7th Annual Transmodern Festival April 15 – April 18, 2010
  • CopyCat Theater

    April 14th, 2010adminEssays & Curatorial Statements

    CopyCat Theater

    In the past five or so years popular culture has developed a theory about today’s youth encapsulated in the label “Millennial.”  This label is meant to define a new sense of profound individuality,  and when used negatively a sense of narcissism and lack of interest in participating in the traditional structures of work, discipline, and self-sacrifice needed to function in a standard workplace comfortably.  In other words, “wired” “Millennials” have little attention span, lots of self-absorption, and don’t easily understand why workplaces can’t flex around them in a world with 24-hour information flow.

    In my experience traveling and working with students over the past few years, I’ve found another trend to be true.  I’ve found that young people all over the US seem to be engaged in a much higher level of social consciousness, sensitivity, and generosity than my generation.   People who came to maturity in the 80s and 90s moved to political extremes, battled in culture wars, fought hard to define individual identities, and brought us George W. Bush for eight years.  The “Millennials” ushered in Barack Obama, a new obsession with the environment, extremely flexible ideas about gender/sexuality, and a drive toward collaboration.  These youth seem to push toward a sort of “new gentle conversation” perhaps because they were parented by those exhausted by political divisions at work and home.

    In Baltimore specifically, I’ve been observing several groups of young people building out creative niches and have been enjoying seeing the fruits of their labor every much.  For this essay, I met with the CopyCat Theater and engaged them in a three hour conversation with myself and acclaimed artist Laure Drogoul.  This following essay was drawn from our conversation.

    Before I get into specifics, I want to note that the ideas in this essay were generated in a round robin conversation in which all members of the theater took equal part.  No one person emerged as a de factor thought leader – which is highly unusual in collective work.  The group truly collaborated in the interview, each careful to speak for a limited time and naturally hand the floor to another.  No one member held back or seemed out of place, each person was focused, attentive, and very articulate.


    Inside the Copy Cat building on Guilford above Mount Royal (where I once lived), art students wander the halls disappearing in and out of elevators and various green/gray industrial strength doors.  The CopyCat Theater door, decorated for effect, swings open into the type of  cavernous Baltimore warehouse space envied by artists all over the East Coast – especially if it could magically be transported with its rental agreement to Brooklyn or Manhattan.  The CopyCat Theater group greeted us within with pillows, tea, chocolate, bread, cheese, olives, huge smiles, and then three hours of intense discourse about their work, theory, and accomplishments.

    The artists  we met with (Monica, Sam, Hoesy, Person, & Pllar) involved in the CopyCat theater come from a range of formal visual art backgrounds including painting, fibers, art history, and theater.  Many of them have known each other since high school. Some of them are students at the Maryland Institute College of Art.  They began working and living in the CopyCat building in 2008.  They began to produce plays, put on cabarets, and formulate a thoughtful approach to creating art and living together there.

    Radical Natures – Starting with the Ending
    Toward the end of our conversation with the CopyCat, we reached the core bonding point for the genesis of the group.  The theme of a beginning leading to an end back to a beginning, was a thread throughout the night – so I’ll start there.

    Jerzy Grotowski outlines in “Toward a Poor Theater” his philosophy of stripping out the superfluous to purify the theatrical experience and help his own continual re-birth as well as the continual re-birth of his actors.  This “radicalization” of theater resonates today as experimental theater continues re-inventing itself.

    The CopyCat has noted the Theater of the Oppressed as an influence, but has not yet developed what could be called a defined “method.”  However, the CopyCat theater articulates that radicalizing the people and world around them is possibly the most important key starting point for all their work.   They share a vision of the world in which they adamantly question and oppose current established institutions that exploit others for the purposes of war, consumerism, environmental destruction, and general exploitation.

