City Beat Article Jul 24, 2013

A thinker’s theater

The new performance group Public Moves makes it for the masses

By Alex Zaragoza

a&cPublic Moves’ Michael Mufson (left) and John Polak spread social justice through theater.
– Photo by Alex Zaragoza


“Stay away from my pipeline!” bellows the smarmy Senator Cash in front of the hordes of Comic-Con attendees making their way into the San Diego Convention Center. Dressed in a Wall Street-slickster suit, he’s shilling for the Keystone Pipeline, which would carry Canadian tar sands across the United States for refining.
Senator Cash loves money. You can see it in his eyes— mainly because there are big, glittery dollar signs on the lenses of his U.S.-flag-emblazoned sunglasses. And that’s why Senator Cash loves oil—big, black, juicy oil that will make his wallet nice and thick. He doesn’t give a damn about the environment.Another thing about Senator Cash: He’s a farce. No, not in the accidental way so many ultra-right-wing conservatives tend to be farcical; he’s an actual farce, an activist street-theater character created by Michael Mufson that Mufson takes to protests under the umbrella ofPublic Moves Ensemble Theater.Only 8 months old, Public Moves’ mission and motto is to create “theater projects for the public good.” The company is the brainchild of Mufson, John Polak and Marcos Martinez. They’re theater professors at Palomar College, Mesa College and California State University, San Marcos, respectively, and have been involved in all aspects of theater for 20 years or longer.

“I think, in some ways, [Public Moves] is a maturation of all three of us,” Mufson says. “We’ve known each other for 15 years and we’ve gone together frequently over those years and talked about what we love about the theater and talked about our politics and our points of views.”

Judging by Mufson’s T-shirt, which has an American flag on the chest and reads “Please stand by… our democracy is experiencing technical difficulties,” it’s safe to say some of those discussions were subversive.

“We agree on many things, disagree on some things,” he continues. “But we agree that theater should address the political, social-justice culture that we’re in. And so now, we’re three mature theater artists, three mature teachers who’ve reached a point in their lives where we have the opportunity to make all of those things concrete in the form of a company that engages in the public.”

It was through these discussions that they decided to start making the kind of theater they want to see: didactic performance that borrows from various theatrical forms. Those include Brechtian theater, which calls for repeated breaking down of the fourth wall; the theater-of-the-oppressed method of using performance as a means of political and social awareness; Tina Landau and Anne Bogart’s “viewpoints” technique, an emphasis on movement and gesture; and Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theater,” which means doing it all on a shoestring budget. But, above all, they want it to be fun—“theatrically delicious and intellectually nutritious,” as Mufson puts it.

The ensemble company takes a grassroots approach, working collaboratively and collectively on projects.

“Public Moves also exists to explore models of theater and explore ways of making, because if you make it with hierarchical power structures, then the product reflects hierarchical power structures,” Polak explains.

“I believe what I see around me is a slave-ish acceptance of the community model of doing theater,” adds Martinez, a master of the Suzuki method of acting, which incorporates martial arts and ancient-Greek theater styles to build an actor’s awareness of his body. He says he’s dissatisfied with what he thinks is contemporary theater’s lack of nerve.

“We wanted to do theater that is about people, real situations and things that are not being covered in the media.”

So far, Public Moves has been able to apply its principles to two productions. Earlier this year, Martinez directed Dreams in the Sand at CSU, San Marcos. Written by Escondido playwright Joe Powers, it tells the story of an immigrant who dies in the desert while attempting to cross back into America after being deported. When it was in rehearsals, the trio decided to make it the first Public Moves production.

Later, at a festival in Greece, Martinez discovered a radical new play by French playwright Remi de Vos that addresses violence and immigration in Europe. The play, Alpenstock, is an absurdist satire of nationalism and xenophobic attitudes in Germany: A lederhosen-clad husband named Fritz fears his good German housewife, Grete, has been corrupted after purchasing foreign laundry detergent. Freedom fries, anyone?

Martinez felt the play’s themes meshed well with current events, particularly border issues in San Diego, much like the way Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—about the Salem witch hunts in 17th-century Massachusetts—made perfect sense in the era of McCarthyism.

“The idea of Public Moves was to do theater that speaks to the human condition in contemporary society, which is what theater is supposed to do,” Martinez says.

He fell in love with the play’s ideas and style, despite knowing zero Greek. So he had it translated. Reading it in English, he loved it even more and decided to share it with his comrades. The men, along with actress and teacher Christina Wenning, staged the play at the San Diego Fringe Festival, which took place earlier this month.

Martinez, Mufson and Polak were so happy with the outcome that they’ve decided to stage the play again, on Sept. 12 at Palomar College. It’ll be a free show, possibly with a postperformance discussion—something that the ensemble very much wants to incorporate in all Public Moves pieces.

“The hope is that we entertain them for an hour, but we’ve given them something that’s interesting, provocative and mysterious,” Mufson says, “that they’re going to leave and still turn it over in their mind and chew on it.”

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