Q&A with Under the Tree creators Angela Kiser & Ian Bivins

Under the Tree is the world premiere of a dark and quirky exploration of the holiday rituals we all take for granted, put together by Angela Kiser and Ian Bivins’ newly-formed company, On the Precipice (OTP) Productions.

Tell us a little about your production company and how it blossomed from your prior creative work together?

We collaborate together regularly and usually under the umbrella of Kuntz and Co., Bellingham TheatreWorks, Setting Sun Productions, and also MB Adaptors in NY. It started to make sense to get official by forming a company when people were calling one of us for a gig and then the other person would also get a call from the same client. We formed On the Precipice officially earlier this year. Our skill sets are complimentary, so we figured it makes sense to be able to offer the whole package to people looking for production work. The art that we make with each other tends to follow a similar trajectory. When we are sculpting material, one person usually fills in the blanks of the other.

This is not your first experience with the iDiOM Theatre. What other work have you shared at iDiOM and what is different about Under the Tree compared to that work?

We’ve acted in iDiOM’s 2015 Spring Rep and have participated in the beautiful chaos of the 48-hour theatre festival on multiple occasions. This time, we are generating all the material from scratch, as opposed to working with a playwright’s script. This is one of the hallmarks of devised theatre, a collaborative adventure with the actors at the center of the creative process. This show is also non-linear, imagistic, and involves heightened physicality.

You used an unconventional approach to develop the show’s collection of sketches and vignettes peppered with projected video, puppetry, and movement pieces. Tell us about your creative process and how that evolved and resulted Under the Tree’s unique view of the holiday rituals we practice?

A lot of the work that we create comes from the images that pop into our heads or has stuck with us for a long time. For example, Ian has always had this throbbing dark shadow-noise-monster-idea that emerged from a nightmare when he was a kid. He has always wanted to put it into a piece of theatre and that idea directly influenced the atmosphere of the play. We strive to work with inspiration, wherever it comes from. Sometimes it’s from a thrift shop costume, sometimes from an in-depth wiki search on the true meaning of “Good King Wenceslas” and how the song is a parable honoring a machinating, murdered Duke who became a King, posthumously.

We are both trained in Margolis Method, and Ian is a certified instructor, so our approach to creation is certainly tempered by that methodology. We create problems for our characters to solve and choose limitations that influence how the characters exist on stage.

So, we start with a simple idea. Let’s say, “wrapping presents.” From there, we define the tools and limitations to be used in an improvisation. Let’s say, “dense focused energy.” From the improvisations we perform, we create scripted moments that eventually are strung together to make the show. That is certainly actor talk… but it is a good way to define our process.

The holidays have a dark side for many of us. What led you to explore that angle and is the result considered appropriate for younger viewers?

It is odd when you realize how many people really detest the holiday experience. Maybe it’s because the mall is crowded, maybe they feel alienated by the expenditure of money and the expectation to do so, maybe worse—they had a horrible experience as a child that has tainted their view of the Holidays well into adulthood. Even the Pope thinks Christmas is decadent and has strayed far from its trumpeted mission statement. We aren’t interested in starting a “war on Christmas,” we just want to take a deeper look into the mirror to see what this clusterfuck is that we’ve created. It is not a show for young ones. It is important to acknowledge that the innocents’ view of Christmas and the Holiday Season is very valuable. Hopefully, young people will hold onto that magic. Any disgruntled teenager, or anyone who ever was one will probably enjoy this show.

Your cast includes creators Angela and Ian, as well as acting by Kristopher Lopez, with live sound design by Brendan Richard LaBotz, multimedia by Julliette Machado of JM Works, and puppetry and sculptural work by Christian Anne Smith. How did you come to build such a creative team, and what work had you done together before Under the Tree?

When we founded OTP, most of these folks were on the shortlist of who we wanted to involve in our initial foray into a “hub” of artists who could work with and feed each other. We think that more than that, we built the team for the show around people whose work we really admired and brought us joy. We’ve all worked together in some capacity before. Brendan and Ian on iDiOM’s Monsters, Christian, Kristopher, and Ian on Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth (BAAY)’s PIPPIN!, Angela, Ian, and Juliette with Kuntz and Company, Angela and Juliette with Bellingham Repertory Dance, etc. We have a lovely community of artists here in Bellingham. It is important to push each other to do good work and build collaborative relationships that make that type of dialogue possible.

Interview by Lorraine Wilde, photo by Juliette Machado

Under the Tree posterUnder the Tree is a surreal and comical exploration of the shadows of the holiday season, playing Thursday/Friday/Saturday, December 10–12 & 17–19, only at iDiOM Theater.