Organic storytelling: Building theater from the body up

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Siân Richards and Kara McLane Burke play twins Pip and Twig on an epic sea adventure, a melding of physical theater, creative collaboration and collage-like organic storytelling. Publicity photo. Siân Richards and Kara McLane Burke play twins Pip and Twig on an epic sea adventure, a melding of physical theater, creative collaboration and collage-like organic storytelling. Publicity photo.

When you think of storytelling, you might imagine your animated girlfriend gesticulating over Sunday brunch or a kindly grandfather telling the kids to gather ’round.

But for Siân Richards and Kara McLane Burke, stories begin in the body.

“You just kind of start somewhere and give yourself rules, a series of assignments, even if you can’t see where you’re going,” Richards said.

Richards and Burke are the creators and performers of The Convolutions of Pip and Twig, developed with help from their theater collective Performers Exchange Project (PEP), and presented by The Hamner Theater.

“The idea [for Pip and Twig] came mostly from Kara and I wanting to work together,” Richards said. “It was less of a lightning bolt of inspiration than the impetus to make a piece of work.”

“Siân and I are similar in coloring but that’s about it,” Burke said. “We went with the idea that we look similar and had kind of a weird collection of things, images of twins and interesting stories about them. We were inspired by musical theater and vaudeville and learned to tap dance as best we could.”

Pip and Twig’s origin follows the tradition of corporeal mime, in which actors’ physicality inspires choreographed performances that give each theatrical element, from words to visuals to movement, equal importance.

The plot, Richards said, began with the development of a specific physical score onto which they layered text, music and eventually stage elements like lighting and scenery.

“I studied theater at VCU, but finding direction from the emotional and psychological perspective was always a stumbling block for me,” Richards said.

When she was invited to join the physical theater troupe Theater du Jour by fellow thespian Martha Mendenhall, she found “a logical direction for me to approach it from.”

Burke, a JMU grad, found similar freedom in the practice. “Many years ago, I was traveling and seeing European ensemble work at the Fringe Festival that blew my mind about what theater could be.”

Mendenhall, a member of the theater company Foolery and the director of Pip and Twig, founded PEP with Richards, Burke, and fellow thespians Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell and Doreen Bechtol Scheidler in 2005. Along with Live Arts, they hosted the Dah Theatre Research Centre of Belgrade Serbia in Charlottesville and Staunton for an exchange of workshops, performances and lectures.

They envisioned PEP as a touch point for exchanges between international visitors and community members. Eventually friends-of-friends and members of Foolery joined, and the collective organized Charlottesville arts carnivals Wunderkammer and Shentai, along with original works.

All PEP performances have been a product of place and local players. The Convolutions of Pip and Twig is no exception, with Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell contributing the text and Jim Waive writing the show’s music and lyrics.

The co-creators said their biggest surprises came from putting everything together. Practiced movements and layers of sense details have been filtered and sculpted through chance and many creative minds, a sort of living collage lifted from its community. And though the instigators have thoughts about exactly what plays out on stage, “people seeing it could have a very different perspective.”

Catch The Convolution of Pip and Twig on December 10-14 at Round Room Dance Studio in The Old Michie Building, and again at Live Arts in February.