    Person Ablach articulated a key approach of the theater as being one in which asking radical questions such as –  “why is it okay for a group of people to kill another group of people, or why would you lubricate  a murder machine through consumerism?” — is coupled with an event that exposes the audience to a new and different experience in which they survive and even enjoy it.  Through this method, the audience is invited to overcome fear, experience something new, and at the same time be psychologically prodded  to question the status quo while in this more open emotional state.

    Pilar Diaz communicated that this conflict of living in a society that exploits others to succeed is at the root of the theater’s existence and her participation in it.  After trying several other approaches to address “this struggle for human emancipation,” she settled on art and theater as way of addressing the urge to solve these problems, not contribute to them.

    The theater is deeply concerned with removing fear, and the personal struggle to be emotionally aware while exploring the world around them.  They hope to inspire this level of active “presence” in audience members leading to the possible formation of radical resistance to exploitation.  Having come to adulthood in an age of unparalleled fear-mongering by a right wing government and right wing entertainment machine, I’m not surprised that “reducing fear” seems to be a core concern and first key step toward radicalizing audience, friends, and peers.

    The Zenith of Artistic Experience

    The general age of the folks in the CopyCat Theater positions them in a generation of US youth that have been more concertedly marketed to by US corporations than any other past generation.  The sheer volume of kid-focused marketing, entertainment, and corporate wealth has exploded to a grotesque degree over the past 20 years.  The environments, diets, messages, and stimulation this phenomenon has created are still falling out culturally in the US.

    Person Ablach brought this to mind when I asked the group how they would respond to a mainstream theater critic entering their space to critique their last performance called “Rooms Play.”  Person replied “We’ve been told the zenith of artistic experience is going to Universal Studios in the middle of swamp land where we are made to wait in the heat for an hour to be assaulted by special effects, a thing called a “Green Goblin” which has no relevance to our human experience that throws a fake grenade near me such that I can feel the hot air blowing on my face, and then this followed by more massive special effects, lasers, 3-D glasses and all that.  We walk away from that only thinking — we can make something better and more relevant to our own lives with no money or waste at all.”

    For the CopyCat Theater the zenith of artistic experience is one in which materials are scavenged from the street, diy engineering techniques are employed, three dimensional space is transformed by individual artists, and the audience is handled one at a time with a sense of deep personal contact in mind.  The theater aims to create emergent situations in a holistic environment that are completely conscientious experiences for everyone including themselves and the audience.  This is something in direct opposition with the deafening overload, physical exhaustion, and expense of Hollywood movies and popular theme parks.

    Process & “Rooms Play”

    When talking to the CopyCat Theater about its process, we returned time and again to their most recent production, a huge multi-deminsional interactive play based on the work of Joseph Campbell and the human digestive tract.  The concept was to create a series of “rooms” through which the audience moved while undertaking different aspects of the “hero’s journey.  They group collaborated on Google Wave to produce a call for proposals which went out to artists who were each invited to build a room.  The planning of the event took six months and the installation about three weeks.  The event was sold out over three nights in March, 2010.

    During “Rooms Play” audience members were allowed into the “journey” three or four at a time and were exposed to a “performance” in each room they encountered.

    Conceptually, Sam Shea discussed their interest in the theater of indigenous and international cultures.  They moved in their process from myth, to ceremony, and then to ritual.  As a next step, they wrote parts in the form of western theater and rehearsed.  In the end they moved back to mythology as people moved through the Rooms Play creating their own meanings from what they had experienced.  Monica Mirabile noted that she had recently completed a book by Leslie Silko that influenced her thinking about the problems of trying to enact known ceremonies from the past.  In this book, wisdom is imparted regarding the need for contemporary humans to insert themselves into their own formulas of ceremony, writing their own stories, and remaking ritual instead of longing for the vividness of ceremonies past.

    The materials for Rooms Play came from all the members of the theater who obsessively collect trash, junk, and discarded items from the Baltimore streets.  Each item is used and re-used.  Wood and cardboard are scavenged from dumpsters.  Hundreds of yards of fabric were gleaned from an UnderAmour donation to MICA.  From these materials, each constructed room sprung to life.

