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Fraudulent Productions founder John Spitzer can’t resist his impulse to provoke from the proscenium.
The script reads: “Enter Mister Firdusi. He is a giant revolving head with arms and legs carrying a pig’s bladder on a string.”
It’s the kind of line that makes you do a double-take with your cerebral cortex. A giant revolving head? With limbs? Carrying a what? Why on God’s green earth?
I sat in the darkened theater for many long minutes, trying mightily to suspend my disbelief before Mister Firdusi, the central character in Kokoschka: The Metaphysics of Sex, made his grand entrance, because I could not for the life of me imagine how the actors were going to pull it off.
Then, to my mouth-agape astonishment, Mister Firdusi arrived. He was not the impressionistic shadow puppet I’d decided this low-budget production was going to default to; instead, he was made from a 20-gallon green plastic trash can, with oversized eyes and nose, and, sure enough, he was carrying a pig’s bladder on a string on a stick. He was hilarious and horrifying, and his image remained with me long after the show was over.
Such is the work of Fraudulent Productions, the theater company founded and directed by John Spitzer. For the last 16 years, Spitzer has done what he can to provoke audiences with some of the most audacious programs of any local troupe.
But what to call it? If you saw FraudProd’s last show, Peter Handke’s My Foot My Tutor, you saw one actor contemptuously mimicking another, without a word spoken (except by a narrator reading stage directions) for an hour. If you caught its first show, Protoexodium, you saw a hypnotic Spitzer-penned series of invisibly related avant-vaudeville sketches.
“Our style of theater is a tad difficult to define,” Spitzer says, winding up for a rapid-fire description of what it is he does. “‘Avant-experimental’ comes close, because it’s a hybrid of styles. Each individual show that FraudProd has ever done is a unique style unto itself, and we as a company go through the process to fit the play that we are doing.
“We’ve done original work, postmodern work, deconstructionist work, but we’ve also gone back through our History of Paratheatre series to see where experimental theater came from. So we’ve done work in the dadaist style, work in the surrealist style, in the expressionist style, in the futurist style, and in the cubist style. All of these art movements had very strong performance and theater components.”
Few others locally have bothered to explore these moments, or cared to, or taken the chance, because, well, they ain’t Neil Simon. Spitzer and his ensemble intend to challenge while they entertainbut every company says that. What FraudProd does is truly subversive.
“We brought theater to movement modalities,” Spitzer argues. “We subvert the rules of theater, then use the rules and tools and norms of theater to put forth subversive content, i.e., to give a nice sugar pill that slides under the skin and leaves some deep and disturbing thoughts for our audience to ponder.
“I flatter myself in that I succeed as often as not in planting mental time bombs in brains. [Audience members] leave the theater going, ‘Heyuuh?’ and then they’ll be sitting on the crapper three days later and…” Here he slaps his forehead with a loud thwack! and laughs, a bit diabolically. “People tell me this is what happens to them.”
If you want evidence that FraudProd is rare in what it does, put “history of experimental theater” into Yahoo.com’s search engine. The No. 1 hit is for Fraudulent Productions. There is no No. 2.
“Theatre du Jour does very interesting movement-based work here in Washington,” Spitzer says when asked of like-minded troupes. “And they’re under the directorship of B. Stanley, who also runs the D.C. Arts Center, where we’ve been in residency for the last six years. But theirs is original workwe also have a historic perspective that they lack.”
“It took me a while to convince John to cover over here and do shows at DCAC,” says Stanley, agreeing that his company is “oh, probably” the only local avant-anything troupe akin to FraudProd.
Spitzer’s reluctance to relocate to the DCAC was because of his concern for his audience. “He would have to charge his audience more than $5 a person [to come here],” explains Stanley. “So for the first year I was here, he kept going to different church basements; he finally bought into the fact that if he wanted to serve his audience he’d have to increase his price and stay in one place. And they’ve been very successful here.”
Spitzer keeps his tickets in the $10-$15 range and still manages to put on professional-looking shows, but audiences seem to have a hard time opening their wallets so they can be subjected to mental time-bombing. FraudProd’s largest house was 140 paying customers, for a developmental reading of a company-created piece called Dreamfreak at the Source Theatre in 1993. The smallest house was six, for My Foot My Tutor, despite a positive review in the Washington Post.
“I try to keep market forces out of play as much as possible,” Spitzer says. “If you want to do experimental theater, if you want to be about the business of not just doing theater but answering ‘What is theater, what is performance, what is dramatic narrative?’ you really can’t be beholden to funders, be they corporate, individual, or foundation.”
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Determined as Spitzer is to continue delivering what no one seems to want, the lack of widespread noticedespite a 1998 Theatre Lobby Award for Outstanding Theatre Company and a 1997 Helen Hayes Award nomination for Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usherhurts.
“You’re damn right it does,” Spitzer says, his bile rising. “Many of my favorite and most precious works, the works that I will carry in my heart to my grave, have gone horribly underattended. Many of them have been works by the Austrian postmodernist Peter Handke, who is, I believe, the most important writer of the late 20th century. And most European critics will agree with me. He’s won every major award Europe has to offer. I believe he represents the fundamental transition from modern to postmodern theater.”
