David Olson’s mother and grandmother were poets. At dinner, Olson’s father, a Swedish immigrant, would leave a line of poetry under a dinner plate for Olson or one of his siblings to discover and read.
So, when four local playwrights approached Olson, artistic director of Santa Fe’s Theaterwork, about collaborating on a production, the group found common ground in poetry.
“It was very natural,” Olson says.
When I meet Olson with cast and crew at rehearsals on the campus of the New Mexico School for the Deaf, he’s dressed in black with a white beard, his white hair brushed back. He greets me warmly at the door to James A Little Theater and walks me into the silent auditorium. Four by Four x 4 is the company’s 106th production in Santa Fe, he says, and one of only two this year. Theaterwork typically does seven or eight a year, but a story-collecting project in Mora, NM is taking up the rest of the company’s time.
As we near the stage, Olson signals with a sweep of his arm where tiered steel platforms will bring the audience right up to and level with the stage, turning the 432-seat hall into a more intimate black box space.
In the performance area, two angled platforms bookend a flat, centered one. All four plays, Olson says, will use this construction, combined with lighting design, to suggest various settings.
That night, we would be watching Consorting with Angels by Jenice Gharib and The Tide by Angela Janda; the following night, Sworn to Water by Dale Dunn and Psalm of the Castle by Leslie Harrell Dillen. The playwrights found inspiration for the 30- to 40-minute works in the poetry of Anne Sexton, Amy Clampitt, Lorine Niedecker and Denise Levertov. The Sexton and Niedecker pieces imagine the poets’ lives, while the others find worlds within the words.
The process of refining the language for visual cues proved challenging at times, Olson says, and eventually he told the playwrights to put down their pens.
“At some point, you have to stop tinkering,” he says.
After running Teatro Laboratorio in Bogotá, Columbia, and, years with Cherry Creek Theatre in Minnesota, Olson and company moved to Santa Fe on the suggestion of his wife and collaborator, Paula. They named the company Theaterwork, after a publication Cherry Creek published in the 1970s and 1980s.
During a break in the conversation, I ask if Theaterwork ever collaborates with the School for the Deaf, and he says that it used to, but that there hasn’t been much interest lately.
“I’ve spent my life doing theater,” Olson says, “so I think it has a place.”
As garrulous and proud of the work he’s done as any theater director, Olson also possesses the singular charms of gentleness and gratitude, occasionally pointing out the skill or dedication of a member of his team.
Theaterwork, he says, tries to present an alternative theater, one that offers more than simple entertainment, though he occasionally accepts (funded) proposals for works such as The Sound of Music, hoping the quality will convince theatergoers to attend more challenging productions.
In a small stack of Theaterwork magazines Olson provides, I find some foundation for the company’s work, poised to “attack consumerism, chauvinism, and egoism, to expose irrelevance and faddish theatre gimmicks.”
When I ask if a theme other than poetry connects the works in Four by Four x 4, Olson says that if viewers catch all four, they will see “resonances, but these poets are so different.”
Then, after preparing cast and crew for a run-through, he turns to me and says, “Water is the thing that runs through all of them. I just realized that.”
Four by Four x 4
Sworn to Water and Psalm of the Castle
7:30 pm Friday, Feb. 17
2 pm Saturday, Feb. 18
Consorting with Angels and The Tide
7:30 Saturday, Feb. 18
2 pm Sunday, Feb. 19
Through Feb. 26
James A Little Theater
1060 Cerrillos Road,
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