Published in KPBS On Air Magazine August 1997

He’s reading “Metamorphoses” — and having them.   Scott Feldsher, 33, former wunderkind and Sledgehammerer of theatre, admits to undergoing some serious transformations.

“My esthetic has changed a lot,” says Feldsher, who co-founded Sledgehammer Theatre at age 21. “I don’t think it’s quite as aggressive.   Not to say it’s been neutered. But before, some of it was just being a provocateur, with a youthful, nihilistic, F-you attitude. Flying in the face of moral and ethical codes. Breaking down the audience’s psyche and expectations.   Now, I’m not so interested in showing how smart I am, how clever my work is. I’m more interested in emotions. I’m becoming kind of obsessed with beauty.”

Wait a minute. WHO said that? Scott Feldsher???   He who has offended audiences by the truckload, assaulting them with sound, images, and revolting displays of all stripes (cf. “The Revenger’s Tragedy”, “Leonce and Lena”, “The Peacock Screams When the Lights Go Out”, “The Silver” and many others)?

He elucidates. “I’m much more concerned with poetic space now. Creating images that are experiential. As opposed to, ‘You have to have read these five books to understand this.’ Less discursive.   More beautiful.   But I can’t completely divorce myself from a post-modern, outsider mentality.”

When he co-founded the offbeat, spiky Sledgehammer Theatre in 1985, Feldsher was fresh out of the UCSD Theatre Department and ready to change the world. Now it’s his world that’s changing.

“My new play (“South of Heaven”, which premieres at Sledgehammer’s St. Cecilia’s Playhouse August 17-September 7), is about my search for spirituality. But it’s still ironic. That’s me.   Ironic and cynical.”

True, but Feldsher also creates some of the most breathtaking stage pictures imaginable. In 1994, he received one of four nationwide Directors Fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts/Theatre Communications Group, and worked with renowned directors like Peter Sellars and Richard Foreman.  

In spring 1997, he accepted a short-term, full-time gig, teaching acting and directing at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.   Ironic setting (one of the former all-female “seven sisters” colleges) for someone frequently branded a misogynist.

“I never thought of myself that way, but I could see how women could. Sometimes I did it specifically to get people upset… My whole attitude toward women has evolved. Women used to scare me a little; now I’m intrigued by them.”

What he likes about college teaching is the “energy and passion” among the students. “This is a great place to try things out, new work, new techniques. For a long time, I was into my own head — intellectual directing, divorced from the actor…   I’ve turned over a new leaf.   Part of it is maturing a little bit.   When I was younger, I was much more of a control freak and much more of an egotist. I’m a little bit less now. More able to trust the actors. That’s part of why you do theatre — to become part of a group, a process.   I’m trying to focus more on my process, less on the product. Some of that happened as part of the TCG Fellowship, and some through my [recent] collaboration.”

Feldsher, with Douglas Jacobs, founder and former artistic director of the San Diego Repertory Theatre, co-wrote and co-directed “The Whole World is Watching”, an adaptation of the Oedipus trilogy which won kudos and critical acclaim in its world premiere last year.   Unlike his mentor Jacobs, Feldsher doesn’t plan to leave his theatre anytime soon.

“Ethan [Feerst, co-founder and executive director] and I recently redefined our roles. It’s working out great.”  

Feldsher plans to continue at Skidmore for fall semester, after directing his new play, the third part of Sledgehammer’s “U.S. Highway/Love Slaves” trilogy. The first two parts, Dave Rosenthal’s “Speed of Amnesia” and Erik Ehn’s “The Silver”, painted a bleak, post-apocalyptic picture of Southern California.

Feldsher’s “South of Heaven” is “a modern, contemporary mystery/morality play… Culled from TV, bad sci-fi and Gnostic Gospels, it forms a very real, post-modern quest for spirituality…

There are references to cults, to “new communities of the mind,” to Heaven’s Gate and Ruby Ridge, to the Orpheus myth and Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”

“It’s a big, mythic love story about the search for heaven.   If you actually can find someone/something to love, and give yourself over, and lose yourself, you’re kind of finding heaven.”

Feldsher acknowledges that the piece is “very autobiographical. He’s “been through some pretty weird relationship issues” recently.   And his religious background is, admittedly, “confused.” Growing up in L.A. with an Italian-Catholic mother and Russian-Jewish father, he went from church in his early years to a bar mitzvah in middle school to a Marxist/socialist/Communist phase in college, and ultimately, to agnosticism.

Now, he admits, “I’m searching for a simple, spiritual underpinning. The idea of finding love is very much like the idea of finding God; both are involved with giving myself over to something bigger — the ensemble of a play or a person.   It’s very scary, especially for a control freak… But I’ve begun to make some inroads.

“At heart, I’m really a disappointed romantic.   Even in my most cynical, ugly work, I was raging against the fact that, in my own life, I couldn’t find beauty and love and romance and ultimate truths. Lately, I’ve come to believe I can have a meaningful spiritual life.   But I’m 33, the same age as Christ; I might die at the end of this play.”

©1997 Patté Productions Inc.