“It's like Mr. Bean trying to do Pina Bausch”
With a new show at The Brick, German-American theater artist Leonie Bell is finding her voice
Next to the costume rack, deflated balloons float sadly in a bucket of water. Leonie Bell indicates the bucket with a laugh: “Turns out you gotta pop ‘em right away or they deflate.”
She’ll have to prep one water balloon each night. Early in Sonntags wird gelogen Or We Only Lie On Sundays, now at The Brick and streaming today, she drops one to indicate a character going into labor—though no baby actually comes out. (“Did you, see a…?” Bell asks an audience member, trying to determine whether or not she just gave birth.)
“I need to learn more about props,” Bell concluded, searching for an outlet to plug in a steamer. This is The Brick, so, in addition to creating and appearing in Sonntags wird gelogen, she’s also handling the pre-show setup.
Bell is a German-American artist/performer and founder of Local Grandma, a theater project devoted to “rigorous play, communal care-taking, and causing a ruckus.” Sonntags wird gelogen is her first full-evening work, but Bell’s bizarre, darkly humorous voice has been rapidly gaining fans.
Local Grandma created a virtual piece for Exponential Festival in January, and were part of Target Margin Theater’s Magic in Plain Sight series in June. Bell also performed Slowtanz live as part of The Brick’s streaming series “A New Year” during the shutdown.
Slowtanz ended with Bell climbing into a full sized-dinosaur costume, leaving the theater and clamoring down the subway steps, talons flailing. Another recent Local Grandma production, Mommy & Me, was set inside the belly of a dying whale.
Bell describes her absurdist, often chaotic style as “like Mr. Bean trying to do Pina Bausch.” Her texts typically jump between German, English and “Denglish”—a form of German speaking which incorporates English words and Anglicisms. The language sometimes jump so rapidly between different speaking styles that, she admits, “no-one can understand what we’re saying.”
“Part of my question is, what does that do on stage?” said Bell, laying out props including a hatchet, Haribo Goldbears and a severed arm. “What is the experience for an audience when there’s just this popcorning of chaotic language?”
Sonntags wird gelogen follows a series of misunderstandings between a strange set of characters moving through a Tanztheater landscape. Tanztheater is a German expressionist dance tradition closely associated with Bausch, though Bell stresses that Sonntags plays fast and loose with the form.
“If somebody was like, “This is not Pina Bausch,” I’d be like, yeah no shit—have you met me?”
In one section, a flock of mothers search for their lost daughter, bringing mayhem wherever they go; elsewhere, a former employee of capitalism seeks out a full-grown adult she can adopt. Choral song, dance and chaos raves fill the action.
In recent years Bell has leaned into the chaotic style that comes more naturally to her, following years of rigorous training which—at times—tried to knock that anarchic streak out of her. She credits her recent success to embracing a joyful chaos, rather than trying to push against it.
“I’ve always been pulled towards Mr Bean, or The Marx Brothers,” she said. “I’m trying to put that in my body and then explode out of it.”
She recalls a moment in a Cherry Orchard scene study at Stella Adler that proved a breakthrough realization.
“I was supposed to be waiting dramatically, and instead I kept futzing with a coat rack and falling over,” recalled Bell. “The teacher went: ‘I think that you are a clown. You need to focus on clowning.’”
“I was like, oh - I was told that was bad!” Bell laughed. “Sometimes you gotta undo your learning. That’s where I’m at.”