Arts Desk

It’s Kind of a Whole Process: dog & pony dc Makes Theater the Hard Way

Two weekends ago, as the intimate Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage filled with bodies, dog & pony dc made an unusual request of some of its patrons: It asked them to die.

The troupe’s members handed out packets of “Action Cards,” one by one. Each card contained a scene number, a cue, and directions that explained what to do when each cue was called.

Some of the directions asked cardholders to portray an undertaker. Others called for a disease expert. But most of the cards asked for viewers to play everyday residents of a city under siege by a devastating plague. It was just a question of whether the audience would accept the invitation.

The title of dog & pony’s still-unfinished work is A Killing Game. Earlier this month, the four-year-old troupe performed it as part of the Kogod Cradle Series, an experimental initiative spearheaded by Arena’s new director of artistic programming, David Snider. The idea is to provide support to new plays, and rope audiences into the development process. For dog & pony, the four-day run was an opportunity to test A Killing Game in its current form.

Dog & pony specializes in this kind of thing. The small company is one of a growing number of troupes in D.C. that experiments with what’s known as devised theater—the collaborative cobbling together of new plays—with a special emphasis on audience integration. The term is one that dog & pony’s founders, Rachel Grossman, Wyckham Avery, and Lorraine Ressegger-Slone, picked up from friend and mentor Michael Rohd, who founded the award-winning Sojourn Theatre Company in Portland, Ore.

The company began experimenting with audience engagement when it produced its first show, Cymbeline, four years ago. But the concept gradually became dog & pony’s main focus, as it began toying with what Grossman refers to as its “elastic” relationship with the audience. Its 2011 production, Beertown, was the company’s best-received devised work yet, nominated by Helen Hayes Awards judges for the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical.

In a typical night of theater, ticket-buyers file in, find their seats, sit almost completely still for the duration of the play, maybe laugh, maybe cry, and maybe become bored. Then the lights come up, and they applaud, or not—and scram. Dog & pony doesn’t offer that kind of passive experience. The company aims to present Washington audiences with something almost totally collaborative. The objective with A Killing Game is to create a show that simply cannot move forward without input from the audience.

So why upend the dominant way theater is made and produced, when most theatergoers seem perfectly content with the status quo? “In American theater, we’ve lost exploring and exploiting the possibilities of the live performative act,” says Grossman. “I mean, what are the possibilities that theater allows us as an art form? We’ve come to this place where it’s about: A group does, a group watches, and that’s it.”

But audience-driven theater is a tricky thing. For one, the audience changes for each show, and there’s no telling how they’re going to respond to a request to stand up and join in. So in order to create a play based on people’s unpredictable contributions, the company incorporates audience feedback into every step of its development. When the finished A Killing Game opens Nov. 28, ticket-buyers will participate in a play that has already been seen by test audiences that effectively took elements of the play and said, “That’s really not working for us. Can it be changed?”

***

Creating a new work as an ensemble starts early.

Usually, the scripting group for A Killing Game—Grossman, director Colin K. Bills, Jon Reynolds, J. Argyl Plath, Rebecca Sheir, Gwydion Suilebhan, and stage manager Melanie Harker—gathers around the table in Grossman and Bills’ living room, clutching laptops and iPads. The table tends to be littered with printouts of the latest outline and copies of Eugène Ionesco’s Killing Game, the main inspiration for dog & pony’s work.

The ensemble wants A Killing Game to ask questions about how hype and hysteria are perpetuated, and what it’s like to watch people perpetuate hype. Ionesco’s absurdist study of a panic-stricken town that is being wiped out by a mysterious plague is at the new work’s core, but dog & pony always draws ideas from multiple sources. Among them this time: an episode of WNYC’s Radiolab that analyzed the panic caused by Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds radio play, and the card game Fluxx, from which the company borrowed the concept of Action Cards.

These evenings are a flurry of brainstorming, joking, arguing for ideas that “feel right,” pushing back against those that don’t, and snacking on celery and frozen yogurt. Without agreement, individual collaborators can’t write the text or music they need to bring to the actors, so these sessions are a labor-intensive march toward consensus.

