Annalyn Lehnig saw a startling truth about her sexuality. An ex-boyfriend compared her erotic life to a skinny pink line—tense, taut and ready to snap at any moment. Talk about a pink elephant in the bedroom. Lehnig blushed, prepared to defend herself and then realized he was right (in dreamland, for the record). At just 24 years old, Lehnig woke up and contemplated the fragility of sex, relationships, love and lust. Her theatrically trained mind saw that delicate string as a tightrope, with her precariously perched atop. That image haunted the San Diego actor, until she and collaborator Alma Schneider felt its spark of creative truth and knew they must turn it into theater.
Not high theater, though. No Shakespeare, no Phantom of the Opera. The most base, gritty live entertainment the duo could fathom: the circus, a perfect arena to handle such a universal subject in the least traditional—and least filtered—way.
“There's no stopping our hearts from feeling how we feel,” explains the bright, lively Lehnig. “We're going to drop the balls. The circus will move from town to town, but there's no stopping it. And love is the same way.”
So The Circus LoveSick was born, with six female characters—a fire breather, juggler and freak among them—all written and performed by Lehnig in individual acts with theatrical monologue, stylized movement and on-stage costume changes. Each imperfect woman suffers a painful blow—the tightrope walker falls down, for instance. Then there's the freak, with her slobbering lisp and stumps for legs, who still loves with unabashed fervor.
“You will simultaneously see yourself in this person and desperately want to make a clear distinction between you and her, because she is grotesque and she spits,” Lehnig says.
Director Alma Schneider chimes in, “For the same reason people like to see a freak at a freak show, it helps them reinforce their belief that that degree of helplessness, ugliness or desperation exists outside themselves. It reinforces ‘That's not me.'”
“But I've been this freak,” Lehnig admits. “When you love someone so much and it's not going to happen, you do feel legless and desperate and like a freak.”
And who among us has not seen the normally rational, sane self just up and go? Poof! One phone call and you're left a panting heap of misfiring synapses.
The goal of this show, offer the artists in a conversation at the North Park dessert café Eclipse Chocolat, is to parody reality so the audience can recognize itself in the sweet, steamy soup of passion, need, fantasy and fear.
“Love is such a challenging intersection of biology and intellect and heart. It's just hard—and necessary,” Schneider says. “It's like, what are you going to do? You have to deal with it.”
Self-described theater, dance and chocolate fanatics, Lehnig and Schneider met as teenagers at the Coronado School for the Arts and went on to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where they developed a zeal for original work. There's such a sisterly bond, they could be mistaken for siblings, except that Israeli-born Schneider sports long black locks framing her penetrating dark eyes while San Diego native Lehnig has spiky blond hair and sparkling baby blue-greens.
They're united by the belief that theater must evolve to attract younger patrons. One way is to create new work, which is a priority for the budding duo. They've helped form the “Heart Hustle Collective,” a group of artists who support each other in producing generative theater, individually and collectively, in cities from San Diego to New York. “We're not doing Arthur Miller plays for the 150th time in a row,” Schneider groans. “No one in our age wants to watch Our Town. I don't care that you've decorated the set with Christmas lights. It doesn't excite me.”
“Our Town was original when it came out, but not anymore.” Lehnig pipes in.
“It was a total breakthrough then, but now what?” Schneider continues, snapping her fingers with excitement, “Generate! Generate! Generate!”
Their motto: Quit the copycatting and tear down the rigid fourth wall separating actor from audience. Talk straight to the live humans seated in the theater.
“This is what we do with our lives,” Schneider jokes sardonically. She's sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floor in The Studio at North Park, where they rehearse at night. Lehnig has just dropped down histrionically into a stiff and lifeless marionette whose strings have been severed by the sharp knife of heartbreak. It's clear from her lusty, Latin fire-breather character (“Does she know that when you're making love to her, you're thinking about me?”) and her roaring lion tamer (“I am a huntress”) that the high-energy Lehnig has a wide range, and she intends to use it.
“When I go to theater, it's easy for me to recognize any self-consciousness actors have of themselves performing,” Lehnig explains. “And I feel like all that is is fear and nervousness to completely disrobe and be as real and hideous and sexy and pained as these people really would be. I will not be afraid to show all of these sides of myself. And I want it to be unnerving.”
Lehnig and Schneider hope the audience will feel both addressed and undressed without having to 'fess up in public. They want to maximize the live engagement between theater-maker and theatergoer, a vulnerability missing from pre-edited, perfected and packaged art. You can pick your nose while watching Saturday Night Live on the living-room sofa or do God-knows-what during Zack and Miri Make a Porno in a darkened cinema. But in the playhouse, the actor can see you sweat, and you can feel her roar.
“The theater we're creating shows an organic humanity that cannot be found through TV and film,” Schneider says. “And since the younger generation has not embraced the theater much, I think those that will step out of the typical media will be surprised by how vulnerable and raw this show is, how human and how scary.”
A blending of chemistry, spontaneity and risk—it sounds a lot like love.
The Circus LoveSick will be performed Friday, Nov. 21, through Sunday, Nov. 23, at the 35-seat North Park Vaudeville and Candy Shoppe. $10. 619-220-8663 or www.northparkvaudeville.com.