Okay, let's play Jeopardy! The answer is: Poona the Fuckdog, and Other Plays for Children and Seven Blowjobs. Clearly, there aren't a lot of questions that could possibly generate that response. So here's a hint. The person who came up with that answer is Clyde Simon, co-founder and artistic director of convergence-continuum theater in Tremont.
Time's up. The question is: What are the two shows that Simon is most fond of since the theater's opening in 2002? His answer provides a snapshot insight into the mindset of this small theater company that has relentlessly pursued edgy works by living playwrights since they opened their doors.
As Simon explains about Poona, which was definitely not for children, "it is now legendary. It was a hilarious show and we oversold some houses. So at a couple performances, a few audience members volunteered to sit on the floor, on stage. We just did the play around them." As for Seven Blowjobs, by one of con-con's favorite playwrights Mac Wellman, a moralistic right-wing senator and his staff obsess over photos (unseen by the audience), depicting acrobatic sex acts. As one character notes, "That's not a blowjob, that's a Borzoi dog chained to a banister."
In a way those plays, aside from the shared canine references, represent the mission of the theater. "We like pushing the boundaries of language," Simon says, "along with form and subject matter. Plus, we're not all that interested in realism. We like opening doors into unknown territory, not just mirroring what people experience in their everyday lives."
In part, we have Kent State University to thank for this theater, since Simon was a non-traditional grad student at Kent (while his co-founder Brian Breth was an undergrad there) before launching convergence-continuum. In addition, many original company members were also from KSU, including Amy Bistok Bunce, Cliff Bailey and Stephen Needham.
Although the theater's mission has been refined over the past 14 years, with more consistent production values and acting styles, the focus on presenting challenging material hasn't changed. As Simon notes, "We try not to tell our audience what to think, there are no 'bad guys' and 'good guys.' Sometimes, our plays have no obvious meaning, or maybe no meaning at all. But we want to immerse the audience in the world of each play."
To accomplish that, each work at con-con is staged in a small space in a building called the Liminis; it's a former bar that seats 40 audience members comfortably. However, the playing areas are always arranged differently, with actors darting in and out among the audience and often talking directly to the patrons. This can tend to make some visitors uneasy, while others love it — even answering the actors out loud during the show.
"This is also an interesting aspect for the performers," adds Simon, "since they can see the emotions on the faces of the audience. That's not something you can really experience on most stages."
Another distinguishing aspect of convergence-continuum is its evolving focus on plays with gay themes or gay characters. In 2011, they produced the iconic play by Matt Crowley, The Boys in the Band. And many of their shows with a variety of themes involve gay characters. This inclusive approach to selecting scripts fills a much-needed niche in the theater panorama of Cleveland.
In 2015, con-con will try out a new format called "Tweener Solos." These will be four productions of mostly one-person shows that will be staged on one weekend between the runs of the six full-run shows on the schedule. This will give performers another opportunity to ply their craft while exposing audiences to interesting material, such as Zoo Story by Edward Albee.
Even though convergence-continuum has plowed a lot of new theatrical turf, they still have one area where they'd like to do more. As Simon explains, "We actually would like to do more original works in the future. In the past, we have produced a couple world premiere plays by local playwright Christopher Johnston and one by Tom Hayes. And this year, we have a new play by local writer Michael Geither on tap. But we're looking for more."
The Liminis is also the site for the annual productions of playwrights enrolled in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program (NEOMFA). By contracting with convergence-continuum, NEOMFA is able to provide their student/playwrights with full, real-world productions of their scripts, since the theater uses its own directors, designers and actors to stage the shows.
All these efforts are concentrated on building an on-going relationship with the con-con audience base. This has been a process for both the theater and its devotees. Says Simon: "In our first production, Quills, we had an actress chained to a wall behind the audience, but nobody looked when she screamed. They were used to just looking forward, as in a conventional theater. I was acting in the show and by the third performance, I was throwing in the line, 'Look over there!' They started to catch on, and we've been growing together ever since."
It will be a good idea to keep your head on a swivel when convergence-continuum opens its 2015 season on March 20 with Isaac's Eye by Lucas Hnath. It's an ironic take on Sir Isaac Newton, so look out above!
convergence-continuum at the Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., Tremont, 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org.