For some people, summer is a magical time filled with craft breweries and standup paddleboarding. For others, summer is an offensively warm time getting in the way of the best season filled with falling leaves, sweater weather, and haunted houses. Combustible Company clearly falls in the latter category: before the leaves have even hinted at turning, they’ve been hard at work on crafting Bluebeard’s Dollhouse, a sort of horror house mashup of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with the classic bloody fairy tale Bluebeard’s Castle.
If you don’t recognize the name Combustible Company, this might be because they were previously know as FTF Works, a name that you might not want to search for while at work. The St. Paul-based theater company made its debut under the old name during the 2008 Minnesota Fringe Festival with Herocycle, and adopted its current name in 2015. Their current piece, Bluebeard’s Dollhouse, unfolds at the historic James J. Hill House in St. Paul from Sept. 30-Oct. 15.
Combustible Company founders Kym Longhi and Erik Hoover spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine on the genesis of this immersive theatre experience.
Bluebeard’s Castle and A Doll’s House are not exactly stories that scream “Mashup!” How did the idea of combining these first arise?
Erik: This particular concept was Kym’s idea, so I’ll let her explain how exactly it came to her, but it’s not as crazy as it may seem. Both stories are captivity tales in their own ways and both contain a measure of violence. In one story it’s physical and in the other it’s emotional. Both contain secrets that threaten to destroy the heroine. I think it’s easy to think of Ibsen’s work as strictly naturalism because that’s how it’s typically produced today, but there’s deep symbolism at work in the piece and I think there’s plenty of room for interpretation.
Kym: As I was researching the Bluebeard fairy tale, I was struck by the power that marriage had over a young woman’s life – how Bluebeard’s bride was essentially held captive as wife, even as his property – and that the only real agency she had was to explore forbidden knowledge. This reminded me a lot of Nora in Ibsen’s play: she is defined by the institution of marriage, infantilized by her husband, and she harbors a secret that reveals both Torvald’s and her own true natures. Bluebeard, Torvald, and Nora are each “destroyed” by the revelation of their secrets, and yet, especially for Nora, this shattering of the mask is the promise of freedom.
Do you consider this a horror show?
Erik: Not exactly, although we consciously chose to stage the show around Halloween for thematic reasons. We certainly aim for visceral performances, however!
Kym: It’s a haunted house, but the haunting is inside the characters. They are haunted by a secret knowledge that they are much more than they appear to be. And there is terror, but the terror is what we all face in big life changes, the terror of the unknown – what will our life be if we break with the habitual comfort of the expected? And yes, there are also lots of dolls, and dolls are scary because they embody the perfectly unknowable “other.”
Earlier this summer, Angels & Demons used a quartet of spaces in the Hill House for their Marriage of Figaro. How much of the mansion will you be using for Bluebeard’s Dollhouse?
Erik: We plan to use three floors of the mansion, although we certainly wish we could use more. The basement is fantastic; the massive boilers are straight out of Metropolis; and the attic actually has a proscenium stage, but unfortunately fire codes won’t permit the public up there. Still, the Hill House has many wonderful nooks and crannies, and we’re planning on using the pipe organ.
Kym: There will be times when the entire audience is together in one place, and there will be times when the audience travels from room to room in small groups. This allows for greater intimacy between audience and performer, involving the audience more actively, but it also demands that we are impeccably organized. Timing will be everything.
Moving from room to room imposes some seating and standing room demands. How many tickets are for sale for each performance?
Erik: Correct – which is why we’re offering two performances each night at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm. We can take about 35 people at each show.
How has this show evolved since its 2014 Work-in-Progress unveiling at Red Eye? Since the Minocqua, WI production that year? To what degree has the change in space driven these changes?
Erik: For the Works-In-Progress Series, we tried to pack as much material as we could into the allotted 15-minutes so we could learn as much as we possibly could about the piece.
Kym: Because it was just 15 minutes, the Red Eye Works-in-Progress showing focused more on telling the Bluebeard story and creating a fairytale world.
Erik: We had the idea to make it site-specific and set it in a Victorian house and Kym knows some wonderful folks in Mincoqua, WI who let us use their property to put up a couple performances. It changed a lot once the audience became mobile, as you can imagine. It gave us the ability to surprise and even confine the audience all while curating an atmosphere. We also had to overcome the logistical challenges posed by splitting the audience up and moving them around.
Kym: When we could expand it into a house [in Mincoqua] and create boundaries in separate rooms, we were able to integrate more distinct moments and text from A Doll’s House, so that the two narratives balanced each other more. Nora and Torvald’s relationship became clearer. We were also able to develop each of Nora’s psychological archetypes more: Nora as mother, Nora as lover, Nora as child, and Nora as crone all became more distinct and their interaction was more dynamic.
Erik: We usually like to think of the audience as the final piece of the puzzle, but this time the Hill House itself will be another character.
Kym: The Hill House is much bigger [than the house in Mincoqua], so we needed to expand the ensemble for this version. This is really exciting because we have more Bluebeard/Torvalds, presenting the opportunity to have Bluebeard literally come fact to face with himself. The Hill House also demands that our staging moves beyond rooms out into the hallways and stairways, making the journey from scene to scene more dynamic and textured.
Puppetry has a very wide range. What specific types of puppets are you using in this show?
Erik: We have a number of dolls, both found and constructed, that will be puppeted by actors themselves, but will also be manipulated either directly or indirectly by other actors.
Kym: We will [also] be animating found objects: suitcases, knives, keys, mannequins, dolls. Everything is alive in this fairytale world. In the Bluebeard story, even the key is alive – it bleeds, telling Bluebeard of his wife’s transgression.
Erik & Kym: You’re both Margolis Method instructors. Has this played into rehearsals, and if so how?
Kym: I worked with Kari Margolis and her company for more than 15 years, so yes, absolutely! Margolis Method is central to my research as a performer, as a maker and as a director. While the artistic vision is my own, many of the methods integral to the process of research and creation come from this training. Structured improvisations, shared vocabulary and precision of action, the physics of emotion and relationship — all contribute to a more fully embodied creative state. I tell my students that at first technique seems very limiting, but when you really own it (or actually, it owns you) it becomes the doorway to greater creativity.
For me, it is a deeply acquired technique that inspires and strengthens my entire creative process and heightens my sensibilities; my imagination has in essence, become muscular. And my actors love it, because it empowers them to be in strong creative dialogue with the director. We have a structure and a precise vocabulary to understand why some choices seem to work better than others.
Erik: At this point in our careers, our training is second-nature. It’s just how we work. But, we’re always playing and using improvisation to shape the material. The actors are central to the process. Margolis Method is all about universality, so in some ways it’s not that different from any other approach to acting, but it has a deep and precise vocabulary and any time you have a group of artists who share such a thing, work gets made.
Combustible Company was previously known as FTF Works. What drove the name change?
Erik: The name FTF Works wasn’t really planned or well thought out. In fact, the acronym isn’t repeatable in polite company. It was just something I came up with to fill in that particular field on the Fringe Festival submission form (I wasn’t the first and I certainly won’t be the last artist to do that). Ultimately, we decided that if we were going to be serious about producing work we needed something that still captured our punk-rock aesthetic, but that you could say on the radio or in print.
Kym: FTF Works was fresh and defiant, but it wasn’t descriptive enough. It really didn’t say theater to us. We hope that we can ignite imaginations and explode boundaries with our work, and though we didn’t include “theater” directly in our name, we value the ideal of a “company” of artists who train, make work and grow a vision together – hence our new name, “Combustible Company.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.