The script that will emerge is far from typical. Some scenes will be finished compositions to be presented in an unchanging way, like with a traditional play. Others are closer to a blueprint, a skeleton built to incorporate the meat the audience brings to the table.

Once rehearsals begin in the upstairs studio at Source on 14th Street NW, the company throws actors into the mix, but much of the work is still hypothetical. The cast must try to anticipate as many of the audience responses as possible. The process can be “exhausting,” admits Grossman. “It’s like constantly rehearsing a scene without your scene partner there. And it’s not like that, it is that.”

When audience members are introduced, the real challenge begins—especially if the play’s mechanisms don’t quite work the way everyone has imagined.
Like on this Thursday night. There are two weeks left before the Kogod Cradle Series begins, and five weeks before A Killing Game opens at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. I’m sitting in the morgue alongside a handful of other audience members who have just died. This small group of people will help test how well the integration devices in Scenes 3 to 6 are working so far. The feedback isn’t good.

One after another, the town’s residents have succumbed to the plague. Once dead, all the recently deceased are taken by undertakers—fellow audience members—to the morgue upstage. Here’s the problem. Once you land in the morgue, the only thing left to do is watch the still-living audience members continue to play. In the post-play discussion, that follows morgue-bound audience members report feeling “isolated” and “uninvested.” The ensemble begins to realize that it has inadvertently created the opposite of its intended effect: a de-escalation of audience involvement.

“It was a disaster,” Grossman tells me over coffee a few days later. But she also calls it a “necessary step.” This demonstrates exactly why incorporating the audience into the rehearsal process is so crucial. After the morgue fiasco, the scripting group spends the following Saturday in an “emergency” rescripting session. “I’ll be really honest,” Grossman says afterward, “we’ve spent the past two days restructuring the entire show.”

The group decides the morgue—and all the mechanisms for moving people into it once they have died—needs to be scrapped entirely.

Making a change as big as this, at this late stage, isn’t simple, and it has a ripple effect. The decision to ditch the morgue means major revisions are in store for both the staging and language in relevant scenes, which at this point the cast has been rehearsing for weeks. It also means sacrificing one of the overall themes of the show. A Killing Game will no longer ask what it is like to watch people perpetuate hype.

“The first thing we did was restate that goal,” says Bills, about that Saturday scripting session. In its place, they asked, How does hype get perpetuated? And they hoped audiences would go home thinking, Why do I perpetuate hype?

Figuring out how to restructure the show isn’t any easier the second time around. Plath, for one, says that when the idea of dropping the morgue was first introduced, he “pushed back hard.” He feared the response was “very reactionary. Like, this one test didn’t go well so we have to throw the whole idea out.”
In the end, the group concludes that structuring the performance around the morgue had caused the group to be, in Grossman’s words, “lulled into this linear narrative, which is very natural, ingrained, and comforting,” but resulted in a work that relegated the audience to the role of watcher—the opposite of what the company wanted. Once they realized that, no one in the scripting group had a problem with seeing the morgue die. “It’s the difference between dropping it because we had trouble with it,” says Plath, “and dropping it because it doesn’t make sense to the narrative anymore.”

***

A lot is riding on the Kogod Cradle Series testing sessions.

With opening night a mere three weeks away, it would be untenable for the company to start over again.

But as the experiment plays out, it’s clear that won’t be necessary. The recent revisions are having the desired effect. There are still some kinks, but the audience’s investment is growing, and they seem keen to play along.

Around me, people begin to choke and hack when they hear their cues—so enthusiastically, that when a man clears his throat in a quiet moment, the crowd laughs.

Watching the proceedings reminds me of a comment Bills made a week earlier, about what he believes is missing from most of his own theater-going experiences. “I knew what was going to happen,” he says. “Even if it was a new play, I kind of knew. I knew how it was going to work, I knew all the intricacies, I knew what was expected of me.” He said that as an audience member, he felt frustrated that “in a discipline where failure should be tolerated, there’s not enough risk.”

So dog & pony dc embraces what is, at times, a profoundly exhausting process. To the members, it’s worth it. Building a new way to make theater shouldn’t be easy.

The play runs Nov. 28 to Dec. 22 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St. SE.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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