A Q&A with Annie Saunders of The Day Shall Declare It
by Bill Raden
In a ramshackle, circa-1930s tenement railroad flat crisscrossed with clothesline and drying linen, a man and a woman enact a graceful if alarmingly acrobatic tug of war over a leathery vintage suitcase. It plays out as a kind of balletic, Apache dance-like breakup: the woman, writer-performer Annie Saunders, is repeatedly dragged the full length of the space — one moment pulled across the kitchen table, the next hauled by piggyback — as she feebly tries to prevent the man, British actor Chris Polick, from taking a runout powder on their fictional counterparts’ marriage.
It is a curious mix of Fred and Ginger by way of Ralph and Alice Kramden from the old 1950s/60s Honeymooners TV show. But it takes on an additional layer of the surreal as Saunders and Polick meticulously count out each step, as if reciting some sort of half-remembered form of physical algebra.
In fact, they are in the final stages of rehearsal for The Day Shall Declare It, a powerful and poetic, audience-immersive tapestry of stylized movement and lavish production values, with a script artfully collaged by Saunders (who also co-directs) and co-director/choreographer Sophie Bortolussi from Working, Studs Terkel’s oral history classic, and early Tennessee Williams One-Acts. The show garnered universal acclaim in its Los Angeles premiere last year, and the two women are about to open its remounted encore run in the same sprawling 3000 square-foot Downtown Arts District factory space.
Watching from the sidelines, Bortolussi finally calls a break. As she gives notes to Polick, Saunders takes a pull at a water bottle before sitting down at the kitchen table to speak to Stage Raw.
A native San Franciscan, Saunders came to Los Angeles six years ago after moving from London, where she was exposed to the experimentally created worlds of London’s Punchdrunk and Shunt theater companies, and where she worked with the immersive group Theater Delicatessen. She has described The Day Shall Declare It as emerging from her desire to create an experimental movement piece that explores the current economic upheaval in America.
Stage Raw: This is such a great old space.
Annie Saunders: When I got to L.A., I was kind of trying to figure out what I was going to do here and driving around and seeing a lot of really intriguing, seemingly abandoned space, especially downtown. And so I decided that I wanted to make work that kind of occupied those spaces temporarily. I mean, I just really was feeling like I wanted to explore those buildings, and I thought maybe this is the kind of work I want to be making in L.A. like inviting people into these spaces and creating these kind of temporary worlds.
Stage Raw: You seem reluctant to use the word “immersive.” Why is that?
Saunders: I definitely think it’s being used more and more as a buzzword to describe all kinds of different work. I’m not sure anybody ever knew really what it meant. I think it always meant different things to different people. For me, I guess what it’s always meant is just that there’s no apparent delineation between the audience and the performer. There’s no, like, “You stay here and we go here, and those spaces are two different spaces, and this is the line.” That’s always what I thought it meant. … For me, if you have that, if you have “this is the space for the audience and this is the stage for the performers,” — this is not an immersive experience in my definition, right?
Stage Raw: Okay. If the term immersive is over, what are you calling it?
Saunders: I don’t know. I say stuff like, “Do you want to come see the show?” People are like, “Oh yeah. Tell us about the show.” I’m like, “Well, you know, the audience walks around. It’s like that.” Sometimes I say, “Oh. It’s more like a movie set. There’s no kind of stage and there’s seat.” I just talk a lot basically. I don’t have a word anymore. Sometimes I say “immersive” and people go, “Oh cool.” I kind of think, “Do you have any idea what I mean by that? I’m not even sure you know. I’m glad you’re excited but I don’t actually know if you know what I mean.” We were in tech for this last year, and we were here really late at night and had some food delivered. The guy came to the door,— it was like 2 in the morning, and he [said], “I’m driving by this place, man. I was like wondering what was going on in here. This is so cool. Looks so cool. What is it?” I was like, “Oh. It’s like a play but it’s like the audience moves and there’s no, like, stage.” He was like, “Oh. It’s like 3D theater.” I was like, “Yeah. That works. That will work.” I mean, obviously, if you interrogate that, all theater is three-dimensional, but it spoke to me in a way.
Stage Raw: Why do you think immersive work has struck such a chord with audiences at this moment in history? Everybody coming out of CalArts now is doing immersive theater. What is going on?
Saunders: I don’t know. I mean I’m not sure. It’s possible that I’m not educated about the situation. I mean, you know, people have been for a long time excited by haunted houses, which is very much like in a lot of ways the sensation of a Punchdrunk show. You know, you have a mask, and there’s this very creepy element, and especially the work now. … I mean sometimes people say, like, “Oh, is your show like Sleep No More?” I’m like, “Well, it’s similar. You can move around but it’s not like a million rooms and you’re deciding and you’re alone a lot of the time. But here there are no masks. It’s much more about intimacy, I think. And there’s a ton of text. I mean Sleep No More is a dance show basically.”
Stage Raw: The Day Shall Declare It incorporates a lot of text.
Saunders: Movement and text is in equal parts. I mean we’re talking and moving pretty much the whole time. In terms of why people are excited, I mean, if we just say, “Okay. Why are people excited about making work and seeing work where there isn’t seating and a stage?” If we just take it as that. I think the answers are kind of exciting. I guess what I think first of all is that this is the screen age, and we are, I think, losing a bit of what it is to be human people with skin and muscles and sweat and tears and blood — the experience of having touch and proximity, really like an intimate experience among strangers with just human interchange: eye contact, touch, whispering, breath, and to be so close to a lot of heightened emotion and heightened physicality, really close. I feel like maybe in the digital age, there is a craving for that. I hope.
Stage Raw: Is this the same show that was here last year?
Saunders: It’s really never the same. Yeah. It changes. It changes every time. There are some concrete changes in this version, which is that we have this new amazing bar. We have outside partners running this kind of historically accurate kind of pop-up speakeasy with this amazing menu. … Also, every time we come back to this material, we find new things. I mean, just as you saw, like, the sort of details that we’re working in the choreography and the intention and the acting, there’s always depth. There are always more places to go. And it changes, you know. Like the season is different. We’re different. Our lives have changed. We have a new relationship to each other. Things change and we respond to that. Things in the setup change. I mean, even the layout is the same, but we have new pieces and we climb all over the stuff. All of that needs to be re-felt and readopted.
The Day Shall Declare It, 2051 East 7th St., dwntn; The intimate performances will run six nights a week, Tuesday through Sunday, with doors opening at 8:00pm and performances beginning at 8:30pm.; through June 19. Thisisthewilderness.com.