The theater lights dim and a casual crowd in linen and sandals finds its seats, winding up conversations about cancer treatments that aren't working and where they're going for dinner. As rear ends wriggle then settle across the room, images flash onto a shabby curtain: a double-decker bus, anatomical illustrations, Orson Welles, a Chinese emperor and butter. The drape opens, revealing a "disaster of biblical proportions," a quaint 1950s kitchen shipwrecked on an island of rubble, its frame held up by fragmented two-by-fours. A refrigerator lies on its back as if floating offstage toward the front row. Not minutes earlier, musical director Frank Pahl was in the lobby cheering, "We finally have an ending!"
It's the preview performance of The Day Everything Went Wrong at Ann Arbor's Performance Network, and the gang of four about to take the stage has rehearsed for no less than 560 hours collectively, starting with the simplest of scenarios and ending up with a rolling tidal wave of expertly crafted slamming, grabbing, climbing, kicking, rotating, running, yelling, spitting, spilling, pushing, falling, yanking, flinging, throwing, ripping, reaching, hitting, juggling, wrestling and totally breaking down. Stitches will be required.
After the play is over — Ann Arborites applaud mildly and shuffle out, contorting their faces with expressions of bewilderment.
"I didn't like it, but then I realized, you know, this is like a circus," one woman announces excitedly to her friend. "It's so physical!"
"Needs an intermission," a gentleman impatiently scrawls on a piece of paper, cramming it into a comment box.
"Too much physical comedy," writes another.
"Needs a new audience," pens a third.
Like it or not, they've all crashed into the world of Malcolm Tulip, the mischievous Brit, who's come by way of a Paris clown school. He's an award-winning writer, actor and director here to wake us up and keep us guessing.
The patrons empty the building and stage manager Meredith Tierney beelines for the restroom. "I'm not crying," she explains, while wiping her eyes. Tulip's nowhere to be found. Later that night via e-mail, he apologizes for his absence: "I'm afraid I was on the phone to a theater help line immediately after the show."
Even though Tulip knows he's adored — "I laughed so hard my fetus kicked," a woman once told him — a play as unconventional as The Day Everything Went Wrong, antic and unscripted, is daunting.
It's about the Fermstätten family, who wake up one morning to discover a cataclysmic storm has destroyed their home and try desperately to stick to their routine. On the very first day of rehearsal about a month ago, the cast arrived with little more than a general idea of the style (clownish) and setting (somewhere in Central Europe). The production was theirs to devise through improvising.
"It doesn't do it justice to say, 'It's all improvised and they are playing around,'" forewarns Pahl, who composed the score and also acts in the play. "It's ridiculous how much time we spent on each little two-minute gag."
In Tulip's world, a fistfight between father and son blossoms into a well-choreographed ballet. Toasters are jerry-rigged for cartoonish spring action. A hair curler skewered on a fork suffices as a toothbrush, and if you yell into an oilcan, sound pours out. Every shoe kicked and sent flying is caught. All is absurd, nothing is gratuitous, and making ridiculous responses to mayhem seem reasonable is grueling work.
About an hour before the first production meeting, back in the beginning of July, Tulip sat in his faculty office at University of Michigan's Walgreen Drama Center, a professor relaxed in an old T-shirt, with only his hair and smile somewhat defiant. He returned a few days earlier from Charlottesville, Va., where he reprised his acclaimed 35 roles in Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife. Now he must focus on the vast, open plain in front of him.
"There's a gentle productive anxiety, you know?" he says, referring to working without a script. "I mean, within my genes, my metabolism, my — you know — brain space, I know it's there."
In addition to conceptualizing and directing this havoc, Tulip also stars as Dieter, the father with a tedious job. There were no auditions for the other parts. Tulip asked Laurel Hufano, with whom he's worked before, to play his wife, Greta, and he selected former student Brendan McMahon as their infantile son, Pieter. Composer, inventor and artist Pahl, a longtime collaborator with Tulip, plays an eccentric musician who, as is sung, used to live down the street till the wind picked him up and moved him over there. While in character, seated at a piano in a ramshackle Victorian boudoir and wearing boxers and an ascot, Pahl provides the underscore and sound effects that add another layer to the story, amping up the impression that well-orchestrated choreography can be as rhythmic and lyrical as music.
A while later, Tulip locks his office and drives downtown to meet at the Performance Network with the technical crew who will bring his idea to life. Lighting designer Rob Murphy reviews the outline and takes a gander at the model built by scenic designer Vince Mountain. The diorama looks like a handcrafted dollhouse ripped apart by a tornado. "It'll be a nightmare to light," Murphy says, "but it will be fun. The obstacles are everywhere."
