Walking into the warren of untenanted storefronts beside the Scrap Exchange, I find them anything but vacant. The corridor inside teems with hurried industry and strange tableaux—a mad scientist's lab here, a sort of Viking vanity table there. Someone carrying a large, ridiculous bird puppet scurries by. Flickering lights beckon from the doors lining the corridor, so I go in.
In one room, dark but for a single bulb, a sleeping man wakes up when I clap my hands. He scribbles a poem in an old book, rips out the page, hands it to me, and goes back to sleep. In another, a woman bathed in a projector beam entangles herself in hanging vines. On the floor of a tiny movie theater nearby, polystyrene peanuts pile in ankle-deep drifts, trailing from my shoes as I enter a brightly lit alcove where taut wires draw the air into a vanishing point.
The straight line of the path breaks down as I move deeper in, crisscrossing twisting halls and cavernous chambers, through increasingly elaborate vistas and interactions. Space breaks down, too, as drop ceilings give way to open ductwork. In these restricted areas of commercial architecture, a delicious forbiddenness steals in. I feel like the protagonist of a postmodern novel, lost, fragmenting among the exposed guywires of narrative convention. By the time I'm suddenly spit back out into the night, somewhere other than where I'd entered, a dream logic has taken hold, and a single strand of lights floating in the darkness leads me up a flight of metal stairs and into another level of the labyrinth.
This is a maze without a Minotaur, but it does have a Daedalus. He's identifiable by the headset he wears as he swoops through his creation, consulting with the dozens of actors and artists behind Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern's most ambitious, most challenging, and, strangely, most accessible adventure yet.
The company has been a force in local theater for more than a decade, and its artistic director, Jaybird O'Berski, has been one for twice that long. He's done things like this before, but never on such a monumental scale. This Is Not a Novel, derived from a tetralogy of books by the obscure but esteemed David Markson, is billed as "a delirious playscape for adults," which sounds fanciful but turns out to be the plainest description possible.
It's part visual puzzle box (think Joseph Cornell writ large), part living art space (think Elsewhere in Greensboro), and part immersive theater à la the New York sensation Sleep No More. It's an irrational maze, more existential than physical, the exit retreating to some abstract distance. It's a little scary, but not in a scary way. It makes you want to hold hands with someone, like children striding into a fairy tale, lusty for wonder and danger.
Such literary fancies are encouraged by the audio issuing from my phone, a chorus of voices quoting writers, artists, and philosophers, with valences but no apparent order. The installation is only half-finished, but there's enough to keep me transfixed for well over an hour. I leave with a head full of visions—a couple trysting on a mattress, a glowing wall of specimen jars, a silhouette in an inflatable cube, a corde lisse dancer—and pockets full of paper scraps. There's an index card that says "to write," a dictionary page with "The center of the earth is a procrastinating engine" inked on a picture of a curlew, and a tract that describes the electrifying space between brilliance and buffoonery that Little Green Pig makes its own.
"The new thing that this artist wants to create is more than a painting," the tract says. "It is more than a sculpture. It is life itself. Or it's a piece of trash. Or it's both at the same time."
O'Berski was already known to everyone as Jay, so when he decided to legally change his name last year, he went all in on what his mother calls him, Jaybird. "There's a bunch of Jays in the area, and Jay sounds like 'hey,' so I was always turning around," he says over lunch at the Federal. "And I thought it was just a more distinctive name."
It fits him, as there is something faintly birdlike in the thrust of his head, his close-cropped pate, his alert gaze. But he was born Jerry O'Berski in Troy, Michigan. In the Reagan eighties, he found his way into punk rock and theater. Something anarchic of the former still lingers in his approach to the latter.
"I ended up in this incubator of weird guys," he recalls. "They were tabletop gamers, actors, musicians with bands. Straight edge. It was all about reading books, seeing films, writing plays." One was Curtis Eller, now a musician in Durham, who was also a member of O'Berski's first theater company, which he started because he "didn't like Fiddler on the Roof." It was simply called Experimental Theater, which was enough to distinguish it in a middle-class suburb of Detroit.
"The theater was a good place to be bad but not get in trouble," O'Berski says. "It was a safe place to be passionate, fight, beat people up and not hurt them, have love affairs and not have repercussions."
After high school, he started preveterinary studies at the University of Michigan. "But it was all death, euthanizing animals all day," he says. "So I bailed on that and switched to theater." He started another company with Eller and others from his high school, the Rude Mechanical Underground. "It was playful and wild and anti-establishment, lots of swearing just to swear," O'Berski says. "A lot of the same kind of transgressive work as Little Green Pig, with a lot of campiness."
