Horger Artist Brings Avant-Garde Theater to Lehigh’s Stage

Director Héctor Alvarez explores a form of theater that breaks the rules of traditional drama

When theater director Héctor Alvarez was growing up in Alcalá de Henares, Spain, the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, UNESCO declared the town a World Heritage Site. Soon, millions of Euros from UNESCO and the European Union flooded into the town of 200,000 residents, much of which was invested in cultural projects. At one point, Alvarez recalls, there was not one but two international theater festivals occurring in town at the same time. “I grew up watching non-traditional, non-realistic theater. So, I never had a sense of what was normal,” he says. 
To be fair, it was probably more than an institutional imprimatur and a torrent of cash that launched Alvarez into the world of avant-garde theater. As a child, he created dramas in the family home with a puppet set and a cardboard theater his father built for him, but some of the audacious performances he took in as a teen were more formative, including a condensed version of Macbeth featuring cannibalistic insects. “It was only 25 minutes long, but it made a huge impression,” Alvarez says. “I still remember it all these years later.”
Alvarez is the current Theodore U. Horger ’61 Endowed Artist-in-Residence for the Performing and Visual Arts at Lehigh. The residency was created as an estate gift of the late Horger to bring artists of varied disciplines to Lehigh to teach and develop their work on campus. Alvarez completed his MFA in directing at the California Institute of the Arts last year, but he’s been directing for almost a decade, including performances at Theatre Y and Still Point Theatre in Chicago, Teatro Lucido in Mexico City, and at The Hangar in Ithaca, and he has already amassed a hoard of international honors for his work. 
Currently, Alvarez is preparing a performance of “Antigonick,” a contemporary take on Sophocles’ “Antigone” by poet and classics scholar Anne Carson, scheduled for Feb. 28 to March 3 at the Zoellner Arts Center on campus. 
As luck would have it, “Antigone” was the first play Alvarez performed in English at the age of 16, playing the role of Haemon, Antigone’s doomed groom and the son of Antigone’s nemesis, the iron-willed and brittle Creon, ruler of Thebes. “It gives me a personal connection with the text,” says Alvarez who is also visiting assistant professor of theatre. The tragedy, which begins after Antigone has performed a ceremonial burial of a brother—in brazen defiance of an order from Creon—carries contemporary significance, says Alvarez. “It’s a play that asks about the rights that bodies have, especially bodies without agency, like a dead body. Are these rights inherent or are they granted? And I think a lot about the post Roe versus Wade world that we’re living in, which of course cuts both ways: there is the right to bodily autonomy but also for many people the rights of the unborn, another body without agency, are more important. I think as well about the anti-trans bills that are being passed in a lot of states right now and connect that to this question the play is asking at its core: how do we resolve the tension between the rights of bodies and the necessity for laws, especially when the law attacks rather than protects those bodies?"
Breaking the fourth wall
The plays that Alvarez creates often differ from the more traditional dramatic fare audiences are typically accustomed to. In the 20th century, Alvarez explains, theater endured a crisis with the advent of film and television, where more easily displayed and broadcast storytelling mediums forced theater to reconsider what it uniquely could do in the wake of the new technology. It was a crisis similar to what happened in painting when photography made verisimilitude possible in seconds with just a glass plate and some chemicals. “Netflix and Amazon Prime have the resources to tell stories in a realistic manner. If theater wants to stay relevant to audiences, we need to offer something that connects with the language of the stage, which is a language that exists outside of realism,” Alvarez says. “Theater has a different experience to give the audience, and I believe in a theater where the audience is part of the ritual.”
To achieve that, Alvarez works in what is known as postdramatic theater, a genre explored by directors like Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson, as well as companies like the Wooster Group. One way of looking at it, explained critic Andrew Haydon in The Guardian, is to distinguish the ideas of drama and theater. In postdramatic theater, traditional dramatic and narrative arcs are scrambled or dispensed with, in order to present realities outside of the everyday. 
One technique Alvarez frequently employs is the destruction of the fourth wall, the imaginary boundary between actors and audience. “Most of my work has included direct address of the audience. I’m not a fan of this idea that there’s an invisible barrier that separates us in the theater,” says Alvarez. “To me, we’re in the same room, actors and audience, working through something together. This is one of the added values of live performance. The actor communicates with you through the text, but also there is a dialogue of bodies in the space of live performance.” 
In the details
As a director, Alvarez exhibits a hyper-awareness to the possibilities of the moment, which may be due in part to his longstanding meditation practice. “Héctor is singular in his ability to take impulses and ideas that appear spontaneously in the rehearsal process,” says Travis Preston, dean of the CalArts School of Theater. “While working on ‘The Water Station,’ a play by Ota Shogo, Héctor’s sound designer mentioned that she had pet chickens that were very trainable. Héctor put them in the production at a crucial moment. The presence of these chickens in the piece was amazing.”
Emily Bragg, an actor with Theatre Y in Chicago who performed in “We’re Gonna Die,” a 2020 film directed by Alvarez, recalls a walk in a cemetery she took with him in preparation for the filming. “We were walking for what felt like an awkward amount of time,” Bragg recalls. “Before I had a chance to interrupt the silence, Héctor said, ‘Don't mind me. I'm listening to your footsteps.’ That moment was emblematic of his attention to detail, and the care and curiosity he has for the performers that he works with. And he's also a mad genius.”
Freshman Andrew Fazio says that Alvarez brings the same combination of innovation and attention to the classroom. Fazio took an acting course with Alvarez called Performing Weird, where students were encouraged to try out idiosyncratic ideas. “It was the strangest and most invigorating class I’ve ever taken. It forced me to step out of my comfort zone in new ways, whether that be walking around campus in a dress or smashing a watermelon with a sledgehammer,” Fazio recounts. “Héctor honored each student’s unique relationship with performance, and all of our experience levels. His charisma and wit, combined with his sincere trust and confidence in his students, created a space where I always felt both supported and challenged.”  
As rehearsals for “Antigonick,” ramp up, Alvarez has been musing on the language of the play, which he says will pose a superb test for the student actors. “Carson is first and foremost a poet, and she brings a tremendous sensibility for how words create images,” he says. She’s also using language in different registers. There’s a lyrical contemporary poetry register, there’s also elevated, Shakespearean 'thou and thine' language, and others as well. It’s an interesting collage, and it will be a challenge for the actors to change gears throughout the performance.”
Erica Hoelscher, professor of theatre and associate dean for faculty & staff in the College of Health, is working with Alvarez on designing the staging of the play, which she says will show how Creon’s absolutist rule hides a fragile ego that destroys him and those he holds dear. “I relied upon research into Italian Futurist scenic design and Héctor's direction to create a set that will involve the audience in the action of the play,” Hoelscher explains. “The set has layers that unfold with the plot, as our insight into Creon's personality deepens. There are platforms that extend into audience seating areas, dramatizing the similarities between the Diamond Theater, ancient Greek theaters, and operating theaters. The set serves as a surface for projected media, which provides subtext and emotional landmarks for the action.”
Alvarez brings up an idea of Anton Chekhov, who in a letter to a colleague says that “correctly framing the problem,” is what is required of artists. “He didn’t say anything about the answers. Oftentimes, if artists are too keen on the answers, they can fail, or fall into propaganda, which doesn’t interest me,” says Alvarez. “My work is very political, but I'm not interested in prescribing any answers. I think that's for the audience to struggle with.” 
by Chris Quirk
Image by Christine Kreschollek