Interview With Lyam White, Creator/Instigator of the UMO Ensemble’s Maldoror: The Birth of a Villain

(Courtesy of UMO Ensemble) From left: Ryan Higgins, Christine White, Lyam White and Sharon Barto in UMO Ensemble’s Maldoror: Birth of a Villain.

Lyam White is a playwright and actor that has been active in Seattle for almost 20 years now. In the interests of full disclosure, José Amador has not only collaborated closely with White in the past, he also considers White a close friend. They first met at Open Circle Theater in the late 90s, where they worked together on Bertolt Brecht’s Edward II and numerous other projects, including Amador’s direction of White’s Sunken, a kitchen-sink-dramedy combined with zombie-gore and a surf rock soundtrack, in 2000, long before such things were fashionable.

Since leaving Open Circle, White has worked as an actor in numerous shows at different companies; Titus Andronicus and Marat/Sade at Balagan Theater, Antony and Cleopatra with Greenstage last Summer, and Pugilist Specialist with The Wrecking Crew, to name just a few. Primarily, however, White has performed with the venerable UMO Ensemble, Vashon Island’s nationally renown physical/movement theater company. There he has served as the main writer behind Fatal Peril, Final Broadcast, and Red Tiger Tales, along with providing his unique physical and dexterous presence.

Maldoror: Birth of a Villain is UMO’s latest project, and the first to be created (or “instigated” to use UMO’s language) by a non-founding member of the company (White himself); the work is based on Les Chants de Maldoror, Le Comte de Lautreamont’s late 19th Century novel that is considered to be the progenitor to the Surrealist movement. Collaborating with White on the project is Andre Sanabria, an artist also known as blowupnihilist; together they intend to bring a work that stretches the boundaries of what UMO normally does, while providing something that defies description. The piece will be performed September 13th through the 15th at Northwest Film Forum as part of their Live at… series; then the production moves to Fremont’s West of Lenin for the following two weekends.

As is expected, the project has a Kickstarter campaign, which is coming to an end late Monday afternoon. At the time of this writing, they are less than $1,000 away from meeting their goal. The campaign’s pitch is embedded below.

Amador and White discuss the how Sanabria has influenced the creative process, what drove White to select this seemingly unadaptable source material, and how the project’s ensemble has mutated known clowning disciplines for their own purposes.

Seattle Star: How did you and Andre Sanabria connect? How did you decide on this project?

Lyam White: I first met Andre when he started volunteering for me here at ACT [where White works as a volunteer coordinator–ed]. Incidentally, that’s also how we got hooked up with Northwest Film Forum; he was/is a volunteer there, as well. His illness had him on disability, and prevented him from working full time, so he volunteered just to keep himself busy.

[Sanabria suffered from extreme pulmonary hypertension, a condition that occurs when there is a tear in the walls between the chambers of the heart. As a result of this tear, de-oxygenated blood skips the oxygenation process in the lungs and circulates through the body, while oxygenated blood simply return to the lungs without having served their purpose. The lungs end up shutting down over a period of years. In April 2011, Sanabria underwent surgery, repairing his heart and receiving a lung transplant. When reached for permission to share this story, Sanabria joked, “Yeah, I sold my soul to finish Maldoror.”–ed]

SStar: Has he fully recovered from the surgery?

LW: Considering that during 12 Minutes Max he was barely on his feet, and now he moshes at his own shows, hauls his own speakers, and has been exercising, yeah. He’s pretty much transformed; he’s in better health than he was before he even knew that he was sick.

Anyway, he manages the front desk for me for a few hours every Monday. I’d be standing there, opening the mail, talking to him, and it turned out we had very common interests in that regard. A certain jones for early industrial and postpunk music, certain mutant strains of metal and pop, and so on. We came at it from different angles, but for a lot of the same reasons.
And he gave me some CDs.

SStar: CDs of his work or other stuff?

LW: Oh, his work. At first. He would introduce me to a lot of other stuff later, acquainting me with the contemporary “noise” scene. His work was…striking. Not exactly something I can play at most gatherings I attend, or even the ones I host. But there was something inescapably unique, and of a flavor I wanted to capture.

