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Avant-Garde Men’s Therapy with Groundswell Players’ “Go Long Big Softie”

Posted September 6th, 2013

img_3342Flourishing from its foundations in long-form improv comedy, experimental theater group Groundswell Players’s brand of ingenious theater has come into its own in the Fringe Festival. Starting as a group of friends who met while studying at Haverford College, founding members Alison King, Jack Meaney, Jesse Paulsen and Scott Sheppard have swooped to the forefront of Philadelphia DIY theater scene, provoking outrageous and refreshingly self-aware conversation surrounding of a host of topics, historical and philosophical. They have responsible for such Festival favorites including How to Solve a Bear, The Speed of Surprise, Hackles, and 2013 Jumpstart Showcase’s The Living History Project. Groundswell Players emphasize collaborative artistic outlook and recently bulked up their performative arsenal by collaborating with fellow members of the inaugural class of The Pig Iron School, including Fringe Lab Fellow Mason Rosenthal (director, Hackles).

For the 2013 Fringe Festival, they’re once again armed with concepts as provocative and incisive as ever with Go Long Big Softie, a raw, clownish dive into the complex minefield of contemporary masculinity. For more insight, FringeArts recently caught up with artistic director Scott Sheppard.

“We take  a ‘what have you been reading lately’ approach.” Scott explained to me as  he broke down his inspiration. Groundswell  takes it upon themselves to stress relevancy in their artistic efforts by extracting from everyday material; they search for trends. As theater artists well immersed in the works of their community of peers, what really turned Groundswell’s attention towards theatrical dynamics of contemporary masculinity, was the overarching themes of contemporary femininity in two previous Fringe Festival shows, BANG! and Untitled Feminist Show.

“Charlotte Ford (BANG!) and Young Jean Lee (Untitled Feminist Show) dealt with feminine issues: fluidity of gender and sexuality identity and the liberation of the female body.  We were inspired, and that’s when we starting looking at the changing nature of male identity . . . to explore that  fluidity.”

1175526_561207853938848_749000257_nWhat Groundswell began to notice in the makeup of the contemporary man was that he was never alone. From Zach Galifinakis’s wolf pack speech in The Hangover to a slew of fraternally focused collegiate films streaming on FX, the modern dude has got to have his dudes. But Scott and Groundswell, feeding off popular gender portrayals such as subjects of Lynn Shelton films like Humpday and the stone foxy demeanor of Don Draper of Mad Men, began to see a flattening set of scapegoats in the “bromance trend” and the deeper multiplicity of male emotions.

“There are often relationships between men that are stuck in an archetype. We want to avoid getting to male sensitivity with coaxed in comedy–that  punch in the arm to let them know they’re still dudes. We want hold those scapegoats to show men who have problems with this type of contemporary masculinity. We wanted to go for that ingenious blend of Don Draper, being solid and able to fix a faucet, and the vulnerable Judd Apatow type . . . something both vulnerable and strong. In the 1980s, there were men’s groups who tried to be strong and vulnerable men, dealing with a generation of fathers who were mostly absent, unemotional, and strict. Guys like Robert Bly and Joseph Campbell from the mythopoetic men’s movement would go out and get in touch with nature, ancient culture, do a sort of initiation ritual as a type of male bonding. Not that Mason and I necessarily like these groups, but we liked the idea of being having a certain vulnerability among men, this idea of men’s therapy.”

Reinforcing Groundswell’s philosophy of self consciousness in theater, Scott stepped back from his speech for a moment of reflection. “A while ago someone said, ‘An all male piece on masculinity . . . but wait, isn’t that all theater?’  We’re striving for self-awareness. The audience is invited into a ceremony or ritual. We got the idea of creating an avant-garde men’s group, using clown technique, but also very vulnerable. Laughing all together, feeling that failure–it’s cathartic.”

Groundswell maps its deconstructive focuses onto the physical space of the piece at the soon to be defunct Torrent Collective. Go Long Big Softie will be the last piece ever performed there, providing the bare and crumbling architecture with the twin companion in its final use.

“This idea also started to infect the content of the piece because now the piece has incorporated the demolition of the building into the plot! This seemed to be so fitting with our thought that these old ideas about masculinity were being torn down for more contemporary thoughts on sex and gender. And so the very architecture of our space has become an exemplification of the thematic contention in the play. Is it okay to completely demolish something that has so much historical resonance? Is it necessary? Is nostalgia for this dilapidated space justified? Is nostalgia for outdated models for masculinity problematic? Pretty cool, we thought.”

Groundswell Players’s Go Long Big Softie opens tonight and runs September 6-8, 13-15, and 20-21 at the Torrent Collective, 938 South 8th Street, Bella Vista. Times vary, $10-$15.

–Maya Beale

Photos courtesy of Groundswell Players.

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