Before attending Samantha Johns and Eric Larson’s Phlooky Voga on Sunday, I was telling a friend about a previous Johns production that I’d greatly enjoyed. That show featured Johns and her ex making breakfast for each other in Laura Holway and Ben McGinley’s kitchen while having a frank and tearful dialogue about the dissolution of their relationship in front of an audience of a couple dozen people. My friend’s response: “Into it.”
That simple phrase got me thinking about the nature of shows like Phlooky Voga. I’m into it too, but I know that many, if not most, theatergoers won’t be. The thing about staging an experimental theater production in the back room of a Northeast Minneapolis supper club at 9:30 on a Sunday night is that you tend to attract the kind of audience who attends experimental theater productions in the back room of a Northeast Minneapolis supper club at 9:30 on a Sunday night. And you know what? There’s not a damn thing wrong with that.
It’s clear from the outset that Phlooky Voga isn’t for everybody. The show consists of seven actors sitting in different corners of the room and working with a variety of materials, sort of like vendors at a farmers’ market or an art bazaar. One person arranges jelly beans on a cloth, one sniffs at a selection of vials and bottles, another tries to compose a report on a book about camping, and so forth. The characters sometimes interact with each other, usually wordlessly and briefly, but mostly they do their own things all at the same time. By design, it’s almost impossible to keep track of what every person is doing at any given time, especially since their activities are often visually or audibly obscured depending on where the viewer is sitting. Oh, and the whole thing is scored by occasional live piano renditions of pop songs, as well as an avant-garde yet insanely catchy title tune.
They are who we thought they were
Looking around the audience assembled in the back room of the Red Stag, I saw pretty much who I expected to see. The evening’s attendance appeared to be mostly folks under 30, most of them cultivating hipster, or at least vaguely artistic, aesthetics. Obviously it’s never great to make judgments based on outward appearances, but it looked like a room prepared to embrace a show that many audiences would find boring, pretentious, or downright annoying.
The conventional wisdom of the theater world says that we need to be constantly searching for ways to bring in new audiences, reach out to underserved communities, and appeal to people who don’t regularly attend theatrical productions. It’s a noble and necessary goal, and it’s endlessly inspiring to see how many Twin Cities theater-makers dedicate themselves to that mission. At the same time, there’s also plenty of room for productions who know their audiences and vice versa. Some very good shows have a very limited appeal, and it’s great to see creators like Johns and Larson lean into that.
I’m not trying to suggest that Johns and Larson are engaged in some kind of in-your-face exercise in envelope-pushing. This is actually a rather amiable show that generates laughs, builds moments of tension, and erupts into a surprisingly cathartic climax, all without coming close to a traditional narrative structure. While Phlooky Voga isn’t an intentionally exclusionary show, it’s definitely a show that a lot of people won’t like, not because they don’t get it or can’t appreciate experimental art, but because they’re just not into it. And that’s OK on all sides.
Getting into being into it
It’s absolutely important that we keep pushing to create art for non-traditional audiences and get more people thinking about theater. But it’s also important to keep generating shows that appeal to exactly the crowd you’d expect. I’m reminded of one of my all-time favorite local productions, Off-Leash Area’s 2015 presentation of SAMO - Like a Fiery Comet, Jean-Michel Basquiat Shoots Across the Sky. That’s a show I saw in a South Minneapolis garage in the middle of January, and again, the audience was made of people who’d come to a show about Jean-Michel Basquiat put on in a South Minneapolis garage in the middle of January. Nobody was going to wander in off the street and undergo an unexpected artistic awakening. The people who came out to SAMO were people who sought it out and made the effort specifically because they wanted to see SAMO, and I suspect most of them left that garage feeling it was energy well-spent.
That seemed to be the case with Phlooky Voga as well. As challenging and unorthodox as the show may be, the late Sunday crowd was rapt and visibly appreciative throughout. They hung along with every nebulous surprise and surreal reveal, lending the show an extra layer of energy in the close confines of the performance space. I heard more than one person singing the title song as they walked out of the Red Stag. They were into it, in other words. And Phlooky Voga is nothing if not a show for people who’d be into Phlooky Voga. I, for one, am glad there’s a place where they can find each other.