Although I’d heard and read about them, it’s only when we gather for the first time in a circle of chairs on the stark stage of Trinity’s Attic Theater that I get a sense of each venturesome member of The Aesthetic of Waste theater troupe. Comprised mostly of recent Trinity University graduates, the group was founded a little over a year ago and in mid-June concluded a 13-month run of their locally acclaimed production of We Stole This at the Overtime Theater. In White, their first true collaborative effort in partnership with AtticRep, the Wastrels (as they call themselves) not only get the opportunity to boost their Facebook following by performing at a higher-profile venue, but they’ll also reap a production value upgrade compliments of a bevy of the city’s foremost artistic creators.
AtticRep’s producing artistic director Roberto Prestigiacomo, who proposed the new work a year ago, was originally slated to direct. A change in his work schedule abroad resulted in a delayed return and the position transferred to managing director Rick Frederick whom audiences may recognize as the dapper, quick-witted co-host of Cornyation, among other notable acting and directing turns with the ’Rep.
We Stole This, which was “inspired” by the Chicago-based group The Neo-futurists’ Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, played most Fridays and since the show’s closing, the troupe has not performed publicly. Their plan is to return to the OT in October after a stint at the Houston Fringe Festival. The Aesthetic of Waste’s 23-year-old artistic director Seth Larson, sitting nimbly on a box directly across from me, describes their performance style as a series of vignettes.
“We are a performance art group that utilizes chaos and beauty,” he says. “[The scenes] can be very funny, then very serious, or they can be very absurd ... a mixture between the two.”
In We Stole This, the audience chose the order of the scenes to be performed. One of them was “Alcohol Olympics” where cast members drank onstage—then continued on with scenes that included doing push-ups until they drop.
“You drink before the show?” I ask.
“We drink before the show and during the show,” Larson says, although this new work might be a dry ship.
Noah Voelker, sitting to my right, says he enjoys writing more than he does acting. The 22-year-old believes that art should strike a balance between taking oneself “seriously enough” but not so much that the message to the audience is lost. “There’s not theater without what you’re sharing with people.”
His pale blue eyes are intent. “It’s just a whole bunch of assholes onstage being self-important.”
To my left, shifting rhythmically from side to side on a swivel chair, is Alyssa Sedillo. She describes herself as the “plucky comic relief.”
“I play Mexican women and servants,” she says. The actress/comic writer is bouncing a cartoon-like plastic sword against her leg. She is the only member still in college and the group’s only Latina. “I keep the affirmative action checks coming in,” she quips.
Sedillo is genuinely funny and stands out in an ensemble that prides itself on “serious things.”
With this in mind, I wonder if people ... well, you know, get what they do.
“At least 30 percent of the time,” says El Paso native Judson Rose who’s wearing a camouflage chef hat and also holding a plastic sword in a down-with-bedtime-forever sort of defiance. He’s the self-taught guitarist, singer, writer and actor of the group. Although he wants to keep the company accessible he doesn’t want it to “pander.”
This new production isn’t in danger of that.
White grew out of two classic French literary works: Candide by Voltaire (1759) and The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942).
On the exterior, a whole show inspired by these two particular works, which satirized and deconstructed popular philosophies of their respective eras, seems pretty pedantic.
Shannon Bishop, 24, who takes the reins of marketing and administration, is the only member of the group who did not attend Trinity, but instead, St. Edward’s University in Austin.
“Their work is very intellectual. There are a lot of obscure references,” she acknowledges. “Sort of like jokes for theater kids.”
Oh, good, so it wasn’t just me thinking that.
“We are not adapting Candide or The Stranger,” says Voelker with a dash of reprobation. “We derived certain elements from both books.” His legs are crossed and his arms are folded and, unless he is responding a question, his head hangs low through most of the interview as if trapped in deep contemplation.
“Would these stories be recognizable in the play?” I ask.
“In some instances, yes.”
And then he lowers his head again.
“A lot of us are just as lost as Candide is in his bizarre world hundreds of years ago,” says Larson whose uncommonly gifted speaking voice would be worth the ticket price alone. “This is just insight into how this generation feels and this is how our group’s generation is responding to the world that’s been created for us.”
To Rose’s left is Abigail Entsminger, who is the group’s prop mistress and choreographer. She also takes on “the animal and monster roles.” She plays a mean spider, I’m told. She and Larson spent a summer in Oxford, England, and saw 15 Shakespeare and Marlowe plays in six weeks; an influence which may have contributed to their love of classic theater.
