Annie Saunders and Anthony Nikolchev in the immersive The Day Shall Declare It
Annie Saunders and Anthony Nikolchev in the immersive The Day Shall Declare It
Photo by Gema Galiana

Some of 2016's Best Theater Wasn't Found on a Stage

Taking the true measure of any stage scene has little to do with box office receipts or number of productions or even stage awards. Rather, it is found in the vitality and vibrancy of experimental work — that ontological frontier of performance, the poetic imagination and the head-scratching unknown where zeitgeists are first forged in the viscerally powerful and unstreamable terms that remain unique to the theater: the live relationship between actor and audience.

As the following recaps of five of the coolest and most creative experimental stagings of 2016 testify, L.A.’s avant stage was in fine fettle, and its continuing love affair with site-specific works and interactive audience immersions continued to make out-of-the-box synonymous with out of the theater.

Audience and cast enact a meal in And the Drum.
Audience and cast enact a meal in And the Drum.
Photo by Lauren Ludwig
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And the Drum by Capital W
A dinner party invitation, a rendezvous with a dozen strangers on a dark Koreatown side street and a nondescript three-bedroom Craftsman all set the stage for And the Drum, the mysterious and whimsical but intensely pleasurable site-specific hybrid from two-woman experimental-theater collective Capital W.

Writer-director Lauren Ludwig and producer Monica Miklas described their creation as "immersive dance theater fused with a dinner party." But the evening of dining and intimate tête-à-têtes with the ensemble and the evening's star, L.A. performance poet Martha Marion, felt more like a freewheeling book musical without song.

Over the course of the evening, the whisper-close physical proximity to the actors dissolved the traditional firewall between the fictive and the real, and it made highly stylized dance numbers and conversationally pitched recitations of Marion’s wry metaphysical verse — about life, politics and the redemptive nature of love — seem as second nature as sharing stories with good friends over supper.

Mikie Beatty as a dejected lover in Annie Lesser's B(arbershop)
Mikie Beatty as a dejected lover in Annie Lesser's B(arbershop)
Photo by Annie Lesser

The ABC Project by Annie Lesser
In Los Angeles, no immersive artist tangles the lines that separate audience and actor to greater effect than experimental playwright-director Annie Lesser. In 2016, she debuted the ABC Project, her ambitious, A-through-Z immersive investigation of emotional catharsis and connection, which conscripts audience members as active characters in one-on-one and two-on-one, highly introspective experiences.

In A(partment 8), which officially launched the cycle, audience members found themselves cast in the role of murderer — and locked in a bathroom with their dead lover — in a chilling tale that transcended empathy and horror to produce something at once morally implicating and critically contemplative. B(arbershop), set after hours at an East Hollywood hair salon, was a 25-minute meditation on the paradox of trust and cruelty, which form the obverse sides of any love relationship.

Courageous actors and Lesser’s fertile invention and exacting eye made each show an exhilarating and profoundly unsettling journey into the poetics of extreme intimacy.

Annie Saunders hefts Chris Polick in The Day Shall Declare It.
Annie Saunders hefts Chris Polick in The Day Shall Declare It.
Photo by Gema Galiana

The Day Shall Declare It by Wilderness
Merely taking the theatrical performance out of the theater and into an industrial space often is enough to charge it with the romantic frisson of the downtown art happening (Oakland’s Ghost Ship disaster notwithstanding). But to transform a tumbledown, 1920s Arts District factory into the warren of Great Depression-era environments of The Day Shall Declare It, creators-directors Annie Saunders (who also performed) and Sophie Bortolussi’s symphonic dance meditation on the dignity of work was an atmospheric coup de théâtre.

An artful collage of Working, Studs Terkel’s 1972 oral-history classic, and early Tennessee Williams one-acts, the show featured Bortolussi’s gravity-defying choreography (danced by Saunders and fellow performers Chris Polick and Anthony Nikolchev). But its real achievement was using the almost embarrassingly voyeuristic proximity of spectators and performers to viscerally implicate the audience in a more profound recognition that the economic and social inequities of the 1930s are much, much nearer than we’d like to believe.

Michael Bates as a WWI casualty in the Speakeasy Society's The Johnny Cycle: Part II — The ShellEXPAND
Michael Bates as a WWI casualty in the Speakeasy Society's The Johnny Cycle: Part II — The Shell
Photo by Sara Martin, Model 05 Productions

The Shell by the Speakeasy Society at St Mark's Episcopal Church, Glendale.
A tale about a grotesquely maimed WWI conscript might not seem an overly enticing choice for an evening of audience immersion. But with The Shell, the second installment of The Johnny Cycle — the Speakeasy Society’s sprawling adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun — writer-adaptors Julianne Just (who co-directed with Genevieve Gearhart) and Chris Porter (who also scored the show) used the story of a man’s literal disembodiment as a vehicle to explore the ideological corners of narrative itself.

The ornate Gothic-revival interiors of Glendale’s St. Mark’s church provided a subversively ironic backdrop for the show’s darkly poetic reflection on what it means to be human amid the profoundly dehumanizing carnage of technological warfare. The uniformly persuasive ensemble, led by riveting Michael Bates as Johnny, treated the audience to an increasingly hallucinatory descent through Johnny’s splintering psyche that was as harrowing as it was mystical and moving.

Susannah Rea-Downing in Kristin Idaszak’s site-specific Second Skin
Susannah Rea-Downing in Kristin Idaszak’s site-specific Second Skin
Photo by Jim Carmody

Second Skin, Santa Monica Beach
Kate Jopson’s atmospheric, site-specific staging of playwright Kristin Idaszak’s eerie riff on a Celtic sea legend came as a haunting reminder that unleashing immersive theater’s most elemental magic can be found in something as simple as a firepit at night and a windswept beach.

Second Skin explored the murky no-man’s land of mother-daughter and sister-sister relationships in a Rashomon-like memory play about shame and guilt and the tragic consequences of misunderstanding. As each narrator successively recounted the death of a beloved aunt (including the dead woman herself), the perspective gradually widened, the gaps in understanding narrowed, and the scene was set for a climactic exorcism that was both literal and figurative.

What made it unforgettable was Jopson’s expert use of both the setting sun and Santa Monica Beach’s vistas of savage surf and expansive sand to frame the kind of deep-focus pictures that are impossible on a stage but in Second Skin were both sensually evocative and poetically emblematic.


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