Writing Craft, Vol. VII: CORE Theatre Ensemble’s 40 Whacks

CORE Theatre Ensemble's 40 Whacks team: Edwin Castillo, Cayley Waldo, Steffani Dambruch, Paul Costen, Nancy Dickerson and Emel Ertugrul on the Little Theatre of Norfolk stage. Photos here and below by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — I caught up with members of CORE Theatre Ensemble this past week at Little Theatre of Norfolk while they readied their new play 40 Whacks, opening Friday.

Based on the Lizzie Borden murders, it runs for only three performances.

This talk discusses the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints training, CORE’s founding, and some of CORE’s past shows, including an adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper and the original piece You Vs.

The members of CORE are Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor, artistic associate and actor; Laura Agudelo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training assistant, artistic associate and actor; and Nancy Dickerson, artistic associate and actor.

The primary subjects are Ertugrul and Castillo, both of Virginia Beach and — full disclosure — longtime friends of mine. Sitting in were Dickerson of Chesapeake, as well as 40 Whacks actors Cayley Waldo of Norfolk and Paul Costen and Steffani Dambruch of the Beach. All were nice enough to humor my attempts at photography.

Showtimes are at 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 14, through Sunday, Oct. 16, at Little Theatre of Norfolk, 801 Claremont Ave., Norfolk. Tickets are $15 for general admission; $12 for senior citizens, students, and active duty or retired military; and $8 17 and under. The play contains unsettling images and some sexual content. Reservations are via (757) 627-8551 or at the Little Theatre site.

My thanks to CORE for the time — and for keeping it pretty clean. It had been getting a little salty lately in these Q&As. I’ll try to do better from here on out, Imaginary Mom Who Can Work A Computer. And of course call more. Love you lots.

This has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Can you tell me how CORE started?

Castillo: I guess this started because … we wanted to do it, really. (Laughter.)

Ertugrul: Well, we wanted to do a show that we wanted to make our own rules for. We didn’t want to do someone else’s piece. That’s usually what starts you with your own art, is deciding “I don’t want to do your art, I want to do my art.” So we did our art, and started involving people that – It’s not about finding people who agree with your art, but are willing to go along this way with you. It’s good to have people that agree with you just enough to feel comfortable to disagree and to make something beautiful. So that’s sort of how it started. It started with a conversation. And we’re still –

Castillo: Still at it.

Ertugrul: We’re still at it. I mean, five years later, six years later, we’re still doing it. It’s not like we started like, “You know what we’re going to do? In six years we’re going to be over there.” We did have a goal but it was much more immediate. It was about answering that first question, or answering that first desire of wanting to make our own stuff.

Castillo: And I guess our desire to create our own art, it’s not a slight against the theater scene around her at all.

Ertugrul: No.

Castillo: It’s just that we wanted to see something different out there.

Ertugrul: We wanted to do something different.

Q: From the start, there was a real emphasis on the physical Suzuki method. Could you talk about your influences? I don’t know if it goes back to (1990s performances at Old Dominion University performances of) MacBeth or (Eugene O’Neill’s) The Hairy Ape.

Castillo: Actually, it started with Hairy Ape. I met a guest artist Leon Ingulsrud (an actor and director  from SITI Company in New York) back in Fall 1997.

Ertugrul: Had you worked with “Bondo” at that point?

Castillo: I’d met him at ODU.

Ertugrul: Before (Ingulsrud), (SITI actor) Will Bond used to come down and work as a guest artist at ODU. One year, Will wasn’t able to do it and Leon came down to fill in, and then Leon kept coming back. Not every year, but for a good number of years.

Castillo: And the two of them belonged to the company in New York called the SITI Company, which was founded by Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki, who developed the actor method of Suzuki training.

Ertugrul: And they got together because Anne had been working on Viewpoints, which is a way of breaking down physical performance, any physical performance. It does stem from dance, but then they decided not only does it apply to dance it applies to theater, any kind of physical performance. She teamed up with Tadashi. (His) own company in Toga, Japan, does Suzuki, so they wanted to make a company that was utilizing both of these thing. That’s what SITI is now, and still is doing amazing shows. … Most of it is just about “Are you physically capable to do these amazing feats onstage?” Well, you can’t just walk on stage and do amazing things if you haven’t appropriately conditioned your body to do so.

Castillo: And the training itself, I mean, for practicality’s sake, the actor – the Western actor – does not have the type of training skills like other artists do. That’s why we believe in the training and also the SITI company. A dancer can always do their position one, two and three, and jete and all of that. … Musicians can do scales, singers, people who play instruments. But an actor really didn’t have any of that, except for memorizing a monologue and looking in a mirror. But there’s nothing physical to it. So the Suzuki method of actor training actually gives you something physical to work with that is really breaking down basic movements and seeing how exact you can be.

