If you're one of the millions of Americans that doesn’t “get” alternative theater or interpretive dance, the Jump-Start Performance Company has some advice: Relax, there are no requirements to “get” anything.
Traditional theater – works that follow linear plot lines, feature a villan, a hero, a beginning, middle, and end – is most popular, perhaps, because we crave understanding. Humans want the message, we want the meaning, we devour information.
Now showing at Jump-Start's Sterling Houston Theater within the Blue Star Arts Complex: Hetaerae (pronounced "hi-teer-ee"), a work that "unwraps the stereotypes of the sex-worker to explore the goddess archetypes underneath ... as well as the ways people have taken female power – or (really just) human power –and turned it into something you can throw money at," said the play's writer and lead creator Laurie Dietrich after rehearsal last night. "It's not really a story, it's an idea. We're not really characters, we're energies."
She laughed as she thought about the complexity of defining what it is that she and the Jump-Start team have created – how do you describe what "Hetaerae" is about?
"It's hard to answer (that) without sounding preachy and vague," Dietrich said, also an actor in the performance. "When people's eyes start to glaze over, you just mention pole dancing, that gets them interested ... come see philosophy – with boobs!"
This piece is an attempt to reclaim the dignity of men (and women's) sexual roles, Dietrich said, as, prostitutes, dominatrixes, strippers, virgins, courtesans, or hetaerae – independent, highly educated sexual escorts to the ancient Greeks.
I wouldn't describe the short sections as monologues, they are more like a mix of conversation and poetry. It's not exactly "interpretive dance," either; the choreography is literal, too – historic at times.
Dramatic, colorful spotlight – transformed into a seemingly solid state via haze machine, film projected precisely on five screens beyond the actors downstage, a professional (highly aerobic and erotic) striptease, a dominatrix fiddling with her whip, a Sumerian goddess removing her horned crown, a Mexican prostitute chugging poison in Boy's Town (c. 1930)...of course, I'm not doing it justice. You'll just have to see for yourself.
The 90-minute show debuts tonight and runs for two weekends (April 12 to 21): Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 8 p.m. (click here for more information).
"Hetaerae" attempts to convey a heavy, abstract philosophy – "a thesis on stage," as Dietrich describes it, fully aware that some people might just call it "weird feminism" and go about their day. Describing "Hetaerae" accurately, like most original performances at Jump-Start, is missing the point.
"There's nothing to 'get','" said Erik Bosse, the newest company member who joined in September. "There are people to analyze every movement and word, thinking that they represent a specific idea...but this is almost nothing but abstraction...you just have to hope that (the audience) will get something – anything – out of it."
Don't be intimidated if you fail to grasp all the historical or religious metaphors and representations. I had to google Inanna after watching the rehearsal. "This was Jesus before there was Jesus," Dietrich said.
You've probably figured out by now that performances at the non-profit Southtown theater, just behind the Blue Star Brewing Company, are very rarely described as "traditional."
Yet out of the more than 500 performances the company has produced over 28 years, there is bound to be something you can relate to at Jump-Start, said Artistic Director S.T. Shimi. Each show is unique and tackles a different subject matter from different angles and styles.
"A very large part of our mission is to give voices that aren't often heard a chance to be heard," she said.
Shimi, who has worked for Jump-Start and lived in Southtown for 20 years, has written, directed and acted for the company and performs several roles in "Hetaerae."
The stripper that effortlessly scales the ten-foot pole? That's Shimi. She's actually an award-winning pole dancer . The topless Sumerian goddess? The Indian goddess basking in red light? She's playing those characters , too.
"We wear many hats," Shimi said of her 20-or-so company members. "Administratively and creatively. (Jump-Start) was founded by artists and meant to be an artist-run organization ... but we're not prevented from doing artistic work just because we're on staff (in the office)."
Ensemble theater members have varying backgrounds and artistic expertise, said founding member Sandy Dunn – who is co-directing Hetaerae with local filmmaker Bosse. Depending on where their skills are needed, they'll take turns as stage manager, actor, director, stage hand, or simply answering the phones. Monessa Esquivel – who portrays a Mexican prostitute and the Virgin of Guadalupe who transforms seamlessly into the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, wrote her own dialogue and choreography from her own cultural connections.
"Everybody has done everything," Dunn said, who now lives in Austin and commutes almost daily to be with the crew.
When Jump-Start officially started in 1985 it had 10 founding members. A tight-knit, core group continues to expand and contract, she said. "Some people have drifted away, some have left town ... but we still consider them family."
About half of the company lives in the Southtown area. As one of the original tenants of Blue Star, it's no surprise it has a special connection to the neighborhood.
The group also continues to collaborate with other artists, local performance groups (including The Classic Theatre, also located in the Jump-Start building), international groups (like the Slovakian group Divadlo z Pasaze), and grow its educational programs. Its long-standing relationships with Bonham Academy and other local schools, Shimi says, is an aspect of Jump-Start that its most proud of.
The Historias y Cuentos ("Stories and Tales") program reaches an estimated 8,500 predominantly low-income students a year from ten public elementary schools, according to the Jump-Start website. The program includes after-school programming, visits to art classes by company members, and "Art Days" – school-wide celebrations featuring hands-on activities and exhibitions of student work. The gallery halls surrounding the theater are currently home to several student art pieces from their work with local schools including a collection from Japhet Elementary School. The "Japhet Girl Project (is) a ten-year multi-disciplinary program that focuses on fourth and fifth grade girls, giving them the creative and social tools they need to negotiate the rocky world of pre-teen-girlhood."
After 28 years and so much community outreach, however, Jump-Start still has the visibility issues that challenge most non-profit, alternative theater groups.
"We're better known nationally than we are locally," Dietrich said, who is also the group's grant writer and volunteer coordinator. "I can go to another big city, mention I'm a part of Jump-Start and they say : 'Oh, wow!' I cross the street (in this neighborhood) and I get: 'There's a theater over there?'"
Most recently, this may be attributable to construction work in and around Blue Star. The breezeway between the two northern most buildings has been a construction site for about a year. Only recently has the breezeway become a welcoming passageway to passersby with the arrival of Stella, a new causal dining and bar patio, and landscaping and inviting walkways – making Jump-Start more accessible to the everyday and First Friday crowds.
"(We) were at a loss for a long time with how to deal with First Friday," Shimi said. "There are parking issues, it's crowded, the noise can disrupt performances ... (people) have difference expectations during First Friday now compared to 10 years ago."
Logistically, performance art is hard to mold to a crowd that's looking to casually cruise, stroll and place hop. Jump-Start has developed a window performance series to piqué interest.
Shimi also has witnessed a natural ebb and flow of creative talent over the years in Southtown. "Now are we approaching that critical mass ... as a result of the people who have lived here and stuck it out long before me," she said. "I got absorbed into the group that moved here before it was trendy – when it was scary."
Jump-Start is welcoming to volunteers, partnerships, new collaborations, funding, and curious human beings in general. For more information, check out Jump-Start.org