Alec Duffy Talks Secret Societies & Hoi Polloi’s New Show

Photo by Ryan Jensen

“I’m finding that with a lot of the Hoi Polloi original pieces, they’ve each kind of been an exploration of how we, as Americans, stage community,” said Alec Duffy. “How we come together extra-curricularly. That is, outside of work, outside of our family. What are the ways we meet and gather with other people, and how do we get along? So for example, there was the piece about a choir [The Less We Talk], in this kind of endless rehearsal, a sort of No Exit situation. Dysphoria was about members of a Buddhist community, trying to come together to find enlightenment. And this is an exploration of people who, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, in towns across America, come together and do these rituals, and have this path and do these initiation rites, and go the next day to their dentistry practice.”

Last week, after a brief trot through the rain, I was sitting in moist socks at the production table in Duffy’s apartment-cum-rehearsal space in Prospect Heights, to talk with him about All Hands, the new Hoi Polloi show that opens this week at the Incubator Arts Project (through March 31; tickets $18).

Best known as one of the creators and performers in the Obie-winning Three Pianos, the Massachusetts-born Duffy has been creating original work in New York since he completed his degree at Duke. Though he got started in generative work as an actor and director in college, it was originally a lack of connection to the playwright community that led Duffy to devising original theater. Following a series of workshops in directing and ensemble-driven work from the likes of Lee Breuer, Charles Mee, and SITI Company, Duffy went to study at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. After returning to New York, he began creating work under the company name Hoi Polloi around 2007, starting with a contribution to Suzan-Lori Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays.

Even as Three Pianos–which Duffy created with fellow theater artist/composers Dave Malloy and Rick Burkhardt, and was directed by The TEAM’s Rachel Chavkin–was making its journey from the Ontological to New York Theater Workshop and, just this last December, to the American Repertory Theater, Duffy and Hoi Polloi were continuing to create work more closely tied to his vision (“I’m finding that Hoi Polloi really means ‘directed by me,'” he told me, with no slight intended). Just this last November, they produced a thoroughly enjoyable staging of the 1959 John Cassavettes film Shadows at the Collapsable Hole in Brooklyn, even as they were already deeply involved in the creation of All Hands.

In Shadows, Duffy saw a sort of artistic synergy with his own work. “In general I feel drawn to material that explores hyper-realism,” he told me. “So Cassavettes, when I saw Shadows–it was like no other film that I’d seen. Just in the way the characters talked, and talked over each other. It seemed so real and complicated and messy. I really enjoyed that and thought it could work really well onstage.” That sort of energetic messiness animates Duffy’s own approach to creating work that’s “not as interested in narrative as in behavior.”

For All Hands, Duffy has continued his exploration of social interaction in contemporary American society by tackling secret societies. Not the sort that conspire to control the world in the paranoid minds of political reactionaries, but rather the occasionally bizarre but more often banal organizations that, for one reason or another, enforce discretion and secrecy on their members.

“I started with the idea that I wanted to investigate secret societies because they’re really woven through the fabric of American society: Masons, the Elks Lodge, occult societies, whatnot. They’re everywhere,” Duffy explained. “So I gathered a group of people together, we tried to do a lot of research, we visited these secret societies–some more successfully than others–and then also visited meetings of less secret societies but still closed meetings, Lions Club or Rotary Club or Kiwanis.”

If the idea of visiting a secret society for the purpose of researching a play seems like a bit of a contradiction in terms, that’s likely because the mythology of secret societies has been built up so much. One can attend at least some Masons meetings, for instance, though doing so constitutes an agreement to protect their secrets on pain of death, an agreement Duffy felt would be inappropriate to so pointedly violate for the purpose of his play. But as he made clear, once there was a very practical reason for the secrecy: 400 years ago, the Masons were a radical organization opposed to church and monarchy throughout Europe on the basis of Enlightenment philosophy. (Umberto Eco’s recently translated novel The Prague Cemetery is a fascinating and mostly true account of this era and political phenomenon.) Today, the reasons for maintaining extensive discretion are far complex.

“They have a path, almost like any religion would. And their path to enlightenment is filled with ritual and symbols that have been maligned by more traditional elements, like the Catholic church and whatnot,” he explained. “So maybe it’s something like, if people just started going out on the streets saying, ‘Oh, we did this ritual with this crazy Egyptian headdress and whatnot,’ then maybe they fear for the reputation of the Masons.”

Other organizations were more open. “There were some groups that were semi-secret” the company could visit and engage with. Duffy himself went to a meeting based on the writings of occultist Aleister Crowley.

“You can go to a meeting” of the group, he told me. “There are some that are public and some that are closed. You can go to a public mass, but you have to fill out an essay form, and send it to them, expressing why you’re interested in attending a meeting. And they send you directions such as, well, go to this basketball court in Queens, and stand there. Someone will come and get you at this point in time. And then they lead you to a basement of a residential building, through all these, and then you enter into the actual sanctuary that’s been set up in this basement. And then you see this weird, wild ritual, and then people just hang out afterwards. Kind of take off the costumes and hang out, talking about the new Thor movie or something like that.”

But after several months of research and investigations by Duffy and his collaborators, “we just weren’t coming up with material that seemed to lead anywhere” in the improvisation sessions, he told me. So Duffy turned to playwright Robert Quillen Camp, the first time Hoi Polloi had relied on a playwright to generate an original script.

“We basically did a brain-dump” with Quillen Camp, Duffy told me. And as of some three months ago, the company has a text to work from. That said, it’s not an entirely standard playscript; Quillen Camp’s work is being re-touched and altered through Hoi Polloi’s ensemble process, and the playwright–who’s based in California–is only generating the text to be spoken, independent of the entire visual concept.

“What I like about Quill’s writing”–(“everyone calls him ‘Quill'”)–“is that it really strikes a great balance between abstract and narrative, so that really this play–if it can be called a play–is more of an experience, I’d say,” Duffy explained. “You get a glimpse into the inner-workings of this secret society. So you see their rituals, you see their initiation of a new member, which really takes twists and turns. Very disorienting play, theĀ  ground keeps getting taken from underneath your feet” Quillen Camp provided the text, but the rest–the design, symbols, practices, rituals, remains the work of the group’s generative process.

For All Hands, the company has re-structured the space at Incubator Arts Project to serve as the temple or ritual space of an invented secret society, in which the audience can watch and explore the way in which average people engage in such a society’s practices. In addition to working with a playwright’s script, for the first time Duffy has also engaged a choreographer–Witness Relocation’s Dan Safer–to work with a core group of Hoi Polloi regulars, including composer Dave Malloy. The show also features the largest ensemble of performers–twenty–Duffy has yet assembled.

“It’s really just a different palette, for a director, having so many people onstage,” he told me. “You’re able to do such weird things, just in terms of having so many people in the space. What I’m really enjoying is having those moments when I don’t try to spot-light something, just letting the actors have a minute talking to each other onstage where there’s no actual dialogue that needs to be heard. Like at a meeting where there’d be break-time, people just milling around talking with each other. Just being able to spend a moment with that in a play, as an audience member, is really exciting to watch, to get to pick and choose.”

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