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Dog and Pony DC Ask You to be a Citizen of Beertown

Natasha Gallop Acting in Beertown

I arrived at the Thurgood Marshall Center on a Wednesday evening, fighting a cold and feeling glum. That feeling would soon change. As soon as I entered the Center, a cheerful woman wearing a nametag greeted me. She turned out not only to be a ticket taker, but an actor as well.

“So glad you could make it for the quinquennial ceremony! We’ll be opening the meeting room shortly; you can fill out your nametag in the meantime. Would you like to nominate yourself for ombudsperson tonight?” I quickly discovered that Dog & Pony DC’s production of Beertown begins the minute you enter the building.

“No thank you,” I smiled as I filled out my nametag, nervous about the level of interaction this performance would require. I made my way to the room at the end of the hallway and entered into a quaint scene of Mid-Western civic assembly. Townspeople milled about the old gymnasium and poster boards displaying information about Beertown encircled the rows of folding chairs. A podium, whiteboard and an old piano sat at the front of the room. Instrumental music that wouldn’t sound out of place on an episode of “Prairie Home Companion” played quietly in the background, adding to the small-town ambiance.

A Beertonian immediately approached me and shook my hand. He introduced himself as Michael Soch, the Mayor of Beertown, “So good to see you! Glad you could make it to the quinquennial—how’s your family doing? You’re working at the Library now?” “Uh…yes. Yes I am!” I stammered, remembering that there is no saying “no” in improv.

All around me, Beertonians engaged in similarly upbeat conversations with other audience members. Some actors and audience members spoke to each other in American Sign Language. Interpreters also stood by to interpret between those signing and those speaking. A table of cookies – part of the advertised “dessert potluck” — sat on a table in front of the podium and a woman entreated everyone present to “please eat some cookies!” Near the refreshments sat a large metal beer barrel, the quinquennial time capsule. (Note: A quinquennial is an event that recurs every five years.)

dpdc-beertown_quinquennial

Dog & Pony DC lead the audience in singing the Beertown anthem. (Photo by Ryan Maxwell).

 

As I settled into a folding chair, a man in a suit approached me and began talking about the benefits of purchasing Beertown real estate. “Are you new in town? I’m Joseph Rodgers Davenport, but everyone calls me Rodgers! Just give me a call if you’re ever in the market for a house here in Beertown!” He handed me a business card, one of many small touches that made the performance feel hilariously authentic. Rodgers is played by actor DeJeanette Horne.

After I sat down, I looked around the room. It was becoming difficult to tell some of the audience members and the actors apart. I leaned toward the gentleman beside me, “I don’t know if this is the right way to put it, but are you a participant or an audience member?” I asked. “That’s a good question,” he chuckled. He explained to me that he was very excited to be attending the performance that night because had seen Beertown during its original run in autumn 2011, and also during the 2012 Capital Fringe Festival. “No two performances of Beertown are ever the same,” he smiled.

The room became quiet as the Mayor (Joshua Drew) began his welcome speech. “I am so thankful that you elected to be here to participate in Beertown’s 21st Quinquennial Time Capsule Day Ceremony! This process allows us to reflect on who we are today, in light of who we were five, ten, 15 years ago, and so on.” He introduced several other Beertonians: archivist Joann Sugarman (Eileen Earnest), artist Patricia Brown (Natasha Gallop), Fire Marshal Liam Murphy (Jon Reynolds), Warden Franklin Li (Jacon Yeh) and several other colorful characters also said their hellos to the room.

After a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and an invocation by the Daughters of the Ninkasi, the residents of Beertown led the room in a series of uproariously funny civic activities. We were asked to recite the Beertown oath of civic responsibility, we elected a citizen ombudsperson, and the townspeople led the audience in a raucous rendition of “The Beertown Hymn”, purportedly written in 1899.

At the heart of Beertown’s plot is the need for the room to arrive at a
collective decision regarding the town’s time capsule. During each quinquennial ceremony, the audience is introduced to the contents of the capsule and asked to vote on which items to keep and which items to remove. Certain “eternal” items, artifacts representing the early history of the town, remain permanently interred in the capsule, while others are up for debate every five years. Only a certain number of items can fit inside the time capsule at any given time. Warden Li explained that everyone present should judge the artifacts on the basis of the acronym, H.E.A.T: Historic Value, Emotional Value, Artistic Value, and Too Important Not to be Included. If an object no longer seemed to have the same HEAT, it could be voted out and a modern artifact could take its place.

