San Luis Obispo

Finding the Metaphor: Al Schnupp Sets the Stage for Art

A detail from "Trapdoors and Detours" by Al Schnupp.

Spend enough time staring at one of Al Schnupp's intricate assemblages, and entire worlds come into focus. "His work deserves a deep consideration," said Sasha Irving, programs director at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. The more you look at it, the ore you appreciate it."

The Cal Poly professor's twin passions for theater and the visual arts are on display in the exhibition "Finding the Metaphor," which runs through April 28 at Studios on the Park. Inspired by plays by the likes of Eugene Ionesco, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Molière, as well as his own, his collection of assemblages and sculptures explores such themes such as fate, family, war and greed using a mixture of text, caricature, archetypal imagery and miniature scenography.

"He comes to his art through imagining a stage that will amplify the message of the playwright," said Studios on the Park founder Anne Laddon, describing Schnupp as a skilled craftsman whose work - like that of American painter/printmaker R.B. Kitaj and English artist David Hockney - packs both intellectual and emotional punch.

"There's tons of texture and visual pleasure in looking at his work, and in addition there are these incredibly powerful statements," she said. "I always admire artists like that who investigate the psychological content of our lives."

Added Irving, her daughter, "His creative outlet is a more personalized expression of that professional career. He's basically distilling his plays into art pieces."

Al Schnupp stands in front of an assemblage inspired by "The Bald Soprano" by Eugene Ionesco.

Raised in Lancaster County, Penn., in a "very conservative" Mennonite home, Schnupp got involved in theater late in high school. "It was lifeblood for me," the San Luis Obispo resident recalled. "My religious training felt very oppressive to me and the stage felt free and open-ended and inclusive and embracing.

"Our church was sort of fear-based, to be honest. ... I couldn't survive living out that world view. It was too limiting, too full of prejudice."

After performing church theater, Schnupp attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City in 1976. "They stressed at that school that to be a good performer, you need to know yourself," said the playwright, who credits that training with helping him come to peace with his background. "You have to embrace it, accept it, use it."

It was in New York that Schnupp, who received his master's degree from Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 1979, first developed an interest in directing.His first serious foray into playwriting came years later, while he was pursuing a doctorate degree in theater at UCLA. (He graduated in 1986.)

When his play "My Body" won the Margo Jones National Playwriting Award in 1983, Schnupp recalled, "That was affirmation. That's when I really seriously began to say, 'Keep at it.'" Since then, he's written an average of one play every other year -- although he often revisits and revises past projects.

"As they say, 'Plays are not written, they're rewritten,'" joked Schnupp, who joined the faculty of Cal Poly's Theatre and Dance Department in 1989 after two separate stints teaching at Hesston College in Kansas. "It's really enlightening to come back a year later. .... You come back with fresh eyes. You're more of an outsider, and then you go, 'This play was never done to begin with.'"

Struggling playwright Tobias and his family travel through space and time in "CrossRoads" -- previously titled "Trapdoors and Detours" -- by Al Schnupp.
"CrossRoads," which will be performed April 20 as a formal reading at Studios on the Park, underwent at least five revisions, he said. Previously titled "The Travels of Tobias" and "Trapdoors and Detours," his play won an Art Inspires! Endowment Fund grant from the San Luis Obispo County Community Foundation.

In the play, Tobias, a struggling playwright, is banished from Athens, circa 458 BC, after slugging Sophocles in the month. He and his family are forced to wander through space and time, encountering historical figures and famous fictional characters as they travel from 13th-century Armenia to 17th-century England to France in the 1950s.

Cal Poly junior Tobin Lusebrink, who plays one of three mysterious actors in "CrossRoads," said Schnupp does a good job of balancing his roles as writer, director and designer. He has appeared in three Cal Poly productions helmed by Schnupp: "Antigone and Letters to Soldiers Lost," "The MerryWinkle International Troupe of Vagabonds Performs a Delicious Potpourri of Fantastical Fairytales and Astonishing Folk Legends" and "God's Ear" by Jenny Schwartz.

