In 1992, Anne Bogart launched SITI Company with her production of Charles L. Mee’s Orestes, so it seems fitting that as part of the company’s 15th anniversary season, she’s directing the New York premiere of the playwright’s Hotel Cassiopeia at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which will play October 9-13. As part of its run at BAM, the Obie Award-winning company will hold a special anniversary benefit on October 11, which will include dinner and an after-party.
Hotel Cassiopeia is inspired by the art and life of Joseph Cornell, an American sculptor who is known for creating three-dimensional collages, many of which are framed by boxes. “The magic is not so much the objects he uses to create a box, it is how they are arranged,” says Bogart. “The relationship between color and shape, the distance between objects, and the fragility of what he chooses all cast a spell.” Although Cornell appears as a character in Hotel Cassiopeia and elements from his life are also incorporated, the director is quick to point out that this is not a biographical portrait. “The experience is much more like a dream. It’s an access into the imagination of Cornell.”
Mee, who is having quite a busy season as the Signature Theatre’s playwright-in-residence, wrote the piece specifically for SITI Company, of which he is a company member. “He knows how we work and imagines what we might do with what he might suggest,” says Bogart. “He likes to challenge us. Chuck is the equivalent of what Heiner Muller was in Germany in terms of how he works in the aesthetics of sampling. He’s not afraid of writing viciously, and yet he is one of the warmest, sweetest human beings on the planet.”
The play is the second in a quartet of plays by Mee that explore the creative spirit in the lives and works of American artists. (The first, bobrauschenbergamerica, was also seen at BAM.) Fortunately, Bogart shares Mee’s fascination with such iconic figures. “A lot of my work is about examining American culture and particular Americans,” she states. “In a way, I eat them, learn from them, and become them. The culture we live in draws me towards these characters.”
Hotel Cassiopeia premiered at the 2006 Humana Festival, and has subsequently performed in Chicago and Arizona. “Each time we revisit it, we look at it from a new perspective,” says the director. “We are constantly making adjustments based on things we learned the last time we did it. It’s one of the great things about having a company.”
SITI was co-founded by Bogart and Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki. “He just showed up and said he’d help me,” she states. “I sort of thought he was a fairy godfather and didn’t quite believe him. All I was thinking at the time was, ‘Japanese money, great.’ He helped get it started, but then four years later he was given many different theaters in Japan which kept him very busy. But I now had this company, which very quickly became the center of my life.”
The company combines two kinds of training, the Suzuki Method and Viewpoints. “Early on, the actors decided that what made you a company member is that you do both,” says Bogart. The Suzuki Method is a rigorous physical discipline that draws from traditional Japanese and Greek theater forms, martial arts, and even ballet. Viewpoints, on the other hand, is an improvisational technique that grew out of post-modern dance. “When I first started the company, I had no idea what a potent mix they would be,” says Bogart. “It’s like when you put chemicals together and you don’t know what it’s going to create. The strictness of the Suzuki training and openness of Viewpoints develops in an actor the notion of rigor and ease at the same time.”
SITI will continue its season with the development of a new play, Who Do You Think You Are, about the human brain. “We’ve spent two years studying neuroscience and are devising this piece together,” says Bogart. “As the years go by, I’ve realized that what we’re doing is something I could not have done without people I’ve worked with for years,” she adds. “The life experience, the shared aesthetics, and the shared ethics cannot be replaced by a pickup group of actors. They spur me on to think wider, to feel and see differently, and to explore things that we haven’t explored before.”