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Death Spoof

The EMP Collective debuts with We're All Gonna to Die

Christopher Myers
Cameron Stuart and Carly Bales prepare for the inevitable.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/20/2010

We're All Gonna Die

Jan. 21-23 at 1801 Falls Road.

Tickets $8, with 50 percent of proceeds going to Project PLASE (food or clothing donations get $1 off admission). Visit empcollective.org for more info.

A solitary man drags a cart into the center of the room. He looks haggard, at his wit's end. A patch covers one eye. And just as he turns a cursing fist to the sky, a woman approaches. She looks at him as if she hasn't seen another person in forever, and they stare at each other. They both appear dumbfounded, as if this chance meeting between two human beings was like finding a cold bottle of water after wandering the Kalahari, and they rush toward each other to embrace.

"Go ahead and jump on him," says Ken Jordan to actress Carly Bales, as the pair separate and all three discuss the blocking and timing of the scene. Jordan suggests to Bales to be a bit more surprised about the meeting, and that Cameron Stuart, the actor, should be equally as perplexed and overcome. They're rehearsing a segment of We're All Gonna Die, the debut production-qua-performance from the EMP Collective, a nine-member assortment of artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians, actors, and otherwise creative types to which all three belong.

Die, hitting the Station North Arts District this weekend, is an exploration of that thing that binds everybody together: mortality's inevitability. The roughly two-hour production is a multi-media experience incorporating live-action theater, film and interactive video pieces, live music, and movement. Best of all, EMP doesn't feel that death can't be funny.

"Also, there's going to be dead bodies everywhere, so keep that in mind," Jordan reminds Bales and Stuart as they discuss their stage movements. "But we can work that out when we block the big chaos sequence."

Jordan turns to EMP member Ilan Ben-Yehuda, dancer/movement choreographer, and asks Ben-Yehuda where he plans on coming to rest onstage. A brief conversation ensues about lighting and other considerations when something strikes Jordan. "Actually . . . ," he starts, an idea seemingly swimming behind his eyes. "No, no, we're not going to have sex on top of a dead body. Can we roll a cart over you?"

"Nobody has the rights to death yet," Jordan cracks during an interview about a week prior to the rehearsal at a midtown coffee shop. Jordan, 29, is joined by EMP collective mates Katy Dubina, 29, and Maggie Villegas, 24. They're discussing how Die evolved, a process that includes clarifying EMP itself.

What separates EMP from other local creative hives such as the Single Carrots, Wham Cities, and Annex Theaters is that the members of EMP are spread out across the country. It's a digitally mediated group. Bales lives in Washington, D.C.; Jordan in Humboldt County, Calif., traveling to Baltimore specifically for this production during downtime from his job. Ben-Yehuda is also based in California, while Stuart lives in Atlanta, Ga. The EMP members not present at this interview include Brad Leroy Cartwright (Baltimore), William Tucker (Pensacola, Fla.), and Rachel Inez Lane (Tallahassee, Fla.).

The collective began somewhat at Florida State University, where a number of them were undergraduates, and has expanded as they moved about the country. EMP is "this extended network of artists, basically," Villegas says.

Villegas, a production stage manager, moved from Florida to Baltimore to work for the Baltimore Opera Company in 2007, where she met Dubina, who grew up in Severna Park. Even after the Opera closed, they kept in creative touch. "Basically, we're just too stubborn to stop working with each other," Dubina says.

"We don't have any choice--what else am I going to do?" Jordan adds, discussing EMP's decentralized bonds. "And also, it's just random things. A friend of mine I went to high school with is a local [Baltimore] musician, Matt Carvin, he started working on the show with us. He moved up here years ago [to attend Peabody Institute]. He plays classical guitar, but his alter ego is Norm Sherman, and that's who he's written songs as for our show. And they're all very bizarre, oddball themes--like 'Everybody's Got Nipples.' And that unites us."

A similar deadpan but curveball sense of humor marks the video teasers found on the collective's web site (empcollective.org), which serve as brief introductions to the group's attitude. In one, Bales directly addresses the camera about how EMP "showed her the way," boasting that now she works out, meditates (accompanied by a shot of her lying lifeless on the ground), and watches "videos of fat kids falling down" before confessing that she's "$80,000 in debt--let 'em try to find me." The video ends with a title card inviting: join us.

Die came together with input from EMP's scattered members, a collaborative process mediated by online discussions. "It's kind of cool because you don't have to take notes," Villegas says. "Everything's written out for you. We use a lot of Google to share things back and forth, but it's fun--it lends itself to being able to finish a thought. Because you're going to keep typing until you get to the end of what you're saying, and somebody else can do that same thing, and once you're done you catch up with what everybody's saying, and then you can build on it."

And in the process of gathering various materials, the group discovered a common theme: death. Bales came up with the title, and Villegas found the space, an ample second-floor, partially renovated warehouse space located off Falls Road at Lafayette Avenue. They've been acquiring discarded televisions, monitors, computer and stereo equipment, and other sundry electronics from Craigslist and other sources over the past month, gathering enough materials to create a suitably post-apocalyptic environment. And Ben-Yehuda made animal-ish masks out of gas masks for himself and performer Steven Kreigel, likening the pair to the "janitors of the apocalypse." Every era needs its clean-up men.

All of which feeds the incongruous, seriocomic effect the production appears to be going for. "I think it kind of started out as a joke--we're all gonna die," Dubina says. "But more and more, we started thinking about all those masters of music and art--and they're all dead. And we're all going to die, too, so we might as well try to create something while we're here. You know, we all have nipples and we're all going to die."

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