In The Day, the characters attempt to go about life as if it were "any other," clinging to rituals. The steps involved in, say, eating breakfast or freshening up, get shuffled around. It's like looking at life through a funhouse mirror, inviting the audience to question motives and reactions, as well as their own reliance on mindless routines.
Whether or not that actually happens isn't always up to the artist. Fellow playwright and poet Ron Allen, a Detroit native known for fantastical, nearly hallucinogenic theater, relocated to Los Angeles a couple of years ago because he couldn't deal with our local audiences anymore. On his cell phone from the West Coast, he explains, "Detroit is so goddamned literal sometimes. Someone's gotta break through with conceptual stuff. Malcolm's really good."
One rainy night in 1982 when Tulip was 24, he arrived in France by ferry from England. He had with him an old bike, which he painted silver and red, a rucksack, a suitcase and very little money. Balancing the suitcase on his handlebars and the backpack between his legs, he negotiated Parisian traffic to get to the apartment belonging to a friend of a friend, a cartoonist.
"I arrived and found this tiny concierge, he was probably like 4-foot-2 or something, and I had to carry everything up several flights. I only stayed there about six weeks. I lived in about 20 places over the next two years."
He had been studying dance in the tradition of Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham at the University of London, but it was the international theater school École Jacques Lecoq that brought Tulip to Paris. Under the direction of the renowned French mime and innovator Lecoq, Tulip honed his natural talent of communicating poetically with his body. He learned about gesture and movement, acrobatics, masks, pantomime, clowning and more.
Tulip's father, an English professor (his mother died when he was 14), paid the tuition for his first trimester. British actor David Calder, whom Tulip had known as a teenager, lent him money. He also received an Arts Council of Britain bursary. When that ran out and he stopped showing up to sessions, four of his classmates rang him up, told him he absolutely had to come and pitched in to keep him enrolled. After two years of training, the class of 135 students from all over the world was whittled down to about 30.
"Clowning appeals to my sense of mischievousness," Tulip says, "but there is also a rigor about it. You have a direct complicity with the audience, and you have to shift immediately depending on their reaction. How you deal with the failure of a routine shows how good of a clown you are. Lecoq would say when you run out of ideas or you've failed, you just have to wait and eventually l'ange qui passé — an angel will pass. Someone will sneeze or react to something, and then it's about what you do with that gift."
Most Americans know the imbecilic clowns who run around the circus ring in a tizzy. But in Europe, clowning is a progressive form of theater with roots in politics.
"The Italian Commedia dell'Arte troupes reacted to being occupied by Spaniards; they portrayed both the upper class and the merchant class," Tulip explains. "And pantomime was a form of theater very difficult to censor — how do you censor something without words? There are lots of countries where there was more oppression, and there were big mime or clowning traditions there — the Eastern bloc, for example. The big danger since Marcel Marceau is it becomes something more aesthetic or more effete and has lost its power theatrically and politically.
"What is the new political theater form? With the state this country's in? I don't know. I don't think of these things constantly."
Tulip moved to Detroit in 1987 as a member of Theatre Grottesco, a touring experimental troupe of Lecoq graduates. They had decided to make the city their base because of cheap rehearsal space and a vibrant arts scene. Three years later, he parted ways with Grottesco (they have subsequently moved to Santa Fe, N.M.) because he had made enough contacts to stay. At Union Street restaurant, he met his wife, Rosalyn, now a midwife, to whom he's been married for more than a decade. The couple raised her sons (one of whom made CNN for dressing up in mom's vagina costume for Halloween, but that's another story). They currently live in Ann Arbor with their daughter, Sophie.
Since graduating from Lecoq, his curriculum vitae reads like an anthology of dramatic history. Besides his own pieces, he has directed and performed in more than 100 plays in the United States and overseas, including works by Shakespeare, Camus, Brecht, Chekhov and Pinter. In the past two decades alone he's been involved in dozens of plays at the Performance Network and collaborated with U-M dancer and choreographer Peter Sparling as well. He was uniformly praised for his three-dozen turns in 2006's I Am My Own Wife, about a German transvestite, and recently won local best director and best actor awards for 2007's Amadeus.
Back in 1990, Tulip had been running shows under his own Prospero Theatre Company when he saw Frank Pahl perform in the band Only a Mother. "I think he was attracted to the occasional avant-circus approach to music we employed," recalls Pahl. Since then, the pair has worked on about eight pieces, including Tulip-directed U-M productions of Lysistrata, The Good Person of Szechwan and Threepenny Opera. Their synergy is rare, to say the least.
"In 1993 we worked on my favorite ... Enrique Miasmo," a Tulip original, Pahl says. "It's a play in which a knife-throwing act mistakenly kills a member of the audience in the opening minutes. The rest of the play deals with what to do next."
