On Dan Hurlin
by Wanda Phipps
“I hope people leave the theater a little scared, a little frightened. I think of it as a little bit of a warning. It’s a story I hope never happens again. ” says Dan Hurlin about his new solo performance piece Quintland . Hurlin brought the Obie award winning show back for a return engagement at New York’s Dance Theater Workshop in December of ’92.
In Quintland Hurlin gives us the story of the Dionne Quintuplets: five girls born to a working-class couple in Canada in 1934 in the wake of the Depression. As the girls quickly took on the trappings of first oddities, then celebrities and finally commodities their lives and the lives of their family became nightmares.
The Chicago World’s Fair made a lucrative offer to put them on view, the Canadian government assumed guardianship and the quintuplets began to be fought over for product endorsements and radio appearances. They were exhibited for scheduled “play periods” several times a day as visiting tourists gaped at them. They were also kept in a separate house from their parents under the supervision of their fascistic doctor and his nurse.
The first image in the piece is of Hurlin crouched in a chair, moaning in French, prayers are interspersed with curses as he portrays Madame Dionne giving birth to the quints. When he reaches between his legs to produce an infant, the audience gasps in surprise and perplexity as he pulls out dollar bills instead and throws them in the air.
The piece is very much a product of one of Hurlin’s early obsessions. You could say he’s been working on the piece since he was nine years old. Actually, it seems that around that age his mother had an Yvette Dionne doll which sparked an initial curiosity that led him to collect Dionne quintuplet memorabilia. “I’ve got dishes, I’ve got bowls, I’ve got plates, spoons, calendars, you name it, I’ve got it.” he says. As he collected over the years he also began researching.
When asked what he finds so interesting about the Dionne quintuplets he replies,”To me it’s like a horror story. It’s like when you’re going down the highway and you see a car crash and you don’t want to look at it but you can’t resist. There’s so many things in it that seem really rich to me. There’s the whole
idea of repetition: somebody being repeated five times and what must that do to your identity. And then there’s the whole idea of commercialization and exploitation and what was it like from their point of view. And if you expand that whole idea, to me it has a lot of implications for global concerns.”
In actuality, Hurlin has been developing the piece for two years. He spent a year writing it and then a year in the rehearsal studio. He said the idea to do the piece was born when he heard a National Public Radio report on Panama that said after getting Noriega out, the U.S. was withholding money we had promised them that they needed to rebuild their country until they agreed to change their banking laws. “It occurred to me,” he said, “that we had liberated them from one dictator but now we’ were holding them hostage. The idea of the liberator becoming the oppressor seems to me to be the story of the doctor and the father (in Quintland) because they liberate the children at one point [from the control of the Canadian government] but then they become the people who oppress or exploit them.”
Hurlin plays around 60 or so characters in this piece including the mother, the father, the doctor, the nurse, all five quintuplets and a host of others. He portrays each with the kind of driven intensity and relentless humor which also seems to characterize his off-stage life.
A Varied Background
Shortly after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College Hurlin recognized his amazing ability to switch from one finely drawn character to the next while working in Re Cher Chez studio (an experimental performance workshop led by members of Mabou Mines). It was there that he began developing his solo work.
As evidenced in his nimble moves in Quintland, Hurlin also has a heavy background in dance. He’s worked with stellar director/choreographers such as Ping Chong. His dance training serves him well in creating the very specific and realistic physical lives of his characters. It also seems to have given him the flexibility to nimbly balance his many projects such as serving as an artistic associate and founding member of Downtown Art Company (which produced Quintland).
Hurlin has also been the artistic director of Andy’s Summer Playhouse, a children’s summer theater company in New Hampshire, for the last fifeteen years. There, kids from 8-18 have the opportunity to participate in every aspect of theater completely tuition free. “They do box office, they do sets, they do costumes.” Hurlin explains. They have a playwriting series that’s invited artists such as Holly Hughs, Eileen Myles, Jim Neu, and Lenora Champagne to work with the kids.
Each summer they mount three mainstage productions with a cast of 30 kids and two touring shows. They commission playwrights to write original plays for children or adaptations of existing children’s novels. They also offer 15 workshops in the area, each led by a different artist. Hurlin says,”I try to get a lot of people from dance, performance, visual arts, puppetry, and film. I try to get a broad spectrum of people.” In the past, such New York Downtown luminaries as Kyle de Camp, John Kelly and Dancenoise have participated.
He also opens up a studio in his home in Vermont for short residencies for choreographers and performance artists to develop new work.
“I have a studio in my backyard,” he explains, “and I open up the house to dance companies and performance artists and they live at my house. It used to be an airplane hanger. It’s two miles out on a dirt road right on a lake. It’s really gorgeous and as my brother and I were putting down this dance floor in the studio we realized ‘Oh my God we are so lucky.’ So we decided to just open it up to a lot of different people. Usually there’s about one week of residency in the early spring and another week in early September. And if they want, at the end of the residency we’ll have an invited showing.” There’s no formal applications or screening process, just whoever hears about it gets in touch with Hurlin and a residency is born. Companies such as David Dorfman Dance and performers like Beatrice Roth have done residencies there.
“And this year”, says Hurlin, “At the beginning of September, there are five of us (choreographers and performance artists) and we’re going to take the studio together to hold workshops for each other and experiment with everybody’s processes and just see what happens for a week. That should be really fun.”
Next for Hurlin
Right now, he’s in rehearsals for a new Holly Hughs piece entitled No Trace of the Blond. He’s the associate director for this piece which is on it’s way to Minneapolis and then opens in New York at Performance Space 122 in the fall of ’93.
He’s also working on a new solo piece for himself. It’s about the editor of a right-winged newspaper. Hurlin refuses to name names but says, “To me Quintland is about people caught up in a larger machinery. They’re victims of exploitation. And I wanted to look at the other side of that, so my next piece is about someone who creates that awful machinery.”