Sit down, strap yourself in and prepare to do battle with Dopplegangers! An interview with Maria Swisher and Landon Alexander
Former Marshal residents Maria Swisher and Landon Alexander recently reunited in New York City to premiere a NYC off-Broadway show through Dirt Theatre Company. Dirt Theater Company was co-founded by Swisher in 2010 while she was studying at the Liverpool Institute fo Performing Arts in the United Kingdom. Swisher and her company partner, Tana Sirois, first began working together in 2008 while training at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. While in England, the pair put together an experimental production of “Pinocchio,” which explored methods of Augusto Boal’s political theater. Swisher and Sirois are currently staging “Crushing Baby Animals,” their third full scale New York off-Broadway production, a modern adaptation of Dante’s Inferno which “follows two traumatized millennial women as they accidentally open a ‘cosmic wormhole’ that sucks them through space, time, and the human mind. This meta work takes us on an uncharted and timely adventure through parallel dimensions and personal hells, bringing us face to face with our own antagonistic Dopplegangers, the perils of the human psyche, and the absurd pitfalls of human identity.”
Swisher and her long time best friend Landon Alexander recently reunited when Alexander joined the production company when he relocated to New York in April. Alexander assistant directs and choreographs the production. Swisher and Alexander voiced their pleasure at working together again for the first time since performing together at Marshall High School and the Arrow Rock Lyceum theatre over a decade ago.
Dirt production manager Charlotte Meyers also holds ties to Marshall. Meyers is the daughter of Marshall native Sally Swisher. And the community ties go even deeper as Meyers and Swisher are grandchildren of Betty Swisher, a long-time member of the Marshall Philharmonic and other Marshall arts and community organizations.
Swisher and Sirois’s Dirt production company is honored to have received a grant from the Queen’s Council for the Arts for production of this piece. They are currently, according to Swisher, 70 percent funded, and are raising remaining funding for the show on Kickstarter. On behalf of Dirt, Swisher and Alexander stated, “Marshall helped foster this. It’s crazy to be having this interview in New York!” The pair said they would very much appreciate the continued support of their hometown in staging this exciting production. Kickstarter can be accessed at https://www.kichstarter.com/projects/183179390/crushing-baby-animals.
In a telephone interview Wednesday morning, June 19, Swisher and Alexander answered a few questions about their years in Marshall, their lives now, and their excitement over “Crushing Baby Animals.”
Q. Creativity is usually pretty vocal. When did it start talking to you?
Maria: I have been doing creative stuff since I was a kid, but then Landon and I started hanging out in middle school. Landon was doing dance, and we have both been doing plays together. Our first performance was when we were kids together at the high school.
Landon: Mr. Shannon was one of the guys back then. Michael Brennon. Timmy Johnson.
Q. Talk about your connection to Marshall.
Maria: I want them to know we are incredibly grateful for all the opportunities we had there and the opportunity of meeting each other. We feel really lucky to be reunited after all this time. In a funny way we have made those big dreams from back then come true. We’re not there yet, but are are working and making it work.
Q. How did the two of you get back together after studying all over the world?
Landon: We’ve always been in contact with each other and always had a great friendship. Gone our separate ways, but like time had never passed when we got back together. Two or three years ago we got back together and I got the opportunity to move here. I had Maria here to help guide me. She has been an invaluable resource. To have her help and to get here, it just felt really natural. If planned, it just fell into place, it just made sense.
Q. Dante’s Inferno? Isn’t that a fairly ambitious project?
Maria: The play is actually really interesting, a play within a play. It is about us making a production of Dante’s Inferno. It’s about trying to tell the story and how hard it is, and how hard it is to bring your own life and your own personal hell into your work. Landon has been really helpful in helping us bring that into physicality—dance—and also in the world—cinematic. We hope that really captivates people. Not only Dante’s Inferno but how to make art.
Q. What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Maria: That’s our secondary reason for reaching out to you all. We are almost 70 percent funded on our Kickstart campaign. We always operate on a profit share, but we want to be able to pay people in the beginning for their time. Our other challenge is trying to get the right people to come see us. New York is a saturated market—we’re in a really good place to make a really good compelling piece of work. We found out the play has been extended for four days in a Manhattan theater after our run here.
Q. What do you love about “Crushing Baby Animals?”
Maria: It’s an absolute roller coaster. If you are not enjoying the scene you’re in, it’s like Missouri weather—just wait for the next scene, realistic followed by over the top for the audience. I want to have a feeling of strapping into your seat belt and going for the ride.
Q. What do you hate about “Crushing Baby Animals?” What would you change?
Landon: “Honestly I don’t think anything. This is such an important piece. For myself, it’s like a dream. I’ve literally been here just two months. To be able to step into the scene which is amazing, with my friend. Even if I wanted to change something, I wouldn’t. It will evolve on its own naturally.”
Q. Who is going to love this play and what will they be talking about in their car on the drive home?
Maria: I hope there is something for everyone, that’s really something that I’m passionate about. Challenging and entertaining, a little confused. A sense of adventure is important as an audience member. That they will have questions and talk about them. They are being taken through this warehouse space we are in, I hope that everybody can get something out of this.
Landon: They’re talking about their idea of self-concept and identity. It is a roller coaster. I hope that on the way home they take a deep dive into the show and think about themselves and even open up to ideas about who we are as people and creators. But I hope that they take away fun. I remember this one scene, I couldn’t stop laughing. There are days where I think I’m going to be overwhelmed. Where I feel like this is going to be too much, I find that something inspirational happens. I can walk out and see a performance on the street like Union Square. Just creativity. Someone’s heart and someone’s passion. Someone reading poetry that they’ve written. That is what it is to get to be here in this place and create freely. It’s a gift.
Q. Okay, Dopplegangers?
Maria: Tannen and Maria realize they have been having a shared dream about crushing baby animals. In the play, the fictional part, we open up this wormhole where we meet those doppleganger versions of ourselves. Sometimes they act as our psychiatrists, or teachers, but the idea is that we have inside of us different voices that make us question why we go with one sense of self. And our relational self, with our soul mates and our best friends. How does that factor into how we view ourselves as human beings? This play is a lot of real life. That has been one of the most challenging things about it.
Q. What do you want your friends in Marshall to take away from this interview?
Landon: I realized how long Maria and I have been friends. It’s been two decades. What I think the takeaway is, aside from the production itself, in time great things happen. When you’re working for something, it’s easy to be put off track. It’s easy to get lost in the things you’re trying to do, because the journey feels insurmountable. Then one day you feel, oh, I’ve arrived. At 34 years old I thought well, I guess I’ll move to New York. All the things we daydreamed and talked about on her front porch.
Maria: That is something to hold on to. If you keep working, the rewards. The key is that you’re doing stuff for the right reasons. Anything you are doing in your life because you really love it and makes it feel like your true self. That is more than putting pressure on yourself. And be around people that inspire you.
Landon: This kind of field, there’s so many avenues. It takes you anywhere. Just follow that gut instinct and keep pushing.
“Crushing Baby Animals” opens at Plaxall Gallery in New York City on July 5.