"It's a cautionary tale," says actor/director/writer Bill Pullman, sitting in the lounge of the Hotel Teatro with his longtime friend and collaborator, Jennifer McCrary Rincon of the Denver Academy of Dramatic Arts. The two are in the process of transforming a pagan myth into an engaging, multimedia, one-night-only theatrical event, The Wild Hunt, premiering Sunday, January 10, at the Exdo Event Center.
In early Europe, the Wild Hunt myth told of a vision, usually beheld in the dead of winter. A ghostly group of hunters, led by Odin, were seen traveling through the sky in search of prey; the vision presaged war or other disaster, the unleashing of chaos. And sometimes, the unwilling witnesses were swept along, transported to the spirit world.
“About the year 1000, Christian monks co-opted the legend and, quite literally, demonized it,” says Pullman. “But the winter solstice is the time when the veil between the living and the dead is thin, and this myth concerns appeasing, and connecting with, the ancestor spirits.”
The Wild Hunt centers on a girl, Lussi, a “divided spirit” in a mental institution who has “visions of the ends of things” and finds herself pulled between consensual reality and the mythic plane, Pullman continues. He sees parallels with the warnings of environmental disaster in our own time, citing his own children’s concerns with the potential apocalypse of global warming. “We think it’s us versus nature,” he says. “We forget that nature takes us with it.”
For this project, Pullman turned to longtime friend Jennifer McCrary Rincon, who founded the Denver Academy of Dramatic Arts at Visionbox Studio in 2010. Rincon is best known locally as the head of acting at the National Theatre Conservatory, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, from 1991 through 2008. The Academy is a hidden gem, a prime regional training ground for developing performers.
After training at Yale, Rinco began her extensive theatrical career in New York in the early 1980s, when she first met Pullman. Today Pullman is best known for his work in such films as Independence Day, Lost Highway and While You Were Sleeping, but he trained as a theater director, as well, and cut his teeth on such edgy fare as the lauded 1985 revival of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class.
The two ran into each other again in 2002, leading to their collaboration on Pullman’s first play, Expedition 6, an adventurous piece that incorporated low-flying trapeze work and practical effects to tell the story of three astronauts trapped in Earth orbit.
“It’s my mission to elevate the role of the actor in the creative process,” Rincon says. “So many times actors are just slotted into things. I can’t think of a single actor who wouldn’t want to be empowered to co-create work instead of just inhabiting it. In this project, the actors are contributing to the process.”
For this production, Rincon and Pullman assembled an ensemble of nine actors, including Pullman’s daughter Maesa. The duo also pulled in the talents of local composer Gary Grundei, musician Jason Hiller, and renowned set designer and digital artist Philip Baldwin. The puppeteering work of Jack Pullman, Bill’s son, is an integral part of the experience, intended to be immersive.
“There’s part of us that still longs to be around the campfire,” says Pullman. And the work is evolving as the story is told. This fluid mesh of collaboration and improvisation will change and grow right up to the night of the performance.
“The old models have to be re-looked at,” explains Rincon. “The financial model for theater is very challenging. Being in the arts district but without a dedicated theater space, we produce site-specific work – something for a particular place, for a limited period of time. Let’s create projects that have a one-night event. And we want to open up the mystery. Let people come and see the process!”
The night itself has morphed into a benefit for the project and the Denver Academy of Dramatic Arts. After this performance, Pullman plans to take the production to New York for further work, and then bring it back to Denver for a formal premiere.
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Rincon and Pullman continue to be inspired by some of the great American avant-garde theatrical ensembles of the past. In that non-traditional tradition, they are taking a fresh, vibrant approach to producing new work. “It’s not the easiest pathway, but it’s the most rewarding,” says Rincon. “We’ll see if this is a model that will work.”
Pullman, still tossing themes about in his mind, doesn’t yet know how the piece will end. He pulls out a photo of old Norse nithing poles – animal skins stretched on frames in pagan times, used to impose curses on enemies. The Wild Hunt, it seems, will be a radical trip between dark and light.
“All the stories we’ve been telling ourselves about our world and the way things are,” he muses. “We’ve been telling ourselves these stories for at least a thousand years, and they aren’t reaching us any longer. Maybe we need a new story.”
The work-in-progress showing of The Wild Hunt will be presented by Visionbox Studio at 7 p.m. Sunday, January 10, at the Exdo Event Center, 1399 35th Street. For tickets and information, visit visionbox.org.