of Mary Shelley’s language felt so potent that we decided to preserve it in our adaptation, fashioning a 200-year-old bludgeon to smash the patriarchy and eat the rich. (Can you use a bludgeon as cutlery? I say yes.)
Our Frankenstein opened at the Wallis last month and ran right up until all the theaters shut down. In the weeks since, the primary themes of our adaptation have become even more resonant. It’s about the effects of isolation on the mind- Victor’s choice to remove himself from society to pursue his experiment set in contrast to his Creature’s ostracization- and it’s also about the personal sacrifices we make to contribute to the greater good, and the horror that ensues when we choose not to. The ending section of our adaptation borrows passages from The Last Man, Shelley’s final novel, a sort of thematic twin to Frankenstein that describes the aftermath of a global pandemic. Somehow Shelley’s oeuvre is proving even more prescient than it did when we started, and I’m chomping to return to this project as soon as we’re allowed. (It’s still very much a living piece- I continued to make adjustments throughout the run at the Wallis and will revise it again in advance of the next production.)
What does the LA theatre scene mean to you? How do you hope to expand LA theatre?
The thrill of performance in LA is in its variegation. Because there is not a lot of infrastructure to support new work, performance here is necessarily driven by individual artists and consequently sort of anarchic. I’m thinking back on some of the most exciting things I’ve seen over the last couple years, to randomly shout out a few Anna Luisa Petrisko’s Vibration Group, Asher Hartman’s plays, Taisha Paggett’s WXPT, Ceaseless Fun, Annie Saunders/ Wilderness, Critical Mass, John Gilkey’s Idiots, Sharon Chohi Kim & Michaela Tobin’s operas, Mandy Kahn’s immersive poetry with Jodie Landau at the Philosophical Research Society, etc etc etc; all pieces/artists that don’t even remotely resemble one another in any way. I think LA theatre is at its best when it’s reaching across forms and reinventing its relationship to a live audience, and at its worst when it’s trying to fit an existing mold or production model that made sense in New York a century ago. LA is the future- our garden is wilder, vaster, and more diverse so it should be tended differently. Hopefully our institutions will continue to evolve and support accordingly.
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10/4! Our next collaboration with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra unfurls! 💙🧡💜 Maestro Derrick Spiva (L) programs a night of new music, staged around the gardens and courtyards of Hauser & Wirth in downtown LA. Visual accompaniment from the likes of Sheetal Gandhi (C), and guest musicians like Dimitris Mahlis on the oud (R), join the Orchestra for new music by Reena Esmail, Salina Fisher, Juan Pablo Contreras, Conor Brown and the world premiere of Derrick's The Body Overcome. Night of nights! Limited tix on sale now via @lachamberorchestra. 📸:@hellomikeamico at @hellobasicflowers 💜
What’s next for you?
Besides working towards the next production of Frankenstein, we’re preparing to premiere Hymns as soon as we can. It’s an intentionally joyful piece, collaged from ancient poetry celebrating the harmony of the earth and the power of collective action, so I think it’s going to be especially vital after this chapter. Of course it’s impossible to really plan anything currently. So, for now we quarantine until the moment it’s safe for everyone to come out, but after that we certainly won’t be wasting any time, ya hear?
At this stage in my life, I am…
…staying inside and washing my hands.
At this stage in my career, I am…