by Billy Ray Brewton
“Tell the story!” is what I kept hearing over and over in my head as we readied A Beast/A Burden for its run at the 2018 Hollywood Fringe Festival. That was one of the many catch phrases I learned from the great Carl Stewart of Birmingham, Alabama, a man who was equal parts theatrical genius and foul-mouthed ambassador to all things sordid and Southern. But that one phrase - “Tell the story!” - really is just about the most important direction a director can give his actors. And I found myself uttering it a lot.
Maybe to myself more than my actors, but it was something I needed to keep hearing. Because theatre is, if nothing else, about telling a story, whatever that particular story might be. A Beast/A Burden was and is a story about the performance artist, Chris Burden, and it’s one of the two shows featured in Nature & Purpose, an evening of performance we’re bringing to the SoHo Playhouse in January.
Chris Burden was one of the most controversial performance artists in history, and his legacy continues to inspire and amaze. His transition from avant garde performance artist in the 1970s to a contemporary sculptor and creator of amazing feats of artistic skill (Urban Light and Metropolis II at LACMA are examples) is something to behold, and while we don’t focus on that transition, we do pay special attention to the early days that made him who he was. And this whole project - and story - came about when I saw a documentary about Chris Burden in a small arthouse theatre in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then texted my lead actor, Ben Hethcoat, to tell him that I’d found his doppelgänger. It’s as close to kismet as I’ve ever gotten with a piece of theatre. It’s the amalgamation of content and creator; artist and performer.
This show is a first on numerous levels. It’s the first piece of theatre ever created about Burden and his work. It’s also the first time we’ve performed this piece with Pollock: A Frequency Parable, the second half of the evening that comprises Nature & Purpose. And it’s the first time I’ve been fortunate enough to bring a piece of theatre to New York City, which can also be said for the entirety of my amazing cast.
Though we only have a limited engagement of four performances, I genuinely hope we can expose audiences to an artist they might have known very little to nothing about, and hopefully inspire them to dive deeper into his work. This production exists unto itself, but also to keep Burden’s legacy alive and thriving. The most fulfilling aspect of producing the show in Los Angeles was hearing audiences talk about how seeing the show sparked a curiosity to experience more of his work for themselves.
Someone asked me recently to ‘give them the elevator pitch’ on A Beast/A Burden. I don’t know how anyone sums up this kind of hard work and process in a single, short summation. But, if cornered, I guess I’d say - “It’s a show about a showman and a human being being human.” At least, that’s what it’s about for me. Someone will see it as a statement on the art world and the definition of ‘art’ itself. And that’s awesome. Someone will see it as a dissection of a man who balanced on a thin line between protagonist and antagonist in his own story. That’s pretty awesome too. Extrapolate what you will - it’s all fair game! But, between our show and Pollock, the goal is to give you an evening of theatre you can’t find in NYC on every street corner. We’re bringing some West Coast to the East Coast, and that’s pretty goddamn exciting.