Erik Ehn’s The Saint Plays: A Director’s Journal
As an assistant professor in the Theatre Arts program at Westmont College, I am always on the hunt for interesting new material. In spring 2005 I discovered The Saint Plays by Erik Ehn, a series of short pieces Ehn describes as his “exploded biography, or the means by which the self is overmastered by acts of the imagination, by acts of faith.” I was at once intrigued, excited, and mystified by The Saint Plays. It’s filled with impossible images such as this one: “A wolf jumps up from the horizon; its jaws open nearly wide enough to split its head in two. The wolf holds the moon in its teeth.” Saints and angels, pirates and prisoners all clash together in Ehn’s strange yet compelling world. I had no idea how I would direct these plays, but I thought it would be wild to try. Erik Ehn, who has been described as an aesthete, mystic, anarchist, seeker, radical, and collectivist, is currently dean of the school of theatre at CalArts, which is known as the premiere graduate program in the country for alternative theater. Inspired by the text of The Saint Plays, I decided to contact him about coming to Westmont. I was even prepared to offer him a commission out of our budget, which is not extravagant. His email reply? “Hey, it ain’t about the money. If there’s a piece of fruit, potable water, and six feet of floor to sleep on, that works.” I couldn’t believe it was that easy, but it was. Thus the Saint Play Project was born. December 2005 Erik Ehn arrives at Westmont and pokes his head in the theater for the first time … cautiously. He’s dressed in black jeans and an old fleece vest. I am not sure what I was expecting but this isn’t it. He is early, the students haven’t arrived for the workshop, and so I step out to get something from my office. When I return, he is sweeping the stage. Who is this person? He agrees to come to our college to develop this play, offers to donate his fee to a local soup kitchen, and now he is cleaning the theaterF upon his arrival. Erik Ehn’s style amounts to this: the pursuit of constantly opening. It is how he talks about the relationship with God. Does something open you or close you to the infinite? For the first days of the workshop, we constantly practice opening — opening to image, to impulse, to intuition, to gesture, to rhythm, and to imagination. We write constantly, making lists of real rivers flowing into imaginary oceans where sailors breathe underwater and collect treasures. We clear our minds and allow images and questions in, then write on the images, our words spilling out, messy and free. We go on image journeys and we write the whole time. We make up band names, the songs on our first album, and then we sing the songs to each other. We play with perspective and voice and create plays and movements out of the clashing. I am continually astounded at the sheer amount of writing and unfettered imagination that we generate during the four days that Erik is with us. Erik asks us about our most powerful theatrical experiences. He talks of image-building, the rhythm of styles in plays, the audience’s desire to create narrative, the effectiveness of simple ideas combined in complex or unexpected ways, and creating the rubbing tension. Using only three sentences, we tell the stories of Moby Dick, the Bible, and our lives. We move into Hamlet. We write the story of Hamlet in three sentences. And then Erik is gone. I reread the existing Saint Plays while we all wait for the new one, the one he is writing based on our encounter. Finally, there’s an email update from Erik: “Plodding away, but I will be able to beat the New Year deadline. … [the new play] is kind of range-y and Shakespearean. It’s St. Vincent meets Hamlet (literally) as told by the 14th Ophelia, who is a cowgirl being pursued by an evil duke. Locations include Tunisia, France, England, and Oklahoma … at least, that’s where we’re at today! More news as it breaks, e.” The new play arrived, breathless and brilliant. It’s called “Rogue.” Joan of Arc, Maximilian Mary Kolbe, and St. George are all falling into place. When Erik was here he talked about meaning coming at the end of the artistic process, about not starting with the end result, and about the ability to listen and to allow space for inspiration. My intuition about The Saint Plays project was right, you know. It has been really wild to try.