The five of them have gathered at the old trolley-repair-shop-turned-City-Light-warehouse to clean up. The warehouse is in the middle of that no-man's-land where Dexter Avenue crosses Mercer Street. A mountain of sod molders in the center of the floor. The crushed remains of a herd of life-size papier-mâché horses are stacked nearby. A wedding dress ruined by fake blood and dried stiff is draped over a chair. The chair's legs are sawed off halfway to the ground. Earlier this summer, Implied Violence converted the warehouse into a theater and presented a triptych of original shows—BarleyGirl and Versus and Eat, Fight, Fuck, a loosely related cycle they called Our Summary in Sequence—but since the warehouse wasn't built with theater-making in mind, they had to create everything, including a place for the audience to be. Instead of investing in tiered platforms, which is what any other theater group in the city would do, they just sawed the legs off wooden chairs to varying heights.
"We're keeping the wedding dress?" says Jessie Smith, a dancer/choreographer and Implied Violence's treasurer.
"Yeah, it's archival," says Lily Nguyen, the sound designer.
Ryan Mitchell, the dauntless, smirking covisionary of the group, lifts a heavy flap of sod and heaves it into the back of a pickup truck. This will be the second or third trip to the dump today. "All this chicken shit is going to give us that disease," he says. The sod has chicken shit in it because some of it had been the floor of a chicken coop housing 40 or so chirping chicks. A golden, haphazard pool of them featured in the climactic moments of BarleyGirl.
"Oh yeah. All the chicken shit we're inhaling? It's terrifying," says Megan Birdsall, Implied Violence's technical director. She's the one who thought to tell everyone to get a tetanus shot back in 2003, when the group was creating bushes out of rusty rebar for their first project, a restaging of Lord of the Flies at Cornish College of the Arts. That was shortly after Mitchell and Mandie O'Connell—Implied Violence's artistic director and managing director, respectively, even though the level at which they collaborate blurs the distinction—met on campus. O'Connell, who shares Mitchell's air of dauntlessness, happened to be standing there when Mitchell said out loud one day that he needed a place to live. They were roommates within days.
"Everyone at Cornish was bitching at us because they thought we should get the rights to it or some ridiculous shit," Mitchell remembers, heaving another flap of sod into the truck. When classmates heard about their elaborate plans for the show, "They all said, 'You'll never be able to afford it, you idiots!' And then we stole all this shit from under I-5. It took us three days to steal it." They got rebar, beams, platforms, heavy wire, and huge concave glass shapes. They filled one of the concave glass shapes with fake blood. "That was the pig."
It's fitting that Implied Violence came about because of a housing crisis (Mitchell's), and that the raw material for the first project was construction debris, because in the ensuing years members of the group have lived in, made theater in, and been evicted from lots of different places people aren't supposed to live or make theater in. Like the defunct U.S. Rubber Building in Pioneer Square. Or a restaurant-supply storage facility south of Safeco Field. Mitchell has spent uncountable hours, when not hauling cargo for a produce company, scouring the city for spaces to live and make theater in. A while back, a real-estate agent inadvertently gave him the code for a lockbox on an International District building. "I made a key to the building and a sticker with a different telephone number on it and put it over his number so people wouldn't be able to call on it, and we rehearsed and prepared" new work there. "That is how aggressive and hungry we are for space in this city."
Their work insists that theater can be as dangerous/infuriating/unpredictable as life is, and that theater can happen everywhere that life happens. Once, riding bikes with friends in Pioneer Square, I stumbled across some hubbub in an alley. Two sets of cords extended across the alley, creating a square—a boxing ring—and then two guys came out, sweaty and drunk, and began knocking the shit out of each other, slamming into the concrete walls, slipping, bleeding. The crowd began taking bets on who was going to win, and I put in five bucks, and then a cop car trying to drive through the alley shined its headlights on the scene, lighting it up like you wouldn't believe, but the guys kept throwing punches and the crowd kept hollering, and then stuff started pouring onto the boxers out of a high window—water, marshmallows, glitter, feathers—and then, just before the last round, the boxers and their groupies and the refs and the bet-takers vanished. With everyone's money. This was a production of the Villainaire's Academy, an offshoot of Implied Violence, and Mitchell was one of the boxers.
Implied Violence has made shows in a field, in a soon-to-be-demolished Aurora motel, and on the roof of an apartment building in the middle of the night before it was razed for development. For that last one, you had to go to a downtown crepe stand on a certain morning and buy your ticket from the crepe-makers (Nguyen among them), which made getting to see the show kind of part of the show. To get onto the roof that night, you had to climb up a ladder through a ceiling, a hole that turned out to be, once you got onto the roof, center stage—the lights on you, the cheering crowd embarrassing you, and still more getting-to-see-the-show-as-part-of-the-show. Implied Violence had covered the roof in dirt and planted flowers in it (for one show!), and they kept the audience warm with whiskey and blankets. The standout performance was O'Connell's. In addition to being a playwright and a director, she is a fierce, mysterious performer. She played a woman who'd drowned her son in a river and was having to tell the story over and over again, in increasingly frantic iterations, with dancing.
As we drive toward the dump, Smith, who also runs the Dead Bird Movement dance company, says, "We've always been trying to figure out ways to integrate movement in theater that's not totally bogus." For BarleyGirl, Smith choreographed paroxysms of birdlike gestures that one character, Bird, constantly slipped into, and sometimes the entire company—a wave of freaky biological compulsion amplified by all the chirping chicks. "But since I'm the one with the pickup truck, I also have to run tons of errands," she says. "My friends are always making fun of me because I'm always like, 'Uh, I have to go find 86 pinwheels and a bag of red-white-and-blue confetti and a headstone.'"
In addition to the spectacle of it—a teeming, saturated visual field—BarleyGirl was told in gorgeous stabs of dialogue. "I love you, Barley Girl, and I want to kill you," a soldier says. "Is that why you're dying?" she replies. A Civil War soldier tries to explain the historical importance of his dying, but fails to summon the words, to seem important. It was written by O'Connell, who has words by Gertrude Stein tattooed onto her arm and, like Stein, thinks like a cubist about text—constantly repeating, with variations, certain phrases so as to propel a many-sided idea/feeling forward.
Back at the warehouse, I ask O'Connell if there's anything Implied Violence's shows have in common. Her answer: work. "A real, crazy, intense amount of difficulty, but strength in overcoming difficulty," she says. You get the sense that she and Mitchell and the rest don't walk around with their chests out, feeling innately talented; they're simply willing to work harder than anyone else to make theater you don't want to miss. Even getting into this City Light warehouse—a Herculean effort involving city and county officials who thought it impossible, icy receptionists, unresponsive real-estate agents, the preoccupied superintendent of City Light, etc.—was a piece of work. But duress can be source material. O'Connell looks over my shoulder at furniture and props that have to be taken to storage. "Speaking of work," she says, and gets up.