Off-Leash Area uses grand gestures and metaphor to communicate with an audience. Take "Maggie's Brain," which opens tonight at the Playwright's Center in Minneapolis.
In the first scene, a comfortably upper middle class family sits down to dinner only to be jolted by the fury and paranoia of daughter Maggie, who's severely schizophrenic.
Suddenly the action freezes and rewinds back to the beginning. Then Maggie again approaches the dinner table. This time she's enveloped by a nightmarish whirlwind of voices.
"Now the audience gets to see everything from Maggie's point of view," Off-Leash founder Paul Herwig explains, "and all of her hallucinations and the voices in her head are personified on stage."
Herwig says throughout the play, the action takes place in front, on the side, and in back of the audience, "so they are in Maggie's Brain," he says.
Even the lighting adds to the metaphoric weight of the show. Sometimes the stage is conventionally lit. In other scenes, colored fluorescent lights on the walls and hanging from the ceiling flash sporadically and, says Herwig, "it creates this whole synaptic, electric universe that Maggie has to struggle through to survive."
The company is eight years old. Paul Herwig met his wife, choreographer and co-artistic director Jennifer Ilse, when he cast her in an early Off-Leash production. They began a collaboration to create all-original work, drawing heavily from Herwig's movement theater and visual arts background and Ilse's training in dance and music.
They have deliberately chosen not to develop a signature style. They create each show from scratch, with its own language. They tend to focus not on specific social or political situations but on broader themes that reflect the human condition, such as anger, loneliness, or isolation: "anything," Herwig says, "that relates to those things in life that are the most difficult to face but that make life worth living."
The goal with every show, says Jennifer Ilse, is to connect on a deep, almost sub-conscious, emotional level with the audience. She says if a piece doesn't reach someone's emotional core, it hasn't succeeded. "So we never, ever have an idea of thinking, 'Well, if they get it, that's okay. If not, that's too bad. They don't know enough about art,'" she says.
Sometimes ideas for Off-Leash shows percolate for a long period before they reach the stage. Others are more spontaneous. "Maggie's Brain" is based on Ilse's experience growing up with a brother with schizophrenia. Another production featured Paul Herwig scrunched up on an eight-square-foot stage surrounded by boxes and knick-knacks. It was done entirely in French so he could swear repeatedly without offending the audience.
Herwig has a vision problem that prevents him from driving a car, so he commutes by bike. The production grew out of what he encountered on the road one summer. "I had people throwing bottles at me and spitting at me. I even had someone shoot me with a pellet gun once. And I was starting to kind of freak out and get really angry. And I thought, 'God, I just feel like I wanna go into a cupboard full of hate and just hate forever,' and I thought, 'There's an idea for a show.' "
They ended up calling the show "A Cupboard Full of Hate."
Off-Leash Area is known as much for its venue as its imagistic approach to theater. The company stages many of its plays in Ilse and Herwig's garage. Its spirit of invention and risk-taking grabbed Dana Munson. Munson is marketing director for Jungle Theater and an actor for Frank Theater. He's also an evaluator for the annual Ivey Awards, which honor notable performers and productions in the Twin Cities theater scene. Off-Leash is a two-time Ivey winner.
Munson took a friend to see the Off-Leash play "Pssssssst!," about a workplace love triangle. From the beginning, they were spellbound. "Both of us were hitting each other, elbowing each other," Munson says, "going, 'Oh my God, who are these people?' Look, I got boosebumps right now just even talking about them."
One scene implanted itself in Munson's memory: "The main character's on his way to work," he says. "And they create this traffic jam, rush hour, and they do it all on stilts."
Munson says the play was a very earthy, organic experience, ambitious but not pretentious. He wishes more theater was like that. "It's for everyone, he says. "It's for the masses, and they're making it available to the masses, and at the same still flexing that artistic muscle."
While Off-Leash's audience is growing, Herwig says its hard-to-label hybrid of theater and dance has inhibited funders from getting on board. But Off-Leash is willing to be patient. Herwig says he and Ilse plan to make their unique brand of theater until they're too old to do it any longer.