Erik Ehn is a playwright, educator and theorist of contemporary theater. The former dean of theater at CalArts, he is head of playwriting and professor of theatre and performance studies at Brown University. Noted as a dedicated experimentalist infused with social concerns of great urgency, Erik has been “steadfastly dedicated to pushing the boundaries of theater form and equally determined to bring a social conscience to theater discourse.” He is the founder of an annual conference called “Arts in the One World,” which brings together performing artists, scholars, and human rights activists to investigate theater on the subject of genocide and reconciliation.
From an article of introduction at Brown:
“Theater is about taking care of bodies in space. Theater has more in common with a dinner or a conversation than it does with a novel or a tract. And when setting up a dinner party you want to make sure that the invitations have gone out widely and you’re not speaking to a restricted crowd.”
His own plays, 60 of which have been produced in theaters around the country and abroad, are experimental and abstract. They challenge his audiences with stories of violence, genocide, and faith. “My interest is in populations at risk, or responding to violence or to kinds of brokenness; people farming the extreme edges of spirituality. Those are the kind of situations that demand a play.”
Theater Communications Group’s article on Ehn notes that
A wind-in-a-sieve idealism wafts through his saints-plays project, designed to create a play for every haloed human known to Catholicism (there are over 10,000, if you count the beati). A rope-of-sand utopianism twists through his hopes for the RAT movement, the anti-organizational organization of alternative theatres he has conceived and championed. Clashing eras and realities commune in his wrenchingly lyrical scripts, which tend to contain impractical, phantasmagoric stage directions like “The wolf holds the moon in its teeth. The stars are burrs caught in the wolf’s coat” or “Mary produces a sword and uses it to inject phenol into the priest’s neck” or “Small hot air balloons, the shape of houses, float over the flames.” And in the relentlessly secular, finance-haunted landscape of the contemporary American theatre, he draws on his Catholic heritage and convictions to argue for an artistic community based on hospitality and service, rather than sober-eyed economics. This is a playwright who once remarked, quite matter-of-factly, that St. Teresa of Avila’s religious treatise The Way of Perfection “should be taught in every theatre administration class.” The odds of catching a falling star, as John Donne put it, almost seem a little better.
Erik’s plays have magnetized the creativity of musicians from every genre, who embrace his song texts within –and exploding from– a wide range of styles: punk, math rock, country-western, pop, chamber, noise and skiffle. His experimental language catalyzes new structures and approaches, and, inevitably, a relentless investigation, and witnessing, of sound. Musicians composing for The Cycle Plays (Theatre of Yugen) created layered scores influenced by gogin noh chants, the snarl of Public Image Ltd.’s title track to Flowers of Romance, and the hoarse whispers of the Rwanda Truth Commission. Although disparate sources, all three sounds share a way of pushing a restrained breath that became a central part of The Cycle Plays musical vocabulary.
In addition to the Michiyuki: Traveling Songs project, Erik is working with composer and recent Broad Fellow Dan Plonsey on a work for marching band. Music is also being created for Soulographie: 16 plays that tell the story of 20th century America from the point of view of genocides in the States (the Tulsa Race Riot), in East Africa (Rwanda, Uganda), and Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador).