Revamping a tragedy

The creative minds behind '@ntigone' offer a different take on Sophocles

Danny Gross, left, and Tommy Plunkett as Theon and Eteocles

For most of Joe Hill’s life the United States has been embroiled in a constant, never-ending, oft-forgotten war.

Hill is 18 years old, and he and his fellow collaborators with The Unexpected Laboratory (TUL), where he’s the executive director, are producing a show at the Dairy Center for the Arts about what happens when you can no longer look away from unpleasant truths, based on Sophocles’ Antigone and set in postwar Thebes. Every generation’s art is shaped by the dramatic events of history, Hill believes, and he thinks that the War on Terror might be his generation’s Hiroshima.

“The one thing I like to think of in terms of art is that the artists I look up to the most, they were never there when there was a nuclear bomb,” Hill says. “I work in an elementary school periodically, and now I meet these kids who have never really lived in a world pre-9/11. And so I think about the way that your foundation is made a human being when you’re growing up, a nuclear bomb has always been something that I’ve known about. … Because of new things that are happening and how they affect me, every generation of art will have these [new inspirations] in actual life.”

The story of the original Antigone is set in postwar Thebes, after Antigone’s brother, Polyneices, died mounting a rebellion against his brother, Eteocles. The new ruler, Creon, denies Polyneices the right to a proper burial as punishment, and Antigone defies him in order to perform the proper burial rites. The rest of the play deals with the ethical and legal (and tragic) fallout of her decision.

@ntigone is “young theater kids making theater,” Hill says. He and TUL’s artistic director, Travis Coe, have revamped Antigone and set it in a drug-addled, post-war Thebes in the year 2018. Flat-screen TVs fill the stage, and they dumped 39 cubic feet of peat moss on the stage to make the actors interact with a dirty, gritty environment. Polyneices’ body hangs from the rafters, his silhouette looming over the entire show.

Hill and Coe met while at boarding school, the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, after Hill saw one of Coe’s film pieces and decided the two needed to collaborate. After settling on an idea, they realized they needed money, and one failed crowdfunding attempt later, the two hit up the Boulder County Arts Alliance, created an LLC, and launched their theater company. They raised $6,000 in two weeks, and Hill couldn’t be more excited about his company’s debut performance.

Boulder Weekly: Tell me about the play.

Joe Hill: Our show is about what happens when you can no longer look the other way. We started off thinking about escapism, ways of escape like drug culture, and we thought about technology, and how people use their phones as an escape.

We started with all these negative things about escapism. And then we found that not only are there negative things with trying to escape from what’s in front of you, but there are positive things with looking right at it. For example, when you look at the dirt, it’s filthy. The actors are rolling around, it’s getting tossed in their faces, it’s falling out of their hair; it’s filth. Then there are a few moments before Antigone gets arrested, her and Ismene have a small recap of their sisterhood growing up together, and at the end they dig through the dirt and find a Ziploc bag, just some trash in the wreckage, and in it there’s a flower. Somewhere buried deep down there, there’s something beautiful, there’s something worth saving and holding onto.

Our show, though it might not sound like it, is a lot about family and the essence about what relationships are and what really matters in your life. And going hand in hand with that, it’s about what makes a significant moment.

What’s the scope? How many people are involved in the production?

There are nine actors, and there are seven people on our production team.

Basically everyone has put in ten thousand times more than they needed to. … After going to a conservatory where people think that you’re only an artist if you’re making money off your art … it’s exciting to know that we’re all willing to put the time in. We didn’t have to put any money in for the show, we fundraised the show independently and created the show in a basement.

I didn’t know how to start a business, I didn’t know how to get fiscally sponsored, I didn’t know how to get a theater space. … The truth is, it should be a disaster. But the amount of passion we put into it, and the amount of drive we put into it … it’s exciting.

@ntigone plays at the Dairy Center for the Arts Thursday, Aug. 15 through Saturday, Aug. 17, at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, Aug. 18 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets start at $12. 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7826.