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Ellen Descisciolo

The Stuff of Legends
By John Rodat

Having relocated to New York City three years ago with his troupe Fovea Floods, Josh Chambers sets his sights on a hero’s return to the Capital Region

First there is the call. It is often misunderstood or ignored, sometimes refused outright. And small surprise, because the call is an invitation into the unfamiliar, a summons into the unknown; faced with that profound uncertainty, many would prefer to stay on the farm. If the call is accepted, after all, there is the promise of danger. There’s adversity, altercation and, just possibly, transformation. That’s the promise of the hero’s journey in fable and myth: Upon return, the hero is in some fundamental way changed. He comes home bearing a gift, a boon for his community that he could never have claimed without accepting the risk and the call.

That’s the hero’s story—from Sindbad the Sailor to Jack (of beanstalk fame) to Luke Skywalker. It’s an archetypal progression that can be—and has been—mapped and charted and analyzed by mythologists, psychologists, sociologists and screenwriters in an ongoing search for the Big Story, the ur-story. It is also, without stretching it too much, Josh Chambers’ story.

Chambers, a founding member and co-artistic director of the theater company Fovea Floods, has returned to the area to direct the troupe’s first production since relocating from Saratoga Springs to New York City in 2000. Paul Pry—which is being staged, beginning Sunday, in association with the newly founded Saratoga Stages—was written and scored by Chambers, and though it seems an inevitability in the heroic model that Chambers would bring it home, his route was not exactly a predictable one. The accomplished young director’s original artistic impetus was not, in fact, even an explicitly theatrical one:

“I started classical guitar at a young age, and that was sort of my obsession,” Chambers says. “I was sort of a misfit and spent a lot of time with my guitar.”

That was the known for Chambers. So, when it came time for him to select a college, the obvious choice was a conservatory, which he investigated. But the Greenwich native also applied to the college down the road, Skidmore, and when that school offered him a Filene scholarship for guitar—a “really great deal,” Chambers calls it—he reconsidered, entertaining the notion of a new path.

“I was weighing my options, and decided that I wanted a little bit more of a varied education, rather than just an experience in strict classical discipline,” Chambers says. After a pause, he understates, “Probably a really good choice.”

Chambers accepted the scholarship and at Skidmore found what, in the cartography of myth, would be called the threshold elements necessary for the full separation from the known: the guardians, helpers and mentors who would facilitate his transformation from classical-guitar misfit to theatrical wunderkind.

“The faculty there were really great—they still are,” Chambers recalls. “They were very much about putting the ball into your hands. From my first year, I got the impression that you could really do whatever you wanted and they were going to give you the resources to do it, if you were talented and ambitious enough.”

Though talent would have to be developed and proved, ambition was ample, Chambers says. From the first days of his involvement in Skidmore’s theater department, he and his roommates had that.

“We had a megolomaniacal drive to take over the world,” he clarifies, with a laugh.

Chambers and his friends took full advantage of the resources provided by the college, but also created their own opportunities. Drawing strength and inspiration from the community of like minds they comprised, the core group looked outside the department for chances to create theater.

“I was playing a lot at Caffe Lena as a guitarist, and really had a good relationship with the people there,” Chambers says, “so when I was a sophomore I went to the board and asked if I could use the theater for a summer production. They were totally gracious about it: They gave me the key.”

Fovea Floods coalesced around that first production in 1995, and the troupe continued to work out of Caffe Lena for the following four years, maintaining a schedule just this side of berserk.

“When I was a junior and senior,” says Chambers, “I wanted so much to be working that I would schedule, like, a fully staged production every four weeks or so. It was crazy. I was doing one on top of another.”

Chambers had answered the call, received a specialized tutelage, assembled a fellowship and successfully faced a number of formative challenges; seemingly he and Fovea Floods had hit their stride. According to the archetype, however, there is still the abyss before the transformation and the return.

Cue the abyss.

“When we graduated, we did one big show—big for us anyway,” Chambers says. “And when the dust sort of settled, we all said, ‘Now what?’ ”

The prospect of facing the world beyond the college confines was both exciting and daunting, but the ambition of the members of Fovea Floods didn’t waver in the face of the renewed uncertainty.

