Saturday, November 7, 2009

Dionysus in 69

If you were sitting in the audience seating in the Off Center and you got up and headed down the hall, as if you were going to go to the restrooms you would pass by a velvet curtain. Behind that curtain another hallway branches off to the South. Down that hallway is the ladder up to the light and sound "booth," the enormous air-conditioning unit which was gifted to the Off Center almost a decade ago and at the very end of this hallway there is a door. The door never used to be there. It used to be a wall. On the other side of the wall was an anarchist collective that used to hold raves. We had to ask them to be quiet while we were trying to have a show. The anarchist collective eventually packed up and moved on. They were replaced by a furniture showroom and warehouse, mostly specializing in raw wood furniture. The furniture warehouse eventually packed up and moved on. And the Rude Mechs moved in.

Our first task was to transform the wall into a door. We did this by enacting some ritual magic with hammers and saws and hinges. It is a ritual that people do all over the world all day long. But sometimes when theatre artists do it something weird happens. When theatre artists make a door, the building you enter becomes a theatre. For now we're calling it the Center Center. We are now in charge of three connected buildings. Our main home, the Off Center, is the shabby old theatre you know and love on the west side, on the east side is what we are calling The Off Shoot, this is the classroom we are building for our Grrl Action program. And right in the middle of the two is the Center Center. The Rude Mechs now have a compound.

The beautiful thing about the Center Center is that when you pass through the door, you not only enter another building, you enter another time. The Center Center is going to be exposed to the public when we share our recreation of Dionysus in 69. Dionysus in 69 is the first performance in what we imagine will be a series of performances over the next few years as a part of our Contemporary Classics Series. We are going to recreate classic performances from the 60s, 70s and 80s that we feel are essential part of the American Theatre. These will be shows which we have heard about, read about, watched on DVD, and longed to see live for many years. We are starting with Dionysus in 69 because it is so near and dear to our own experience. A group of artists trying to make work collectively and enduring all the emotional and societal difficulties that come along with that, as well as reaping the benefits of having a close-knit group of friends with whom you can practice your craft.

I attended rehearsals the other night and watched Shawn and Madge lead the actors through scenes, including my favorite, Dionysus' first appearance in which the Performance Group transforms Euripides dialog into an off the cuff the bit of absurdist banter of which Groucho Marx would be proud. The actors also sang and chanted. They rolled around on the floor and screamed. Dionysus was even thrown in the pit, but he did not suffer there, because as the god himself says, "that's not how this happens." Throughout rehearsal the performers and the directors referenced scripts, photos, and DVD footage—attempting to recreate the event that was Dionysus in 69 as truly as possible. But the most important reference material of all was invisible. There was a sense in the room of a spirit from another time. Whether that was the spirit of 69 or of some more ancient era, I don't know. But there was a gentleness in the way the Rude Mechs touched one another, an earnestness to their chants and singing that could not be faked.

Dionysus in 69 was created by the Performance Group in 1968
. In 1968, Schechner himself had been transformed after working with Grotowski, the Polish director whose “Poor Theatre” sought to create “the greatest possible effect from the least possible means,” which means (in part) an acting company that focuses on the body and its training rather than working with elaborate sets or ornate costumes. Inspired, Richard Schechner and 48 men and women began a series of unstructured “explorations” in a free room in the Welfare Center on the east side of Tompkins Square Park. “We exchanged touches, places, ideas, anxieties, words, gestures, hostilities, rages, smells, glances, sounds, loves,” Schechner explains. They also began working on scenes from William Arrowsmith's translation of Euripides 'The Bacchae" When the 48 people who began these explorations under Schechner’s direction had winnowed themselves down to 13, they gave themselves the name “the Performance Group,” and prepared to invite audiences to “Dionysus in 69.”

They found a garage they could convert into a performance space. They decided not to wear costumes. Street clothes would suffice. When “Dionysus in 69” opened there was no nudity in the performance. It was only after several more weeks of the ongoing explorations that the company decided to share their birth and death rituals with the audience as they practiced them in private. The set for the performance was also the audience seating, giant wooden towers, which are doubly dangerous given the fact that they were built by the actors. The carpet that covers the floor is from the Kelly Carpet Company where one of the actors worked. A manager said that for $150 dollars they could have as much scrap as they could carry, never imagining that the Performance Group would show up the next day with a flatbed truck. The company also decided there would be no apostrophe in the title to facilitate the double entendre.

A hundred small decisions. No corner of the space, no movement, no word spoken without an awful lot of discussion and thinking and exploration. The walls of the performance space are painted white rather than the traditional black, Schechner says, “I wanted the audience to see one another.” But not right away. The audience is only allowed into the space one at a time. “Good evening, may I take you to your seat?” is in many ways the first line of “Dionysus in 69.” The plan was for each audience member to find their own place in and among the actors as they chanted and sang.

That's what will be said to you, if you decide you wanna see this one. If you want to risk being led through a door to a whole other world.

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