An Interview with Dan Plehal
Updated: Jan 25, 2019
Today we sit down with Dan Plehal, one of the founding members of Aura CuriAtlas (with Joan Gavaler and Mickey Lonsdale). He is an established physical theatre director/performer and an excellent teacher to boot! He has worked across the United States and Europe, and he specializes in the intersection of theatre and acrobatics.
When asked about what drew him to physical theatre, Plehal explains how “As performers, our bodies are our instrument. I love the opportunity to use the body as fully as possible. We can express so much without words and do so in ways that let all types of audiences experience our art with us.”
Although the open-ended creativity is one of the highlights of physical theatre, Plehal also explains how difficult this element can be. “Though physical theatre can be scripted and/or integrated into scripted work, it is often associated with a devised creation process. In devising theatre, the company works together to create the movement and the story from scratch, rather than starting with a playwright's words. This, to me, is the most challenging. Starting from nothing is freeing because you can choose any path, any story, but it can be overwhelming because this process invites so many questions that need to be answered.”
Plehal also explains the specific challenges that come with teaching physical theatre, particularly “proving to people that they are more capable than they think. We teach skills that often seem scary, but we teach them safely and progressively. It's so exciting to see the joy on people’s faces when they accomplish something that seemed so impossible to them a few moments before. The challenge is convincing both their mind and their body that it is actually possible!”
Talking to Dan Plehal, one thing becomes increasingly obvious: He loves Aura CuriAtlas. When asked what it has been like to watch the company grow throughout the years, he describes how “I saw a cartoon once that had a winding line curving around in all directions, circling back on itself then moving forward again, captioned ‘What it felt like at the time.’ Next to it was a straight line moving in one direction, captioned ‘What it looked like in retrospect.’ It's certainly a great depiction of life, and it is also a pretty accurate description of the evolution of the company. "
Plehal continues, "When Joan and I made Newton's Cradle, we thought, ‘Hey, that was fun! I bet we could make a few more of these and have a show!’ Flash forward to the days before our first performance. We'd made a bunch of great material but my brain was saying ‘Oh no, this is so different than everything else out there - what if nobody likes it at all??’ (Turns out, they did like it!) Over the years we've made a lot of great material, battled with difficult pieces and skills, pretended we knew how to write grants and press releases (now we do know how), and worked with some incredibly talented artists. And now we're confident in the material we create, teaching our process in professional training intensives and starting initial phases of our fourth major project. It all seems to make perfect sense now, but seemed very fake-it-till-ya-make-it for a while. It's really nice to see how far we've come.”
Every moment with a company you love is special, and Plehal wisely points out how even the most stressful events can make the best memories. He explains how “A few years ago I broke my hand (not through any acrobatics - I simply tripped over my dog. Go figure!). It was about a month before our annual show at the Kimball Theatre in Williamsburg, and we had to scramble. We brought in several performers to take on roles I couldn't perform, but we determined that there were a couple pieces that were still possible for me, even with my arm in a cast. In the end, I performed the opening and closing pieces of the show, long sleeves covering my cast as much as possible, and only a couple necessary tweaks to the choreography. Many audience members didn't even notice I had a cast or an injury. Looking back I realize how special it was to have so much confidence in my company, and see how much confidence they had in me, that we were all able to trust and perform so well!”
As an experienced creator, Plehal has some of the best advice available for aspiring artists. Above all, he emphasizes following ideas rather than steering them in a specific direction. For example, “Just the other day we were creating material for our new project based around the Tarot deck. The images on one card made us think of acrobatic counter-balances. As we experimented with a few and linked them together, we suddenly realized that the material we were creating was much more appropriate for a completely different Tarot card. The seeds of ideas, the things that pique your interest and draw you in, are the right places to start. But you never know where they might end up taking you, so being open to any result will let the best art happen.”
What is next for Plehal and AuraCuriAtlas? “We're teaching intensives! A couple weeks ago we taught our first Training Intensive in Williamsburg and had such a great time. Our students each came from one facet of the disciplines we used (either dance, or acrobatics, or theatre). It was so inspiring to watch them all move outside their comfort zones, learn new practices and new skills, and work together to create fantastic art. ”