    Monica Mirabile stated that their colorful aesthetic has been described at times as psychedelic, which she doesn’t mind as “psychedelic” means literally “to manifest your mind.”   Their elaborate, hand-made costumes have become a signature draw.  The multi-layered pieces are frequently referential to a sort of new indigenous urge.  The works can range from a giant human hand that is fully functional embracing the audience in its grip, to the use of live plants, to massive constructions using plastic grocery bags.

    Hoesy Corona discussed how each member of the theater chose their role in the hero’s journey.  He chose the first trial in which he demanded the audience make its way through a small barrier of plants to encounter him.  He filled the space with his visual art and accepted “dirt necklaces” from his visitors.  He developed a character type that was threatening and somewhat difficult.  At times, he lost sight of himself as a performer and at one point threw a hammer across the space.  For an artist trained as a painter, this sort of work became liberating for him.  The ability to break down the fourth wall in a small space with an intimate group allowed him visceral contact with his audience.  At times, the audience became actors as he observed passively.  This transgressing of normal theatrical roles felt uncomfortable at times, but allowed him to gain greater insight about the mood, emotions, and reactions of the audience..  He also felt his role as a somewhat aggressive character lead to the small groups of audience members bonding quickly in preparation for their visit to the next trial.  They seemed to grow closer by traveling through an emotionally hectic experience in real time.  Hosey also used nonsense phrases and language which were picked up virally such that the audience was soon speaking his gibberish during other parts of the play.

    This interest in removing the fourth wall and dissolving the audience/actor boundary is admittedly a dangerous one especially when dealing with what could be perceived as an aggressive emotion.  However, Hoesy and his collaborators intentionally radicalized the space by anointing participants with honey, feeding them sweets, exposing them to uncomfortable interactions with animal flesh, forcing them to climb precarious stairs, and physically touching them at times.  The normal membrane in cultural experiences was torn apart.  Luckily, with one or two exceptions, no audience or artist expressed any feeling of violation.  A safe word was provided as well as a disclaimer at the beginning of the play.  No one ended up using it.  The CopyCat also reminded me that their colorful aesthetic, non-threatening story line and friendly opening contacts helped set the stage.

    Ritual Theater and Pure Ideas

    Late in the evening of our conversation, Laure Drogoul posed the issue of the difficulty of “ritual theater,” or theater that is based in the body and the “everyday” as a difficult place to convey a pure idea in the same the way a painting or more classical theater can.  Physical theater gets bogged down in humanity and a single performer using his/her body and simple materials has a difficult leap to conveying something purely abstract.  The CopyCat Theater acknowledged this problem, but several of the theater members sprung to ritual theaters defensive.  Person Ablach referred to a favorite lecture professing that ritual theater can bring things that are profoundly real and consequential in an immediate sense that a pure idea might not.  He referred to a lecture he had been influenced by in which the separation of church, science, and art studio was compared to previous creative cultural methods of using alchemy through artistic mediums to administer spiritual acts – in other words the collapsing of these false boundaries through experimentation with their integration.  Others in the group agreed.  By incorporating individual contact as well as eating, touching,  and affecting bodies, the production was able to open up new lines of dialogue not easily accessed otherwise.

    What’s Next?

    Moving further into 2010, the CopyCat Theater continues to plan cabarets and theater pieces.  They stated their next move will be to “take the theater to the streets” further expanding their audience base.  They will be performing at the Pedestrian Service Exquisite at Transmodern 2010 using the Baltimore harbor and shoreline in conjunction with their signature fantastic costumes to find more audience to engage and transform.

    In general, as Monica Mirabile sums up, the group will be working hard to no longer be scared, to have no fear, to give back the stolen magic, and struggle to remain present and aware.   As they continue to create work in Baltimore, we can be sure that these themes will continue to resonate and energize the local arts and theater communities.

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