Flux Theatre Ensemble is talking about and doing the kind of work that makes people fall in love with theatre. I remember my fellow brooding highschoolers sitting backstage, talking about how they were going to change the world and how they just wanted to make people feel. And it all seemed possible. Flux is comprised of those highschoolers grown up, but with clear ideas, and the talent, creativity and drive to make it happen.
Change in the face of adversity is key to this young theatre company. Change is built into the name, the artistic and business practices, and the mission statement: “Flux Theatre Ensemble produces transformative theatre that explores and awakens the capacity for change.” After speaking to Flux's award winning (and unassuming) artistic director, August Schulenberg, about the company he co-founded, pithy aphorisms kept running through my head. “Change you can believe in.” “Be the change you hope to see in the world.” “A vote for Flux is a vote for change.” And if I seem effusive, it is only because when speaking with Schulenberg, he comes across so darn smart and passionate and likable and grounded and well...even the cynic in me just hopes it can all be true.
To be clear, Schulenberg does not assume the mantle of a revolutionary, but when he talks about what he wants to do and how he is already putting the steps into practice, he sure sounds like one. He displays an intellectual exuberance as he tries to walk me through the central problem he seems to have located, “Evolution is something that is not particularly kind, but it is inevitable, and we as human beings are constantly adapting to difficult things, unexpected things, joyful things and if we don’t have our capacity for life built up by story we are not going to be able to deal with them. We are not going to be able to change in a way that will lead us to survive, and not just survive, but have joyful meaningful lives.” Wow! He talks like that. And it is amazing! Schulenberg is engaging as he spins his convincing argument, touching on, in no particular order: neurobiology, the shared history of democracy and theatre, evolutionary biology, art, politics and current events. It’s a pretty expansive aesthetic theory of everything. And his solution to this problem of survival? Stories.
Schulenberg described the work of V.S. Ramachandran, a noted neuroscientist, specifically imaginative empathy. The quick and dirty version of the science is that if you photograph a brain while you are kissing your crush for the first time, it lights up almost identically as if you were watching another go through the same experience. As Schulenberg puts it, imaginative empathy “allows us to experience stories we wouldn’t otherwise experience . . . you are drawing on the experiences of lives you have almost lived.” By bearing witness to the stories of others in an emotionally engaged way, you are learning how to live in this world and adapting to those difficult and unexpected situations; your capacity for life is built up story by story.
Schulenberg and the members of Flux Theatre Ensemble are no strangers to adaptation. Schulenberg told me how in 2005 the seeds of Flux were sown during the production of his play Riding the Bull. It was fraught with adversity and bonded them together into what would eventually become Flux. Years later, adversity reared its head again while trying to produce J.B. (by Archibald MacLeish) when, well into the production process, the rights were denied. After an emergency meeting, Schulenberg decided to write an entirely new play using the same cast and design concepts. Twenty-four hours later he presented a first draft to the cast. This is the kind of energy and bravery that inspires great theatre.
It is also the kind of energy present throughout Schulenberg’s reflections on theatre, community and the company he helped found. It is also present in the practices of Flux, which has developed an astonishing sixty-eight plays this past year, working with an estimated hundred or so artists. And this is where it gets really exciting, because Flux is not just out to change the individual audience member. It is developing practices that could change the idea of how an theatre company integrates artistic and business concerns. The second half of Flux’s mission is to “unite artists and audiences to build a creative home in New York.”
It starts with those sixty-eight plays, which were workshopped through an ongoing weekly program called Flux Sundays. There, a group of artists who are not necessarily part of Flux’s ensemble “lightly stage” plays over the course of three hours. They are presented to an audience that is open to Friends of Flux, a body of artists, donors, frequent audience members . . . anyone who has made a “sustained commitment to Flux Theatre.” Once a month the Friends gather for SpeakEasy, a town hall where everyone, artists and audience together, can brainstorm new ideas. The company can be held accountable to its audience and the audience can “feel like they have an active role in the destiny of the company.” It is community dramaturgy where Flux turns to the audience to ask what stories they would like to experience or rather, what lives would they like to experience.
There are more programs run by company. Have Another take scenes workshopped at Flux Sundays and presents them in bar so the audience can come to “hang out with a community of people they like and also experience theatre.” There’s Food:Soul, potlucked staged readings. Flux is turning audience building into community building and community building into an art. ForePlay is a series for artists to riff on the themes of the full productions Flux presents. I am not quite sure where they find the time for this onslaught of theatre, but bless their sweet hearts for it.
If all of this feels overwhelming to you, I'm right there with you. It's not all revolutionary, although they make it feel that way. Flux is a young company that is only starting to crystalize its identity. There is a wild, gestational quality to Schulenberg as his acrobatic mind leaps from idea to idea. In one telling moment in our conversation, he paused and laughed, “I could go into so many ideas right now, this is the problem with me.” Potentially a problem, (a strength pushed to its extremes can become a weakness), but not likely with this competent leader.
Flux's latest production, Dog Act, is sure to be an entertaining and rich experience. It follows a vaudevillian troupe of two that is crossing an inhospitable, post-apocalyptic wasteland to find a gig. If they make it, everything will change. They pick up stragglers along the way. The troupe’s community grows and shrinks. Secrets are revealed. Reminiscent of Beckett, but still its own, Dog Act is a “story about this theatre company going through all this adversity because they have this story they feel like they need to tell." It is a dark, whimsical and touching comedy, filled with song, dance and comedy.
Schulenberg has been in love with the script for almost ten years. I am going to take a guess that this play just might sum up his sweeping view of life and capture a bit of meta-theatricality as well. Will Flux live up to its aspirations of heady, challenging and visceral theatre with this production? I hope so. Schulenberg is an artist who is in it for the long haul. He recognizes that Flux is “quite young,” but “there’s no sense in hitching your life to anything small.” Certainly not.
For the sake of theatre everywhere, go see, support, and be a part of Flux. If they can capture the rough magic that they are trying to conjure, their work will not disappoint.
Dog Act opens this Saturday, February 5th, and plays through February 20th at the Flamboyan Theater. For more information and ticketing info, visit Flux Theatre Ensemble’s website at www.fluxtheatre.org.