The aptly named Common Ground Festival — the Audrey Skirball–Kenis Theater Project’s seventh annual free-to-the-public festival of innovative, extratextual theater — began as a way for ASK to welcome under its umbrella companies that transgress traditional theater models, that don‘t necessarily use a completed text as a blueprint but, rather, grow theatrical pieces out of improvisation, design concepts, ensemble work, music, or a pastiche of such elements.
”In a reading series, or in some of our other development programs, artists don’t really have the luxury of getting a piece on its feet,“ says ASK‘s executive director, Kym Eisner. ”Here we ask participants to walk a very fine line between doing something that will advance their process and providing a whole experience for our audience.“ In the past, Common Ground has played host to — among many others — performance artist John Fleck, the Seattle-based House of Dames, the fanciful Fabulous Monsters, movement-theater matron Rachel Rosenthal and, last year, Mabou Mines, who entered the festival with a piece featuring Ruth Malaczech.
This year’s festival opened Wednesday and runs through Sunday, and the bill is once again packed with pioneering voices in American theater. A collaborative effort between the Ghost Road Company, founded in 1993, and Theater of NOTE, a 20-year veteran of L.A.‘s small-theater community, launched the festival Wednesday night with The Clytemnestra Project, director Katharine Noon’s examination of King Agamemnon‘s wife not as the villain of Aeschylus’ ”Orestia“ trilogy, but as a woman who has struggled to run a collapsing household and endured the loss of a child, only to be caught up in the pretenses of a society that demands public devotion to her warlord husband and everything for which he stands. Noon, Ghost Road‘s artistic director, heads a collaborative effort that challenges performers, designers and composers to develop a freeform, improvisational treatment of the Atrean queen’s abduction by Agamemnon, his murder of their daughter Iphigenia, and her eventual death at the hands of her son, Orestes. ”Clytemnestra‘s story has particular relevance to women in contemporary society,“ reads a project outline, ”and the tension between what is true for women in the realms of motherhood, relationships and power . . .“ (The Clytemnestra Project runs again on Saturday at 3 p.m.)
Bicoastal performance artist Heather Woodbury follows up her What Ever: An American Odyssey in 8 Acts (winner of a 1999 L.A. Weekly Theater Award for Best Solo Performance) with samplings from her new work, Tale of 2 Cities: An American Joyride on Multiple Tracks. Drawing from the histories of Chavez Ravine and Ebbets Field, the artist improvises characters and action that transcend history altogether, as if one were to ”camp out in someone’s imagination.“ The work is in process, with Woodbury performing Tracks 5 and 6 (which she sees as part of a much larger collaborative installation piece) for the festival. Woodbury describes her work as a ”living novel“ consisting of epic-length ”chapters.“ Eventually, she says, ”I want to deconstruct the idea of narrative to the point that the spectator commands it.“ (Track 5 ran Wednesday; Track 6 runs on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.)
Jerome Dunn of Humility Incorporated collaborates with members of Illustrious Theater Orchestra to create the amorphous music-and-theater experience Mulch. ”The concept of the piece has evolved over the past few years, since my original proposal to ASK, and at this point I don‘t really know what it’s about,“ says developer Dunn. ”We were curious about abstracting the aftermath of war, but titling it Mulch allows us a couple of escape clauses. If our experiment doesn‘t turn out to be particularly fruitful, what we’ll end up with is a steaming pile of mulch.“ And if it is successful? ”Fertilizer. Food for thought.“ Music, color, appropriated text and props (in this case, thousands of pairs of socks) blend in a theatrical offering that aims to engage its audience, its creators say, on a level divorced from narrative. (Mulch plays Thursday, June 21, at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 8:30 p.m.)
PRI radio personality, author and solo performer Sandra Tsing Loh continues the festival with a stage adaptation of her new book, A Year in Van Nuys. The show reunites Loh with David Schweizer, director of her last solo show, Aliens in America, at the Tiffany Theater. (A Year in Van Nuys plays Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 6:30 p.m.) Meanwhile, the Actors‘ Gang, Common Ground Festival participants from nearly the beginning, brings together director Tracy Young and playwright (and L.A. Weekly theater editor) Steven Leigh Morris for Moscow, an updating of author Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1928 novel, The Master and Margarita. (Moscow plays Thursday, June 21, at 9:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3:30 p.m.)
On Friday night, the Ziggurat Theater, whose ritual piece The Cure garnered an emotional spectrum of attention a few years back and whose musically rich staged fable Aquitania closed just last week at the Gascon Center Theater, premieres A Cult of Isis. This re-enactment of an ancient Egyptian initiation ritual challenges issues of perception and language as the physical action plays through three times — once in a re-creation of the ancient Egyptian language, once with commentary from various supernatural characters who stand outside the action and, finally, in English. ”You are watching the same story three times in a row, but the audience is given different information about it based on whose thoughts they‘re hearing,“ explains Ziggurat Theater artistic director Stephen Legawiec, who also wrote and directed the piece. (A Cult of Isis plays on Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m.)
The legendary Guerrilla Girls, activists against sexism in the art world who may be best known for the gorilla masks they wear to preserve their anonymity, mark their first foray into the world of theater at the Common Ground Festival with History of Women in American Theater. Derived from and adopting the style of their myriad lectures on seminal female artists, History pulls the development of female play writing out from under the shadow of male domination. (History of Women in American Theater plays Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m.)
Closing out the festival is writer Alice Tuan and director Dan Bonnell’s work in progress The Coastline Project, which attempts to transpose the notion of hypertext to a theatrical setting. The project‘s narrative loosely follows a cross-country road trip that can derail and fragment in countless ways. ”The audience is a big part of the action,“ notes Bonnell. ”The order of the scenes is decided by the audience.“ He and Tuan attempt to pull a narrative out of randomness, much as a computer pulls information randomly from a hard drive until it eventually arrives at some kind of whole — a whole image, a whole program, a whole document. Bonnell says that he’d even like to include ”windows“ in which aspects of different scenes play out simultaneously, somewhat in the manner of Cubist painting: ”Instead of seeing a straightforward portrait, you‘d see four angles at the same time.“ (The Coastline Project plays Friday at 9:30 p.m. and Sunday at 5:30 p.m.)
Providing entr’acte entertainment on Saturday, the grossly satirical Burglars of Hamm will hand out short-wave-radio headsets to theatergoers, through which they may listen in on actors engaged in conversations situated around UCLA‘s north-campus sculpture garden. And on Sunday, the festival hosts representatives from over 50 local theaters for Theater Fair, where attendees can gather information on the burgeoning L.A. theater community. Also on Sunday, the Playwrights Slam spotlights 15-minute segments of new scripts from Lynn Manning, Bridget Carpenter, Monica Palacios, Paula Cizmar, Padraic T. Duffy, Velina Hasu Houston, Joy Gregory and others, to be read by the authors.
Common Ground, which has grown considerably in scope and budget over its seven-year history, demonstrates that as developments in television, the Internet, filmmaking and video games have changed the way we experience entertainment, theater has kept pace and — under less pressure to turn over obscene levels of profit — in some cases moved ahead of the pack.
All performances take place at UCLA’s Macgowen Hall, and all are free. Call (310) 478-9ASK for reservations and information.