Story by Kern Wadkins
Columbus-native Lucy Flournoy works internationally as a theatremaker, physical theatre actor, and teaching artist. Her artistic process focuses on interdisciplinary, multi-medial, collaborative devising. Currently based in Germany, she is back in Columbus to lead a team of young artists in a production of Planes, Trains, and Things That Go Zoom for the Springer Opera House’s Theatre for the Very Young series.
Having been a former Springer Theatre Academy student, we talked to Lucy about her history with the arts in Columbus, and what she hopes to bring to her home community with this new work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Image by Felix Rabas.
Q: What are some memorable experiences that shaped you as a young artist during your time as a student at the Springer Theatre Academy?
A: I think what shaped me the most was, honestly, movement classes with Ron (Anderson, Academy founder, and director), and every movement class after that. I was always interested in dance and moving, and sports. It just seemed to be my thing much more than scene study classes. But I was influenced by Ron, his mime work, and his overall emphasis on the body.
I played Alice in the Company Class production of Alice in Wonderland, and the physical way in which we told the story as an ensemble, the big characters we used in the production, taught me a lot. I always loved any opportunity with the Springer Children’s Theatre to play out-of-the-box characters. We performed Sideways Stories From Wayside School and I played the teacher. I got to be this wacky, wild woman. It was a great opportunity to explore what that looks like physically.
I tended to prefer classes and roles that encouraged movement. I started at the Springer Theatre Academy at age seven and attended through high school, and worked there through college. But in that time, I was also exploring movement work in other places - I did mask work in Italy, and then I came back to the Springer and taught some Commedia dell’Arte. No matter where I’ve gone and studied, the Springer has always been the defining foundation of what I know about theatre.
Q: If you can think back to the end of your time as an Academy student, what were hoping your artistic career would look like?
A: That’s a really fun question to talk about because I was interested in theatre, and when I toured colleges, I was very interested in their theatre departments. At the same time, I knew that I wasn’t the typical actor. I wasn’t really interested in working on monologues and doing scene work. I wasn’t interested in moving on to Broadway. The typical way of making a career in theatre arts didn’t appeal to me. I ended up choosing Davidson College, and was active in their theatre department, but decided not to major in theatre. I took a lot of classes, and the department was wonderful, but I never really felt like I fit in. I felt myself pushing against what we were doing in the classes and feeling like I was failing.
Something was missing for me, and so I moved away from theatre for a while. When I was studying abroad I got into the dance world, and that was fulfilling and a nice break from theatre. I started to acknowledge that the theatre I was doing was not the kind of work I wanted to do, but I didn’t know what the alternative could be. From that frustration, I discovered a program where I could study physical theatre (at Folkwang University in Essen, Germany) and I got to study clowning, and mask work, and element and body research, and acrobatics. When I found it, I thought, “This sounds like a dream,” and it was. It was one hundred percent where I belonged as a stage performer, and I had no idea that an entire realm of theatre existed that did that. There was an emphasis on devised work and telling different kinds of stories where it’s not about realism and naturalism. I didn’t know when I left the Academy that my angle on performance was an acceptable way to do it. I didn’t know at the time that there were other options.
Q: So, now that you’ve established an international career as a physical theatre artist, you are back at the Springer to direct Planes, Trains, and Things That Go Zoom, part of the Springer’s Theatre for the Very Young series. How did this project come to you?
A: I was scheduled to come teach devising at the Springer Theatre Academy this summer. I ended up coming to Columbus in February and decided to stay through the summer, and it worked out that Sally (Baker, Director of the Springer Theatre Academy) was interested in having me take on this project.
Image by Mario Ziegler
Q: Do you think physical theatre performance lends itself to a show for two through five-year-olds?
A: One hundred percent, yes. I think it’s ideal. I’m not a certified educator, I definitely come from an artistic background, but my instinct is that children are very physical themselves, and quickly pick up on physical and visual cues. So, I think much more than a language-based play, a body-based play is going to transport more information and engage that specific audience differently.
What I’m aiming for is a lot of high energy, presence, and clear focus from the ensemble that can show the audience in a physical way where their focus should be. My hope is that it will be very interesting for a child to watch. I’m just sharing what I love about physical theatre with our cast, and with the audience in Columbus.
No matter where I’ve gone and studied, the Springer has always been the defining foundation of what I know about theatre.
Q: What elements of your background in physical theatre are you hoping to incorporate into the production?
A: We’re using a Lecoq style of movement, which encourages the ensemble to build the set, and the environments, and the characters with their bodies and movements. It allows the actors to transform themselves into whatever is needed. We’re using props, and there will be lots of colorful accessories that we add on, but the ensemble will use creative movement to create a plane, and a train, and a boat, and so on. It’s a lot of fun.
Q: What are some challenges that you find as an artist working on a show like this?
A: I would say the biggest challenge is time because what I would like to do with the story, and what I would like to impart to the student actors from my experience requires training time. Right now, we’re learning how to tell stories physically AND creating a new story. (All of the Springer’s Theatre for the Very Young plays are devised together between the director and the student cast within two weeks.) So, rather than just devising with them, I’m also teaching physical theatre skills - getting them to use their full bodies, to think in a different way.
We’re working around the concept of the birthday party, and when you think birthday party, the first impulse is usually to become a guest at the party and to eat a mimed piece of cake. What I would like to see is for everyone to become the candles on the cake getting blown out, or everyone becomes the cake and a “piece” is afraid of getting sliced. It’s just a different way of thinking.
Our cast is extremely bright, and supportive. They’re very cooperative and collaborative. I have a dream team, honestly. My job is to give them time and guide them in developing their own story - we want it to be their work, rather than my coming in and forcing ideas on them - but I am also responsible for exposing them to another way of telling stories to get to the point where we have an interesting, artistic show that is ready for performance.
Q: Being a former Academy student, you know what it's like to be a student performer on the Springer stage. What are you hoping your cast will experience with you on this production?
A: Well, they’re already artists. They are all so far along in their development as young artists, so I don’t think I’m initiating any of them into what theatre can be. I want to allow them to use what they already know.
I hope that they have a sense of ownership of our work together, and I want to expose them to physical theatre and a different way to tell a story in performance. I hope they understand that there are places in the world that exist where you can make a career out of another type of theatre. There are lots of opportunities out there.
Image via Springer Opera House.
Q: How have the arts in Columbus evolved since you were a seven-year-old student walking into the Springer Theatre Academy for your first class?
A: I think the arts have definitely evolved. I believe the Academy was initially very successful and has since grown to maximum capacity in the years since. They’ve expanded and built new classrooms and new performance spaces.
When I was thinking about the direction I wanted to take Planes, Trains, and Things That Go Zoom in, I was thinking, this is my generation of Academy students bringing their children as audience members. I learned here and became an artist in this place, now I’m leading the next generation of Academy students to put on shows for the children of my fellow students. It’s amazing to see that people keep coming back, and now there’s this worldwide network of artists. I think Columbus, because of places like the Springer, has put forth a lot of artists into the world that then brings their skills and knowledge back to the community. That family feeling is very inspiring. ◼︎
If You Go:
What: Planes, Trains, and Things That Go Zoom!
When: May 8 at 10:00 a.m. 12:30 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.
Where: Springer Opera House