There were two pieces of “devised theatre” on in St. Louis this past weekend – COCA Theatre Company’s “Tales: A Devised Circus Play” and this one. Both were excellent examples of the genre (devised theatre), both were entertaining and they could not have differed one from the other more. But first, a word about devised theatre.
Devised theatre has been around for centuries but has gained a new popularity in recent years. It is theatre which is conceived and created by its performers. There are no scripts in the beginning, although clearly scripts evolve and, by curtain up, the form, structure, words and action of a devised piece become fixed. It is not, in that sense, “improv” although it may start there. Every group engaged in devised theatre has its own process.
Typically, a devised theatre group will agree on a theme and then work on how that theme will be developed and presented. And themes can be anything. You can’t be sure of what you’ll see until you’ve seen it.
Webster Conservatory’s “A Reconsolidated Life: A Devised Piece” was, in a word, brilliant. This program, approximately 50 minutes long, was entertaining, fresh, new – like COCA’s - but it was so, so much more. There were great comic moments, incredibly moving, beautiful moments, moments of such sensitivity and sincerity ... incorporating so many styles of theatre skill – some song, movement/dance and masterful acting. Webster’s Conservatory students are so professional.
I am a great fan – and occasional director – of Samuel Beckett, especially his shorter “ghost” plays. There were numerous moments during this piece when the principal or, perhaps, sole actress on stage at the moment would fall silent. And slowly, almost imperceptibly, her face, her body, her bearing would begin to signal a change of spirit. This would last a seemingly long time. It was beautiful, breathtaking, pure poetry. Beckett himself, I believe, would have loved it.
There were so many of these moments woven together ... this piece will last long in my memory – which brings me to an important point, the story. The notion or theme behind “A Reconsolidated Life” was stated up front as one of the actors stood mid-house and told us, in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s words, “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”
That was immediately followed by the members of the ensemble moving among the audience, each kneeling before a small group of audience members and telling them a story, of one of their memories – why they hated theme parks, or how they always wanted to go camping alone, or of visits in family gatherings, food and festivities, or of being shunned, bullied in high school, on and on. After each story, the cast members would each move on to a different small group of audience. This lasted for 10 minutes before anyone took the stage. It was personal, touching – and the skill, the acting chops of each one, right there, literally within arm’s reach – you easily could have touched their nose, or given them a hug and you often either laughed with them or felt a tug on your heart.
There is so much to say about this program, so much to praise, that I despair of the space in which to say it all.
They employed a convention of overalls, reminiscent of a worker’s jump suit, flat gray in color, industrial in construction. Before each, in turn, told her story on the stage, she undressed or was undressed by another, revealing under the uniform, beneath the conformity of the outer being, the singular personality underneath. One of these “undressing” moments was comically done so well – it could easily have been a bit of vaudeville, very Chaplain-esque.
And the acting, the dance/movement, the speaking in solo and in unison – superb, absolutely superb.
At one point, one of the ensemble is speaking of love, ultimately of a broken heart, and she begins to sing. Not a beautiful operatic singing nor the often smooth, self-reflective style of an indie singer/songwriter – a voice somehow more real than either of those, more moving, less polished but more effective for being so.
Even the traditional curtain at the end of the show was beautifully done, in full character, as each actress moved to the lip of the stage in turn, and began again to tell her story, the one who resolved her spirit in song, in her turn, singing – then they all fell silent.
The emcee, or principal actress or lead – there truly was no lead or principal, so I’ll call her the emcee - then stepped forward, far stage left, looked at the others and, finally, after a long moment of beautiful silence, said “How about we end like this ...”.
And they did. Without cue or warning, they each then jumped down from the stage and, in the manner employed at the top of the show, individually, personally, to small groups of audience, thanked us for coming.
I went home that evening and dashed off a quick email to some friends, theatre professionals, urging them to see this show.
Sadly, this piece of devised theatre had a 1-weekend run. By the time you see this, the show will be gone. The stories, faces, voices, movement of the young women of “A Reconsolidated Life” will be only memories. But in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s words, “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” I will remember “A Reconsolidated Life ...,” for it, among other things, gave new life to my own personal love of theatre.
We are not, in reviews, supposed to urge readers to see a show. Luckily I can’t urge you to see either of these – the Conservatory’s or COCA’s - since they are no more. But I will urge you this: consider attending the next piece of devised theatre open in your town. Sure, it might be “so-so” but it might, too, be one of the most powerful, simply done, masterfully performed works you will have seen in quite some time.
What a wonderful weekend I have had attending the theatre in St. Louis! I will end here by paraphrasing a line which a blogger, a theatre professional friend now based in Nashville, uses <plug in your own town’s name> : Come to St. Louis and Go to the Theatre!