Beertown performance

Beertonians examine artifacts from the Beertown time capsule. (Photo by Ryan Maxwell.)

 

Within all of its silliness, Beertown digs into how our society elects our collective American history. “Do things become less accurate the more you remember it?” One of the actors asked during the ceremony. “Every time you remember something, you are recreating it,” stated another actor. Who’s history are we recreating? Who gets to decide what we preserve for public memory? During the voting and debating portions of Beertown, some audience members became very invested in the outcome of the vote. I was surprised in some of the votes I cast myself.

The deaf community plays an important role within the invented history of Beertown, and American Sign Language is critical to the show’s dialogue. Interpreters translated all spoken word for deaf audience members, and vice versa when deaf actors signed to the night’s predominantly hearing audience. Several skits incorporated projected captions and pantomime so that neither signing nor speaking was required.

A few days after the show I spoke with the theater company’s director, Rachel Grossman. She said that Dog & Pony DC has featured deaf actors and incorporated sign language in previous productions of other shows, but not to the same extent as Beertown. “There’s a large deaf population in DC and there’s a significant community of artists here that are underutilized and untapped. Once you make the decision to start changing your practices and becoming more accessible and inclusive, the doorways are open. It takes a lot but it can take very little to start making that change” in the theatre community.

Another way in which Dog & Pony makes Beertown and other productions more accessible is by offering pay-what-you-can showings. “It’s really about creating that environment in which accessibility and inclusion is of the highest priority,” Grossman said.

The world of Beertown is impressively detailed, down to the choice to stage it in the multipurpose room of the Thurgood Marshall Center, a space dedicated to providing educational programs that celebrate the richness of D.C.’s cultural history. Along with the live production, members of the company have created a website — VisitBeertown.com — and the hastag #ITooAmBeertown was even included as a time capsule artifact in a recent performance of the show.

Beertown performance

Photo by Ryan Maxwell.

 

According to Grossman, a critical element of each performance is figuring out the character of each audience. “Some audiences are more invested in observing and watching… sometimes it just takes awhile, like pushing a ball up a hill, and you just don’t know how high the hill is because you’re behind the ball pushing it! Sometimes you don’t even touch the ball and the ball just falls off the hill and then you run after the ball,” she laughed.

As a company, Dog & Pony DC is invested in the impact of audience-integrated work, and spreading that type of theater throughout D.C. and beyond. Beertown was a collective effort, originally created by a group of 17 members. Some members of the original group are currently working with another theatre company in San Diego to develop a performance called “Beachtown” that explores the identities of beach communities in southern California.

Beertown is unexpectedly immersive while offering critical commentary on the importance of civic duty. The show gets at the zeitgeist of American community politics in a way that’s completely refreshing, and needed. It’s a show likely to cause audiences to question their own involvement in local elections, and wonder about their personal impact on the histories of their communities.

Beertown runs through November 7 at the Thurgood Marshall Center. For tickets and more information visit Dog and Pony’s website here.

This article was originally posted on Tagg Magazine.

2016 Capital Fringe Review: ‘Hunt’

Jean P. Bordewich’s political drama Hunt turns back the clock to a divisive time in American politics – the early 1950s of Joseph McCarthy – but the characters and issues resonate in today’s political landscape. A passionate, high-profile Republican who blames minorities for America’s looming downfall. A powerful Democrat too focused on his own ascent to address pressing issues behind the scenes. Well-meaning politicians are caught in bi-partisan crossfire.

Hunt excavates the true story of Senator Lester Hunt (a solid Terry Loveman), who was blackmailed by McCarthyites Senator Styles Bridges (Scott Cummings) and Senator Herman Welker (Gary DuBreuil) in 1953. The Senators’ leverage against Hunt was the initially quiet arrest of his son Buddy (Brice Guerriere) for solicitation of a male undercover cop. Over the course of the play Hunt wrestles with whether to fight the system or give in, receiving help along the way from his insightful wife Nathelle (Suzanne Martin, in a sharp turn) and a kindly reporter (Michael David Anderson).

Despite some shortcomings in the script, Hunt benefits from strong performances. Director Kristin Shoffner manages an expert ensemble that fit well in the period setting. Anderson and Guerriere have a believable rapport, which brings some relief and humanity to the story’s development. Suzanne Martin is delightful to watch as the Senator’s wife, carefully balancing support and strategy. Cummings and DuBreuil are frightening as politicians who embody the banality of evil. Terry Loveman in the title role feels every bit the Wyoming politician: strong, principled, but still insecure at his core.

