When I spoke with Leo Madson one day before the opening of The Hidden Strings – the devised Prism Youth Theater Company piece that he is directing as Prism’s World Premiere Wisconsin entry – he was sailing on Lake Michigan (although he only recently turned 18, Madson is already an accomplished sailor).
It seemed fitting, given that Madson and Prism co-founder Melanie Morreau dreamed their company into being as an alternative to traditional, landlocked ways of seeing the world, within and outside of theater.
The pandemic drove home for Madson, then 15, how exclusionary theater often is, as companies staged plays adhering to longstanding and prescriptive expectations regarding what theater is and could be.
“I am no longer interested in building a sterile storytelling environment,” Madson writes in the letter introducing Prism’s audience guide to Hidden Strings. “I want to see what we can create when fresh enough to accept new execution wholeheartedly,” Madson continues. “Our only obstacles are ourselves when we move within a space free of traditions.”
“Our company is completely separate from adult supervision,” Madson said to me. “What we’ve done is create a space in which we can theoretically make anything, in any form. Rather than applying for opportunities to tell others’ stories, we’re taking the time and space to tell our own.”
A Web of Strings
Easier said than done, as the very title of Prism’s play acknowledges.
“Strings are things that we have no control over and that affect us,” Madson said. “It’s what we’re brought up to think and what we’re taught. It’s the actions and rituals that we participate in but don’t think about; a community enacts such rituals without thinking about why and without any sense of soul.”
Madson indicated that some of those strings have become so integral to who we are and how we behave that we willingly tie ourselves up in knots; others require a puppeteer, yanking us hither and yon in ways that deny our agency and, by extension, our very humanity.
“Our characters will go through the process of discovering the strings that affect our personal lives as people, as well as our lives as actors trying to tell a story in a new way,” Madson said.
One of the five characters in Hidden Strings – a teen named Juniper who is described in the script as one who “believes they know the answers” – is prone to accept the rules and facts they’ve inherited as true.
Ky-B – described in the script as “a young kid with passions and ideas” – is having none of it.
When Juniper resorts to dictionary definitions of words to define truth while insisting that fantasy is a waste of time, Ky-B rebels. “You ruined our fun with facts,” he complains to Juniper.
“The right-and-wrong thing, the lines between what’s real and what’s not, that’s not even how life works,” Ky-B continues. “Life is not organized like that. I’m. Not. Done. Playing.,” he defiantly declares.
“Harm comes in when we insist that this word must mean that thing,” Madson explained. He acknowledged that Hidden Strings includes a baked-in suspicion regarding the way words are ab(used) to label people’s emotions and educational status, so that they can be reduced and controlled.
Stringing words together can constrict our understanding of the world and all that it might be.
The Spirit of Play
For Madson, escaping the prison house of language means invoking the spirit of play – one of the reasons, along with the comparative difficulties involved in securing an indoor space, why Hidden Strings is being staged outside, near Hartung Park and the Menomonee River Parkway in Wauwatosa.
Games are not only expressly invoked in Hidden Strings (there’s a delightful riff on baseball, for example). They’re also the language through which much of the play is expressed. Madson has deconstructed familiar games like hide-and-seek into their constituent parts, using the “language” of those games to tell the movement-based stories within the play.
Hidden Strings also circumvents word-based language by exploring alternatives, including music and the “sound” of silence through which the natural world voices itself. “Birds, rivers, cars, people, and dogs all become a part of play,” the script suggests.
As Ernst Bloch recognized long ago in The Principle of Hope, such ostensibly childlike play can be revolutionary – less a nostalgic escape into a reactionary past than a reminder of all we might become, if we could fly free of the nets that we only gradually learned to see as we moved toward the “maturity” we associate with being adults.
To invoke and bend Shaw, we’re less likely when young to ask “why” than dream what’s never been and ask, “why not?”
Where Do We Go From Here?
Still, if you tear it all down, what’s left and how do you build back up?
“If we can’t know that what we know is true,” Ky-B asks at one point, “How then . . . what?” “We don’t even know what to write in our play,” another character later says.
If all language is suspect and therefore subject to erasure as soon as it’s written, how could they know? And what might they write? If you give yourself over to anarchic play, what kind of play can you make and what sort of theatrical experience can you offer? How do you connect?
“We understand that we don’t have the answers,” Madson said to me, echoing an admission in the play’s audience guide regarding the “personal fears” besetting its creators in “forging a new path and challenging truths we have taken for granted.”
But what’s the alternative?
“Whenever these characters stop asking questions, they fall back on narrow dictionary definitions,” Madson pointed out. “What we must do to maintain hope is admit that we don’t even know where to put our first step on this massive mountain, while continuing to ask questions about how to climb it. That’s all we can do.”
Whether as characters, actors, or young people living in an increasingly complex and divisive world, summoning the courage to ask those questions together engenders communication; it’s through communication, Madson suggests in the audience guide, that we can “continue to work tomorrow to build something.”
“Something will happen tomorrow,” Madson said, noting that his daily meditation involves sitting in the window with a cup of morning tea and dreaming, for both Prism and himself, of future voyages on hitherto uncharted waters. “We must keep playing,” he said. “We must keep asking questions.”
The Hidden Strings runs from June 15-18 near Hartung Park and the Menomonee River Parkway in Wauwatosa. For more information, including a map (also see below) and a link to the Prism audience guide for the play, visit https://worldpremierewisconsin.com/event/hidden-strings-2/.