I like to give Kevin Holden a hard time about the boys club nature of his outfit, Horse Head Theatre Co. The intense artistic director makes no apologies. He's drawn to certain types of plays, aggressive, physical and male-driven, which make good vehicles for the troupe's ace actor Drake Simpson.
Welch, who was in on the beginning of this extraordinary collective, plays as Sadie Day, the slightly daffy woman anchoring Rapp's tribe of off beat characters. Two years ago, Rapp's Red Light Winter launched Horse Head. Tables are turned now with Simpson directing instead of acting, and Welch back in Houston, even if temporarily.
Welch left Houston to pursue an MFA at Old Globe/University of San Diego Theater Program. Who could blame her, it's one of the best classical theater programs in the country. She has never been able to even see a Horse Head play.
Essential Self Defense centers around fear and its ability to erode just about every human action. Rapp's characters gather at a karate gym and a karaoke bar, exist on the margins of society. Suspicions of terrorism, the strange disappearance of a group of middle school students, and a bizarre friendship all surface, none of which is ever fully resolved.
"Rapp questions social norms, the things we take for granted," Welch says. "Yet, he leaves the questions open ended for the audience to ponder."
Holden and Welch go way back; he was her theater teacher at Deer Park High School.
"We did an insanely intense version of The Rope Dancer for the one-act play competition one year," she remembers.
Their paths crossed again while she was at the University of Houston finishing her degree in theater just as Holden wrapped up his MFA there. When Holden began gathering the Horse Head tribe for their Monday evening meetings to revolutionize theater, Welch came onboard.
"I believe in Kevin's mission to change theater. Progress is evident in every other art form, but theater seems to remain the same," she says. "It's too easy to do cookie cutter theater."
Welch came to prominence on Houston's stages with her performance in One Spare Flea at Mildred's Umbrella and Rabbit Hole at Stages Repertory Theatre. She couldn't have asked for a better fit with Sadie, a curious character who finds herself entangled in one sticky situation.
"I fell in love with Sadie," Welch says. "She is a naive 30-year old character. I'm 30 and short, with childlike energy, so I connected to her. Yet, she is clever and intelligent too. But in the end, doesn't know enough about the world around her."
Like all of Horse Head events, expect to be in the middle of the drama. The Frenetic Theater will be transformed into a karaoke bar. Audience members will be free to test out their pipes before and after the show. Holden's concept requires theater goers immerse themselves in the environment of the play.
Founded by designers, the collective places an enormous emphasis on light, sound and the set up of the performing space. The experience of the audience is considered the moment they open the door.
"We are performing in the round," Welch adds. "It's the most Horse Head appropriate play we have ever done."
For Welch, performing in Essential Self Defense offers the opportunity to truly connect to a movement she helped to move forward.
"It's great to work with artists in creating something unique, adventurous, and memorable on stage," she says. "I want to be surrounded by artists who have the same vision and are working towards it together. We all usually have Robert Edmond Jones' quote in the back of our minds, 'To create a theater that to this point only exists in dreams.' Some of members even have it tattooed."
Welch doesn't mind the testosterone-fueled vibe of Horse Head at all.
"They're a group of boys and they do boy things, like hit each other," Welch admits with a generous grin. "Given their history, I don't expect they will be doing The Vagina Monologues anytime soon."
Sadie and Yul at the Beat Down Self Defense Studio