Many of you might remember reading Harold and the Purple Crayon. The children's book is a simple little story about a boy who creates an adventure for himself one night with nothing but his crayon. It's a celebration of the imagination, creativity, and childhood — all those things that we can easily lose touch with when we become adults.
That story is what we keep thinking of as we talk to Daniel Brière and Tobias Wegner, the director and creator/performer, respectively, of the one-man show LEO. Using a video camera and live projection in addition to Wegner's live performance, LEO is a playful, poignant, and surreal exploration of a man who finds himself trapped in a box where the laws of physics seem to change, and how he reacts to this most unusual of situations (it involves, among other things, drawing). "He's an average sort of guy, who probably hasn't had much luck in his life — he's trapped [in this space]," Wegner says. "At the beginning I thought of it more as a public space, a train station or something, but I'm pretty sure it's not his home. He's trapped here, but he discovers the superhero in himself. We watch him have the best hour of his life."
Brière elaborates, "He's a man without anything ... so the only way [to escape] is to use his imagination. ... There's a poetry that came from that, from the imagination and the sensation that even if we are trapped we can draw, we can go somewhere else, escape."
Brière has hit upon the utterly perfect word to describe what is happening in LEO. It is poetry: the kind found most often in children's stories like Harold, or Where the Wild Things Are, or the perennial favorite The Phantom Tollbooth, where the wondrousness of the escape is tempered by the knowledge that it is only fleeting. In LEO, this idea takes on a twist: There are, in a sense, two boxes, two Leos, on stage. On one side, we see the box and Wegner live, right in front of us. On the other, we see a rotated projection of the scene, where Wegner is able to walk on walls, draw pets that come to life, and do all kinds of normally impossible things. "He's living his dreams," Wegner says, "but only through the effects." Without the camera, he's just a guy stuck in a box.
This hour-long silent blend of theater and circus began as a five-minute segment created and performed by the Berlin-based Wegner, an acrobat, actor, and circus performer who studied at the Belgium University of Contemporary Circus Arts in Brussels.
"The style we learned was the French style of circus arts. It enriched the traditional circus styles with acting, all kinds of dance and movement," he says. Wegner conceived the idea for LEO not long after he graduated in 2003, performing it first as a short piece and then extending it into full-length show with the help of the German production company Circle of Eleven, who connected Wegner with the French-Canadian Brière. "I'd wanted to do a mix of circus and theater with a story," Brière says, "so I went to Berlin and started to work with Tobias. ... It took two years of research to find exactly what we wanted to do, which was to write this silent show, kind of like Charlie Chaplin."
While keeping the show silent (except for a soundtrack) was a given for Wegner, with his background in circus, the experience was a challenging and exciting one for Brière. "We live in a world of music and talk and so many people speaking all the time, so ... it was a great experiment for me to tell the story without a word," he says. "It's not so usual now. I came from the theater and we mostly speak a lot. A lot."
What is also unusual — though it's becoming less so — is the genre-defying nature of LEO. It's not a play, or a circus act, or a film project. LEO is a self-contained performance that is perhaps best, through tritely, described as "experimental theater" (though the Spoleto Festival has it categorized under "Physical Theater"). LEO isn't the only show that defies easy description in this year's Spoleto lineup: there are theatrical monologues by the famous (or infamous?) Mike Daisey, the urban dance-acrobatics performance Traces, and the multimedia, multi-genre play The Animals and Children Took to the Streets. Whether this is a sign of the times or a blip on the radar screen is hard to say. "I would rather think that experimental theater is becoming more accepted," Wegner says. "It's always been the wish of performers to create new emotions, new experiences on stage."
So perhaps we'll have to judge for ourselves whether going to the theater is slowly becoming a new and wilder experience. In a sense, of course, that's always happening, as the art form continues to change and incorporate new traditions, new technologies. But if you're ready right now for that new, wilder experience, go see LEO. It's a sure bet.