Kyle Loven's "loss machine," which he also refers to as "the contraption" and "the beast," is seven feet tall, four and a half feet wide, and contains secret worlds within worlds. It's difficult, at first glance (or even 10th glance), to appreciate its complexity: There is a drawbridge operated by string and an old-school pencil sharpener, hidden bells and noisemakers, funnels and rubber tubing, an antique-looking gauge, a diving mask that fills with water, 13 internal light sources (not including three flashlights), two motors (not including Loven), cupboards, alcoves, ramps, old typewriter parts, and sections that slide this way or that to create entirely new environments, some only inches high.
And that's only the beginning. When Loven and director Jessica Hatlo gave me a tour of the machine last week, they said it was only around half built. Loven pointed to one side of it, saying, "The water feature will go there" with the enthusiasm of an architect showing off a partly built dream house.
Most people would simply call the Seattle-based Loven a puppeteer, but there are several levels of magic in his work. He sometimes uses conventional puppets, but he also deftly manipulates everyday objects to tell his impressionistic, moody tales. Give Loven a bedsheet, a roll of butcher paper, and an apple, and he will have more than enough to perform an entire life story.
Behind the machine, Loven showed me some folding tables covered with old objects he'll use in the show—cracked leather baby shoes, a worn wooden torso he impregnated with a music box, a gray rat, a shiny beetle on a stick. He picked up an assemblage puppet he'd made from a lace glove, a strand of pearls, some old-lady glasses, and an old clutch purse covered in fur. As he manipulated the puppet, giving her a squeaky voice, a few hard candies fell out of her mouth. "We call that character 'klepto,'" he said, stooping to pick them up. "She basically steals things throughout the show."
Loven favors genuinely old objects and said he spends "way too much time" at estate sales, antique stores, and online bazaars. "I'm interested in the history and patina of things," he said. "That journey an object is on that we are just part of and don't necessarily know about." His fascination with objects that have an aura of history partly explains why Loven's work exudes an existential mustiness, like stepping into the attic of an old home where the family heirlooms have personalities—his imagination is a world of dust and bowler hats, opera glasses and oxidization. The Loss Machine, as its title suggests, is about loss, but also how lost things find each other—Hatlo and Loven hastened to add that it had comedy and wasn't just "an hour-long downer."
Loven moved to Seattle from the Minneapolis area in 2009 and won a quick following with his show my dear Lewis, performed at Annex Theater, which was a peek inside the mind of a character who was drifting between memories and fever dreams, and probably dying. That's "probably" and not "certainly" because Loven's performances have an obscure internal logic that one can always sense but not necessarily decipher. Hatlo, the director, is used to more conventional theater. (She wrote Stuck for Washington Ensemble Theater, about a woman who sat on her toilet so long that her body fused to it.) "I have more traditional ideas of arc and resolution," she said, holding a paintbrush she'd been using to paint the machine, "while Kyle is more out in left field. So we try to bring it to the middle."
And with that, they looked ready to get back to work.
The Custom Made Play Project proceeds from the radical notion that playwrights and actors should collaborate on new work. That notion shouldn't be radical, of course. Playwrights wrote with actors in the mix for centuries, before the idea of a "director" was even invented. Some, especially at the fringe and experimental level, still do.
But the institutional tension between playwrights, directors, and actors has become entrenched with the rise of the regional-theater bureaucracy: Playwrights dream of having their words spoken in far-off cities by and for strangers. Actors dream of roles that are already admired (Hamlet, Hedda). Directors want control—actors and playwrights cooking up new work is not a recipe for control. Compounding all this are the fretful theaters, which decide what plays get produced and worry that audiences won't buy tickets to something unfamiliar.
It's a sick system, and a couple of years ago, local actor Rebecca Olson decided to do something about it. "Like a lot of actors, I had just been thinking about myself—trying to get work, auditioning," she said. But she began to question why things were the way they were (including a poverty of roles for middle-aged women) and realized the whole thing was stuck in a rut. So she made an end run around it.
She got in touch with actor Hana Lass and playwright Paul Mullin, kick-starting a process that began with Mullin interviewing the actors. (They'd find a director and a theater later.) It turns out they all have hoarders in their families, and they decided to explore that. They chewed over drafts for months, pushing and pulling as they went, and have ended up with Ballard House Duet, about very different middle-aged sisters who reunite to clean out their hoarder-aunt's house. Olson says she's never played a role like this before. Mullin says he never would've written a play like this before. It's all new—and may be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.