The Walker Art Center's annual Out There theater festival is known for living up to its name. For the 2011 edition, curator Philip Bither has compiled a quartet of innovative pieces, all originating from Europe.
One thing that all these productions have in common is a sense of crossing borders—artistically and in some cases literally, as the result of multiple groups working together or of group members based in more than one country.
"Over the past 10 years in Europe there have been key ensembles of younger artists who are gleefully mixing film, movement, theater, and everything else they can draw on," Bither says. "They are making vital expressions of our time."
Bither travels to theater festivals around the world to find the pieces for the annual Out There festival, which he says provides a nice jolt for the local theater community in mid-winter. "It really serves as a window on the world and for people to see new theater practices in the United States and Europe," he says. "Our audiences are filled with designers, actors, and other creative people."
Two theatrical groups—Betontanc from Slovenia and Umka.lv from Latvia—combine their distinct skills for this journey through the 20th century. The seven performers, joined by a trio of musicians from the Slovene pop-electronic group Silence, use low-tech and found objects to bring the story to life, with the everyman at the piece's center represented by an empty snowsuit.
The performance cuts across different programs at the Walker, as it is also part of the Adventures in New Puppetry series. "The show has connected with audiences anywhere it has gone. People engage with the virtuosity of the puppetry and the innovative way it tells the story of the faceless everyman," Bither says. "It's a very existential piece, but there is some hope."
Andy Warhol's film Kitchen is one of dozens created by the pop artist during the mid-1960s. Only two copies remain in existence, and the artists in the Gob Squad—who hail from England and Germany and had a hit at the 2008 Out There with Super Night Shot—didn't have access to it. Instead, they use it as a platform for their own explorations of several cultural themes.
"The company is a favorite of mine," Bither says. "They are often cheeky and irreverent but also produce conceptually rigorous material that raises real questions about the culture, the development of art, and what impact Warhol's ideas had on society."
The piece is performed live backstage, with the work shown on one of three giant projection screens onstage. The other two screens feature re-creations of two more Warhol films, Screen Test and Sleep. In all three cases, audience members are drawn in, at first by the two side pieces but eventually to the main Kitchen set, where they are directed on what to say and do by the actors, who communicate via microphones from the audience.
Bonanza, Colorado, is a formerly booming mining town. Through the decades its population has diminished, and by the time the documentary was filmed only seven people in five households were left. Each household is represented on one of five screens set up onstage in a model replication of the town.
That separation is important, because while these seven people all live within earshot of one another, they almost never talk. This smallest of small towns is affected by the bad blood, backstabbing, and misunderstandings you typically find in a small community. Except here there is nowhere to turn except to the audience.
The Belgian-based group specializes in site-specific pieces, Bither says. "Much of the impact is about how they framed the piece for you."
The character Serge specializes in "little" performances. In his sparely decorated apartment, he invites guests to watch him create showpieces using everyday objects. Think of it as the anti-Cirque du Soleil. Quesne developed and crafted the piece at his Paris "theatrical laboratory," and it has been a hit at festivals throughout the world. "It's a company of actors, architects, filmmakers, and visual artists," Bither says. "The videos didn't work for me until I saw it live. It's really a theater of nuance, of the joy of live spectacle and live theater."
In the opening scene, Serge, dressed as an astronaut, examines the contents of his apartment as would a detached observer; at other times, radio-controlled toys are employed to craft elegant and even spectacular moments.
"It's the ideal Out There piece," Bither says. "It's so hard to describe. It's a new approach to what might be joyous new theater."