Now, by that time, the notion of adapting Maldoror in some way or another had been swimming around in my brain for a time (lord knows why; it’s not like it’s adaptable AT ALL, in any of the usual senses of the word). I hadn’t quite connected Maldoror, UMO, and Andre. That would come shortly thereafter, when I did UMO’s revival of El Dorado out on Vashon. [Performed in the fall of 2009; UMO would do El Dorado at ACT the following summer.–ed]

So anyway, once I put all the pieces together…Really, Andre was the catalyst that made it all work. Indeed, for some time, exposing the theater world to the particular warped genius of what Andre does was my primary agenda. As the ensemble grew, the totality of what we were collectively took that over, but there’s no denying that there’s something very, very different about what happens in workshop rehearsals when Andre turns his tangle of unearthly delights on.
SStar: It seems like you’ve been talking about some aspect of this production, if not always specifically about using Les Chants de Maldoror as a source, for some time. Am I off in that impression? I recall there being a lot of talk about an “industrial musical.”

LW: Yes, I’d been itching to weave industrial music into a theater piece for close to 15 years. While this isn’t a musical in the stricter sense–I’m going more with the way that UMO uses music onstage as part and parcel of a broader theatrical ritual–we will have a “song” or two in something like the more traditional sense of the word.

But yeah, I’ve always found it interesting that while theater has taken to new technologies, it often seems to do so with music only by using “canned” sounds, often calibrated to sound like real instruments, rather than exploring the ways that technology and distortion are manipulated live. Exceptions abound, of course, but I haven’t seen a lot of it.

SStar: So Andre will be doing some live aural manipulation?

LW: Oh, yes. He won’t be running a CD; he’ll be playing his MPC 2000xl sampler/drum machine, his laptop, his guitar, his keys, etc., live. As well as manipulating various effects pedals, connected to all of the above as well as to mics–handheld mics, as well as at least one floor mic–capturing sounds, songs, and text from onstage, even from the audience.
Andre and I have jokingly used the term “headphone theater,” but I’m not really sure how much of a joke that is.
SStar: In other words, show up loaded on coffee and the mind-altering substance of your choice.
LW: [Laughs.] Yeah! There’s definitely an element I’d call . . . well, if we say that psychedelia is a tendency that predates modern usage of the term, there is a psychedelic element to the show. Proto-psychedelic, maybe, the same way that Lautreamont was proto-surrealist.

Surrealism spent a lot of time exploring the automatic, the subconscious, the images and evocations that arise before you have time to impose anything on them–narrative, morality, even notions of civility. Lautreamont explored a tendency of a similar sort, but in 1868-1870. It was sort of an emergent property of Romanticism, I think, and of Gothic works like Lewis’s The Monk, or even Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Whereas surrealism began in the 1920s. It was really in its fullest bloom in the 20s and 30s, though, like, say, punk, it remains as a tendency in a lot of art that came after that time frame.

SStar: So when you say “proto-“…

LW: Proto- simply referring to the fact that it was psychedelic before that term was coined. And for our purposes, surrealism and psychedelia are both concerned with alterations of perception–hallucinations, synesthesia. Non-sequiturs. So if Lautreamont’s work is proto-surrealist, it’s because he abandoned narrative to the mechanisms of the subconscious before an entire movement arose to make such a thing fashionable. Surrealism, in turn, predates psychedelia in its exploration of this mental state as a valid cultural pursuit.

SStar: From what I recall, you had a notion of the kind of emotional terrain you wanted to explore, a sound you were aiming for, and that it would involve some form of Buffoon work.

LW: That was the original vision. Although, we’ve moved away from Buffoon, in a strict sense of the word–I think that’s important for the purists to understand. But there’s something of the Buffoon, the irreverence, the exuberant amorality of the child or the animal, that has definitely survived.

SStar: The UMO purists?

LW: I’d say, the Lecoq/physical theater purists, in general. Buffoons have a very specific function, which is to mock social institutions. Lautreamont did that intermittently. But I think his real focus was certain internal aspects of the human psyche. Not the external, or the social, but the collectively psychological, in the Jungian sense.
SStar: The amorality has survived, but what else mutated? What hasn’t?

LW: I’d say the primary mutation is that we’ve gone from the misshapen Buffoon poking fun at man to a new kind of physical theater being representing the latent nihilistic impulses in man. It’s more self-satiring than the Buffoon. The Buffoon is an outsider who mocks man by imitating him; the Zoomorph–which is what we’ve been calling these–is an insider exposing the absurdity of its own condition, exposing the ways that society fails to protect us, in any meaningful way, from nature. Either capital “n” Nature (red in tooth and claw, per Tennyson), with its ambivalent cycles of beauty and terror, creation and destruction; or our nature(s), the lens through which we individually and/or collectively experience the world.

