Walking Shadow emerges as region's most ambitious theater company

Co-founders John Heimbuch, Amy Rummenie, and David Pisa (from left) aren't afraid of offbeat material: The recent Robots vs. Fake Robots (below) may have been their best yet
courtesy of Walking Shadow Theatre Company

The days following the Minnesota Fringe each year are like the comedown after an extended holiday (or bacchanalia, depending on your proclivities), what with sweeping out the metaphorical ashes and trying to form a coherent picture from a kaleidoscope of images. For the three co-founders of Walking Shadow Theatre Company, though, what could be a well-earned respite is instead an occasion for looking forward.

"We never take time off," says David Pisa with a laugh, noting that his company is already considering scripts for the season after its upcoming 2009-10 slate, as well as what he terms "building infrastructure" in the form of grants, logistics, and the nuts and bolts of a five-year-old company that continues to take strides forward.

"We finally feel like we know what we're doing," says Amy Rummenie, a co-founder and frequent director. "We're looking for that next step, which is being people who intend on sticking around for a while."

Walking Shadow staged Squawk at the 2009 Fringe, filling Gremlin Theatre to more than 90 percent capacity. That followed the sprawling, ambitious 2008 Fringe hit Shakespeare's Land of the Dead, an Elizabethan zombie fantasy with outsized scope and ambition.

The show's runaway success "was pretty ridiculous," says John Heimbuch, the last third of the Walking Shadow triumvirate (and writer of Land of the Dead). "And probably the most fun of any single show I've ever worked on."

The company debuted at the 2004 Fringe with another Heimbuch script, The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, and has taken only one summer off since (in addition to Walking Shadow's work ethic, the Fringe's random-drawing ping-pong ball gods have been kind).

But while Heimbuch acknowledges that the Fringe has been good to Walking Shadow, in the next breath he adds, "there's a certain feeling that at some point we may grow beyond it."

THAT QUESTION CAN BE RAISED because Walking Shadow has also been consistently programming regular non-Fringe seasons, establishing itself as a group that stages probing, vital productions of unexpected material. A major breakthrough arrived in 2007 with the regional premiere of Neil LaBute's Fat Pig, which, despite its inflammatory title, was a darkly soulful exploration of romance, body image, and social acceptance.

"We have a reputation for choosing dark things," admits Rummenie. "But we don't want to be horrible nihilists about it. We'll go as dark as it gets, but still finding a new way to look at life."

Since then the company has tackled works by playwrights as diverse as Naomi Iizuka, Jordan Harrison, and Gallic rib-tickler Albert Camus. Walking Shadow's most recent regular-season production, Robots vs. Fake Robots, might well have been its best, melding daft, sexy dancing; a bleak post-industrial future; and deadpan abattoir humor.

"I guess everybody's definition of fun is different," Pisa adds. "We're for people who want the crazy robot dance, people who want Camus, and people who want the Leni Riefenstahl experience" (a reference to the company's 2008 Amazons and Their Men).

For 2009-10, Walking Shadow has lined up an apt mix of works from within the company and without, beginning in November with another LaBute regional premiere, Some Girl(s), about a man trying to put to rest his romantic past. Next comes Mojo, about rock 'n' roll in 1950s London, then Heimbuch's The Transdimensional Couriers Union, about a future in which technology threatens to unravel the fabric of reality.

After five years and 14 productions, Walking Shadow is rapidly emerging as a company that's learning from its experiences and, most of all, staging plays that engage the sensibilities of its three founders.

"A hive mind is the best way of summing it up," Pisa says of his chemistry with his cohorts. "It's something that you can't fully explain in a couple of sentences."

"We're attracted to the big, open-ended questions," adds Heimbuch.

For these three thirtysomethings, the immediate artistic future looks happily challenging, or maybe optimistically perplexing. Rummenie sums up her group's emerging aesthetic philosophy.

"Life is hard," she says. "But life is still fun. And well worth it." 

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