“Dad. The Dog. The Roof.” experiments with story at the St. Andrews Center
Embrace the opportunity to experience new work born from simple scraps of cut-up paper. Director Blake Harris is visiting Chattanooga from his recent West Coast post at California Institute of the Arts. His idea was to reunite with old friends and former colleagues from his days as director of Theater for the New South to workshop experiments for a future large-scale production exploring JonBenet Ramsey and the concept of the house as both structure and metaphor.
Harris thrives on experimentation, especially as he’s moved away from linear storytelling in favor of the pure musicality of words on a page. In the case of his current project, “Dad. The Dog. The Roof.,” set to premier on Sep. 3 at the St. Andrews Center, the words are from pages of stream-of-consciousness essays about “home,” each written by Blake’s cast, then cut into strips, evoking William Burroughs’ cut-up method.
“I collaged interesting phrases from the pieces,” Harris says. “The resulting abstractions turned into a kind of working script to be ‘physicalized’ as we rehearse together, abstracting from the abstractions, solidifying our ideas about the home as a container of emotions and ritual.”
Harris describes the rehearsal process for this piece as an evolving journey. Later iterations will incorporate ideas sampled from the brains of some of his favorite Chattanooga collaborators, and the flavor of the city itself. Actors Emanuel Clark, Grace Holtz and Madeleine Young all know Harris from his TFNS days, and bring a unique sense of flexibility and intuition to the project, inviting innovation. Friendships he formed during his undergrad days at UTC (women/gender studies major, theater minor) continue to inspire the work he’s engaging in in California.
Harris planned to stage “The Dad. The Dog. The Roof.” at AVA Gallery. For this work centering on ideas of house and home, he thought the gallery’s simple interior, stark white walls and rustic wood floor would provide ideal, minimal distraction.
“I noticed that the large window provides its own editing within the gallery itself,” he says. “The frame creates a forced point of view and also the room’s main source of illumination. It’s slightly raised in the room as well, which begs the eye to anticipate performance. AVA would play the role of home in a kind of non-traditional collaboration between the actors and the space itself.”
While Harris greatly respects AVA’s work in the community and welcomed the chance to work with another friend from the Holmberg Arts Leadership Institute, Lauren Goforth, his rehearsal process influenced a change of venue. Harris explains the decision to perform the piece at the St. Andrews Center in Highland Park neighborhood in spite of its limited seating capacity:
“I felt the piece was taking on a life of its own in our rehearsal space, provided by Mercy Junction for Peace and Justice in the St. Andrews Center. It was a really difficult decision, but I had to ask myself what the most honest approach for this very intimate piece. The story became entangled with the ‘story’ of this room and it felt wrong to separate the two. Keeping yourself honest throughout the process is part of being an artist and you have to be willing to follow your impulse.”
And just what can the audience show up expecting to experience? Harris is running in a new direction these days, avoiding the usual pattern where a play’s narrative provides coherence. Instead, he has been riveted by the experiential.
“The show is pretty short, not over 45 minutes, and is meant to create an experience,” Harris says. “I basically thought about experiences I want to be having, and tried to evoke that type of scene. The show is like a love letter to the experience of home, with four people’s stories colliding—reshaped beyond recognition.”
If you’re a friend or fan of past productions of Theater for the New South, or simply know it by reputation, this is a kind of coda event not to be missed. Harris won’t have much time to bask in the glow of his hometown, however. He returns to California a couple of days after the premiere, but his month hiatus back in Chattanooga has been inspirational fodder for his performative collage of “home.”
“Dad. The Dog. The Roof.” 6, 7:15, 8:30 p.m. Sept. 3 only. St. Andrews Center, 1918 Union Ave. Free, but donations to benefit the Mercy Junction and Peace Center will be accepted at the door.