CAN YOU START a conversation without words? Can you use your body to tell a story that transcends cultural divides and language barriers to foster dialogue about issues that are universal, affecting all humans living in all places? Big questions. But Thespian alums Peter Duncan Seifarth and Jess Bryant are trying to find out.

Witch is a 2017-18 Fulbright project by Peter Duncan Seifarth in collaboration with Danfe Theatre.

Witch is a 2017-18 Fulbright project by Peter Duncan Seifarth in collaboration with Danfe Theatre. Photo by Peter Duncan Seifarth.

Longtime collaborators, Seifarth and Bryant first met as high school students at Georgia’s Rabun Gap Nacoochee School, where they each discovered a love for clowning while participating in their school’s circus program. Both pursued B.F.A.s in physical theatre (think circus skills, mime, even dance) at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina.

Their first full-length, post-college production, The Great Invention, wowed the 2017 Cincinnati Fringe Festival, selling out to rave reviews and taking home a coveted Pick of the Fringe award. In the show, two clowns, portrayed by Bryant and Seifarth, scrape together a miserable life from the trash of an urban wasteland. The play uses darkness, quiet, and a smattering of odd props and strange gibberish to guide its audience on an emotional journey through frustration, despair, loneliness, connection, and love. Clowning, when done well, will break your heart, cracking open a tragedy to reveal the comedy and the humanity within.

Upon receiving a 2017-2018 Fulbright grant, Seifarth took his questions about cross-cultural storytelling to Nepal, where he directed the development of Witch, alongside Bryant and fellow theatre artist Roshan Mehta. Created in collaboration with Nepali theatre company Danfe Theatre, Witch is a nonverbal, physical theatre exploration of issues faced by women in Nepali culture that seeks to be accessible to people of all languages and cultures. Seifarth and Bryant hope to bring the production stateside.

Following a performance of The Great Invention in Cincinnati, and later from a café in Kathmandu, Seifarth and Bryant discussed their work.

Can you describe the research you’ve been doing for your Fulbright?
PETER DUNCAN SEIFARTH: The main question is twofold. First, can physical theatre be universal? Is it possible to make one show that, just by virtue of the fact of being human, you can understand it as well as someone in a different culture than yours? Second, can there also be complexity in this? Can you have a complex plot and nonverbally bring about complex issues and complex social structures? If physical theatre can be universal as well as complex, then it is a fantastic form of theatre for social change that can go across boundaries. Theatre cultivates empathy. You can step into the shoes of someone else. If this universal mode of theatre can be accessed more readily, then more people can step into the shoes of that character than otherwise would be able to if a production was in a language that was less accessible.

What drew you to physical theatre? 
JESS BRYANT: We like to do all kinds of stuff, but we’re especially drawn to this because it is what we grew up doing. When we were in high school, we did the circus program, and what was cool about the circus program was the majority of it didn’t have any language. And each year, students — it was a student-driven thing — would create a show using circus. They didn’t use language, partly inspired by Cirque du Soleil, which also doesn’t use language, but also because there were a lot of international students. So it encouraged people who maybe weren’t even comfortable speaking English to participate and perform. We’ve locked into that and are inspired to continue that work, to create work that speaks to any audience of any cultural background of any language.

PDS: That’s why we speak in gibberish with the shows, because we want to be able to perform it in Italy and America or in Nepal and people still can connect with it and understand. That’s what it comes down to. I like physicalized theatre because of the communication possibilities.

JB: It can bring people together. I love theatre that can bring people together who once had nothing in common. But once you’re in the room and you feel this energy, everyone is coming together and feeling the same thing. It’s a beautiful feeling, especially when there are people who don’t speak the same language in the same room.

Why clowning? What drew you to clowning?
PDS: I feel like people may think it’s just slapstick essentially, but there’s so much truth in clowning. I use it in everything. It taught me how to breathe. It taught me how to let things happen. And it taught me that if you don’t know what’s happening that’s okay and to stay with it. The audience is right with you. If you don’t know what’s happening and the audience doesn’t know what’s happening, then you’re both together, not knowing what’s happening. Then you figure out what’s happening, eventually.

JB: Clowning is so sad. From the tragedy comes the comedy. It sneaks up on people. You’re laughing, laughing, and then there will be a real moment. It surprises people.

PDS: I think all that boils down to truth. Comedy is pain and truth. You have to have pain, and you have to have truth. When you’re laughing uncontrollably, it’s because of that. It’s because there is something innately painful about what’s being said but completely true.

Watching The Great Invention, the light seemed like a character in the show.
PDS: That’s a huge thing that we, as artists, play with a lot: objects and the relationship with an object. And essentially, the light is an object. It’s a personified thing. So, anything that’s personified, we love to play with.

JB: To make [The Great Invention] we locked ourselves in a room with the objects, and we exhausted all the possibilities with each object until we found a whole bunch of images we liked. The entire story is built around the images we found with these objects.