The appeal of working with Malcolm, he claims, is "his plays frequently can be summed up in a sentence or two, however within that reduced framework is an explosion of ideas. There are no simple answers as each act has a consequence and can lead you down an unexpected path, not unlike the riffing of free improv. It may seem spontaneous and wild but there is an active mind at work."
Awards for best actor and best director from the Ann Arbor News and Detroit Free Press aside, those who act for Tulip trust him implicitly. And this, not in spite of his approach, but because of it.
It's noon on a Tuesday just a few days after that first meeting, and the actors are sitting at a table in the lobby of the Performance Network, signing paperwork before they begin working. These folks know Tulip well; you can tell because their mouths aren't quite gaped open like Tierney's, the quiet and diligent stage manager who looks like she's wondering what the hell she just signed up for.
"I have two options," Tulip announces, rising from his seat.
"I could either go this way" — he pulls his shorts up like Humpty Dumpty, tucking himself into a moose knuckle. "Or this way" — he shimmies his shorts below his belly. He strolls around the lobby, drawers dragging, stomach sticking out, as the cast fills out their emergency contacts and Social Security numbers. "Actually, this is what all English directors look like." The actors laugh while rolling their eyes at the inane sight of their ostensible boss. He looks mischievously at McMahon. "Hey — how are you going to do this with all your lines to learn?"
The group shuffles into the black-box rehearsal room down the hall. It's filled with props and costumes, and Tulip lets loose. He puts on a pair of suspenders then slaps Pahl with a purse. He throws a tie at McMahon.
"OK, look," Tulip exclaims, while grabbing his crotch, "Today I just want everybody to feel comfortable." He looks wistfully at a mannequin and asks, "Do they always have to be white?" Then he puts a glockenspiel bar in his pants and hits it with a mallet.
He's warming up, and the others are starting to subtly eye his impromptu routines.
The space is strewn with saucepans, string, plastic fruit, balls, overturned chairs and a couple of pianos. Tulip grabs a small rubber duckie to ride, finds a cane and pretends to row down a river.
"Alright, here we are," he says. "The other ones I did like this worked, so I thank you for your trust. We will start gently." He paces. "Just to set up what we've got. We've got the curtain, got the narration slide show — in fact there'll be something already projected on the curtain — don't know what — there'll be some music before the narration starts — so we'll hear Frank's beautiful shit — then the narration begins like this:"
It was a day like any other. These are the words I would like to have begun with today. These are the words I would have chosen from my yellowing copy of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary, a present from my great-aunt Clothilde, whose greatest wish for me was that I would never be lost for words in a sticky situation. Great-Aunt Clothilde, with whom I stayed each summer as my parents drove throughout Europe in search of the perfect butter. This culinary Holy Grail lived in the dreams of my father, the baker, whose greatest wish was to create croissants that could float, flying vol-au vents and a puff pastry that would melt like snowflakes on the tongue of my mother, the only tongue, my father believed, capable of tasting perfection. ...
His text stylistically has origins in one of Commedia's traditions. The el doctore character is an expert who makes a lecture that goes off into absurd places but comes back to where it needs to be. In this case, the prologue serves the same function as an overture; the images and text are designed to slowly take the audience away from what they were just doing or thinking — "to forget about the mortgage bill, not trusting the babysitter, an argument with a partner," he says — and join their world.
"So, um, all right," he says. "Now the question is going to end up being that the alarm clock is going off, and we're trying to turn it off, but where the hell is it?"
Everyone gathers in the center of the room to try the first scene. They are all sleeping when McMahon's arm rises like a groundhog out of its hole, his hand peeping around as if it has its own eyes.
They find the ringing alarm clock and begin to toss it in a game of hot potato that confuses the sense of sound with touch. It may all seem like a big joke, but Tulip's method pushes the boundaries of perception, focusing in on the difference between sensing and knowing.
"OK, so the next idea that just came out of that for me," Tulip says, "was we all come closer during a hot potato with the clock. And it doesn't have to go fast, yeah? Another thing is, when it's thrown at you, let it come in, and then throw it out. Don't 'catch.'"
"Next thing to think of is that you're worried about the other person and that saves us from 'pausing' after you throw it, yeah, so that we are each always doing something. If the clock falls, climb over and around each other to try to get it."
They try the scene one more time before Tulip realizes it needs a logical conclusion. He's pacing again.
"OK. So maybe that wasn't even the alarm clock you grabbed, maybe it was a teddy bear and we have to keep looking for the clock, or maybe there are seven going off. Anyway, all that panic justifies the sort of 'OK, let's get on with our day without realizing what has happened yet.' You know what? Let's scratch the whole hot potato idea, even though it was a fantastic idea I had."
Under his breath he mutters, "Is it worth it? Oh, God, let's just do Waiting for Godot in braille."
Inventing a play this way means a million tiny battles, trying to find compromises between brilliant ideas and workable ones. Before the day ends, he's doled out elliptical advice all actors should follow:
"Big noise: Note it, address it, go to it."
