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
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.


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