After graduating, O'Berski and his crew fanned out to take the artistic temperature of cities around the country. He drew Madison, San Francisco, and Chapel Hill. In 1992, as the national furor around the indie music scene peaked, Chapel Hill seemed like the place to be. O'Berski saw it as a place poised for a theater scene, with a strong foundation in the ArtsCenter and Manbites Dog Theater, then only a few years old.
He started teaching at the former and volunteering at the latter, and soon landed a role in a play directed by Jeff Storer. Meanwhile, his new company, the Somnambulist Project, was publishing zines and putting up freewheeling summer shows at Forest Theatre. (This scene was ground zero for another local institution, Paperhand Puppet Intervention.)
Somnambulist also put on the Anti Shakespeare Festival, which seems odd for someone whose prior company was named after the bad actors from A Midsummer Night's Dream and who would soon start a Shakespeare company (Shakespeare & Originals, which O'Berski ran from 1997 to 2002). The Bard was even performed in the festival.
"It wasn't anti-Shakespeare," O'Berski qualifies. "I love Shakespeare, though I think you have to take it apart and put it back together. It was anti-Shakespeare-festival, to warn people we were going to be weird."
The Somnambulist Project began as a leaderless voting collective. O'Berski left in 1995 after they voted to have an artistic director, which was necessary to pursue grants. The company folded within a year. Realizing he was going to be adjuncting at Duke forever without a master's degree, he earned one in a Carnegie Mellon/Moscow Art Theatre program. After returning, he got a professorship in the theater department, where he and his wife both still teach.
"I didn't want to sell things," he says. "If I'm going to work for a corporation, I feel like my job at Duke is being the last chance for the people who are going to be in charge of us to have some artistic soul."
O'Berski coufounded Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern with Dana Marks, now his wife, in 2005. Marks, whom O'Berski calls "the soul of the company," is managing director; she is one of the curators of Novel.
"At the time, I thought you had to blow up a theater company every five years," O'Berski says. Little Green Pig broke the cycle—barely. In its first five years, the company focused its seasons on different regions of the world, but that began to feel limiting and floated away. It gradually developed a focus on original and devised theater, in recent years dissecting sources such as The Diary of Anne Frank and the music of Kraftwerk. Devised theater is a modish methodology of collectively dismantling and reassembling texts. O'Berski and his company members have begun teaching it in places like China and Brazil
"We work well making visual work out of intellectual work," O'Berski says of his company's values. "We are committed to feminism, what I would call enlightenment values—reason, respect, and love are more important than fear, anxiety, and judgment. We try to be funny, diverse, and real while making weird shit."
These humble, humane values are offset—or, perhaps, galvanized—by others that, on the surface, seem contradictory. O'Berski approaches a text almost as a dare, as is clear in something as patently anti-theatrical as Markson. This implies a dare to the audience, too, and comes with a certain condescension to popular mediocrities.
"The idea of the safe bet, the well-made play—that's for commercial work," O'Berski says. "This is art-house theater. It's not for all buyers. We're not trying to make any money off of it. We want pure exploration but in a palatable way, something people would actually want to see."
Little Green Pig's members work on stipends. Since last year, they've been experimenting with patronage through the website Patreon. The goal is that eventually, sustainers who receive special rewards can cover the costs for those who can't afford to spend ten or fifteen dollars on experimental theater. But it's a slow road for a company whose artistic director scorns comfort food, cultivating work that is vibrant but challenging, politically angry but never on the nose.
"We're not highbrow," O'Berski says. "But most entertainment is not challenging at all. It's for beleaguered people who don't want to think at the end of the day. The laziness of imagery—now you feel sad, now you feel happy, this is a joke, this is an atrocity—we try to blur that so the audience can decide when to laugh hysterically or find something upsetting."
Recall that Daedalus didn't only make the Minotaur's maze. He also made Icarus's wings. O'Berski likewise sends up his theatrical contraptions made of pitch and feathers, screwball concepts and impenetrable scripts, knowing they'll crash if they fly too lowbrow, melt if they fly too highbrow.
This Is Not a Novel risks the latter, but in fact, it might be the perfect Little Green Pig starter show. It pushes so far past experimental that it comes out the other side, back into accessible territory.
After all, access is about knowing the rules. When there are no rules, there's nothing to know—just an enchanting, self-directed, uniquely first-person experience.
I suppose this merits a disclosure, though it's the most random one I've ever issued. At the run-through, a very tall man with a genial Southern demeanor walks up to me and introduces himself as Bill Floyd. He reminds me of something I'd completely forgotten—that, a year ago, he'd emailed me cold to ask for advice about a theater adaptation of an experimental novel. It sounded like a wild idea, so naturally I suggested he reach out to O'Berski.
