The first day of rehearsals for most shows usually consists of a script read-through. But for Theatre Columbus’s Dance Of The Red Skirts, each of the actors involved had to put brush to paper and try to reproduce Paul Klee’s abstract painting of the same name.
“We were painting the painting,” says Erin Shields, one of the three performers in the collectively written work.
Shields is no stranger to the creative process. She’s worked on shows like Goblin Market and The Unfortunate Misadventures Of Masha Galinski, inspired by texts by writers like Christina Rossetti and Angela Carter. But she’s never before had to work with a painting, and she’s seldom improvised so much.
“I thought we’d be improvising and then we’d script it all out,” she says. “But we actually use material that’s been improvised as a basis for the script.”
The Swiss-born Klee thought abstraction captured the essence of a thing better than an attempt to realistically represent it, says Shields.
“He thought that if you tried to paint something exactly as it was, you’d be further away from the truth than if you’d abstracted it,” she says. “That’s a cool way of thinking about art. We started with that idea and tried to embody the painting in a similar way.”
The collaborators – among them director Leah Cherniak, writer Martha Ross and performers Maev Beaty and Greg Gale – initially asked themselves and each other what they thought about the work.
“And then every few days we’d reassess what we thought,” she says. “In the end, you’d have layers of ideas. Which is sort of how Klee worked as well. He’d put a layer of paint on, look at it, put another layer on top. And in the end all the layers interacted with one another.”
The set, designed by Victoria Wallace, resembles an art gallery. And a reproduction of the Klee painting figures prominently. Shields says the work requires a different kind of attention and approach.
“It’s not often that you get to look at a piece of art for an hour and a half,” she says. “We do things really quickly. Even at an art gallery, we’ll motor around, try to cram in as much as possible.”