THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


CAPITALIZING ON RECESSION: PROVIDENCE THEATERS USE SURREALISM TO COPE WITH HARD TIMES

by by Adrian Randall

illustration by by Liana Ogden

Any budding artist knows that creative restraints are often the best way to explore a medium. However, those restraints come with higher stakes than a speedwriting seminar. For Rhode Island theatre, the economic crisis has been a test of mettle, from choosing suitable programming to keeping doors open. At the time it seems as if the hardship is a broken bone that will heal stronger, with community support reaching all corners of the theatre circuit. Meanwhile, accessible creativity on-stage feels more propitious than ever, as long as you can make your way through the ice and slush to see it.

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Le esqui cadavre
In 1925 the French Surrealists developed a new type of parlor game called the exquisite corpse. The players create a composition in turns, each participant only knows where the last contributor left off. The game lends itself to any medium--you can play with words, pictures or ideas. This year, the Elemental Theatre Collective, a Providence-based performing arts group, decided to use the exquisite corpse as a model for their annual go.go. play series, interweaving random elements into a series of short plays. It's a handicap that forces the viewer to look at the piece as a departure from regular theatre, not just a night of vignettes.
Meanwhile, Providence theatre has been dealing with its own restrictive parameters: a career in the performing arts is hardly a lucrative or consistent gig in the best of times, and being in the state with the nation's second-highest unemployment rate doesn't help. Yet, the Providence theatre community has held its ground under pressure. Elemental's celebrated installment this year, deca.go.go is a hopeful sign that neither ingenuity nor attendance have stuttered under the looming double digits of state unemployment (nearing 10.3 percent). Providence theatres such as the 2nd Story, Black Rep and Trinity Rep are facing pitfalls with just as much resourcefulness. It's clear that artists around Providence know instinctually that hard times are never meant to stifle creative output, they're just a source for new material.
Nestled snugly next to Providence's arts backbone AS220 is Perishable, an experimental theatre venue now entering its 25th year. January 31st marked the end of deca.go.go, a 10-play 90-minute performance that's hitting year three in its annual production cycle. In this year's series, built around the exquisite corpse model, the only thing that stays consistent is a simple framework: several writers, an ensemble cast and five themes that, chosen at random, will determine the course of the production. The result is electric; it's like seeing Oulipo literature taken to the stage. This year's elements--mice, a mask, disease, torture and a dirty joke--had to be used at least once in each play. Two directors, sharing seven actors, then had to write five plays, each containing at least one element from the list. Like the exquisite corpse model, a mediator, called a dramaturge, helped to link one play to the next, who otherwise had no contact with one another.
In this sense, deca.go.go succeeds not through any individual play, but as a performative experience. When the only common thread is surreality, it's easy to pick and choose the highlights. If one scene is especially horrifying--an acid trip that takes a spin into domestic violence--then another is nostalgic and hilarious, like a Hindu funeral for George Harrison. Every two plays or so, the cast as surrealist-ensemble (complete with bowlers, moustaches, and French accents) whirls through the stage, perhaps in an umbrella-fueled brouhaha, or possibly as a dysfunctional troupe of musicians. At intermission they perform an exquisite corpse poem with the audience; avoiding the high-energy is almost impossible. Deca.go.go takes an approach to avant-garde theatre that is digestible and stimulating.
Not so perishable theatre?
During the Friday night show at Perishable, nothing would hint that there's a recession outside. The show starts late, waiting for the venue to reach full capacity. If half the seats are taken up by regular theatergoers, then the remainder is filled by those who read the show's positive reviews in The Phoenix and ProJo. Some of the segments' quick twists between humor and drama feel aberrant, but the show moves quickly. When one actor ends up naked with a gun pointed at his vitals, no one jumps out of his seat.
As most of the material was written last October, there's little reference to more recent political happenings. It's not until the show's final vignette, which takes place in an American-occupied warzone, that there's a connection between on-stage histrionics and the surrealism of some of our nation's recent track record. An American soldier talks to two insurgents: "You're intellectuals, like my CO, always telling me to not kill civilians... But then he killed himself in the office when things got bad." It's apparent that we've moved forward from Marcel Duchamp's urinal.
