Patrick Cage ’14 looks at his hands, one wrist bedecked with bracelets of every color in a post-nuclear rainbow, and calls Control Group “the marzipan of theater companies.”
Charlie Polinger ’13 says, in an email he wrote to me five days after the close of the ninth show he’s directed at Yale, that Control Group is not afraid of messiness — it’s “really liberating.”
Josh Evans ’12 tells me, with his hands on his skinny-jean-encased knees and not a hair out of place, that Control Group enabled him to bring the vision in his mind to the page with the script he wrote earlier this year.
All of them say the group just wants to play.
Control Group is Yale’s only undergraduate experimental theater company. Popularly known for its departure from the conventions followed by most other Yale productions, the ensemble comprises 12 undergraduates who together design one major show and numerous ‘happenings’ each semester. Last weekend, they put up a production of “The Tempest,” their contribution to this semester’s Shakespeare at Yale festivities and a foray into the world of the conventional that most people, group members said, would never expect from them.
“I’ve heard that people who’ve never been to a Control Group show are afraid they’ll be, like, touched,” says co-director Charlotte McCurdy ’13. “People think we’re experimental theater with a capital E.”
That impression frustrates McCurdy, particularly because it ascribes to Control Group a number of priorities it just does not have.
“Audience confrontation is boring to us – it’s very ‘done,’” she argues, adding that the group is “not interested in having people take shits on stage.”
The way the group perceives itself is a little less typically radical. Evans, who has been a Control Group member since his first semester at Yale, describes the group as an ensemble that “can do things you can’t do production to production.” That includes, he explains, creating a lasting ethos and a process-based group work.
“I think a lot of outsiders are looking for the gimmick or asking, ‘what crazy thing will Control Group do this time?’ but we’re really just trying to put up an exciting, interesting show and use more experimental approaches as tools to build it,” says Polinger.
Zach Bell ’14, the company’s producer, says that though people outside Control Group see its process as mysterious, transgressive and even dangerous, once one is initiated in the group’s ways, “the mystery has been unmasked.” Prepare for some unmasking.
‘THE CONTROL GROUP MACHINE’
Calista Small ’14 ties back her hair, pulls her seat closer and begins to speak about her experience acting in nine ‘conventional’ Yale productions.
“All the rest of the theater at Yale is like ‘I’m an actor, gimme the costume, you do the lights, I’ll memorize the lines’ […] and that’s all you do,” she says.
For Small, that’s limiting. And according to McCurdy, that’s where Control Group comes in.
“We train twice a week [every semester] and build a shared vocabulary and style,” she explains. Together, they test and define what they want their ensemble to be.
McCurdy adds that, when Control Group puts up a show, each group member is involved in every part of the production process, from set design to acting recommendations, from tweaking the vision to suggesting spaces to work in.
“It’s not like there’s a clear cut writer or director or designer, etc,” Polinger says.
He went on to say that a more collaborative approach has given him the confidence to present more daring ideas that he, a former board member of the Yale Dramat, might otherwise fear people would disapprove of.
Helping members learn to do effective collaborative work is a key benefit of being in the Group, says McCurdy. That focus, she added, helps tackle the “frustrating” Yale pattern of productions being very much shaped by the visions of their directors.
Small said that Control Group members see each other twice a week and develop concepts from images and ideas their peers bring to rehearsals, as well as tropes that spontaneously arise through creative exercises.
McCurdy cites the example of one idea Small put out during a rehearsal exercise before “The Tempest” went up, a walking pattern that eventually came to be central to her portrayal of Miranda.
“It’s very hard to keep track,” adds McCurdy. “The best ideas are the ones where you can’t tell where your ownership ends and someone else’s begins — you just know that you were part of it, and believe it, but could not have come up with it without […] passing it through the Control Group machine.”
DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES: CONFLICT AND CREATIVITY
Having all of Control Group make decisions means that the process can be very democratic but, according to Bell, also challenging.
“Efficiency definitely suffers,” he says, comparing his experiences with Control Group to working on “Coriolanus” and “Macbeth,” and finding the latter more streamlined and to the point.
Inviting multiple contributions also results in a vast array of opinions. Since Control Group taps members on the basis of auditions at the beginning of the year, and selects them for their creativity more than their theatrical skill, says Bell, the group includes individuals who do not hail from theater backgrounds.
Small says that conflicts due to starkly different opinions on theater and how best to put up shows manifested themselves as Group members discussed how to stage “The Tempest.” Some members, she explains, were more invested in preserving parts of the original text, while others wanted to use images that would stick in audience members’ minds.
“Alex, for instance, is very much a traditionally trained actor, and we do not necessarily see eye to eye all the time,” says Bell, an art major. “But out of the conflict comes work that’s interesting.”
The eventual show was, Evans ventures, a qualified success.
Staged in the Payne Whitney gym, and featuring spools of VCR tape wound strategically to create Prospero’s world, the production left Control Group members thinking that they could have pushed boundaries more, given more time. But, Evans adds that Control Group sees self-critique as critically important.
THE WIDER THEATER SCENE
Evaluating their productions’ success may seem like, for some students in the Yale theater scene, one of the few (if any) practices both Control Group and other production teams have in common. The divide in focus between the two is palpable.
“I’ve put forward ideas in other shows and have people tell me to save them for Control Group,” says Small, who acts in conventional shows regularly.
McCurdy, who has been involved with the Dramat, says that Control Group is necessarily very different from other Yale theater, due to the emphasis it gives to process and unconventional theater spaces, such as hallways, stairwells and off-campus locations.
“I don’t think Control Group is part of the Yale theater scene if one exists,” Cage argues. “We’re in dialogue with it out of necessity, but Control Group operates so very differently.”
Still, McCurdy says that the group has increasingly included Theater Studies majors and students also involved in traditional theater over the last three years.
Meredith Davis ’13, president of the Dramat, says that she believes Control Group “provides truly experimental opportunities for actors as well as audiences to expand their definition of what theater and performances are.”
“[Our appeal] could be because Yale is so theoretical in its acting training, and so book-based,” McCurdy said. “There’s an interest in doing physical work.”
OUT OF THE GYM AND INTO THE FUTURE
With the focus Control Group places on the demands of its membership and charting the course they mutually agree on, it’s difficult to predict with any certainty where they’re going next.
Evans says that since his freshman year, he’s seen different sets of Control Group directors focus on everything from physical work, incorporating the Suzuki and Viewpoints techniques, to appropriating the intimate space of homes. Some things stayed the same, he adds — “Control Group has always had a big obsession with light.”
But “The Tempest” represented something different, say McCurdy and other group members. She explains that using a set text, what Bell called the “extreme […] structured” opposite of Control Group’s usual approach of transforming spaces, was a big development for the experimental theater company.
Now, Bell says, it’s possible that Control Group is at a turning point in its style of work.
“I’m not sure what that style will look like, but we’re starting to question our role in the theater community and what ideals the group stands for,” elaborates Bell. “That question is really important for me: what exactly is our big-picture goal?”
What will define that goal is unclear. Control Group is not, as McCurdy and Evans both say, shaped by what its audience wants.
“It’s not an unconcern, but it’s a subsidiary one,” Evans says. “Primarily, we’re doing this for the ensemble; it’s about doing something that’s important to us and that’s what’s interesting to the audience.”
Ideas are being tossed around: Small, for instance, wants to bring Control Group’s work to a broader audience in New Haven.
The most honest, accurate declaration of where the company will go comes from an offhand comment McCurdy lets slip when discussing the Group’s constantly shifting nature and vision: “this could, of course, all change in a year or two.”
And so it goes.
Contact Akbar Ahmed at