F ive years ago, just as the Split Knuckle Theatre Co. was about to begin rehearsals on its fledgling play Endurance, artistic director Greg Webster stepped up to give his troupe an inspirational speech. “I said, ‘I know this show is going to be a big success for us,’” he recalls—and as soon as the words left his mouth, “a sparrow crashed into the window of our rehearsal space, slid down and died.”
Not an auspicious omen, but thus far the Fates have been kinder to Split Knuckle than they were to that poor bird. Endurance has endured nicely, playing 19 countries to rapturous audiences, including a standing ovation a couple of days ago during its current run at Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II. That may be partly because it’s spurred on by a story “torn from the headlines”: the epic 2008 financial crisis.
The plot concerns Walter Spivey, an employee at fictional, beleaguered Hartford insurance company BMI. In the wake of the economic meltdown, Spivey finds himself promoted to manager, suddenly responsible for the futures of the three coworkers he’d been working alongside. Stymied by this new role, he takes inspiration from the story of early 20th-century British explorer Ernest Shackleton, who defied seemingly insurmountable odds to bring the entire 27-member crew of his ship, the Endurance, home alive from the disastrous Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17.
What’s particularly special about this story is the way it’s told. Using a handful of basic props—a few wastebaskets, a couple of coat racks, some beaten-up office chairs and tables—Split Knuckle’s gang of four (Webster, Christopher Hirsh, Jason Bohon and Andrew Grusetskie) create vastly divergent and imaginative settings as they weave together Spivey’s and Shackleton’s parallel journeys. A table, for example, becomes a bed, then a shower wall, then the deck of a ship. The actors too change roles constantly and seamlessly, portraying frustrated rank-and-file workers, corporate overlords, multiple members of Shackleton’s salty crew and even, through gesturing and vocalization, inanimate objects: an alarm clock, a cappuccino maker, a city bus, an elevator. Simple lighting motifs and impressively synced-up music are utilized to great effect.
Founded in 2005, the Split Knuckle Theatre Co.—significantly larger than the quartet performing at Long Wharf—is an ensemble whose core members all met at London’s International School of the Performing Arts, where they were trained in the methods of collaboration and creation advocated by French theater artist Jacques Lecoq. His approach, incorporating elements of physical theater, movement and mime, encourages performers to nurture their inner creativity rather than giving them a standard classical acting “skill set.” Renowned actors trained by Lecoq include Geoffrey Rush and Toby Jones, and his techniques have inspired groundbreaking stage shows like Broadway’s War Horse and The 39 Steps, as well as the immersive off-Broadway hit Sleep No More by the British theater company Punchdrunk.
Webster, a New Haven resident who currently teaches Lecoq’s methodology at UConn as an assistant professor of movement in the university’s professional actor training program, says ideas often come from unusual sources and turn in unpredictable directions. Endurance, for example, was initially inspired by a dream of Webster’s in which Split Knuckler Christopher Hirsh, who plays Walter Spivey, was a victim of a Xerox machine run amok. “He was on top of it being attacked by paper that was swirling all around him,” Webster says. The next night he sat up late channel surfing, and came across a Nova special on PBS about Shackleton. He was captivated by the adventurer’s rough-and-ready determination. “He pasted an ad in the London Times that said, ‘Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.’ I thought, ‘Who would apply to that job these days?’” Webster says. “I pondered the differences between 19th-century and 21st-century men, and wanted to do an examination of how ‘soft’ we’ve become.”
Before the company could start exploring that idea in full, the insurance company AIG went bankrupt. “Suddenly, so many of our friends and neighbors in Hartford were being laid off from their jobs,” Webster says. “I thought we should change the focus of the play to reflect on these developments.”
Currently, the Split Knuckle Theatre Co. is working on two new productions in different stages of development. The Curious Case of Phineas Gage, a vaudeville-cum-Monty Python-style farce based on one of the most famous cases of traumatic brain injury in the history of neuroscience, just completed a workshopping residency at the Red House Art Center in Syracuse, N.Y.; and Band of the Black Hand, an homage to film-noir incorporating live jazz and Indonesian shadow puppetry, will debut at UConn’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre in early 2015. In what would be a real coup for the city, the troupe also plans to make New Haven its permanent base of operations.
There are times, Webster admits, when running one’s own theater company can seem as precarious as the chairs and tables stacked atop one another in Endurance—but he takes heart in a quote from Shackleton, one that also plays in the play: “What the universe expects of a man is courage, endurance and faith. When faced with trouble, danger or disappointment, never give up hope. Always remember that optimism is true moral courage.”
presented by Split Knuckle Theatre Co.
Long Wharf Theatre – Stage II, 222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
Now playing through June 29, 2014.
Written by Patricia Grandjean. Photographed by Dan Rousseau.