April Cleveland on reimagining theater

The Exodus Ensemble’s artistic director reimagines theater

As told to Jennifer Levin

When the pandemic began, April Cleveland was directing in Chicago. In a matter of days, the theater hub’s playhouses went dark — along with those across the country — and her creative contract vanished. As she followed her partner to his new faculty position at their alma mater, St. John’s College, and stared down an indefinite hiatus, Cleveland daydreamed about her next endeavor. That daydreaming turned into an email invitation to a dozen suddenly unemployed actors. Would they move to Santa Fe, live together, and form a new ensemble to create theater as bingeworthy as the latest Netflix show? They accepted.

The Exodus Ensemble’s three-and-a-half-hour reimagining of Chekhov’s Ivanov debuted in their home for an intimate audience of eight shortly after COVID-19 vaccines were available. The ensemble has since unveiled Bathsheba, a 90-minute contemporary interpretation of the Bible story. Santa Fe, Cleveland says, has proven fertile ground for Exodus Ensemble’s immersive theater.

How does an Exodus play differ?

APRIL CLEVELAND: We want to take things that are amazing about theater — great acting, great stories — and merge that with something that feels more cinematic, makes you feel as though you’ve stepped into a TV show like Game of Thrones or Squid Game. We blur the line between reality, performer, and spectator.

We’re really trying to make theater that people who never go to theater like. The audiences are typically thrill-seekers, hungry to try something different, willing to take some risks. You’re not called upon to perform, but the work tends to be pretty dark, pretty twisted. There’s graphic violence and full nudity.

Why such small audiences?

CLEVELAND: These actors come from TV and film. When we all got together . . . we were showing each other the works of art that we thought were the most amazing. We were constantly pointing to scenes in TV shows and moments in cinema. . . . We thought, “How can we take these incredible cinematic moments and make them live?” The goal of an Exodus show is to feel like the audience is stepping inside their favorite TV shows. The best way to do that, for me, is not particularly economically smart. But it’s to keep audiences very small, so people can have that experience of being very close to the action. Ivanov has an audience of eight so that people can move through this journey alongside the actors. If it’s bigger you don’t get that sense of connection, not only between the actors but between members of the audience. After Ivanov, even the audience feels like they’ve been on a journey together, which is not how I feel when I sit in a traditional theater.

This sounds appealing to people familiar with experimental scenes — New York in the 1970s and ’80s.

CLEVELAND: Absolutely. That’s so long forgotten because no one can afford to do it anymore. Amazing things happened in New York in the ’70s and ’80s, like the Wooster Group and the Performance Garage, but it was a moment when it could occur economically. For Exodus to do this now is an insane leap of faith. All the Exodus artists have amazing agents. They go off and shoot, and they come back here. If we work really hard, we can change the game of theater.

How has Santa Fe played a role in this process?

CLEVELAND: Santa Fe is my favorite city in the country. I always had it in my head that I couldn’t come back here because I had to work in big cities, because there’s not enough theater here if you’re a professional. COVID-19 allowed for new mental models. People here like things that are a little bit different. A lot of people have opened their arms to us, saying, “You guys are crazy, and we’re into it.”

Admission by donation. Learn more at exodusensemble.com.






Santa Fe New Mexican