Capital Fringe Preview: ‘HOWL’ in the Time of Trump’ at Sanctuary Theatre’s Performing Knowledge Project

I am not a specialist. I’ve never wanted to be a specialist. In fact, I’ve always wanted to be a non-specialist: someone who encounters life across many disciplines and many loves.

Allen Ginsberg. Photo by Michiel Hendryckx.

As a result, I am a creativist: I find the creative spark in whatever discipline I work in.

The artists I work with are the same.

Below, I interview three of the artists who are working with me on HOWL in the Time of Trump: Director Yitna Firdyiwek, Composer Doug Fraser, and Designer Elizabeth Bruce (who is also my wife)

Michael Oliver: So, Yitna, why perform HOWL in 2017?

Yitna Firdyiwek. Photo courtesy of The Performing Knowledge Project.

Yitna Firdyiwek: The frustration, agony, and confusion we feel today with the way our society is devolving is not new. HOWL is ultimately about facing our fears, embracing our grief, and letting go of our demons. It reminds us how deep is the well of spiritual healing.

What effect do you hope to have on your audience with HOWL in the Time of Trump?

A one hour journey through the dark night of our collective modern souls to an ecstatic awakening and rejuvenation.

And finally, looking beyond the fact that the arts in this country are for the most part relegated to the role of the non-political, during this time of national crisis what role do you think the arts should have (and I’m not just talking about Trump here)?

Art has always been political. How could it not be? It is the notion that art can be relegated to a non-political status that is absurd. Art also sees through the political world, and in that penetration infuses what is staid, static, and catatonic in our lives with new possibilities, new ways of looking at ourselves and the world.

What are the most challenging aspects of directing a poem like HOWL?

Managing the schizophrenic shouting match locked in the language of the poem — especially in the first part — was most challenging. The torrent of words frequently threatened to break loose all bounds. Keeping Michael and his feelings in tune with this massive wave… But I think Doug’s music helps a great deal. And involving the audience in the second and last parts gives the poem more structure. The audience becomes the community that enables the exorcism that is the howl.

Doug Fraser. Photo courtesy of The Performing Knowledge Project.

And Doug, you’ve worked with me on the music for both my Poe and Whitman shows. What was different about working on the music for HOWL?

Doug Fraser: From the beginning we have been treating HOWL as a driving rhythmical piece. What is interesting to me is how this has evolved into the different parts, and that we migrated away from atonality.

Also, there is a magic to the experience of Michael’s oratory. The music and the rhythm are there to help conjure up this devil for the audience.

So, Elizabeth, you were in charge of the costume, mask, and puppets. What was the idea behind those aspects of the production?

Elizabeth Bruce. Photo courtesy of The Performing Knowledge Project.

Elizabeth Bruce: HOWL churns with images—glorious, poetic, profane, prophetic images—and we wanted to capture some of that in a bit of theatrical spectacle and audience participation. Michael’s costume is pretty basic–just a black Guayabera shirt and dark pants, nothing fancy, though I had a lovely time tracking down the shirt and happily found one at the Western Store on Mt. Pleasant Street where I had a long, deep discussion with the proprietor and her son.

The mask is a nod to HOWL’s apocalyptic view of the American landscape ravaged by our own homegrown “Moloch.” We found the punked out template online and decided to go with a mechanistic, fantastical exaggeration.

The Finger Puppets. Photo courtesy of The Performing Knowledge Project.

The finger puppets came out of a brainstorming session that ultimately grabbed onto Michael’s suggestion of finger puppets as a way to involve the audience. We wanted the audience to embody “the people” in a low-tech, user-friendly, theatrical sort of way. We pulled together a variety of art-making materials and invited friends and fellow writers, arts educators, and actors over to create them. There’s a sweetness to many of them that belies the savagery of the poem and brings a satirical counterpunch. I also had a bunch of high-gloss art magazines that were way too edgy to ever use for collaging with children, and we started pulling other images from them and tricking them out with feathers and umbrellas and other kinds of fru-fru. All the elements are low-cost, quasi salvage-art in the tradition of Peter Brooks’ “poor theater,” as befits HOWL and the Beats, and the Fringe!

Howl in the Time of Trump opens July 6, 2017, at 7:15 at the Shopkeepers — 1231 Florida Ave. NE, Washington, DC.

Thursday 7/6 at 7:15 PM

Friday 7/7 at 10:00 PM

Saturday 7/8 at 3:15 PM

Friday 7/21 at 5:00 PM

Saturday 7/22 at 1:15 PM

Sunday 7/23 at 2:00 PM


Online sales end 2 hours before a performance, but tickets may be available at venue 45 minutes prior to a show.

1231 Florida Ave, NE Washington, DC 20002


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