It sounds really heady, I know, but by exploring this largely through animal characterization, and allowing characters to freely metamorphose between animal and human, and by exploring some key common territory with Buffoon (specifically, their proximity to children), we actually find something very elemental. Something funny and brutal, and occasionally, unexpectedly tender.

It’s something that’s supported by the source material very well; Lautreamont’s tirades, after all, are highly populated with shapeshifters, talking animals, bizarre acts of bestiality.

SStar: How did UMO react to this? I mean, this sounds a bit outré, even for them.

LW: There was some concern, from their initial point-of-view, an understandable concern. They are magnificent people, who firmly believe that we can all get along, consume less, fight less, and generally be better towards one another. And the thing is, I believe this too…

They were concerned by the idea that I’d be looking into these dark, nihilistic places without a suggestion that we, as sentient beings, can cure them, or redeem them–which is not to say that I don’t have an opinion on them, or that said opinion won’t have a bearing on the presentation. I have an opinion on the dark places, on nihilism, on the desire to wipe it all clean and start over; but to me, it’s like having an opinion on monsoons. [Laughs.]

Our opinions on monsoons won’t keep them from happening. Even our deep knowledge of monsoons won’t stop them, or be consistently effective in protecting us from them. But they’re worth knowing about, because they’re part of the world in which we live. Like most of nature’s destructive forces, they bring tremendous beauty in their wake. I think that there’s something of that in our bloodlust, our conviction that we could do better than [G/g]od(s) at creating the universe, that if we could only vanquish the right enemy, we could get it right where history itself has gotten it wrong.

Those energies need to be transformed; and to transform them, we must examine them before we pass judgment on them. For if earthly desires are enlightenment, so a creative and compassionate impulse lies at the heart of our spiritual tantrums.

These last several workshops have really driven that home for the UMO personnel involved; that there is hope and redemption in the piece. There is levity, humor; and that it’s arising organically, not being shoehorned in. Actually, of all the things I might have worried about, that I never doubted.

SStar: UMO’s work in things like Final Broadcast and the like isn’t exactly whimsical at its source.

LW: I think that the notion that time is a construct is whimsical in itself, even if the work had a more platinum sheen. The notion that violence comes from nature, rather than from society, is a bit uncomfortable to those who support a relatively “back-to-nature” philosophy.

I think that some of the anxiety comes from differences in age and background, but I don’t want to be presumptive about that. I’ll just say that I’ve never been what I’d call cynical, and I think cynicism is precisely what they fear when I speak of material that recognizes violence and impulsivity as an integral aspect of nature. When it became clear that cynicism was not my engine or my fuel, that this wasn’t about “wallowing” in anything, a door opened up, and we found the transcendent.

SStar: Let’s talk a bit about the other people you’re working with. I understand you’re bringing [former Open Circle Theater Artistic Director] Scott Bradley back from Chicago to direct this piece, how did that come about?

LW: Well, so, we didn’t have a director. And being an ensemble–or, at the very least, a collective–we wanted a director that was either within the ensemble or one who could easily be collectively vetted. Elizabeth [Klob] was drawn to the material as a designer, which was awesome. I can actually think of few, if any, others I would have wanted to have on board in that capacity.

Anyway, there were some local names that had been suggested to me by sources whom I trust deeply, but it’s hard to keep someone on the UMO timeline–glacial in its travel between points on the timeline, but absolutely frantic and crunched when the money comes through and the dates get set. Elizabeth asked if I would consider Scott Bradley. And without hesitation, I said yes. Elizabeth, Christine [White, also in the cast of Maldoror and Lyam’s wife], and I had worked with Scott extensively in Open Circle back in the late ’90s, early aughts.
SStar: Was there a specific project he directed during your time at Open Circle that helped make the decision?

LW: Well, three come to mind, each of which had something we’re hoping to emulate with Maldoror. The Shadow, the whimsical take on a “dark” fairy tale. Genet’s The Balcony, the link to a ritualized, transgressive neo-classicism. And Little Boy Goes to Hell, a straight-up rock opera, just for its balls-out assault.

There are probably others. Veggie Underground & Nikko serves as a great template for creating entertaining connective tissue for joining disjointed narratives. In all of it, there’s that skill for blending dark material with something that suggests, without quite being, high camp. Not that I object to crossing, occasionally, into high camp.

