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Betsy Tobin's METAPHOR examines the intricacies of human relationships

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In each piece of theater she creates, Betsy Tobin tries to find an unusual way to present her work. For her newest show, METAPHOR, she delves into the complicated realm of relationships using circus arts, puppetry, video projects and more to portray the tangled webs woven by human interaction. In advance of the premiere of METAPHOR, which runs this weekend at the Dairy Center for the Arts, we caught up with Tobin to talk about the many inspirations for this unique, non-linear performance.

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Westword: What was the inspiration for METAPHOR?

Betsy Tobin: I've always been interested in relationships, and there's always been an aspect of my shows that has to do with relationships. The inspiration for this show came out of a couple of conversations. I was talking to this man who always gets in these situations where he's trying to save someone, and as we were in this conversation I just started seeing these images of this man trying to save somebody in this great big sea. So that's one of the scenes, a few years later.

Another inspiration was I was having this conversation with this man and it felt like there was a real disconnect in our conversation. At some point we just realized that I was talking to him as if he was someone from my past and that he was talking to me as if I was someone from his past. So the image that came to mind, because I do a lot of work with acting and silhouettes, was that there was this presence in the room of two other people and the way I saw it in the theater production was that the other people were shadows. So that's one of the scenes in the show as well.

Those are a couple of examples of where the specific stories have come from. But I've always been kind of fascinated by just how intricate human relationships are and how beautiful they can be and how complicated they can be. We can become so trapped in other people's stuff.

One of the things that's really interesting about the show, I think, is that we're dealing with these relationship situations that come up in everyday life, but the reactions to the situations are very unexpected because I'm working with dancers, actors, jugglers, a hip hop artist, an aerial dancer and acrobats. And so very unexpected things happen, which makes it really fun.

What kind of unexpected things?

There's a scene of a tug of war, and it's basically a visualization of a power struggle between a man and a woman. So they're in this struggle and it's going back and forth and then all of a sudden they're entwined in the fabric and they're sort of tossing each other around, and he's suddenly being carried as a backpack and she's jumping. We're using all these sorts of aerial dance techniques, but sometimes on the floor or on the ground and it just makes for very unexpected reactions. There's a moment in this tug-of-war scene where it becomes a triangle, so there are two women interested in the same man, and then this one woman gets in the center and they try to get rid of her, so they catapult her out. We have a scene about narcissism which is very visual, where we create projections on a back wall with mirrors. The work that I do is very multi-layered -- so we'll have actors onstage and then we'll have actors filmed as well, and then you see them in video projections, too.

Are any of scenes inspired by specific relationships that you've had?

I would have to say that I've known a few narcissists in my life. [Laughs.] That is probably the most direct one. And there's a character from one that's kind of from a dream. In the final scene there's this character who's a little bit of a guardian angel. One time I was on a plane and I just had this sense as if somebody was behind me and I could sort of picture him, and he was wearing gray and he was kind of a wise and gentle soul and it was a curious thing. It was almost like a dream image but I was actually awake, and I then wrote down this whole conversation between he and I. So now, many years later, I've created a character out of this person who I imagined. The situation is very different and the conversation I'm sure is different from the one I wrote down years ago, but it was this kind of feeling of someone watching over you a little bit and protecting you, but you couldn't exactly interact with them directly. I think it's also sort of a manifestation of a more masculine side of one's personality or that kind of thing.

There's also a scene with puppets and puppeteers and though the characters are different, the situation was inspired by a show that I was in where I was helping direct certain scenes. And there was this couple who were manipulating this male puppet and this female puppet and the puppeteers would start bickering in the middle of a rehearsal. It was this very strange interplay between what the puppets were doing and then the way the puppeteers would have these little asides and digs at each other. So I rewrote a different scene with that same idea. It's quite intriguing -- nother one that was somewhat inspired by relationships, and again, the situations are really different. I'm not taking any stories that are specifically from my life and enacting them, but there are definitely images that come from my life. One was the sense that people are sometimes trying to make you into someone you're not, and so we have a whole scene about clothes where all these different people are trying to get each other to wear different clothes to look different. It's an entertaining look at the way in which people try to remake each other.

Keep reading for more from Betsy Tobin. Where does the title come from?

We're using a lot of visual metaphors that express relationship patterns, and so that's why I wanted to call it METAPHOR. It's a little more about sort of patterns and images than it is about specific stories. And I've always been fascinated with metaphors.

What do you want people to get out of watching the show?

I hope it will make them think about their lives and the way that they interact, and I hope it will touch them, that they`ll relate to these different stories and images and come away from it with these visual images for experiences maybe that they've had. And that they enjoy it.

Did you discover anything from analyzing relationships in the process of creating the piece?

Some of the material was pretty clearly defined in scenes that I wrote, and other parts of it the group improvised on themes with materials that I proposed. It was really interesting in some of those improvisations just to see what people would come up with and how they grasped really easily where I was trying to go with it; that led to some interesting conversations and sharing some of our experiences. It's always interesting to see that other people have very similar experiences to you. So that part of it has been somewhat cathartic. I don't know that I have one specific discovery, but there's definitely some form of healing and coming to terms with things that's going on for me as we're working.

One other discovery I've made is that I just love working with acrobats. I want to go back and start over and do all these shows again using acrobats, because I just find it so delightful. A lot of the circus arts, they're not used as much with text, so one of my favorite scenes is the final scene where there's a trapeze artist and she's the one who's interacting with this guardian angel-type character and the relationship between the moves and things that she's doing on this trapeze and the lines of the text are just really fascinating. So much of the circus arts are more about entertainment and not quite as much about message, so I think it's really interesting to combine the two.

There's one scene with an image of a web that's created by all the actors and these different fabrics and stuff and it's just a really great visualization of how enmeshed and confusing relationships can become when a lot of people are involved, and then also the beautiful patterns that they can create. It kind of goes in both directions, and that's a strong image for the show because human interaction just fascinates me: I think it's complex and very beautiful, and can be painful and destructive, too.

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