Surprisingly, Spitzer, whose boundless energy belies his 44 years, is the result of a suburban Washington upbringing. He grew up in Arlington; briefly attended Northern Village Community College, Georgetown University, New York University, and George Mason University; and became involved with incipient regional theater companiesNorthstar and Quiet Fire among themin the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Naturally, he’s given New York a try; he spent a few years absorbing what the Big Apple has to offer. Fraudulent Productions developed out of his experiences living in the Lower East Side, “the nerve center of the burgeoning underground counterculture performance-arts scene,” he says.
Upon his return to Washington, he says, “I looked around and was shocked that there was nothing of the sort. I was faced with two options: to either take the more usual option about whining about what a cultural wasteland Washington was or get off my ass and do something about it.”
He formed FraudProd in 1984, mounting Protoexodium with cast members he still counts in his ensemble today. After a stretch as a band of theatrical nomads, during which they performed “wherever rent was cheap or free”including stints at several defunct theaters as well as Source, the National Theatre, and the Arts Club of WashingtonSpitzer and FraudProd eased into the DCAC’s 50-seat black box.
“It’s very popular to bitch about the space and how it’s very difficult to stage work in there, but me, I love the space,” Spitzer says. “I love the fact that the audience basically has no place to hidethey can’t simply peer safely from the shelter of the darkness into the light. I have the opportunity to expand the liminal space of the performer into the liminal space of the audience and create a unified psychological dynamic, because I don’t think of myself so much as a director; what I strive to do is create an alternate form of reality that we ascend to.”
This is a far mellower Spitzerwho used to be given to performing top-of-the-voice street-corner poetrythan the one who began the troupe in 1984, when audience members were berated by actors as part of the program. “In my youth, [the pieces] were very confrontational,” he admits. “Protoexodium and Xenoville [also by Spitzer] were acts of outright rebellion against theater.”
His loyal actors are volunteers who get money only when the show makes moneywhich, Spitzer says, they usually do. “The majority comes back to us from the box office, which I find very impressive. We’ve very rarely lost money over the years; we’ve almost always broken even. Hell, Arena Stage can’t even claim that.”
But six in the audience? How does that affect the cast? “We have had instances where we were turning away people,” says Ellen Boggs, an actress who has performed in FraudProd shows since 1988. “The trick is not to expect that.”
The highlight of being in a Spitzer show, she says, “is the camaraderie. His casts tend to be very tight and talk about everything from metaphysics to philosophy, and it can be intense. In professional companies, quite often, when you get to rehearsal you start rehearsing. In John’s company, you warm up, you get research materials to read…He has a very thorough process, and he wants his actors to be more than usually prepared. And so is he as a director.”
So, despite the often small houses and the hit-or-miss pay, Boggs keeps coming back. “He brings so much love to every project. You never feel exploited. Working with John Spitzer for no money is a treat.”
For the last four years, the company has received grants from the D.C. Commission of Arts and Humanities. They help, but it takes “a minimum of five grand to even announce a show,” says Spitzer. “The first 10 years, it was possible to do a show in Washington for free. Rent was free, other companies would lend you lighting or costumes, and it wasn’t necessary to spend an arm and a leg on advertising.
“Now there is no free rent in Washington. No one I know of is willing to do a collaborative or shared-risk arrangement when it comes to splitting the box office. Companies are far less prone to share their grantsunderstandably, because their funds have dwindled. But to my way of thinking, when times get tight, that’s when we need to reach out and help each other. But it seems other companies feel that’s the time to pull up the drawbridge and fill the moat with alligators and say”here he affects an appropriately Scroogelike voice”‘Only enough for me! Stay away, stay away!’”
Spitzer lives in Northwest D.C. with his partner, Karen Mitchell (a part-time operations assistant at Washington City Paper), who “has been very instrumental in FraudProd over the last 10 yearsshe’s run the lightboard, swept the stage, filled in in roles onstage.” He’s hoping that her new bachelor’s degree in linguistics from Georgetown will convert into “a good-paying job so she can support me. My job is nonexistent at this moment.” A 10-month contract to provide graphic design for political campaigns finished this month.
Unemployed but far from idle, Spitzer is at work on FraudProd’s 2001 production, his decades-in-the-making “very deconstructed-reconstructed version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, which I think will do quite well for us.
“Even though we are taking it into metatheatrical territory, that is going to be the chief reason it will be the truest telling of Shelley’s story ever staged,” Spitzer says, the words coming faster. “It will be a complex blend of narrative, oratory, dramatic action, and time-shifting, which is the only way to present that novel in dramatic terms. I’m very happy with what’s coming out of the typewriter.
“We’re starting right in the middle, when the creature comes to life. We’ll get all that out of the way at the beginning, with pyrotechnics, the worksgive them the cum shot right at the get-go and then their ass is mine for the next hour-and-a-half!”
And then Spitzer laughs. Diabolically. CP