SStar: But not as the central motif to a piece.
LW: Well, that’s the trick, to treat the nihilistic aspects of the pieces with some respect without bringing everyone down; conversely, to find the joy, the humor, the fun in the grotesquerie and nihilism without trivializing it. Scott was the guy, he understood both the dark and the light of the piece.
SStar: So Elizabeth Klob will be designing materials for you, did she help out with the creation of the piece as well?

LW: Oh, yes, she and Janet McAlpin have been instrumental in bringing focus to our workshop explorations. I feel like it’s not immodest of me to say that I’m a solid physical performer, but there’s a different muscle involved in leading a workshop wherein you connect physical theater creation to source material, to theme, to narrative. Elizabeth’s passion for Viewpoints and floor plans and compositions, and Janet’s strength in taking us through the steps of building animal characterizations, and recognizing potent, organic moments of unison or syncopation . . . they’ve really been invaluable.

SStar: What about your fellow cast-mates?

LW: Oh, jeez, where to start? I’ve had visions of doing physical work with Ryan Higgins since the first show I did with him (Titus; where I had the pleasure of slitting his throat and feeding him to his mom in a pie). He brings an athleticism, and a sense of danger, to anything he does.

My wife, Christine brings a bawdiness, a fearlessness, a transgressive eroticism. She also took to the animal characterization very well, and has a revelatory grasp of the text. And Sharon Barto is probably one of the best listeners I’ve every worked with; she takes signals before you’re even conscious that you’ve given them.

She and Christine both bring something that I think is all too rare in actors, and so very, very crucial to generative work–a porousness, an egolessness, a selfless, munificent attitude. A focus on the ensemble’s work, rather than on the individual work.

Kajsa Ingemansson has only come on board for this last session, but she melded in beautifully, and brought a marvelous, catalyzing influence. She’s just so magnificently coiled–what she has doesn’t emerge until it does, and you almost notice how much better it’s made everything else before you realize how brilliant what she’s doing is. Plus, for such a gentle lady, there’s a steely, predatory focus to her animal work that’s just plain scary.

Everyone just works so well together. That’s key, not just in the usual sense of ensemble. I mean, I’m credited as writer, but as with any UMO show, the ensemble really creates the scenes; I just try to capture the best stuff and cobble it together. I don’t assign characters; I look to what emerges, see what pieces of the source material evokes a response with which ensemble members.

Oh! And Michelle Takashima, our stage manager, who is a peach. She actually does a good bit of what should be my job as head writer, but that’s the nature of the way UMO’s pieces are built.

SStar: You’ve done the piece at Annex’s monthly cabaret, Spin the Bottle, and at On the Boards’ 12 Minutes Max. How was it received in those venues?

LW: The response was great! I mean, a lot of head-scratching, but I expected, and continue to expect, that. But some good, hearty laughter, as well, particularly the last night of 12MM.

SStar: What drew you to this material? Why use this as your first piece to instigate at UMO?

LW: You know, Janet and I have talked about how Maldoror brings my journey at UMO, thus far, full circle. In the sense that, while the tones and moods are actually quite different between this and Fatal Peril (my first project with UMO, where I served as a performer and a writer both), my theme is either narrower or broader than “the human impulse towards violence” (not sure I could find a satisfactory answer whether it’s narrower or broader). Where my first entry into UMO was composing for someone else’s views on a similar topic, my first outing as instigator revisits some of the same questions, re-phrased. I’m still writing about violence.

Before I go any further, no list of personnel would be complete without mentioning Isidore Ducasse, who, under the unwieldy pen name of Le Comte de Lautreamont, composed the feverish tome Les Chants de Maldoror.

SStar: Why Maldoror though?

LW: Well, it had first been envisioned as a Buffoon piece; and while it didn’t fit the definitions of a proper Buffoon piece, in the end, it was still that sensibility that it shared with El Dorado that had initially inspired me. Unlike a lot of the ideas that were floating around in my head, some of which were straight genre pieces (usually horror), or abstract metaphysical treatises I’d have to create from scratch, this was a ready-made piece that was abstract, metaphysical, and horrific, in addition to being bizarrely hilarious.

There was a Marquis-de-Sade-meets-Lewis-Carroll quality that resonated with me.
In a sense, the themes and subject matter were almost an afterthought, it spoke to me so viscerally; it lived in my blood like a fever that just wouldn’t come down after the first reading.

I think it was the ambivalent balance between a vicious misanthropy and a strange, moralistic, philanthropic streak, the tirades of a being who declares himself the enemy of man for what man does to himself, and the enemy of [G/g]od(s) for what the creator visits upon creation. Or what the creator made it possible for creation to visit upon itself.