Ertugrul: What this training brings up for discussion is how do you know how to carry this character across the stage if you don’t know how your body walks? … If you don’t know yourself, then how do you put a character on top of that?

Castillo: In a physical sense.

Steffani Dambruch, center frame, during a rehearsal this past Sunday for 40 Whacks, opening Friday at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.

Ertugrul: This isn’t how to act. This is literally how do you carry your body as this character you’ve decided to play.

Costen: It’s like a precognitive way of deconstruction. I mean, there’s nothing intellectual about it whatsoever, but it’s something like deconstruction in that you break down the pieces and parts of what’s going on within your body and the space as it relates to your body and everything, but it gives you a greater understanding.

Q: Let me ask you about The Yellow Wallpaper, which, as (Castillo and Ertugrul) know, I loved.  … I thought that really married words that could have led to a melodramatic play into something really physical and visceral and interesting. How did that project come about? And I wanted to ask you specifically about the adaptation process (from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story).

Ertugrul: We sat down and said, “We want to do a show and we want to do it on our own and we … don’t want to buy the rights to do something.” The show that we had done just before that was something we had bought the rights to do and that’s fun, but we really wanted to make something that was completely our own.

Q: Was that Duranged? (Two Christopher Durang one-acts “The Nature and Purpose of the Universe” and “Titanic.”)

Ertugrul: Yeah. … After we had done (Duranged) we decided we wanted to adapt something. We sat down as a group and said what do you remember? What is the one story you really remember? And we came up with this list, and then we went back and we read them all. Just to see, “Well, is it really just my ninth-grade memory of it being such an awesome story. Or was it really a good story?” The one that won was “The Yellow Wallpaper.” And it really was the way that story was written — how it is done in journal entries — it lent itself so well to staging. From there we just started taking the actual words that she does as journal entries and started cutting it and making it into (the same) number of segments (as there are entries in the story).

Castillo: The fun part of adapting that was figuring out who were the characters. Really the story is just her, from her point of view.

Ertugrul: But the name of the story is “The Yellow Wallpaper,” not “Woman in Room.” So we decided that the main character in that story was the yellow wallpaper. The main character was it living and breathing and being comprised of more than one person. It looks different. It can sound different. It needs to be people doing this.

Emel Ertugrul, center, with Steffani Dambruch and Paul Costen in a rehearsal of CORE Theatre Ensemble's 40 Whacks.

Q: Can you describe how you took something to illustrate and used the multiple bodies of the actors to tell that story?

Ertugrul: One of the first things that happened with this training was we taught them how to move together. That’s the first thing, and that’s what the physical training does.

Castillo: The company for the show, for those who aren’t familiar, is a woman, the main character, and a husband, the other main character, but then we had a chorus of other people, was it six or seven?

Dickerson: It started as seven and then became five (when the play was restaged as a traveling production).

Castillo: So we had the chorus of people as the wallpaper and the binder between the chorus was this 80-foot piece of cloth, which we learned very quickly how to manipulate around the stage using the physical space of the theater.

Ertugrul: And the people.

Castillo: It really was just playing with how many ways can we utilize this cloth? As the story progresses, she becomes sucked into to wallpaper, and it becomes her psychosis of sorts because she sees people and talks to people in the wallpaper. So as the story progressed, we had the wallpaper on the outskirts of the space and it started intertwining.

Ertugrul: Into her world.

Castillo: At one point we’re actually holding her up.

Q: Can you talk about how you make decisions like that? Do you find that in rehearsal or do you know that going in?

Castillo: I say almost 90 percent of that is finding it in the rehearsal process.

Ertugrul: I think with that one we did have a completed script going in.

Castillo: But as far as manipulating the cloth and seeing how it works in different scenes, it was really trial and error.

Ertugrul: I do think we knew when she was finally gone, when she was really part of it, and we worked from there. … Deciding which emotion would go there.

Q: What’s it like to play a role like that? Do you feel like you have a say in the process of writing it?

Waldo: I think they came in with the adaptation pretty much taken care of. We played around with who would say what when and when our voices would overlap. Creating the show physically, it had to be a group process because there was no director who could stand there and say, “Okay, now move the wallpaper downstage.” We had to figure out this labyrinth of cloth together. We were playing one character together.

Dickerson: I had kind of a unique experience because (when Dickerson joined the cast) they had already done the show and they were changing it because it was based upon who was available and could drop everything and go to Canada for a week. I was like, “Hey, I can do that.” (Laughter.) So I would up taking on parts other people already had done because we took (the chorus) from seven people down to five people. The patterns of the wallpaper had already been established and it was, “Well, we have to take this down to five people instead of seven, but we need you to be here.”

