Call it extreme, supremely physical theater. Call Artistic Director Tina Taylor radical or accuse her of howling at the moon. It doesn't matter, because Taylor and the artists forming the core company of Theatre Lunatico know who they are and why they do what they do. Importantly, they believe the methods they employ hold promise for healing a fractured society.
In the intimate La Val's Subterranean Theatre, the company's upcoming production, Convoy 31000, tells semi-fictionalized stories based on 230 real life women who stood firm against fascism in the French Resistance movement during World War II. Rounded up, arrested and sent to Auschwitz, only 40 women survived. History has largely overlooked them, until now.
Convoy is written by Taylor in collaboration with the ten-member ensemble and includes poetry, music, song and movement. Workshops and immersive research invited the artists to choose the characters they found most compelling. Improvising in rehearsals, a raw script formed, shaped by Taylor with ongoing fluidity. "It's constantly changing, but it's one act with no intermission, starts in a Paris café, moves to Auschwitz," she said in an interview. "It's an enormous story and we don't in any way minimize by focusing on women from Paris, what happened to Jewish people in the Holocaust. Through all of that, these are human, moving stories."
Born in the United Kingdom, Taylor's career and personal life epitomize moving. Her early training began with dance lessons, before shifting to physical theatre, earning a BA in Theatre and Dance from Leeds University, and touring on the English fringe theater circuit. Relocating to the United States as a young adult, she has performed, directed, or taught theater with numerous Bay Area theater companies and at youth-custody centers, prisons and community service organizations. Trained as a domestic violence counselor, conflict resolution connects her work outside of and in the realm of theater and acting.
In 2019, she will undertake her largest move ever. Uprooted by the area's outrageous cost of living, Taylor plans to relocate back to the UK. She will maintain her position with Theatre Lunatico and return several times each year to direct productions.
"I'm 55, with an 18-year-old daughter who wants to go to college," said Taylor. "I'm trying to run a household on a single income and that, in the Bay Area, is not possible."
Taylor said she could earn enough money to rent a single room in a shared household, but that income level would then disqualify her for subsidized health insurance. Caught like so many people in the crosshairs of on-the-edge finances, limited health care options and high housing costs, Taylor said, "In the UK, I get medical care because it's a national service. Unless I live in London, rent is affordable. I can find work, have a two-bedroom home, and health care." Even so, she admitted, she's taking a fearsome, courageous leap.
As a director, Taylor has considerable experience "dropping her fear" and opening doors to possibility. "When you do that, magic happens. As long as it's within a mutually held goal, knowing we all have different paths to get there, collaboration happens." Taylor said she and all actors have to go through an emotional, imaginative process to land in a place enabling them to take the audience with them on a journey.
Getting to that place in rehearsals for Convoy was accessed according to democratic principles and a bonding process remarkably similar to the one likely followed by the women featured in the play. "How did they stay true and survive?" Taylor asked. "They came together. Women in war and the way they fight are stories not told. They've been there, in every war, actively involved. War's been defined as male territory: the same as leadership. I've thought a great deal about how we navigate that."
Thinking for Taylor often follows listening, regardless of whether she's working in a theater or a prison. "The work I've done has required it. I hope those skills have improved; to hear what I'm told and respond to it in a generous, authentic way. You're using theater to go deep into delicate issues. You tread carefully and compassionately. You create a safe, kind environment. I've learned to transfer that to working with actors while crafting a story."
Ultimately, thinking and listening leads Theatre Lunatico to action. In addition to regular performances, the company offers classes — "Monday Night Monologues," "Beyond Recital–Bring life to Shakespeare!" and more — and a Shoebox Reading Series featuring classic and new theater scripts.
The bestselling book that sparked Taylor's interest in the women in Convoy, Caroline Morehead's A Train in Winter, offers deep application to contemporary times. "The idea of a diverse group of women, fighting fascism in unique ways, then coming together after their arrest, it seemed pertinent today," she said. "I believe Trump has the potential to become a sadistic, violent dictator. All the time, I'm asking myself what do I do? I know it's happening: the 'war on women' from the face of the Republican party, Brett Kavanaugh's appointment, the attempts to undermine Roe v. Wade."
If you are Taylor and Theatre Lunatico, what you do is howl at the moon, then catapult into radical, fearless leaps.
Nov. 1-24, $15-25, various times, Theatre Lunatico at La Val's Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley, 415-215-4607, TheatreLunatico.wordpress.com