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Spring 2001

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“Mad dog” theater unleashes dramatic energies

by Barbara A. Melville

     Here’s a footnote about Skidmore’s award-winning stage director Philip Soltanoff: he works barefoot. “My first rule of directing is ‘Take off your shoes and socks,’” he grins. “My second is ‘Never sit down.’”

     Drop in on a rehearsal in February, and there he is onstage, barefoot among his actors, spinning off shocks of energy you can almost feel. Dashing up the theater stairs to get a back-of-the-house view. Pelting back downstage to act out a scene. Doing a wicked, hand-waggling limbo that makes the kids laugh.

     He is directing Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real, a fantasy set in a mythical Latin American city of lost souls. Its fifty-six roles range from street riffraff to such cultural icons as poet Lord Byron, fabled lover Casanova, Marguerite from Dumas’s Camille, Don Quixote and his Esmeralda, even the big-nosed World War II cartoon Kilroy—but all aging, fading away in Williams’s existential limbo. Not one of these roles has yet been assigned to any of Soltanoff’s sixteen actors; first, he’ll “forge an ensemble.”

     “Actors like to intellectualize their roles, but I want to tap into their instincts,” he says. So he starts by putting his actors through athletic and improvisatory exercises based on those he learned from experimental director Anne Bogart. “They sweat, they get blisters—and they bring out something large in themselves.” For this show they also learn Latin dance, pop and African moves, visual motifs that will be woven into Soltanoff’s signature brand of movement theater. And they are encouraged to improvise: “Zach, I like what you’re doing with that,” Soltanoff calls, urging the cast to “leave one toe pointed and just spin around it with the other foot. Let’s try it again—we’re losing that sleazy charm.”

     “It would be easy to do a straight production of Camino Real, but I like to question what the playwright gives you, find ideas in rehearsal, ask the students to bring the world into it, and let all that shape the play,” says Soltanoff. That explains why Lord Byron will be played like aging Rolling Stones rocker Keith Richards, and why a briefly mentioned fiesta is turning into an MTV-style production number with Esmeralda taking a star turn à la Britney Spears.

     After earning a B.A. in drama at Ohio’s Kenyon College, Soltanoff beelined to New York City. A self-taught musician and composer, he put together a punk-rock version of the Jacobean Revenger’s Tragedy that brought him to Capital Repertory in Albany, and in 1984 to Skidmore, where Cap Rep actors taught acting. It was at Skidmore that he discovered directing: “It made sense to me. It synthesized my ideas about acting and music.” Over the years his Skidmore productions, ranging from Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth to David Rabe’s In the Boom Boom Room to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, have inspired regional theater critics to unfurl adjectives (“infectious,” “exhilarating,” “tautly put together, expertly staged, well acted”) and hang out superlatives (a Times Union reviewer declared flatly, “Skidmore is presenting the best current theater in the region—commercial, college, community or otherwise”).

     A 1986 production of American Buffalo at Saratoga’s Caffé Lena defined what he calls his “mad dog” approach to theater: “a lot of energy, in a small space, on a shoestring.” In the early ’90s, he began directing Act 1, the young second company at the nearby Williamstown summer theater festival. In 1996 he created to whom it may concern, a stylized action piece for Act 1 that went on to a New York City production. The Village Voice praised its “athletic ensemble of 12 actors portraying multitudes of regular people…and distilling myriad human interactions into endless loops.” Invited to present to whom at the 1997 Belgrade International Theater Festival, Soltanoff dubbed the hitherto nameless troupe Mad Dog.

     In Belgrade, he connected with kindred spirit Hanne Tierney, who soon opened “five myles,” an experimental performance space in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. Mad Dog moved in. In their first year, Tierney and Soltanoff produced Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a neighborhood talent show, and Peter Handke’s The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, which Soltanoff co-choreographed with Skidmore dance professor Debra Fernandez. Last May five myles won a Village Voice Off-Broadway award, or OBIE, for staging avant-garde productions “always masterfully crafted, driven by a generous spirit, and produced on a shoestring.”

     Nowadays Soltanoff teaches at Skidmore one semester a year, four days a week; the other three days belong to five myles. Summers, it’s the Williamstown festival. Splitting his time this way, observes theater department chair Gautam Dasgupta, “enables Phil to keep up with cutting-edge theater work and fuels the sense of artistic adventure that he brings to Skidmore—that radical spirit.”

     Two weeks later, that radical spirit is visibly burning in Soltanoff’s Camino cast. They move, think, and react together, an athletic unit—part Greek chorus, part Bob Fosse chorus line—that stays on its toes and trusts its gut. “He can throw anything at us—‘Do the Latin moves, do the African’—and we can react spontaneously, as an ensemble,” says Anthea Zervos ’02, the play’s Marguerite.

     For instance, when a street mob taunts Casanova, Soltanoff asks the mob to visualize itself as a pack of hyenas, falling back before the old lover’s rage then snapping at his heels when he turns away. On the next run-through, the crowd’s reactions are unsettlingly feral. Beams Soltanoff, “If you give them something exciting to do, they will show you what is exciting in it.”

     Camino is shaping up: the cast will wear tropical whites livened by distinctive items—a plumed hat, turquoise shoes—that the leads can pick up for their star turns and drop as they melt back into the ensemble. And there will be no “old” makeup for the young actors. Soltanoff won’t have that. Instead, “I ask them to express conditions and emotions—like aging, the decay of the body, the resilience of the heart—in a gesture.” How to play a fragile, aging Marguerite? “Move as if you’re walking on very thin ice,” Soltanoff tells Zervos.

     If Soltanoff has a third rule of directing, it would be “work at the edge of your capabilities and instincts.” Struck with the notion that a few of Kilroy’s lines could be played à la Marlon Brando in The Wild One, Soltanoff is onstage at once to demonstrate. He straddles a phantom motorcycle, revs it up, jiggling as the bike kicks in, and cocks his head arrogantly at Kilroy’s squeeze, Esmeralda, who hops on behind him, wrapping her arms around his neck.

     Isn’t that a hard act to follow? “You’d think so,” says Gardiner Comfort ’02, “but Phil brings you into it.” And sure enough, when Comfort plays it (a little more James Dean than Brando), he’s very into it, hopping that motorcycle as the cast behind him revs and jiggles on their own imaginary bikes. “Olé!” shouts Esmeralda from over his shoulder, and “Olé!” roars the cast. It’s a brilliant moment.

     Soltanoff works in that moment, says Zervos. “He’ll see someone improvise and say, ‘I like that. Let’s do that,’ so it’s always evolving. If you blink, you miss things. It’s fun, it’s exciting.”

     And that’s exactly what Soltanoff wants from theater. “There’s no reason to be afraid of performance. Young actors get so result-conscious, afraid to make mistakes. I tell them, ‘Hey, I expect you to screw it up in the beginning, so screw it up a lot!’ Theater’s not meant to be staid. It should dance a little.”

     With Soltanoff, it dances a lot. Barefoot.


Staff writer Barbara Melville was a newspaper arts-section editor before coming to Skidmore.


© 2001 Skidmore College