Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Talking about a 'Conversation'

Google "The Dangling Conversation" and, naturally, you’re swamped with references to the Simon & Garfunkel song from the monster "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme" album, but it’s also the name of an ongoing improvisational performance project by Port actor Brendan Pelsue and Natasha Haverty — a piece that is informed and inspired by the Simon song. Well, not really, but sort of. It’s not like something from the song jumped out at them, there was never that “aha moment” when the name emerged out of nothing, like grace, clarifying everything they were trying to do, says Pelsue, now living in Cambridge, but using his hometown as a staging area for productions of "The Dangling Conversation" at the Actors Studio, and “The New New England,” a show in Salem in which Latino youth from the St. Peter’s Summer Theater Project interweave their experiences with those of immigrants from the past. No, they’re “not totally crazy about the name,” says Pelsue, but it will have to do until inspiration finally shows up. Besides, the song, which is about a couple's inability to communicate, does bump up against what they are trying to do, which is ... well, complicated: It's about a nuanced relationship between two people that is created in the present — the actual present, at the very moment the show takes place, right before your eyes. The story continues next week on the Tannery stage.

Pelsue, 25, is no stranger to local theater, having performed in "Terezin: Children of the Holocaust" and with Theater in the Open, Independent Submarine and a string of Jason Anderson/Nikole Beckwith indie pop musicals back in the day, sometimes performing with his brother Rory. His conversation with Haverty may or may not be dangling, but it certainly has been continuing. They met in an improv class at Brown University called, naturally, ImProvidence, and kept a busy performance schedule, doing shows every weekend with few exceptions. Turns out they enjoyed working together, more than being in the troupe, in fact. Which is why they dropped out of the class during their senior year and started beginning their own conversation — until graduation put a lot of miles between them. 

The Port actor, with a degree in literature, packed up for Louisville, Kentucky, where he landed a job at the Acting Theatre of Louisville. He put in time as assistant dramaturg on several productions, and worked in the literature office, reading new plays for the company's Humana Festival. The company also staged one of his plays, "Edge Play." He also spent some time in New York and Chicago, working as a freelance writer, writing about topics ranging from the secret lives of Amish business owners to a behind-the-scenes look at a state fair pie contest, and working as a translator and freelance French editor, the years at Waring School apparently paying off.
Somehow, he managed to make a living at it — barely, of course. He moved back East to be closer to family. 

After closing the books on ImProvidence and Brown, Haverty studied radio production at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, then moved on to New York City, where she went to work at The Moth, managing the MothShop, the outreach program that runs storytelling workshops in the city, and helped launch "The Moth Radio Hour." In July, she moved back to the Bay State, landing in Cambridge after landing a “Liberty and Justice for All” grant from the Massachusetts Council for the Humanities. She's working on an oral history project about the Norfolk Prison Debate Team, whose roster included Malcolm X. That was right about the time that Pelsue moved back to the area to be closer to his family. They had remained in contact through the years, but now that they were in the same place at the same time, the conversation could continue.

They’ve performed several installments of the show at the Actor's Studio, as well as taking it on the road for performances at Lilypad and Perishable Theater.

So, what's it all about, this dangling conversation?

"We explore the small-scale mania and beauty behind everyday relationships with performances that are loopy, complex, strangely true to life, and yet hopefully different from what you've seen before," says Pelsue.

But the truth is, nobody really knows what will happen — not even the performers, not even moments before the curtain comes up. It’s something of a high wire act, meaning it could be magical or, just as easily, it could all come crashing down. "Either one of us could fall at any time, and it happens sometimes," Pelsue says. "It's the nature of improv. But the great thing is, you're not alone up there. If one person falls during a performance, the other will pick things up. You've got to focus on each other. You've got to count on each other. It's all you have up there."

The Dangling Conversation, an improv piece by Brendan Pelsue and Natasha Haverty, will be staged at 7 p.m. Aug. 5 and 6 at the Actors Studio. Tickets are $7.

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