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Sleep Deprivation Chamber

18 Sep

Sometimes CakeIn15 blogger c.a.s. leads a double (or triple or quadruple, depending on the day) life. One of his other guises is that of Carl Atiya Swanson, actor and performer, now onstage at the Penumbra Theatre as part of the ensemble of Sleep Deprivation Chamber, a challenging piece of work by Adam and Adrienne Kennedy about the aftermath of a racially-motivated act of police brutality. Having opened this week, c.a.s. was lucky and shamelessly self-promotional enough to catch up with himself to talk about working at Penumbra, the difficulties of the play and drastic haircuts.

CakeIn15: How did you become involved in this production?

Carl Atiya Swanson: Auditions. Monologues and cold readings of sides, which is always nerve-wracking. I found out I was in when I missed a call from [Penumbra Artistic Director] Lou Bellamy one night and figured that he wouldn’t be calling to just let me down. I was up early and spent a very antsy hour waiting for an appropriate hour to return his call. It probably wouldn’t have been a good start to wake him up with my call.

C15: Sleep Deprivation Chamber is an ensemble play and you have worked in an ensemble mode before- Is this different?

CAS: “Ensemble” is a sort of nebulous term. I mean, this is totally different from things like Lamb Lays with Lion‘s Idigaragua or Savage Umbrella‘s The Awakening which were very much created collaboratively by a group of people. I mean, here I am doing a play with script that’s already written! With Sleep Deprivation Chamber you had all sorts of different performing backgrounds and styles coming together to share a stage and the ensemble work was more about finding out where people were, how to get people comfortable and balanced against eachother. We weren’t doing flocking or contact improv or anything like that, but it was more of a professional expectation that you would bring what you have to the table and be willing to push yourself into unfamiliar territory.

CI5: What do you mean by “unfamiliar territory”?

CAS: Well, first of all, Sleep Deprivation Chamber is a departure for Penumbra’s usual work. It is not a small cast naturalist or realist piece. It is much more avant-garde, if you can use that phrase with any meaning in a professional theatre context, in that the script itself is a series of deconstructed narratives around an event that take place partially in dream-states or memories, so there is not a traditional linear narrative to follow. That means that for the actors, figuring out where their character is in each scene, or for those of us in the ensemble chorus, where our multiple characters are and how to shift with clarity to communicate those scene changes to the audience is a big part of the process. I was really grateful for past work that has had me shifting personae onstage, and things like Viewpoints work that help fix intention and focus to really push that physical and emotional engagement. Then for me personally, I play not one, but two different cop characters, both of whom are engaged in abuses of power and just figuring that out was difficult, it’s not a particularly pleasant place to be.

C15: How do you prepare for roles like that?

CAS: With great haste, in this case. I only knew that I had been cast in the ensemble and they had asked me to grow my hair out at the first fitting a couple months before the first rehearsals, so I wasn’t even thinking about the cop roles as I read the script. Then at the first table read, Stephen [Cartmell] who plays the lawyer and was the only other white guys sitting around the table turns to me and asks who they have playing the cop. A couple minutes later, [director] Robbie [McCauley] pointed to me and said, “You, Officer Holzer”, so I turned to Stephen and said, “I guess that’s me.” I had to get about eight months of shaggy hair shorn off and that actually helped a lot just right off the bat. It’s easier to feel mean when you don’t have fluffy hair. But that night that I found out I had these cops to take on, I went home and read a couple things- the first chapter of Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed where it talks about how an oppressive system traps the oppressor as well as the oppressed and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” where he talks about groups giving up immoral positions less readily than individuals. It was important for me to think about these people as feeling right about themselves, even if their systematic position allows for injustice and wrong. Everyone, even bad guys, want to be their own heroes.

C15: Now that you’re open and you have some shows under your belt, do you read your reviews?

CAS: Sure I do, I would drive myself crazy wanting to know if I didn’t and people who say they never do are just trying to duck hearing other people saying negative things about themselves. It’s certainly not pleasant when people say negative things, but when people say positive or reflective things that helps balance it all out. Besides, if you do the work that you feel is needed to give the character or characters the focus and direction demanded of the production and keep things interesting for yourself, damn the reviews and full speed ahead.

Sleep Deprivation Chamber runs through October 10. For tickets, see or call 651.224.3180.

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