When O'Berski and Marks started reading Markson, they loved it, and Marks sent out a Twitter blast to artist friends to find collaborators. "Somehow it has this visceral emotional surge, yet there's no plot and character, just facts," O'Berski says. "I told Bill, knock yourself out."
Markson, who died in 2010, started out writing offbeat crime novels and westerns, one of which became the film Dirty Dingus Magee, starring Frank Sinatra. But he's best known for Wittgenstein's Mistress, which David Foster Wallace anointed as a high point of American experimental fiction.
"That's where he started to get his form of little snippets, but it was still fiction," Floyd says. "His last four books, the ones we adapted, really hit on his collage of factoids and anecdotes about composers and painters and musicians and writers and philosophers."
Like Markson, Floyd is a former genre writer turned experimentalist. His thriller The Killer's Wife was published a decade ago, but he doesn't read those kinds of books anymore. Now, Markson is more his speed.
"I don't have a classical education, so I don't know half the names, but I feel it has a page-turner effect after a while," he says. "The themes resonate." He wanted to hear the unusual prose, with its subtle but distinctive syntax, in actors' mouths, even though he'd never had anything to do with theater.
At first, Floyd adapted the books—Reader's Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel—as a play. But on the first read-through, O'Berski said he thought it should be an installation.
"It was three hours long, and it really was mesmerizing," O'Berski says. "It seemed like something you could be listening to while having an immersive experience, like going to a gallery and listening to information on works of art." Little Green Pig was primed for this kind of project. Its annual Halloween fundraiser, Treatbag, is a small-scale theater installation, and ten years ago, O'Berski made Misterioso, an immersive re-creation of a jazz loft, for Duke Performances.
For This Is Not a Novel, the company rented three spaces, each containing rooms of various dimensions (two of them without electricity), in the Lakewood strip mall the Scrap Exchange is turning into its ReUse Arts Center. Beholden only to their interpretation of the text and the oversight of several curators, the spaces were designed by twenty different local artists and groups, including Neill Prewitt, Gabrielle Duggan, Stephanie Leathers, Alex Maness, and INDY contributor Chris Vitiello.
Actors perform vignettes throughout, including one by O'Berski that sets the overall tone: a Bukowski-esque L.A. flophouse full of degenerates, wannabes, and artists. The recorded text is read by some sixty people, from Little Green Pig company members to children and Duke football players. You download it on your phone and wander for as long as you please.
"I was a little bit hesitant but he convinced me," Floyd says. "At the first walk-through I found Jay and told him I was right to trust him. They did something I never would have come up with. It's like Markson says: A writer doesn't necessarily know where this is going but he hopes it'll end up some place that even surprises the writer himself."
It was the right decision. The text is compelling when you can pop in and out of it, but a traditional theatrical setting, with the quotations coming at you ceaselessly, would have felt like a hostage situation. Little Green Pig devised a form for the formidable text that renders it as accessible as it was to Floyd without watering it down.
Company member Caitlin Wells, who designed a room in the show, has been working with O'Berski as an actor—and, starting this fall, as a director, with a show based on Viv Albertine of the Slits' punk-rock biography—since 2013. She's also a member of collectively run troupe the Delta Boys, whose Orlando at Manbites Dog recently earned our highest rating. She's says there are no two companies in the state she'd rather work with.
"It's hard to even separate Jay from Little Green Pig. There's a bit of a cult of personality around him, but he really is magnetic," she says. "He's wildly inventive; he's got these kooky ideas he manages to pull off in a way no one else would even consider. One of his strengths is bringing together all the right people for a given show."
I ask her about a certain quality of O'Berski I've been trying and failing to pin down in words. I keep coming up with inadvertently insulting terms like "earned arrogance" or "self-aware arrogance" that I know aren't what I mean. Wells comes through.
"Sometimes he sees things before anyone else does," she says. "He gets the germ of an idea and pushes it through come hell or high water, and some people want to get out of the way of it, but others get swept up in it. It can rub people the wrong way but it's also what makes him a great director. He has this wild confidence, relatively visionary—the word that keeps coming to mind is brashness."
It's this wildly confident bearing that has made O'Berski one of the fundamental architects of the Triangle theater scene, and it's seldom been on display more clearly than in this brash, visionary show.
"We want to conjure up stages of confusion, frustration, submission, fascination, and finally luxuriating in an alternately lyrical, unnerving dream," O'Berski says of the ultimate goals of This Is Not a Novel.
"We hope to mirror the search that Markson was on in his final novels," he adds. "Some elements stick and many others are immediately forgotten, but there's a sense of that being OK, that as an adult you get to choose what's tragic or hilarious or sexy or vile. We're hoping for maximum stimulation at some times and focused minimalism at others. Chaos and Zen, one being impossible to experience without the other."
This article appeared in print with the headline "When Pigs Fly."