Academic journal article TheatreForum

Illuminating the Debate Society and the Light Years

Academic journal article TheatreForum

Illuminating the Debate Society and the Light Years

Article excerpt

Playwright's Horizons recently premiered The Light Years created by The Debate Society, an Obie-Award winning collaborative theatre company consisting of the trio of Playwright/Performers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and Director/Developer Oliver Butler. Over the last 13 years, they have gone from making plays in small scrappy theatre spaces-some of which do not exist anymore-to hit shows at the Ontological Hysteric (Buddy Cop 2), The Bushwick Starr (Blood Play), and Arts Nova (Jacuzzi). Their work has been featured at The New York Public Theatre's Under The Radar Festival, Arts Emerson in Boston, The Williamstown Theatre Festival, and the Almeida in London. They currently have a commission from Playwrights Horizons for their next play.

The Light Years, which featured Aya Cash, Ken Barnett and Rocco Sisto, is an epic story spanning 40 years between the World's Fairs of Chicago in 1893 and 1933. In the first fair, legendary real life theatrical impresario Steele MacKay is attempting to build his Specatorium, a 12,000 seat theatre which will require a lighting system that the world has never before seen. His electrician Hillary and assistant Hong Sling are attempting to build a theatre worthy of MacKay's vision. [Photo 1] Hillary's wife Adeline (Cash) enters, buzzing about the stage, dizzy with the prospects and innovation of this bright new world, from bicycles to the electric machines her husband spends his days wrestling into existence. Meanwhile, during the time of the twentieth century fair, in the same Chicago house, a struggling family has moved in to chase their dreams against the creeping specter of the depression. A mother, Ruth (also played by Cash), has come to Chicago with her son and her musician husband, who is trying to make it as a jingle writer for the multitude of new products to be unveiled at the fair. Optimism walks handin-hand with hunger as a scene with the painful stirring of the day's ration of powdered milk haunts the family almost as much as the strange happenings from the mysterious and invisible landlord. [Photo 2]

Playwrights Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, whose creative chemistry (and comically disparate heights) have been the most consistent performance feature of the chameleonlike company, decided to work only as playwrights during this, the largest scale production they have under taken. They and director Oliver Butler filled the spacious midtown Playwrights Horizons space with the same precision and detail they have always filled narrow and almost claustrophobic venues downtown.

The Brooklyn-based Debate Society has a dedicated audience and is often a darling of critics, but frequently defies description. In the past, the company has been labeled as devised theatre practitioners due to their collaborative nature, but that description does not adequately capture the process and aesthetic of their work. Perhaps the clearest intention and spirit of the company is the sub-header they proudly post on their website: "Makers of Plays Since 2004." [Photo 3]

Like other artisanal manufacturers of Brooklyn, their product is distinct, bears the marks of high quality, and possesses a kind of nostalgia that at first glance seems retro, or even wholesome. This is despite the fact that many of their shows, The Light Years included, delve into waters that are deceptively dark despite the swirling effervescence of wit and charm.

Critic Helen Shaw, writing for Time Out New York, acknowledges that "The Debate Society has always been tricky to catalog . . . They have developed an arch style that never winks, a naturalism that can fold in weird events . . . and the hilarious details mask sinister developments." (Shaw 1)

Other "downtown" New York experimental groups: Elevator Repair Service, The Civilians, and Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, are known for performance styles that are distinct enough to become expected. You can reasonably assume that you will see vigorous dancing at an Elevator Repair Service show, in Civilians productions you expect musical numbers that deftly distill thematic questions the company has collected in interviews. …

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