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LAist Interview: Son of Semele Ensemble Finally Flies Free!

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Heidi K. Hendrickson (Laura Carson) and her 150 cats.

Writer Aaron Henne and director Edgar Landa of LA's Son of Semele Ensemble have reenvisioned your neighborhood crazy cat lady in a whirlwind eighty-minute play, full of movement, rhyme, sock puppets, and cartoon nudity. The result is KING CAT CALICO FINALLY FLIES FREE, playing now through Sunday at SOSE's Beverly Boulevard black-box. (They've got all of us going with the alliteration.)

Notable moments include dead kittens, fresh from the Frigidaire, singing "Memory" from the other unfortunate famous cat play, and a Hazmat technician vomiting upon entering Heidi's hell-house.

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LAist talked to Aaron and Edgar about animal endangerment, physical theatre, and the risks and rewards of working with an ensemble. Oh, and lucha libre characters.

Where in LA do you live, and how long have you been here?

Aaron: K-Town. In L.A. for ten years with a brief sojourn in Tuscaloosa, AL.

Edgar: I live dead smack in the middle of Hollywood behind Sunset Gower Studios. Been here for 3 years now although I am an L.A. native growing up in the barrio-burbs southeast of downtown L.A.

How did the initial idea for KING CAT come about? What excited you about this concept and this play?

Aaron: I was talking to a friend and she mentioned an episode of "Animal Cops" where there was a takedown of an animal hoarder's home - vivid pictures of feces infestation, debris piles and absolute squalor. I was also going through some personal upheaval at the time (moving from house to house, couch to couch, with no real HOME), so it seemed like a match made in heaven. Mostly, I was enticed by the idea that we consume and collect as a means to keep the world at bay. Then, we, as a society, laugh at these extreme folks and their absurd foibles - failing to recognize, of course, that THEY are US.

Edgar: Aaron Henne wrote the play, and who knows what goes on in that twisted mind of his. I love that he plays with structure and language and is not handcuffed by traditional ideas on plot, narrative, and realism.

Have you always been interested in the issue of animal endangerment, or the idea of obsessive collecting?

Aaron:The issue of animal endangerment was new to me. As for collecting, I believe I try to control my world by too many means - Collecting is just one form of such an obsession.

Edgar: I've never given much thought to animal endangerment or hoarding other than my own sick fascination with people who have heaps of newspapers and garbage knee-deep in their homes.

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What was the writing process like for the script, and was Edgar involved in it? Conversely, did Aaron stay active in the rehearsal process? Did any elements of the script change in response to one another?

Aaron:The script was written in a prolonged burst - about two and a half months. First, the basic premise was born. I began to write - little bits, morsels, as it were - got stuck, did some research - The research brought forth our psychiatrist, Dr. Raymundo Pasternak, who was borne from reams of diagnostic papers on the subject.
At one point, I became so interested in Rush Limbaugh and his penchant for illegal substances that he and Heidi were dueling focal points of the play. Glad I abandoned that idea. Once the ball got rolling, Heidi's pain, humor and humanity refused to be kept quiet. So, I just let her speak. Then I went back, listened to what she told me and tried to connect the pieces, like a pop psychology jigsaw puzzle.

While Edgar was not active in the writing process, he directed the first reading of it almost two years ago - and, all throughout this current process, his insights into how to tell this story most effectively have enabled me to make some necessary cuts - especially in sequences where the humor took away from the pathos.

Edgar: Aaron was invited to almost all rehearsals, although I did request he not come for about a week and a half while we worked on staging. The script went through very few changes other than some minor snips. We did cut about 5 songs from the play and abbreviated the ones that remained. That was the major change in the script.

Talk about the use of rhyme, alliteration, and other linguistic devices. How did those become an element of the script and how did they work with the actors on stage?

Aaron: "King Cat..." is a child's tale gone awry. When the piece began to write, it came out in a warped version of some hidden Dr. Seuss story that mommy never dared to read to you late at night while you snuggled under your covers. As for the actors - I am humbled by them and defer to Edgar.

Edgar: I absolutely encouraged the actors to dive into the alliterative sections of the script. The linguistic devices, I think, really help place the world of the play in a place that is at once familiar and odd. It is through this lens that the protagonist sees the world.

What about the unusual movement, particularly for the chorus of cats? How was this developed?

Aaron: Again, this is really Edgar's wheelhouse. I will say, however, that it came from breaking down movements into a very particular structure and then allowing the freedom to play within that framework.

Edgar: I am a big believer in "physical" theatre and I love to figure out ways to physically tell elements of the play or the characters. We literally played a lot initially in our rehearsals in order to allow the actors to let go of the script for awhile and approach the story and themselves from a physical point of view.