Costume Designer Julie Cray and, presumably, Shoffner, did strong work on the production design. The costumes and set are 1950s Americana, smartly simple enough to weather the notorious 15-minute Fringe pre-show load-in. Similarly, Lighting Designer Colin Dieck creates moments of thrilling drama using a modest light plot. The work of Composer Josh Harty and Sound Designer Niusha Nawab is complex, weaving original music and sounds from nature into popular songs and news reports from the period.

Audiences coming to the Flashpoint for Hunt will leave with a new perspective on history and, perhaps, even a new understanding of the present. With a disturbingly relevant subject, fabulous performances, and impressive design, Hunt should be near the top of every Fringe itinerary.

The piece was originally posted on DC Metro Theater Arts

Ninth Annual Source Festival Offers Plays, Perspective

Press image for 2015 Source Festival

It’s summertime again in the District and that means the return of two seasonal pastimes: complaining about the weather and theatre festivals. If you ask two people walking down 14th street about the weather, the first might celebrate it as sweaty perfection while the second might roll their eyes, muttering about swamps and global warming. Elsewhere on 14th street, inside the Source Theatre, a similar study in contrasting perspective is taking place this summer as part of the ninth annual Source Festival.

The Source Festival, presented by CulturalDC and opened June 8th, is a month-long theatre festival focused on developing and producing new works. “Our story, as humans, as Americans, as citizens of the world–it evolves every day and our playwrights are on the front line–taking in our world, adapting it through their own unique lenses and reflecting it back to us” says Source Festival Artistic Director Jenny McConnell Frederick, “Source Festival puts a high priority on seeking out, developing and producing a fresh collection of these stories each year.”

Fully staged productions of three new plays, selected through a national search, is one core of the festival.

SF_Postcard_Front smallGeorgette Kelly’s Ballast, one of the new plays selected, centers on two relationships between cisgender and transgender partners. Over the course of the play, both couples grapple with the process of gender transition (which is not frequently enough portrayed on stage.) The play presented a few challenges for Ballast director Margot Manburg, including casting transgender performers and “maintaining the equal footing” between all of the characters.

Investigating the essential intersections of gender identity and romance inBallast has presented, Manburg observes, opportunities for audience and artists alike. “This play could literally be the experience of someone on the production team or in the audience, or could provide the catalyst or language for a conversation that an audience member hasn’t been able to articulate.”

The festival takes inspiration from the selected plays to identify three overarching festival themes. Based on those themes the festival commissions eighteen ten-minute plays and three cross-disciplinary collaborator commissions (“Artistic Blind Dates”.) In other words: the festival provides twenty-four perspectives on three themes.

If “Heroes & Homes” are not your thing, you need not turn away. The festival is also offering “Secrets & Sounds” and “Dreams & Discord.”

The “Artistic Blind Dates” are one of the most unique aspects of the festival. Once the full-length plays are selected, nine local artists read the plays and then collaborate in teams of three over four months to develop brand new performance pieces.

Entanglement, one of the “Artistic Blind Dates”, was developed by artists Claire Alrich, Maryam Foye, and Britney Mongold based on their reading of Jennifer Fawcett’s full-length play Buried Cities and the theme “Heroes & Homes.”

“Claire, Maryam and I explore our own heroes on a very personal level,” Mongold says. “We selected matriarchs from our own ancestry and are comparing our life paths with theirs.”

Mongold and her collaborators want to keep the exact nature of audience participation a surprise, but shared that by the end of the performance the audience is invited, “to share in moments of reflection and meditation, honoring memories in an immersive, cozy setting.”

Taking stock of both the past and the future is also surely on the minds of the festival’s producers in the rapidly developing 14th street corridor. But for now, they’re excited to support another year of new theater.

“[N]ot everything we do will be to your tastes, but it’s all smart, original work being made by some of the most promising theatre artists in the country”, promises Frederick, “Come sample what’s out there and you’re sure to discover something new and wonderful.”

Amy Austin, executive director of TheatreWashington, added, “By working with playwrights of our time we capture the fragility, the stories, and the wonder of the age we live in. The Source Theatre Festival has long offered to be the place to nurture and honor new work.”

Whether you find the weather unbearable or ideal, the plays brilliant or busted, this summer’s Source Festival offers an engaging escape from the heat. And, not just because the theatre is air conditioned.

The Source Festival runs June 8 through July 3 at the Source Theatre (1835 14th Street, NW). Tickets and showtimes available here.

This article was originally posted on UrbanScrawlDC.com.