Alumni-run theater company gets In-Yer-Face

by Andrew Doerfler / Beacon Staff • February 16, 2012

Web polaroids poster
Chelsea Schmidt and Joe Ruscio, who play Helen and Nick respectively, are two of six Emerson alumni involved in the production.
Photo Courtesy of the Brown Box Theatre Project
Chelsea Schmidt and Joe Ruscio, who play Helen and Nick respectively, are two of six Emerson alumni involved in the production.
Photo Courtesy of the Brown Box Theatre Project

The Brown Box Theatre Project produces shows that might be hard to sit through, but that’s the point. The company wants to challenge audiences even if that means churning some stomachs.

Artistic Director Kyler Taustin, a 2008 Emerson graduate who founded the company in 2009 with alumna Kimberly Barrante in New York City, feels like Boston is ready for some discomfort. Brown Box’s upcoming production of Mark Ravenhill’s Some Explicit Polaroids, which premieres tomorrow at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, will surely test that.

The show is an example of “In-Yer-Face Theatre,” a 1990s British movement that bombarded audiences with raw, sensational images of sex and violence — and was widely panned as a result. The late Sarah Kane’s breakthrough work Blasted, for example, featured depictions of “rape, eye-gouging and cannibalism,” according to theater critic Alex Sierz’s website Inyerface-theatre.com.

“It was seen as gross. I’d completely disagree,” Taustin said. “When people are uncomfortable, it’s a sign of great writing.” He said that while the plays can be disturbing, their goal is to depict the honest choices of people pushed to their limits.

Polaroids, he said, is less gory but just as gruesome through its unyielding portrayals of sexual and emotional trauma. It connects the lives of a frustrated group of six that includes a Russian stripper, a despondent AIDS victim, a disillusioned former political firebrand, and a tortured (and allegedly torturous) ex-con. Domestic violence, abusive sex, and all-around self-destruction abound.

“There’s a constant question of ‘How do I get through this?’” Taustin said of the play’s characters.

Though the piece is just as jarring as it was during the movement’s early days, he said that because of the recent abundance of shocking images in other media, people will be more inclined to look through to the message behind it. Still, In-Yer-Face productions are rarely performed — this is the first production of Polaroids in Boston — and he hopes and expects the show to be challenging for the Boston theater community.

This is not the first time Taustin has tackled the genre. For his directing final at Emerson, he took on Kane’s Crave. He also led the development of an original collaborative piece for Rareworks called Civil Blood, an in-the-round production that Taustin described as similarly relentless in its confrontation of the audience. 

With these shows, he began working relationships with fellow Emerson students Joe Ruscio, Chelsea Schmidt, Scarlett Redmond, and Nick Chris, all of whom joined up with Brown Box for last year’s production of the Shakespearean comedy Twelfth Night, which toured Maryland and Delaware. Another Emerson alum, Terry Torres, came aboard for that show. All five star in Polaroids.

Working with his peers in Twelfth Night lured Taustin, and Brown Box with him, back to Boston (co-founder Barrante remains in New York to continue her career as a playwright). The company had produced two shows in New York, but Taustin was struggling with the costs of the city while trying to lead a theater company. Meanwhile, the other Emerson grads would frequently remind him of all the fun they were having in Boston, said Schmidt, who portrays Helen, the revolutionary-turned-politician. 

Moving to Boston, Taustin saw, would afford him a support system of talented people and less oppressive costs of living. Polaroids will be Brown Box’s first show since Taustin’s return.

Since coming back, Taustin has found the city more accessible than New York for emerging artists putting on unconventional work.

“The fringe scene is more accepting [in Boston] … It’s more of a community,” Taustin said. He acknowledged the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston as a helpful asset for blossoming theater companies.

The shared experience at Emerson has also been instrumental in allowing the actors to confront the uncomfortable situations their characters face.

“I feel like all the actors who have to [go to shocking places] feel safe doing it with these people around,” said Schmidt. “We want to work with people who we trust, and we have that trust with one another.”

Chris, who plays Russian go-go dancer Victor, agreed.

“We do horrible things to each other, but you know that person has your back,” he said. The mechanics of putting a play together can be smoother, too. The Emerson grads garnered a “common language” during their training at the college that allows quick and easy communication.

“It’s ironic,” said Chris, “because the play is about people who can’t communicate with each other.”

Despite that support system, Schmidt said, sometimes it’s rewarding to channel these characters’ frustrations.

“It’s been cathartic,” she said. “Getting to go there — over the edge.”