“Performing Ionesco is a sport”: Interview with EXIT THE KING director Tina Brock

Philadelphia’s favorite absurdist theater troupe, Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, is Fringing all Festival long with Eugene Ionesco’s EXIT THE KING. Henrik Eger talks to director Tina Brock about this intriguing production. [Walnut Street Theatre, Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St., 3rd floor] September 1-20, 2015; fringearts.com/eugene-ionescos-exit-the-king.

Jenna Kuerzi as Juliette and Bob Schmidt as the guard in EXIT THE KING. (Photo credit: Johanna Austin)
Jenna Kuerzi as Juliette and Bob Schmidt as the guard in EXIT THE KING. (Photo credit: Johanna Austin)

Henrik Eger: What made you select EXIT THE KING with its fin de siècle atmosphere, its look at death, dying, and decay?

Tina Brock: There is the Seize the Day theme. Life goes by quickly, particularly in our rapidly moving modern world. To focus on the essential and weed out the distractions is an art. There is a meditative quality about the last third of this play—a meditation on life and the end of life, on the roles we take on to keep the structure in place, the roles that we need in order to feel secure.

I also saw the play as a comment about valuing the time we have, and living for each day. The sections about time passing so rapidly struck a chord.

Eger: You seem to have a personal connection to EXIT THE KING.

Brock:Exit the King intrigues from the theme of honoring our elders, for trails blazed, and the wisdom of experience. This journey is happening in my family presently, and it informed the process. It’s painfully difficult, though beautiful and important to experience all of those conflicting elements at one time.

It seems the greatest gift you can give someone is to simply be there, which is the hardest thing when there’s literally nothing you can do to change the outcome. The idea of sharing the same space when “the end is near” takes on a new meaning—though, really, we never know when our time will come.

Eger: The plays that you have presented during these past ten years always seem to have a wider social and, perhaps, even political relevance.

Brock: In turbulent times, examining what matters to us most seems key, so as not to get caught up in the frenzy. This play interested me as not only in the singular journey of one man and the people around him, but the effect on the whole Kingdom and how, when the leader of a system cannot lead, the effect on the whole is systemic. Who steps up to do the necessary but difficult work of shepherding the person to the next place? How does the system react within?

Eger: You chose a great team of actors. What did they bring to these roles?

Brock: Performing Ionesco is a sport, really. The form requires the precision of a skilled group of team players: it’s highly technical, requires sufficient pace, vocal and emotional clarity, and physical precision. It’s more akin to volleyball than theater—which can be quite disarming to performers when you invoke the sport analogy. It’s one that Ionesco himself frequently used to describe the thrill of watching live theater at its best, commenting that it was like an exciting sporting event.

Eger: Lighting added greatly to this production.

Brock: Andrew Cowles understood the magical, ever-shifting mood that is Ionesco, translating the metaphysical into light and shadow, making the light a character–which is exactly what Ionesco asked for, namely that the elements be equal to create an experience larger than the sum of the parts: lights, sound, performers, costumes, and set design.

Eger: The costumes cracked me up, all beautifully done for this surreal piece.

Brock: Erica Hoelscher’s knowledge of costume history is immense. She researches and uses that knowledge, combined with her artistic sensibility. Her ability to understand performers, who they are as people, before they become the characters, informs her design. Erica takes into consideration the person she is designing for, and always builds on their strengths and individualities. Once that basic design is in place, we decide then what elements can be amped up to express the specific eccentricities of the character.

It’s a tricky balance, designing for this form. Costumes can easily veer off into absurdity for the sake of silliness, with no connection to the character traits behind the choices. Erica understands how the historical informs the themes. We share the same work and artistic ethic and a desire to take risks, despite a small budget.

Eger: Tell us about the inspiration behind the magical sound work.

Brock: I’m affected by and sensitive to sound and music and how it ignites my mood and creativity. I begin work on the sound very early, and it is often the first element completed before the staging. This [approach] informs the direction for the characters and serves as a touch point for the play. When I run into blocks about direction, I come back to the soundscape.

Eger: The audience was laughing a lot—even in the face of a King Lear-like loss of power and life.

Brock: I want to be entertained at the theater. And there are many ways to accomplish that. One way is also to be challenged, goaded, and required to think about life and the choices we make. It’s important for me to experience the work of many different artists and ideas: dancers, visual artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers—and to be exposed to entertainment that makes me uncomfortable and challenged. I want to be exhausted after having seen a show.

Eger: And how does EXIT THE KINGaccomplish that?

Exit the King doesn’t lend itself to entertainment as in “you’re going to forget your troubles and escape to Nirvana,” but there is a comfort to me in tackling the subject head on. It’s a disturbing play, no doubt, but so is living in our modern world. Once it’s a given that life is finite, and that “we haven’t the time to take our time” (Queen Marguerite), then every move becomes important and considered.

For me, this is entertainment of the highest order: it asks the questions, poses the issues, and allows us to bring ourselves to the table—hopefully leaving changed in some way.

Eger: Ionesco’s world is filled with constant contradictions, puzzling paradoxes, and absurdities that show the ups and downs of life.

Brock: As King Berenger says in his conversation with his Maid Juliette about the beauty of life, “It’s beautiful to be bored, and to not be bored . . . .” That’s what the plays the IRC chooses ask of our audience.

Eger: Tell us about audiences that love surreal theater.

Brock: Our audiences are an interesting, curious, spectacularly risky group, comprised of all ages and disciplines. What you will get with this experience is the “Anticipatory Ionesco Excitement”—a feeling that “something special will happen, and we will create it together.” It’s theater where everyone is trying to make sense of the insanity, coming together to share 90 minutes of reverence—and that’s the key—sharing the 90 minutes. We are changed for having been there together. It’s fabulous.

Eger: How ready do you think Philadelphia is for surreal theater the way IRC presents it all year round?

Brock: Very ready.

Eger: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Brock:  Eugene Ionesco said, “It’s not the answer that enlightens, but the question.”

Eger: Thank you, Tina Brock. Ionesco also said, “Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.” Your productions do precisely that.


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