"If a director only focuses on ... those meticulous careful, design aspects and making sure everything is in the right place at the right time, their cast will not have as much fun," Lusebrink said. "(Al's) got a very good idea of what his world is going to look and how costumes are going to look and how characters will interact ... but he gives (his actors) a lot of freedom too."

Red hands hold a special significance in Al Schnupp's "CrossRoads," also known as "Trapdoors and Detours."
Asked which themes repeatedly appear in his work, Schnupp said, "Politics often creeps in. The voice of the crusader comes through a lot."

In his absurdist send-up of American politics, "Zero to Infinity," a wealthy buffoon is goaded by his greedy wife into running for office under the platform "Zero truth, zero justice and zero equality." "(In this play) you basically buy your way into the government," explained Schnupp, who was inspired by Alfred Jarry's play "Ubu the King" as well as a certain 21st century president.

Stylistically, Schnupp said he's drawn to the theatrical traditions of an earlier time -- ancient Greece.

"They capture something so, for me, deep and big and theatrical, but nevertheless really, really true. They have guts and fire," he said of Greek plays, describing them as "economical and mystical and mythical."

In "Antigone and Letters to Soldiers Lost," Schnupp pairs Sophocles' tragedy about a woman whose brothers are killed fighting on opposite sides of a war with letters left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. His play "Trust Fall" is an unconventional treatment of the tale of Daedaus and his high-flying son Icarus, while "Living Stones" offers a contemporary take on six rock-related Greek myths - ranging from Medusa, whose serpentine tresses turn men to stone, to Prometheus, bound to a boulder for bringing fire to mankind.

"I remember once hearing once that stones are (living) breathing (organisms), but their heart rate is just a lot slower than ours. That stayed with me," recalled Schnupp, who explores that idea in his "Living Stones" assemblage. Ribbons of stone and rivers of pebbles connect a graveyard of dogtags, a red wire heart lodged in a geode and a nugget nestled in a plastic bag beaded with faux perspiration.

Al Schnupp's "Censored" examines the plight of German artist and activist Kathe Kollwitz.
Schnupp's "Oedipus," inspired by Sophocles' classic play, depicts the tragic hero's search for identity - and his fight against fate - with locks, labyrinths and puzzles.

Schnupp, who began crafting assemblages five years ago, said his creative process begins "the first time I read a play that ... touches me either emotionally or intellectually or spiritually." "I come up with a big metaphor, but then everything has to slowly support that," he added. "It happens spontaneously and (also) with a sort of methodical planning."

He estimates that each piece takes about three months to complete. Materials range from paint, paper and plastic to glass, metal, wood and found objects such as crushed crockery, dissected doll parts and toy televisions.

"Censored" -- Schnupp's homage to German artist and activist Kathe Kollwitz, whose work was deemed "degenerate" by the Nazi Party -- pairs photos of persecuted artists with torn canvases, splintered paintbrushes and empty picture frames. In his assemblage "Hecuba," based on Euripedes' play about the Queen of Troy, gnarled hands use American Sign Language to spell out a prayer for revenge.

Words - whether signed or written - are a common motif. "It's the lines that really stay with me and ... in a small way, identify what the whole play is about," said Schnupp, whose artwork was featured in the exhibition "Understudies and Stage Crossings" at an San Luis Obispo gallery in 2011. "They become guideposts."

In this assemblage, Al Schnupp examines the central character in "The Bald Soprano" by Eugene Ionesco.

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Top Image: A detail from "Trapdoors and Detours" by Cal Poly theater professor and visual artist Al Schnupp.

About the Author

Sarah Linn covers film, television and the performing arts as the editor of Ticket, the arts-and-entertainment section of The Tribune newspaper of San Luis Obispo, Calif.
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