After I’ve gotten to hear from all six members, Frederick introduces me to guest collaborator Libby Mattingsley, 26, who’s been sitting in the theater, quietly observing from a distance.
“I got to meet these kids about three weeks ago and was lucky enough to be brought in on the project,” she says. “I schmoozed my way in, essentially, over a glass of fine Bourbon.”
Mattingsley plays the female lead opposite Larson. The rest of the cast makes up the remaining 19 characters.
“This level of awareness that we have [today] lends itself to this ‘What is it that we do?’ ... ‘How are we going to be happy?’” she says. Although only a few years older than the average age in the room, she seems like the group’s Liesl von Trapp, the eldest of The Sound of Music’s singing family.
She tilts her head, then squints her eyes softly and continues.
“There’s a burden that comes with possibility ... with the ability to do more you also feel like ‘how do I fit into it?’ ‘How do I make my path significant and important?’”
“We are hitting on some sound universal ideas but we are doing it in a very opulent, expressive—sometimes goofy way,” she says.
Mattingsley’s choice of the word ‘opulent’ serves as a reminder of AtticRep’s unrivaled reputation for actualizing a visually arresting theatrical experience that many may describe as nothing short of a moving painting. Last season’s Smudge is a sound example of that.
“We get our attention to detail from working with visual artists,” says Frederick who never really stops in his tracks long enough to sit down. Instead, he chimes in occasionally. “We’ve collaborated with [visual artists] over the past couple of years because they challenge the way we think about theater.”
In the show, Mattinglsey is joined by fellow guest artists Guy Hundere, Hills Snyder, visual artist/actor Jeremiah Teutsch and singer/songwriter Rachel Ziegler.
Devoted patrons and Waste fans alike may wonder if AtticRep’s visual prowess can be woven into the fabric of this young troupe’s decidedly “aggressive” and sometimes “violent” theater.
“I’m not sure we had an expectation about what this would be,” says Frederick who admits his biggest challenge was to “stay in the process.”
When Prestigiacomo returned from Europe, he caught an early run-through. Frederick describes his response with an amusingly dead-on impression: “Oh, there’s a lot of nice things in there but where’s The Aesthetic of Waste? Make sure you don’t lose The Aesthetic of Waste.”
“It’s like taking what you do to another level,” says Frederick in response to the concern of losing the spontaneity of the troupe’s original formula.
“Do you think you’ll lose the fans who like it raw?” I ask Bishop.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a watered-down version of The Aesthetic of Waste,” she replies. “We’re not losing anything, we are growing.”
“Does Frederick understand what you guys are?” I ask. Judson Rose snaps his head towards Frederick. Then, a pause follows.
“There was definitely a learning curve for all of us,” Larson begins. “Like we would all bash on certain things ... there were things that we didn’t want to give up ... we weren’t communicating it well. But once our language—our vocabulary—met together...”
Putting on hold a discussion concerning an onstage guillotine, Frederick rejoins our conversation.
“My biggest concern is that we would have a peer difference,” he says. “[That] there would be authoritative issues ... and I don’t operate that way. It seemed we could meet each other as peers rather than deal with a generational gap.”
Frederick explains how, when they would run into a situation where they would each have the same name for two different ideas, he would patiently ask the younger set to “define” the thing in question.
“We try not to say ‘no’ to each other,” he says magnanimously.
Frederick’s no slouch when it comes to intellectual approaches either, and working with this younger group seems to have stuck in his craw.
“We have this generation coming out of college raised by the people who said, ‘All this is open to you. You can be who you want to be and you can think the way you want to think.’ But we live in a world where you can’t think the way you want to think and where you can’t [get] a job,” Frederick says. “It’s this cycle we’re in that we can’t get out of. We don’t have the options we once had.”
“Is there an economic element to the show?” I ask.
“There’s an economic element, a social element.... There’s the idea of happiness and that even if you’re lost you have to pretend that you’re happy,” he explains, albeit obliquely.
AtticRep’s show synopses are often vague, something The Aesthetic of Waste seems content to continue because after an hour and a half interviewing the Wastrels, I still don’t have any idea what this show is about.
What I do know: The show will run about 80 minutes without an intermission because, as Larson says, crinkling his nose, “Intermissions are passive.” Audiences should be warned that there is nudity and an interactive continuum in the show. Because, after all, that’s kind of what the Wastrels do.
Sure, White appears to be more than a little academic, but these theater kids are way more than “just a whole bunch of assholes onstage being self-important.”
Yeah, I stole that.
A Collaboration with The Aesthetic of Waste
8pm Thu-Sat, 2:30pm Sun
One Trinity Place
Through Sep. 1