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By Stephanie Serna, Sep 30 2016 06:54PM

When I arrived at Theatrum Elysium San Pedro Repertory’s back alley entrance, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. I came upon a closed wrought iron gate with two young men behind it in a concrete courtyard. They were setting up a table with snacks, one had a small dog tagging behind him. “Is this the theater?” I inquired. The dog ran forward to greet me through the gate slat. “Yes,” the dog owner said, “Doors open soon -- at 7:30.” As I left to find a suitable distraction for those 10 minutes I wondered: Is this the place I’ve been hearing about that hosts ‘that powerfully moving play’ – Joan of Arc?


When I finally did enter the space at the allotted time, I was one of three audience members greeted by nine cast members who guided us with care to the limited seating area that seemed more like part of the set. A dramatically lit exposed brick wall stood before us as a young woman sat hunched on the floor in a pool of diffused light. This IS becoming intriguing… But, what happened after that was, as Laura Linda Bradley, Joan of Arc’s choreographer described, “an experience that shoots you like a roller coaster from the beginning and doesn’t really let you go.”


Just as you would never want to read while on an exciting ride, so too written references in the play’s program would have taken the audience member out of the moment as a participant and landed them on the outer floor as a mere observer. That was director, Aaron Ganz’s reasoning. He chose not to include the song list or scene references in the program. “I didn’t want people to focus on the literal or to be constantly referring to their program. This piece requires you to stay connected.”


The French Connection:

“When you don’t have to understand the words perfectly, you have to start listening in a different way – and what are you listening to?” As play conceiver, Aaron made the choice to have Joan of Arc speak only French. He likened it to watching a foreign film or opera when you stop waiting for words to find you and “look into the eyes to find the river of human connection between.” He states, “When we don’t understand the words perfectly, we start to access the truest parts of the moment” He says he loves his audience just the way they are – French speaking or not – and believes they will disappear into theatrical faith. “I want them to be listening into Joan’s eyes and into her soul. The French is very acceptable because Paris is Joan in the moment.”


If ever I imagined a Joan of Arc in all her strength and vulnerability – driven by the glory of other-wordly inspiration and retracted by the pain of human doubt and fear – she was indeed embodied by Paris Langle in this production. It wasn’t because she looked the part, seemingly 14 years old although 27, small framed but strong and moving with force, but rather it was the connection she made with us as the audience when she looked into our eyes as though we were God – looking to us for comfort yet questioning. This was the direction she was given by Aaron – and she succeeded.


“I felt like I was born to play this part,” she told me. Her connections to Joan did seem a bit uncanny. She grew up a missionary child, traveling the world. She first visited Paris was when she was 6 months old and returned 9 times. She grew up speaking French. When she was 12 years old (about Joan’s “chosen” age), her mother had her extensively study Joan of Arc in homeschooling. She became deeply invested in Joan’s faith and sacrifice. It impacted her and carried her through adulthood. “For some reason she is in my soul.”

And soul is what she gives her audience – through body and emotion.


The Execution:

Aaron chose to place much of the play in the moment of the jail cell, after Joan confesses and no one hears from her. It is a time when nothing was written historically. And it was after those three days she recants her confession. “It left me permission as an artist to wonder what happened to her during those three days when she was left alone hearing the echoes of her confession. That such a high person of faith is left at such a level of emptiness was such a beautiful level of the unknown.” And yet what is known is the outcome – she gets burned at the stake and “never cries in pain but softly utters God’s words.”

The execution of the beautiful unknown is what this play is about. It was the seamless weaving of artistic elements that made its beauty shine. Two of the golden threads in the play’s tapestry are the music and choreography. Aaron chose much of the richly familiar yet obscurely arranged music recordings while Laura Linda Bradley conducted the passionate movement. Although classically trained, it was after she studied with Mia Michaels that she fell in love with contemporary dance. Laura describes it as, “… full body expression. It’s such a deeper level of performing than just steps. It is storytelling with the body.”

Surprisingly, many of the Repertory’s actors have had very little dance training, except for Paris who has an extensive ballet background. Laura attributes the performers’ powerful fluidity of movement to their fearless artistry. “We pushed the dancers to their limits and had them doing crazy lifts and fully exploring and playing in the space.”

I would describe their movement as the dynamic momentum of the well-crafted roller coaster.


FAITH:

“Faith is one of the largest connective tissues of the human experience. We all live and die and exist by our definition of faith, by our surrendering to and fighting for faith. It’s not always about religion. It’s sometimes an artistic faith, a faith in family, or faith in oneself or the good in the world,” Aaron articulately states as one of his main reasons for choosing to interpret Joan of Arc. Also, he attributes his being reared by his strong, tenacious, hard-working single mother, to the fact that he has always been attracted to strong women in stories, “But I feel that most of the time they are represented with a gloss.” It is faith and the search beneath the gloss that led Aaron to found Theatrum Elysium (Greek for “Theater of Paradise”)


The Company began in 2011 in a community center attached to a church in La Crescenta fondly referred to as the “cafe-gym-itorium”. It is where he and his initial company of actors began to do creative conventional work in an unconventional space.


“We found that (the space) was the defining qualities of us – that we didn’t need a permission to start, didn’t need something to be refined or glossed in order for it to look right.” It was during that time they realized that because life is complex and textured, the work they wanted to do was raw and textured.


Two years later, when the building was being sold out from under them, they went on a search anywhere and everywhere to find a new home. They discovered San Pedro. “When we drove down 7th street and saw all the art galleries and walked through the space and came out the other end and saw The Little Fish Theater Company we just felt like it was miraculous! What is this place? With a block of beautiful galleries, restaurants and bars!”


It was then that Theatrum Elysium – San Pedro Repertory – was formed. The community welcomed them with excitement but they felt like they still needed to define who they were and make a name for themselves. They took over a smaller space than the one in La Crescenta. But again, they felt the excitement of “what stories can come out of this?” They spent the next few months renovating the space. They found it had many interesting raw elements –the beautiful exposed red brick and a wonderful concrete floor under the initial green carpet. “Again, we saw that it had so many tastes and textures.” It ending up serving as a Henry Higgins study on the inside and the street of New York for Liza Doolittle on the outside, for Wouldn’t it Be Lovely. It also served as a gallery space for The Lady of Shalott.


The Repertory’s excitement grew as they became permanent residents. “We feel like we are exactly where we should be. There is an energy of people here who are genuinely betting on the fact that with quality and open heart, San Pedro is going to continue moving in a forward direction. It feels like San Pedro is betting on us, and we are betting on San Pedro.”


All it takes is a little faith.


Joan of Arc premiered in September 2015 and had an extended run through the beginning of 2016.

For more information on TESPR’s classes and performances: http://www.theatrumelysium.org/


This is extended version of the article published in Random Lengths News in the October 1-14 issue.