“There were basically two options,” Chambers explains. “We could go to New York and start trying to produce our own shows, or we could take six months longer in Saratoga, put on a few more productions and see how the company adapted outside of college, see how it grew in that period of time. We could use that as a litmus test for how we want to grow in the future.”

As a group, Fovea Floods immersed themselves in that test, renting a seven-bedroom house in Saratoga where they could live and work together, intensively.

“It was great,” Chambers asserts, with obvious nostalgia. “We had a six-to-midnight meeting every night, six days a week, starting with two hours of physical training. It was really interesting, because we were trying to be really disciplined. It was like boot camp for the company. That’s when a lot of things really came together. Because we were forced to really focus and say, ‘OK, how does this company work? What’s our artistic agenda? Let’s really make it clear to ourselves and to the people we’re inviting to come see these shows.’ ”

One of the productions mounted during that time was Paul Pry, an original work by Chambers. The play’s richly allusive subject matter and approach do reflect the general aesthetic of Fovea Floods and, perhaps, the inherent sensitivity of its author to fantasy and fable.

“I was in San Diego right before my junior year of college, working with a theater company there called Sledgehammer,” Chambers remembers, “and I had this idea of making a theatrical version of a silent film, a show that’s highly visual, all set to music and subtitled with video text. At the time, I was staying with the director of the San Diego lab, he was a huge reader and a huge folklore buff, which was another passion of mine at the time. So I had these two things sort of floating around in my mind, plus I was trying to get through Interpretation of Dreams by Freud—those ideas were all sort of at my bedside.”

These symbolically charged influences gestated, finally gelling around the Hans Christian Andersen story The Snow Queen, a darker—and therefore lesser known—fable from the Danish folklorist famed for The Ugly Duckling and Hans Brinker.

“It’s basically the story of a goblin who creates this mirror that reflects everything back as its opposite,” Chambers summarizes. “He’s got a bunch of goblins working for him, and they decide they’ll fly up to the heavens to reflect the angels back at them negatively, killing them. As they’re flying up, the mirror shatters and all the shards come back to earth and cause all these problems: Some are huge and get made into windows, but it’s a bad thing to look out these windows because you’ll see everything wrongly; some are made into glasses; and some are so small they get lodged in people’s eyes.”

Chambers says that when he and Fovea Floods first presented Paul Pry, they emphasized its fantastic elements, its almost surreal otherworldliness. But since they moved to New York and gained experience and maturity, they’ve changed—as has the world. Now, Chambers says, they are taking a different and, he hopes, more meaningful approach.

“We’re really trying to make it a sort of contemporary urban myth,” he says. “To take the concepts of the characters and transpose them into a modern world and deal with modern concerns, and tie some of the themes and the ideas of the story into our own time, to give it modern teeth to bite a modern audience a little harder.

“Right now, there’s so much happening in the world,” he continues, “that if we’re not dealing with the fears that everyone has, and we’re not dealing with the corruption within our own government, both the danger that we as Americans feel and the danger that we pose to the rest of the world . . .”

He trails off with an “all for naught” gesture of his hand.

Chambers wants Paul Pry—and Fovea Floods—to be relevant. He wants it to wed the subtle force of myth with the immediacy of the evening news. He wants to issue a call to the audience, to have the audience pick up that call as a mission, and to have a transformation take place within them—even if they are at first unaware of it happening.

“Our goal is that this could function and live in the modern world the way folktales do,” he says. “I think that there are morals there, but it’s artfully done, there’s a lot of mystery. That’s what I like about it: You’re saying something, there is a statement, but the statement sort of seeps in your skin rather than in your mind. You’re understanding the story, but you’re caught up in the characters and the plot, and then at the end, you’re like, ‘I get it! I get what they’re really saying!’”

Saratoga Stages presents Fovea Flood’s production of Paul Pry at the BOCES/New Visions Studio Theatre (F. Donald Myers Education Center, Saratoga Springs) beginning Sunday (March 2) through March 30. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday shows at 8 PM; Friday and Saturday, 8 and 10 PM. Tickets are $15, $10 students. For tickets or more information, call 581-8587.

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