Lately, I’ve been present as two theatre companies stepped bravely past the boundaries of theatre as we know it. Both shows have closed, but they’re worth taking a look at — in print now, on stage if you ever can.
In mid-July, I watched a Fringe Encore presentation of Into the Fog.
In late August, I took part in the final performance of Rain Maryam.
Both works employ the materials of theatre — artists on a stage, lights, sounds, costumes and an audience — to explore what might lie beyond our accustomed uses of these elements.
Into the Fog
The hour begins with seven performers in overcoats standing
at the back of a nearly bare stage. It also ends there. In between comes a melée of intense activity, punctuated by still moments, as the performers invade and fill and then empty every inch of the space, again and again, in varying forms and patterns.
There’s no story here, no characters. This isn’t Shakespeare or Chekhov or Brecht, not even Graham or Fosse. Yet these unnamed persons engage us, drawing us with them as they walk, jump, fall and whirl, together and apart, in their … what? Adventure?
They don’t undertake a planned exploration; this feels more like an odyssey, unexpected and constrained, searching unknown territory. Rather like ghosts being introduced to the underworld. Or humans finding their way into — and at times suffering, at times celebrating — sudden life.
Books are prevalent in this world. Books and paper, eventually a whirlwind of paper. My first thought is, “Ah! Someone’s been here before, left a record.” Then the actions remind me of how we have used words written down — literally “scriptures” — for good and ill in human history. And the role of schooling in our lives …
Later there’s a net, a fabric that grows to embrace the whole space and everyone in it … almost. Like all our networks, families, communities, comforting by imprisoning, including by excluding …
At last, after many such sequences, we return. The performers don their coats and move slowly — perhaps regretfully? with a wistful wisdom? — toward where they began, whence we came.
Their stepping forward, toward us, has created a connection, made us a community. Their disrobing invited us in, beneath the surface. Now the story is done, the inside covered, and we are separated again. And yet …
Into the Fog has been around a while. Created in 2011 by Sam Szabo at Skidmore College in upstate New York, it went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012. For this year’s Hollywood Fringe, Szabo’s collaborator Samantha Shay reincarnated it at the Schkapf art incubator on Santa Monica Blvd.
Her performers — all drawn from the CalArts community, where she’s working on her MFA — are intense, focused and impressively skillful. Although none portray characters, each of them creates and maintains a presence with which we connect, drawing us into and through the experience.
You could call Into the Fog an energetic, enigmatic dance piece. And many of its performers are dancers. But all are actors experienced in the emerging art of “ensemble movement” — a kind of work that has yet to be defined or classified, while many companies worldwide explore its countless possible aspects and incarnations.
What I’m calling “ensemble movement” has been used to augment more traditional theatrical story telling, the way dance helps to tell West Side Story. Ensemble movement also has replaced characters and settings entirely, while the text remains, as in Zombie Joe’s masterful stagings of Poe’s stories and poems (e.g., The Telltale Heart, The Bells, The Masque of the Red Death).
Into the Fog takes a further step, leaving out the text as well, letting the flow of movements suggest a story that must be “written” in the mind of each audience member, and perhaps rewritten over coffee or drinks afterward. (So do recent ZJU works such as Nightmares, Manicomio and Haunted Walls and Apparitions.)
Watching such a performance, we must work to help create it, to make coherence and meaning of its flowing parts. We’re a long way from the passive state in which we’re entertained by Oklahoma! or Noises Off, or shocked and moved by Equus or Marat/Sade. It’s more like wrestling with Beckett, or Pinter, or Stoppard.
But now, it’s entirely without words. And almost equally far beyond the known languages of dance. Yet the very materials the artists use — as they refrain from telling what is not a story — create a human connection and elicit our own storymaking.
I wonder where we’ll go next.
Into the Fog, by Sam Szabo, directed by Samantha Shay.
Presented by the Source Material collective at Schkapf, 6567 Santa Monica Blvd.
Performers: Erica Carpenter, James Michael Cowan, Brenna Fredrickson, Raven Scott, Jocelynn Suarez, Kevin Whitmire, Jennifer Jun-Yi Zheng.