Howdy, strangers

FALL ARTS PREVIEW: UK-based Action Hero collaborates with local artists on 'Stranger in a Strange Land' — plus more upcoming theater

From Action Hero's "Frontman"

FALL ARTS Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse were obsessed with Americana long before the two Bristol-based performance makers (known collectively as Action Hero) ever set their cowboy boots in the United States. In fact, they'd performed their site-specific first piece, a barroom exploration of the Western (called simply A Western) for years before lobbing it into the belly of the beast, where it appeared as part of Austin, Texas' Fusebox Festival in 2010.

"We were shitting it," remembers Paintin, in a British phrase meaning mighty fretful. But the crowd loved it; Paintin calls it their best audience ever. She and Stenhouse have worked together since 2005 on pieces that engage the audience as co-conspirators as well as subjects in their own right. A good example is their piece, Watch Me Fall, which had the audience cheering on a series of ridiculous, slightly risky stunts from either side of a long runway, a work that Paintin explains was inspired by the duo's interest in motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel.


A diminutive woman with bright blond bangs, Paintin spoke last week at a sidewalk table outside BrainWash Café, fresh from a rehearsal at CounterPULSE, where she and James were in the fifth day of leading a collaborative performance workshop with a selected group of Bay Area–based American artists (Laura Arrington, Andrea Hart, Xandra Ibarra, Richie Israel, Elizabeth McSurdy, Mica Sigourney, and Ernesto Sopprani).

Stenhouse was not able to join the conversation — rehearsal had run long and he was following its willy-nilly course to a local karaoke bar, where he and the rest of the group were planning to take turns singing Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man." A couple of days earlier, the group had gone tailgating at a pre-season NFL game in Oakland. Such are the trails, happy or otherwise, down which the adventurer in Americana must travel. (You can follow some of the research results thus far — in a process McSurdy calls "aesthetically polyamorous" — in the group's blog posts at

The workshop sets out to investigate American cultural mythologies using the concept of the stranger or outsider as starting point. Hosted by CounterPULSE with leadership from program director Julie Phelps, the program is part of a major cultural exchange project by CounterPULSE's collaborator on Stranger in a Strange land, the arts-based University of Chichester in the South of England.

"All the work of the Department of Performing Arts is about making radical new work, and we have a reputation for working with exciting and challenging artists, hence our connection to Action Hero," explained Ben Francombe, head of the department, by email. "The University of Chichester has instigated this overall project as a way to explore different interdisciplinary working methods," he continues, "which involve the idea of exchange." Francombe adds that the University is keen to continue having a presence in the Bay Area.

"It's been really fun actually," enthuses Paintin, clearly pleased with how experienced and open-minded her American counterparts have proven with collaboration. "We're trying to just be about the process."


Mon/27, 8 p.m., $10-$20


1310 Mission, SF



The fall theater season includes several worthy returns (in addition to shiny new premieres) worth keeping in déjà view:

Related articles

  • Meta-boredom

    A play's 'playwright' can't keep his mind focused on the subject at hand in 'The Late Wedding'

  • Still hungry

    Theatre of Yugen's remarkable world premiere of Chiori Miyagawa's 'This Lingering Life'

  • Oakland roundabout

    Oscar Grant, Rodney King, and everyone in between make up the chains of cause-and-effect in Chinaka Hodge's 'Chasing Mehserle'

  • Also from this author

  • Meta-boredom

    A play's 'playwright' can't keep his mind focused on the subject at hand in 'The Late Wedding'

  • Bearing it all

    Keith Hennessy offers a work-in-progress showing of solo 'Bear/Skin'


    Daring new works at Portland, Ore.'s Time-Based Art Festival