Ed Iskandar: Exit Pursued by a Bear
*New York, Aug 2011
For New Yorkers, a typical night out at the theatre includes multiple elements: a pre-theatre dinner, the play itself and drinks after the show. Indonesian theatre director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar provides a different experience by marrying theatre, food and social element al in one space. A fresh face on the NY theatre scene, 29-year-old Iskandar is carving a reputation for being a singular director.
His latest project "Exit, Pursued By A Bear", otherwise known as EPBB, has been lauded as "the best of experimental theatre" by Wickham Boyle, former director of New York’s pioneering experimental theatre company La Mama. Formed in 2010 after receiving a grant from funders that chose to remain anonymous, EPBB is the brainchild of playwright Jason Williamson and dramaturg Greg VanHorn and Iskandar - the artistic director. The funds were used to transform Iskandar's loft in mid-Manhattan district into a theatrical space.
Named after an original stage direction in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, EPBB is both a "theatre gym" and a "home theatre", Iskandar explained. The former provides a space where emerging artists hone their talents by working out together, while the latter involves by-invitation-only guests enjoying a unique experience, which includes social breaks with the actors, a home-cooked meal and potluck dessert.
When he was conceptualizing the space, Iskandar reached for a taste of home and tried to recreate, in his own way, Indonesia's communal culture. "There's a real gang mentality in Indonesia. It's really about congregating in large groups to do things together."
He also pulled a page out of Shakespeare's time. "[Back then], it never was just the play. It really was an experiential evening. You're throwing tomatoes together, you're having a picnic, you may be doing more licentious and illegal activities in other areas of the theatre."
A recent pre-show at EPBB included actors donning costumes and finishing their stage make-up while others baked cakes, chopped vegetables or swept the floors. Iskandar padded about barefoot, checking to see if the rice is cooked as he talked with his actors. Clad in his daily uniform of a shirt and batik sarong, as reflects his Chinese-Indonesian origins, his quiet mannerism was in contrast with the buzz of activity surrounding him. Once guests arrive, Iskandar and his troupe became first hosts, waiters and ushers, then the actors took their place in the living room-cum-stage area and the play began.
The inspiration for EPBB were more deep-seated than simply a venue to perform independent productions in a social setting. For Iskandar, it was about creating a home, a community, a safe haven for the practitioners. An emerging director himself, Iskandar understood the fear and insecurity performing artists have about their future prospects.
"I think the biggest thing that's missing for an emerging artist in New York is a community where you feel like you belong," he said. "It can be very alienating. Going from a more sheltered environment, like a conservatory or a small performing arts team and moving into this huge pond where you are the smallest, most meaningless, and utterly insignificant fish is terrifying."
Being the new guy in town is not unfamiliar for Iskandar, who was sent from his home in Jakarta to a British boarding school at age 7.
"I had a profoundly unsettling experience as a young boy of leaving my home and having to make another [home]," said Iskandar in clipped tones that remain from that time. His interest in theatre began to peak in his late teens, while still in England.
"When I found the theatre, it became very obvious to me that one of the primary and most beautiful things that theatre could achieve was that it could bring people together in a communal way that I wanted," he said. "I think it was inevitable that I would find my way to the one form [theatre] that would allow me to make, in a more transient way, the kind of roots that I was craving myself."
At 18, Iskandar came to the US to study for a Bachelor's degree in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford, followed by a Masters of Fine Art at Carnegie Mellon University. His directorial work during his university days are highly-regarded by his peers, many of whom again collaborate with him on EPBB projects. His growing reputation as an innovative director has been cemented by directing fellowships across the United States. These have been with major theatre organizations including the Drama League, the Lincoln Centre Director's Lab and a New York Theatre Workshop Emerging Director's Fellowship. With the establishment of EPBB last year, Iskandar brought more than 10 years of self-experimentation in his field to create works that challenge both actors and the audience.
In EPBB "Labs," Iskandar said, participants craft a self-guided curriculum focusing on a specific genre or style of theatrical work using a text or conceptual approach not before seen in New York. Playwright Williamson said that pieces with "sweeping themes, heightened language, and innate theatricality" are the norm savored by the select audience of mainly industry professionals.
The first Lab, in November 2010, featured Pulitzer-finalist Amy Freed’s "Restoration Comedy." This was followed by Sean Graney’s 7-play marathon, "These Seven Sicknesses" (based on the extant tragedies of Sophocles), Jason Williamson's Civil War chamber drama "Lesser Mercies" and a 5-hour performance of Shakespeare’s "King Lear" set in the NYC drag queen ball culture. EPBB's inaugural season culminated in August with "Arok of Java," an Indonesian folktale adapted by Williamson. The Labs are marked by their stark sets, which lends to the emotional fierceness of the actors, with the audience of a few dozen intimately seated on banquettes.
Creating a private theatre space in his home was a risk that paid off for Iskandar, with the Labs fully booked within days by mainly industry professionals. Funded by private donations, each Lab is free, although a $10 donation is suggested, a practice that Iskandar hopes to continue.
"Making going to the theatre an accessible thing is a huge part of my agenda. A key part for me is that they haven't already bought a product by purchasing a ticket. So they can be open to anything that the space is giving them," he said.
"I think the job of an artist is to be generous. Generosity is the most important thing in life because it is the only thing that can make somebody lower their guard enough to let something in."
Theatre, according to Iskandar, is also about making a home for audience as well as the artist. This approach to his chosen art form resonates well with actors like Emma Galvin, who seeks a sense of belonging and a creative safety net.
"Being a young actor in NY is a scary place," she said. "I can't imagine if I didn't have a home base like this to ground me. A place to explore my craft with no critics."
Choreographer and actor Antwayn Hopper said that before EPBB, " I wasn't getting fed as an actor. Ed's going to challenge you. That's why we work here for free. I can practice the chops given to me. Ed sharpened my tools and I feel more ready to conquer any role now."
Others taking part in the Labs have included Broadway performer Billy Porter and television regular Paloma Guzmán.
At the beginning of each Lab, Iskandar explains to his guests the EPBB concept that there is no separation between the actor and the audience. He led by example, working the room and entertaining guests with his troupe.
"What being with the guests allow the actors to do is give them an idea about what the energy of the room is. By the time they come out to perform, it's not suddenly "let me turn on the show for you", which is what a lot of performance culture in NY really encourages," Iskandar explained.
"What social and communal engagement for the actors is designed to do is make them realize that every part of the audience is as human as they are and vice versa."
The method was welcomed by the invited guests. At the conclusion of 'Arok of Java', audience member and father to one of the artists, Sam Platt said, "It's all about creating an connective moment. And with this theatre, that is what they try to do, create a connective moment, beat after beat after beat."
Iskandar is already dreaming up new plays to produce for EPBB's next season, and wants to see it in a more commercial setting. Perhaps in someone else's house. Though one thing is for certain, "theatre should be able to create a space as unique as the play itself," he said.
"That was the foundation of a lot of the ideas that I'm experimenting with now with "Exit, Pursued By a Bear", which is the pure reflection of every culture that I've experienced as an individual."