What is reality? And what's real? These are questions people have been asking since people started asking questions, although it is sometimes difficult to ask them out loud without running the risk of sounding like a neophyte stoner playing with a box of crayons. Fortunately, Our Own Voice is a brave little theater company that doesn't worry too much about what people may think. For 20 years, the troupe has created work that defies convention while asking questions that our more commercial playhouses can't begin to approach. With Reality Show — an evening of theater that has nothing to do with the reality TV show phenomenon — the company employs spoken word, dance, and theater games to ask what we're keeping when we're "keeping it real."
The scenes in Reality Show fall into two categories: live acts and confession. The former calls to mind the work of Chicago's Neo-Futurists whose long-running Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind is built around the idea of putting only real actions and activities onstage. The latter has a 1980s vibe, as it resembles the more confessional side of Reagan-era performance art.
"To be honest, I was not familiar with the neo-futurist movement in theater. But after reading a little about their aesthetic, I can see a connection to the work of Our Own Voice," says Reality Show choreographer and co-creator (the program says "choreo-directed by") Kimberly Baker, noting that Our Own Voice productions tend to be inspired by the work of Augusto Boal and Anna Halprin. "Both of these artists respect the everyday person's ability to make artistic contributions through the exploration of communal identity or personal narrative," she says.
The pieces in Reality Show were chosen to represent the community that formed during Our Own Voice's most recent series of workshops.
"We started with a series of questions that everyone answered as a creative writing exercise," Baker says. "The placement of pieces, track selections of music, and order of performers in different sections were often randomized or decided through chance operations. I would roll dice, pull cards, tell the actors to line up according to height, or activate their movement in the order of their birth month. Being open to making order out of chaos and trusting that process is an act of faith."
Our Own Voice embraces the idea of experimental theater. But what, exactly, is the experiment? What's being tested? What are the anticipated outcomes? The initial goal, Baker says, was to explore reality through the lens of contemporary culture: "That was our starting point, but the real discovery was uncovering a slice of each person's individual reality: the ways they spend their days as mothers, fathers, students, teachers, daughters, sons, husbands, wives, lovers, and friends."
From a spectator's perspective, some elements are more instantly engaging than others. It's interesting to watch Alexander Mooney — his voice a whispery rasp one must strain to hear — as he plays the drums and then bravely describes the automobile accident that caused his brain injury. It's inspiring to hear him describe his ongoing therapy and the value of persistence. It is similarly intriguing to watch other members of the company as they work to give personal information a dramatic shape, although some of the text might have been culled from high school journals with "Private: Do Not Read" scrawled on the cover.
"I feel so grateful that we created a community where people felt safe sharing elements of their personal lives," says Baker, who has an uncanny ability to find the inner dance major inside even the most awkward, untrained performers. "By exploring personal narratives in a open way you start to see commonalities and differences. That enables the performers to create meaningful dialogue both onstage and off, and it invites the audience to continue the conversation."
Our Own Voice's work always attempts to include the audience. In Reality Show, for example, audience and cast members text each other and communicate via cell phone, which is hilarious considering the warning to disable all electronics that serves as a prelude to today's theatergoing experience. But it's not always clear how much, if any, of Reality Show was created for the audience, which seems to be necessary here only to complete a kind of circuit. That's not a criticism or a complaint as much as it is a suggestion to those who may be interested in this kind of work.
Our Own Voice shows are always thought-provoking, and they can be entertaining. But watching one may not always be as fulfilling as building one.
At TheatreWorks through May 22nd