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New theater company Haymaker premieres Living with the Tiger at Manbites Dog Theater

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It's hard to get in on the ground floor with cultural phenomena anymore. The moment somebody discovers some groundbreaking music or film, it goes viral and everybody knows about it. But if theater and performance is your thing, you have a chance to be in on something right from the beginning in Durham.

Haymaker—a theater company consisting of writer-performers Dan VanHoozer, Emily Hill and Akiva Fox—premieres Living with the Tiger Thursday night as part of the Manbites Dog Theater's Other Voices series of work by guest artists. And they're not just another dot on the Triangle's theatrical map. Haymaker is coloring in a whole new territory.

Haymaker is a prototype for an original-works, process-driven theater that the trio moved here from Washington, D.C., in February to start up. Nationally few and far between, unconventional companies like Rude Mechanicals in Austin and Pig Iron in Philadelphia have not only shown that they can succeed but that the notion of their performance model as "unconventional" is increasingly erroneous.

Hill, Fox and VanHoozer want to be both an accessible foil to the Broadway schmaltz in the region's big rooms and an alternative to the wealth of independent repertoire work from Triangle companies like Little Green Pig, Burning Coal, PlayMakers and Manbites Dog.

In Living with the Tiger, the company uses private tiger ownership as a compass for navigating the backwaters of the American ethos. You might remember, for example, the 2003 story of the Millers Creek, N.C., boy who was fatally mauled by his aunt's 400-pound Bengal tiger in the backyard, only a couple months after Roy Horn of the performing duo Siegfried and Roy was dragged offstage by the neck by one of his famous white tigers. More recently, an Apex high school student made news for his achievements as a blind wrestler; his blindness resulted from a mauling by the family tiger when he was 3.

Nearly twice as many tigers live in the backyards, apartments and roadside zoos of the United States than in the wild. Twenty-two states, including North Carolina, lack laws forbidding private ownership of dangerous "exotic pets," despite a stream of often-fatal incidents.

The Haymaker trio gathered all the stories and can recite a crystalline quotation that goes with each. There's the Texas sheriff warning a woman whose tiger got loose in her neighborhood, "If it gets out again, I'm going to have a tiger rug in my office." Or the more philosophical Vietnam vet who, on his Las Vegas farm, wrangles 20 tigers for use in show business: "People hold their fear close to survive."

As they collaged and mashed up the stories with songs, personal memories, visual art, literature and other sources, two questions kept springing to Haymaker's collective mind: Who the hell are these people? And why do they need to have tigers?

A late-summer field trip to the Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro provided some insight. "All of us had a moment," Fox admits. "You're two feet away from something enormous and powerful and terrifying and fluffy, and you think 'This is a beautiful animal.' And for about half a second you think, 'I totally get why they want a tiger.' It was finding that part of ourselves that made this show possible."

Post-manifest destiny Americans have to create challenges so they can feel the rush of overcoming them. The Haymaker bunch is no different, picking up their lives and moving them here while developing a new play for their new company and finding places to live and work. It parallels how they create as well.

The "devised theater" that Haymaker produces can be thought of as a cross between theater and performance art, but the term describes the process, not necessarily the result. Whereas a performance artist might stage an unwatchable live reading of Moby-Dick in order to evoke Ahab's obsession with the whale, Haymaker paused in the midst of writing Living with the Tiger to read Melville's classic aloud to one another, internalizing the book's ideas about wildness. But Melville's text was just one item in the huge junk drawer of scrawled scenes, photocopied book pages, newspaper articles and Internet video that comprised Living with the Tiger in the spring.

"I would say that 2 percent of that material is in the play right now," Hill chuckles. "The sort of things we worked on from January to May were scenes that were inspired in us, that we were thinking about, moments that we saw. It's really just producing and producing and producing stuff."

"The harder part is taking that stuff and saying, 'What are we saying, what do we want to be saying? OK, now we have to write the scenes, the plot ... What we're actually doing.'"

This happens at milestone workshops in the process, the first of which was last December with artists and friends in D.C., then again with new artist friends in Durham in May and July. Director Colin Hovde from Washington's Theater Alliance has also come south regularly to help Haymaker keep steering the play back toward the audience.

After Living with the Tiger, Haymaker's not sure what project is next. One thing's for sure though. They aren't looking for a devoted space. In D.C., they staged works in warehouses, bars, townhouses, galleries and corporate spaces. Tiger is Haymaker's first show in a theater.

Another sure thing is Durham's quick seduction of the company. "We didn't come here accidentally. We looked around the country for the kinds of places that could let us do this. And Durham was the one we found," Fox says.

"People are really eager to collaborate in Durham," Hill says. "It's amazing—an amazing yes atmosphere. It makes me really excited and driven to keep working."

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