Should a Red Riding Hood in drag accost you with music, song and dance at 5 a.m. on the streets of New Haven, have no fear. It’s just another Control Group performance.
The Control Group was born in fall 2000 from the ashes of a failed Sudler Fund theater project. Erik Johnson ’02 and Samantha Lazarus ’02 intended to do a multi-disciplinary version of “Alice in Wonderland,” but the show never made it into production. However, the ensemble cast Johnson and Lazarus had assembled discovered it enjoyed the unique and creative blend of various artistic disciplines it could generate as a team. The group stuck together and the Control Group was born.
“Control Group, as the name implies, really is experimental,” group member Meara Palmer-Young ’06 said. “We experiment with space, with text, with our bodies, with each other.”
Today, the three-year-old audition-based group continues to challenge theater audiences to broaden their definitions of what “performance” is. The group of 12 is composed of writers, dancers, actors and musicians, but their shows usually feature everyone doing a bit of everything, artistic director Raphi Soifer ’04 said.
“One of the values of this kind of thing — it allows us to come at art from very different perspectives to create a synthesis of various art forms. It gives us the ability to come back to respective art forms with a new sense of creativity,” new tap Jacob Brogan ’05 said.
“One of the advantages of Control Group is that as Yale’s only theater ensemble, we’re going to stick together for longer than the duration of just one show,” new tap Chad Callaghan ’07 said. “Our shows are collaborative, so every show is a new show. It’s a really democratic process. While most of the theater at Yale is very traditional — [where participants are told] ‘This is the play, this is the script, this is the product we’re going for’ — in Control Group the rehearsals are organic. We use a variety of techniques to get us in the right vein for whatever we are going to create.”
Control Group rehearsals involve the Suzuki and Viewpoints techniques. According to Soifer, the Suzuki technique was created in the 1960s by the eponymous Japanese director in response to the question, “How can we create theater in a post-atomic age?” The technique involves a series of positions — from crouching to being thrown off-balance, for example — that trigger a series of emotions in the actor.
“I’ve actually seen people break down in tears during exercises,” Soifer said.
Soifer described the Viewpoints technique, developed by famed director Anne Bogart, as “responding to the physical and the visceral. It’s about yourself as an individual and how you work as an individual in an ensemble.” Control Group is currently the only theater ensemble on campus that offers any sort of study in physical theater methods. Soifer said he plans to offer workshop classes to all interested Yale students in the future.
The group also does text-based work once a week, in which members prepare a piece of text before coming to rehearsal. They are then directed to incorporate random elements, such as “blood” or “fabric,” into the presentation of the scene.
While all of these techniques may sound freaky and bizarre, Control Group members hope to dispel this popular impression of “experimental theater” and “performance art.”
“People tend to look at experimental theater as weird, crazy, pretentious artistic stuff,” Callaghan said. “For example, I was telling one of my friends about Control Group, and she asked me, ‘Are you going to do that thing where you come out of the womb?’ Physical theater can be pretentious. Pretension is one of the things I hate the most. But Control Group isn’t trying to prove something with the ‘ideal art form.’ We ask, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to tell this story in a way that will surprise and delight people?’ It’s not about pushing motives on people, it’s just about asking, ‘Isn’t this a new and interesting way of telling this story?'”
“With the label ‘performance art’ — you think of defecation onstage or random public nudity. It’s a label that’s both wonderful and ill-fitting [for us],” Brogan said. “Performance art is really about finding ways to synthesize art — to interrogate what art is and what art does — what it can do for the audience, what can it do for us as creators?”
The uniqueness of Control Group appeals to many artists seeking ways to expand their creative methods.
“There is a wonderful theater program at Yale, but Control Group allows the exploration of possibilities you just don’t find in conventional work,” Brogan said. “I do ‘straight’ theater here, but I also like the opportunity to explore people, the ways they interact and create.”
“We want to keep pushing the boundaries of conventional theater,” Soifer said, “to see how ‘out there’ we can be.”
Sometimes “pushing the boundaries” means literally breaking through the walls of an enclosed theater space and turning theater productions out onto the street.
“Control Group is rather itinerant,” Soifer said. “We’ve recently been working with site-specific theater.”
Last spring, the group did a revamped version of Little Red Riding Hood, “She Looks Good in Red,” that took audiences on a whirlwind journey to “Grandmother’s House.” Julia Holleman ’05 said she remembers singing a musical number in the parking lot of Miso’s as the waitstaff and diners alike poured out to listen and watch.
In this Control Group performance, however, people were not only welcome to watch the performance, but they also were invited to actually join along with the group as they traveled.
“Our goal is to get audiences actively involved,” Soifer said. “During ‘She Looks Good in Red,’ we would be singing in an abandoned parking lot, and people would be on their way to work at 5:30 a.m. They’d ask, ‘what are you doing?’ and we’d say, ‘We’re on our way to Grandma’s house; come with us!’ And they’d actually drop their stuff and tag along.”
The group anticipates performing a Halloween-themed show.
“It should be scary and engaging in a surprising way,” Brogan said.
In early December, Soifer will be directing a new Control Group work based on the Gabriel Garcia Marquez text “Eyes of a Blue Dog.” The work will feature the theme of dreams.
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