THERE and Back Again: Jo Stromgren’s Sub-Created Survivors

Photo by Knut Bry

Photo by Knut Bry

In 1947, J.R.R. Tolkien (bear with me for a minute) coined the phrase “sub-creation” to describe the human impulse to make–and invest in–stories. “Sub-creation” is the act of creating a world connected to but distinctly separate from our world, which the reader chooses to accept and live in as fully as they do reality:

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true:” it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.

Every writer making a secondary world wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the particular quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it.

For Tolkien, sub-creation is a theological tool, framing storytelling as a way of emulating and communing with God. But I think a lot about sub-creation in terms of theatre. The theatre I respond to most, that sets fire to my mind and fills me with joy, is theatre that engages with the world around it without attempting to be a perfect reflection. I try to approach art as a visitor to a small planet that is a step away from ours–close enough for me to immerse myself in its workings, but far enough away to warrant me building a bridge.

Jo Stromgren Kompani’s There, one of three Jo Stromgren pieces curated for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival this year (and the sixth JSK piece ever presented by FringeArts), thrives in the step of removal so essential to sub-creation. It’s tempting to view it exclusively through the lens of its origin: There, a piece about displaced dissidents from the former Soviet Union, premiered in 2001 in Lithuania, about ten years after it became the first Soviet republic to declare its independence. How seductive to believe you know everything going in, to be able to knowingly file each moment away in the context you’ve been handed. I’m not immune; that’s probably why I feel so much more secure seeing this than I did After the Rehearsal/Persona. But as clear as the markers are–in the marketing surrounding the event, in the Balkan brass music, in the “Sovietic” quality of the language–for me There succeeds because it is ultimately an alien world, offered to us as a means of understanding our own.

From the very beginning, the audience is thrown into an unreal, uncanny environment. We enter the theatre to find two men standing, suspended, in a transitional space. A few free-standing boxes and a scattering of dead leaves are all that separates the world of the play from FringeArts’ masking on the back wall. None of these objects are marked; nothing gives us a clue of where we are or might have come from. It’s a sparse, neutral space bathed in an eerie greenish light, a minimalist world that feels distinctly separate from ours. It’s as if we’re gazing through a porthole into the hull of a ship, or into a fishbowl at the inhabitants trapped within.

When the piece begins–suddenly, house lights still up, with a soaring choral song punctured by staticky urgent radio broadcasts–we cannot understand what the performers are saying. The language they speak is invented, a nonsensical language reminiscent of the dialects of former Soviet blocs. Any information we’re to gather must be gleaned from the objects scattered through the space and from the muscular, fluid physicality of the performers. The actors’ tones guide us, their wildly oscillating emotions–one moment laughing, one moment howling with rage or pain–mark the extremity of their situation. But the bulk of the storytelling comes from the relation of the performers’ bodies to objects and to each other. There’s nothing textual for us to latch onto, so these actions become significant because of the connections we draw and associations we impose.

The action of the piece has a slow-burning, Godot-esque quality: the performers occupy time through brief games–creating a living room out of furniture discovered in boxes, singing along to classic (gibberish) songs on the radio, collapsing and uncollapsing crates like Russian nesting dolls. But in the middle of these games are events that stun with their humor and grotesqueness and poignancy. Such as: in the earlier moments of the play, three of the performers find something shocking stuck in a box. They flip the box upside-down and bang on it until a human being falls out, frozen in the fetal position, like meat plopping from a can of Spam. They take turns trying to force his body out of its rictus, wrenching his limbs into the proper position only to have them snap back. It’s excellent clowning, and it’s profoundly disturbing. I’m thinking of Cuban immigrants and Syrian refugees. I’m thinking of human trafficking and stowaways and people who die searching for safety. I’m thinking of the kind of conditions that would force a human being into such a grotesque state.

In his interview for the FringeArts’ Festival Guide, Stromgren implies that a non-Soviet audience can’t have the same understanding of and connection to the piece like a Soviet audience can: speaking specifically of the songs and brass instrumentation that punctuates the play, “For non-Soviets, the music has no luggage, apart from sounding ‘Eastern European,’ but for those who are linked to the music by culture and citizenship it is not exactly easy listening.” Certainly that must be true; the roots of the piece are grounded in a place and time of enormous upheaval and emotional significance, and I would never want to take that away from anyone. But what makes the piece endure and justifies its resurrection over a decade after its premiere is that it holds that place and time at arm’s length, creates space for the audience to fill with their own associations. The music is specific to Eastern Europe, sure, and that’s important to remember–but in the bright yet mournful sounds of the saxophone and trumpet, I also hear a second line parading through the streets of New Orleans and think of survivors of Katrina being scattered in the wind.

JSK has created a world that hinges on our own connections, on what the audience is willing to imbue the space with. We’re prompted with marketing to see the piece’s Soviet roots, and gently nudged by the quality of the soundscape. But the physical markers of the world–the clothing, the objects, the space itself–are neutral, and the story embodied by the performers is felt in bodies across space and time. Within this world I see the former Soviet Union, yes, but I also see Louisiana, Syria, Japan, millions of people I’ll never meet scattering and scrambling and surviving.

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