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Ernest Hemmings on his 20-year theater project, upcoming show

“Art is CRAP,” Ernest Hemmings says, but hold on, check your outrage. Note the capitals — it’s an acronym, in this case standing for Content, Rendering, Ambition, Presentation. The elements, as he sees it, of worthwhile art. These are some of the principles that guide TSTMRKT, his 20-year Las Vegas-based theater project. It’s an improbable mix of performance art, comedy, Brechtian notions of theater and more — “a random act of cheap theatrics,” as the TSTMRKT website sums it up.

One unique element: Hemmings uses prerecorded sound and film collages to set the stage for each show, and they unfurl in real time. There’s no techie triggering an effect at the right moment; the performances must be synced to the sound. It goes back to the A in CRAP: “I try to make the task as ambitious as possible,” he says.

As for what audiences make of this, the TSTMRKT website is clear: Don’t worry about it. “Each show is formulated and prepared with no regard for audience reaction.” The point appears to be to force you out of your normal pop-culture mindset — “Reality television has turned us all into judges,” he says — and into a headspace where only your imagination can help you.

At 8 p.m. Friday at the Vegas Theatre Company (1025 S. First St.), he will stage his “One Man Show” in order to film a version he can use to apply to theatrical showcases and festivals. Tickets are $15 at tstmrt.com.

Your Dec. 10 show is the one-person show you debuted in November?

Yes. It turned out to be a great success. I was nervous about it! I didn’t know if anyone would like it, at all. It’s weird — when I’m working with other people, at least there’s someone else with me who will laugh or chuckle. But when you’re working in a vacuum, you have no idea. When I went into the theater I was sweating bullets. I had no idea whether the audience would get bored, whether they’d boo and leave. It turned out great, and I was like, “All right, this is the one that’s going into the can.”

Given the nature of the work you do, I would imagine that some uncertainty about whether it’s going to land or not is just part of the process — and maybe part of the point.

Yeah, I have zero idea when I go out there, and each time I am sweating bullets. But that was the exciting thing about this one. It became kind of rote when I was doing it with (one or two other actors). It was stuff that was tried and true. It was one of those things where it was exciting 13 years ago. (But we had become) very ginger with it because we were always trying to get booked somewhere and see how much money we could possibly make. Not much, by the way. (Laughs.)

I’m struck by how little the descriptions of the show say about what we’ll actually see on the stage. Are you withholding specifics to avoid the audience having preconceived notions, or is it because what you do is hard to summarize?

You were right the first time. It’s that preconceived notion that really destroys the imaginative world that theater is supposed to bring. It’s one thing my theater professor ages ago told me — the one thing he can’t stand is things you see onstage that look like the movies or television. You have these massive production budgets so it looks as real as possible. When the origins of theater are a bunch of Greeks standing around in white sheets going “Aaaahhh,” you know? You’re supposed to have some bit of imagination coming into the theater to begin with.

Just like when you buy a record — in the old days you just bought the record and you took a risk on it. Maybe you read something about it in Rolling Stone. But when you plopped the needle down, you’re like, “All right, here we go!” And that’s kind of what I want the audience to do: Come in, buy the ticket and take the ride.

One presumes that early in your career, there was a fork in the road, and in one direction was “Our Town” and a more conventional notion of theater, at which you might make a more substantial living. In the other direction were sound collages and Brechtian theater. What drew you to the latter?

I’m a child of the ’70s, raised in the ’80s, and the world that I existed in, if you were a certain skin color or looked a certain way, you were never going to see those roles. Those were things you wouldn’t be handed. You could play the third criminal in the back or, if they were doing a production of “Raisin in the Sun,” as long as you matched the hue of the other actors onstage, you had a chance. (Laughs.) One time I was in a production of “Miss Evers’ Boys,” and I looked like I was the adopted son.

So I knew that if I was going to do anything, it would have to be something new, and I was going to have to be telling the audience, “Hey, put on your imagination hat, I am this character. I can do the voice inflections, I can be this person or that person. You just have to use your imagination. Just like we were doing a radio play.”

Honestly, that’s what forced my hand. That and, of course, I started with nothing. I had zero dollars for a set or any of that stuff. I had nothing but sand and a bag of black beans, and it’s like, all right, make it work.

How unusual is it for you to be out there on the stage solo?

In this capacity it is. I used to do stand-up, and it was just me doing jokes or making cracks. And in this it’s just me, and I’ve taken away the defensive mechanism a stand-up usually has. Like “Hey, I’ve got a microphone up here, you have to pay attention to me. I’m doing my 10 minutes. I’m gonna make you laugh.” When you’re in a theater doing a one-man show, now that defensive mechanism of the microphone is gone, and you can’t hide behind that pretense. And it’s like, “Now I have to demonstrate my skill and keep your attention and keep you entertained, and by the way, I’m going to switch characters 12 times.” And I have to be convincing at it. And in the meantime, here’s a soundtrack that I composed for the background and I have to keep time with that.

How hard is it to interweave your performance with the soundtrack? You can’t forget a line for a quick second — it seems like it would require a lot of precision.

That’s an understatement. I’m telling you, if I (expletive) up, I (expletive) up — it’s pretty obvious. When you’re out on your own, you’re floating in space! And you’re hearing yourself breathe. It was exhilarating! If you have a choice between skydiving and doing a one-man show, I highly recommend doing the one-man show.

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