For the thespians themselves, struggling in a career that is rarely financially rewarding is nothing new. Michael LoCicero and Mike Hodge, two Providence actors, agree that hardship is part of the game. "The unfortunate issue is that you're never getting paid that well," said LoCicero. "But I haven't seen a decline in full houses." The two are happy working at independent theatres, although sometimes that means doing a show with higher ticket prices. "A $25 show means that, well, your friends aren't coming to see you," said LoCicero. Similarly, Melissa Rabinow, the show's dramaturge, explains that manning the Elemental Collective doesn't mean any time off the day job. "All our work is nights and weekends, and everyone here has some other source of income." One board member works in Wellesley, Mass, another in a Rhode Island glass factory.
Artists under the influence
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There's a sense that in the greater Providence theatre community, you can pick any point and map the whole group within two degrees of separation. At the Perishable, the Black Repertory and the Sandra Feintein-Gamm Theatre, all are part of the Equity Theatre Union so it's hard to avoid crossover. "There's definitely a sense of community here," says Rabinow. "It's almost a bit incestuous." After the show, most of the cast members mingle with their friends who have just stepped out of the audience. "I'd say probably half the people in the crowd are friends from the theatre community," says Michael LoCicero, who played absinthe-enthusiast Avide Rabinatt. Still, many of the city's thespians are culled from a wider geography, commuting from around Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Whatever sample of the arts community you can safely observe inside Perishable, it's gone as soon as you step outside and see how the performers quickly blend into the booming AS220 scene.
Opening the curtains
Failing stock numbers became a reality when Providence's Black Rep Theatre announced in early November that it would lay off five fulltime employees and temporarily suspend its season. Many thought that Black Rep might close its doors permanently. By mid-November community support and aggressive fundraising were able to restart the season, but the five employees couldn't be rehired and the theatre cut its $1.5 million operating budget by a third. Black Rep's seemingly portentous stumble turned out to be more of a warning shot. Earlier this month, Trinity Rep decided to make an additional 5,000 low-price tickets, which for the higher-end theatre run to a budget-friendly $20. Top seats at the theatre run up to $60, a move received enthusiastically by thrifty Rhode Island theatergoers. Even the Gamm, which has already made two budget adjustments this year, is still planning on a five-year renovation plan into the Pawtucket Armory.
Unsurprisingly, theatre programming is adjusting to the seismic financial shifts as well. Theatres aren't shying away from a little transparency: Trinity Rep's A Raisin in the Sun is a classic confrontation with economic hardship; Perishable's next play is a Providence original, Bad Money: A Play About Soft Currency. The most prominent example is likely 2nd Story Theatre's decision to nix its scheduled production of Death of a Salesman. There's not much explanation necessary--a play that centers on a suicide because of a failed business enterprise hardly seems apposite to the current fiscal climate. It probably saved them some suffering as well; in the international scene, Charlie Kaufman's highly anticipated Synechdoche, NY took Death of a Salesman as its creative--and painfully bleak--crux, and raked in very low sales at the box office. Even if other members of the Providence theatre community give a knowing nod to 2nd Story's switch (which ended up as frantic comedy The Front Page, best known as the original text for His Girl Friday), 2nd Story turned it into some positive publicity. "Death of a Salesman or The Front Page? Let's go with the second story," reads their website. The move generated some controversy; several Providence bloggers opined that theatres should be more confrontational with sensitive subject matter, like the Gamm's Depression-era Awake and Sing!
Vanessa Gilbert, artistic director at Perishable Theatre, is directing a new theatre production that premieres next month. The title couldn't be more forthright about its subject matter: Bad Money: A play about soft currency. In exploring the realities of economic hardship, the play centers around a woman who re-enters her foreign homeland as president of a multi-national oil company. But don't let the heaviness of the plot deter you. "[Bad Money] has crazy metaphysical logic in it," Gilbert told the Independent. "But it's also got a lot of humor in it. It's really funny." She reaffirms that anyone in the performing arts community is an evolved stalwart when it comes to unsteady finances. "We've always had marginal proprietary, it's not a new challenge." Nevertheless, Perishable isn't scrounging for money; any group that rents from Perishable pays according to their ticket sales. That policy isn't out of necessity, but out of the theatre's own philosophy. In fact, Perishable has so many requests that it has started to turn people down.
After years of theatre, it's clear that the basic rules can still apply: restrictive boundaries, like in the exquisite corpse, act as reactionary material. No stage is too small.

Adrian Randall B'11 boira la vin nouveau.