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“We know there’s a take-off, we know there’s a landing, and everything in between is completely up in the air,” says Eric Wallach, director, producer, writer and all-around theatrical impresario. He could be talking about his mercurial career, or life in general, but more likely he is referring to his latest production, “Flight 18.”
This could be gleaned from the last three hours spent watching him and his cast rehearse in a former 6,000-square-foot Liz Claiborne retail space near New York City’s South Street Seaport. There are futuristic stewardesses, check-in counter clerks, TSA-like security personnel, pilots and passengers. There are improvised dance routines next to the dressing rooms, spontaneous sing-alongs in what will be a spaceship’s fuselage, and a gangplank lit solely by the yellow-neon words “FEEL FREE,” which is something of a mantra for this experimental and unprecedented performance.
“It’s all about the unpredictable expression of the moment for performers and audience alike,” says Wallach excitedly. “It can and will include live music, guest appearances, video, live television and radio, bits and skits. We’re preparing for a spontaneous combustion. BAM!” he screams. What it won’t include is rote theatre production, boundaries between performers and audience, or a formalized script. Wallach’s been down that road, too.
He caught the theatre bug early, at the age of six, after his mom took him to see a vaudeville show in Paso Robles, California. Captivated by the show’s wondrous possibilities and audience interaction, Wallach dedicated the next 30 years of his life to the stage. By the time he was in Chatsworth High School, he had studied Stanislavsky and Shakespeare, and was directing his first multi-disciplinary production. At San Diego State University he founded TRIBE – A Visual and Performing Arts Society that explored the possibilities of the collaborative arts. The university gave him the honor of having his all-arts play Millesgården produced by the university’s theatre department (and lauded by no less a figure than writer Edward Albee). But it was outside the world of academia where Wallach found his greatest success and inspiration. He credits four paragons of drama with whom he worked closely and who provided him with lifelong guidance. He learned a musical approach to directing from Tony-award winner Jack O’Brien, director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, as well as “Hairspray” and “The Full Monty.” For an incredibly intense few weeks in the mid-nineties Wallach had the good fortune to assist the great (and slightly mad) avant-garde director Robert Wilson, who was then collaborating with the Martha Graham Dance Troupe. Wallach describes Wilson as “possessed by the Spirit” and the one who taught him the difference between looking and seeing.
It was on New Year’s Eve 1998 that the great downtown performer Penny Arcade called Wallach and said, “We are going to work together for ten years.” The spell was cast. “Penny was who I came to New York to see,” says Wallach. “She is just so visceral and funny.” The two have collaborated on many pieces, including, most recently, Old Queen, which premiered at Dixon Place in 2009.
Within days of Ms. Arcade’s phone call, Eric received another call, this one from legendary experimental playwright and director Joe Chaikin. “He was a kind man and acutely aware of everything,” says Wallach. “Joe worked with the natural presence of the performer. His Open Theater changed how the American Theatre creates with an ensemble. He was the father I never had and I was the son he never had. We connected on a marvelous level. I miss him every day.” For almost five years Wallach found himself riding his bike between the two legends — Ms. Arcade’s Lower East Side digs and Chaikin’s West Village space at Westbeth.
His incredible experiences with theatre royalty manifested themselves in Wallach’s highly original and daring work. There was his mid-90s continuation of Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot” he calls The Didi Plays. The first act takes place in the theatre, the second (performed on Leonard Street at the Knitting Factory) was based on the structure of a hanging mobile with three different plots happening and revolving simultaneously. The final act happens in Central Park where Didi is murdered by children in the Rambles. Another piece was 1997′s Suc Daddy – an urban operetta about real estate, greed and lovin’ gone stale.
And then there was his astonishing “Radical Jew: 33,” a public art performance piece in which a bearded Wallach crucified himself high atop a lamppost at Astor Place clad in only an American flag with a sign above him that read “WAR?” This extreme expression spoke truth to a war predicated on lies and shamed a muted opposition and ultimately led to Wallach’s arrest and eventual community service – that is theatre!
And so is Flight 18, whose genesis began in 2002 when a friend gave Wallach Jack London’s classic 1908 novel “The Iron Heel” for his birthday (Wallach and London share the same January 12th birthday). London’s keen political critique of fascism resonated with Wallach. “It was not long after 9/11,” he recalls, “and I was stunned by the book. I thought, ‘How can I write a play based on these characters and events that can live outside a play-like structure?” He began by creating a flight manual based on the architecture of an actual 1979 airman’s manual he discovered at NYC’s Materials for the Arts. In 2003 he began searching for a venue to put on the show, but Manhattan’s skyrocketing real estate market made the proposition difficult until recently.
In November 2009, through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Swing Space Program, which matches unused office and retail space with artists, Wallach landed the former Liz Claiborne space through General Growth Properties. “Once I got into the place,” Wallach says, “the hundreds of ideas I’ve been developing and writing for eight years started flying out the door. The space began to tell me what it wanted. I am to listen and say Yes.”
He has also invited in a host of artists and composers along with an ensemble of ten which includes The Amazing Amy, a yoga contortionist; Bernice, a foot-washer; Josh Diamond, of Josh Diamond and the Brooklyn Soul; Ali Skye Bennet, a professional dancer; Orikl As-Salaam, the king of neo-blues and Weez Tomlinson, who is currently acting in Puccini’s Turendot. In search of authenticity, Wallach brought in two Continental Airline stewardesses with 23 and 24 years experience to explain to the ensemble exactly what they do. “Beyond their primary function of making sure passengers are safe, we learned that a big part of what stewardesses do is ‘the art of giving.’ One stewardess wept lightly as she explained that her favorite part of her job was boarding. That is where the crew gets to know the characters, size up people, see who’s who and then cast the show.”
Four times a week for five weeks beginning March 4th, Eric Wallach, as Flight 18′s Captain, is similarly looking forward to the boarding process. “I’m excited for the boarding too,” Wallach says. “The people are the show, the accumulation of energy. And I’m the one who gets to say, ‘Please unfasten your seat belts and move freely about the cabin.’ On board Flight 18 one can do whatever they want. The walls have all come down. We’re breaking the laws of space and time.”
Now that it is 2010, perhaps we’re ready to take off on this journey into unknown territory – where music, dance and people of all sorts can come together to get off the planet for a while. “Our spaceship is taking passengers where they want to go,” Wallach says, “Beyond beyond.”
Article by Andy Gensler, New York Times, Style Section