FIRST QUESTION FIRST: Are these the dozen companies that are heralding our theatrical future? Of course not. Hundreds of young, under-the-radar theatre troupes are capturing audiences and creating buzz in arts-friendly neighborhoods, storefronts, community centers, converted warehouses and basements, in cities large and small--confirming that the theatrical impulse is something utterly innovative and unquenchable.
American Theatre selected this dozen as emblems of the wave of American companies that have formed or come into prominence within the last five years--particularly companies with strong missions or aesthetic thrusts. Mostly, we put our ear to the ground to hear what local theatre-watchers were talking about.
Our representative dozen is by turns tenacious and permeable, ambitious and on a budget, esoteric and low-brow. The work ranges from re-envisioned classics (with or without clowns) to new work by contemporary playwrights; it's vaudevillian, dance-centric, visual art-focused, music-infused, socially conscious, ethnically organized--and fun.
Of course, numerous other such companies exist in myriad forms, probably not far from where you're sitting. We encourage you to find them.
ONE BRAIN AT A TIME
IN THE MIDST OF THE TWIN CITIES' WELL-FUNDED THEATRE SCENE, which prides itself on pristine productions that rise up gracefully on the other side of the fourth wall, Bedlam Theatre prefers to be howling in your lap. Founded by a quartet of students from Macalester College, this live-wired company produces experimental political theatre fueled by spectacle and glee. In 2002, it hijacked the traditional form of a history pageant to create To Shining Sea, compressing 500 years of American imperialism into a clean 90 minutes. Bedlam's radical hijinks are a tool for disseminating provocative ideas about community, democracy and the power of the individual.
It all happens in the Bedlam Studio, the company's self-proclaimed "factory of the imagination," a home for invention and construction, activist and performance workshops and late-night extravaganzas, such as the "Bedlam ROMPS." These interactive, no-holds-barred cabarets inspire audiences to don cowboy boots and pigtails for a "hoedown romp" or bring their own fake blood to add verisimilitude to a "horror romp." Bedlam's core group--playwright/designer John Francis Bueche, puppeteer/performer Julian McFaul, director/performer Maren Ward, puppeteer/director Sarah Garner--are often invited to collaborate with other companies, and they anchor an extended family of 12-50 artists who rotate in and out of every show.
In 2003, Bedlam initiated a festival of 10-minute plays designed to inspire volunteers and supporters to write, act and direct. Working within the world of Bedlam, these novices know that anything is possible. Bedlam's locally legendary Terminus (adapted by Bueche and McFaul from the Stanislaw Lem sci-fi classic) told the story of a humanized robot harboring the residual trauma from a forgotten spaceship disaster. Bedlam literally surrounded the audience with this existential adventure by placing them inside the hull of a spaceship built in the studio--at blastoff, the set began to rotate around the audience on dozens of five-dollar castors, powered by stagehands on the outside of the ship.
"Julian and I were bouncing off the walls--we had to flee the coffee shop--when we came up with the idea of the spinning spaceship. From then on, our goal was to try and get the audience half as excited as we were," says Bueche. Next up: a theatrical documentary that chronicles the history of radicalism in Bedlam's West Bank neighborhood, a haven for intellectuals, anarchists, punk rockers and immigrants. Here in the polite, sprawling landscape of the wholesome Midwest, these manic …