More than 50 artists invite you to an adventure through alienation
Published: April 27, 2011
For more information visit transmodernfestival.org.
“I think the first thing I always imagine as an analog to this is working at a fast-food restaurant or a coffeeshop,” says Person Ablach, one of the five Copycat Theatre members who debut the 2011 version of their ambitious, collaborative Rooms Play project this week at the Transmodern Festival. He’s trying to describe the experience of being a performer in the multi-“stage” theater, where audience members move through a series of rooms to experience the play’s narrative arc. “It’s fairly uncomplicated,” Ablach says of being a server. “You have to know the recipe and the ingredients and everything, and you give it to them and you take their money. But we’re doing really weird things.”
And he does mean we. In addition to the five Copycats—Ablach, Hoesy Corona, Pilar Diaz, Monica Mirabile, and Sam Shea—17 other artists/artist collectives have taken over creative control of each of the 22 total rooms that make up this Rooms Play: 14 in the Whole Gallery on the third floor of the H&H Building and the remainder in the main room of the Current Gallery. Audience members—who need to sign up on the first floor of the H&H Building for staggered start times each night—will travel in groups of no more than four through the production, and will be escorted from the H&H to Current as part of the play. The entire process takes about an hour, the creators estimate. But the performers involved will be doing their thing—whatever it may be—for four hours straight.
“It’s a journey for both parties,” Mirabile says during an interview a week prior to Transmodern’s opening night. She and three of her CCT comrades (Diaz is absent) sit around a table in the Whole Gallery’s kitchen, which has been impressively converted into a maze. False walls, ministages, small homes, and other sets sit in various stages of construction. Black sheets separate rooms from passageways, passageways from avenues of egress. The group gives a visiting reporter a quick walk through the floor plan, and even without performers occupying each room and with sets unfinished, it feels like a first visit to a playground: You go this way and that, under there and between those two poles, around the thingamabob over here and through the passageway and then you come out over there.
“Last year, having performed the same thing for three hours, there was this really magical thing that happened with myself and performance,” Mirabile continues. “My experience with each different individual that came through, it changed every single time. And that was a really incredible thing to happen. You have to listen—you have to listen to what’s going on, to people’s reaction to the room, and through your listening the performance is going to change. So it’s this really intense social experience and experiment. And that’s going to happen every six minutes.”
Yes, that’s right: The entire Rooms Play experience, with all 22 rooms and roughly 55 artists, is on a loop that repeats every six minutes, controlled by the gatekeeper at the very beginning of the play. It’s a flabbergasting coordination of effort and curatorial ambitions, because over the course of this one-hour, 22-room, two-building journey, Rooms Play isn’t just seeking to deliver a new kind of theater-qua-performance experience. It’s also taking on the topic of immigration and alienation. So, just to make sure we’re all on the same page: gigantic collaborative theatrical experience merged with a sociopolitical thematic content—all infused with a magical, fanciful sense of fun. Copycat Theatre sees nothing to gain from thinking small.
Quick rewind: Last year, Copycat Theatre staged its first Rooms Play in its Copycat building home base over the course of two nights. They have different memories of the germinating seed—Ablach recalls some travelers who stayed with them who told them about a play in a house where every room had a performance going on simultaneously, Mirabile recalls thinking about a haunted house but wanting an enchanted house—but they all agree on what resulted. Over a six-month period, they worked out a narrative and thematic arc for the experience by combining elements of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth narrative with . . . the digestive system.
“We paired each of the stages of the monomyth and matched it with stages of digestion, and that was people’s point of departure,” Shea says. “I did the stomach, which was people’s supernatural aids. So the small intestine was where the trials were and things got broken down more.”
This year’s piece, which they started planning last summer, retains the monomyth framework—it conveniently provides a hero’s journey arc; in this case, the “hero” is the audience member—but they wanted the play to connect with something more personal. Everybody digests, but the group also wants to get people thinking about social issues. “During the summer, I know that I and some other people in the group where this hits closer to home, we were thinking about immigration,” Mirabile says; three of the troupe’s five members immigrated to America with their families. “I was thinking about the laws in Arizona, thinking how crazy it was and just thinking beyond that to alienation and how that exists in so many aspects of our lives. So we started talking about this and what this means to us, and that started to be picked apart and dissected and put together with the monomyth.”
The result was a 12-page call for artists, merging a story of immigration with the monomyth. Rooms are given themes—gender, education, isolation, employment—that the artists could interpret. “The entire proposal was a very specific but very loose outline, so people had points of departure but then each creative director could infuse each room with their own vision and creativity,” Corona says. “So immigration is kind of the big umbrella but we wanted to focus even more on something specific, so just the idea of alienation, which is something maybe more people are aware of.”
Just how that is coming together remains to be seen. All participating artists have been meeting for the past two months about their rooms, and the Copycat Theatre invited a friend from North Carolina who works with undocumented youth to come speak to everybody, just so they could have a “conversation on what it means to be someone who is not affected by immigration legislation, which would be unaffected by the racism that enforces it, and still be an ally—to still talk about those issues,” Ablach says. “To still be comfortable speaking about it and delivering a message that informs the nature of this situation that we are all connected to.”
For two months, all of the artists have been thinking about what they are going to do with their rooms. And for the past two weeks, they’ve been trying to make those ideas concrete, creating spaces that invite the audience to experience something familiar yet different, something grounded in reality but projected through the imagination. And something, perhaps, that causes the participant to come out the other side changed. “Because of the setup of Rooms Play, you embark on a journey,” Corona says. “You’re not that passive observer at a theater watching a play. You’re physically questing over objects and moving and people are making direct eye contact with you, and maybe touching your shoulder. So after the entire hour, your stories are real—you did all these things.”
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