Curtain Critic: Experimental music and theater converge in one-night exclusive ‘open rehearsal’


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William Crook, Carrie Fee and Katrina Donaldson star in the experimental music and theater collaboration developed over the course of a week by New York-based music collective thingNY and downtown Phoenix's own experimental theater company Orange Theatre. (Gabriel Radley/DD)
William Crook, Kerin Martinez and Katrina Donaldson star in the experimental music and theater collaboration developed over the course of a week by New York-based music collective thingNY and downtown Phoenix’s own experimental theater company Orange Theatre. (Gabriel Radley/DD)

There’s a certain magical quality to experimental theater, from its progressiveness as an art form to how it toys with the eye and ear onstage. The same goes for experimental music, and on Friday, downtown Phoenix got a little of both with a collaboration between New York experimental music collective thingNY and Phoenix’s own Orange Theatre.

The single-night performance was less a full-fledged show and more, as thingNY co-artistic directors Jeffrey Young and Paul Pinto put it, an “open rehearsal.” The two companies had a week to put together whatever product they could, brainstorming themes and building a script between Sunday and Friday.

Friday’s show was about half an hour and consisted of three characters, played by William Crook, Katrina Donaldson and Kerin Martinez, at a table speaking about a book full of coordinates. The show, which was developed around the theme of maps, emphasized the musical qualities of dialogue, often fixating on the specificities of pitch, tone and inflection in how the characters’ lines were spoken — or “sung.”

The characters, as Young put it, were more “pseudocharacters” than real, fleshed-out human beings, who “sort of go in and out of being characters and vocal instruments.” But the characters are distinguished in their own ways, according to how they respond to and act on the coordinates in the book on the table in front of them based on what those places mean in their minds, said Orange Theatre Artistic Director Matthew Watkins.

“One of the most important maps that we carry around with us is not a document or a Google Map, it’s the map that we have in our head of how to get places in our world,” Watkins said. “But unlike a paper map, it isn’t universal. It isn’t intended to be neutral. It’s wrapped up in my emotions. I carry around positive and negative experiences and associations that I have with places. And so what’s really interesting to me is that these three characters, based on the input of the same coordinate, share with us completely different mental maps of those places.”

Video by Molly Bilker

The collaboration between Orange Theatre and thingNY was born out of a Network of Ensemble Theaters travel grant that thingNY received to travel and meet Orange Theatre. The grant allows two companies to meet — developing a product isn’t the primary aim, Pinto said. But thingNY and Orange Theatre wanted to try it anyway.

The companies started with exercises including freewriting, text generation (for example, writing with the non-dominant hand) and gestures, among others. Between Sunday and Wednesday, the work — which predominantly took place three hours a night with the full company, though Pinto, Young and others put in plenty of extra time themselves — created the foundation for the script, which was written moment by moment using a spreadsheet between Wednesday and the open rehearsal on Friday.

Friday’s show was a fascinating, if brief, piece of work. The performance was a snapshot of a moment in the development of this collaboration, which Pinto, Young and Watkins hope to continue developing. There were some rough edges — lines meant to be simultaneous that were slightly off, for example — but those are to be entirely expected of an open rehearsal of a show that was only written two days earlier. Meanwhile, there were also poignant moments of humor and humanity.

When I attend a live show, the question I most often find myself asking when I walk out was whether it left me thinking or feeling something strong. And this collaboration left me feeling something — something just as inscrutable, strange and beautiful as the show itself. I genuinely hope the collaboration continues between thingNY and Orange Theatre, because I’m excited to see where it may go.

Collaboration across state lines provides a lot of rich opportunity to create amazing work, work that matters for people across the country and brings disparate groups of people together. In this way, the collaboration between Orange Theatre and thingNY has the opportunity to explore maps both within the show and outside it: the artistic, political and emotional landscapes that span New York and Phoenix.

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Correction: January 25, 2016

An earlier version of this story misidentified the performer Kerin Martinez.