Broadway is full of a technically advanced theater that uses hydraulic sets to make Cathy Rigby "fly" as Peter Pan and the Phantom of the Opera see all. Staircases revolve and helicopters fly by, just like in the movies. Amid the bustling verisimilitude, there's just one thing missing, says Phelim (pronounced FAY-lim) McDermott: imagination. "For me, it's more exciting to see someone make a helicopter out of a coat hanger and a melon than to make an expensive model of a helicopter that flies. That's what theater is really about."
Low-tech theater, the kind that uses its audience's imagination, is making slight headway against blockbuster shows, at least if the success of the Improbable Theater Company's 70 Hill Lane is any indication. The autobiographical monologue told by McDermott, Improbable's artistic director, has been getting rave reviews in papers from London to New York and Los Angeles. Its popularity stems from simple props -- Scotch tape and newspaper -- that suggest haunting magic pervades even the most ordinary of lives.
70 Hill Lane is quirky on several levels, not the least of which is its story of how a poltergeist invaded the family home when McDermott was 15. It appeared one weekend while McDermott's parents were away, overturning furniture and whizzing toys and coins by the corner of McDermott's eye. The ghost, which he came to call "Polty," was more mischievous than scary, McDermott says, although the fact that he couldn't come up with a scientific explanation was scarier still. "I can remember afterward going back to school and going to physics class, and learning about forces, and thinking, 'I've seen things that don't fit into this.'"
Poltergeists aside, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the show is how it teases extraordinary effects out of ordinary Scotch tape and newspapers. Using standard British "cello-tape" (as in cellophane), which is like American tape but comes in bigger rolls, Steven Tiplady and Guy Dartnell create the basic structure of the house, as McDermott narrates, by wrapping the tape around four poles. They fashion the tape, eerily luminescent, into a shimmering creature that may be the poltergeist itself, or a doorknob, or a nightmarish cocoon covering the sleeping McDermott. His ailing grandmother becomes an apparition in newspaper, IV tubes of tape barely keeping her alive.
The piece is set at 70 Hill Lane in Manchester, a big house where "it's easy to avoid each other" and McDermott's parents repress their feelings. The story also spends a lot of time in the present, at McDermott's modest flat in Leeds.
"This is me coming in," McDermott narrates, as Tiplady shuffles onstage. McDermott hovers around him, offering internal dialogue: "Oh God, it's messy in here.... I must stop drinking. Maybe I'll go out for a drink? I must get some work done.... Maybe I'll go to bed now and get up early."
Awful bits of Styrofoam drip off his grotty couch, and door keys are always mysteriously missing, and as McDermott moves between then and now, it becomes apparent that the old house -- and its psychological baggage -- resonates in the new. McDermott says in one line, "That house that I once lived in now lives in me."
That idea came out of therapy, McDermott says in a phone interview from Minnesota, where Hill Lane is touring, and the realization that everyone probably internalized their childhood house (or houses) and carries it with them. "We use the tape to represent bits of the architecture and so on, and there's nothing there, really, except cello-tape. And because there's nothing there, people see their own versions of their own house when they're watching the show. They project their own story."
It's not just the house but what happened in it that gives the monologue resonance. As is fitting of someone who would make a helicopter out of a melon and a coat hanger, McDermott is loath to assign to the poltergeist a specific meaning. But he will say what it meant to him: "What I realized is that this experience, this ghost that appeared in my life, had an energy to it, and a spirit which was trickster-ish and energized and naughty and funny -- a little bit scary."
He also recognized that this devilish energy fueled his most creative moments, his most dead-on performances. But for years he tried to ignore it. "Often there's a distraction, or a thing on the periphery, like a disturbance or someone annoying you, and you say, 'Well, I'm trying to do my work,' and actually that might be the seeds to something new.
"It's underneath, or it's behind, or it's at the edge of your vision. And if you're trying to give birth to something new, a new piece of art or a new piece of yourself, then you've got to kind of grab hold of that and bring it into your conscious awareness. And I think that this trickster thing operated from that area."
The trickster was in full force in a precursor to Hill Lane, called Animo, which combined improvisation and animation. At the start of each show, the performers asked the audience what they wanted to see. Perhaps someone might say a love scene in Venice. The performers quickly built a set, masks or puppets out of paper, cardboard and tape, McDermott says, and then improvised the story. "We were developing a language using rubbish to create things to tell stories with."
Improvisation has been the throughline to Improbable's creative team for years. Although this is Improbable Theater's first show, McDermott and designer Julian Crouch and director Lee Simpson together have been making shows through improvisation for nine years. The work is not exactly mainstream, McDermott says. "In England, the last thing you'd ever put on your leaflet is that (your show's) got puppetry in it, because that's perceived as for kids and Punch-and-Judy and outdated."
Improbable also goes against convention by using improvisation in drama rather than comedy. In their last touring show, Life Game, they interviewed a different audience member each night and then acted out pieces of his or her life, such as a first memory or a first day at school.
Although that work is a bit unclassifiable, McDermott and his collaborators have also tried their collective hand at large-scale repertory, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After the success of 70 Hill Lane in London, the English Shakespeare Company asked them to create the 1996-97 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which they conceived of fairies as insectlike creatures that made bowers out of tape, McDermott says. "We had done a small cello-tape show, so we dared ourselves to do a big cello-tape show. We used tape to make the whole forest. So rather than use about seven or eight rolls of tape for a show, we used 52."
Although Improbable rebels against the blockbuster visuals and mechanical sets of film and Broadway, they can't ignore their effects, McDermott says. "You've got to take on board the fact that kids watch videos and watch things happen 100 times faster." But Improbable still has faith in their audience's imagination, McDermott says.
"The helicopter that they see in their head is much more potent than something outside their head, that just sort of said, 'Look how clever we are.' It's about the performers saying, 'We're better than you. You couldn't do this.' I don't think that's really interesting. I think (our work) is hopefully something where the audience goes, 'Well, I did that. I imagined that in my head.'"
Improbable Theater Company presents 70 Hill Lane at Edison Theatre at 8 p.m. Jan. 22-23.