It's hard to imagine a place further removed from the ancient oral traditions or windswept, pastoral simplicity of Scotland's Southern Uplands than gritty, traffic-choked, sunburnt L.A.
And whatever other virtues it might offer, the institutional sanctums of Santa Monica's Broad Stage — even its smaller black-box studio, the Edye — hardly evokes the raucous, beer-soaked conviviality of a Kelso pub on a frozen midwinter night.
Yet erasing that gulf is precisely what British stage director Wils Wilson intends to do when she opens the National Theatre of Scotland's universally acclaimed mix of supernatural lore and Scottish folk music, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, at the Edye on Jan. 15.
Wilson isn't unprepared for the challenge, either of working in L.A. or of making a audience-interactive play performed in an actual barroom, built on the stage. For one thing, the 44-year-old director recalls during a recent phone call, she isn't a stranger to Southern California. Back in 1994, when she was working as an assistant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, she got her first taste of the region during an RSC tour when director Katie Mitchell's production of Henry VI: The Battle for the Throne landed at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.
“And for some reason Prince Charles was coming to see the show one night,” she says ruefully, “and I do remember them painting the grass green before he arrived. It just summed up for me … something.”
The director's RSC experience was instrumental in shaping her signature style: theater firmly rooted in the power of place. That power was the focus of Wilson's legendary, post-RSC collaboration with stage designer Louise Wilson (no relation) in their theater company Wilson+Wilson. Their process involved “really digging down into places,” the director recalls. “We'd spend a long, long time in [a] place, you know, digging out the stories that interested us and finding places where we'd perform, and working with people, so that it felt a lot more rooted.”
That decadelong collaboration included productions such as 1998's House, in which the Wilsons took over several derelict, 19th-century houses in West Yorkshire and, after conducting archaeological excavations and historical research, created a performance piece in the actual homes.
Or 2003's News From the Seventh Floor, which took the form of an after-hours “promenade tour” through a venerable Hertfordshire department store, combining history with reimaginings of the lives and unspoken yearnings of its former employees. “There [was] just such a sense of freedom that you could do so many things that you couldn't do in a conventional theater,” Wilson says.
That sense of freedom is shot through Prudencia Hart, which was originally unveiled in a pub during the 2011 Edinburgh Festival. Written by playwright David Greig in slyly rhyming couplets and based on the ballads collected by Sir Walter Scott in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, the evening takes the form of a Scottish ceilidh, which, for the uninitiated, is pronounced “kay-lee” and is a social gathering (i.e., drinking session) marked by ballads, storytelling, traditional folk music and dancing.
The five actor-musicians tell the story of the repressed and controlling academic Prudencia Hart (played by Melody Grove), who gets stranded in a blizzard at another pub in Kelso on a midwinter solstice night — a place and time notorious for opening bridges between the rational world of mortals and the emotionally unfettered underworld of the supernatural.
Reviewers in both Britain and the United States have raved about the show's intermingling of actors and audience in an immersive environment. It's a form of theater that's popular these days — Off-Broadway's Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 adapts War and Peace into a cabaret show, and the Public Theatre created a dance club for last year's Imelda Marcos musical Here Lies Love.
The set is simple — it will consist of little more than a working bar (offering beer and wine) and tables with beer nuts for the audience. But much of the show's sense of connection, Wilson notes, comes from simply throwing the audience and the actors together. “The fact that you can see the audience as well as see the actors immediately puts you, as a watcher, kind of in the center of the drama.
“Putting people in that formation — the actors move around the tables right next to the audience and weave in and out of the tables — [makes] the audience of the night sort of become the site in a funny way,” she adds. “The fact that you can get a drink and take it to your table; the fact that you're at a table; and that people always chat away to [other] people at their tables and there's a kind of nice bubble of people talking before the show. So in a funny way, even if we don't have the architecture of a bar, we kind of bring it with us, and it works really well.”
THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART0x000A | Created by David Greig | The Edye at Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica | Jan. 15-Feb. 8; check website for schedule | (310) 434-3200 | thebroadstage.com/prudencia