Ertugrul: There was a lot of modifications where it wasn’t you just filling another person’s shoes. It was combining two roles. It was a completely different configuration.

Q: Did you cut apart the text or move things?

Castillo: I don’t think we moved anything, but we definitely cut.

Ertugrul: We put a scene in there where it was full-on dialogue between the husband and the woman, which doesn’t happen (in the short story.) It’s actually told all from her perspective. We made that scene. I’m going to be frank: I have not read that story since we did our adaptation, and I don’t remember what we changed. (Laughter.)

Castillo: On the adaptation side, it really did start with: “Here’s this entry; let’s read it out loud.”

Ertugrul: And go: “Boring. No. Cut it.” Or: “That sounds good.”

Castillo: Or: “Who says that? Oh, she would say that.” It really was that process at the very beginning. Just read it aloud.

Ertugrul: We had much more of an issue with Poe, when we did (The Poe [n. proj-ekt]), because there’s a lot of things that sound great in your head when you’re reading but when you try to do it (aloud) it wreaks havoc on your mouth.

Castillo: And there a point of adaptation where it’s “well, should this be said or is it an image?”

Q: Do you give the text a couple of passes and then start to figure out the movement?

Castillo: Yeah.

Ertugrul: The short story’s job is to put those images into your brain. Watching something theatrically, we’re supposed to show you that image with our actors. So one of the key moments of adapting is going, “Okay, what are we showing and what are we talking about?”

Castillo: Normally the adaptation is not a pretty process.

Q: I don’t know that gothic is the right word, but there’s a kind of aesthetic to the stories you seem drawn to. Also, I had kind of assumed that this stuff is in the public domain so in adapting it you don’t have to pay somebody.

Ertugrul: That was another pull.

Castillo: Definitely.

Q: Is there a consensus about the kind of stories you do? You guys do a lot of dark material.

Castillo: Well, we definitely —

Ertugrul: Well, you can say that, but You Vs. was not dark.

Castillo: There are exceptions.

Ertugrul: And Three Penny Opera can be seen as dark because it’s Brecht, but it itself is hilarious. It’s a very funny show.

Q: You’re sometimes taking source material and you’re kind of assembling. Do you look at it as a group authorship or do people take the lead?

Ertugrul: It really depends upon the show.

Castillo: I feel like with every show we want to get the group involved in the writing. I know with this show, I asked the group to bring in text that’s related. We have text from the actual trial of Lizzie Borden. We also have text from —

Ertugrul: A 1960s novel that was about the women’s movement of getting out of the kitchen and into the workplace.

Castillo: We have text from a Mike Tyson interview. … And Antigone.

Dambruch: I brought in a lot of Richard III. We didn’t end up using it.

Q: Why did you bring that in?

Dambruch: Richard III is one of my favorite all time plays. It’s very dark. There’s something about him as a villain … that I thought would be interesting to put into the mind of a woman.

Castillo: The theme I wanted (the cast) to go off of was crime, and one of the central themes of the show is getting away with a crime and guilt.

Nancy Dickerson during a recent rehearsal for 40 Whacks.

Q: What was it about Borden? Was it just that this is gruesome and it might get people in?

Ertugrul: I had read about it once before and I thought about the brutality of what it takes to whack someone 19 times in the head. What that sounds like. Think about how long it would take if you had to sit her and listen to me whack something, hit something 19 times. Really at eight or nine, you’re going to go, “How many times are you going to do this, lady?” You know? And Abby got 19 — that’s the stepmother — and the father got 11. That’s originally what started it. It was me, Nancy and Edwin, and we were over at Doumar’s one day, and I was like “think about that” over our milkshake and fries. (Laughter.)

Dickerson: Eating ice cream.

Castillo: So where we really wanted to go with this was, she got away with it. She was acquitted of it. Now how do you live with it?

Ertugrul: If there’s any question of where we’re going with this, of: “Did she do it?” We’re going with: “Yeah.” (Laughter.) We’ve done a lot of digging. Don’t read the first Wikipedia entry that you come to.

Waldo: Even the transcripts of the trial, there’s a lot of discrepancies there, too. Either it’s people’s stories changing or people not documenting things correctly. It’s very hard to get a true handle on this story because of how poorly it was recorded at the time.

Castillo: How does Lizzie live with the guilt?

Ertugrul: If you don’t get punished, you may punish yourself. … And the way that we’re staging the show is as a recurring nightmare. This is the nightmare she has almost every night.

Q: Do you tie it into the act of punishing the people she’s killed?

Ertugrul: No. It’s all about punishing herself.

