Come Together: Van Reipen Collective Takes Collaborative Approach to Theater


Clockwise: Cassandra Chopourian, Richard Gross and Lauren Farber in ‘Food, Part II’ from Tender Buttons

Walking into Eonta Space, a private performance space tucked away in Journal Square, you know you’ve stepped into something special. The entrance pathway is lit with small lanterns, faint music is playing, and two men greet you, giving you a scroll with the words of a portion of a poem soon to be brought to life.

A woman with her hair half-wrapped in a bandana offers you either potato leek or “butternut squash soup” (it was butternut squash last week, but tonight it was made with pumpkin). She also gives you a small bowl of warm, homey goodness. There’s wine too, if you want it.

You take a second to check if you’ve somehow wound up in Old World Europe before you realize the woman, who is actually director Niki Tulk, has an Australian accent and that time travel isn’t possible–so no, you haven’t. But you aren’t exactly in modern-day Jersey City anymore, either.

The walls of the theater space contain frames of various sizes holding ladles, pots, pans, metal water jugs, whisks and other kitchen paraphernalia. It’s all quite appropriate, as this evening, the Van Reipen Collective (VRC) is presenting “A Little Piece Please,” a 30-minute portion of the Food section of experimental modernist writer Gertrude Stein’s 1914 book Tender Buttons, in which how a word sounds is as important–or more important–than its meaning.

During the show, which ran on March 23 and 30, performers Richard Gross; Lauren Farber, (one of Eonta’s owners); and Cassandra Chopourian, one of the brains behind VRC; take the props down from their hooks and perches. Together, they bring to life Stein’s playful words, stream-of-consciousness experiments and reconstruction of language by sifting sugar, washing their feet in pots and stuffing apples into their bosoms. The set and props are, at times, as deliberately nonsensical as the text with seatless chairs, unbreakable eggs and a giant chicken. (Really.)

In November, when Eonta opened, they presented the first part of Food. Plans are in the works to mount the last portion and next year, on the book’s 100th anniversary, a full production of Tender Buttons including the other sections, Objects and Rooms (what Chopourian and VRC co-founder Gary Heidt expect to be a three-hour epic).

Since VRC’s inception, it has brought experimental theater pieces like Tender Buttons to life not just in the New Jersey-New York metropolitan area, but also all over the world. Heidt and Chopourian, both Jersey City residents, spoke with JCI about their collective’s mission, their current obsession with Gertrude Stein’s work and the power of collaboration in every stage of production.

JCI: Hi, guys. How did you guys start collaborating?

Gary Heidt: Cassandra and I met in Brooklyn in 1996. She and her brother (Christopher Weston) had the Resistance Theater there, and…we saw a lot of each other’s work and I guess in about 2010 or 2009, we started really working together. The collaboration between Cassandra and I is what VRC is–we’re the nucleus–and we have other really talented people who have been part of our different creations, like Eonta Space’s owners, Lauren Farber and Steven Dorkin.

Cassandra Chopourian in “A Little Piece Please”

JCI: What does each of you bring to the table?

Cassandra Chopourian: I come primarily from a theater background, that’s more my foundation. Gary’s foundation is much more in music. One thing we’ve done and continue to do–and I really love the way it’s been combining lately–is to always have music in the theater work we do, as much as possible, and especially live music.

GH: Yes! Theater is a total art form. It needs visual art, audio art, and the great art of acting or performing. Also, we’ve been playing with the tactile, taste and smell.

JCI: And how do your collaborators factor in?

CC: Our collaborators–and people in general–we all have so many different forms of expression that we work with. We write, dance, move, make visual art, we make music and we try to welcome all those different things into the process and hopefully integrate it if it speaks to us in the production we’re doing.

JCI: So your costars get a lot of input?

CC: Yes. We’re working toward a collective spirit in terms of the creation of the work. It’s been really inspiring so far and it has helped us come up with so much great stuff that wouldn’t have happened if we stuck with the traditional “I am director and you are actors” model.

GH: We get a bunch of creative people involved and put in the structure for them to unleash their creativity.

JCI: Is this just for Tender Buttons, or is this something you’ve been doing for a while?

CC: Well, when we did Shelly’s Spherical Journey over the summer, we started with a director, but ended up with…not really a director. We had myself, who was sort of a performer-director. My brother was a designer-director. We had a choreographer-director, musical director-director. We had a lot of eyes and a lot of input, and it made for a pretty full experience.

