Theater Preview: The Riot Group
From the moment he picks up the phone in northern New Jersey, Adriano Shaplin begins to reveal himself: he's just poured himself a cup of coffee and grabbed an Oreo from the freezer. We begin the interview discussing the addictive qualities of specific junk foods -- a playwright and a journalist comparing notes on the guilty-pleasure fats and sugars we crave when writing. I tell him I don't allow that particularly dangerous Nabisco narco-cookie in my house, because one bag becomes a single serving. Shaplin's follow-up email later lets me know he stopped at nine Oreos that day, but concludes with a command to self: "Must steam broccoli!"
I had not expected this kind of casual, easygoing interaction from the 27-year-old Burlington-born theater artist whose career has taken him from the Queen City and New York's Off-Broadway to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was recently appointed first-ever International Playwright in Residence. In press coverage I'd read, Shaplin came off as testy and difficult: a contrarian challenger of seemingly harmless questions, perhaps a prima-donna-in-the-making.
But Shaplin remains thoughtful, charming, funny and down-to-earth throughout our wide-ranging hour-and-a-half phone interview. His avant-garde theater ensemble, Riot Group, has just returned from performing in Glasgow, where the cuisine is "pretty grim," he notes, and "McDonald's is practically the hip café." Scotland's new smoking ban surprised him; although he doesn't smoke, the trend toward prohibition in America makes him uneasy. "I'd rather live in a country addicted to tobacco than a country addicted to antidepressants," he muses.
What soon becomes clear is that Shaplin is unabashedly smart and opinionated, and certainly not shy about expressing himself on any topic. But when he catches himself sounding a little too esoteric about his philosophy of theater, he quickly adds, "Is that really pretentious? I'm sorry!"
Moreover, Shaplin seems almost boyishly excited to be coming home to perform two of the Riot Group's signature works -- Pugilist Specialist and Victory at the Dirt Palace -- at the FlynnSpace this weekend. He doesn't offer a pro forma happy-to-be-back-in-Vermont spiel, but genuinely credits his hometown for his artistic roots. Shaplin believes his childhood in the "People's Republic of Burlington" played a major part in shaping his "intellectual autobiography." Bernie Sanders became mayor the year after he was born.
"Being raised by iconoclastic hippies in this city with radical politics . . . Burlington is a huge part of who I am as a person and as a writer," Shaplin says. "I actually do believe in it as a city that means something. It's something very particular and very ambiguous -- and it's not something that I'd be ready to name." He gleefully confesses that this weekend "might be the first time I'm performing in front of a paying audience in Burlington ever!"
The Riot Group has achieved international success and acclaim since Shaplin and two fellow disaffected undergrads, Stephanie Viola and Drew Friedman, founded it 10 years ago at Sarah Lawrence College. "We were rehearsing in bathrooms and basements . . . in our bedrooms with clip lamps," Shaplin remembers, "without any support from the theater department because we had so alienated ourselves." When he moved to the Bay Area to pursue a Master's at Berkeley, the "company" came with him. Two other actors from Burlington later joined the trio: Adriano's younger sister Maria, and Paul Schnabel, who had starred in local productions in which Adriano had small parts as a teenager.
Shaplin has written all of the Riot Group's plays, but the ensemble's process of "deep collaboration" further develops them. "The priority is never what's on the page. That's because we work in a really old-fashioned way," he says. "It's not starting specifically with a play idea and with characters that then you find actors to match, but rather to start with the actors, start with the ensemble that you have.
"Basically . . . I write through actors. I write through who they are as performers, I write for their breath, and I write for the way they move," Shaplin continues. In the long view of theater history, he suggests, "It's a new thing for people to be text-focused, and for the celebrity of the theater to be the playwright."
In 1998, the Riot Group decided to take an early work to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. "That was the most ambitious thing we could do," Shaplin notes. At the time, he says, "It was the only festival in the world where you could be nobody and get reviewed in a national paper." (The Scotsman used to review every show.) The critics loved the audacious young Yanks, and the Riot Group went on to win three prestigious "Fringe First" awards.
The company's continuing success in the U.K. may have something to do with Shaplin's fearless confrontation of what he finds wrong with his own country -- a favorite British topic since the ungrateful colonies sent King George III packing a few centuries ago. In a 2002 review of Victory at the Dirt Palace -- a King Lear-inspired skewering of cutthroat competition in the corporate media -- critic Nick Awde applauded Shaplin for "ruthlessly hacking away at an American sacred cow."
Although it's tough to get Shaplin to comment directly on anything critics or journalists have written about him, he agrees that he's drawn to sacred cows. "I have a complete and obvious radical, near-religious rage at the state of the American political and social landscape," he admits. "I'm deeply, deeply suspicious of the world that we live in, and I'm expressing that suspicion through the plays that I'm writing."
But he adamantly refuses to be categorized as a "political" playwright, and rejects both the "liberal" and "conservative" labels. "The Riot Group are simply an ultra-opposition within the opposition, and primarily concerned with poetry," he states. In fact, Shaplin's writing tackles current issues in ways that are both timely and timeless.