SStar: Give me an example of something that stayed with you from that initial reading.

LW: The ones that haunt me most actually only landed on a second reading, because they happen early on in the book, before the horrors on which they comment. One that lives somewhere in my spinal column:

“He who sings does not claim that his cavatinas are utterly unknown; on the contrary, he commends himself because his haughty and wicked thoughts are in all men.”

Or: “Do not speak of my spinal column, as it is a sword . . . You wished to know how it came to be implanted vertically in my back.”

Or: “I am the son of a man and a woman, from what I have been told. This astonishes me … I believed I was something more. Besides, what does it matter to me where I come from? If I had had any choice, I would rather have been born the male of a female shark, whose hunger welcomes tempests.”

It’s hard to break the appeal–particularly the theatrical appeal–down into passages, though, since so much of the book is filled with beautiful (and, truth be told, cinematic) flights of fancy, along with a fair amount of absurd word play.

SStar: How do you bring the humor out of source material like that? Does it also exist in the text?
LW: Yeah, there is a lot of humor in the text, or at least a lot of over the top absurdity or grotesqueness. A lot of it strikes me, in the reading, as fodder for Terry Gilliam treatment, circa, say, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

SStar: In the creation process, how do you make sure that both the grotesque and nihilistic qualities are mined?

LW: Truth be told, a lot of that comes from assembling the right team. Good thing I did! Aside from that, I’d say a lot of it comes from approaching the material in a spirit of play, and to allow the “characters”–such as they are–to do the same. That is, make no assumption of seriousness.

There’s an episode in the book wherein Maldoror (who isn’t necessarily a character in and of himself in our show the way he is in the book) witnesses a shipwreck. Determining that no one should survive so glorious a moment of destruction, of mass death, Maldoror, on seeing a swimmer making a valiant and plausible effort to swim for shore, loads a rifle and shoots the swimmer in the shoulder.

It would be easy, but not very interesting–nor true to source, nor even accurate in its description of the act–to treat such thing as a serious event. I mean, not to say that one should be callous regarding the loss of life. But as an act, it is absurd. It is random. Its reasoning is presented as perfectly sound; the argument is even convincing. And in that, it is satirical, but on a strange, elemental level.
The philosopher of destruction is a product of both nature and society–the worst and funniest of each. Nature’s amoral failure to distinguish between phenomena according to value, and civilization’s capacity to codify value according, ultimately, to whoever makes the “best” argument, which is either the one that can’t be beaten or the one that is agreed upon by the greatest number of organisms.
SStar: Who is your ideal audience member for this piece?

LW: Ha! That’s an interesting question. First and foremost, I think that all artists are also audience members, and I think it’s crucial for artists to think not only about what they want to say or what kind of art they’d like to be “caught” making, but also what kind of art they want to see. On some level, the audience I’m looking for is one that resembles me in certain key ways–well-read, but perhaps less formally educated than some peers; capable of appreciating “high” art, but also inclined to the loud, the brazen, to genre and spectacle. Someone who thinks art should be entertaining and entertainment should be artful.
But working with Andre has confirmed my desire to appeal to an audience that doesn’t necessarily go to theater–though they don’t necessarily not go to theater, if that makes sense. Metal, industrial, noise, hardcore, postpunk…The people who belong to these scenes have been blending the esoteric with the demotic for years.

And because I think this piece revives, in some sense, the “ritual” aspect of theater, that threshing-floor call to the gods of earth or sky. I think anyone who has had an experience of theater that transcended their ability to describe it will get something out of it, because it shares with those people in the audience a hunger for an evening of performance to be a shared experience of awe at…whatever.
In this case, “whatever” means the absurdity of life, I think, the seductive power of our worst impulses, and the way that both our best and worst impulses emerge from the same desire–to remake the world according to a more palatable template.

SStar: Is that last also something you hope to impart upon whoever comes?

LW: Oh, sure. Mind you, I think that what I will “impart” will also include a good deal of doubt in the value of one’s impulses, which I also think is…maybe not a good thing, but not exactly a bad thing. That is, I think that we all think we’re the good guys, and that our visions arise from pure intent, and I kind of hope that I can cast a shadow of a sort on that.

But conversely, I think it can also give us a sense of joy, or at least pleasure, or, heck, at the very least, some kind of empathy for those whose sense of truth and mission is the opposite of our own.
I’m not convinced that the worst of us is any worse, or even all that different, from the rest of us.