Q: Let’s talk about You Vs. There was a really unique way you found content for that play. Could you just talk about that process?

Ertugrul: It started with True Office Confessions. (Laughter.) Yeah. There is this website called True Office Confessions and it is a venting board where anonymous people can go on and complain about where they work and the people they work with. It is actually extremely funny and every now and then you get one that is heartbreaking. … It started with this notion of, it’s always you versus. The way you start out your entire life is you against something else, and then you against you. So that became the outline of the show.

Castillo: Then we branched off. The beginning lines and the end lines of dialogue, we started with what do you hear kids say? Why is the sky blue?

Ertugrul: And we came up with all this stuff that wasn’t on the internet. And then the end of it we decided, “Well, what are the actual answers?” And between that, what happens between you being a kid and being a parent? … What happened was we did this (the beginning and end) and we were still hashing out the middle portion of it, and went what are we trying to say to them? That was the question. And we all had to sit down and go what are we trying to say to them?

Dickerson: It was a whole rehearsal.

Ertugrul: It was a whole rehearsal talking about what are we trying to say? Why did I ask you to come in and sit down and watch what we just did?

Q: Were you concerned about tying it up in a big bow too much?

Ertugrul: Yes. … And then what we decided was: “Go for it.” And if you honestly believe what you’re saying it can’t be too sappy. If we were acting at the end of that and didn’t actually mean it, yes. But we meant it. And finding that poem.

Q: Can we spoil the poem (at the end of the play)?

Castillo: “Oh Me! O Life!” by Walt Whitman.

Ertugrul: Using that reinforces what we showed about life being cyclical. … Using something older (than other “found” materials in the play) reinforces that.

Q: My favorite sequence is the balloons. I knew there was going to be some killer movement stuff because it’s you guys but it was like a play within a play. There was like a story. Can I ask you to describe that scene for people who haven’t seen the play?

Castillo: That actually came from something created by Laura (Agudelo).

Ertugrul: We had created short pieces for something that was done over at ODU … and we were taking Wallpaper to Canada. Brant (Powell) and Laura were still local and we were able to work with them where they were able to build two pieces. One of them was the balloon piece.

Castillo: We had taken personal ads from Craigslist and Portfolio Weekly, like, years ago, and The Village Voice … and reading these personal ads we were struck by the amount of hot air. … So we just turned that into a physical thing. We created a balloon factory, where a balloon started at one end, was handed over to another person, which was blown up (with) a little helium tank, handed to another person, tied with a string, and handed to another person to hang up. That was the sequence.

Q: And what happened along that assembly line at certain points, and these were little stories, was reflected in how well the balloon is made, whether it pops or lasts.

Ertugrul: And each one was placed in such a way that: “Okay, this one sounds very perfect. This one’s not so perfect. This one is too honest.” And then the color of the balloon would change. … It went on the scale of perfect to whoa.

Q: It’s not just the stories. It’s the actions, and there’s a range of motions that the stories have and the people handling — in a way handling the story as they pass it along — and there’s all these ranges of emotions as they pass it along.

Ertugrul: It’s funny to see someone reacting to a popping balloon.

Q: You have to do all this stage business and there’s so much movement. I think what I haven’t conveyed in describing this is it’s a very intricate process.

Dickerson: There was a lot of making sure I did or did not do things to certain balloons that I was working very hard to keep straight. … We talked about it as we went through it: “Wait, are we the people speaking? Or are we third parties putting the words into the balloons? Do we look at each other? We want to look at each other. Let’s not look at each other. Okay, we are not the people speaking. We’re the little magic men in the ATM who make the money pop out. So we’re the people in the factory who make these balloons. What are the balloons?” We ended up being objective third parties working in this personal ad factory …

Ertugrul: It would probably astonish people how much we talk about really specific moments. … That’s the precision. This show alone, that opening is very precise about where everyone is and where they’re looking and what’s going on.

Waldo: The precision you were just talking about, whether it is the minuteness of how do we blow up this balloon or the elaborateness of some big dance that’s happening, I think that’s what the training really helps you to prepare for. I think there’s a misconception with Suzuki training that … you’re going to get on stage and stomp all around the place.

Ertugrul: What does someone call it? “Stomping and shouting.” Do you guys stomp and shout on the stage?

Costen: Only in my mind. (Laughter.)

Emel Ertugrul and Edwin Castillo of CORE Theatre Ensemble at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.


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One thought on “Writing Craft, Vol. VII: CORE Theatre Ensemble’s 40 Whacks

  1. […] I talked with members of Core shortly before the first run of 40 Whacks. At the time, we discussed the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints training, CORE’s founding, and some of their adaptations and originals. This talk is with my longtime friends Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; and Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor and artistic associate. […]

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