Matthew Earnest, guest director of past Hilberry productions Much Ado About Nothing and Marat/Sade, and his theatre company, The Lunar Stragem, are currently producing a play for the Berkshire Fringe Festival called Dead Letter Office. The production will be featuring third year actor, Topher Payne and over the next week we will chat with both Matthew and Topher about their experiences with the festival!
Tell us a bit about your production company, The Lunar Stratagem?
I co-founded the company with Nicole Perrone in 2011. I met Nicole when I was a guest director at Kent State University in 2008, the same year I met Samantha Rosentrater, a Hilberry alum. Nicole had recently landed a professorship in the Marshall University Theater Department in Huntington, WV, and realized that all the theater spaces there were dark in the summertime, and that there were many students, staff, and faculty members who would be interested in working with us. We decided we’d found the company and premiere all of our works there. Huntington is a remarkably inexpensive place to create a play, and WV is one of several culturally developing states in our country that doesn’t yet have a zillion groups vying for grants. It’s working out great. I’ve made many good friends there, our board is superb, the community is proud to have an organization like us trumpeting their name everywhere, and I really enjoy going down there once a year to work.
The mission of the company is to create new works that are inquisitive and innovative, as well as fun and intrinsically theatrical – they could not be screenplays or TV shows, but exist only as live theatrical events. We’re a touring company, which means we’re not built on the traditional regional theater model – plan a season, sell subscriptions, etc. The creation of new art is at the center of our organization, and we build one new piece a year, as I mentioned, and then tour the older ones as opportunities arise. We hope to create a body of work, pieces that are living things that mean something different to each time and place they’re presented in, like an orchestra will repeat a particular symphony over the years, or a painting will be exhibited at many museums far and wide. We like the inherent anthropology of the Theater, and we hope to increase empathy and promote discourse on a national and global scale.
The company is myself (I write and direct) and Nicole, who is a performer, and William Bezek, who is a stage designer and is also my partner. Check us out at thelunarstratagem.org.
Dead Letter Office is a prelude to Bartleby the Scrivener, a short story by Herman Melville…Can you tell us a little about the plot and what it was about this original tale that inspired your play?
I had wanted to work with Mr. Melville for a long time, and the company was not yet ready to tackle one of his large-scale works, so I took another look at Bartleby the Scrivener, which I had always loved. In the last lines of the story you learn that Bartleby once worked in a dead letter office. Something, the narrator reasons, must have occurred there to render him such a recluse, and so Dead Letter Office emerged as a poetic speculation about what that thing might have been. I composed the piece almost entirely with found letters, some by fancy people like Napoleon, some completely anonymous, like one by a 13 year-old girl that was found in a library book at a bus stop. The piece has ended up as an incredible mosaic of humankind from across the ages and around the world. It uses letter writing, the loss of it, as a metaphor for the end of the idealistic values of the Enlightenment and secular humanism. Three scholars, the employees of my dead letter office, struggle mightily to keep the lights on, and finally realize to their horror that their linguistic expertise and genius for things like geography and etymology, etc., are completely unnecessary in the world they now inhabit.
For me personally (and everyone will have a different opinion about what the play means), the piece is about the erasure of history as a result of an erosion of language, both written and spoken. It’s no secret that most of what we know of history comes from letters people wrote to each other. What will future generations know about us from evaporated emails and emoticons?
For sure. You know me, I don’t like plays where people sit on a sofa or stand around talking about their lives. My dad married an opera singer when I was 10, so I like exalted realities, singing, lots of complicated and stylized movement, poetry, blood and guts, that sort of thing. I actually think of DLO as a vaudeville – these three are such exuberant thinkers that sometimes all they can do is just start dancing. It’s pretty zany.
Having done DLO before, what are the challenges and benefits of doing it again? Do you have some new cast members and some veterans? How has the mixing and melding of the two different sides been?
I’ve toured theater productions my entire life, and it’s always a tough thing to do. Someone has a baby or goes off to an ashram in India, and you have to recast. I actually enjoy putting new people into the pieces – I always learn something about what we’ve done, and I always get a new perspective. Topher Payne is outstanding, as you know, and his 1000-watt energy is just perfect for this. The piece requires performers who haven’t forgotten how to be children, and our Topher is a shining example of that. And everyone in the company loves him, of course. He’s made some great new friends here.
Have you performed at the Berkshire festival before? How is the layout and performance schedule work for DLO?
Yes, I had a piece in the inaugural Berkshire Fringe in 2005. I was running a company called deep ellum ensemble, which I founded and ran for 12 years, and the piece was called the Josephine footnote. It was the middle piece in a trilogy I was creating about aftermath and reconstruction. The theater at the Daniel Arts Center is wonderful, absolutely state of the art and beautifully designed, and it sits in one of the most glorious regions of the country – the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Heaven in the summertime! Here’s a link with show information: http://berkshirefringe.org/show/dead-letter-office