Page 2 of 3
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.