69 The Hinterlands


Liza Bielby, Born Flint, MI, 1980 / BA Kalamazoo College, MI; MFA Dell’ Arte International, CA / Lives in Detroit

Richard Newman, Born London, England, 1980 / BA Greensboro College, NC / Lives in Detroit

It’s 1970. The sixties are over, but not yet past. In a townhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village two members of revolutionary leftist group The Weather Underground are building a pipe bomb packed with nails and dynamite. They plan to use it to “bring the war home” to a dance for non-commissioned officers and their dates at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Casualties are inevitable. A third member of the cell is hammering out an accompanying statement on a typewriter, maniacally searching for inspiration in lines from Sophocles’ Antigone—a play whose message of non-conformity in war-time has achieved renewed currency in the Vietnam protest era. The book he reads from is not just any version of the play, but one by the legendary New York-based anarcho-pacifist ensemble The Living Theater—which is in turn a translation of a version by Bertolt Brecht. At that moment, the twin radical undercurrents of theater and far-left politics converge. Then the bomb explodes. So ends a pivotal scene in The Hinterlands’ kaleidoscopic 2016 art/theater project The Radicalization Process.

Let’s start again. It’s 2004. Michigan native Liza Bielby is the only non-Chinese national enrolled to study chaunju, a theatrical form of traditional Chinese opera from Sichuan. The training is almost absurdly arduous. In order to perfect the meticulous footwork that underpins professional performances, students are required to run in circles for hours, until the teacher gives permission to stop. She stays for four years. Meanwhile in rural New England, Bielby’s future partner Richard Newman is pursuing a similarly committing path as part of Double Edge—a communal theatre ensemble dedicated to simultaneously furthering the theatrical form and creating the conditions for their own self-sufficiency. His mentors are the veteran Argentinian actor and street-theater creator Carlos Uriona and iconoclastic feminist director Stacy Klein.

On Bielby’s return from China, the pair meet at Dell’Arte International in California (Newman is artist-in-residence, and Bielby is a graduate student), and in 2009 they form The Hinterlands. The foundation of their joint artistic practice is daily, ongoing physical and vocal training. They see this as a platform for creating work through the continuous investigation of improvisation and form, a way of building their expressive capabilities, and a way of escaping the known and familiar. They use their training to explore the cultural forms of the Western (to create Manifest Destiny in 2011) and Vaudeville (to create the contemporary variety show that is 2013’s The Circuit).

Improvisation and form are in constant interplay as Bielby and Newman develop these works. In creating original content for Manifest Destiny, for instance, they may improvise for hours within the form of a pair of circling duelers, each hyper-conscious of the other and probing for advantage. With time the physical and psychological nuances of this characteristic “cowboy movie” form emerge. As they internalize the form, they start to improvise within it, for example increasing the speed at which they circle each other to almost comedic effect, or training to the rhythm of a Spaghetti Western soundtrack. They become conscious of how their body movements change to adapt to these new conditions. It is these meticulous details of body movement (or speech patterns), and how they relate to cultural memory, that is a defining feature of The Hinterlands’ work, anchoring their lofty, and often frenetic, subject matter in precise details, humor, and a certain intimacy.

Another layer of Bielby and Newman’s practice relates to place and community. In December 2010 they relocate to Detroit and establish their base at 12657 Moran (aka Play House)—a former two-story residence that has been remodeled into an airy performance space. The surrounding area contains a large Bangladeshi population, and numerous artists/art projects. The pair connect easily with both communities. Neighboring artists become collaborators, and Bielby studies with the local Bengali music school. Training and community converge in monthly free-form Open Training sessions.

Let’s start again. It’s 2013. Two bombs explode near the finish of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring many more. The Tzarnaev brothers are identified as the perpetrators. A chance remark from Newman’s father to the effect that he will never be able to understand how someone can do such a thing convinces Newman that we must understand why someone does such a thing. The training process begins. A mysterious archive is discovered in a basement, and the Play House starts to take on the appearance and spirit of a townhouse in Greenwich Village in 1970.

Steve Panton, May 2017