What Happens When You Go to an Experimental Theatre Performance

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Photograph: tumblr

When I studied abroad at Harlaxton in England, I attended a play in London called “The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable.” It was a play like I had never been to before. When we, the audience, arrived, we were given long white masks, that quite resemble the face from The Scream. We were told that once we entered the play, we were not to speak or remove our masks, or else we would be required to leave.

The set for the play was a three-story warehouse building. The floors had been filled with an array of elaborately constructed set-pieces, including buildings, trailers, houses, and even a forest. It was in these settings that the actors would play out a scene, but once the scene had concluded, unlike most plays, we, the audience, were able to follow the actor off of the set and into the next scene. Once the play began, we were encouraged to roam the sets, explore, and especially to follow the actors. We followed actors through the levels and through the scenes.

The play ran through three times in the course of three hours, but even with so much time, one person wouldn’t be able to see everything. It was exhilarating and when I left I wished I would be able to see it again. Unfortunately, I left for American within the next week and never had the opportunity to.

Naturally, when I heard about the Theatre Department’s upcoming performance “Residual Unseen” with the slogan “Where does the performer end and the audience begin?” I jumped at the chance to go. I had somewhat of an idea of what I was going into, having already seen “Drowned Man” and heard some giddy talk about a similar play taking place in New York City that a theatre friend of mine was raving about. I expected it to be somewhat of the same, and it was, sort of. I attended the performance on Saturday, November 21st.

The setting for the performance was the Kentucky Museum, here on campus. When we, the audience, entered, we were given masks, black Zorro-like masks that superheroes wear to conceal their identities. Some play-goers were given star stickers, some weren’t; I was.

Before being taken into the live-interactive performance, we were put in a holding sort of cell, like cows to the slaughter. The walls were draped with semi-clear plastic tarps that would certainly prevent the walls being splattered by our cow-blood, if it were to come to that. Actors crept behind these tarps making odd contortions with their bodies and reaching out and about with their hands. If the lights had been dimmer, I would probably have been creeped-out.

Once we were lead from the holding cell, we hearded ourselves into the next room where a choir of good-singing black-dressed people stared seriously with blank faces into our souls. Another row of tarp hung to our right where silhouetted shadows loomed eerily–caused by persons standing in front of some distant light. I felt like I had just stepped into a most serious episode of the Twilight Zone.

We walked into the museum, an intriguing and novel setting I thought, and were told we would be read a story. It was Sneetches by Dr. Seuss–and we were read the story…the ENTIRE story. The story ultimately related back to a lesson that our stars we were given were meant to reveal–we are all the same no matter our stars, racial, sexual, or other distinctions.

After the story-telling concluded began the constant befuddlement of characters sporadically bombarding the audience with their repetitive lines, violent bodily-jerks, brief acts, and singing. We, the audience, explored the museum around these actors, confused about what we were to look at and what was just a part of the museum. Most of the “new” items that were associated with the play were tagged by a symbolic spiral design. Cards were scattered through museum displays and props that had been added. These cards had tasks on them to find a certain display, read something at the microphone, or mimic actors and their gyrations. It was fun for a moment.

Then, we were ushered into a room and a short-film began. The film and the dancer in it were a masterpiece far exceeding the play. The movie had something of a resemblance to Suspiria, an Italian horror-film that I had seen earlier on campus as a part of the film-event called Far Away Flics. After the film ended, we were ushered tirelessly back into the museum to the gyrating actors and their beckoning.

After a time of the same befuddlement, we were ushered once more into the movie-room. This time, we watched the film in reverse, which was equally as beautiful. The film was truly a masterpiece. This part was the highlight of the performance, for me.

We were sent back into the room once more for a dance party where at first the audience was hesitant to join in with the live band and the excited cast, but by the time the band began singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens, everyone was lively.

The play concluded and we were told we could join the cast and producers for a “talk-back,” which was helpful until at length each actor went into detail about each and every aspect of his or her character, including his or her motivations, childhood background, trials, and tribulations. I left after thirty minutes.

As I reflected on the play, I tried to decide how I felt about it. After the talk-back, I realized much of what I had missed from the performance itself. Each of the characters who had been shouting lines and moving through the set independently, had a story. Each represented a group in history who’s suffering voice had gone unheard. These characters ranged from fifties housewives, an early 20th century woman tricked into the slave trade, a civil war nurse, a civil war dying youth, a Vietnam veteran, and a promiscuous man who contracted aids after his wife died and he started sleeping around.

My commentary may sound critical, but in reality the play was a bit hectic, cluttered, and stressful. I understand that the cast was attempting to go for a thought-provoking performance that engaged different aspects of the audience, but honestly the transitions and audience capacity hadn’t been well prepared for. There were awkward transitions when this large heard had no idea where to go next, in moments like when the film ended and we were to reenter the museum. Of course, too much critique cannot be placed on the performance as it was experimental. If it were to be done again, I would suggest lessening the expanse of material being covered, putting a cap on audience allowed in, and perhaps giving the performance more plot-driven acts.

I enjoyed the performance, but in all it really was just attempting to do too much.

 

 

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