GH: We’re going for a fullness, a richness, something multi-layered where people can come up with multiple meanings.

CC: And I really like that! I’m not super interested in presenting a performance where the audience says, “What was that about?” and gets the answer on a platter. It’s really important that we all sort of figure out for ourselves what we take from it and what is significant.

JCI: Tender Buttons is so dense and definitely isn’t straight exposition or prose. I don’t think it could ever mean the exact same thing to two people; how did you find enough meaning in the text to build a production?

CC: Tender Buttons is sort of a prime example (of what we’re talking about). The text is so layered and so rich in meaning.

GH: Yes. Gertrude Stein wrote it in 1912 and it was published in 1914. It was written around the time when she and Alice B. Toklas moved in together, and that was a love that dare not speak its name then. So there’s a lot going on about love and domesticity and at the same time, there’s an inability to express that love and domesticity that kind of makes it explode to another dimension.

JCI: How do you just jump right into something like Tender Buttons?

GH: We want to do stuff that’s so much fun that in a way, the thinking comes unforced. We started working on this project in 2010. We did the first round of development on it and created a band and we played songs based on Tender Buttons in clubs and had a highly theatrical rock ‘n’ roll show with costumes and projections. We did it in nightclubs in London, Liepzig in Germany, Houston, a lot of joints in New York City, and also in theaters.

Richard Gross, Lauren Farber and Cassandra Chopourian

JCI: So your band toured the world?

CC: We started with the New York band and they are still around, but that thing is in hibernation. When we went to Leipzig, two musicians came from Prague and there was another local guy, so it was almost an entirely different band, with a totally different sound than the New York band, but same songs, essentially. It was almost a completely different show. It’s really cool because every time we do it, it’s a whole other can of worms.

GH: And we also get new material from other people and bring it along even if the people can’t keep going along with the project for some reason.

JCI: So who is still involved with the project?

CC: Everyone who isn’t “involved” anymore is still on board in one way or another. I don’t know about how likely it would be with the guys in Europe or Houston, but we want to get as many people as we can to unite for the full thing.

GH: We have a core group of 18 members.

JCI: That’s a really big core.

GH: (Laughs) Yes, the most challenging part is, How do you structure collaboration so that everybody is able to shine without stepping on each other’s flowers? If we can figure that out, it’s going to be a huge thing.

JCI: Is that the most challenging thing about producing the work or of having so many people involved?

CC: Well, for me, the most challenging thing about this project is the text itself. It is not one of Stein’s plays–they’re challenging enough as plays, but this was never a play. It’s a long poem and there’s no narrative, no characters, and for most people who open it up and start to read it, it can look like gobbledygook. How do you take text like that and engage people in a theater setting? Even to read it, I’ve never met anyone who sat down and read through Tender Buttons in one sitting. At some point, the mind gets saturated. Even when you’re starting to get deeply into it, your mind can turn off. It’s hard. It’s relentless.

GH: But it reveals itself much more when it’s spoken than read! That makes our job easier.

CC: It does! We’re working with really feisty material. In light of the challenges of the text, the other end of it is when it suddenly just deepens and meaning starts to pop out in a way that starts to be very fulfilling–that’s the most rewarding part for me.

JCI: How are the actors doing with it?

GH: The actors find that the lines are about things that are happening in their lives. It’s an interesting text in that way; it really comes alive. When you’ve done this, people love this text and it’s like you could’ve never gotten them to sit down and read it. Hearing it, they’re vastly entertained and they laugh. There’s something about the text that when it’s spoken out loud and a focus is put on it, people get it. Also, the language has stayed fresh. Most texts from 100 years ago don’t sound like the way we talk now, but this one still sounds like it, which is so strange.

CC: It’s also like a Rorschach test in a way. Everyone’s going to see and hear different things in it. That’s part of the beauty of the work. I’m finding out that that’s one of the really interesting things about (Stein) making sense in a conventional way. It becomes more personal and becomes more relevant to people’s lives in a strange way.

For more information on the Van Reipen Collective, visit their website.

Check out photos from “A Little Piece Please,” part of the Food section of Tender Buttons:

Top and bottom photos by Gary Heidt, middle by Elena Herasme. Gallery photos by Heidt and Herasme.

Summer Dawn Hortillosa

is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal, the International and other publications. She is also a creative writer and theatrical director.