Deborah Stein and Suli Holum decided they wanted to create a play together. Holum suggested three story ideas; two seemed ripe for theatrical adaptation. The third sounded baffling and difficult to stage. It was perfect.
“It was a really cool story, but it took 90 seconds to tell. How is that a play? It was the least theatrical of all the ideas,” Stein recalls. “I had no idea how to make a piece of theater about it. So that’s the one I chose.”
The resulting play, “Chimera” — a one-woman mind-bender about a mother who is shocked to discover that her son’s genetic materials actually came from a second, previously undiscovered set of chromosomes within her — made a well-received New York run that netted Holum a Drama Desk award nomination, and spurred Stein and Holum to make a habit of their newfound collaboration. (The New York Times called “Chimera” a “cerebral freakout” — in a good way.)
“The Wholehearted” is the second product of their partnership, and Arts-Emerson is presenting its world premiere at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Center. Performances began Thursday and continue through April 27. Like “Chimera,” it fulfilled its creators’ desire to puzzle out a method for turning a difficult story into good theater.
Again the only actor onstage, Holum portrays a once-successful boxer named Dee Crosby who has survived a brutal attack from her then-husband and now relives her glory days on the way toward a fateful reckoning. The story is told with the help of a few country music songs and prominent video elements, both prerecorded and live.
Holum conceived of the initial idea after following the women’s boxing competition at the 2012 Olympics in London, and then studying the lives of some female boxers. She wanted to incorporate the issue of domestic violence but avoid overly familiar frames like the redemption story or woman-as-victim.
“Female victims are the engine of procedural crime dramas. We don’t need to do a show about that,” Holum says. “We thought about creating a character who, rather than being a victim, is the tragic hero in a revenge tragedy of her own making.”
Her preparation for the role included a year of boxing training. The resulting physical transformation became an integral part of the onstage storytelling. “I really didn’t want someone to train me how to look like a boxer, I wanted someone to train me how to box,” she says. “When people have scars, their bodies are telling a story. Similarly, an athlete’s body communicates something very particular. And then a step further with boxing, the body for that sport is being trained to be a weapon.”
Though Holum started training because of her role in this play, she recalls a sobering moment she had when chatting about the benefits of boxing with another woman at the gym who noted she’d now be able to “sucker-punch someone in the throat” if necessary.
“I still live a life where I don’t have to think about that all the time,” Holum says, “and I feel like I am representing women who have been through much more violent circumstances than I have.”
For much of the performance, the troubled Dee tells her story into a hand-held camera, its images routed to television screens visible to the audience. “It’s a little bit of a love letter, and it’s a little bit one of those videos that terrorists leave to explain what they did. She knows bad things are about to happen,” Stein explains.
As with their first play together, Stein is credited as “writer/director” and Holum as “performer/director,” but the piece is the result of a fluid collaboration with the deep involvement of sound designer/songwriter James Sugg and video designers Kate Freer and Dave Tennant. Dramaturg Polly Carl of ArtsEmerson was also a longtime part of the team. (The show had a developmental residency there in January 2013.)
Stein and Holum attended Swarthmore College together and also overlapped for a time at Philadelphia-based Pig Iron Theatre Company, which Holum cofounded while still an undergrad. But “Chimera” sparked a partnership that is now the focus of their creative energies. Their next play after “The Wholehearted” is described as an exploration of “the virtual mating habits of our 21st century political elite,” from Anthony Weiner to Sarah Palin.
Both Stein and Holum cut their teeth with ensemble-based, so-called devised theater that springs from a group effort among participants and eschews traditional divisions among playwright, director, performers, and designers. Though the approach is highly fashionable nowadays, it can often result in conceptually engaging work that earns points for experimentation but doesn’t quite cohere.
While “The Wholehearted” is very much a group effort, its creators didn’t forget that the playwright has a big part in the process.
“We don’t want to put rehearsal onstage. I’m not interested in a collage structure or something that’s intuitive and mysterious and confusing on purpose,” Stein says. “This play is posing some really challenging and difficult questions, so the material is difficult enough already. I don’t want the audience to feel alienated by the structure of the play.”
Stein’s aim is to preserve the story structure and defined authorial voice one can get from a solo playwright while creating the “three-dimensional” element familiar from devised theater.
“There’s a lot of people in my generation who are writing plays as experiences and events and really thinking about the live experience,” she says. “The theater enables a certain kind of experience that is unique to live-ness. There’s something that only theater can do, and theater that does the same thing that television or movies do is becoming less and less interesting, both to artists and to audiences.”