PDS: As opposed to writing out, “I want this story,” we first go by image. We say, “That looks interesting. What do I gain from this image? What kind of ideas am I getting?”

JB: What story is this already telling?

PDS: Not “What story are we telling it to be?” … And then we have the job of tying it all together.

How do you figure out what story a picture is telling you? 
PDS: I like getting lots of people to look at something. I’m not the type of creator who likes to stay with something by myself for a long time. I like to get all different types of people to see something and ask, “What do you see? What does this remind you of?”

JB: The whole thing happens organically. You’ll start doing something and then think, “Oh,” and it will naturally lead to something else. And then before you know it, you have a story. It sort of happens. It’s not something you sit back and think about necessarily.

Tell me about the work you’ve done in Nepal.
JB: The show [Witch] was the accumulation of some research we’ve been doing on nonverbal physical techniques, specifically. The entire show was nonverbal.

PDS: I began rehearsals by first asking the actors what social issues in Nepal they wanted to address. And the issues were primarily related to women, specifically suicide. Female suicide is extremely high. I believe it makes up 16 percent of all deaths of women in reproductive age. It’s a big issue. Suicide is also a big taboo. The show’s aim was to tackle complex issues using forum theatre as a model. 

After each show we would have a forum or a talkback so we could discuss the issues, but the real research with the show is: can this be done nonverbally? If we can make a show that is nonverbal, then that can perhaps reach broader audiences. Nepal has an extremely diverse culture. More than 120 languages are spoken in Nepal as mother tongues. That’s why I’m doing my research here. It’s a great landscape to experience theatre that can be universal.

Can you describe how the interviews with audience members happen? What have you learned?
PDS: It’s qualitative research. All of the research is primarily based around interviews.

JB: We have several people we’ve sat down with one-on-one, and we usually record them. And hopefully, we have someone translate if they don’t speak English. For the show itself, we did the forum afterward, so that was a way to sit down and primarily discuss the social issues. We found in the forum that there were no questions about the plot of the show. People saw it and immediately understood it and went into discussing the issues.

PDS: There was a lot of rich discussion. There were a lot of opposing opinions on the matter, and after every show there were great discussions. We were successful in the universality. But of course, this is an experiment. We need to bring this show to as many places as possible and test its limits — to see if it can be understood.

In rehearsals, is there a language barrier between you and your cast? How do you handle that?
JB: There is a language barrier, but what makes the work great is a lot of it is show and tell. We will demonstrate something, but then the people will start to catch on to what the idea is.

How did you develop the show?
PDS: It was completely devised. There was no script. I wanted to gauge what the actors wanted to address about social issues. Once that was established, the creation was based primarily through improvisation. We would sift through those improvisations to find the diamond in the rough, so to speak. As a director, I gave a restriction to the company: You can only use holiday lights. All the props, all the lights, anything that the actor wanted to have, had to be created through the holiday lights. This was the thread that connected everything. We had the lights be flowers. We had the lights be a house. We had the lights be a door. We had the lights be a baby. I could go on and on.

Peter Duncan Seifarth and Jessica Leigh Bryant in The Great Invention. Photo by Jeff Burkle.

Light seems to be important in your work. Can you talk a little bit about that?
PDS: Light is important in any show. With both The Great Invention and Witch, it’s playing with practical light.

JB: The light sort of becomes a character.

PDS: The practicality of light — not only as a tool to illuminate the actors but also how it can be used as even more of a storytelling tool. It’s visually engaging for the audience to see light being used as opposed to it being a separate, secondary thing. Light is woven into the fabric of the story and the plot.

What was your first experience with theatre?
JB: This is a cliché answer, but it’s true: I was in a church pageant when I was three years old and I loved it, thought I was the star because I was an angel — just in the chorus, not Gabriel, just an angel. I stole the baby Jesus from the manger and left the choir of angels and walked down the aisle and showed everyone baby Jesus.

PDS: I did sports growing up. The moment where I decided to do theatre was my freshman year of high school. I had already signed up for cross country, but at this convention at the end of school they said if you’re interested in auditioning, stay here. So I could have gone to cross country, because I was signed up, but I decided, “You know what? Screw it.”

Your theatre company recently rebranded as Fermentation Theatre. What prompted that?
PDS: I grew up in a vineyard. It’s my family’s business. So we will both be taking over the vineyard and trying to have that be the headquarters of Fermentation Theatre. We will be based out of Young Harris, Georgia.

What are you hoping for in the next three to five years?
JB: I want to be a part of a community of artists that creates this type of work. And I want to be able to do it in a sustainable way that can support my livelihood. That’s a basic answer, but it’s true.

PDS: I would like to grow more and more as a physical theatre artist. I want to keep learning and growing. I want to continue to make theatre. That’s what I want to do — and to reach out to different communities and different people, bring people together. 

This story appeared in the August/September 2018 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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