Poetry readings and poetry slams can get pretty theatrical, but how do you use abstract poetry as a basis for creating theatre? That’s the question writer-director Conrad Alexandrowicz is exploring in House of X, which his company, Wild Excursions Performance, will be bringing to the Neanderthal Arts Festival this month.
House of X, in which archetypal stories are “tossed together like vegetables in a salad”, according to the festival’s press release, plays with language in a multitude of ways. The text is drawn from works by iconic Canadian experimental poet Erin Mouré, whose writing often fractures conventional syntax. Then there’s the language of the body: Alexandrowicz got his start as a dancer and choreographer, and most of his works are highly physical. Finally, there are lines like this one: “Serubma! Pliket vucuray prebalpat?” If that doesn’t scan for you, don’t fret: the language is an invented one.
“What I find really interesting is that in a scene where people are speaking this completely invented language, you can tell exactly what’s going on,” observes Alexandrowicz on the phone from Victoria, where he teaches in UVic’s theatre department. “A lot of people might disagree with this,” he continues, “but you could play the same movement between a series of characters, and anywhere in the world people would understand what’s going on, because of the expressive power of gestures and movement. It reveals how much of our communication is not based in actual language.”
Stylistically, Mouré’s work is a natural fit. “Erin is obsessed with language, how language is a sign system, and she’s read all those really difficult theorists that people read when they’re doing PhDs,” says Alexandrowicz, “but she’s totally down-to-earth and very unassuming.” One of Mouré’s books, Little Theatres, features an alter ego for the author named Elisa Sampedrin, who has become a character in House of X.
“There’s a whole section in Little Theatres called ‘Some Bits on Little Theatres’,” Alexandrowicz explains, “where Elisa Sampedrin is talking about what little theatres and [their] language are all about—proscenium and stage and actors. But what she’s really talking about is all the events in our lives that we turn into stories.”
The stories in House of X are archetypal, and each involves a triangular relationship that ends in murder. “And then interleaved between those three stories is this melodrama,” says Alexandrowicz, “where the writer is directing a director directing two actors.…who play a scene in complete gibberish.”
The play’s metatheatricality excites Alexandrowicz. “This is something that I’ve done lots of in the past; I really like putting performance in performance,” he says. “I’m fascinated by performance and the way that we are translating what we see into meaning in our heads all the time.”
Alexandrowicz is more established than most of the artists he’s sharing the bill with at the festival, now in its third year, but as a tireless experimenter, he welcomes the opportunity to premiere this work for an audience that’s prepared to take chances: “I am aware of the fact that as you go on practising your work, if you’re always exploring, you’re pushing further and further into the outer limits.”
He acknowledges that House of X is still very much at an exploratory stage. “This is a piece where I really am feeling my way through it,” he confides. “And I don’t know what the audience is going to make of it.”
But he appreciates the value of entertainment, too. “I like to make people laugh, and I’ve had a lot of success doing that,” he says. “I hope that it’s going to be funny, even though it’s very weird.”