We worked a lot with Viewpoints, which I think is a great tool for actors and directors. We also played with some very basic exercises used by Theatre de Complicite. These rehearsal tools were actually quite useful in developing the movement for the chorus of cats and for the other actors. Heidi, Pasternak, Papa, King Cat all have gestures that they emply throughout the play and these were developed in rehearsals using an assortment of games and exercises. There are a lot of possibilities created in rehearsal and then the cast and I trim, cut and pare down to just the essential elements.

What surprised you about the process?

Aaron:I was pleased by how daring all the actors have been. From day one, hesitation was at a minimum, and so the process really became about unpacking the layers instead of obscuring them.
Edgar's open attitude in terms of my input (welcoming it, encouraging it) has been a blessing. As a result, I think, and I mean this in the best possible sense, it can often be hard to tell where the writing ends and the direction takes over. A blend of form and function with very few seams.

Edgar: I was pleasantly surprised by just how much the guest actors (non-company members) in the cast were willing to do all the things I asked of them in rehearsal with an open mind. Sometimes, I run into situations in which actors are slaves to Stanislavsky and realism and are unwilling to venture into the theatrical possibilities offered by a theatre.

Talk about audience reaction. Do you feel that people understand the play emotionally and intuitively, or is the stylization difficult for some audience members?

Aaron: Difficult? Yes. We lean forward and listen.
They have a blast, then you can hear a pin drop.

Edgar: I think it can go both ways, although our audiences now do have some idea that they are probably going to see something a little off-kilter. Sometimes we win people over and sometimes we don't. Half the audiences walked out of "Black Rider" at the Ahmanson...I guess some people just want to see "Showboat."

What are you working on now?

Aaron:Started a new piece this week that I'm not ready to talk about - Still brewing.
Underneath it all, it's about obsession - sensing a pattern?

Edgar: I just choreographed fights for "Hamlet" at Shakespeare Orange County and in the fall I am developing a new piece for Son of Semele with students at Cal State Long Beach. The project is based on Stephen Hawking.

What's the weirdest project, or the coolest, that's still on your back burner? If someone gave you five thousand dollars to write - or direct - a new play right now, what would it be?

Aaron: There's a few babies that still need to see the light of full production.
One, "Strut," is very near and dear. It's based on my grandparents who met at a dance contest and years apart both died by falling, breaking their necks and winding up in surgical halos. It's a love letter to them with wistful, painful passages along the way. As for paid to write - the new piece because it's whispering to me and I hope it will yell soon.

Edgar: The Stephen Hawking project has the potential to be the coolest thing I've worked on.
I'm always interested in "Titus Andronicus" and I've always wanted to do a play with lucha libre characters (way before Nacho Libre hit the screens!)

LA's ensemble theater companies are divided between those who only allow members to act and those who are open to all auditioners. The cast of KING CAT is about half members of SOSE's ensemble and half outside actors. How did you cast the show, and what do you think are some of the advantages and disadvantages of working with an ensemble?

Aaron: I'll answer the last part of the question -
Advantage - Community. That's what ensemble is. A community that comes together creating that which could not have existed otherwise.
Disadvantages - None.
Challenges - Absolutely.

Edgar: We are a small company by choice (about 25 members and not all of them actors). Sometimes not enough company members are available so we open our auditions to non-company members. We usually try to invite friends of SOSE so we don't get flooded by hundreds of submissions.

In casting the show I tried to challenge the company members by casting them in role types they hadn't yet played or that went against their natural instinct. I think they have had great fun doing it! Working with company members is great because there is definitely a short hand with each other.
Inviting guest actors to join the cast can sometimes be tricky but in our case they fit right into our little SOSE family.

What's the best and the worst thing about making new theater in Los Angeles?

Aaron: Worst thing - the sheer amount of theatre out there - only so much time to experience it all. Best thing - The sheer amount of theatre.

Edgar: I think audiences really appreciate small theatre in Los Angeles...I just wish there was more of them willing to take a risk on small theatre companies! The worst part is being lumped in with "showcase" theatre whenever small theatre in Los Angeles is mentioned.

Why do you choose to live in Los Angeles?

Aaron:I am blessed with wonderful and diverse communties of open hearts and minds. Not to mention a dazzling array of culinary delights - BCD 24 hr. Tofu House, here I come.

Edgar: It's the BIG city.

Do you have cats yourselves?

Aaron: Yes. One.
Currently, the heat is making her drowsy on the bed behind me.

Edgar: No. I'm a dog person!

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