DISPLACED BY HURRICANE KATRINA, ALUMNUS’ NEW ORLEANS-BASED THEATER COMPANY FINDS NEW HOME IN PHILADELPHIA
The morning of Aug. 29, 2005, Lane Savadove ’89 was commuting from Bucks County to downtown Philadelphia, preparing for another day of rehearsals with his New Orleans-based theater company, EgoPo, which re-enlivens modernist classics and contemporary epics with innovative flair. They were touring a new production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, and during the endless work days there had been little time to monitor the news.
“We knew a hurricane was coming,” he says, “but there had already been about five voluntary evacuations that season, so we didn’t think anything of it.”
So it was a shock that morning for him to receive a call, en route, from his Philadelphia press agent: “Get down here immediately.” He got a bigger shock when he pulled up in front of the theater to find a troupe of news vans lying in wait. At the moment of his arrival, one of the local television stations was showing his cast members news footage of what Katrina had done to their hometown—and filming their reactions.
“Within two hours,” says Savadove, “we were known all over the city as the stranded theater company from New Orleans.”
A year later, EgoPo is still attempting to shed that reputation as Savadove strives to carve a niche for his company in Philadelphia’s diverse theater community, appealing to audiences looking for unpredictable, experimental theater.
Originally a psychology major at Haverford, Savadove became involved with his first play as a first-year student, spending time at Bryn Mawr’s Goodheart Theatre. During his junior year, he benefited from the influence of the newly arrived Mark Lord, now director of Bryn Mawr’s theater program, and began running STC, Haverford’s Student Theater Company. That same year he directed his first show for a one-act festival, dabbled in playwriting with a work called D.D. (in which future “Lost” star Daniel Dae Kim ’90 made his acting debut) and added a theater major.
During the summer of 1987, between his junior and senior years, Savadove went to Oxford University to earn a certificate in acting, but discovered that what he really wanted to do was direct. “I had discovered a physical approach to acting that at the time there weren’t many theater directors doing,” he says. “I knew if I was going to have the experience that I wanted to have as an actor, the only way was to give that experience to other actors.”
At Oxford, Savadove became one of the first Americans to study with the famed Berliner Ensemble and Moscow Art Theater. “Through studying with them, I recognized that I could have very full emotions in the present by approaching works from the outside in, thinking simply about what the body is doing,” he says. “These were emotions you don’t try to rip or own or manipulate, they just come naturally from the outer structure of the performance.”
After graduating from Haverford, Savadove spent some time working in New York before moving to San Francisco in order to jump start his creativity. “I knew I wanted to start making my own work, and back then it was not financially viable to do so in New York,” he explains. In 1991, he founded EgoPo, deriving its name from the French for “physical self.” The company centers on the belief that by learning to use the body in new ways and be sensitive to the body, actors can open themselves to a world of expression and emotion that would not be available otherwise. “Later we began to understand even better that through the body’s act of listening, the deeper you listen, the deeper the audience would watch you and you could have a wider range of physical response,” says Savadove.
The idea of listening and response being one and the same began the company’s use of the actors’ technique “viewpoints,” for which Savadove has become known. “‘Viewpoints’ helps us break down the universe outside ourselves into listenable elements, and we learn to listen as a physical entity as opposed to an ego,” he says. “It’s a base training model, like using a barre technique for ballet—it’s something you use every day.”
Savadove sought performers for EgoPo by posting flyers and newspaper listings announcing auditions throughout San Francisco. “We were looking for much more than traditional theater actors,” he says. “We were especially interested in dancers; postmodern dance was very big at the time, so we had a lot of crossover performers from that movement.” EgoPo’s first production was a play called Kaspar by Peter Handke, about whom Savadove had learned from Mark Lord at Bryn Mawr.
For several years, EgoPo carried on in the manner of a typical independent theater company, growing its audience show by show, fundraising through word of mouth, freelancing in different spaces until a kind of studio was constructed, thanks to one of the luckiest breaks ever afforded to working theater professionals. “All of the company members were at one point employed by this computer consulting firm—it was my first money-making job out there,” says Savadove. “My boss just loved theater so much that he hired only theater people, and when we built new offices, we turned half of the building into a theater space.”
