Brave New Theater
Departing Paper Chairs director exposes Hillcountry Underbelly
Between natural disasters, religious miracles and musical numbers, there’s a lot going on in Paper Chairs' newest production, Hillcountry Underbelly. And that’s just the way director Dustin Wills and the rest of the company like it.
Underbelly is the third production by Austin’s high-stakes theater troupe Paper Chairs, and this entirely original piece, opening Friday night, is a mythic Central Texas tale about planting familial roots in order to survive life’s approaching storms.
The metaphor is clear, but how the company executes it is far from simple.
As Wills recalls, “Liz Doss, [the playwright] began writing a play about her family’s experience growing up in the Texas Hill Country. But we kept finding these strange exciting facts that had to go into the story, and it just kept evolving.”
After six or seven rewrites, all of the best pieces were stitched together, and the patchwork story took on a mythology and chronology all its own. The company refers to this fractured subjectivity as “Surregionalism,” a mix of hyper-local and imaginary artifacts, places and events that resemble real life.
The result is a set of six endearing orphans tossed in the air like dice that lands in an unfriendly playing board resembling Blanco, Texas. After the death of their father, their bonds as a family are put to the test.
To up the ante, each of the six actors is paired with a musical instrument that they carry with them and play during the bluegrass-inspired musical numbers (written exclusively for the show by the team of Mark Stewart and Elizabeth Doss).
This physically demanding treatment of the actors has become synonymous with Paper Chairs’ aesthetic. Wills admits he’s rough on them because he’s especially interested in the “mechanics and labor of theater.”
While this Brechtian approach is not a new concept, it certainly is not often seen in today’s speedy, unionized theater spaces. Audiences today expect to see unnamed stagehands all in black swiftly moving props and set pieces behind the curtains before actors arrive in the next scene.
In the company's last two productions, last year's Machinal and Baal, the backstage was removed altogether and every costume change and action was visible to the audience. In effect, the actors in a Paper Chairs show never stop performing from beginning to end.
“Theatre should expose, not hide,” asserts Wills. “I want to see what the bodies are doing as much as I can in a show.”
Is it exhausting for the actors? Absolutely. Think of it as a two-hour workout where you're also delivering complicated monologues and singing.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in theater,” says cast member Jenn Hartmann. “It’s hot as hell, I’m carrying a guitar, running around, singing and trying to hit all my cues. It’s hard as shit.”
And if you thought the audience gets off the hook, think again. At Paper Chairs productions, the audience gets taken on a visceral and intellectual ride as well.
Hillcountry Underbelly is set outside in the Vortex yard in order to capture the sensory experience of the outdoors, bugs and heat included. (Editor’s note: Vortex Artistic Director Bonnie Cullum installed a misting system to combat the former and bug spray should deal with the latter.)
Wills also admits that nothing about this show is explained concretely. Symbols are left up to the audience to decode, and storylines are tied up sometimes through mythical means. Part of the fun is watching what crazy ends each of these characters meet.
“I want my audiences to be challenged,” states Wills. “I get bored with theater that’s easy. I call that Slushie Theater—colorful and easy to swallow. I never want to be responsible for that.”
With the themes of family, loss and planted roots, it’s appropriate that Hillcountry Underbelly be the last show Wills lends his directorial talents to the troupe for a while. Wills was accepted into the prestigious M.F.A. Directing department at Yale and begins this fall.
“Of course it’s a dream come true!” Wills says in his signature rapid-fire inflection. “But I don’t even have time to think about it. I’m not even thinking about anything until the show goes up. Then I can laugh and cry and celebrate with my friends.”
Since their inception, Wills has had his hand in the majority of the decisions made at Paper Chairs. The group prides themselves as a collective, but it is undeniable that the outspoken director has been the most prominent face of the group.
The dynamic wunderkind garnered multiple Austin Critics Table Awards immediately after graduating UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance in 2006. Afterward, he spent two years producing work at The English Theatre of Rome. Any theater producer in town can attest that Wills is certainly a force to be reckoned with.
“Before I knew anything about this show, I knew I wanted to be in it because Dustin was directing. I had to be in something of his before he left for Yale,” says Hartmann.
“Oh, please. I’m just one person who's part of a family,” Wills demurs. “True, I’m a bit of a control freak and I obsess about details. But now somebody else can do that! I’ll still be stressing out about the shows here while I’m learning Chekov on the East Coast.”
When asked about his plans for returning to Austin, Wills replies, “Who knows? I may hate it [at Yale] after one week and come right back. Or I may stay there indefinitely. Who knows? I don’t look any further than tomorrow.”
In his absence, Paper Chairs will continue planting their roots in Austin. This Central Texas family is excited to continue developing their unique blend of risky, visceral drama and challenging the local independent theater scene.
It’s too early to think about what comes next. But regardless of what floods may come, this family knows they’ll be able to weather it.
Hillcountry Underbelly plays at the Vortex yard Thursdays - Sundays, Aug 5 - 21 at 8:30pm. Friday nights feature free whiskey drinks provided by What Will They Think of Next party planning.
Tickets are available through the Paper Chairs website.
A Kickstarter campaign has also been posted to help raise funds to pay the hard-working performers.