Theater Ninjas: Nimble like a food truck or a dance company?
The Theater Ninjas describe themselves as the “Food Truck of Cleveland Theater.” They’ve been performing at various venues around town for eight years and are building quite a following. Artistic Director Jeremy Paul talked to us about the company and what they have in store for the upcoming season and beyond.
Where did the name Theater Ninjas come from?
We picked it because it had a couple of qualities we really liked. One was that it is a very playful name and comedy is a big part of what we do. We have a certain tongue-in-cheek element to our work. Also, we started out being a nomadic company. In the first couple of years we would walk into fairly raw places and turn them into a performance venue. That’s sort of a ninja skill of adapting to wherever you are. The third reason is that we’re also a very physical company. A lot of our work has certain physical theater elements to it. It’s not quite dance, but it’s more than just naturalistic comedic theater.
You’re still moving around now, but in more developed places?
It depends on the show. We’ve performed at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and then also at Waterloo Arts, in various parts of 78th Street Studios, and at Cleveland Public Theater (CPT), where our current show is. So yeah, we’re still all over the place and that’s how we plan to stay for the next few years. It’s been working out really well for us. We try to act more like a dance company.
Let’s talk about the upcoming shows. We’ll start with Fire on the Water, which is going on now.
That’s a collaboration with a couple of other west-side theater companies. Last summer, CPT’s executive artistic director, Raymond Bobgan, came to me and other local companies and wanted to involve us in the last of their Elements Cycle, which had been a series of plays all about environmental issues. Raymond saw that there was a kind of a critical mass of theaters on the west side that hadn’t really existed before. Definitely in the last five years or so, there has been more and more theater over on the west side and, with the exception of CPT, we’re all pretty small companies. He brought us all together. Each company worked on parts of that show. I worked with him on making the final product, as well.
Is this the first collaboration for Theater Ninjas?
No, we’ve done a couple shows with CPT. Our last show with them was Nick & Jeremy, which is a show that I created and starred in with Nick Riley, the drummer in Filmstrip.
The next show will be The Grand Celebration of the Celestial Mystery.
We go into rehearsals for that in like a week and a half, it’s going really fast. That is a show about a young professional development group that resurrects a secret society, with the idea of it being kind of a fun, social club idea. The group inadvertently gets possessed by a bunch of Sumerian gods and has to relive these ancient myths that are all related to the founding of cities and what controls a city and decides its fate. It’s really a play that’s coming out of questions that I have, and other people in the company have, about all of the success that’s been going on in Cleveland recently. However you want to quantify it, there’s this feel of positivity and [we wonder] if that is going to continue. Are we entering a new chapter in Cleveland or is this just another level that’s going to fall away? It’s really a play all about how people change the fate of their home and the sacrifices people make to make their community a better place to live.
Last year, you presented Code, which was a big hit, this year you have The Turing Machine.
Code was all set in the modern era. It had these brief references to Alan Turing and this character that was a program that believed it was Alan Turing. For this, we wanted to take that character and make a full-length piece. So, Ray Caspio, who’s also the Associate Artistic Director of Theater Ninjas, is starring in that. He got a lot of well-deserved praise for his role in that. We knew we wanted to make Code and then explode it into all of these different parts, work on those different parts for a few years, and then bring it all back together. So this is the first bit of that explosion . . . the first bit of shrapnel.
You’ll be following that with Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys.
That’s a scripted work. It’s the only scripted work we’re producing this year. It’s by Caroline McGraw, who’s a New York-based playwright but actually grew up here in Cleveland. We were in high school together. We’ve been sort of following each other’s careers for the last few years. Recently, we were looking for scripts and I emailed her and she shot this one back. We were really taken with it. It feels like the type of show that we would do. It’s got great use of language. It’s very funny. It’s very dark and it has supernatural elements. It’s about this children’s performer who has a literal monster living under her bed that’s trying to claim her soul. It also has clowning sections that are really beautifully written and I think will be transformative on stage.
You’ll also be performing TingleTangle again this season.
We’re going to be bringing that back a couple of times for smaller engagements and in slightly different forms. It’s a cabaret show, so it’s really well-suited to going other places, random locations. We can add numbers to it and we can take things away. We can mix and match things a lot.
Is there one particular show that you’re really looking forward to?
I’m excited for everything. This is a really experimental year for us. In 2012, we kind of hit the reset button and really started to build us up as a company so we could produce more and we could actually have staff and do more work throughout the year. It’s been a ton of work, but it’s been very successful. We’re more confident as a company, so we’re starting to take more risks with the kind of work we do. The Celestial Mystery is part play, but also part cocktail party. Parts of that show are going to be told through conversations. As an audience member, you get to talk to one of the actors to learn more about their character’s backstory, their life and their feelings on things. It’s interactive theater in a way that’s safer. Usually when you say interactive theater, people get very nervous, like a performer is going to come up and make them feel bad. This is more like each actor is a little video game, and you can find out what their rules are and a bit about their story by talking to them and asking them questions.
What’s next for Theater Ninjas?
We’ve always tried to do more nontraditional theater. We operate at the boundary where theater becomes something else. We’ve really kind of doubled down on that recently. This year we’re making a few forays into gaming as a sense of storytelling. I’d like to start doing more with that. Something where the audience is driving everything and people might think of themselves more as players than as passive audience members. The end result is communal storytelling. It’s a cross between a live action video game and a storytelling circle. We’re workshopping ways that we can use games and puzzles to hide stories. It may become interactive to the point where there may be little to no acting in the show. We’re just starting to figure out what the next iteration of Theater Ninjas is going to look like.
The Grand Celebration of The Celestial Mystery runs April 1-5. For a complete schedule, visit theaterninjas.com.