"I've watched the movies. They never catch it the first time."
"Don't act like a dog — get the dog, without the dog."
Tulip was an outdoorsy, sporty kid growing up as one of five children in Lancaster, England. The area was a mix of industrial activity from cotton mills and rural farmland, with a canal system and lakes. "I was asked to leave the Boy Scouts because I swore," he says. In grammar school he participated in street theater and Sunday workshops with a local youth troupe. It was pretty clear early on that's what he wanted to do.
"When I direct conventional plays I still tend to do European ones. I've done some American plays, but I tend to go European. Not just because they talk like I do, but that's my cultural reservoir."
In The Day Everything Went Wrong, elements from his childhood sneak in, like the school uniform Pieter wears.
"With this one, I'm going to get more of an idea of what those reflections are. I mean they're already starting but once we get into rehearsals, I'm not sure what's going to come bursting out. But I know there's going to be something about that breakfast which will have to do with the importance of the silverware. My father always had this different knife he used. It was a bizarre quirk in my dad. And now I have one at our house. I think I stole it from somewhere. I had a really good fork that I stole from a sushi place in D.C. but that got lost."
A couple weeks away from the debut, the group presses through each scene. The rehearsal room now looks like a bomb has gone off. A desk has been broken and fixed and so far there was only one major disaster, when Hufano's ass landed on McMahon's head. He survived. (Although the poor guy does end up gashing his arm twice during the production's early shows.)
Tulip eats a burrito and tosses its wrapper in the trash. "It's a lot of moving forward and jumping back at this point. By next week we will push forward to the end. You can't be scared. You have to be in control of time but can't be scared of time. Things can remain pretty messy for longer than you'd think." Then he launches into a rendition of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" while stretching.
"I need to take my brain out — wine it, dine it, talk stupid to it. ..."
On a break, he sits in the corner against the wall. Everyone is quiet, working on a monologue or closing their eyes for a moment. Except for him.
"What is the most productive thing I can do in these five minutes? Be still, be silent. ... I don't believe in that mysticism shit. ... It's difficult to stop talking right? The silence is oppressive."
He's exhausted from teaching a physical theater class for high schoolers each morning this week. "It was really funny today. They were so quiet and scared. I kept telling them, 'Just tell me to fuck off!'"
McMahon can imagine the students' reactions. He had Tulip as a teacher at Community High School in Ann Arbor when he was 14, the first semester of his freshman year.
"I really hated him. He was too weird for me. I was already doing a lot of theater, and he wasn't what I expected. He was a freaky European dude."
McMahon's opinion shifted when he was 17 or 18, and he acted in a couple plays Tulip directed: No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre and The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco. "It made me want to continue to pursue theater. I just really began to love his direction because he was so specific. He would pull a lot out of us in a very grounded way because he was so physical. There wasn't a lot of psychologizing."
After graduating from U-M's Department of Theatre and Drama, McMahon lived in Chicago, New Orleans and New York City before following close to Tulip's footsteps and enlisting in the Lassaad School in Belgium, a program set up by a Lecoq devotee. He's on break right now but has one more year to go.
"A lot of it has to do with becoming attuned to the natural elements," McMahon describes, referring to the kinesthetic awareness that is at the base of the Lecoq-Lassaad method. "We take up something like fire, for example, in dance class. How do you tell a story with fire? If you have people embodying fire, in what ways does it grow? How does it simmer? How does it explode? Then you apply it to a situation."
"The main thing about Malcolm that blows my mind is seeing what he can come up with through improvisation. It's where his genius lies — the things he discovers from just trying to move an object, trying to put on a tie. If you're moving in one direction there's a certain amount of possibilities to where you'll go, what you'll make of those possibilities. He's very comfortable with that."
In clowning, it's pretty common, according to McMahon, that one aggressive clown who's possessive and masochistic is always angry at the other for every insignificant stupidity that comes to pass — think Abbott and Costello.
In this play, Tulip, the father, is the sadist to McMahon's blundering son. "But I like my character's journey in this," McMahon says. "My relationships with my parents change. I have a dramatic journey, and it didn't happen purposefully." It happens organically. Mom coddles, Dad berates, and after a solo, the son turns away from his parents.
Two days before opening night, the team is in full makeup and costume. After rehearsing the scene where Pieter combs his hair with raspberry jelly for, like, at least half an hour, Tulip reveals, "You know, some people talk about how at this stage the piece really needs an audience. The reason we need it is so I stop having ideas."
Rehearsal Outtakes from The Day Everything Went Wrong:
Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Day Everything Went Wrong runs 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with additional shows at 3 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 7, at Performance Network, 120 E. Huron Street, Ann Arbor; 734-663-0681. Tickets $35-$30.