Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Child’s Play: A Visit From Peter Brosius

If you write him a script for children, Peter Brosius will probably throw it out। As artistic director of the internationally-renowned Children’s Theater Company (CTC) in Minneapolis, Brosius is taking "theater for young people" in a new direction.

Expanding their season by three shows each year with the help of their new Cargill space, CTC goers should expect a totally unique theater experience every time।

On September 20, Brosius appeared at Augsburg College as part of the Theater Arts Department’s Artist Series। He sat in an armchair next to his interviewer, Julie Bolton, in traditional black attire with tan cuffs and collar peeking out from the edges of his sweater. Each strand of hair was perfectly placed. He looked serene, collected, and heck, it looked like this might be a boring evening. However, in the near two hour discussion to follow, his eager hands could sit still no longer than his tongue in his excitement to tell a group of emerging thespians about his journey in the theater.

When asked about his favorite audition story, he sprang to his feet to act out an audition where an actor violently chopped up a raw fish in the room. As his arms were flailing and swinging at the imaginary tuna, approximately 150 bottoms scooted closer to the edge of their seats, The whole audience captivated by Brosius’s ability to engage impressionable minds.

Growing up in smog-filled Southern California, Brosius dabbled in Community Theater for years before heading to Berkeley to study Law. But it wasn’t long before Brosius lost interest in the legislature he says because he “wasn’t watching justice happen, [he] was watching deals happen."

It wasn’t until he took a long sabbatical in Europe that he came to the realization that if he wanted to enrich his life, he had to face the things he feared most. He had always leaned on language in the past, but after studying law, Brosius came to believe that "language [was] a lie."

In accordance with his new fearless outlook, Brosius began studying puppetry and dance at Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts. First, he mastered the wordless art forms. Then he started to add more elements, including text, to form the type of art that would eventually become the total theatrical experience one now expects from a Peter Brosius show.

He has worked with directing legends Anne Bogart, Zelda Fichandler, and Nobel-Prize-winning satirist Dario Fo. In accordance with his international interests, Brosius is greatly influenced by the aggressive German theater movement of the 1970’s. He told a particular story of a revolt by German educators against prohibiting children from seeing a show about sexuality. Brosius still advocates the same amount of discretion in his productions for young audiences. He doesn’t believe in “dumbing it down” for children.

At CTC, Brosius embarks on a mission to "create extraordinary theatre experiences that will educate, challenge and inspire young people।" His operative word, of course, is challenge. He wants his productions to challenge everyone involved. When he commissions playwrights for his company he demands that they "write the best work of [their lives]” and he holds a strong commitment to presenting work that is "as smart as the audience.” Brosius aims to bring people together for an experience that resonates with audiences of 8 to 85 year-olds.

A common tactic Brosius uses to engage all-age audiences is to base his stories on younger characters, but use conflicts and themes that are relevant to all ages. Some examples from last season are Antigone and The Lost Boys of Sudan, both containing plots that traveled alongside youthful protagonists forced to make grave decisions about survival and honor.

Brosius and his creative team can now explore their possibilities even further with the help of their new totally adjustable Cargill Space (which debuted in the 05-06 season). The Cargill differs from the Main Hall in that it has no stationary seating. Brosius set a goal to never repeat the same set-up for a show in this space and so far he has stayed true to that mission.
Right now in the Cargill space you can enjoy Fashion 47, an interactive mystery show where the audience is in on the scandal. For more information on CTC’s staff, season, and mission go to

Fishtanked- 02/08

Fish Tanked
"Whatever you missed, we missed too." This repeated line poked out at my brain several times during my viewing of Fishtank at Theater de la Jeune Lune last Sunday evening. I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing something from this choreographed sit-com of nada. I was irked threefold by this potentially existential line. Could it be that they were repeating the line as a joke and in fact there was nothing to miss? Or was it that I was missing something and they were rubbing my nose in it? Or perhaps the third and most irritating option is true: maybe there was something going on, but neither the creators nor the viewers could tap into it. What if, both of us were missing an unperceivable, but potentially profound message and the message itself was making fun of us! It’s exhausting to contemplate really. All this mind-wrestling action put a new spin on the term ‘drama.’
This lack of story revolves around an unorthodox airport terminal in which three Darjeelingites whose names are interchangeable(Dominique Serrand, Nathan Keepers, and Steven Epp, also co-writers) cause mischief with a quirky, soft-spoken airport attendant named Coco (Jennifer Baldwin Peden). Their journey begins with a vending machine, makes a right at a gigantic fish tank, hangs a left at an old-school projection "interactive" TV, and loops through some mysterious tunnels with no apparent final destination or motivation. The show is complete with dancing flowers, a taste of nudity, and the characteristic "Jeune Lune" ending of an isolated dramatic musical number.
The creators utilize blocking and sound effects to construct most of the piece. The text is not intended to advance a story or develop stakes. Instead, the words are mostly instructional, intensifying or explanatory to the actions taking place. Most notably, they are void of any sort of emotion or contextual cues. The success of this tactic is difficult to determine. It reads as neutral. It just is. The creators are successful, however, at making the text almost irrelevant. At times I found myself ignoring what was being said because my brain established that the actions were most important. Was I correct? Heck, I still don’t know.
The text relies heavily on the actions taking place and repetition for its humorous context. The menacing line, "Whatever you missed, we missed too," is used at the beginning of the show when Keepers announces there will be no intermission. Keepers encourages the audience to still get up during the show to get a drink, smoke a cigarette, or go to the restroom if need be during the show. Then, he assures the audience not to worry, "whatever [we] missed, [they] missed too." Later on the line’s humor emerges when the actors repeatedly exit and enter the scene through tunnels on stage. When Keepers returns from one of the tunnels after a prolonged period of time, Baldwin Peden (Coco) assures him that it’s ok because "whatever [he] missed, [they] missed too."
During this same section of the play, the text takes some more obvious existential turns. There are several lines thrown out about being in one situation, but then "conversely" being on the other side of the same situation, for example, being on one side of the wall, but then being on the other and the difference between the two perspectives, etc. There are too many "conversely" statements to count.
This production proves that when language is vague or ambiguous, its significance is demoted to the level of mannerism. Also, engaging drama is possible through neutral dialogue; however, not without putting extreme pressure on the actors and the director to keep the show afloat. Unfortunately, under pressure of this type, there were several points in which this company did, in fact, tank.