This past weekend, St. Louis audiences had the opportunity to attend two different spins on devised theatre, one by COCA students, the other by Webster University students, each quite different from the other, each very entertaining, and each so very different from the other.
First, let me say a word about “devised theatre”.
Devised theatre is not a new concept (similar work has been done for centuries) or a new term (discussed in print since the 1960s) but one which has gained popularity in recent years in part through the urging of no less an institution than the Kennedy Center through its American College Theatre Festival arm.
Devised theatre is one conceived and created by its performers. There are no scripts, per se, at least not at the start. The ensemble - actors, technicians, directors (if there are directors at this stage) – are everything: playwrights, designers, dramaturgs, performers, and so on. Typically, the group will agree on a theme and then begin working on how that theme will be developed and presented. Having said that, every piece of devised theatre and every group practicing it is likely to have its own process and approach.
And themes can be anything. You can’t be sure of what you’ll see until you’ve seen it. But don’t think any of the above makes for slap-dash, poor productions. Oh, yes, it can result in that, but it can also bring something vibrant, fresh, wildly entertaining or greatly moving and new to a stage. That’s exactly what happened here with COCA’s production of “Tales” and the Webster Conservatory production of “A Reconsolidated Life”.
The COCA Theatre Company (CTC) program, “Tales: A Devised Circus Play”, was as fresh and new, to me at least, as it gets. The concept the COCA group of young performers started with was untold or seldom told fairy tales. The characters were, themselves, part of these tales – faeries, princesses, witches and the like, plus one normal child, a “boy from Missouri.” The issue is simple: if these creatures are not able, somehow, to tell their tales or have their stories told, eventually they will “vanish”, they will cease to be forever more.
Since much of the talent involved were attendees of COCA’s circus camps, the real treat of the program was the amazing talents of the performers. Tumblers, jugglers, aerialists, magicians, unicyclists, ball walkers, gymnasts – on and on. And much of what these young people did was beautiful, both in its athleticism as in the obvious joy with which they performed. At one point, we, the audience, had to dodge and duck a fusillade of squirt-gun volleys with the entire program ending up with the cast passing around napkins and pizza!
If I wanted to be picky about playwriting, I could say the piece was rather disjointed in some ways, unclear in others why certain things were said or done when they were or at all. But I don’t want to be picky. “Tales” was 50 minutes of fun, entertainment, interlaced throughout with these talented young people performing circus feats almost within arms reach. It was, simply put, a pleasure, a treat.
The large, ensemble cast of talent – too many to name, I’m sorry to say - was deftly led by ringmasters (or should I say directors) Josh Routh and Amanda Pintore. Costumes, of which there were many, were nicely done by Ginger Routh. And the music – yes, a wonderful mix of old circus-style music, at times reminiscent of French mime work, at times Ringling Brothers – was perfect. The playbill didn’t say who assembled the music but kudos to you for a fine job.
I don’t know if it is fair to expect of such a young ensemble to create a tightly written piece of dramatic literature. But fair or not, I don’t think that is very important in this instance. Some of the characters were distinct enough to weave a story with and, afterall, this was, as the playbill noted, a “circus play”, and it was, indeed, a circus.
As I mentioned above, the program was a joy to watch. There was such wonderful athletic talent on display. It was all so intimate and immediate and the performers radiated fun. I didn’t need a tightly written piece of theatre to thoroughly enjoy “Tales.”