EgoPo’s shows attracted attention not just from San Francisco patrons, but from potential audiences across the country, for offering unusual and unparalleled theatrical experiences. The company produced a 72-hour continuous performance in the Nevada desert, commissioned by the Desert Siteworks Project, in which actors traced the life cycle from birth to death in eight-hour shifts. Savadove also adapted Becket’s Company for NPR, transforming the prose into four voices meant to be heard inside the listener’s head. Later, it became one of the company’s most daring and popular live performances, where the audience members lay on their backs, blindfolded, while actors assigned to every two members created an auditory and sensory feast through words and gestures.
From 1995-96, Savadove helped EgoPo go global when he became resident director of the National Cultural Center in Indonesia, courtesy of a Henry Luce Fellowship from Haverford. He assembled an ensemble to mirror its U.S. counterpart, and at the end of the year they mounted a production of the first eighth of the Ramayana. “It was a big deal,” he says. “People made long two-day treks from all over Indonesia just to see it.”
In 1999, Savadove received his M.F.A. in directing from Columbia University and shortly thereafter made what he calls “the most radical decision of my life”: leaving New York for New Orleans. “I felt this was a place where the type of theater I was doing was really needed, the economics were right, and the city was going to sprout as far as contemporary arts went,” he says. “I thought it was the next city to culturally explode.” He joined the faculty of Loyola University as a professor of theater and culled a new group of EgoPo company members from among the university’s students, alumni and professors.
Three years ago (a year after arriving in New Orleans), Savadove rejoiced in finding what he hoped would be a permanent home for the company. “Generally, the work that I’ve done benefits most from an open space, with flexible seating,” he says. “We found this amazing space, a gorgeous old New Orleans factory, all brick walls, surrounded by 12-foot-high windows.” The EgoPo members spent a couple of months restoring the building and renting out its seven apartments: “By managing the apartments, we were able to pay for the entire space. It was an ideal situation for a theater.”
When the group left for Philadelphia at the end of August, they had every reason to believe that EgoPo would become a vital component of the New Orleans cultural scene, about to take the country by storm.
It wasn’t until nine weeks after Hurricane Katrina that Savadove and the rest of EgoPo could return to New Orleans. Savadove was fortunate: Despite the fact that his neighborhood was located in the downhill apex of the Lake Pontchartrain spillover, his second floor apartment suffered minimal damage and almost all of his possessions were intact; even his cat had survived. But several company members lost everything they owned in the flood. And the gorgeous New Orleans warehouse that was EgoPo’s headquarters had been destroyed by wind damage that tore off most of the roof and exposed the theater to heavy rains.
Savadove’s neighborhood was unlivable, and Loyola’s semester-long shutdown left him unemployed, so he decided to relocate EgoPo to Philadelphia, for a number of reasons. “It was the coincidence of being there when it happened, and the fact that so many local theater organizations came out in support of us,” he says. It’s also his home base: His father lives in Bucks County, his mother in the suburb of Abington.
At first, all of EgoPo’s company members had scattered to different parts of the world. Early in 2006, EgoPo was offered a residency to put up a festival in Aspen, Colo., and this served as a catalyst for Savadove to bring his actors together again. When the festival ended, the company went on to perform The Maids off-Broadway. It wasn’t until late April that EgoPo settled into new offices in Old City Philadelphia and began rebuilding its infrastructure.
EgoPo has yet to perform again in the city; the company is seeking permanent space and building up funding, going into the grant cycle anew. Savadove is facing some harsh realities. “We’re coming to terms with the fact that we’re broke,” he says. “It’s a year after the hurricane and we have to approach our work as if we’re broke, finding inexpensive pieces to put up. I haven’t lived with these struggles since I was 23 years old.”
Savadove has realized that he can’t pretend Katrina never happened, and that it’s acceptable for EgoPo to be hurting under the circumstances. However, they plan to stage a show before Thanksgiving, no matter the cost. “People know us in the city now and want to see our work,” he says. “We don’t want to keep being that stranded company from New Orleans.” He’s looking for a spare, stripped-down piece to perform, most likely something by Marguerite Duras.
Ultimately, Savadove hopes that Philadelphia audiences will respond to EgoPo shows as other patrons have. “They should have images from the show burned firmly into their brains,” he says. “I want the audience to perceive the world in some slightly different way than they did before they saw the show. Maybe they’ll see beauty in something they hadn’t before, or can articulate an emotion that had been nebulous. Our visuals don’t tend to live in a solid, linear context; they tend to become easier to hold onto.”
Above all, Savadove wants audiences to see how difficult texts, works that appear to be talky and overwritten, can be dynamic and entertaining. “I want to grow audiences for classical theater.”
For more information about Savadove’s company, visit www.egopo.org.