Rinde Eckert seems to embody whatever he’s talking about: twisting his head around on top of his powerful body, gesticulating gracefully with his hands, closing his eyes as he rolls his words around in his mouth. A well-known independent theater artist and recipient of the 2009 Alpert Award in the Arts for theater as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2007, Eckert is bringing his two-act solo piece “An Idiot Divine” to the University this Thursday and Friday.
“The ‘Idiot Divine’ is two different performances,” Eckert said in a discussion with theater students this Wednesday. “They were created ten years apart and I didn’t realize that one was the complement of the other until I had performed both many, many times. It’s the story of a tense and disastrous encounter of the profane and the sacred.”
A maverick and revolutionary performer of the off-the-beaten-track theatre scene, Eckert is a powerful actor who writes and composes almost all of his work. Vivid, sensational, sometimes confrontational or even violent, his work has received recognition across the country for its immediacy and stark beauty. His work is also sung as often as it is spoken; Eckert’s initial training was as an opera singer.
“My parents were in the theater as opera singers, so I was in my first opera when I was seven, I think,” he said. “I got my degree as an opera singer. I was also a blues singer for a while.”
“An Idiot Divine” is in reality two of Eckert’s earlier pieces—“The Idiot Variations” and “Dry Land Divine”—performed together, separate but complementary. “Dry Land Divine,” the more traditionally plotted of the two pieces, is the story of a water dowser in Wyoming who is languishing in prison for killing his brother. While there, he receives a visit from, to use Eckert’s language, a “profane angel—the embodiment of that dilemma, the profane and the sacred.” The angel gives him a small, red accordion and the injunction to learn to play the old songs: this is his only way to accomplish salvation.
By far Eckert’s most interesting comments, though (at least for theater students), were about his method of working and development. He attempts to work from a place of free creation and spontaneous action; he spoke of a moment when he felt the need to put a bucket of water onstage and simply proceeded to do so, not realizing until he looked into the bucket during rehearsal that it could be used as a baptismal font. His technique avoids the use of scripting or dialogue, and creates pure, sometimes primitive gestures—but there can be no doubt that he makes remarkable theater.
“If the theory precedes [the creation], for me, it starts to lose its depth,” he said. “You don’t solve some sort of theoretical equation. You enjoy the moment.”