It’s “in” these days for theater companies to utilize non-traditional spaces to create work. Whether the cause is the rising costs of theater rent, or the fact that smaller theater companies have less money to spend, or perhaps there’s been a shift toward a DIY aesthetic in recent years, it's a trend I rather like.
My favorite performances this past year all took place in spaces outside traditional performance spaces. After Miss Julie’s use of the James J. Hill House brought to life the setting and circumstances of the characters very well, and the Mixed Precipitation’s Picnic Operetta became all the more joyful and wonderful in the context of a community garden. Judith Howard created an absolutely thrilling piece of work in the midst of the tiny space of the Gamut Gallery, using the confines of the room to her advantage, making it very much a part of the piece.
Then there’s the best performance produced this year, Skewed Visions’ Black Water, which took place in an old abandoned market in St. Paul.
Skewed Visions is no newbie to the site specific genre. They’ve been doing it since their beginnings in the 1990s. So they really know how to capitalize on the process, using it in unexpected and inspiring ways. Though this piece was successful not simply because it was performed outside a theater—there are other reasons that I’ll get to in a bit—their mastery of the site specific form was clear and added to the work's effectiveness.
The storefront where Black Water took place was once part of Summit Brewery, and more recently, Spiro’s Mediterranean Market. In the, the audience was led into a giant cooler where they stood as the lights were shut out completely. This was one of the many magical moments where you were forced to encounter real emotions—fear, excitement, anticipation—before the director of the piece and performer Charles Campbell lit a match, revealing that he was wearing a trench coat, fedora and blacked out glasses.
Throughout the evening, the audience was led through various spaces inside and outside the building. Just the act of walking, of participating in the experience, made the audience a part of the production, not just observers. We were asked to peer in between the slats of a giant crate (designed by sculptor Irve Dell) and actively try to make out the course of events, though our view was obstructed.
Then, there was the drone. A remote control operated thing that flew across the room. Terrifying, it put you in the action.
The piece ended with the beautiful and disturbing image of hundreds of chairs strewn over the empty space. Campbell walked towards the outdoors, his body monstrous as he carried chairs, his image silhouetted on the walls. Sure, a similar image might have been replicated in a traditional theater setting, but the sense of being in this war-torn world, with the cool air biting your skin, created something in the run-down building that you couldn’t experience anywhere else.
Not just novelty location
Besides being site-specific, the performance style of Black Water also set it apart. The cast was made up of two “dancers” and one “actor,” (which I put in quotes because though Laurie Wieren and Megan Mayer didn’t talk you could argue that they weren’t really dancing and though Campbell was speaking you could argue that he wasn’t actually acting). The actor's words were spoken with a monotonous quality, without inflection, without emotion. Even when he screamed, after announcing that he was going to scream, his scream was not really a scream, but a strange elongated “ah.”
The dancers, too, weren’t doing any kind of conventional dance, though there are sections of movement. The most powerful scene came when Wieren and Mayer ritually set the table. They gave off a feeling of extreme anxiety, creating a series of tableaus that were connected through movement. Inspired by photographs of elderly people in Italy by photographer Mario Giacomelli, the movements and expressions created a sense of uncertainty.
The non-traditional performance style made the work more. In some ways, you can’t compare it to, say Anna Sundberg’s riveting performance of Miss Julie in After Miss Julie, where the actress completely transformed herself into another character, channeling emotions with extreme precision and skill, or Gavin Lawrence’s performance as Langston Hughes in Are You Now or Have You Ever Been… (another brilliant moment of acting that took place on Twin Cities stages this year).
Black Water didn’t have that kind of realism or theatricality, but for this piece, those directions weren’t necessary. The roboticism of the performers and company's focus on stage picture served this particular story because the company didn’t set out to have the audience identify with the characters. The audience itself became the main character, experiencing moments of revelation and transformation as we journeyed through the play’s world.
Making work about politics
One of the main reasons that I think that Black Water deserves recognition as last season’s most successful production was the bravery it demonstrated. Taking on a political topic is not an easy thing to do, nor is it popular. So often, political theater becomes didactic, devoid of nuance or complexity. Aiming to change people’s minds, political theater often plays to audiences that already agree with the premise of the creators, so the entire experience becomes an act of preaching to the choir.
In Black Water, Campbell tackled the subject of drone warfare, the western world’s disconnection from its own history, and our detachment from the violence that we incur abroad. Far from sermonizing, Campbell offered a shifting and sensorial experience, through which the audience could ponder ideas and reach their own conclusions. Drawing from multiple sources of texts, including Paul Virilio, W.G. Sebald, Beckett, and snippets from various news articles, Campbell offered various channels to make organic connections. Especially because so much of the text was delivered in an almost pedestrian style, none of it was over emphasized. As an audience member, I picked up just bits and pieces, going through a process of self-curation, where I scrabbled bits and pieces together in combination with what was visually happening.
It’s so rare that audiences are actually transformed by seeing a piece of theater—where you actually change as a person afterwards. Black Water used an alternative space and nontraditional performance styles to create a rich, political and compelling piece of theater that succeeded in transforming its audience.
I experienced, watching the piece, that rare, exhilarating feeling of
being shaken from my own comfort zone and found myself seeing the
world in a different light.