“I ordered all our gas masks yesterday. i hope Homeland Security hasn’t flagged me,” says Blake Harris, director of Theater for the New South’s production of “Medea,” which opens the company’s 2012-13 season on Friday, Aug. 24, and runs through Sept. 2 at Tanner-Hill Gallery, located at 3069 Broad St.Founded last year, Theater for the New South is one of Chattanooga’s newest theater companies and certainly its youngest. At 28, founder and artistic director Mike Rudez is the old man of the company. He’s a Chattanooga native who graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in acting. After four years in New York as an active writer, actor and producer in the independent theater community, he moved back to Chattanooga in 2009.
“I wasn’t doing the theater I wanted to do up there,” he says. “So I asked, where can I make the art I want to make, to make a difference, to make an impact, to get known. I thought my background in experimental theater would fit in Chattanooga, with the alt scene developing.”
When he came back, he deliberately took a year off from art, because he wanted to learn what was going on rather than jump right in.
“There’s a lot more people than I thought working in theater for a city this size, and no one was doing the kind of theater that I wanted to do. I don’t like the term ‘avant garde’ but it’s more in that vein.”
A play like “Medea”—written in the fifth century B.C.—might seem like an odd choice for cutting-edge theater in 21st century Chattanooga, but Rudez sees Greek tragedies as a great way of getting to the mythic aspects of human existence.
“You can get rid of all the little things get in the way to a modern audience,” he says. “When all that excess is gone you get right to core of human emotions. In ‘Medea,’ the longing, the jealousy, the rage —that’s all there. That’s why I love Greek tragedy, That’s why I love Shakespeare.”
The Greeks definitely knew their rage. The ancient stories were Disney-fied just a touch in the 1963 adventure flick “Jason and the Argonauts,” where Medea is the princess babe who fell in love with Jason and helped him steal the Golden Fleece, a glittering sheepskin with godly mojo. The Greek playwright Euripides tells the rest of the story, in which Medea is later betrayed by Jason and takes her gruesome revenge.
“Instead of setting it in Greek times and wearing masks and being fully traditional with it, we chose to set it in time period that’s a little closer to us: 1930s dustbowl in middle America,” Rudez says. “Our Medea is in mental hospital on a military base. We did that because Medea is trapped, she’s suffocating both literally and metaphorically in the world she’s is in.”
This kind of twist is typical of Theater for the New South’s productions. According to Rudez, in every production so far, “we’ve taken a different spin than what is traditionally written.”
The company’s first season last year included “Woyczek,” a 19th century German play about a young soldier that dealt with poverty and class issues.
“We flipped it on its head and made it a comment on how the media feeds into stereotypes, creates them sometimes, certainly inflames them, particularly about homosexual men,” Rudez says.
The company’s second season also includes “Fat Men in Skirts,” described as grappling with “unspeakable taboos in the most hilarious of ways”; “Nora,” an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic “A Doll’s House”; and “Monster,” based on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”
Theater for the New South puts a premium on connecting with its audiences by making their creative process transparent.
“We don’t want to just put on a play, we want people to be part of a conversation,” says Megan Hollenbeck, marketing director and videographer for the company.
In last year’s “Rebecca Furiosa,” for example, on most nights audience talk-back sessions afterward ran longer than the one-hour show, according to Rudez. People had many questions, some technical, some philosophical.
“As an actor I’m used to people looking at a final product and taking away for themselves what they want,” offers Rudez. “But when you can look at the final product and then you can ask questions about it, then its a whole ‘nother animal for the performer. It holds you accountable in a lot of ways.”
For more information, visit theaterforthenewsouth.com.