Lucky Plush Productions: The Queue
Titmus Theatre at N.C. State
Friday, Oct. 24–Saturday, Oct. 25, 8 p.m.

In its new dance theater work The Queue, Chicago’s Lucky Plush Productions creates a poignant farce where private lives spill over into the uniquely public and transitory space of an airport. As this funny, novel production heads for a two-night stand at N.C. State, with live music by neo-Vaudeville group The Claudettes, we spoke with Lucky Plush Artistic Director Julia Rhoads to learn about the origins, underpinnings and themes of the piece.

INDY: Could you tell me about Lucky Plush Productions?

JULIA RHOADS: I founded Lucky Plush Productions 15 years ago. We create a hybrid dance-theater form, a combination of contemporary dance and dialogue. It’s not always a straight or linear narrative, but there are always narrative elements. Humor is a big part of our work, and often, we deal with contemporary culture issues. I was really interested in creating a hybrid form where neither the dancing nor the acting feels like it is of lesser value.

Mostly, the performers are trained in dance, but they are also trained in our process, which is kind of similar to an ensemble theater process. It’s a really wonderful ensemble-based process where everyone has ownership of the material. And the performers are very much encouraged to make proposals. In any of our stage works, there is a really great tension between what is crafted and what is improvised.

And in fact, that’s a value of ours. Our performers are responding to what is happening in the context. We love that every show we do has a slightly different rhythm, a different tone. The audience is a big player in our shows. Sometimes audiences are super-invested and enjoying themselves, but in a quiet way. Sometimes they are really vocally responsive. So we create space when there’s laughter. How do we let a moment land and breathe so that it doesn’t get walked on? That’s different from a lot of other companies. I don’t think we’re the only ones playing in this kind of world, but in general, it tends to be a more presentational form that is very specifically timed.

In an interview you did for NC State, you mentioned making modern dance more accessible. What aspects of a modern dance production may be out of reach to audiences, and how does Lucky Plush bridge that gap?

It’s really such a range and I don’t want to throw all dance into a bucket. But I hear from audience members that “I feel like I don’t understand it.” Sometimes it has to do with content. I think people are confused by it and not sure what they’re supposed to get. Or if there’s a storyline, sometimes it’s more obvious when it’s translated through gestures in a certain way. Ballet kind of comes from that. The classical dance vocabulary has a way of assigning certain movements to storytelling.

I want my work to be layered and thought-provoking and maybe even challenging. But I want it to be presented in a way that people understand the context of it. In our rehearsal room, we talk a lot about the logic of what’s happening and how the audience is going to react. Every audience member is different and it is subjective. But how are we inviting audience to see and understand this work?

We feel like we’re teaching the audience how to see the work as it is unfolding in real time. There has to be some sort of hook that is legible. In The Queue, it’s an airport, and there are references in an airport that everyone gets. Everyone understands three ounces and conveyor belts. There are sections that show abstract movement but it grows out of something recognizable.

You have incorporated Vaudeville and Busby Berkeley styles of choreography. How were you able to blend a modern-day storyline with turn-of-the-20th-century dance styles?

We are interested in the tragic-comic circumstances in life, especially in heightened settings like airports, where people are going to funerals and weddings. And we’re interested in the slippage between public and private. So in this work, we play with different forms. It does have a classic feel, and at times, there is a feeling of a slipping frame-rate. I feel like it makes the movement accessible, like the comedy of slapstick.

I’ll give you a scenario from The Queue that derives from a silent film. You know when you’re at the airport and you’re in the security line and you have to take off your belts and shoes and everything? Then you realize that you need to drink down that oversized water bottle, since it doesn’t fit the three fluid ounce rule. All of a sudden, there’s the funny, strange stress of that moment with people waiting behind you. I thought of the Charlie Chaplin assembly line skit where he cannot keep up with the process. Sometimes when you’re having an everyday experience in an airport, there are larger-than-life emotional responses. So this is just visualizing these exaggerated and out of proportion moments.

The central narrative of The Queue was adapted from a play titled A Will and No Will or A Bone for the Lawyers. Can you elaborate on that?

We were looking at creaky old one-act plays. That one is super-old, from 1746. We didn’t actually use the dialogue but it’s a farcical play about a dying man and how everyone is angling for some of his money. That became the core story behind The Queue, the impending death of this man that lives in Barcelona. The characters are, at first, seemingly unrelated. But then you learn over time that they are all embroiled in each other’s lives. That’s how that play became a jump-off point, and there were a couple more plays that helped influence this work.

Is there any message that you want audiences to receive from The Queue?

I guess we’re showing how things have changed because of our reality culture. It’s not necessarily reflecting reality TV, but sort of testing that public-private veil. In The Queue, it’s a story of people from very different backgrounds coming together and being affected by ideas about family and death. It’s sad but it’s not heavy. It has farcical elements and it is very playful.

And because we devised it as an ensemble, when people see our work, they feel like they know the performers. Even though they are playing characters in The Queue, their character names are actually their own middle names. We try to keep it close to them so that the ways they interact and respond is how they would as their real selves. They really aren’t acting, they are being themselves, and that’s a part of our training. The main takeaway is the familiarity of being in an airport, where someone’s private drama becomes bigger and strangers start having opinions of them, watching and judging without knowing them.

That’s really interesting. I have had a couple of nervous breakdowns at airports. It can be something as simple as having an off day at work and calling home before you fly back. Then you have everyone watching your reaction without knowing your background.

[Laughs] Yes, things can go very wrong at airports.