By Holli Harms
It takes courage, resilience, belief, faith, and a smidgeon of insanity to create theatrical art, to create a theater company, to just plain create.
Robert Lyons created the Ohio Theater Company 30 years ago with belief, inner strength, and perseverance. It morphed into the New Ohio, proudly introducing artists that inspired and challenged audiences who hunger for new works that carry them to unknown places by turning sideways and upside down and driving them conscientiously and happily into new places.
Robert was introduced to theater creator Daniel Irizarry and the two of them (which you can easily see and feel in real time) quickly became comrades in arms. Sitting and talking with them there is a strong sense of mutual respect. They finish each other’s sentences and bow to the other for further time, speaking with absolute respect and love, and humor.
Asking how they met, Daniel jumps in and exclaims “It took me five years to get Robert to see my work, or maybe 4 years to convince him…it took forever for him to see one of my shows. The show he finally made it to is where I smashed a watermelon and so that’s why the watermelon is in this show. It’s honoring, circling back to how I met Robert.”
( After each performance of Ultra Left Violence audience members were given chalk to write all over the theater their thoughts and feelings that came up with the show.)
Robert Lyons enjoying the story and smiling interjects, “I don’t remember the part about five years of not coming to see a show, but yeah. So I saw that and then I invited Daniel’s company into residency and they developed the show that was called Numbness. And as part of that show, Daniel was asking writers to write short pieces. And I wrote a piece called Yovo, which ended up in the show. Yovo is the show that we took out of the evening to create it further and have it stand on its own.”
Daniel was working in Korea teaching and it’s there they worked on Yovo which ended up being performed in Korea, Poland, Cuba, and eventually New York City. After the success of Yovo, they wanted to continue the collaboration and ended up working on a musical. A musical that would in the end incorporate sign language into the performance.
When Robert knew it was time to close the book on New Ohio he asked Daniel to be the creator of the final show that would bring down the curtain on it all. Together they started to work on what would become Ultra Left Violence. Ultra Left Violence is the pinnacle of their work melding everything in their past with language and movement.
The collaboration between the two has produced an unconventional exhilarating theatrical experience, not manufactured, but organically contrived, assembled, and performed. For Robert, who previously wrote conventional plays with surrealism woven in, this collaboration has taken him to places he never would have gone. As Robert stated, “I have characters, comedies, and they’re all surreal in some way, but they’re not this. This particular journey started with Yovo and just kept getting crazier and crazier, and I felt more and more freedom in terms of the text. And then I’d hand it off to Daniel and he would bring the circus…” Daniel added that this new collaboration, Ultra Left Violence, “…is on another level and the idea of stage direction is not there. So it’s just instinct energy.”
For Ultra Left Violence, Daniel and Robert wrote an outline of the text, and then those titles became really useful for Daniel in terms of “…how to create acting vessels, energy for each scene, things like that. And in terms of what we’ve been doing, I’m trying to celebrate three-dimensionality, participation with the audience, trying to reconnect, especially after the pandemic, a space where we can reconnect, no smartphone, no phones. We are telling an old school story, you know, the fire and the circle after the hunting…That’s really primitive and we’re losing that. So defending that, no projection, less technology, really analog and, like writing poetry. So there’s a lot of freedom to create and to build with the audience.”
What I experienced the night I was part of the party known as Ultra Left Violence felt very much like jazz. Actors, audience, stage manager, crew, everybody riffing off of everybody. Every “instrument” playing together, lifting each other up over and over, and spinning us around.
Ultra Left Violence is just getting started. It is scheduled for two more residencies in the fall. One at Mercury Store in Brooklyn and one at NACL in the Catskills. “We’re going to continue refining this piece and then eventually open, you know, a proper run for it. So that’s all happening.”
Robert has a house up in the Hudson Valley, and there’s a performing arts center that’s just opened up there. He is in early talks with them about, “Maybe doing a program called Downtown Upstate, where we take downtown companies and bring them up there a few times a year.” All talk right now, but no matter what the outcome as Robert has stated, “I’m not done with theater. I’m just done running a theater.”
Robert came to run the Ohio as many things happen in life, by happy accident. “I had just arrived in New York from London. I got hired on a show as a production manager. I just got here and I met the guy who had the Wooster Street space, Bill Horne. And we did a show. There we were. The space had been closed by the fire department and they were reopening it with that show. And I met Bill and I said, Well, Bill, who’s running your theater? And he’s like, nobody. And I said, Well, I’ll do it. And he said, okay, well, let’s try it for one year. And we shook hands. There was never a lease. I never had a lease on the space. I never had a contract. It was a handshake deal. And I stayed there for 18 years. And then we eventually lost that space in 2010. He had to sell the building. And miraculously, we ended up here within a year. So we kept it going. The space is great now. It was not great when we got it. We gutted it out. We put in this deck, we put in the risers, we hung the grid, and we put in the bathroom in the dressing room. I mean, we made this space.”
Robert and New Ohio made a space that has been such an important home to so many artists, but change is inevitable. Change doesn’t have to mean an end, simply new configurations full of new possibilities. Robert Lyons and Daniel Irizarry are all about new possibilities, reaching beyond their own imaginations and expectations, and asking “What next?”
Ultra Left Violence
Text by Robert Lyons, Directed by Daniel Irizarry, Composer: Rhys Tivey
Set Designer: Deb O., Costume Designer: Meghan E. Healey, Lighting Designer: Matthew Deinhart, Sound Designer: M Florian Staab, Stage Manager: Emily Hart, Assistant Stage Manager: Ricky Brown, Associate Producer: Amelie Lyons
CAST: Pepper Binkley, Daniel Irizarry, Rhys Tivey, Folami Williams
Imagine two activists hashing out a freely-associated anti-capitalist manifesto. While their favorite professor slides into dementia as he expounds on the unwritten books of our esteemed author. And a poet of privilege performs love poems inspired by her stay in a prestigious artist colony. Then add live music, a couple of songs, and a different guest artist at each performance. Something like that.