By Laura Henry Buda
In an industry where originality and vision are basic requirements, Ed Sylvanus Iskandar truly stands out. When STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn saw Iskandar’s production of The Mysteries, featuring 50 plays by 48 authors with 53 actors in the tiny performance space of the Flea Theater in New York, he was impressed. “The work quite frankly blew my mind,” Kahn says, “as it did for everyone who came to see it.”
Soon after, Kahn invited Iskandar to STC to participate in a new series giving emerging young directors the opportunity to stage innovative productions of great writers. Continuing with Liesl Tommy’s Macbeth next season, The Clarice Smith Series: New Directors for the Classics allows Kahn to give today’s younger artists the chance he was once given by Joe Papp at the Public Theater—his first major production of Shakespeare.
The scale of The Mysteries—where each sold-out show boasted more actors than audience members—was not an anomaly. Up close and epic is Iskandar’s style. Reviewers have called his productions bedazzled, vivid, audacious and transformative. But it’s his smaller-scale theatre collective Exit, Pursued by a Bear (EPBB) that demonstrates his artistic philosophy.
Noticing a lack of community among young theatre artists in New York, Iskandar turned to the oldest social engagement in existence: sharing a meal. Every Sunday, he and his collaborators hosted a “theatre gym, creative think tank and social space” for emerging artists, providing an opportunity to read and discuss new plays, hone performance skills and meet possible collaborators—but most of all, to relax and eat a meal, prepared by Iskandar himself. Soon, young talent in New York began flocking to Iskandar’s table, giving birth to a Lab series of new play workshops. Two of EPBB’s Labs moved downtown as Iskandar’s first professional New York productions. In the Labs, tickets were free, audiences were invitation-only, and everyone got fed—all in Iskandar’s Hell’s Kitchen loft. EPBB has hosted 150 nights of theatre and served more than 12,000 meals.
Iskandar does not just build plays—he builds relationships. His values of community, inclusion and collaboration comprise the bedrock of his aesthetic style and philosophy. Though the scale may seem overly ambitious to some, Iskandar’s unconventional and larger-than-life strategies are grounded in very specific goals.
To begin with, food has been a fixture. His first professional productions in New York, These Seven Sicknesses, Restoration Comedy and The Mysteries all featured meals and cocktails, served by the cast and included in the ticket price. Beyond the social value, Iskandar maintains that sharing a meal unlocks something in a theatrical experience. “To be able to touch on what’s basic to any human, you access the five senses, as well as a range of emotional response, humor, and spectacle and awe through dance and song,” he told The Brooklyn Rail. “You’ll think about it a couple days later in the way that you might not if you’ve just seen a very good 90-minute dinner table play.”
Iskandar also believes that theatrical experiences should not stop at the edge of the stage, and that theatre watched passively is no different than television or film. There is no exchange, no real communication. To truly appreciate the art, he says, audience members need to connect to the human effort behind its creation. “That means being able to relate to the performer as a person before you can relate on either side of the proscenium.”
Consequently, Iskandar’s actors engage with the audience before the show even begins, serving drinks, saying hello or starting the storytelling. But never fear: Iskandar’s immersive experiences are opt-in. Forcing interaction on audience members, he believes, only alienates them—destroying rapport, not creating it—so events are structured to give individuals control over their involvement. For Iskandar, theatre is a social experience—and he wants everyone to be friends.
Ultimately, theatre should be a party. In Shakespeare’s day, nobility and peasants alike attended to people-watch, to see and be seen, as well as take in a play. In ancient Athens, people enjoyed all-day theatre marathons as part of festival celebrations, taking long pauses to share food and wine. If that sounds like an Ed Sylvanus Iskandar production, it’s intentional.
“For me, the value of art is in its ability to bring people together,” he says. “I don’t feel that I am practicing anything radical or revolutionary.” Instead, Iskandar’s productions provide a frame for strangers to construct a real, if fleeting, community. In a digital world where we are always connected but increasingly isolated, being a champion of face-to-face contact is a revolution in itself. In that context, what greater goal for theatre than to build relationships between people, share some food, throw a party and tell a story? We’ll drink to that.
Iskandar’s New York debut, a five-hour adaptation of all seven of Sophocles’ plays stretching from Oedipus to Antigone, wasn’t a shy one. Sicknesses nourished the audience on a literal and dramatic level, feeding the need for catharsis with Greek tragedy—and the need for sustenance with dinner and dessert served by the cast.
Iskandar transformed Amy Freed’s raunchy send-up of 17th-century sex comedies into a raging Bushwick party. Actors in punk-rock-Restoration garb distributed snacks and poured refills of punch while tackling age-old questions of fidelity and attraction. As Iskandar explained, the play is a “thoroughly post-modern examination of our right to love freely—told through the lens of the bawdy, fashionable, larger-than-life world of the Restoration, which ultimately posits that while clothing and manners and music may change…some things don’t.”
50 short plays. 48 playwrights. 53 actors. 350 costumes. That’s how Iskandar dramatized the Bible. Each playwright adapted pageants from the York Cycle, and Iskandar wove themtogether over five hours of plays, from the Gardens of Eden to Gethsemane.