by Chris Davis
Intermission Impossible: Our Own Voice has changed quite a bit over 20-years. Can you describe that change and give me some sense of how it will continue to evolve?
Bill Baker: Of course the major change is the one mentioned in the play and in numerous interviews over the past ten years or so, the transformation from a mental health consumer group to an inclusive theatre company, based in the idea that everybody should have access to the theatre and that the work should grow out of the very specific talents and experiences of the ensemble. I’d say in the last ten years, that change has led to the evolution of an aesthetic which I believe in very strongly and which I think needs consideration and respect in the twenty-first century, as theatre struggles to be more than an elephantine and overpriced marginal novelty in a bloated and increasingly oppressive entertainment industry. It seems to me that our struggle has moved from addressing the stigma attached to the labels of mental illness to the stigma attached to labels like “local artist”, “community theatre”, “non-actor or non-dancer”, “original play”, and “amateur.” More than anything, Our Own Voice has grown over the past twenty years to embrace and promote the recognition that community is something that can be found and celebrated in even the most diverse group of human beings. We find that theatre is the art form uniquely suited to do that, both for the artists and the spectators.
Intermission Impossible: Ephemera aims at targets big and small: the local theater scene and performing arts generally. What are the big takeaways, in your opinion? And without dropping names, how would you describe the styles used to both sweeten and sharpen the show's polemical/parochial edges?
Bill Baker: Ephemera takes aim primarily at the big target of consumerism and the impoverishment of what historically has been a spiritually and politically powerful art form into a culturally irrelevant trinket of show business. My local targets are simply the attitudes in our community that perpetuate this trivialization. It’s what I call the “Guffman effect”, after Christopher Guest's brilliant parody of the same phenomenon in Waiting for Guffman: a community theatre that somehow embodies the life of its community but which still seeks its validation from elsewhere, from the New York representative. I see something of that in my friend Jackie’s statement (on your blog, by the way), validating his enormous achievement for our community by assuring us that the guy from the National Endowment said it was good enough to be Pre-Broadway. What I hope people would take away from this production (and from any of our productions) is that what is essential is being present, aware of oneself and open and attentive to the presence of others. As Dubbs puts it in the penultimate monologue, “It’s about this moment. Now.” As for the styles used in presenting the message, I’ve dropped all the names during the play so I needn’t mention them again, but the key approach that has emerged during this production has been the juxtaposition of the scripted sequences with the improvised sequences, and even within scenes, the lines versus the ad libs, the choreographed versus the spontaneous movement, the order vs. the chaos, etc. It is never the same stream twice, but it is reliably flowing within its intended course.
Intermission Impossible: I've asked you a lot of questions over the years. Instead of asking a third specific question think of this as a free space. What would you like to add to the conversation about Ephemera and your involvement with Our Own Voice?
Bill Baker: The pain and the pleasure of my years with Our Own Voice come from the ephemeral nature of what we do. Looking back, as anniversaries cause us to do, I feel a mixture of sadness and pride as I think about those creative collaborations which can never be replicated, which were as profound and inspired as any I shall ever experience, and which were witnessed by only a handful of appreciative spectators. It’s hard to think about Boxing Unformed or Experimental Movement or Country Spacecraft Ballerina without wanting to scream from some mountaintop, “Wake up, people! You don’t know what you’re missing!” We joke a lot in the play about the empty seats, about the struggle to find an audience, and about our marginal place within the marginal community of theatre in Memphis. But we accept the role we play and the foolhardiness of our task. We know this is, as Bombast says in the play, “a ship of fools’, but we sail on. Our goal is simple: to change the world, twenty spectators at a time.
Ephemera II: You Can't Do That Again at TheatreWorks through Friday, October 10th. Tickets are $10 for adults or $8 for students and seniors.
For reservations or more information, call 274-1000.