Moby-Mania: An Interview with Horse Head Theatre Company

Article by annalia

by Annalia Linnan

When he walks in—late but gracious, lanky but poised—Philip Hays does not strike me as an actor. He is neither large nor loud. With his thick-framed glasses and soft-spoken manner, he seems more like a writer. So it makes sense later when he tells me that he does a little bit of writing—“but mostly acting and directing.” He lived in Prague for a brief time, working with the Prague Shakespeare Company, but has mostly been working in Houston since he graduated from the University of Houston, freelancing between Classical Theatre Company and elsewhere.

Hays meets with me to talk about Horse Head Theater Company, which since its since its inception in 2009 has “always made the effort to make theatre that wasn’t ‘sit down, be quiet, be polite’ kind of theatre.” Hays continues: “You don’t have to sit in a dark room and shut up and say, ‘Oh, wasn’t that nice.’ You know, you can have a party and you can have fun. And you can be somewhere that’s not a theatre and still get an experience.”

To show that Horse Head means it, the company has no black box theatre; instead, its productions are performed in nontraditional environments. How it usually works, Hays tells me, is that “[Horse Head picks] a piece of material, or a play that they would like to do, and then they find a place that suits it.” One of the first shows took place in a bar, so the actors performed it in a bar. Horse Head has also done shows in basements and on porches of coffee shops.

For The Whale; or, Moby Dick, Horse Head ventures into new territory—literally. The concept? For Hays and his audience to be swallowed by the famously elusive whale. To do this, “[Horse Head] shipped in a giant white geodesic dome” all the way from Ireland. More than forty feet across, “it’s white, just like the white whale, and we’re gonna put it up on the piece of land down by the bayou.” In the back office at the bookstore, Hays scribbles a quick sketch. “I’m not a good draw-er, but it’s made up of like little triangles. It’s like a playground dome, you know?” (Or Epcot, for you Disney fans out there.)

Talking on the phone with Horse Head’s artistic director Jacey Little, she says location was essential: “We have been thinking of this show as a destination experience, setting it on the bayou specifically.” And so, they have: during the run (July 29-August 15), the dome will live “just off Navigation Boulevard, extremely close to Minute Maid and the Original Ninfa’s—you can see the downtown Houston skyline and the bayou.” This exact space was Horse Head’s “top choice, and thankfully, [Buffalo Bayou Partnership Silos] agreed that this was a good idea.”

To recap: Horse Head acquired “the whale” and “the sea.” But what about the story? Without a plethora of MOBY DICK adaptations at their disposal, Hays created his own—with a twist. To start with, Philip Hays plays “Philip Hays,” an actor who, while on a boat, gets swallowed by a whale. And then, the whale asks Hays to read him his favorite book, which happens to be MOBY DICK. Along the way, Hays busts out the ukulele. Yes, there is music too.

In other words, “it’s not an uptight, ‘we’re doing MOBY DICK and we’re doing it the right way’ kind of attitude,” says Hays. “It’s a playful, silly take on it.” And Hays himself admits the scope is large: “This is a story I’ve wanted to tell for a long time, personally, but the thing I’ve always come up against is, ‘What a silly idea—to try to fit this whole, giant, amazing book into a theatrical performance is impossible.’”

Given Horse Head’s reputation, it’s no surprise that Little is game for impossible. Though she technically became the artistic director last year, Hays considers The Whale the essence of Horse Head’s “transformation” under her new leadership. In addition to being “by far the largest budget show that Horse Head has ever undertaken,” Little tells me that The Whale’s advisory committee includes sculptors, fabricators, and visual artists as opposed to traditional theatrical set designers, which will not only guarantee a unique visual experience but provides other benefits as well. To best configure logistics for the technical aspects of the show, the advisory committee created a three-dimensional model of the scene design, which Little “[doesn’t] think is something that [usually happens] with this type of organization at that level.”

Little is also happy to showcase Hays, whose ambition she says is the main force behind what she calls “Moby-Mania.” “He’s impressive,” she says. “He’s going to be portraying all of our characters.” Where in the novel there are 100 characters (give or take), herself, Hays, and playwright Timothy Evers have “distilled it down to four or five.”

In his quiet way, Hays elaborates: “I’m also riffing on the situation in which we’ve all found ourselves, which is not a very good one: being swallowed by a whale. There’s only two ways out—you go through the teeth again, or you go the bad way.”

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Like our friends at Main Street Theater, Horse Head has “always been, from its start...a labor of love.” Hays tells me that the people who started the company (who, by the way, “all have other jobs in the theatre, or they’re freelancers”) came together “not because they needed the money—though money’s always nice, of course—but because they wanted to change the way audiences think of theatre in Houston.”

The Whale is a prime example. From its website (getswallowed.com) to its one-man-show nature, to the aural soundscapes and visual projections that will be inside the Irish-imported geodesic dome, where audience members will sit on driftwood-inspired seats, Horse Head makes it clear they are not horsing around.

However, there are always goals. Up until now, Horse Head has done one show a year. Little would like to change that, with an important step being diversifying Horse Head’s funding. In addition to the normal fundraisers required by most non-profits, she would like to get more grants and local funding, or even expand to national. One avenue they have employed to attempt this is the crowdfunding project for The Whale, which at the time of writing this article had achieved eighty-one percent of its $10,000 goal (a mere third of the show’s overall production costs).

Hays and Little are also looking forward to fully immersive shows, such as Sleep No More, a New-York based project “set in an old hotel and it’s got hundreds of rooms.” Hays tells me that “it’s more like a haunted house with actors running around it than it is a play. It’s a game.” Little hopes the Houston version would “engage everything to shadow puppetry to modern dancers.” Her ultimate vision is to take over “an entire building, and we release the audience, and they experience the elements throughout the evening.”

Until then, there is The Whale, magical and mysterious. When I commented how fortunate it was that Hays not only gets to co-write, star in, and help produce his dream show with a company that is so keen to take risks, he said, “Yeah. Yeah! It is. It is!” before dissolving into laughter, still delighted that it’s real.

Ever humble, though, he says, “For me, doing theatre is not about [myself]. You know? Not that actors are I like that.” When I joke that not all actors share his humility, and that some are kind of jerks, Hays says, “Some are, yeah. Some can be.” Hays, though, just wants to do good work. “If I can do good work in more than one way, if I can wear a different hat and make it happen, then I’m happy to do that.”

Even if it means brushing up on the ukulele.


Philip Hays will give a sneak peak of THE WHALE; OR, MOBY DICK on Wednesday, July 22 at 6PM. To read more about the show or purchase tickets to the performances, please visit getswallowed.com

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