Pugilist Specialist is an example of this. Four mismatched soldiers set out on a secret mission to assassinate the tyrannical dictator of an unnamed Middle Eastern nation. Shaplin wrote the play in March 2003, as major combat unfolded in Iraq, and it was first performed that August. Audience reaction has evolved over the past three years and 300-plus performances. Initially, it played as a comedy. But for a while after American atrocities at Abu Ghraib came to light, "We couldn't get a laugh," Shaplin recalls.
With Iraq in the headlines daily, the play seems intensely topical. But the playwright takes a longer view. "I think of Pugilist Specialist as being one little moment in essentially a 3000-year war. It started sometime way before any of us were born, this war between the East and the West . . . and it's going to go on way after we're dead." At the same time, the play "is about frustrating people's expectations of the type of story that they expect to see about soldiers. This is really not about four people that all think the same thing, but rather four people who all have completely different ideas about what the war is and what it should be."
Shaplin wants the play to stimulate questions, not prescribe answers. "A lot of theater artists of conscience respond to the war by writing agit-prop -- agitational propaganda," which Shaplin despises. "It's insulting to an audience to pander to their politics," he says.
Agit-prop is "dubious as art" and "boring," he suggests -- less about theater and more about "congratulating people for having the right opinion." Instead, Shaplin says, "I try to find things that I'm uncertain about, because theater is ultimately about dialogue between characters that don't agree." The end result "should be an open thing, like a Rorschach test that everybody has a different road into."
Both Pugilist Specialist and Victory at the Dirt Palace -- in which father and daughter news anchors compete while covering 9/11 -- are "about responding to events that are happening right in the moment, but responding to them in a way that isn't about the moment, but about the deeper problems," he notes. As characters trade sharp verbal volleys, Shaplin's stinging use of satire excavates issues beneath the surface.
Thematically, the plays seem a natural pair, but this weekend in Burlington is the first time the Riot Group has performed them together. They've both been mainstays of the ensemble's repertoire for a few years now. With "extremely minimalist" production design, says Shaplin, "they are basically the perfect touring shows."
He connects his teenage experiences in Burlington's alternative theater community directly to the Riot Group's success. "All of my values as an artist were shaped in that scene, specifically [Stephen] Goldberg as a writer and as an auteur, Green Candle as an ensemble and Michael Evans as a director," Shaplin recalls. On a practical level, he learned how to make "compelling theater with no money, inside crappy spaces. This is one of the reasons why we were so successful at Edinburgh . . . We carried this knowledge of how to make theater work under the most threadbare situations."
Crappy and threadbare shouldn't be concerns in Stratford-on-Avon, where Shaplin will spend time off and on over the next two years. At first blush, his new relationship with the Royal Shakespeare Company seems the ultimate theatrical odd coupling. For 10 years, Shaplin has been writing convention-shattering plays exclusively for his fellow actors in the Riot Group. The RSC, on the other hand, is a "really old, conservative organization," Shaplin reflects. "It's sort of dry, and it's really unhip, and I think you could look at it and locate it firmly as part of theater's decline."
Shaplin's criticism of the RSC was even more blunt last fall when he was invited to debate its director, Michael Boyd, in a public forum. The topic: "Is Shakespeare a millstone around the neck of British culture?" (In London, apparently, heated arguments about the theater attract vigorous crowds much as public beheadings once did.)
In pre-debate radio interviews to promote the event, Shaplin verbally roughed up the RSC publicity person Boyd sent in his stead. "I completely destroyed her," he recalls. "I was saying that the RSC was a necrophiliac organization with a funereal odor that's doing theater no good." It was his way of sending notice to Boyd that "he was going against someone who was ready to burn the house down."
Game on. "We went at each other's throats in front of a very captive audience," Shaplin remembers. "But it was all in good fun . . . Part of the way in which he undid my thing was by noting that my work is heavily influenced by Shakespeare. I was really just taking a position -- I love Shakespeare. But I was taking my angry-young-man position, which is anti-institutional and pro-ensemble."
Three days later, the RSC called Shaplin, and a series of meetings over the next few months gave rise to his newly created post. The young playwright sees the adventurous collaboration as part of a positive trend: established organizations looking to avant-garde groups for "a major blood transfusion."
Shaplin will be undertaking a variety of projects at the RSC. To assist with the ongoing complete-works cycle, he will serve as dramaturge on a production of Henry VI. He will finish writing a play he already has in progress about Robert Boyle, Thomas Hobbes and the birth of empirical science. ("A massive play," he says, "a real three-act monster.")
But what most attracts Shaplin to the RSC is that it is "dedicated to being a protective habitat for ensemble theater. Permanent companies -- it's a thing that nobody else in the world can afford anymore, but that the RSC actually maintains, and it's wonderful." As he gets to know the RSC performers, Shaplin will write a play that grows out of who they are. "They want me to do what I've been doing with the Riot Group, which is writing for actors."
And that is actually what Shakespeare himself did with his company of players 400 years ago. His plays were always living, breathing works in progress, penned specifically for his merry band of men. So in a way, the RSC-Shaplin alliance represents a refreshing return to something centuries old.
Methinks the Bard would be delighted.